Steve Willey introduces the 'poetics of negative energy' in two poems of William Rowe, the sound of pigs falling and index, published above.
at the end
of each line
inside its own
its all silent pain
it names / what can
no longer be said
of what we have
we can’t say
William Rowe’s poetry is a poetry of struggle. It points out and to the limits of expression, not as a confession of personal inadequacy, false modesty, or as a transcendence of reality or even the mediating necessity of speech, but as part of a social, collective endeavour to locate the limits and the impoverishments of now so that they might be negated.
If ‘the sound of pigs falling / has fallen out of words’ (for ‘words’ read language/ for ‘pigs’ read police) then in what direction should we turn our ears so that we may hear this sound, a sound that would signal the falling away of the law, its police-language and its bodies, both institutional and physical? This is one of the questions that Rowe’s essential book of poetry Nation (Knives Forks and Spoons, 2nd edn. 2016) implicitly opens with. Trying to answer this question is what made me want to slice at the words of my own introduction.
Rowe’s poetry does indeed agitate / inside its own / silence. In the white space at the end / of each line there is a poetry of negative energy that wants to press the poem through to a different reality. Not forward in time towards a promise of utopian future, but in ‘other words’, as a disc punched from a two dimensional paper surface spinning down through its three dimensions to ‘some next-level’ where the silence of the dead (addressed by the poem but never represented) might be cancelled. This is not metaphor. This is description.
How many pieces of paper have been used to record, ignore or silence the names of the dead (for silence read the Chilcot Inquiry)? How many pieces of paper are used to send and keep someone in jail? Despite our digital age paper still plays a role in the bureaucracy of state-sanctioned silence. Rowe’s poetry is nothing like this. It wants new relations between bodies and language. At the end of ‘the sound of pigs falling’ are the lines ‘poetry is a virus/ mutating/ right in/ front/ of your face’. It is difficult to disagree. The poem enters us through our eyes which brings our reading body into direct relation with its viral shifting strains, the bodies it struggles to name and provoke: dead bodies; institutional bodies; police bodies; animal bodies; falling bodies; armed bodies; dreaming bodies. This poetry is a construction of new collective forms in the midst of a hostile, nostalgic alphabet, which is Rowe’s definition of ‘nation’.
Rowe’s six-page poem ‘index’ is doing similar work. In a recent and useful review of the poem on Stride Magazine ‘index’ is criticized for its ‘unimaginative’ use of a list of retail outlets and street names to comment on ‘the soulless homogeny of zero-hours commercialism’. It is also reprimanded for its misspelling of shop names which suggests to the critic that the ‘retail landscape’ has been ‘registered second hand’. I suspect Rowe is less interested in using the list form to comment on anything as nameable as the injustice of the zero hour contract, and is much more interested in the name as name, and in what happens to these names in the process of their accumulation. ‘Wimpy’ is a name for suffering. ‘House of Fraser’ is a name for suffering. ‘JD Sports’ is a name for suffering. ‘Jessops’ is a name for suffering. ‘Vodaphone’ is a name for suffering. This poem is an index of suffering, and as the poem notes ‘nothing is missing’, except perhaps a full, direct account of suffering.
Would a more ‘imaginative technique’ be better equipped to find a name to help us recognise the pain these words produce, contain and conceal? These names are scars. They don’t deserve to be spelled correctly. The stupid, sickening boredom of the list is their form, and it has been carefully conceived. It is notable, for example, that commercial enterprises are not the only things indexed. The ‘Job Centre’, a ‘National Express bus’, a ‘Police car’, a ‘Fire engine’, ‘Kelmscott Secondary School’ and ‘Admiral Street Police Station’ also make it onto the list. These are things that were looted or burnt during the riots of August 2011.
It is no accident then that Rowe places the camera retailer ‘Jessops’ at the end of his list. The riot was received and contested through its images as well as produced on the streets. But what does it mean to loot a name? What is the language of the riot? Can the riot redeem an unnameable experience of suffering? I don’t know the answers to these questions but they are ones that ‘index’ and the rest of Nation demand we look up.
Steve Willey is a poet, researcher and critic. He is lecturer in Creative and Critical Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. Elegy, his most recent book of poetry, was published by Veer in 2013.