In March 2017, Peter Manson delivered an extraordinary performance at Entropics. That reading was preceded by a surpassingly engaging, entertaining and downright useful critical introduction to his work, written especially for this occasion by Ellen Dillon. It’s an honour and a coup to host the text of her talk here (hurrah!)
Stages of baffle (meant for reading) –by Ellen Dillon
- A convergence of Mallermangles – abolished baubles, spoonerisms, decapitation
The first thing to say is that there is a Manson for all seasons – readers might find a way into his work through contemporary British innovative poetry, via Goldsmith and Dworkin’s anthology of conceptual poetry, in the context of the company of poets here and across the Atlantic with whom he shares affinities, or through an interest in 21st century permutations of Oulipian constraints. The shape the work takes on for the reader will, at first, be formed by the angle from which they approach it.
In a recent blog on his residency at ‘Little Sparta’ over the summer, Manson made the following statement about his own work:
I suppose my basic working fantasy as a language artist is that I might be able to make a work of some complexity whose meaning would largely arise from the shared matter of the language, the meanings of words that we could all be expected to know and their patterned interaction as the poem, a thing to be sounded out time and again but never completely known, not replaceable by anyone’s idea of it.
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed in my head on more than one occasion as I’ve found myself guiltily trying to pin down fleeting references to pigments and thwarted pop stars. The guilt is assuaged (somewhat) by the knowledge that there is no one reader whose idea of Manson’s work could be commensurate with the work itself. All readings are provisional, constrained by the frame they’re viewed through and the reader doing the viewing.
I first came across the work of Peter Manson in a review of his translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Poésies, The Poems in Verse. The review quoted his translation of a line that had obsessed me since my teens, ‘Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore,’ rendered as ‘Abolished bauble inanely echoing.’ It captured a wry wit that’s often smoothed out of Mallarmé, while preserving a great deal of the line’s dense sonority. In the Afterword, Manson expressed the hope that, in the choices governing his acts of translation he had been able to limit himself to what he described as ‘a permissible minimum of pareidolia.’ Pareidolia, the act of discerning familiar patterns or shapes in unrelated sense data, may be an unusual phenomenon to evoke in the context of literary translation, being more often associated with cloud-monsters or Jesus’s face in baked goods, but it is a useful concept to keep in mind when engaging with his translations and his own poems. The mind seeks form, and when confronted with seeming formlessness we try to find familiar shapes and patterns. The beauty of reading and listening to Manson’s poems is that these patterns have been painstakingly woven into their visual and sonic fabric for the reader to trace, following the path that brought them to the poem in the first place.
Pareidolia can be glimpsed in the choices made at the level of the word in his own 20-year process of reading Mallarmé’s poems into English, cueing the reader into shapes he has found in his own readings, of which his word-choice is the only remaining trace. This can be seen in the poem beginning ‘Une negresse par le démon secouée’, where the line ‘Ce goinfre s’apprête à de rusés travaux’ is translated as ‘the glutton’s dressed for cunning stunts’, yielding a spoonerism (the form of wordplay prized in French as ‘la contrepèterie’, and whose origins there are traced to Rabelais rather than a befuddled Anglican vicar) that exists only in the possible English synonyms for the source poem’s sly or clever works. This verbal sleight of hand, terrifying for the would-be reader-aloud, can also be heard lurking in The Baffle Stage’s ‘I is this constellated cupid stunt.’
At this stage, it’s worth pointing out the importance of ‘preparedness’ to the phenomenon of pareidolia. We see the patterns that we’re primed to see. In the same way that an old lady’s devout Catholicism will prepare her to see Mother Teresa rather than, say, E.T, in her cinnamon bun, my own reading over and back between Mallarmé’s poems, Manson’s multiple reworkings of them, and his own poems, primes me to see and hear echoes of the one in the other.
Before moving on from Mallarmé to the constellated cupid stunts, a brief word on decapitation. Poems of Frank Rupture, the 2014 collection containing ‘The Baffle Stage’ and ‘Sourdough Mutation,’ takes its title from Manson’s translation of Cantique de Saint Jean, the second prelude to Mallarmé’s unfinished verse play ‘Les noces d’Hérodiade:’
as frank rupture
rather holds in check or settles
the old argument
with the body
These stanzas trace the slowed-down arc of the trajectory of John the Baptist’s head from the moment the scythe severs it to its bounce on the ground. The quiver in the vertebrae survives what should be the moment of death, the head stubbornly continues looking back and, in the final act of sundering, frank rupture (which Manson elsewhere renders frank scission, frank separation) is presented as settling, solving, holding in check, the head’s ‘old argument with the body’. The ‘Free Poetry’ pamphlet of Manson’s translations of ‘The Marrying of Herodiade’ from which these alternative translations come, offers the possibility that the act of rupture cuts ‘The old discord/ With the body’, with the threads of the argument pulled tight into a cord that can be solved by severing.
- Lacan the Baptist
I’m aware that I’m in danger, here, of making the work sound laboured and demanding, but we’ve just heard it and know that it isn’t. It is one of the never-ending wonders of Manson’s poetry that the syllabic, sonic and textual constraints he sets himself yield lines that are, to steal a phrase from an early translation, ‘Canzon – (for singing) – After Cavalcanti,’ as light as ‘silken spume.’ And frequently much more hilarious, nowhere more so than in the ‘potential papier-maché arsepiece’ of ‘The Baffle Stage.’
In its 44 quatrains of rhyming more-or-less pentameter, the poem reworks Lacan’s famous essay ‘The Mirror stage as formative of the function of the I,’ turning the latter’s ‘This jubilant assumption of his specular image’ into ‘jubilant assumption of a compound sonic icon,’ with Lacan’s specular ‘I’ transformed into a sonic ‘I,’ built of many parts of sound. The poem heaves with images of dismemberment, reminiscent of the Hieronymous Bosch imagery Lacan claims as the fragmented body’s means of manifesting itself in dreams.
In keeping with the papier-maché process, the compound also contains folded-in fragments from poetic tradition: Yeats in ‘things fall apart the centre won’t be missed’; O’Hara’s ‘nostalgia for the infinite’; Rimbaud in the heroically self-deprecating ‘I is this constellated cupid stunt,’ possibly even Artaud’s ‘what has been called bacteria is god’, in the destructively creative e. coli, and many others so well integrated (and outside of my reading list) that they’ve gone unnoticed so far.
This is one of the great pleasures of reading Manson – revisiting the poems in the light of things you’ve just come across, and discovering that there’s even more there than met the eyes and ears the last time. This week, I was listening to a podcast on Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, ‘Boy Breaking Glass,’ and someone referred to it as an ‘exploded sonnet.’ Going back to ‘The Baffle Stage’ with this in mind, I wanted desperately for its pentameters to resolve themselves into an even set of sonnets – dividing its lines by the sonnet’s 14, I felt like Quentin Meillassoux, working out ‘the unique Number that/ cannot be another’ from Mallarmé’s ‘A throw of the dice,’ – especially when the calculator came up with the answer π . Dizzying revelation, until I remembered that I’d forgotten to multiply the 44 stanzas by their 4 lines. The same manoeuvre repeated with all 176 lines yielded 12.571428571428571428571428571428, a comfortingly repetitive number, but not one that my GCSE level maths was unable to make anything significant of. So I got back to reading, and looked at the one section of Sourdough Mutation that replicates the rhymed pentameter of ‘The Baffle Stage’, beginning on p52 with ‘I sing the gas-fired hybrid body shell,’ and noticed, for the first time in over two years of obsessively reading and rereading this poem, that it is, at seven lines, a half- sonnet, ending in ‘the wrong kind of silence.’ Not only that, but it comes at the exact midpoint of the poem’s 86 pages. That’s all the maths I’m able for, but there are surely other mind-blowing numerical features hidden away, just waiting to unfold in the mind of a numerate reader.
- If you cleave me now
This brings me back to the idea of constraint: throughout his work, from ‘Permasonnet,’ a sonnet of 14-syllable lines, and ‘Untitled’ a trio of 8 line, 8 syllable poems collected in Between Cup and Lip, to the nine stanzas of nine lines of nine syllables that make up ‘The Salt Companion or, Dedicated to you but you weren’t listening’ in the recent booklet Factitious Airs, Manson returns to forms whose syllabic constraints are marked visually by splitting words across the line-break, with lines beginning or ending with the hyphens that mark the severing. This tendency, allied with my aforementioned weakness for themes of dismemberment and decapitation, had me reading Sourdough Mutation as a work of radical verbal slice, dice and splice. This is a way to read it, and given that it focuses attention on sound units rather than sense, maybe not the worst place to start. But for a long time, this frame constrained my reading.
Then I started to think more about the great tradition of poetic word-play in French like Alphonse Allais’s ‘holorhymes’, couplets of lines that are written differently but become full homophones when read aloud. Like these poems, Sourdough Mutation is written to be read aloud, and so much of its energy comes from the tension between what the reader sees and the speaker hears. This had me thinking about language surfaces (a topic Tom Betteridge has considered in much greater depth in his paper on ‘Surface and Disclosure’ in Peter’s work) and the unsettling effect of reading a work whose visual and sonic surfaces are in constant motion, undermining, over-riding, occasionally even clarifying each other. Reading Tom’s paper I was very struck by what he called ‘a lace of o-sounds’ in the poem ‘Four Darks in Red’ and I realised that ‘Sourdough Mutation’ is similarly lace-like, with many lonely ‘o’s’ standing alone, without even a ‘h’ for company, and a proliferation of single and double ‘o’s’ throughout the poem. Peter mentioned neurotransmitters the last time we met in Glasgow, and I was struck by how this mesh of o’s visually suggests the chemical structure of a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine or monoamine. If I was out on a limb with the mathematical readings, this is the point where I start sawing through the branch, given that I was thrown out of biology class in 5th year for being unable to draw a liver fluke. Earlier, in ‘The Baffle Stage’, the word ‘cleft’ was split across a line break, comically enacting its meaning while helping to provide a rhyme for pinnacle (and incidentally also visually recalling the separation of the word ‘separating’ in the translation of ‘Prose (pour des Esseintes)’.)
But in ‘Sourdough’, maybe it’s the other kind of cleaving that’s happening, a joining together, where the breaks between lines and sections function like the synaptic cleft between neurons, with phonemes crossing to bind to the membrane on the other side, like neurotransmitters with receptors. Viewed from this angle, words are not chopped, sundered or dismembered, but rather propelled by the internal chemistry of a process fuelled by their own action potentials.
You can’t ‘solve’ poems by carefully attending to their sonic chemistry, any more than you can ‘solve’ a person by acquiring a rudimentary understanding of how their brain works. But this poem, like all of Peter’s work, reveals previously unsuspected facets each time it’s approached from a different angle and is, therefore, inexhaustible.
Each new reading moves differently, takes on a slightly different shape, with the overall experience recalling the last line of ‘Twenty for Baselitz’s 45′:
‘joy curls around meaning’s painterly skitters.’
Ellen Dillon lives in County Limerick, Ireland. She is working on a PhD project on dynamic abstraction at the School of English in DCU, Dublin. She has completed poems for the pamphlets Potential Space and Sonnets to Malkmus, some of which have appeared or are forthcoming in Zarf, Datableed, Paratext and Adjacent Pineapple. Her reviews and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Post: A Review of Poetry Studies, the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry and Hix Eros. She has read at the Sussex Poetry Festival and Soundeye, and has just co-organised the first symposium on the work of Peter Manson at the University of Glasgow.