On JH Prynne’s Or Scissel

JH Prynne is a poet of some kind, his anthology sits on our book shelf, the bits I have flicked through have been enjoyable, here are two people discussing his latest fancy 

OTL  explains:

Here’s what I was writing in Wales … about Or Scissel, J.H. Prynne’s latest piece of Word Jazz. Ben and Oli seemed to think it could go on the PB’s blog, which would be fantastic. There’s also a page by John Clegg. He works in the London Review Bookshop and has made his adoration of Prynne concrete by setting up a pile of Or Scissels and telling everyone who comes in the shop to buy one. I think there may be new readers of Prynne about and I want to drag them towards revolutionary self-activity ratter than the boring Cambridge pundits. You can help with this …

So we have helped…… 


John Clegg on Or Scissel 

Prynne’s trajectory opens with the discovery of what appears to be a perfect, unembarrasable lyric strategy, capable of handling any tone or raw material that presents itself. In Brass, that technique lights on something undigestible; subsequent books make various attempts on this undigestible lump; there are brief victories against it (in The Oval Window and Pearls That Wereespecially), but nothing which can be sustained for longer than sequence length. In the sullen unappeasable volumes of the late 90s and early 2000s, the lump has triumphed absolutely. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere further to go. The obstruction seems to have choked out the lyric altogether.


And then, astonishingly, the whole machinery lurches back into life. What seemed to be the thrashing of a body choking was instead the last life-spasms of that undigestible lump, and the original lyric strategy of the 60s re-emerges, battered and triumphant and wiser. This begins with Al Denteand has continued through a series of remarkable late works, of which Or Scisselis the culmination.


The kind of language which the poems of the 70s would have got caught on – the ‘silicon bonding dilatancy / pack and fold’ of ‘Sweet Vernal’, for instance – has found a way to incorporate itself. Instead of bashing two registers of language against one another and seeing what survives (the answer was always the language of capital; it was the eerie strength of this corrupted language which made books like Acrylic Tipsso horrific), the two registers, pastoral and material-scientific, have found a way to tesselate or co-exist. The ambiguity in the post-Brassvolumes was always ironic, always undercutting the reader’s attempts at reconciliation; the poems of Or Scissel (and Al Denteand Each to Each) are attempts at reconciliation themselves. As, for instance, in ‘Beyond Doubt’:

See further, see link alignment
repairing to measure the cost

of finding truly when to recognise
how swiftly & gainful it could be done;…


The visionary register (‘See further’) coincides with the register of index-making (‘see link alignment’); what mid-period Prynne would have turned into a snarl becomes, not even a joke or a game, but a meeting, a ‘repairing’ (in both senses – fixing and self-secluding). The fiduciary language (‘cost’, ‘gainful’), always in the past a sign of hellishness around the corner,  is given the space to expand into the full and authentic senses of the words. There are costs and gains in the world; there will be costs and gains long after capitalism has ended; useful words needn’t be contaminated by connotation. That release of language from contamination is the triumph of late Prynne; a symptom of his return to the strategy of The White Stonesis that once again, ‘how to read Prynne’ becomes a preoccupation of the poetry, as in the concluding ‘The Way, Forward’:


If beyond doubt, hand-fast
care for rising profile again temper not

to excuse eye fortune or its near double,

chance occasion benign for steep native

pertinency rapid into transit endowed
subsistence. The way, forward step-fast,
hand by clue in hand.

John Clegg


OTL on Or Scissell

“How familiar it is to see all these interesting advenements with one snaked’s eyes!”

Finnegans Wakep. 564

What is regularly and disastrously misperceived about Art is equating it with Power & Money. It’s not. Art is denialof Power & Money. It presages the advance to communism, a humanity not at war with itself. Hence the contradiction of conceiving art as a “privilege” which should be extended to oppressed groups, and the lionising of various individual artists according to race, gender, sexual orientation etc. The recent Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican this year is surely the End of the Fucking Road for this particular ideology: a so-called incursion of “hip hop” into fine art which – in the flesh – saw a queue of the ignorant and craven dumbstruck by news of the prices being paid for every canvas. The shuffling reverence of the punters was indicative: the stink was religious– oppression mystified as profundity. When, after viewing the bulk of the canvases, Iris (12) shot out “But they’re all the same, they’re boring!” … horrified glances from everyone in the room, like someone had said something racist. Seen in sequence, Basquiat was exposed as a graphic designer with a limited set of motifs (graffiti, Leonardo’s notebooks, Haitian shrine stylings), a Neville Brady-level talent making canvases for the collectors. Hailing Basquiat as a victory for race relations is like conceiving Theresa May as a victory for women’s rights: astoundingly stupid.

Or Scissel


That by way of a preamble to an exagmination of J.H. Prynne’s Or Scissel, a book which suggests what Real Art might do. So … first things first, the cover: Malevich’s Black Square(1916), a painting which denied 17,000 years of representation in favour of a new art which would operate directly on the senses of the observer (hence anticipating free jazz and rock). In 2015, using x-ray technology, Tretyakov Gallery researchers found some words written beneath the black paint: “Battle of negroes in a dark cave”. Malevich may have been referring to a black painting exhibited by Paul Bilhaud in 1882, Negroes Fight in a Tunnel. The humourist Alphonse Allais responded with First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls In The Snow(1883) – (a blank sheet of white paper) and Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea(1884) (a red sheet). Bilhaud also composed the “first” silent composition (Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Great Deaf Man, 1897); John Cage revealed as low comedy done at the heights of culture. Of course, tedious annalists of “who first” will also demand mention of Robert Fludd’s black illustration “Darkness” (1617) and the two back-to-back black pages of Tristram Shandy(1759), but such avantesque trainspotting distracts from the import of Black Square, which is not about innovation and copyright, but about criss-crossing low comedy and high art to negate representation and negate progress. Representation and progress always justify class society. We should be guided here, not by academic theory on “the avantgarde”, but by bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells’ answer to an online music magazine:


What does the term “new” mean to you in connection with music?


As in “new music”? Hmm … is there anysuch thing? I mean, there are people who would say that Microsound is the new music. Been done! A long time ago. And much better, also. Elliott Mazer talks about the work that was being done in electronic music at CCRMA [Stanford University’s computer music centre] in the 1970s. That stuff was amazing! You can still listen to that. Most of the laptop stuff from four years ago is comical at best when heard today. I mean, Hans Ulrich Humpert was doing stuff in 1965 that is never going to sound dated. I’ve heard music in Nigeria that is based on stuff that the West hasn’t gotten hip to yet. Is that music “new”? Hardly. Will it “become new” once it’s discovered by the West? Not exactly. Time is an illusion. You have to reach back to go forward. All of the music is here. It always has been. My ancestors keep giving it to me because they’re here also. You’ll only grow as high as your roots are deep. That’s why the music of Wollof hunters sounds like Motown and Motown sounds like space music. Hendrix said he was playing the Blues. So did Charlie Parker. What does that tell you? (“15 Questions to Jair-Rôhm Parker Wells”, Tokafi, 2012)


The Blues tells us something which politically-correct bans on “racist” words won’t, something real and concrete about people and history. Sure, there’s a casual racism to Bilhaud’s joke – it assumes the audience for paintings is white, that black skin is unusual – but the revolt versus representation transcends that. In his epochal denial of representational art, Malevich evokes the Negro Question: imagines the globe, its commerce, its races. Just so James Joyce.[1]Having reproved the anti-Semitism of Irish Nationalists by focussing Ulysseson the interior monologue of a Dublin Jew, Joyce placed the Negro Question at the centre of Finnegans Wake. On page 293, the book’s “Vortex” shows two intersecting circles detailing the children’s curiosity about origins, their mother’s vagina. The text immediately following this diagram (in which the delta-shape of the pubic hair is represented by two dotted lines, a shadow of the pyramid triangle above) runs: “Vieus Von DVbLIn, ’twas one of dozedeams a darkies ding in dewood”.

Taking the capital letters in the first clause to be Roman numerals (V, V, D, V, L, I i.e. 5+5+500+5+50+1) adds up to 566, which is half of 1132, generally agreed to be the most significant number of the Wake(1132AD; or a combination of rebirth/falling as 11 means starting to count on a new set of fingers, while earth’s gravitation accelerates falling objects at 32 feet per second per second). 1132 is also the speed of sound through air (at 74 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level it’s 1132 feet per second). Finding this number inside “Views of Dublin” carries on the time/space sound/sight battle initiated by the reference to Wyndham Lewis on page 292 (Spice and Westend Woman): the diagram is a visual thing, but woven into a soundscript. That, ahem, as an aside.

In 1924, Joyce made notes on two books about Africa by the progressive Scottish missionary Dan Crawford (1870-1926)[2], who declared “the Negro has a right to be spoken to in his own language”. Crawford appreciated the many languages and religious systems he encountered there, and translated the New Testament into Lunda.[3]Joyce’s interest in Africa and its diaspora wasn’t superficial. In his essay “Soullfriede: W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Mosiah Garvey in Finnegans Wake”, anthropologist Karl Reisman commented on the second half of the sentence which follows the Wake’s central mandala:


That the obvious African American and racist content of this line [“darkies ding in dewood”] has never been commented on may be the result of scholars afraid of their own racism or simply that no one wanted to see this content in Finnegans Wake.[4]


Reisman argues Joyce is responding to The Souls of Black Folk(1903) by W.E.B. Dubois, comparing Louis Armstrong’s blue notes to the “wolf tone” of Irish traditional music, and hailing African-American usage of 78RPM shellac disks. That dings true. Joyce’s attention to actual pronunciation – something which corrupts “proper spelling” in nearly every word of the Wake– bears comparison to John Coltrane’s research into world scales: an investigative humanism using modern technology (metropolitan café talk, radio and 78RPM records, in Joyce’s case; LPs in Coltrane’s) to burst the limits of written “correctness”. Far from being racist, “‘twas one of dozedeams a darkies ding in dewood” is glossed by Reisman as “‘One of those themes (songs) that ‘darkies’ sing in DuBois” (boisbeing the French for “wood”).

A personal confession. I’ve been reading Finnegans Wakefor over fifty years, the Vortex on page 293 a particular focus of attention, and I too have hesitated to write about this phrase. My immediate reading of “darkies ding in dewood” was “nigger in the woodpile”, meaning locating the cause of a nuisance, an image originally coined by white landowners in the Southern States of the United States (the Oxford English Dictionaryhas an abolitionist using it in Congress in 1862 to goad slaveowners: “a phrase … the paternity of which belongs, I think, to their side of the House”). An early memory of mine is a SWP meeting in Leedscirca1979 where a striker had to apologise to a public meeting for using the phrase. However, like Zappa with Thing-Fish, Joyce offends political correctness to destroy racism, not perpetuate it. Marx’s first forays in journalism were defending the right of poor peasants to collect firewood from forests they perceived as the commons. We are indeed niggers in the woodpileas far as the managers of spectacular value are concerned: gleaning what we may and disrespecting property. And there’s also the vulgar use of “thing” for “penis” (cf.Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling”); it’s a doze-dream, a fantasy of sexual penetration which avoids daylight scrutiny, something chiming (“ding”) with our bass desires.

Prynne may not be aware of the words beneath the paint of Malevich’s Black Square, but like any poet worth reading, he adheres to Mallarmé’s dictum that the poem means, not the poet. He knows not what he doth (yet), and it’s we who must explain it back to him. A line similar to “Battle of negroes in a dark cave” has surfaced in Prynne before. In Not-You(1993) there’s “at best ʻpeacock in a rainstorm at night’”. You can Google the phrase and find a Deccani miniature[5]of that title in the New York’s Museum of Modern Art (and read a poem by Peg Boyers inspired by it), but this is where Google Research (the “new” method proposed by N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge in their annotated The Oval Window) closes down an image rather than letting it grow. To me (reading Not-Youbefore finding out about the Deccani miniature), the phrase invoked a riot of colour utterly denied. Thisis the import of Or Scissel’s cover: a choice between Black Square’s revolutionary denial of representation, which means art as a specialist activity stops and action on the world begins, or scissel, which is the waste discarded after coins have been punched out of sheet metal at the Mint. Shall we be the waste product of Capital’s accumulation of value, or seize the possibilities of action after the demise of representation? Politics and art which doesn’t boldly face the unrepresented is compromise, corruption, mere social-climbing, a sophistical Derridean fudge, a manipulation of worn counters. Prynne enthusiasts who proclaim his “excellence” as a poet miss the point (he counters by becoming wilfully obscure: “bordering to miss his/fanatic crawlers without trace pack recourse” p. 20): only collective discussion and action can make these lines speak. Yes, I adore the open door to an incomprehensible yet suggestive world, a text boiling with energies ethical, political and polemical, but the collapseof meaning markers remains the point. If I can’t squeeze through the door myself, but must rest admiring the vignettescarved on the lintel, the game freezes. In heraldry, “or” denotes the colour “gold”: Or Scisselis a pair of golden scissors inviting us to cut the ribbon which separates us from creative poetical thinking.



“Dost dialogue with thy shadow?” asks the pamphlet’s epigraph, a line from Shalespeare’s Timon of Athens. A painting titled “Timon of Athens” preceded the text of “Enemy of the Stars” in BLAST, Wyndham Lewis’s punk rock opus of 1914 (despite the repeated paeans to “poetry” which have launched a small band of execrable alt.laureates, Prynne’s linguistic assault owes more to Wyndham Lewis than any poet you can mention). As with Black Square, lack of light is a dialogic necessity: a Zen dialectic of enlightenment, while the homophone “dust” points to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materialsand the trilogy’s Milton-Satanic invocation of auratic plasma physics to prepare a generation for insurrection versus the Big Bang magisterium… But, onwards to the poems themselves!

What have we here? Capsizing the “first page test” (judging novels, not from blurbs, puffs or reviews, but by reading a page whilst standing in the bookshop, a practice which has saved me from twenty years of boredom), the first poem, “All Such to Life”, is a false front, faux briquettesfor the lolly-sucking chin-stroking Barbie queues. It fucking rhymes! A very plastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion using archaic words out of Chaucer (“besprent with dew”), it talks about love, it features a passionate velocity, it’s lyrical: a slap in the face to the modernist wing. Falsefront because there’s nothing remotely like it in the rest of the pamphlet, unless you count the next poem, “Close Shorn”, which backpedals to pararhyme (“line”/”worn”; “win”/”seen”; “tame”/”term”). Like the resonant piano F-chord which opens Frank Zappa’s Dance Me This (only Russians contribute songs to Eurovision which aren’t in F), the Modern Art/Zen Master jars the refusenik coterieby playing the most worn-out mainstream card. Nevertheless, despite its rhymes and archaic flavour, “All Such to Life” performs the usual Prynnian trick of making possible words hover ghostlike behind the chosen ones: “All such to life consuming/as all were true” suggests “All suckto life consuming”; “By leaf turning” suggests “Belief turning”. It’s a song of biological materialism: despite our verbal protestations and strenuous debates and heated assertions, we are actually what we do with our bodies, the truth is bodily, subverbal. But realizing this – and here, despite Prynne’s championing of Wordsworth, I hear Blake instead – sets off powerful unspoken utterance (Volosinov): “Such voices set fiery within”. The dark horizon of the socially possible swallows the glowing orb of subjectivity; there is no audience for these thoughts. What was described in Brass as a necessary collision with the “unwitty circus” (culture as a stupid spectacle) is here “the field of folk unwary”. But “in shape as true” is a big claim and a boast: attention to bodily actuality, though it means nothing to the gatekeepers of a culture conceived as elevation above the cultureless (occasionally I need to glance at the Times Literary Supplementto remind myself that this moribund bunch of conceited mediocrities are still stroking each other), can produce something as true and contoured as everyday life.

“Close Shorn” seems inclined to maintain the lyric high tone of the opener, but commodity awareness (“in jacket new yet worn”) brings in the characteristic Prynnian deflatus. But all is unknown in Prynne’s shrug-off to established values, including rejection of them. It’s like Raya Dunayesvskaya’s point about post-party Marxism: it corrupts itself if it gets tooobsessed with denouncing the pretenders. The point is, the movement of ideas initiated by verbal intoxication and highs spirits which won’t say ʻno’ to anything. Can we stand it, actually? Probably not, but also we can’t live without it, because this is the black square which makes everything iridescent and round, which is why copies are flying off the counter at the London Review Bookshop. And “Close Shorn” introduces the central term ofOr Scissel: “temper” – a word used five times in the pamphlet, more than any other[1](along with “tempest” (twice), “tantrum” (once) and “tamper” (once)).

As usual with any word pondered by Prynne, the history of “temper” is complex and contradictory. The immediate modern connotation is “anger”, but this is a late turn for a word which has generally meant the opposite. Prynne introduces it with the old meaning: “main body temper”. The word derives from the Old French for “mixed in due proportion”, tempre, as carried in the English title of Bach’s guide to the key system The Well-Tempered Klavier. Applied to the living body (as opposed to steel), it has the same charge as “homeostatic” in Philip K. Dick: a biological-materialist understanding of what we need to be to survive, refuting the “anything is possible” idealism of consumerism (and post-biological cyber “politics”). In Two Flamboyant Fathers(1966), artist Nicolette Devas respects the traditional meaning of the word when she says: “When I could not paint my temper escaped and I snapped and snarled and wept” (p. 230).



After two false fronts of quasi-traditional poetry (Dance Me Thisalso begins with false fronts: “Dance Me This” and “Pachuco Gavotte” are two recognisable pop instrumentals before the chute into the turgid depths of “Wolf Harbor”), we are plunged into the fertile and frightening universe of Prynnian verbal invention, which refuses to repeat the verbal strategies of anything he’s written before, and where meaning and speculation follow in the pathways of fizzing phrasal subversion, free association, fun, pun, punk attack and – most importantly of all – surprise. Despite Prynne’s championing Systems Music (an early name for what was later dubbed Minimalism) over the “sentimentality” of Twelve Tone, his ruthless and relentless pursuit of surprise only finds its equal in the music of the Second Viennese School and the note choices of guitarist Derek Bailey.

“Sweet Vernal” borrows its kick-off energies from an old counting song, nonsensical, repetitive, unheard since rainyday breaktimes in nursery school: “Went to Mow a Meadow”. It achieves three sentences glowing with that peculiar Prynnian light: formulations which appear inevitable and definitive, yet whose implications are nevertheless opaque: injunctions from an unspecified future. I don’t know any other non-Joycean language so convincing on a musical level – the speed-ups and slow-downs so dramatically various, like a Charlie Parker solo or a Derek Bailey excursion – where the eventual significance is so opaque, so open to debate. A sentence in Finnegans Wakeshakes off myriad assertions about history, politics and sexuality, but resolves to something expressively democratic and oral; Or Scissel’s phrases are admonitions from a wouldbe priest without a frock to stand in. They are maxims for temper, they hinge on delicate misgivings as complexly as a sentence in Henry James. Personally, I’ve never found any use for advice – every time I’ve followed anyone’s advice I’ve regretted it, Algernon, forcing me conclude that life is something to be improvised – yet here I succumb. Why? Because, like the lines in Hegels’ Logicthat precede the glosses he improvised live and which his students noted down, these maxims have been abstracted from particular content. It’s poetry as maths, not maths as in Stephen Hawking, but maths from a future we may not have. So even though it has no argument, it’s deeply political. I don’t think it’s possible to understand this bizarre fusion of stern formulation and politics unless you are a communist or have some kind of relationship to communism, which is why I’m suspicious of mainstream recognition of Prynne as “our most important poet”, recognition which will surely burgeon after his death and his “eccentric ways” are safely buried (arguing for the existence of angels; “closing the logic loops” for Rupert Sheldrake; criticising the speculative twaddle in a prestigious catalogue at the Tate; launching a book at a student occupation etc).

The cut-and-thrust of Prynne’s dialogues in Or Scisselare between an abstract understanding that private property and individualism are blocks to human development, denying us the creative impulse and productive powers to make this world a paradise and us like gods (his communism, or as he puts it, “first-time Maoism”) and awareness of the animal strategies necessary for bodily survival. This is not mere liberal vacillation because it recognises an object-subject dialectic which creates rules rather than obeying them à laKant, and so acknowledges freely-associated collective production. “Sweet Vernal”: we’re made of determinate interactions on the atomic and chemical and biological levels, but counting these (determinism) is childish since our bodies already know our temper. This poem is as fragrant as new-mown hay.

“Beyond Doubt” sinks into the workings of the body to avoid the oppressive vacancies of media (“to mitigate the doorstep plantation”). “To Eye Apart” – leaving the conscious “I” – accesses the poetry of instructions on the back of pharmaceutical products (“Paint a wart and leave to dry …”). Since these are mainly read in order to facilitate defecation, the connection to the subverbal animal temper is obvious: these instructions are links to right-hemisphere thinking[1]and received as divine injunctions, accessing primitive thinking midway between animal and modern human. You may scoff, but Julian Jaynes was enthusiastically received by both William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, the only two writers who should be mentioned in the same world-turning breath as Prynne. Actually, “To Eye Apart” could have been written by Stuart Calton.

You know when a poem is laid out in unequal lines that you’re about to receive some high-scale shocks à la BRASS: vide“Platform”. This, with its lapse into biochemistry, also evokes Wound Response. Hang on, Jeremy, you’re retreading your own development here. Dangerous games, thoughts of a man while drowning … The double-entendrescome thick and fast: when read for sound “outermost earthern flaw give mine the rest” could be death (“outermost earthern floor give mind the rest”); a geological formation as a sight for sore eyes (“outermost earthern flaw give mine [referring to “eyes” above] the rest”) or as giving what has previously been denied (“the rest”). It’s as if the possibilities shooting out from each word are so abundant mere consciousness is exhausted. “For the Traverse” is quandary and care and S&M titillation, the mind and body tense with the effort to get it just right. This tension makes everything brightly lit and detailed, like the air on Planet Gor. “At impasse/settle quickly surface bail in a novel temper fob” (“Others Will”) carries on this tightly-packed record of trembling anxiety, choice at every verbal juncture, committed to difficult poetry like someone addicted to the adrenaline rush of gambling. There is a moment just before going to sleep when one becomes aware of how physical sensations are turning into dream thoughts, reinterpreted as a drama within rather than perceptions of an external environment. This is captured by: “Reflective/tremor in flashes, margin brilliance out to sea/flim-flam grateful well back nipping across/highlights.” This is achieved by slipping terms of moral judgment (“flim-flam” and “grateful”) inside the descriptive vocabulary. “Each New Report” concludes with Prynne’s own opinion of these poems, which he once confessed to me must arrive at one writing, they’re not concocted at leisure or by procedures, they are quick sketches, what the surrealists called “automatic writing”, windows on something more objective than self-expression, which gain meaning from attention just as tomatoes grow ripe in the sun: “They all grow in frame on a side generous/mimicry, all in good time”.

            “Dashboard Flowing” is the trajectory of two water drops flowing down through a lush tropical forest filmed by amoeba-sized nano-GoPros, each complexity of flower, stem and bark explained in a human vocabulary of morals, finance, surgery and sport: a blob of mercury held in the palm, trembling and bright. It’s like Finnegans Wakebecause it accesses the animal thrust of words, their shape in the mouth, implications of affection or threat, the musical sound which makes a cat start[2]: real bodily affect, not the conventional game of references (“this rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense” to quote from Samuel Beckett’s essay “Dante … Bruno. Vico .. Joyce”). Prynne’s automatic writing relates to the free painting at Len Massey’s Esemplastic Tuesdays, it documents the cosmic, geological and sexual thoughts suggested by watching what paint does as a brush loaded with poster paint is moved across wet paper; Ernest Untermann’s The World’s Revolutions(1906) boiled down to a sentence. As in Derek Bailey’s concept of Free Improvisation, context is reconfigured so each particle (note or word) stands stark and singular, no longer subsumed in a readymade cadence, but creating grotesque new deformities: a Hexentanzof particulars.

“Darting” is a song of the bodily Id recording the movements of the busy Ego. It’s as if someone has invented terms sufficient to describe the experience of a cell in the body, we’re at the liquid crystal interface between inorganic and organic chemistry, we’re so far away from the Christian metaphysical divide between life and not-life … we’re practically in Soviet science. Go Go Go Oparin!

            “Not Far” is someone operating on my eye, rewiring my sensual apparatus. Any word I’ve not met before stands out in pulsating livid green: “absterge” means to wipe, usually a wound. “Wait to Arrive” is jagged human conflict, livid with paranoia, modern urban existence as cruel and proud and bloodthirsty as a Mayan temple city (“Give a chance ahead/to miss a beat, street dropped alert in knife plumage,/meet to skim fairly in true uppermost acumen”). I never understood why in 1992 Drew Milne and Simon Jarvis rejected my suggestion that William Burroughs was worthy of consideration as an “out” solution to the violent latent homosexuality in Wyndham Lewis. Prynne considers Wild Boysthe masterpiece it is, and these lines discover the same cannibalistic savagery beneath the skin of modern liberalism. “Last Pressure Outcry” presses so close to the conflictive bad times of modern existence (“estoppel” is a legal injunction, preventing the plaintiff from going back on his/her word) that it’d be painful if I didn’t read it as disgusted satire: distilled Burroughs. “Nor Than” slips and slides round its verbal terms like a jockey on a sweating horse; “How Smart We Are” is a perfect description of some state of mind there are not yet words for, phrases guided like improvised brush strokes, the movement is all. “Queue Up” is more jostling social paranoia, ending in another of the pamphlet’s key terms: “offence”. “Cut and Stitch” is a perfect description of those feverish half-dreams in which an image from the previous day’s residues – the wool display glanced at in a John Lewis window – becomes the term for a psychic battle you can’t bring to consciousness. It’s the poetry of protein-building, DNA organising amino acids at the molecular level. Discourse slowed to stasis à laJoseph Holbrooke Trio, so that you can watch the flow of meaning divert at each new word. “Yet Why Not” is more of the same, the anxieties building, ending with “this permissible livelihood” a sour and unlyrical reference to the social limits of today’s existence.

            “Lark Advent”, as the title implies, allows a lyric ascent. It’s a sonnet of defiance: “Wild reject obtuse thrown down whenever on.” This is how poetry should be written, a method proved in action at meetings convened in upstairs pub rooms by the Psychedelic Bolsheviks when Ben Moran-Healy reads from some plank or side of cardboard on which he’s scrawled words three hours earlier. Recognition and success and literary quid pro quoare sneered at: “Reject the/promise exchange pedigree, thick saline in-/difference, however advanced”. “Zinc Option” is refreshingly happy, a contented reflection on care and craftsmanship. “Main-Stream” refers to that term which so vexes both successful and unsuccessful poets (especially Andrew Duncan) and reads like a Hogwart’s school report written by Snape (“absterge” has left its mark; a wound is being dressed). The poem concludes by referencing “Green Grow the Rushes-O” and its “One is one and all alone and ever shall remain so”: “How you/know is not known, but so is so and ever/will remain.” Prynne may be a Maoist but he’s no Marxist: his materialism has a bitter, anti-humanist edge. The lack of the final “so” denies the song’s rhythm in a truly anti-Joycean manner.

            “Keep Alive” – and every poem in Or Scissel– imagines the perfect artwork which will tie up every discourse under the sun in a single brilliant knot which could make Koheleth smile. “We Do”: “ever intrinsic, ever full” because all the writing is to satisfy an inner urge, with no concessions to “ought” (or Ort, place). “Follow Turmoil”: Prynne’s discourse as torn cloth, rags, pulling the weave apart so we can see the constituent fibres of thought. “The Way, Forward”, the last poem in the pamphlet, concludes: “The way, forward step-fast/hand by clue in hand” because only collective endeavour can save us. So I popped into London Review Bookshop by the British Museum for a chat with John Clegg. He was just back from six months’ paternity leave, so we chatted about baby care and how it makes you slow down and notice things immediately in front of you – cats, clouds, reflections, road surfaces – and then about Or Scissel, which he adores (he disliked Of the Abyssand agreed with my interpretation of the title, it’s Jack London’s People of the Abysswith the people left out … Prynne’s anti-humanism again). So we decided to record our initial impressions and put them online together. I finished my notes on Or Scisselin the basement of Arthur Probsthain’s, where novelist M. L. Hufkie serves a very fine pot of jasmine tea.

Out To Lunch




[1]Thanks to Bobby Bisto and Jake Thompson for popping up on the Starry Bun JHP Appreciation Facebook page (22-viii-2018) asking why Prynne hates Finnegans Wakeand making me pursue this digression with added vim; also to Machine Gun, who provided me with a correctly charged and distempered soundtrack while writing this: Pass the Ammo(MU Records, 1988).

[2]Thinking Black: 22 Years without a Break in the Long Grass of Central Africa(1912) and Back to the Long Grass, My Link with Livingstone(1923); Dan Crawford was grandfather of Mairi Hedderwick, who wrote the immortal Katie Morag picture-book series.

[3]Robbert-Jan Henkes “James Joyce in Africa: An Expedition to the Sources of the Wake” Genetic Joyce Studies(Issue 8, Spring 2008).


[5]This word is a way of describing Indian illuminations which have been snipped from antique handwritten books … to make small paintings, or “miniatures”. John Ruskin used to do the same to medieval manuscripts.

[6]Other key words – used three times – are: brilliant/bright/shining/lit/LED; offence/affront; fuse; crest.

[7]See Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind(1976).

[8]Hence the cat arching its back as the pumpkin says “Holy Shit!” in Chinese in the logo for Barking Pumpkin Records.

PS Many thanks to the Psyche Bolsh for making their blog available for these two responses to Or Scissel.


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