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I’ve never quite bought the old witticism, attributed to the Irishman George Bernard Shaw, that Britain and the United States are “two nations divided by a common language.” But while there’s a constant transatlantic exchange of popular music, art, and literary fiction, the British and American poetry scenes seem stubbornly separate; even assiduous American poetry readers can rarely name more than a couple living British poets. There’s a sense in the United States that British poetry is somehow more staid, more conservative than American, still invested in sonnets and iambic pentameters. That’s an impression born of local myopia: it’s the structure of poetry publishing, a patchwork of cottage enterprises, that keeps most Americans from seeing that British poetry is really as energetic and varied as its American counterpart.
Internet-based periodicals and print-on-demand publishers not tied to particular production locations (like Shearsman and Salt) have to some degree lessened this divide. And, as always, there are scrappy independent publishers in unlikely locations: John Wilkinson’s and Keston Sutherland’s latest books, for instance, are published by The Last Books, based in Amsterdam and Sofia, and have been beautifully printed in Estonia and Holland.
Adapting the old moniker “Sons of Ben” (the coterie of poets surrounding Ben Jonson), one might identify Wilkinson and Sutherland as “Sons of Prynne” — followers of the Cambridge don and éminence grise of the English avant-garde J. H. Prynne. Prynne was plugged into the experimental American poetry scene from the early 1960s, counting Charles Olson and Ed Dorn as friends, and over the intervening half-century he’s become ever more enigmatic, not to mention prolific (he produced 15 chapbooks in 2020 alone). Sutherland and Wilkinson were Prynne’s students, happy to acknowledge his influence and inspiration, but each of them has followed his own path as a mature poet.
The older of the two, Wilkinson has had two careers: before coming to the United States for the University of Chicago’s writing program, he spent several decades in the UK as a nurse and social worker in the mental health sector. If some of his previous works, like the 2012 collection Reckitt’s Blue, seem at times an exercise in entirely emptying the poem of subjectivity, the mental health professional’s empathy and compassion suffuse Wood Circle, his most recent book. Wilkinson’s work may have become somewhat less challenging and rebarbative over the years, but its distortions of syntax and vocabulary continue to jolt readers into an awareness of how slick and commodified the language of most self-expression has become in what Adorno called an “administered world.”
These poems, as the title Wood Circle indicates, are to some degree pastorals, retreats from the hectic engagements of the workaday urban world. We catch glimpses of wetlands and woodlands, of lakeshores, beaches, and “pastures new.” The problem with the pastoral is that one can lose touch with the “real” world: “Go pastoral you’ll drop your thread, you’ll lose it / intermittently / betray your nature” (“Tabulate”). Like the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, out in the woods you’re liable to find your intentions altered by magic eye-drops: “They’ll spray your eyes when you are asleep. / It’s very stressful living in these forests, cold” (“Lay-by”).
Yet the pastoral, from its beginnings in Theocritus and Virgil to that great woodland work, Thoreau’s Walden, has always been more about social critique than celebrating nature. Virgil’s shepherds lament postwar land dispossession; the speaker of Milton’s Lycidas spends as much time attacking the Church of England as he does mourning his fallen shepherd-friend. In Wilkinson’s Wood Circle, the charmed woodland retreat can’t keep out the horrific events of contemporary history, which continually irrupt into the poems: the case of “Abdullah Dilsouz, 15 years old, / run down by a refrigerated truck in Calais” while seeking asylum in England in late 2017; the case of Iman Leila, a child who froze to death in northern Syria in early 2020; the appalling 2018 Kashmiri case of Asif Bano, “eight years old, / raped repeatedly in the temple precincts”; the 2019 Christchurch massacre, which Wilkinson commemorates in “Al Noor” (the name of the mosque) with a three-line list of some of the victims,
Names drawn up in ranks insecure as the napes of their necks bent in homage, eyes struggling out in transport on the main floor, eyes fixed on a spot where silence in enjoined.
In “Impromptu: For the Fallen,” one of 10 “impromptus” that punctuate the collection, Wilkinson wonders whether lyric “beauty” is compatible with the poetry of conscience:
Must beauty gloss, must it glimmer, must it inveigle: shall beauty roar. Barry MacSweeney says yes Gwendolyn Brooks says yes, Sean Bonney. I am too well-spoken, hostage to this voice-box—: conch, now call me out.
MacSweeney, Brooks, and Bonney were poets of formidable lyrical gifts who managed to combine lyricism with incandescent political commitment. Wilkinson might ruefully contrast his own “well-spokenness” with their revolutionary fervor, but Wood Circle balances a delicate lyrical sensibility with an acute awareness of the responsibilities that the poet, as denizen of late capitalism, cannot escape through a vacation in the woods.
For some years Keston Sutherland has been preparing an edition of Prynne’s critical prose. He’s of a younger, maybe less lyrical, generation than Wilkinson; certainly his poetry makes fewer nods to the traditional musical structures of English verse. Perhaps Sutherland’s best-known work is the 2007 Hot White Andy, which somehow manages to squeeze a mash note to a Chinese businessman he found through a Google search, named Andy Cheng, a critique of contemporary commodities markets and superpower relations, a good deal of postmodern Marxist theory, and some tender love poetry into 16 pages of dense, disjunctive, intermittently pornographic, and relentlessly lively verse.
The four-section Scherzos Benjyosos is a somewhat calmer, if no less tortured work. For the most part it looks like prose — Sutherland speaks of writing “blocks” of language. It begins almost like a short story:
I am sitting writing this in a bar, doing what in drug and alcohol addiction support groups is called ‘defining a private world’, according to their poster next to the church opposite the Mash Tun, where I first met my love, and therefore where, in effect, the origin of this voice is deposted, across from the staircase up to the Therapy Centre, where I am between five and ten minutes early […]
This rambling monologue very quickly goes off the rails, as it were: the “speaker,” whom we have been constructing as we read, is revealed not as a single consciousness, but as a moment within an unstoppable flow of language, a figure who fades out and reappears, who veers from tenderness and introspection to angry contumely:
[…] I did stop kicking you in the back and telling you that you are dying, in effect, all the time, obsequies to the gale, but am incapable of opening my mouth without a gulf stream of spicules of amethyst and safety pins tied down in ribbon flurrying out to spite you […]
The Scherzos don’t tell anything like a linear story, though they intermittently address or describe a character named “Ben” or “Benjy,” following him from childhood through a nightmarish birthday party into the coils of the gig economy: “Your driver is called Benjy, they’ve just picked up your order.” (I can’t help thinking that “Benjy” is an evocation of the incoherent, developmentally disabled narrator of the first section of The Sound and the Fury.)
Samuel Beckett’s narrative prose is in the air, though Sutherland’s voices can be more savage and demotic. If Beckett famously wrote “you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” Sutherland ups the ante: “Hope is pegged to going on regardless, a loss leader, deathlessness’s dipshit PA, and everyone left is the plot twist that doesn’t add up. Go. You don’t get to pick your assassin, despicable asshole.”
Despite their prose-like appearance, Sutherland’s scherzos mostly avoid the incremental structuring of conventional prose; they are rather, in the words of the first scherzo, “a molested cavern of glittering obliquities.” These poems are a hard, wild ride, taking us from that “bar” of the opening through the bowels of our commodified society. They end, however, in a remarkable (for Sutherland) burst of lyricism, a surprising profession of faith in poetry’s ability to provide solace, as well as critique:
And please also know That you did more to repair Than kill us, as if to spite A self that never will sing That did sing. Still alive, hear Love echo. Even here, like Laughter, any second now.
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