“THIS IS THE NEW LANGUAGE”: MARIANNE MORRIS’ THE ON ALL SAID THINGS MORATORIUM
Marianne Morris The On All Said Things Moratorium (Enitharmon Press 2013)
by A C Clarke
“This is the / new language. This method is / not personal it’s just different to yours, ok” (Cassette Tape in Anonymous Envelope). This might serve as an epigraph for the whole of Marianne Morris’s first full collection, The On All Said Things Moratorium, which keeps the reader continually on edge, in a state of high nervous tension – “never more alive / than on the edge of collapse” as On The Third Day Joe Rose Again has it – always about to grasp a meaning which recedes at the moment it is seized: sentences trail off, line-ends trick the reader into false expectations, titles, fecund in inventiveness, sometimes appear to have only tangential connections with the poem that they head.
This frustration of an inherent function of language – definition (and therefore limitation) – can be seen as a political act. With reference to the collection, Marianne Morris says, “the specific, intentioned, and pointed use of language may also constitute an attempt to change certain ideas – political or otherwise – that depend on language for their perpetuation.” In a posting on the site revolutionandorpoetry.wordpress.com, M. M. suggests that “the conditions in which the weak subject can begin to speak” in her own terms, rather than those imposed by “a phallic order and currency” might require “breaking into the habit of conceptualisation.” She warns against attempting to define or interpret experience: ““all commitments never / give me or anything anything or a name” (Change the Game), at the same time warning that she herself cannot be categorised: “I won’t call myself anything, / my feet are too light / driving off / into reality which location I can’t / ever seem to get to” (Poor Elephants Poem). The text, she says, that “rests living in the soul” is “the text that will never be framed” (The Auction). This makes for poetry anything but dull or doctrinaire. A random selection of titles indicates its wit and breadth of reference: You Are the Nasty Sty Over Which I Wish to Honey (subverting a scene in Hamlet); So Few Richards, So Many Dicks; Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Poets (again a subversion); You Put the Fiancé in Financier.
M. M.’s poetry can be playful, sometimes at the reader’s expense, as when we are invited to read a sexual meaning into “after work I got / home and laid” only to have our assumption undercut by the immediately following line “myself among the beanbag” [sic] (Epitaph Upon the Value of Heirlooms), or when we are teased in more than one poem with the sexual implications of the word ‘coming’.
M. M. has an exuberant delight in language for all her mistrust of its impositions, enjoys puns (De Sade’s Law punning on ‘sod’s law’), riffing on rhyming words (PORNOGRAPHIA), startling with lines like “erumpent achievements of explosive hydrous” (Poor Elephants Poem). Her poetry is full of incidental consolations, not only humour, but moments of striking beauty and clarity. She can find a disturbing prettiness in a casual act of suburban violence: “the glassy pile on the pavement / of aquamarine trinkets / given birth by the burst of youth with its golf-club” (Cassette Tape in Anonymous Envelope); mimic romantic poignancy: “presses into its hands / the petals of a dying rose” (The Mutilation of Irony); describe birdsong as “Music trilling the tree” (Is It Okay). Such moments beguile us but they are not the point.
We are bluntly reminded of this in Harmony Inc., a poem near the end of the collection: “You think because it’s poetry it’s / funny, well it isn’t, it’s fucking serious.” Marianne Morris is a performance poet as well as a poet of the printed page, and this almost sounds like a rebuke to an audience member. But the reader is in no danger of underestimating the seriousness of her work, which engages far more directly than the work of most mainstream poets with the world of the twenty-first century.
This is a world of “blaring livefeed and screaming headline” (All I Have Is The Body To Go On 1), of riots (Jeff Wall’s ‘Mayday in Zurich’) and demonstrations (Apathetic Unauthorized Wanderers Say Fuck It), where “the tidal threat of breakdown” underlies “the ordinary deaths and ordinary heartaches and the worst that could possibly happen happening regularly” (All I Have Is The Body To Go On 3). It is a reductive world, dominated by an alien technology which, as its male inventors bend over it, “thieves from them the value of their labour” (All I Have Is The Body To Go On 2) and which dulls the experience of reality: “That’s all a city is now / proof of recognition via simulation & retelling” (Commedia dell’Arte).
In this digitised world of cataclysms and trivia, 24 hour news and gameshows jostle indiscriminately; “fetishised / Live 8 poverty” is glamourised on TV while “the poverty we have / not directly sanctioned / with pop music … goes bang all day long” (*Pop* Music). Real anger surges through these poems, tempered with quizzical observation: “I just hate how everything / makes sense, the Pope wearing ermine, loving all / god’s creatures, except the girls, the boys, the ermine, the gays” (Murdoch Can’t Buy Me Love). When everything makes this kind of non-sense, making a different kind of sense can be seen as a heroic endeavour to reclaim language for uses not appropriated by those with power, to impose indeed a ‘moratorium’ on ‘all said things’.
From this analysis it might seem odd to claim that The On All Said Things Moratorium is also a collection of deeply personal poems. M. M. can move in a single poem from allusions to “a dead poetry” pastiched in the line “our mistrusting mistress, time” to the simple and affecting “they must mean all / that you are / my love, / I tell you so” (Compose Message). She can be provocatively direct about what she presents as her personal life: “That night, and on the following nights and like the previous nights / I sleep in a strange bed” but then immediately widen this to a comment on the commodification of sex: “The price for a bed / now is a body” (Seabass Skin on Glass). The key to understanding this restless movement is given in the first of the four All I Have Is The Body To Go On prose poems: “the movement of consciousness is a vibration in constant flux” and “my awareness of myself is not separate to an awareness of others having awareness of themselves.”
In the online posting referred to above, M. M. suggests that “the undoing of even the most radical traditions of critical theory” may be a requirement for creating “the conditions in which the weak subject can begin to speak”. It certainly seems to me that poetry of this nature needs to be judged by a different set of criteria from the kind used, perhaps too glibly, in critiquing the average mainstream poem. Iain Sinclair, in his introduction to the 1996 Picador anthology, Conductors of Chaos, advises that in reading what may be loosely termed experimental poetry “there’s no key, no Masonic password: take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes”. This sound advice does not, however, suggest how we might evaluate poetry which refuses to conform to received notions and it is possible that authors like M. M. would resist the concept of evaluation, which implies measurement against a scale of defined values.
Without attempting to resolve a question with such wide implications in the confined space of a review, I would say that considering the poems in the collection simply in relation to each other, I find the ones most successful in involving me, in getting me to ‘suspend conditioned reflexes’ are those – often the longer poems – that as well as making full play with the resources of the written word allow me to hear the speaking voice in all its wit and energy and contrariness. The best poems in the collection ‘sing’ – a favourite word of M. M.’s. I feel that some of the short poems, for instance, Thor, Too Much in the Sun, When Please Is Sad, do not give scope for the ‘movement of consciousness’ which is the organising principle behind M. M.’s work and even though they may be intended to function as ‘breathers’, briefly bringing down the tension, might have been safely omitted.
In a work which is preoccupied with subverting language it might have been wise also to avoid such apparently inadvertent subversion as the misspellings ‘dyptheria’ and ‘barbeque’ and the difference between the indexed title *Pop Music* and the title above the poem *Pop* Music. They make me query other unusual usages – “among the beanbag”, “separate to” – and are distracting. If language is to be used as ‘a medium of resistance’ it needs to be kept sharp and not allow even the suspicion of momentary carelessness, rather as Picasso could only reinvent (and sabotage) Velasquez by being himself a superb draughtsman.
These are minor cavils, proof indeed of the attention which these poems demand. They are not an easy read. Why should they be? We live in uneasy times. This collection feels necessary in a way that many contemporary collections, however admirable, do not. It engages with the world, seeks ways of speaking which do more than recreate, which interrogate experience. Like a multi-faceted surface it reflects constantly changing aspects of the same reality, fulfils M. M.’s wish to “make nothing for too long in one place” (Art Will Save Your Life). It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is a taste which is worth acquiring: “the point is not to comfort or console, but to know how to approach living in the eye of a permanent storm” (All I Have Is The Body To Go On, 4).