A Review of Holly Pester’s Comic Timing
Michael Black is finishing a PhD at the University of Glasgow, on Virginia Woolf and William Blake. His work in progress writing is most easily accessible online via the poetry journal and forum, Adjacent Pineapple. He was included in an anthology edited by Colin Herd, made for the centenary of the poet Edwin Morgan, published by Speculative Books, and he has two pieces in the latest issue of a magazine of experimental writing called –algia. He hopes you will love to support these independent publishers.
In ‘The Politics of Delivery (Against Poet-Voice)’ (2019), Holly Pester challenges ‘poet-voice’, questioning the interventions that poetic performers make to ensure a ‘more or less uniform’ kind of ‘spoken tune that kindly coheres the voice of poets.’1 Pester proposes persisting in ‘the rough stuff of delivery and the ethical shrapnel in intonation’, because this will ‘appeal to other voices or sounds’, making ‘more of a song, unsure of itself, therefore open.’2 I think of Charles Olson’s arguments that poetic composition must be done according to open field, by which, Olson meant a resistance to the typographic limits of printed pages. Pester makes this ‘open’ poetics as much about sound as about print. Readers of Comic Timing, wanting to welcome it properly need an ethics of reading and/or interpretation that prioritizes the performance and sound of each piece. When interviewed by Andrew Durbin, about Comic Timing, Pester has asserted that the delivery of the poem, whether ‘at a poetry reading or on the page’, is central to the work.3 This is poetry for which ‘voice’ is always ‘playing with and against syntax.’4
One way Pester makes sure no two deliveries or silent readings of her poetry are comparable is through parataxis, a syntactical construction that removes conjunctions. The pressure this puts on ‘poet-voice’ is felt most strongly in the longest title poem in the collection. ‘Coming Timing’ was first published in Granta Magazine last year. It is a modernist poem, wonderfully restless about its own shape and linguistic form. It narrates the experience of an abortion with a degree of intimacy, the resonance of which, I think I do not need to explain – we all just need to read it!
As Charles Bernstein wrote: ‘Poetry is a secret society hiding in plain sight, open to ear and mind’s eye.’5 Pester is not writing about experiences to be understood as new, but reinventing the way they can be perceived, by engaging the personal, always in relation to the political, with sensitivity to individual feeling. I would venture to say that a consideration for different experience corresponds to parataxis, because it a grammar that allows all readers to decide for themselves where the emphasis of meaning falls – the beat of comic timing, maybe?
What makes ‘Comic Timing’ more remarkable is that the experience narrated becomes part of a poetics. For me, this conceptual difficulty is a positive. The experience of abortion becomes exemplar for thoughts of narrative and poetics that must be noted:
I think I was mid verb
like my friend I said to my head
I am mid verb
maybe I have become the verb
I am not having
abortive was the last thing I
thought before falling onto
the purple and habited bed
face down we have to feel
everything in our stomach
ache is tempo
I have seen millions of films
I get it
or there is no story only comedy
but my friend has clowned time
her skirt was so stripy
I am reading it now
a difference between being
scanned for a future
or past material
for latency or tendency
I am very interested in this and I
am interested in the catch of the bed
which idea is homeless?
what is surplus connection to poetry what is the
rushed little examinations on a screen out of view 6
I attended a launch reading for this collection, hosted by the London Review Bookshop, with Rachael Allen and with additional readings from Vahni Capildeo. Various expressions were used on the night to describe Pester’s new collection. It was thought on that evening to achieve a ‘poetics of class’, ‘abortion’, and of ‘precarity.’ Moreover, Capildeo suggested the body or mind engaged by Pester’s poetry is always being impinged upon by being in a ‘rented’, impermanent, alienated, space and state.
The body that always feels primed to move on is one that might feel expected not to mature due to this coercion, an experience that could lead to resistance. Consider for instance from ‘Eccentric Attire’: ‘The attitude of my body is a boy/wearing a cravat/loose around his neck.’7 This boy-body experiences an ‘eloquent kick of/the whole of cinema.’8 I am reminded here, maybe because of the idea of the comical, of silent film and mime; Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. The image of the cinema also offers ways for Pester to think about the body in ‘rented’ restriction. In ‘Thirty Six’, Pester described Marilyn Monroe, ‘who died at 36’:
She had already created a past.
A means to alienate act from time.
It is funny how sexy she was and how that was the hairstyle all of our grandmas had.
That’s lucky but I am worried
I am on the verge of an age I haven’t accounted for and cannot afford.
I am in a contract that makes me nervous, ideas are building up.9
There is a vexed, dark paradox here. Monroe’s ability to ‘alienate act from time’ promises a way out of being ‘on the verge of an age I haven’t accounted for and cannot afford’. The lines combine humour at the inter-generational gendered performativity in imitating Monroe’s iconic appearance, with the darker undercurrent of Monroe’s ubiquity, a slightly morbid ubiquity evoking Andy Warhol’s silkscreens.
In the same interview from Frieze I quoted earlier, Pester reflected on Comic Timing in relation to Karl Marx’s claim that history will repeat itself, first as tragedy then as farce. I hope I am not alone in wanting to oppose this to the Aristotelian model of tragic narrative.Comic Timing might best be distinguished from the intensity that tragic catharsis gives to singular moments and singular histories. Accordingly, in Pester’s poetry collection, there is very little resolution or narrative conclusion. For instance, the speaker in ‘Comic Timing’ is collected by an Uber driver, who remembers having a violently abusive husband as customer – the only recourse being digitised automation; ‘he once gave a married couple no stars/when the man hit the woman.’10
Sophie Collins wrote the blurb to Comic Timing and mentions Denise Riley, author of Marxism for Infants (1977). A Marxism for infants seems to me one of the most promising kinds! Marx has a universal appeal, especially amongst those of an anti-capitalist stance, but I also believe there is nothing worse than life long Marxists, splitting hairs over the finer points of interpreting his oeuvre. A school of Marxism that is aimed at infants will help adults for this reason; letting them stop worrying too much about precise Marxist doctrine. Another poet, one who like Riley sought to critique of capital via poetics, is the poet and visual artist Anna Mendelssohn, who died in 2009. In her lifetime, Mendelssohn published infrequently under the name Grace Lake. A proponent of quite extreme forms of socialist activism, Mendelssohn was involved with the quasi-terrorist group Angry Brigade in the 1970s. For her involvement, Mendelssohn also spent up to ten years in prison, charged with owning explosives with intent to cause harm. Like Riley, Mendelssohn is now receiving greater attention – Shearsman has recently published a collected edition of her work. An anthology of poetry and essays for Anna Mendelssohn was edited by Kyle Lovell in 2020 and published by Fathomsun Press.
Describing Denise Riley’s Marxism for Infants, Helen Charman wrote that ‘love and economics are made manifest in the interplay between the material conditions of domestic life and the radical instability of the self’, adding that: ‘Time here, although not yet stopped, doesn’t behave normatively either.’11 Perhaps this helps us make sense of how political and social activism is understood by Pester. I think of similarity between the effort to ‘alienate act from time’ in Pester’s ‘Thirty Six’ and the situation conjured by Denise Riley in which time is not exactly ‘stopped’, as Charman puts it, but nonetheless norms and expectations are suspended. Mendelssohn is important to this discussion as a figure so strongly involved in a clear, if violent, praxis against capitalism. The differences and similarities between praxis and poesis is another complex problem provoked by Comic Timing.
It is impossible to mention all the contemporary poets who are similar to Pester or who might be fellow collaborators in anti-capitalist comic timing, so I will end with the wisdom of one of my favourite contemporary poets. My sense is that Lotte L.S.’s definition of poetry’s relation to political activism suits Holly Pester’s eccentric attire:
Movement depends on moments of collectivity. If not a totalising unison of. It does not require that everyone involved dresses, shouts, or behaves the same-but it does require that all will know which way to run when the shit hits the fan. Like Zukofsky asserted of poetry, protest doesn’t compete; it is added to. Like poetry, movements, and moments, are not invented, but develop out of discourse, out of relations, out of real or imagined proximity and diffuse subjectivities. When are your poetics, your politics, not implicated in another’s?12
Like Lotte L.S.’s conception of protest, Pester’s work will not be doing any ‘compet[ing]’, but instead will be setting a high standard for what is added to poetry – to what makes it urgent. The vitality of trying to live according to comic timing might well be that it is always ‘open’ in its poetics and practice, remaining a potentially raw means of opposing oppressive circumstance.
1 Holly Pester, ‘The Politics of Delivery (Against Poet-Voice)’ The Poetry Review, 109: 2 (Summer, 2019).
3 Holly Pester and Andrew Durbin, ‘The Work and the Tradition: Holly Pester on “Comic Timing”‘, Frieze [online at] <www.frieze.com/article/work-and-tradition-holly-pester-comic-timing> [accessed: 25/02/2021].
5 Charles Bernstein, ‘Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links’, Poetry Foundation [online at] <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69198/manifest-aversions-conceptual-conundrums-implausibly-deniable-links-> [accessed: 26/02/2021].
6 Holly Pester, Comic Timing (London: Granta, 2021).
11 Helen Charman, ‘Where do I put myself, if public life’s destroyed?’ The White Review [online at] <www.thewhitereview.org/reviews/where-do-i-put-myself-if-public-lifes-destroyed-on-reading-denise-riley/> [accessed: 25/02/2021].
12 Lotte L.S., ‘The We of A Position’, Poetry Foundation [online at] <www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2019/05/the-we-of-a-position> [accessed 25/02/2021].