I read a tweet a few weeks ago that “most people who claim to be at the cutting edge have no idea where the cutting edge even is”Â, so it’s always interesting to check out things that claim to be new and exciting to see just how original they are.
Philistine Press claims its works are like nothing else. Rob Sherman’s Â Valve Works is a collection of poems, each one about a part of the body and accompanied by a beautiful woodblock-style steampunky drawing of the part in question by artist Sarah Ogilvie. Given the title, I was expecting the body parts all to be membranes or places of exchange, which they generally are (though the big toe sneaks in as an extremity). Â The poems themselves give little sense of being about exchange or permeability, the flow in and out of the body of, well, stuff, whatever that stuff may be. Â Which is even odder given the introduction that proclaims, like a manifesto of human sensual existence:
We are like chimpanzees struck by lightning, gazing in smoking wonder at our throbbing erections, struggling to hold the words we want in our recessed brains, but, in the end, just wanting to fuck something… to discharge the electricity.
Rabble-rousing stuff, promising a fascinating entry into the body-morphology cannon that includes J G Ballard, Jeanette Winterson, David Cronenberg and no end of contemporary Japanese art and cinema. Not to mention at least two generations of theorists who claim that when we write we are simply recreating our bodies on the page, so that when we write actually about bodies we are holding up all kinds of interesting mirrors to ourselves and the societies of which we are part, carefully dissecting ourselves to reveal how much we are prisoners of our desires.
So I was surprised when I started reading the poems themselves by how playful they were. Playful and rather fun, picking up the cheeky humour at the very end of the introduction rather than the politics of the rest of it.
The poems take the form of addresses (elegies, odes — it’s all very Keatsian) from Sherman to his body parts, in which he outlines the role that each plays in his life through various metaphors and similes. To his heart he says:
You look like a dog’s head, panting, repeating noise
Whilst to his teeth he proclaims
You are a display case of flint tools and iron arrowheads,
A doddery, crooked, Easter Island of relics,
There is no doubting Sherman’s deftness with language nor the tightness of this collection. This is most definitely not a selection of poems thrown together; it is an author looking at the parts that make up himself, one by one, examining each with an identical eye (which sees, as he notes in a wonderfully acute phrase “but all through water”Â).
And this is how, I can’t help thinking, this collection should have been packaged. It is wistful, nostalgic, intimate, tinged with the deep sadness and realisation of approaching old age. It’s Alan Bennett, it’s Prufrock, it’s Prospero throwing away his books. But it’s NOT Ballard or Cronenberg or Tetsuo. Likewise the artwork is old, it’s drawn like woodcuts from a 19th century how-to book. Which is another strand of slight confusion. Each poem is surtitled with a quotation from a medical dictionary, making it clear this is in the grand tradition of how-to books and encyclopedias. This is possibly the most interesting (and it’s very interesting) point Sherman has to make — that we love to look outside ourselves for self-knowledge, even when what we’re looking for knowledge of is inside. But it does muddy the waters again as to what Sherman THINKS he is doing. Â Which wouldn’t matter if it was clear that he wasn’t actually thinking anything but was simply putting things down on the page and letting us draw our own meaning — but the introduction dispels that.
All in all, Â Valve Works is a very good collection of poems by a very talented poet, accompanied by exquisite illustrations. But it should be happy to be that, because it is most definitely not at the cutting edge of body writing. Compare it, for example, to Marc Nash’s Feed Tube, with its strung out lines and pools of words simulating the membranes and real and artificial tubes through which a heroin-addicted mother slowly poisons her child.
I have to add that I like what Philistine Press are setting out to do. Bringing writing to the public that the mainstream would not, and doing it for free through ebook technology, is something I believe in completely, and am trying to do with Year Zero. What Philistine possibly need to learn, though, is that there is a wealth of brilliant material out there failed by the mainstream — work like this — but very little of it is cutting edge. But the fact that most of it is not cutting edge is nothing at all to be ashamed of. Much better to package it for what it is.