Thursday, May 03, 2007

50 Heads: Tony Trehy (Apple Pie Editions)

This is a handsome, but formidable-looking book: stiff card covers, no title on the cover and only a picture of what looks like Manchester's Cooperative Insurance tower, with its windows and its solar panels.

The poetry too is intense and formidable, full of scientific, mathematical, philosophical and other specialised vocabulary, off-putting, I suspect, to the casual reader he obviously doesn't want, but rewarding to those who are prepared to wait for the insights this writing can give. Written in prose, each poem begins with 0 and ends with 1, as in probality measurements where 0 is no probability and 1 is certainty. Nothing, of course, is certain, even reaching the end of either this book or a single poem. There are 49 poems, so the 50th head has to be the reader. Here is Houses:

0. Vitruvian in determinedly outside. Of somewhere else, empty rooms, once
empty, somewhere someone else, something somewhere someone else. Madeiraised. Nuclear unit composition in a hidden place of imbalance and ill-considered.
Cartesian headphony coffin lining family rituals, colourless not like sleep.
Euripides women carrying the news of loss. Vicariance perversely rotating,
inheriting weak model fragments I couldn't care less, room vocabulary of windows
of geometry generated in machines designed for the purpose more fullerne than
their products. Renormalisation within building regulation would in ths case
would be a fine object, a still life. Changing light: 1

On first reading this, I didn't understand a word, but I was fascinated by the sound of the words and the oddness of phrases and sentence fragments, how they clashed, flowed into one another and slipped from one register to another seemingly at random: one minute we're as uptodate as "nuclear unit composition", then we're talking Euripides. One minute, "I couldn't care less" (demotic), the next "renormalistion with building regulation" comes in. Then, as I typed it out, it occured to me that here is a poem about those faceless middle-class estates that so many people live on, and about the "coffin lining family rituals" we all put up with in the capitalist hegemony of British society.

Trehy sees himself in opposition to what he calls in his publicity "the moribund state" of British poetry, limited as he claims to special occasion anthologies, radio entertainment, advertising copy or curriculum add-on. While I suspect he rather overstates his case, his anger at it has produced probably one of the most innovative books of poetry I've read this year. He sees himself in the tradition of language artists and poets such as Hester Reeve, Caroline Bergvall and Philip Davenport who see the page as an arena of action, and poetry as about expressing the uncertainties of the present as much as it is about the past.

Whether this rhetoric is somewhat overstated or not, (there's a lot more interesting goings-on in contemporary poetry than the binary oppostion of mainstream verses post-avant) this is a fascinating collection of prose poems that I will be returning to again. But it's not an easy read; it won't give up its meanings on first reading like a Simon Armitage poem. It'll make you think, if you let it.