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Colin Lee Marshall reviews Samantha Walton & Jo Lindsay

Samantha Walton – Strange House    (Cork, Ireland: Sad Press, 2015. Pamphlet, 16pp, £5.) 

Jo Lindsay – Ten Laws     (Cork, Ireland: Sad Press, 2015. Pamphlet, 24pp.)

Reviewed by Colin Lee Marshall

 
Samantha Walton’s Strange House reverberates in ways that belie its brevity. The acoustic reflexions might begin for us even before we have opened the book, engendered by whatever strange recesses hollow the house evoked by the title—although equally, we might imagine something altogether less echoic, more open and angular, a structure riddled with misplaced quadrangles and jutting cantilevers. Either way, after we have read Walton’s chapbook, our anticipative architecture will likely seem lamentably illiquid.
 
Comprising five short poems, the book works through contemporary problematics of identity and gender in ways that both evoke and distinguish themselves from Walton’s contemporaries. The poetry remains strikingly gnomic throughout, and the reviewer must therefore be careful not to quote the book into a mere platter of aphoristic comestibles. The two excerpts below (from the eponymous opening poem) bring us quickly within sight of the peculiar tectonics of Strange House:
 
everything was created to make love possible
 
what is it that poetry can’t do that everything else can
except create a self each line only to kill it the next 
 
Creation can all too easily imply destruction. A strange house is both that which is desired – the building that flows, coalesces, reveals its secret (if shifting) penetralia – and that which is borne as imposition. It is the human body, the poem, the designations ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘Samantha’, and ‘William’. The person is all too easily recuperated via “the fucked-up grammar that holds the world in”, and would do well to follow Walton’s injunction to “moot nothing[,] woman[!]”, or else risk becoming a “moot[,] nothing[-]woman”.  But the above is exactly the kind of reading that we should avoid. Far better that the complacent amongst us moot nothing woman (adj.)—i.e. avoid opening up or travelling along the “public thoroughfare” of the throat with a “symbol [that makes] a home in darkness”. We must refuse this home, must not “let a moment pass without [us] escaping it”. People are too painfully “pierced naked by intent”, jerry-built with the glass bricks of language. Walton asserts: “I want to live authentically & kill the me in man”. There seems to be a neologism trying to dehisce from all of this painful language—an outsoul or extraseity [I prefer the Saxon]. The protagonist here is wound seepage, a person conceived or built by others, forever outside of herself, an identity beyond her own consciousness. 
 
The outsoul emerges through the crucible of interaction: “Most exchanges change / I is rooted / in you”, writes Walton in ‘Their green mouths, exposed, after Barbara Cassin’. Perhaps we can read the outsoul into something more favourable or lovingly symbiotic—perhaps, even, as the ultimate rebuke to solipsism. But we are not there yet, as the brilliant centrepiece of the book, ‘P • ODES’, will make clear. “P” is the sovereign designation cleverly enciphered (penis, or pudendum, or prick, or pussy, or none or all of those things). It is strident with all-caps, demands that we listen to it despite the poverty of its songs, “which are completely empty”. Love – here, as elsewhere in Strange House – is so easy, “is made into a line / & sung over”. We fail to engage with the roil of the “under-song”, are interested only in “sexing its flows”. All of this must (at least temporarily) be imputed to us: “your pronouns are no; not; none”. For are we surely not (or have we not surely been) guilty of uttering pronouns or other parts of speech that deny the “body [that] sometimes come[s] alive” to itself? Uncomfortable though these nettling lines may make us feel, they are at times leavened with a deliciously sardonic humour:
 
write books about yourself or don’t
& call yourself one of three names, Man
William Williams, William William, or William
 
Throwaway though it might appear at first glance, the onomastic string is in truth hilariously perspicacious. We might think that ‘William’ is just another name; but here, it is the ultimate phallontic signature, an appellation that screams: “Hey look, I willy am… I mean… I really am a writer [just like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Carlos Williams, et al]”. The fact that there have been so many illustrious male writers with the fore- or surname ‘William(s)’ is – for the purposes of the joke – a nice coincidence; but the point is that many or most of us will have seldom interrogated this coincidence (let alone teased out its potential), having been complacently habituated to the graphemes and phonemes that house the name ‘William’, and having thus had little reason to seek in this name new points of ingress or egress. Perhaps sometimes we require a joke this brilliant to shock us into the necessary extrapolations. 
 
We return again to the outsoul, and to the question of how a person might deal with their being ill-recuperated from the miasma of speech. Writes Walton in ‘Stitch’:
 
if you’re likely to get set alight
dress sensibly
if you’re likely to be woven
in edible fabrics
surround yourselves with friends
who have no mouths
 
The above two options – capitulating to another’s imaginary, or admitting into one’s circle only those with whom one can effect no linguistic confluence – are altogether unsatisfactory. Appropriately, we are presented with something like an alternative (or at least the dream of such) in the final poem, ‘the edge of the world’. Walton laments that “Everyone should be able to move everywhere with pretty much no warning / except it doesn’t work like that”. But despite Walton’s concession, the poem swells with powerful desiderata: bicycles shooting unhindered through the world; intersecting paths that “aren’t going anywhere”; words such as “liquid”, and “porosity”, and “channelling”. The amplitude of the desire functions as a deluge, submerging and pervading the “block” and the “border”. The narrator wishes to “make like a body of water and move and collect”, reasoning that “It’s all water that pours through me, meaning this body / isn’t my body, it’s a puddle for anyone who wants out or in”. This is the outsoul finally made communal, the withsoul or conseity [I prefer the Latinate]. If my jumbled terminology sounds horrendously fumbling and inaccurate—well, it is of course precisely that, a fact of which Strange House can have made me only more aware. But as such, it is perhaps oddly appropriate, directed as it is earnestly, if – present conditions being what they are – inadequately towards its object. Certainly, in its most solicitous moments, Strange House manages to envision something truly beautiful—but the beauty is not for you, or me, or even us; rather, it is for those strange houses through which we are as yet unpermitted freely to roam. Before we can fully receive this gift, we must dig deep into our grammar and learn how to “say hello to hello to”. That is, we must allow the dative to get lost in phatic utterance, must create a moment from which both interlocutors will escape.
 
*
 
Under a blog entry punningly titled “Sad Chess”, Jo Lindsay Walton writes:
 
I made a weird little pamphlet called TEN LAWS which comes free with, like, the first 25 or so copies of Sam Walton’s poetry pamphlet Strange House.
 
When I first read this entry, it struck me as a strangely tantalising advert for whatever it was that Walton wasn’t quite selling. The semi-reluctance to hawk one’s wares, coupled with the incongruity between so brazen a title and so exiguous a print run (the precise count of which was apparently worth only a rough estimate), caused me to wonder whether this “weird little pamphlet” was a disowned opusculum, an interstitial masterpiece, an evanescent jape, or a crumb of coterie swag. Thus I decided – set though I was on purchasing Strange House regardless of the outcome – to try to get my hands on the mysterious lagniappe, and duly rattled off a pre-purchase email to inquire whether or not there was any surplus of it. To my disappointment, I was told (in vaguely – or perhaps inversely – Kafkaesque fashion): “The laws are all gone now”. But this response may just have been part of the game; for when Strange House arrived in the post, I was delighted to find that a copy of Ten Laws had been slipped into the package after all. 
 
Walton’s pamphlet is indeed “weird”, as I hoped it would be; however, its weirdness is of a different kind to that of previous Lindsay/Crot/Walton iterations that I’ve encountered. Neither quite poetry nor fiction, Ten Laws might at first glance be described as a kind of satirical ‘rules of play’ collection (although I’m not entirely sure that the original genre even exists capable of being satirised). Regardless, ‘rules of play’ gets quickly to the point; for this pamphlet could just as easily have been titled Ten Games as Ten Laws—not only because it is as ludic as it is prescriptive, but because it draws attention to the extent to which the two are often imbricated. 
 
The games contained within Ten Laws seem at first all to be fanciful variations of chess – ‘Threadchess’, ‘Something elsechess’, ‘Jellychess’, ‘Choicechess’, etc. – but the scacchic organizing principle is deliberately entropic, and the laws/games soon change, become by turns Oulipian, card-based, and ultimately (in accordance with a different entropy—a macro-entropy) nebulous. We might think that chess – with its precise grid, its authoritative codification, and its discernibly sublimated violence – is the perfect choice of game with which to frontload Ten Laws; a game, that is, that comes pre-packaged with allegorical potential, its every latent zugzwang a possible metaphor for the horrible decisions that we have to make under capitalism. Right? Well, sure—but also, no, not really. Tempting though it is to read Ten Laws under a ‘games-as-sublimated-violence/laws-as-codified-violence’ lens, we shouldn’t forget that Walton – who has, after all, published a book titled Daiquiris & Demigods: The Drinking Roleplaying Game – is a writer who seems genuinely to love games for their own sake. 
 
Amongst the chess games in Ten Laws, ‘Threadchess’ is the most copiously codified. An excerpt:
 
Perhaps you ought to leave the timer and the “touch-move” conventions aside. You may call it a Horsie or a Knight must you must call it a Rook not a Castle. You may agree at the start to gender-flip the King and Queen’s patterns of movement and boss-fight significance, it may do some good. 
 
Already, there are signs that the codification is also a vague abrogation of itself. So much of the above excerpt strikes us as ‘loose’. The first sentence breaches instruction-manual protocol through the deployment of a suggestion, rather than an imperative. The second sentence dispenses with quotation marks, relies heavily on exformation for both uses of “it”, and refuses editorial correction (“must you must [sic]”). The third sentence separates its final clause from the preceding one with a lax/poetic comma splice. Amongst these casually couched ‘rules’, then, we have a suggestion (“Perhaps you ought”) a choice (“You may”), a recommendation (“You may […] it may do some good”), and only one hard-and-fast rule. But even the hard-and-fast rule might actually be a retort to itself, a romancing of the second modal verb so that “must you must” actually becomes a tautological question: ‘Do you have to have to call it a “Rook”, and not a “Castle”?’  
 
As the rules are enumerated, the admixture of moods and modals continues with a zaniness that often belies the game’s intricacy:  
 
You could even do the “no lifting allowed” bit with the knights, if you clear the way for them, and then put everybody back after. That’s called the Camber of the Shandon Bells Abhors a Bascule Canter (or “Shabellabab”) Rules.
 
If, for a moment, we allow ‘shabellabab’ to denote any weird or maligned variant of any given standard-rules game, it might bring us closer to unsettling the taxonomy by which Shabellabab Rules Threadchess is considered subordinate to the Standard Rules Threadchess. That is to say, it might lead us to ask why Walton chose to include this variant, and what it is that marks its rules as non-standard. This question is probably easier to approach if we imagine Threadchess (and all other variants of chess) as being shabellababs of standard chess. Are these games shabellababs because the standard game of chess represents, indisputably, the perfected version of chess, or because we players are simply too obeisant a bunch in the face of the law? 
 
At times, Ten Laws might seem to have been written with the purpose of eliciting such weighty questions. But the reader must also be wary of wresting from the pamphlet a gravity that its ‘laws’ – by turns deviant, hortatory, funny, improbable, ridiculous, inspired, amorphous, and (most of all) creative – seem at times signally to resist. Frequently, Ten Laws appears far more rooted in play than it does in anything didactic. And by ‘play’, I don’t simply mean satiric or linguistic play on the ‘rules of play’ collection (if such a thing even exists); I mean actual gameplay. Certainly, we can be sure that Threadchess, at the very least, has made its way beyond the pages of Ten Laws and onto an actual game board. We can also be sure that the pamphlet – whether it be a disowned opusculum, an interstitial masterpiece, or an evanescent jape – is certainly no crumb of coterie swag. Writes Walton in a more recent blog entry: “Ten Laws is out of print for now, but email me if you want a pdf”. Must you must. 
 
 
Colin Lee Marshall
13 September 2016