Home Poetry Interviews Reviews Links Contact
Ken Edwards
No Public Language:
Selected Poems 1975-1995

Shearsman (2006), £10.95

Reviewed by Gareth Farmer


 More reviews 
     Eléna Rivera


The front cover of No Public Language displays a photograph of London’s docklands taken by the author himself. It’s a brooding, black and white picture of receding girders and bridges uniting dilapidated Victorian buildings. In the distance along the arching street a single, blurred figure can just about be discerned. This rather dour picture encapsulates the twenty-year concern of Ken Edwards, namely, the documentation of the distinctive minutiae of London and the attempt to encompass the shadowy perceptions of solitary ramblings that he, camera and eye in tow, must have undertaken daily.

The book contains an enlightening ‘Afterword’ in which the poet explains:

This volume contains what I think of as the essential matter in my verse composition over two decades. I tend to compose in books, and didn’t want to disturb the integrity of my favourites: therefore Drumming & Poems, Intensive Care and 3600 Weekends are included in their entirety as are the shorter sequences A4 Portrait and A4 Landscape. Erik Satie loved children, an early pamphlet, is also included, as I still think it’s quite sweet, and besides, it was the first showing of what later evolved into my preferred procedures: cutting and splicing, juxtaposition, language play, composition by rhythm.
The first collection, Eric Satie loved children is indeed ‘sweet’ and it is valuable in the sense that it does give us a guide to how the poet has developed from this early, modernist inflected voice. This voice matures like the oeuvre of Pound, from youthful experiments with imagism - ‘no sound // a handful of stones // tossed in dark water’ (‘Stones’) - to later, full throttle Cantoese:

23 February 85
The conning-tower surfaces into
“An age of information uncertainty”
And simultaneously “built into those systems
Are processes of innovation & change”
Inhabit a maze of vectors. Interference.
Pac-man reels in Ariadne’s thread
Here, ‘information’ culled from differing “centres of culture” become the thought vectors of the poetic process. Edwards is a poet who is never quite willing to give over to the aleatoric - there is throughout a sense of admirable and serious control, of a commanding intelligence revelling in an immanent critique. This central control is at its best when the poet manages to fuse his enthusiasm for music with his London strolls. Hence, in Drumming & Poems Edwards writes a series of poems presided over by LPs:

Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch, Blue Note BLP 84163
Waterloo Bridge, towards Westminster

Big hollow’s a most curious sight: the point
at which loaded & pulled out,

he retreats, liable to topple,
play trumpet, misunderstand

These poems are written as if with the voice of a flaneur with a walkman. The inspiration and stimulant of music give the lines a jazzy freedom, the reader bobbing along to a quirky image-rhythm. Elsewhere, lines throb with the vibrancy and violence of city life, as Edwards explores scenes of stabbings, mob riots and ‘TV’s frozen music’ in the heads of anonymous city walkers.

Edwards’ insistent repetition of words and phrases throughout the collection is evocative and somehow comforting as the reader is led to taste and sample delicious morsels in novel combinations. In a later poem (‘September 1985, Deserted Mills, Oldham Lancs’), the poet writes: ‘No such thing as repetition / Because when a thing happens for the first time / It has not already happened / And when it happens again it has happened before’. Edwards explores this slightly Eliotic realm of uncertain causes and effects, illustrating his sheer delight in the subtle evolution and texture of language when variously positioned. Hence the poem entitled, “What the razor knew” reflects his verbal dexterity of the splicing and mixing of a core set of phrases and words recombined in twelve paragraphs, the last of which becomes:

An event is gone; it is thus a structure. The capacity to change
the rhythm, to analyse the structure and almost nothing into
the story through their performances; be sure of impeding this
development of the past and remains.
Here ‘events’ and words are shifted, ‘thus’ becoming new ‘structures’ on the page. Such verbal ‘performances’ ensure the immanence of the poems where phrasal and verbal re-combinations insist on a reader’s full attention.

Of all of the collections assembled here, Intensive Care is probably the most ‘experimental’ in its radical use of space and spliced ‘adjacent planes’ of language. Here, as the poet describes in ‘Five Nocturnes, After Derek Jarman’: ‘Writing unwrites itself into / Chance encounters configuration / That are politically indeterminate like rubber / Ball trajectories in a confined // Space’. In ‘Weapons Systems - Version 1’ and ‘Banknotes That Made History (Weapons Systems - Version 2’, in the same collection, Edwards treats the reader to a sci-fi infused, machine-like prose-poems, describing weapons production and the infiltration of computer-speak on the mind: ‘if the language is suspect, then invent a new language’. The poet also incorporates statements of poetic ‘method’ throughout, as in ‘Five Nocturnes’:

Night falls on single vision zombies everywhere
O that lonely Feb. moon in a clear sky
Occasionally perceived between the flats is it
(a) mythopoeic construct (b) collage?

If there’s an answer there must be a
Question (Gertrude Stein). Write the essentials only.
If Edwards often makes explicit his experimental credentials, 3, 600 Weekends does so with grace and a natural charm as the poet writes what he calls ‘An Autobiography in Several Modes’. The poems in this sequence are given alphabetical titles: ‘Abstractly’, ‘Bilaterally’, ‘Cursively’, ‘Discursively’, ‘Experimentally’ etcetera. These poems are a real treat, exciting this reader, at least, to re-read the sequence in order to fully taste the ‘autobiography’s’ movements. The first poem, ‘Abstractly’, lyrically captures the productive context in which the poems of Drumming & Poems were written with the lines: ‘That I walked alone in the dark city midst / That a melody stated in background decay’. Later, Edwards assures the reader that he ‘was out for two months beginning to take shape / Listened for rhythmic inspiration.’ These last poems in the volume represent the movement towards what Edwards calls in his Afterword, a ‘watershed - in that I’m going back to the prose writing I started in the 1970s’. They are gentler, less insistent on violent lines breaks and explicit ‘experimentation’. They are also, as ‘Abstractly’ demonstrates, autobiographical poems almost meta-critiquing his previous compositions.

The selection from the unpublished 1995 collection, Glissando Curve is a curious end to the volume. Here Edwards reaffirms his passionate involvement with eclectic music, particularly his interest in finding linguistic equivalents of the curves of music’s melodies. Again, this is Edwards the experimentalist and it only leaves the reader wanting to read more of this ambitious and masterful poetry as it weaves a musical intelligence into arresting and amusing lines which end the volume:

But we are done with words tonight we’re sick of them
And if we heard a diva & her band were to fulfil
A booking from across the northern current then
Slaking our appetite with fish & rice
We would attend with poised ears

    there are some
Serene and highly technical elements in the music
Those exiled Russians have produced
That gladden the austere marshes of the estuary

And even the sojourners fare well with this
New stuff laid over an existing grid
This last line asserts Edwards’ attention and his ‘poised ears’ to traditions of composition. But, his understanding and dexterity in placing ‘new stuff’ over existing grids consistently produces startling and more-ish formulations.

© Gareth Farmer 2008