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Alan Baker

“The Given” by Robert Sheppard (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 40pp, ISBN: 978-1-907812-07-1  £5.00)

I recently reviewed the "Smartarse" anthology from Knives Forks and Spoons, which I thought was an example of what a good anthology should do, and one of my favourite current pamphlets is this one, "The Given" by Robert Sheppard. Like most KS&F productions, this pamphlet has a workmanlike feel to it, which seems appropriate for the contents, as we get the feeling that Sheppard has moulded his raw materials - the linguistic productions of his earlier life - into a rough-and-ready artefact. The work consists of four prose pieces, totalling forty pages. Section III ends with the following:

"Adrian Clark chalks on the board: 'MATERIALS (the given) + PROCEDURE ="

So 'the given' are the words, the blocks of language taken from old journals and notebooks. The procedure is summarised on the back cover by Scott Thurston:

"Part I attends to what writing has remembered that the writer has not ('I don't remember when I started writing poetry'); part II turns diary entries into questions ('How can he argue that feeling is structural?'); part III revisits the new sentences of Sheppard's 1985 'Letter from Blackstock Road' to process material from that period, whilst part IV alphabetises journal material written only in May, reprising Sheppard's Mayday texts and 'Report on Seaport' in his 'Twentieth Century Blues'".

Despite (or perhaps because of) these modernist procedures, "The Given" is an accessible piece of writing, and is full of wit, and of humour directed at the producer of these texts - Sheppard's younger self:

"I don't remember meeting John James and feeling a vertiginous loss of internal pressure as negative objects throw positive shadows over events I'm not now sure occurred in ways I thought they had only yesterday."

In part II, turning diary entries into questions subverts their emphatic nature, giving an impression a uncertain and fluid perceptions, and of a comic bewilderment:

"Why, after the Morris Men are rained off, do they fall to discussing the nation's fate? Why was he not impressed that the man's mother was taught by Wittgenstein?... Why doesn't he bring up Billy Cotton and Uncle Bert?”

Part III uses the technique of the New Sentence, developed by American writers like Ron Silliman in the 1970s, and, like those writers, Sheppard gives us sentences which have only tangential connections to, but whose meanings are affected by, the sentences around them. The sentences spring from observation and comment on quotidian life, but they're lively and entertaining with it:

"He sacks the band, spends six months listening to Stockhausen, writes an elaborate score for a new band, hires them, goes into the studio, ignores the score, and blows. She learns Chinese brushwork. Stephen says 'Mummy goes bang'. He watches them tarring Douglas Road, pouring bubbling black liquid onto its melted core, the professional bumping of a red estate car, five men in yellow jackets lifting it precisely, so that it appears to spring from the road onto the pavement."

By the time we get to section IV, Sheppard is having fun: the sentences in the first paragraph begin with A, the second with B and so on.  After reading the first three sections, the reader is primed to see Part IV as constructed text, or rather, a reality constructed by text. To reinforce this effect, Sheppard's word-play draws attention to the language itself:

"He writes. He writes history, until resonant meanings sing. He'll never wreak Reithian revenge on wraiths: big hair and marketing whims. He's a poet because his interest in his experience has written this story. He's pondering man's species being, the estrangement of man from man. His giddy sense of balance is no joke. History misses a beat."

So what about the third part of the formula cited above (materials + procedure = )? What does this combination equal? Well, this is a compressed autobiography, but unlike most autobiographies, it doesn't hide the fact that the life-story it tells is invented by the very language used to tell the story. Paradoxically, this gives the reader considerable insight into the inner life of the writer; both from the original texts (which focus on, among other things, the reaching toward intellectual maturity) and from the ironic distancing which the current writer subjects these texts to. This is an impressive piece of work, but it’s only one small piece of the output of this prolific and inventive writer, who is always looking for new ways to extend poetic expression, and whom most contemporary poets could learn something from.



Copyright © Alan Baker, 2012