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Daniel Tiffany – Brick Radio

Oystercatcher Press, Old Hunstanton, 2013. Chapbook, 24pp, £5.
 
Reviewed by David Nowell-Smith 
 
Cover of Daniel Tiffany - Brick RadioWhat happens to the ‘shifters’ ‘I’ and ‘you’ when—well, when they don’t cease to shift? This is the question, and aesthetic predicament, with which a reader is continually confronted in Daniel Tiffany’s Brick Radio. Linguists tell us that ‘I’ and ‘you’ serve as placeholders for discourse rather than designating people; Tiffany’s poems at once bear out this insight and unsettle it: I and you cannot designate, such is their motility, but motile as they are they also refuse to hold place, and rather dis-place through shifts in idiom, register, deictics, prosodics, thereby creating different vectors of coherence, as motifs speak to and past one another, obliquely, and archly. 
     It is a commonplace of so-called ‘experimental’ writing that in it language ceases to be vessel of matter and becomes matter itself; Brick Radio—and here we see some family resemblance with Tiffany’s critical work—asks where in language such matter would reside. Not merely, it turns out, in the words’ phenomenal heft: Tiffany’s ‘materialism’ exacts a materiality beyond matter perceived, which is to be grasped not through the sonorous and visual but rather through poetry’s figuring of what exceeds sensuous grasp and yet, for atomist philosophers, subtends all sensing. Yet here the poetry tells a slightly different story to the criticism: the figuring doesn’t take place by way of trope, but through a multidimensional polyphony. If, to borrow from Edmund Hardy’s elegant description from the book’s back jacket, the poems are ‘tracking the trope of mimesis itself’, this tracking is resolutely un-mimetic. 
     Tiffany’s polyphony continually folds back on itself, at once straddling different levels at in the same gesture eliding them. For instance:
 
We made our way
to the railing too late.
 
Wow.
 
(‘Silver Tulsa’)
 
How does ‘Wow’ respond to the information given? Are we meant to scrabble around for a referent within the poem; has a new (disembodied) voice suddenly entered the (equally disembodied) scene; or is ‘Wow’ meant as a comment on the poem’s mechanics, an incursion of metadiscourse within the poem? Perhaps it comments on the effect of the enjambment, where ‘made our way’ is at once filled out and complicated by the line that follows, or on its own deixis, in which speech both sidles away from the place of discourse and in the same gesture bodies forth such a place? We come to identify with the ‘friend’ who is introduced in the next line, who ‘faints at my feet’, and who will return a few lines later: ‘My friend is hurt’. ‘Railing’ from a few lines earlier ceases to be a noun and becomes a verb: we rail—‘too late’. Such moments dare us to reconstruct out of this polyphony some kind of narrative, yet this seems a dead end—until  narrative is ultimately reconfigured as the weave of motifs that the poem displays, performs, and is.  
     But if ‘I’ and ‘you’ shift, then so does ‘we’: as reader we aren’t sure whether to count ourselves as are part of the poem’s ‘we’—and if so, how so. One of the pleasures of these poems is the sense of being a ‘you’ that is multiple, figured both within and without the poem, both addressed and non-addressed in this staging of interlocution taking place from one register to the next:
 
The way you got of doing
sugar better stop that.
 
Because I have called 
and you refused.
 
I ain’t gonna tell nobody
the way you do.
 
(‘The Still Drowsy Hare’)
 
As the static interference brings AOR song clichés into bastardised collage, ‘you’, its most vacuous trope (or its most ‘capacious’, depending on how you like your lyrics), also becomes its most elusive: ‘you refused’. It is a ‘you’, moreover, which ‘does’—‘The way you got of doing’, ‘the way you do’—and does in an inimitable way (although what, precisely, is inimitable about it remains a subject for conjecture). But whoever this ‘you’ is, it ain’t us.
     All of this sits uneasily with the profusion of ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the writing: at what point can we grasp a speaker, perhaps Daniel Tiffany himself, and not simply one more instance of staged discourse? In our earlier example, was it Tiffany who was saying ‘Wow’? The final poem of the collection seems to come closest to overt confession:
 
I tried to be oh tried
to be tried to be!
 
(‘Shuffle’)
 
An admission of failure in this restless ventriloquism? Or one more voice assumed, left to reverberate along the frequencies and static? This either-or is immediately complicated by its counterpoint of opposing parsings of the sentence: ‘I tried to be / oh tried to be / tried to be’ syncopates against what the enjambment indicates: ‘to be “tried to be”’, where ‘tried to be’ becomes a state to which one might aspire, indefinitely, which one might have ‘tried / to be’. In which case—one tried, but failed (as the evocative ‘oh’ tells us), to be ‘tried to be’. In the disjunctures and entanglements between word as sign and word as object, the voice as speaking subject and the disembodied, depersonalised voice floating through the ether, comes much of the playfulness of these poems, but also their pathos. So many of the snippets of idiomatic speech, garbled song lyrics evince intimate misunderstanding between interlocutors, an intimacy that is all the sharper for the anonymity of the voices, leading us to wonder if they know each other any better than we know them. It is as though there is an I in here just bursting to become lyric, just trying to be, but it is mortared in to its dial, escaping only as noise. 
     And indeed, this is what the image of the ‘brick radio’ would tell us: dumb matter giving on to disembodied voices merging between static (no digital here!), but not giving up its brute dumbness for all that. 
 
 
15 March 2014