Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ira Lightman: roll with mustard

Phone in the Roll (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2011).
Mustard Tart as Lemon (Red Squirrel, 2011).

Phone in the Roll is a pamphlet of 'experiments with voice to text apps on a smartphone'. In principle I very much like this sort of attention to process as a writing tool – of course (or maybe no 'off course', but certainly for me) the test of processes is the end result. Does the machine generate something which delights?

Well, I'll answer that by speculating further on Lightman's process: the smartphone thing can only be a stage in the process, with further stages either side and, significantly, some prior stage in which the voice which is to be processed is generated. Clearly that generation wasn't random: perhaps the most striking aspect of Phone in the Roll is its thematic coherence, the way it rehashes and garbles and pokes about in the phone conversations people might have, their distant, problematic interactions (yes, including sex), the brash, vulnerable, public–private act of whipping out a phone from your crotch pocket and whispering to a loved one in the street. The textual interference caused by the voice to text process (whether real or imagined) thus has some rationale and role. The pamphlet is a record of mishearing, misspeakings, gaffes and gobbledegooks:

Hi Jules, is it?
Was texting not bad but that was?
Nothing in there.
I thought that is fine.

I would get in this but there
was nothing in there. I thought you would.
You use entry gate
but there was nothing beyond it.

That quotation was taken almost at random, and doesn't quite do what a quotation ought – I think the pleasure of this collection is mainly cumulative, the relentless piling up of half-sensical chatter, which ends up deliciously dissatisfying, a bit like trying to love someone through a little block of plastic and wiring.

The conversational origin or at least mode of Phone in the Roll has an analogue in Mustard Tart as Lemon, a collection of Lightman's older poems from Red Squirrel Press. These poems are less 'difficult' in the sense that they are less concerned to disrupt syntax, and deliver a more overt narrative/argument. They aren't 'conversational' but they are discursive. It does seem to me that Lightman is very often a discursive poet, interested in pursuing ideas (and talking directly about them, and about emotions) via a series of sometimes oblique but nuanced and nice steps. (Those wonderful double-column poems of his may be an exception, something else entirely.) In this respect he is a relative of the Metaphysicals, and more distantly but for me more illuminatingly of the Horatian tradition. There's something meditative, benign, still, about the poems' discussions which is different from the violence of some of the Metaphysicals. More Marvell than Donne, it seems to me.

At an apparently superficial stylistic level, Lightman makes a lot of use of indents, specifically a pattern of alternating non-indented/indented lines which seems to me fundamentally Horatian, an orderly modulation, a continual unfolding of opening–completion or statement–qualification. The interaction of the lines is striking here:

      the river

But the Horatian flavour is more evident here, where the lines string out a relatively prosaic, discursive sentence to quietly lyrical effect:

The arrow's headed back
      to your
suburb of Norwich, not
      mine we're crossing

town to reach by
      your car. "It's
lovely." Next to
     the road's name a

road you can
      follow the
arrow to
      is also named.

There are other modes in evidence too – not always meditative, sometimes more packed-in and rhythmically dense, as in this piece of metrical play:

my modernity's health's at the centre not drinking
of brand-name transcendence turned to the powerless
to vote disadvantage onto the bogeyman

In some ways this earlier work shows Lightman as a poet more accessible by a reader feeling their way.  But I don't think it's right to think of this poet as less experimental than the later model - just working through a different region of the poetic terrain, always thoughtfully and always with an ear and appetite for the joyful.


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