Two new books of poetry, by Nuar Alsadir and Ahren Warner, reject the conventional collection-of-poems format in favour of something more expansive. Many of their pieces are set as prose and it is not always clear where one ends and another begins, so the reader must learn to read across genres including lyric, aphorism, notebook jotting and prose poem, without allowing any one conceptual frame to close. What makes this approach to form so intriguing is its promise to show not so much the writer’s finished thoughts as their habits of perception and processes of composition.
In Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted, his third book, Ahren Warner travels around Europe taking photographs (these make up half of the book), quoting philosophers (including “dear Hegel”), and writing poems. The poems are mostly about unpleasant things (stray cats sniffing at bags of shit) and first-world irritations (BuzzFeed, click-bait). For all the distance covered, not a lot happens: in one country a girl borrows his lighter and he looks at her arse as she walks away, sneering at her for buying expensive jeans; elsewhere he is solicited.
If those examples sound a bit rum, I should say that the book’s most striking characteristic is the blatancy of its misogyny: men think and do; women are and suffer. Rape, murder and pimping prostitutes are typical activities for a man; whereas, when we finally see a woman doing something, she is likely to be serving the poet food, or giving him a blowjob. (The blowjob incident is quoted from a CK Williams poem also about visiting a prostitute.) In one short poem Warner compares his beloved to a kitten, a porpoise, a dormouse, and a camelid. Some sort of irony is probably intended here, since the poem ends with the image of a man murdering a child because he had “watched his mother/being raped”; but elsewhere women are likened to blossom, buds, petals, and jewels, so it’s hard to be sure.
There is an imaginative flabbiness at every level in the book, from the metaphors (“the black bullseye of the pupil”) to the sources of the lengthy collage-poem, which are too easily identified to gel into a new context: The Waste Land from TS Eliot, “Briggflatts” from Basil Bunting, “Daddy” from Sylvia Plath. To enliven proceedings, Warner thinks about tortures and atrocities perpetrated on and by Johnny Foreigner, drawing banal conclusions: “old powers settle back into their old ways”. The odour of gap-year chauvinism is overpowering. To excuse it, Warner strikes a self-aware, self-loathing attitude: “How do you feel that the distant pity you felt as a child for the severed limbs of children in Gikondo was a form of historical luxury?” he asks himself. He doesn’t answer this question, but presumably he feels fine about it, since he repeatedly exploits it in his poems to manufacture an air of seriousness. In an elegy for CK Williams (“So yes, he’s dead./It sucks, doesn’t it?”) Warner credits Williams with teaching him “how to think”. This is self-flattery.
Fourth Person Singular bears a superficial resemblance to Warner’s book, but Nuar Alsadir uses new form to discover new content rather than rehearse familiar poses. Her range of references is broad, suggestive of genuine intellectual curiosity, and she engages with her antecedents instead of simply name-checking them. For example, in the opening untitled sequence of aphoristic lyrics, observations, and vignettes, Alsadir considers topics as seemingly unrelated as anxiety, public transport and Coca-Cola.
Only gradually do patterns emerge. About halfway through, she cites Heidegger’s idea of “a hammer seizing its actuality, revealing its form, only when broken”, and wonders: what if the same applies to human subjectivity? Can we, too, only seize our actuality when broken? If so, Alsadir is caught in a paradox, since she is a mother and a psychoanalyst with an interest in Lacan.
According to Lacan, a pre-verbal infant is fundamentally dependent upon external objects, of which the mother is the most important. This leads Alsadir to the startling pronouncement, “Like a mother, an object in use is phenomenologically transparent”. A few pages later she applies these terms more specifically to lyric subjectivity (“What was formerly a mere object becomes an object-to-subject relationship, lyric”), and then – in a brilliant associative leap – to the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, whom the soldiers would name “according to the functions soldiers associated with them (‘Taxi Cab Driver,’ ‘Rapist’)”, thus rendering the detainees objects once more: de-actualising them. The movement from philosophy to personal experience, poetry, and atrocity, is intuitive yet careful, and without voyeuristic flânerie.
At first glance, Alsadir’s project may seem like a celebration of the fragmentary, with its untitled sequences and its multiple poems titled “sketch”. One sequence, for example, is the result of the poet setting her alarm for 3.15 AM and, upon waking, scribbling the first lines that came to mind. This results in short, suggestive pieces like the following: “The moment will be shaken/like a snow globe, a sand globe,/world in eye.” But we should remember the last word in her book’s title: the challenge for both writer and reader is to grasp all of these ideas and experiences as a singularity, rather than pretend that they occur in discrete categories labelled “reader”, “mother”, “analyst”, “city-dweller”, etc. As she puts it: “Part truth is untruth, the way multiplying a negative number/with a positive gives you a negative regardless of value”. Rejecting any easy distinction between poetry and poetics, Fourth Person Singular is a fascinating examination of the drive to construct subjectivity, and the shame that can attend it.
Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted
Bloodaxe Books, 128pp, £12
Fourth Person Singular
Liverpool University Press, 73pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history