Intelligent, angry, edgy – cornered – speedy, moving, freaked – agitated – alive – alive and conscious – today. Doing what it can – and it can quite a bit, this writing – Keston Sutherland’s poetry. A distorted lyricism, lucid, potent, and fragile at once, as if high on its own sensitivity. Under the influence – of knowledge, of desire – but not trashed. Simultaneously crafted, worked through (the razor-sharp determination of Sutherland’s stylistic and theoretical positions are well-known in the experimental poetic scene in Britain), and opened to the relapse, if not the symptom.
It is this overarching nature, as it can be grasped in what is at once a collected works of sorts and a debut-‘recueil’: Antifreeze, that brings it close to me.
Anti-freeze assembles several pamphlets previously published by Barque Press (Sutherland’s very active outlet, co-edited by Andrea Brady) and new material. This substantial ensemble reveals a varied and structured set of themes and stylistic devices. Power is one such theme, taken under its rhetorical (media and political discourses, mots d’ordre and other linguistic prescriptions inherent to late capitalism) as well as material aspects (international relations, wars, imperialism, real politics, i.e. concrete effects of it on lives).
The body as place of inscription and creativity is another theme. How may sexual desires, notably, reinvent a body, struggling against all ideologies, is one of the fields opened up by this thematic trend.
Love, thirdly, as figure and locus of a new community – another word for friendship, for poetry itself – writing some, publishing some, promoting its real presence in the world.
These themes interpenetrate each other – Sutherland does not write thematic poetry – notably in the composition of the book, succeeding in avoiding any demonstrative, didactic or programmatic stance. This work is eminently militant, and political, but in a forceful way, artistic rather than literal: in the affects and effects produced by vocabulary, syntax, composition. Stylistically Sutherland has invented a very specific brand of poetic speed in a dialogic, polyphonic syntax, cutting the verse and the strophe to maximum effect. Rather than merely breaking-up traditional syntax, his language seems high on coke – yet still lucid and distanced (‘A countdown to repeat’, ‘Do you blossom’, ‘Cut to length required’, ‘To the last ansaphone’ are great cases springing to mind).
A mix of theoretical and prosaic pieces accentuates this impression. If the dialectics of Adorno and Brecht, or the phenomenology of Heidegger lie in the background of Sutherland’s thought, this thought is also mixed, hashed-up into a literary dispositif that reminds me of the work of Denis Roche. In the early 1960s, Roche, who was one of only two poets in the Tel Quel group, had introduced utter speed to French verse in such books as Eros énergumène andLe Mécrit, abruptly connecting ideas, registers, voices, and letting the defragmenting forces of these collisions unravel objective links in the world (rather than pure and abstract chaos, as some critics say).
That is also one of the qualities of Sutherland’s work, that makes it pertinent and active today – if somewhat at odds, paradoxically, with the firm matrix of his Marxist political and essayistic production. The poems relapse; this is their great quality. There is something in them that leaks, runs away. That is to me where Sutherland’s most efficient politics and ‘theory’ lie: when even intellectual lucidity is taken, willy nilly, into a speedy fuite, reinforcing and maximising a political struggle.
Sutherland’s poetry has been called complex, deliberately incomprehensible. I don’t share that view. At its best, its energy grasps today’s hidden need for incomprehension, disorientation (words that would perhaps be rejected, combated even, in an essayistic context, by Sutherland himself). And in so doing it produces a superior kind of direction, reminiscent of Beckett’s Worstward Ho; that is to say a knowledge that signs and rhythms attack a despotic order, figure another one, just as well as – in fact, better than – self-coherent meanings and discourses.
This is of course a clear modernist stance, intellectually as well as aesthetically, from Pound to Breton (‘La beauté sera convulsive ou ne sera pas’) to Roche to Prynne. Sutherland’s work pushes this strand; his poems are precarious sites on which to reconcile the nameless urge, the autistic speed of an active consciousness, and the distanced rationality of contemplation. A new embodied thought, a new way to relate to today is thus proposed here. And it functions. An intoxicated lucidity, that knows how to slow itself down in prosody and meter, in order better to let itself loose.
In the end, it is the lunatic fluidity of the world, of the hic et nunc, that is given a form, figured, melting traditional discourses (Sutherland would perhaps say ‘bourgeois’ discourses) into an active and generalised auto-insemination. This is not postmodern hotchpotch. It is an original modernist attempt to face the threats, the powers, but also the bizarre beauty, and the irony, of an accelerated capitalistic world. The energy Sutherland puts into building links between poetic communities, in the English speaking world but also by publishing translation in his journal, by recording CDs or by working with musicians and visual artists, is yet another face of this militant urge. This urge, and this ability, are welcome today.