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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Toby Martinez de las Rivas and his Terror - OF SEX!!!

Or: everything you wanted to know about Terror, but I couldn't find the space to talk about in my review

Considering I just spent a whole damn review talking about Toby Martinez de las Rivas (I can get the name right when I'm writing it) it might seem like overkill to go back to him this early. But in truth there is a lot of stuff in his debut that I wasn't able to cover in the review, so I think a coda of sorts is warranted.

As I already said in the review, Terror is a very original piece of work and it's hard to think of other poets in the UK who are doing something similar, other than perhaps James Brookes, who shares some of the historical concerns but writes in a completely different style. That said, there was one point in Terror where Toby reminded me sharply of another talented young poet in the UK, whose name I shall temporarily withhold for dramatic effect.

Who is our mystery wo/man?

Which English poet is most like Toby Martinez de las Rivas, the bard utterly unlike all other bards of his time?

We'll get to that. First, though, a small preamble – of Terror's four sections, the one that did not find space in my review was the third, a brief pamphlet of prose poems entitled Renovatur. It's actually a very interesting section – so interesting, in truth, that it's worth treating it separately in this article.

One of the best things about the writing in Terror is that it's incredibly subtle – Toby has an extraordinary talent for picking words that, strung together in the bead of a sentence, allow for a great variety of readings. Consider the following lines (I am quoting from Renovatur, as I will be doing without exception for the remainder of this article).

Do not turn from them though they waver & diminish in the fundamental blank of the eye, beacons of vacillate, scared light, or the unrehearsable memory of being born
The gravel beds beyond them, & beyond them, the cress beds

These lines are from a poem called Through the Window into the Garden that was His Last Sight. Starting from the title, and from the opening lines (which are about the birthday of Toby's son), the poem seems to have a lot to do with the mirror processes of coming into and out of life. This concern is immediately followed through in the poem that succeeds Through the Window..., which begins with the line 'I write this on the XVII of March, which is the day I brought you into the world to die'. (Toby's poems seldom work in isolation from each other and this parallelism is not coincidental, but – I would contend – one of the poet's most successful and conscious strategies) 

While the 'unrehearsable memory of being born' is clearly connected to the above topic, what does the last line have to do with anything? 'The gravel beds beyond, & beyond them, the cress beds'. There may be symbolic connotations to real gravel and cress that I'm missing, but on first examination it just looks a solid image in which to anchor the conclusion of the poem after much abstraction.

The line actually works on that level too, BUT – notice for a moment what other words re-echo within that line, by pure strength of consonance:
The grave beds beyond them, & beyond them, the cross beds

'Gravel' folds over into 'grave' and 'cress' folds over into 'cross'. The line then takes on a whole new meaning, one that strongly connects with the rest of the poem, as the 'bed of the grave' lies inevitably beyond birth, and the cross – an overt religious symbol – lies beyond death itself. If you read it this way, the last line of this poem seems to lead quite naturally into the first line of the next.

So a verse that at first seemed to have been placed there almost arbitrarily conceals, in fact, a highly suggestive spiritual arc.

I made my case by this individual poem but I could take examples from almost anywhere. Terror is packed with astoundingly rich verse, the subtlety and ambiguity of which is – and here I must add my voice to the consensus – quite unrivalled in contemporary English poetry, at least from what I've read.

Somehow this image comes up when you Google "unrivalled"
Now I wouldn't be writing this article if I just wanted to spread Nutella onto Toby's already well-buttered toast – and indeed the point is that this incredibly subtle language is a double-edged sword. What I mean is that Toby is able to use this language to adumbrate some enormously suggestive and inspiring ideas, yes, but on the other hand he can't keep it from revealing those aspects of his thinking that are less appealing and grounded.

Allow me to elucidate. The opening line of the beautifully titled Pyropsalm goes like this:
Separate. Radically alone, even inside each other. Physical bliss equals extinction.

I remember that I was immediately struck by this because it resonates with an oddly naïve – even a bit childish – anxiety about sexuality and relationships. I mean, it may be heresy to evoke such a comparison, but the first thing that 'Radically alone, even inside each other' reminded me of was Linkin Park's With You, which goes 'Even though you're so close to me, you're still so distant'.

Pyropsalm, which opens with at least an element of simplistic sexual anxiety, then closes with these lines:
Its denotion of self: vertical, lowering, isolate. Unblent, unbearable in the tower of its resolution 
How far have I fallen? My fontanelle is still open

A fontanelle, as per dictionary, is 'a space between the bones of the skull in an infant or fetus, where ossification is not complete and the sutures not fully formed.' So the final line can be read to mean a lot of things. As an image it brings to mind vulnerability, while philosophically one might read it to say that the mind is open to physical intrusion – possibly violation, echoing Toby's concerns in previous parts of the book about 'The body as image of the state, violated and violating'. In this case, the poet is conflating a physical violation with one of identity – the 'denotion of self', instead of being internally developed and explored, is entering Toby's brain from outside and without permission.

So far, so obvious. But I think there's at least one more really interesting way to read that line; in particular I am interested in what appears to be a very concealed, very silent 'elle', that is to say, French for the pronoun 'she'. The word 'fontanelle' comes from the French and literally means 'little fountain'; broken down, the words could be read as: 'My fountain: elle', where fountain is a source of water, so metaphorically a source of life.

You may say that this reading is about as stretched and convoluted as a rubber octopus. I'll grant you that, taken in isolation, it sounds a bit crazy – and I probably wouldn't have thought of it if 'fontanelle' weren't such an uncommon word, one whose very presence commands reaction and active interpretation. Still, I feel it is at least somewhat validated by the context, over and beyond the teen angst in the opening line. The idea that Toby's poem may be sub-textually privileging the feminine Other is consistent with the terror (what else) that the previous lines express when introducing the phallic signifier: a 'vertical' object, a 'tower', that is 'unbearable' because it contaminates and possibly violates his sense of 'self'. Even the line 'How far have I fallen?' seems to fearfully conflate the self and the phallus – and we can get to this sentiment either by taking the 'I' as a phallic symbol in and of itself, in which case the line becomes a statement of impotence ('How far has my I fallen?'), or simply by consonance: 'I fallen : I phallus'.

The sentence 'My fontanelle is still open' can therefore be decomposed like this.

a.) My fountain: elle means that the speaker finds his sustenance in the Other, specifically the gendered feminine Other, as a classical case of compensation (i.e., his own sexuality is deficient).

b.) is still refers directly to the condition expressed in My fountain: elle, meaning that the condition is chronic. It points to the speaker's inability to grow out of his dependence on the gendered Other (and by extension, the inability of his language to grow out of similar constraints of gender representation, i.e. gender as necessarily framed in a bipolar dependency relation).

c.) open, aside from the patent Yonic connotations that reinforce the sexual undertones of the line, also closes the poem on a statement of vulnerability – reiterating that the speaker's condition is one of fear and need, not comfort or acceptance.

So – 'My fontanelle is still open', in reverse order, translates to:

I am vulnerable – [because] I cannot grow out of – my dependence on the other gender.

In brief, and for all their lyric transport, these are simply the words of someone who is unable to grow up. Now you may say that this reading is about as stretched as Jean Claude Van Damme's legs when he does the splits. Judge, you may tell me, lighting up your pipe, your reading is far too abstract and far-fetched. You should stick a bit more closely to the literal meaning of what you read.

Ok then – let's try that.

What is the literal meaning of 'My fontanelle is still open'? Well, you say, inhaling from your pipe and blowing rings of scented smoke in the air, typically only an infant has an open fontanelle. So what he's saying is that he is still an infant.

Wait a second, what's this? The purely literal reading of the line comes to the same identical conclusion as the wildest abstract reading! In both cases, the poet is giving us the words of someone who can't grow up. (Go sit in the corner, you and your pipe!)

Captain Sparrow, literally
To be clear, I'm as conscious as anybody else that this reading sounds rather far-fetched. What I want to stress is that this is all, I think, validated by context – or at least in line with it – nor would I have ventured into the reading at all if I didn't feel that it was corroborated by the rest of the book. Much like I wouldn't allow for a sexual interpretation of the last line of Pyropsalm if it weren't supported by the language of the rest of the poem, so I wouldn't allow for a sexual interpretation of the poem itself if it were an isolated case in the collection.

It is not.

In fact, the Renovatur section of the collection stands apart from the others in that it bubbles over with more or less explicit sexual allusion everywhere. The number of lines you can quote that have some element or imagery of sex in there is almost overwhelming:
the leaf of the tongue, flickering in her mouth's gospel (p.39) 
I am the unpenned bull of the Lord / whose name confounds me. That is the hunger of women. (p.39)
the lamb might lie beside the vixen, at the nipple of the vixen (p.37)
the water struck by stars & streaked with filth (p.41)
the angel, must suffer us at its nudity (p.46)
the pikeish ventral tank, pillars of flame (p.46)
In my carriage of maleness, I am his radiant bride, bisexual as death. (p.48)
unearned wanting for his bodiless touch (p.48)
lead shot cascading in the broken well (p.49)

Mostly, these lines have in common a sense of unease and inadequacy, especially when it comes to discussing or including masculinity (or tropes thereof). Feminine eroticism is effectively hallowed ('her mouth's gospel'), metaphors to describe the phallus are threatening ('pillars of flame', the 'carriage of maleness' that is associated to 'death'), and the physical reality that sex forces upon you – that is to say, the reality of confronting your own body and someone else's – is infallibly brushed away: contrast the dangerous 'unpenned bull' associated to masculinity (the 'Lord'), with the ethereal and apparently unsexed 'angel' (I say apparently - if the 'elle' in fontanelle is a 'fountain of life', then the feminine Other has already been established as an angel of sorts), and ask yourself why the speaker is 'wanting for his bodiless touch'. Emphasis on the desire for something BODILESS in a collection where the word 'body' is everything.

So it seems that much of Renovatur is really about saying 'I cannot grow up', at least when it comes to the speaker's relationship with the other gender. And yes, I do think this is a genuine and valid criticism that can be levelled at this part of the collection – and the reason I said in my review that the first and second parts of the book are awesome but this third part is so-so. It's not bad by any means – on the contrary, the textual and philosophical richness here is real and rewarding. It's just a shame that it should be held down by this sense of emotional immaturity that rather undermines the composed intelligence of the verse.

In this, Toby Martinez de las Rivas very much reminded me of another rising star of English contemporary poetry, and this would be – drum-roll – our mystery man, a.k.a. Sam Riviere.

It's been a couple of years since I read Riviere, so he may just have grown into his shoes by now, but my conclusion when I reviewed his debut 81 Austerities was that the guy was very creative and intelligent et all, but suffered from a bothersome tendency towards infantilism, evident especially in his approach to sexuality. This is very much the problem with Renovatur – albeit not with Terror as a whole, and I can't explain why this problem surfaces only in the book's third section (parts one and two are, in my opinion, flawless, while part four suffers from other, more serious problems that I explore in the review).

Other than this particular weakness, Martinez has very little in common with Riviere – as indeed he has little in common with any other poet, barring superficial or (arguably) coincidental aspects of his verse. I'd agree with those praising Toby for his originality, as I for one haven't seen anything out there quite like his work. That being said, I sometimes have the impression that when faced with the considerable difficulty of his poetry, some people respond with the Margaret Atwood line: 'I don't understand a word of it, so it must be good'. That's the moment when praise just turns into hype, and in which I step out of the bus. I'd argue that the challenges posed by Terror are an invitation to engage and potentially disagree with it. If this means identifying some aspects of the book where it – or the arguments it forwards – are lacking in coherence or relevance, and also accosting Martinez to other poets in terms of his shortcomings rather than his merits, then I for one am more than happy to bite the bullet. There are many things that should, can and do terrify me, but sex – and for that matter masculinity – are not on the list.

1 comment:

  1. 'Ere, Judge, not so fast, y'can't pull the wool over me eyes that easily! Reckoning literal sense of 'How far have I fallen? My fontanelle is still open' as 'what he's saying is that he is still an infant' don't make no sense. You've only gone and bloody jumped into the abstract again. Nah, only way that statement would make any literal sense is if it were an infant saying it. But infants can't speak, can they?


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