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Steve Spence

"An Ocean Of Static" by J. R. Carpenter, pub. Penned in the Margins. 158 pages £12.00

As J. R. Carpenter says in the short introduction to this book ‘This is a book made of other books’. This would seem to be true in more than one sense. The notes at the end entitled SOURCE/CODE lists over twenty texts which have been referred to and/or quoted from, including the following: J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, Gilles Deleuze’s Desert Islands, J. Franklin’s Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy Cat, Tacitus’s Agricola, Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  So this is at once a book about The Sea and the vastness of the subject, which includes travel and exploration, colonial history, a network of telecommunications and a vast patchwork of writings which are organised into an intriguing debut poetry collection from this prolific writer and visual artist.

There is certainly a crossover into conceptual art and performance work here and I’m thinking in particular of the artist Fiona Banner whose installations combine visual imagery with graphic texts. Her large piece, Sand, for example, is made up of a series of enlarged bromide prints tacked together along a wall, featuring the entire script of the film Lawrence of Arabia, an extended pun! Hannah Silva’s work as performer/poet also provides a reference point, including live presentations where sound (abstract and narrative, fractured and coherent) combine with visual material and where the music of the piece becomes as important as the written text. Carpenter’s work here is as concerned with the look of the material on the page as it is on any message being conveyed. There are sections where patterning and repetition, aided by the overt use of punctuation, is foregrounded and I’m thinking of an extended piece by the poet Alice Notley where inverted commas feature throughout and give the whole book a very visual feel. Finally, there is Geraldine Monk’s recent collection They Who Saw the Deep, which as its title suggests, also has an ‘oceanic context’ and combines visual techniques with narrative snippets, sonic devices and historical facts which imply a political critique, all aspects which are features of Carpenter’s work. 

In ‘Etheric Ocean’ we get the following:  // An underwater soundscape in two voices.

          this sea is nothing in sight but isles…………………………………………………………………………

          I’ll [‘wade in’, ‘wait’, ‘wait a while’].
          I’ll [‘walk in’, ‘walk away’, ‘walk on water’].
          I’ll [‘want’], I’ll [‘warble’], I’ll [‘warrant’].
          I’ll [‘wash’, ‘wash up’, ‘wash ashore’].
          I’ll [‘waste land’, ‘waste water’, ‘waste paper’].

Apart from the obvious references to water, the immediate visual impact and a sort of shorthand code which might suggest a mode of performance, we have a hint perhaps of birdsong (warble), a possible reference to T.S. Eliot (waste land) and a mythical/miraculous resonance with ‘walk on water’. In fact the minimalism of the piece is open to interpretation and allows the reader to bring his/her imagination and knowledge into play – there is ‘room to breathe’, as they say. Read the piece aloud to yourself and delight in its sonic textures and tongue twisting wordplay.

Elsewhere we have writing which suggests  a more lyrical note, as in the following short-line section which lasts for around three pages before ‘changing shape’:

          soft air of the
          blowing gently
                    but steady
                    blows steadily
          from the southward
                    rather freshly
          a little
                    very boisterous
          tree branches
          the damp winds
                    sheets of spray
                    by the
          full force
                    of the strong

The mixing of writing from the historical record (diary notes from voyages/descriptive writings) with more imaginative pieces (The Owl and the Pussycat, for example) and lists makes for an intriguing blend of textures, sometimes clashing, often in balance, suggesting at one point a stormy sea, at another a becalmed environment, or an underwater medley of sounds which can either clash and cause confusion or represent a harmonious whole. Thus we get:

The coast was almost featureless, as if still in the making,/ with an aspect of monotonous grimness. Everything was/ withdrawn as far as possible, indrawn: the tide far out, the/ocean shrunken, seabirds in ones or twos.

          Molothrus, cuckoo -like habits.
          Tyrant fly-catcher.
          Carrion Hawks.
          Sacred Tree.
          Sand Dunes.
          Saline incrustations.

I think the best way to approach this book is to dip in and out before reading it through at a stretch. You’ll get a sense of the variety of techniques and textures, from high lyric to argument to reportage to near abstract codes which initially appear as patterns on the page, which of course they are. It’s a big book, containing a lot of information across a range of disciplines, with an overall framing device which emphasises the visual reality of the page and textual layout. On the other hand, it’s well worth reading passages aloud as sound is an important part of its multi-media approach. It’s also a political book, somewhat in the manner of Maggie O’Sullivan’s poetry which has similar historical/political resonance though O’Sullivan’s work is more immediately visceral and charged with intent. I’ve heard J. R. Carpenter read her work a couple of times now and I’m still struck by my immediate impression that her performance reminded of Laurie Anderson. Not a bad first impression I think. I’m not entirely sure about the efficacy of the cover design but otherwise this is a very impressive and intriguing debut into the world of poetry publishing.

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018