‘crying with unsurety’: Josh Allsop

A Review of three Salò Press chapbooks

Josh Allsop is a PhD Creative Writing Researcher and Graduate Teaching Assistant at Durham University, where he is writing on the idea of difficulty in the poetries of Geoffrey Hill and J.H. Prynne. His poetry has been published in Blackbox Manifold, Poetry Birmingham, The Babel Tower Notice Board, and Rewilding: An Ecopoetic Anthology.

The first word editor Sophie Essex used to describe the kind of writing that Norwich-based Salò Press seeks out when I contacted her regarding this review was ‘intangible’, and I think that Eleanor Perry’s Unspeakable Patterns of the House, Ross Scott-Buccleuch’s Fang Coda, and Mari Lavelle-Hill’s Cetacean as Several, released last year, provide spaces of utter play for a reader willing to reach out and have their grasp met with air. This is not to say that these three entries into Salò Press’s chapbook imprint ‘The Flirtations’ are insubstantial, almost the opposite as each tends towards a quality of linguistic submersion, rather these handsomely-presented volumes ask a reader to be bathed in a sheer quality of presence. Though the deep water of the ocean might be ungraspable itself, it exerts a pressure and force upon the body regardless.

I’ll begin with Scott-Buccleuch’s Fang Coda. He takes his epigraph to the chapbook from French symbolist writer Adolphe Retté’s Misty Thule (1891):

I have a very clear perception of not being here; my Self is vibrating elsewhere – oh, entirely elsewhere; where?

A reader does not need working knowledge of symbolist texts to find this concept of self-displacement and what is no longer present relevant and generative in the reading of these pared-down poems. Scott-Buccleuch negates many of the images evoked in these poems so as to give them a kind of double-life as with the poem ‘Second and Only Cessation’ in which an imagined other’s ‘slightest tyranny’ is as ‘subtle as unthrown javelins’, and so we are to imagine the object’s speed through the air as well as their weight in the hand, both dreadful. We see this also in the ‘unbrought binoculars’ and ‘missed fish’ of ‘Lament for Lama Lama’, a poem which imbricates this sense of absence with ecological crisis in the image of ‘heron dominated’ at a speed in which ‘it’s today we careen past’. Yet these poems do not feel stripped because of this negation, in fact as with the ‘unbidden vistas’ of the poem ‘Third Person’, Scott-Buccleuch’s use of the prefix ‘un’ develops a thread in the poetry of the hollowing-out of experience with a sense of paranoia and rupture that emerges in the grotesque bodily image of ‘traumatic verruca prolapse’ in ‘In Praise of Mishearing’, the ‘involuntary semaphore’ of an argument in ‘Steps Retraced’, and the ‘unretractable’ ‘list of sorrows’ of the final poem ‘Severing’. These are marks upon the body that cannot be ignored. I quote from these poems in fits and starts because this was my experience: of reading, going back and dwelling in often single words proclaiming to witness loss and incompletion and in doing so forming a ruin that was never constructed.

A significant phrase appears, late in the chapbook, in the poem ‘Pelt Dispelled’, which begins by stating that ‘diagnosis is entanglement’. Perhaps this coincides with the presence of visionary experience in the work, to give a physical body to a form of divination in these poems serves to implicate a failure in the limits of the ‘enchantress’ left ‘to collect tender pamphlets’, shoring fragments in the meat markets of ‘Those Considered Conquerors’, a title in accordance with a number of the poems focussed on the past and its instability. The presence of the visionary makes itself known in ritualised objects of ‘devotional teeth’ which appear again in the ‘calcinated vowel deposits’ of ‘Myth Pavilion’, though our first exposure sets a tone in ‘Vile Witness’ where the speaker’s ‘plainest seer | admits its limbs and discards’, and Scott-Buccleuch leaves us with no referent as to what has been lost, we know simply that what was, is no longer, and rather that we must wholly involve ourselves if we are to reach even this knowledge. This lack of referent is a continual presence in the work, and I think that a reader approaching will be caught often in the spaces between phrases working towards concrete footing only to be met with the ‘short voiced scarcety [sic] of definition’ that Fang Coda offers, a space that I think is absolutely exciting in its music. If I was to admit to any part that left me wanting it would only be that the slight prospect of more drastic formal play is encountered in the second poem ‘A Hastening Imperative’ in which Scott-Buccleuch describes how ‘malintent   s e e p s’ and yet ventures no further in the use of typographical tracking for whatever reason, and so a reader might still be once again missing what is absent. This is work, however, that encourages, and I think is best enjoyed in, re-reading, because as the poet states, ‘retreat and steps back | are not the same’.

I have some familiarity with Perry’s work after reading her collection Of Parasites & Proximities (Contraband Press, 2017), which offered a kind of etymological and bodily-oriented poetry which was deeply engrossing and felt expansive in a way that still sat with me as I read through Unspeakable Patterns of the House. In this much less imposing volume (in terms of its size and length) Perry loses none of the sheer force or complexity of the poetry, displaying a series of seventeen poems with glyphic black bars for titles, as though redacted, followed by the lyric sequence ‘Crack Study.’ As a reader one is expected to attend to these poems in their far reach and close focus, and yet these poems are delivered in a casual tone as though a knowledge is being imparted in a close space, under pressure. Perry’s recourse to a ‘you’ and ‘us’ offers a discursive quality to the verse, though little is done to contextualise many of the connections and as a result it feels like a reader is privy to an ongoing, celestial conversation quite without them. For me the decision to begin each poem with a colon adds to this, as though what has come before our reading of the work is itself ineffable or at the very least requires elaboration, as though the monolithic black bars across many of the pages offered a forbidden articulation.

Perry’s writing, though, is as full of humour or at least a certain kind of knowing employment of demotic levity which creates a terrific balance in the analysis of spaces in which capital morphs and conditions the aspects of the body, and one wonders if the mid-2010s online vernacular of ‘not all heroes wear capes’ and ‘cool story bro’ are resurged as a kind of undead linguistic body contorted into new uses nestled, unacknowledged, as yet-more-language, a material detritus of shifting meaning. The titular ‘house’ takes on this shift as well in the work, being referred to throughout as the ‘household’, itself exploding into the manifold meanings of collective population, domestic ensconcing, and imperial retinue. At the core of this is Perry’s repeated adherence to etymology alongside a technical knowledge of the body and scientific discourse. A reader may well require access to the OED for the line (the one which has stayed lodged in my mind the most out of all three chapbooks) ‘the moon, void of its requiem, spit back its oral balustrade in disgust’ to know the zoological origins of ‘requiem’ as a classification of dangerous shark, building off layers of image that Perry has been developing for the prior eight poems involving Pliny the Elder, shark teeth, and a grander orbital sense of existing in the world. 

At the same time as this carefully crafted language, we get Perry’s own acknowledgement of failure, that ‘maybe you can’t fully bite into the day’s slippery flesh with your gummy human language’. Where Scott-Buccleuch offers the human body of the feminine mystic, Perry divorces knowledge towards that of the non-human, that we might be made into ‘a rotted pulse of light reflected from a mirror back towards its own dreadful upwelling.’ I think Perry’s work is work and sometimes a poetics of how meaning escapes and contorts us, of how social forces act upon the conceptions of the body and shift it under our own gaze can only be work, but it is bursting with avenues of exploration and a depth of image that is joy for the attendant reader.

Mari Lavelle-Hill’s Cetacean as Several is the most concise of the chapbooks and offers the most in terms of a narrative throughline and as a result makes it the most accessible to readers wanting to take a step towards more experimental verse, a focus which Salò Press has near to the core of its identity. There is a consistency of focus on reproduction and bodies of/in water that keeps the viscerality of Lavelle-Hill’s language at the forefront, resonant images such as the end of ‘Autopsy’ where (what is presumed to be) a doctor 

it is through such surreal transformations that the body is made decorous, is made porpoise, is separate from itself as with the poem ‘Douro’. Here we chart the root of the title phrase ‘cetacean is several’ as multiplicity with Lavelle-Hill laying derivative Anglo-Norman etymologies of ‘sever’ alongside ‘separate’ which the poet brings into a full resolution through the fantastic employment of footnotes. The idea of separate and same is developed fully in the sequence ‘Metamorphosis (in six parts)’ where allusions to commercial fishing are brought into the realm of a speaking body erratic in shifts between human and non-human, and in this way Lavelle-Hill, through dense sound patterning alongside the verse paragraphs fracturing from punctuated slashes establishes an exhilarating momentum. Mouthed but speechless, slick, cold yet at peace in the waves this voice undergoes a significance of pain that makes one whole, a commitment to bodily feeling and process.

Rather than the failure of the unsayable that we might read from Perry and Scott-Buccleuch, Cetacean as Several seems almost dismissive of the relevance of the voice in favour of the very act of the mouth opening, repeatedly referencing the mouth ‘sneezing’, ‘breathing’, ‘opening like a balloon / silent and ungasping’. Such refusal proves liberating, as the concluding image in the final poem ‘Birth’ of a ‘perfect’ mouth that ‘gapes at my teat’ serves to illustrate this in a solid and grounding conclusion itself the end result of an abstraction and transformative process as the poem describes the torsion of tidal fluctuation as it occurs in the womb, and the absolute and singular focus of Lavelle-Hill’s poems on the manifold suggestions of ‘several’ are made manifest here in a poetry of solid flux, so that the lines appear writhing living things under a reader’s grasp.

I wrote this review because chapbooks don’t get the love they deserve. Salò Press’s imprint ‘The Flirtations’ offers sub-32-page, A6 books as a space for developing an avant-garde poetry in a landscape which is thankfully more and more receptive of that kind of writing, of a piece with recent imprints such as Broken Sleep Books ‘Legitimate Snack’ imprint. I sincerely hope this kind of publishing goes from strength to strength, because there is still, as these chapbooks have demonstrated, so much to be said about how we are occasionally and systemically rendered without recourse to language, and for me one of the most interesting things about poetry is how we deal with that realisation, and what it forces us to produce in terms of song, noise, or a crying-out.

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