The Shearsman Review

Recent posts

Categories

Tony Lopez — Only More So and False Memory

 

(Only More So, Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2013. Paperback, 260pp, £12.95)
(False Memory, Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2013. Paperback, 136pp, £9.95)
 

Reviewed by Ben Hickman

Tony Lopez - Only More So
 
When the experimental British poet Tony Lopez published False Memory (Salt) in 2003, reissued here by Shearsman, influential readers from both sides of the Atlantic, including Jerome McGann, Marjorie Perloff and Andrew Crozier, heralded a new poetic voice with a strikingly fresh world-view. The set of capacious sonnet sequences, principally made of words and phrases not of the poet’s own creation, are indeed quite unlike other poetic collage in their tonal brio and continual comic entertainment. Covers (2007), its sequel, took a slightly different path, continuing its predecessor’s satire on a more modest scale, with short poems on more-or-less identifiable subjects. Though Covers, as its title suggests, continued the citational method Lopez had broken through with earlier in the decade, it seemed the majestic work promised by the charismatic and expansive cataloguing of False Memory was yet to arrive. 
 
Only More So is that work, and one of the great British achievements in the prose poem form. Its pleasures are immediate, though they elicit a challenging enthusiasm to articulate for oneself exactly why. Which is to say the work excites and bewilders in equal measure—in short, is compelling—and its lively mixture of comic bravado and unnerving jeremiad will surely see it become one of the major works of innovative Anglophone poetry in the twenty-first century. 
The work is a constructivist book of 100 poems divided into 10 sections, in which paragraphs are constructed entirely of sentences from external sources such as scientific papers, humanities research, news articles, environmental papers, history books, psychology papers, and much else in-between. A typical passage runs like so: 
 
Brush the mullet with a little olive oil and sprinkle lightly with ordinary salt. Some ware may require several such treatments before sufficient crazing takes place. Since 2000 the number of UK animal experiments has increased by one third. It was not until the release of detailed mortality statistics in the 1980s that it became generally known that between 20 and 30 million people had perished, primarily in the years 1959-61. Little iron has been recovered from the pits. The dense network contains only one non-redundant contact. General Motors was granted eminent domain powers. 
      Three of the patients were conscious. We had easy chairs. Only the shopkeeper’s wife in the congregation is commended for being “generous, spiritual, and possessed of an unswerving instinct for what is right”. The third issue is the testing of multiple end points, which also contributes to false positive results. So are there musical forms that cannot be perceived and therefore represent impossible structures? The present print comes from an apparently unrecorded series. Almost all the Lunar men owned canal shares, and Boulton had a lucrative sideline supplying metal parts, locks, bolts, brass valves for pistons, copper boxes, rasps and rings.
 
The work operates by building up a series of registers—in this case including everything from Rick Stein’s Taste of the Sea to a biography of Mao Zedong to toxicology research—that construct a context for each other by means of some kind of principle of proximity. Here we go from cookery instructions, which are made to inform statements on animal testing, which are then both somehow framing the Great Famine in China, which brings us to competition, and so on and so forth. 
 
Almost all of Lopez’s sources are secondary, the bread-and-butter formulation from which is the factual proposition, ‘x is y’. Categorising the various sentences in the book for descriptive purposes, one can broadly outline four types. There is the statement of general interest, trivia that in some way have their own standalone value such as: ‘It was the search for “officer material” that led to the development of IQ testing in World War I’;  or ‘42 per cent of second homes on Skye are used less than five weeks each year’. Then there is the meaningless sentence with a missing reference to an original source, which is left behind in that source, such as: ‘These relationships are given in equations 8-10 and graphically illustrated in Figure 11.’ Moments of comedy run alongside in such sentences as ‘The University of Sussex is not offering the UK’s first beekeeping BSc’, ‘Texas is not unique’, and—a personal favourite—‘All finalists will automatically receive an invitation to the gala dinner, but if you would like to buy a table or an individual place, call Mason Mclean.’ Perhaps of the greatest important, though, is the common self-referential sentence, which speaks directly to the text’s unique process: ‘This book is meant to be reassuring’; ‘There is such a thing as too much information’; ‘It is tempting to dismiss the wordplay’; ‘The data we possess are fragmentary and incomplete’; ‘There is more to building coherent text than the mere generation of single sentences’—obviously there’s a kind of joking going with these as well. 
 
Such fragments differ from Lopez’s earlier work, which mainly rubs the contradictions inherent in one form of discourse (often that of consumer capitalism) together to make satire. False Memory, for example, was mainly and brilliantly about showing the tensions of neoliberal capital by reading back to it its conflicting testimonies and opposed duplicities—by staging what Robert Hampson’s new Shearsman introduction calls ‘choreographed collisions’. There, that is, the procedure aims to take references out of the context in which they might seem persuasive or at least natural, and putting them in their proper context within our dystopian society as a whole, where they seem profoundly self-contradictory. Only More So, on the other hand, uses its sources in a much more constructivist rather than deconstructivist manner: its sentences relate to each other in more than an antagonistic way, as the revealing end to the section entitled ‘Giant Steps’, which concludes with words from a book on the German painter Gerhard Richter: ‘When Richter quotes from debased sources, it is never merely for the purposes of mocking them, nor is his regard for them (no matter how they trouble of dismay him) ever contemptuous or cynical.’ Finishing the section with the sentence, ‘This is the central line train to Loughton; the next station is Chancery Lane,’ Lopez implies that his sources can take us somewhere else, in addition to critiquing the state we’re in. 
 
In this we are brought to the status of the secondary source. Virtually all the ‘allusions’ of Only More So, if that word can be permitted, are to texts whose function is already comment on something else. Though there is nothing new in appropriating such resources in poetry, of course, Only More So represents a new stage in their use. The first use of the secondary source in poetry is famously in 'The Waste Land': its use of Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, from which ‘the plan and a good deal of symbolism of the poem’ come, and Angus Fraser’s The Golden Bough, an influence on ‘certain references to vegetation ceremonies’ in the poem. The use of these secondary sources is exclusively symbolic: they are used, as Eliot himself claims, purely for the symbolic structures they refer to, with no use of their actual words — that is, the source is never quoted direct as in more original sources like Shakespeare and Spenser. Indeed, the secondary sources are radically symbolic because their silence suggests a mythical structure or source somehow before language. So Eliot says: 
 
The maxim, Return to the Sources, is a good one. More intelligibly put, it is that the poet should know everything that has been accomplished in poetry (accomplished not merely produced) since its beginnings – in order to know what he is doing himself. He should be aware of all the metamorphoses of poetry that illustrate the stratifications of history that cover savagery.
 
So Eliot’s secondary sources can specifically ‘uncover savagery’ because they Return to the Sources of myth, which is to say symbolism whose meaning is originary, ie. has nothing to do with the fact it happened in the past. The rejection of this use of the secondary source occurs in Charles Olson’s work, where secondary sources are quoted directly, almost always without acknowledgement alongside a number of other disparate materials. The first and most famous example is probably found in ‘The Kingfishers’ use of William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico, but is also an organisational principle of The Maximus Poems and beyond. Here, the key to the secondary source is Olson’s notion of ’istorin: ‘which makes anyone’s acts a finding out for him or her / self’. And so, the secondary source is used to represent a process of discovery in history—a kind of extension of the rule of ‘Projective Verse’, ‘one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception’. The secondary source is very read in Olson’s work, simultaneous with the writing of the poem: it is a vehicle of thought rather than a symbolic structure. 
 
Lopez opens up a third possibility for such sourcing. Obviously, unlike in Eliot, there is no symbolic economy in the relationships between Lopez’s sources. Then again, unlike in Olson the sources are not in the process of forming an idea: there is no thinking voice in Lopez—or if there were, we should have to worry about the poet’s state of mind. Words situate each other in a much more literal way in Only More So, since the only ideas are expressed through the words from secondary sources themselves. That is, the sources are allowed to directly contextualise each other. So words from the field of climate science are, for example, situated by other words from the field of publishing; genetics is placed in the context of industrial applications. By this the sentences remain themselves, ‘only more so’ because they are properly situated within the wider field of social relations. 
 
There is another, more obvious distinctive quality of Lopez’s sourcing, however: that it is not limited to history or anthropology books. Olson obviously did much to broaden the materials available to poetry — his ‘hunt among stones’, however, remains tied to a Poundian archaeology in terms of subject matter though obviously not in method: which is to say, Olson is still primary interested in the past in his use of the secondary source. In Lopez, on the other hand, history is peripheral to other fields of inquiry, and especially to science, which we might call the study of what is rather than what was. This gives Lopez’s sources a very different relation with each other. So in Olson, the relation between things, though tied to what he calls ‘an eternal event’, is always first and foremost chronological, hence the emphasis of his work on projection, on going forward. This thrust is not present in Lopez, however it much builds on it: there is no clear sense of order to his sources, of different times and social formations playing off of each other. Olson tries do re-organise history, which we clearly see him doing because we have a fair idea of the organisation of history already. With Lopez’s sources, on the other hand, there is no obvious order, because in their contemporaneity and interdisciplinarity the sources are incomparable. We might call what Lopez does something like ‘collecting’ by contrast to Olson’s selecting and Lopez tells us in the book: ‘Collecting makes us think about how categories of value are formed and reformed.’ Collecting describes Only More So because it makes clear the compositional act as one of juxtaposition rather than synthesis. This is not to say there is no project in Lopez: we can refer to the notion of contextual practice as outlined by Stephen Fredman here. Fredman says, in relation to post-war American poetry, that ‘Contextual practice works by uncovering new energies and images through juxtaposing found materials’ and ‘deliberately seek[s] to create a new context by selecting materials from the most disparate sources, leaving in plain view the fact of their having been “torn” from elsewhere’. We might say that Lopez’s is an attempt to create new contexts — one of the things Lopez’s procedure forces us to do throughout, for example, is imagine what the rest of the source from which this or that sentence has been torn from, might be like, an imagining which is always influenced by what Lopez has surrounded it with.
 
The major theme of Only More So is experimentation, which draws a whole series of practices and discourses into itself over the course of the work. The main parallel with experiment we are invited to infer is with economics, whose language in the section mimics the methodological statements of scientific and psychological experimentation, where we are forced to confront the fact that we are currently subject to a system still trying to work itself out in anything but laboratory conditions. On the other hand, scientific research itself is placed within a context of economic competition it does not normally admit to itself: we hear about Pfizer’s ‘market presence’, or get details of the scientific publishing industry, and so on. Our access to nature is, similarly, mediated through various fields of science. Rather than this allowing us a clearer and more ‘objective’ view of the natural world, then, we see the fundamental interference of competition and industrial interest in that perspective. 
 
It is not, though, that Lopez wants to merely satirise all these rhetorics as totally duplicitous and manipulative (though he does want to do this sometimes). Rather, he wants to investigate how they can be put to use. Lopez does not so much want to emphasise the hypocrisy of science, which has long since abandoned claims to objectivity, but simply to draw attention to its secondariness. In this we come to the contradiction-in-terms that is the secondary source: it is produced out of something studied rather than being the thing studied itself—which is to say, it is not a source at all. Lopez use of the secondary, that is, challenges the naturalism of the statement: the proposition that ‘x is y’ is constantly drawn into question by being ripped from a research context of axiomatic assumptions and excluded information, and placed into a surplus of diverse and only apparently foreign discourses. Such a practice is constructivist because the possibilities of the various registers are what is explored: unlike someone like J. H. Prynne, who still harbours a hope that poetry can access a language that is somehow above or even before the debased contemporary discourse of manipulation, Lopez investigates how we can use it to imagine new contexts for our social life. Probably the paradigm for this distinction is the motif of the word ‘this’ in the book, emptied of its original referent, but also substituted with another: which is to say, there is primarily a contiguous rather than a conflicting relationship between fragments. The overall point is carried through this motif as well: that there is always a context in which all discourses work, and the job of the poet is to imagine contexts beyond the specific material conditions we are told are unchangeable, and beyond the narrow rhetorics that give rise to them. 
6 August 2014