Many of the poems in simmering of a declarative void serve up business jargon like platters of gristly finger food at a corporate networking event. ‘TINSEL SHUFFLE ROT’, for example, announces caustically that
To the side, the line-lengths follow closely
Our recent sales figures in the first quarter.
The fact that it’s funny to imagine a poem pieced together from bar charts exposes an assumption that poetry and economics do not mix—that art, and our experience of it, is on another plane to that of the prosaic demands of the market. But every poem is created in a specific historical moment, under specific material conditions. In Incomparable Poetry—an essay on Irish poetry and the financial crisis, also published this year—Robert Kiely points out that Trever Joyce’s Syzygy (1998) wouldn’t exist were it not for the investment of multinationals in Ireland, encouraged by low tax rates and governmental grants. Joyce’s poem was composed with analytical methods used in his job as a financial systems analyst at Apple’s factory in Cork, so Celtic Tiger-era investment is, to an extent, embedded into its fabric. Kiely’s own debut collection confronts the limits of this metaphorical weaving of commerce and poetry. It sets itself the impossible task of addressing its existence as an object in the world rather than just words that reflect the world, or talk about the world. simmering asks (or at least leads me to ask): how does poetry register the climate it is produced in, and from within that climate, what kind of common ground can words make? What is the relationship between a poem and, say, a vacant lot?
The opening poem, ‘SPRING WINTER WHATEVER’, quickly rejects the separation of art from the material world of commerce. It’s a translation of ‘Chanson d’automne’ (‘Autumn song’), Paul Verlaine’s 19th-century lament about the passage of time in which the waning life of the poet is symbolised by a falling leaf. In Kiely’s poem, though, the setting is ‘autonomy’s autumn’—a reference to philosopher Theodor Adorno’s theory that art can no longer be autonomous from its commodification within the culture industry. The parallel is easy enough to follow: instead of youth, what’s lamented is the collapse of art’s discreteness from the market. But the separation involved in metaphor—between the message, and the symbols used to communicate it—seems to be crumbling too. In Verlaine’s poem, idealised Nature functions representatively, bearing the pathos of a world from which it is separate. In Kiely’s version there is no such neat exchange between poet and Nature; instead there is a mechanical, dystopian landscape and ‘only a metallic screeching / the fifth season’s violins’. Verlaine’s speaker was carried like a leaf by the ‘vent mauvais’ (‘ill wind’) of Autumn, thrown ‘deçà, delà’ (‘here, there’), but in Kiely’s poem ‘we’ are the ones who
to ventilate evil
The phrasal deçà, delà finds an echo in the more specific, and somehow more opaque, ‘this, today’, and Verlaine’s ‘emporte’—usually translated as ‘carries’—here becomes ‘imports’, shifting this scene further from an idealised, autonomous sphere with the suggestion of other geographical locations linked to this one by global supply chains. The ‘Feuille morte’ (‘dead leaf’) that concludes ‘Chanson d’automne’ is replaced with
on a dead
syncing the metaphorical time of the poem with the moment we read it, the depiction of a wasted landscape suddenly including the paper it’s printed on. The world of the poem is not (or at least not only) a representation of the real world, but a material object in it. The sound of the ‘fifth season’s violins’ hails the post-apocalyptic wreckage of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, in which a ‘fifth season’ refers to the desolate aftermath of the violent movement of tectonic plates. ‘Ash’ makes its way to the surface in several later poems, as well as ‘lava’, ‘rubble’, and the ‘momentary inconvenience’ of ‘tectonic plates’, but it’s the pervasive feeling of dread that hangs around the longest. As in all good science-fiction, instead of distancing the reading experience from reality, simmering’s dystopian atmosphere makes it all the more gut-wrenching to read: this world right here is, or at least could be, the fifth season.
Sticking with the opening poem for a moment longer, what might it mean to import ‘this’? What can a poem ‘import’ from the moment of writing to the moment of reading? Can it encompass the movement from one ‘here, now’ to another? This is where the business of metaphor gets more unstable. Deixis—or the use of words whose meaning is entirely contextual, ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘then’, ‘now’, ‘I’, ‘you’—can have a dizzying effect in lyric poetry because the ‘I’ who writes does so in a different ‘here’ and ‘now’ to the ‘I’ who reads. It involves a weird kind of teleportation, in which the different presents of reading and writing are synthesised into the time of the poem, a moment that is shared, somehow, by the reader and the writer. Reading a lyric poem means accepting that the world of the poem is context enough, ‘grounding’ enough for the words to have meaning. Sometimes deixis is employed with flirty bravado, as in Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’: ‘Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may / not in unknown ways be looking upon you!’ Sometimes it breaks down, or threatens to, as in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, in which the repetitive, mercurial ‘lyric-You’ asks the reader to consider their own subject position and whether they can answer to the address, to what extent they can relate to the racist micro- and macro-aggressions described. Mostly, though, the process goes unnoticed, the world of the poem occluding the time and work that went into what we’re reading; we take it for granted because this is what we expect when we read a poem, in a poetry book, as opposed to a work email.
So what does deixis have to do with supply chains, I keep asking. There is a need, in these poems, to get the point across in a sense that is both metaphorical and not: it refers to the act of communication between two people and the way that commodities, including books, are moved across the world by the work of people and the demands of extractive, exploitative capitalism. It’s not so much that one of these is a metaphor for the other in simmering, but that they are absolutely happening in the same world: one makes the other possible. The collection is full of ‘you’s, as well as ‘here’s, ‘there’s, ‘it’s, ‘this’s and ‘now’s, that draw attention to their own weird suspension. In these poems the need to communicate is emphatic; it has the feverish energy of someone placing an S.O.S in a purposefully leaky bottle, so that, if the bottle ever does reach someone it will hold some of the water it moved through. The poems highlight their own existence as—to quote from ‘[a sequence]’—‘a desperate artisanal / present in regress […] the skills like shells removed’. They work to include what they expressly cannot: the now-invisible labour of their production, and the violence of the capitalist system that they are moving in. In ‘[four poems]’ the line break in ‘free / delivery’ leaves a gap for the ways that the delivery is not, indeed, free: someone has to do it. At the risk of overstating it, before I could get a copy of the book to write the review you’re reading, someone did. Kiely doesn’t attempt (as Whitman might have) to inhabit the experience of those whose bodies keep and have kept the flow of capital moving. At times, though—to continue a less-than-airtight metaphor—an awareness of poetry’s distance from this labour, as well as poetry’s reliance on it, seeps in:
it is morning in Calgary and LA, evening in Cork
cargo is in the blood, blood
in the cargo
In Incomparable Poetry, Kiely proposes that although commensuration (the comparing of two things using the same metric) is necessary for communication, it can be damaging because of the way it occludes difference, and hides or ignores details that don’t fit into the one system of measurement—the division of labour between waged and unwaged, say, or language itself. Kiely writes that ‘as surely as there is a ground for a simile or metaphor, there is a sky which illuminates that ground, without which it would be unthinkable’. This sky—the particularity of a situation that words, being necessarily representational, cannot express—means that metaphor can only go so far when it comes to meaningful solidarity. When comparison doesn’t work, though, the ‘not working’ can bring something else to light. ‘BATS’ reads a long history of imperial land-grabbing into the forceful eviction of housing activists by ‘goons in balaclavas’ from a vacant property in Dublin in 2018. The poem tries and fails (intentionally, brilliantly, in a Beckettian ‘fail better’ kind of way) to find a language that will bridge a gap and speak, from the vantage point of this particular instance, for all colonial oppression, all capitalist violence. The flattening of history to ‘the third person / over there’ exposes the limits of commensuration between one present and another, common ground rendered meaningless. ‘There’ and ‘here’ are linked in infinitely more complex, material ways than is allowed by a one-size-fits-all standard.
To read simmering is to alight on moments of common ground without ever feeling entirely sure whether one is reading an earnest appeal for solidarity or jargon from a start-up board meeting. These poems make clear that the weird, disembodied language of deixis is also a feature of advertising: the interpolative ‘you’; the generic ‘it’ that subsumes the unnamed commodity in a more general desire for a better life; the continually refreshed present tense that perpetuates the urgency to consume. Because You’re Worth It. Or, from ‘[four poems]’, ‘don’t cook just eat’. Indeed, there are lines in ‘[a sequence]’ that sound like an echo of WH Auden’s declaration that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’:
no longer personal
but still private
an advert is
for what happens anyway
I don’t think this, or the book in general, means to say that the only kind of commensuration available is that of exchange value. It does ask us to acknowledge, though, that poetry is not magically separate from, and so must interrogate its relationship with, the commodification of language. Poetry here is language as ‘blood pudding strained through squealing’, inseparable with the dullness of shit, the fleshiness of bodies turned into fuel, or—in the words of Sean Bonney, whose influence is felt in these poems—history as ‘meathook’. Only poetry that acknowledges this can move past it, can ask its readers, as ‘HOW TO READ’ does, to ‘renounce the life you have planned’.
‘[a sequence]’ is the poem I’ve found myself coming back to most often; it’s also the one that’s most difficult to describe, probably for the same reasons. It speaks most directly to the message-in-a-bottle uselessness of a poem: not an ‘autonomous’ purposelessness, but a desperate, terrifying futility, the impossibility of reaching out of a poem and into the world outside, or of actually meaning what you say while also being understood by someone else. In the opening stanza the poem entertains the idea of poems as ‘process documents’ that ‘anyone’ can step into. It warns us that ‘my words are vacant’: they cannot contain the particularities of their surroundings. ‘Anyone’ can walk in because they are empty, not because they are expansive. The poem constantly reminds, or seems to need constant reminding, that it can’t reach out into its present; it can register ecological disaster, for example, but it cannot assuage it
stamped by buffalo
there is no life
it is stamped by infrastructure
there are no buffalo
If the only way things can be commensurable is via the quantifying, depersonalised ‘infrastructure’, perhaps it’s preferable to accept that a situation cannot be understood from without? And yet, there is something to be grasped at in this poem—something not quite sayable, not quite something. As the neat stanzas of the early pages open out into headily sprawling lines, metaphor is pulled apart and put back together, and the poem entreats us to pay attention to what can’t be spoken. We’re not so much stepping on uneven terrain here as treading water, made to consider and reconsider the limits and the necessity of a shared space. Commensuration might be a metric that we can inhabit, partially, if only in order to know that ‘the walls whisper the whisper is silence the silence is not a gap’:
like this, now
every deixis is without a theory
a false silence, corroded but
the slack it gives
cannot be doubted
If this something—a commons—is ‘corroded’ by the limited connection afforded by language under capitalism, it is still felt, still noticed in some way. The sudden slack feeling is what a poem can make happen.
‘Squeeze’ is a word that I associate with these poems, although now that I’m counting, it doesn’t appear as often as I’d thought. Still, it attests, as these poems do, to intimacy, coercion, budget cuts, tracts both digestive and rhetorical. To read simmering is to feel both constricted and appealed to; you might squeeze someone to wake them up, to give them courage, to communicate affection or to threaten. After imploring us to ‘wrangle this from a brick of shit’, ‘HICCUP’ assures us that ‘the squeeze is everything to all’: again, the effort to somehow release ‘this’ from one context and into another is paramount, the urgency of the message is the message. In ‘HOW TO READ’, the declaration that ‘debt decides all’ is shadowed on the verso page by Marxian ‘generations’ who weigh on the living ‘squeezing legions’. In ‘BATS’, the ‘squeeze of the / wrist / just never leave me / no pulse’ seems as much like a handcuff as an appeal for support. In ‘APOPHATIC’ the dull corrosiveness of corporate discourse gives way to something more instinctive
The exchanges squeezed out
of a tedious reaming.
Bursting into the thing I
tend to repeat in poems,
The thing that these poems tend to repeat, must repeat, is the attempt at a communication that is not a commensurable ‘exchange’, but a moment of contact, an acknowledgement of mutual burden.
simmering was published in the last nervous days before Ireland and the UK went into lockdown, and its journey to readers was slow, in part because Kiely’s London-based publisher, the 87 Press, had temporarily stopped shipping so as not to place undue stress on postal workers. Since then the pandemic has churned on, as have the screeching mechanisms of the private rental sector, border enforcement and the exploitative labour market—to quote ‘HOW TO READ’, ‘a state / seeing bee-white’. ‘TINSEL SHUFFLE ROT’ ends with a direct plea from the moment of writing that is as urgent now as it was then:
This poem was written in late 2017 in London. Make it
Please. Get to know your needs. The sky underneath bare feet.