On Philip Terry

Colin Burrow

If the world of experimental poetry makes you think of pseudy dudes in black 501s and Doc Martens, then I would prescribe a small daily dose of Philip Terry, for whom being experimental chiefly means being thoughtfully rebellious and funny. In his translation of Dante’s Inferno (2014), Terry is guided through the hell that is the University of Essex (where he is professor of creative writing) by the Beat poet Ted Berrigan. They pass throngs of venal departmental heads and VCs (‘“It’s you and your like who have put the ‘vice’/in ‘vice-chancellor’, you should be ashamed.”/And as I ranted on at him like this,//Like I do when I’m completely pissed’) into the depths where Bobby Sands (Terry’s equivalent of Ugolino) gnaws at the head of Margaret Thatcher. In 2010 Terry produced a postmodern rewrite of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, where notes by editors, bits from newspapers and Shakespeareish phrases are mashed up with Joysprick: ‘Not marcasite nor the gilded moolvees/Of the Prince of Darkness shall outlive this powerful rhythm and blues.’ Sonnet 50 (in which Shakespeare grumbles about his horse) becomes: ‘Don’t talk to me about Raymond Queneau,/I’ve had it up to here with French theory./Since Althusser died/I spend my days on eBay.’

The delights of eBay have presumably worn off, since Terry in his latest volume follows in the footsteps of Queneau, mathematician, poet and founder member of OuLiPo, by offering a collection of quennets.[*] The quennet – invented by Queneau in his Morale élémentaire of 1975, though Queneau himself wanted to call it the lipolepse – is an OuLiPean arbitrary form consisting of 15 lines. The first six lines are divided into three sets of two-line ‘stanzas’. The first line of each stanza is made up of three noun-plus-adjective phrases (‘Drowsy marshes Green swamps Spewy bogs’ is one from Terry’s own 2007 translation of Morale élémentaire). The second line is just one noun-plus-adjective phrase (‘Latent waters’). After the first three stanzas the classic quennet has a middle section of seven very thin lines, arranged as a central column, in which verbs are at last allowed, though seldom do they readily unfold the mystery of the poem: ‘Passing/the usual threshold/the wood drifts/beyond rot/You must climb/the slick/greasy pole.’ This is followed by a final stanza which follows the same pattern of noun-plus-adjective phrases as the opening lines. Rhymes and repetitions are optional. Much is left out and much has to be inferred by a reader – hence Queneau’s ‘lipolepse’, ‘laisser, prendre’, or roughly ‘leave ’n seize’. The form brings out the Li Po within OuLiPo: Queneau, much influenced by Eastern writing, suggested readers should hear an imaginary gong as they read the noun lines and a flute melody behind those containing verbs.

The quennet in its classic form invites you to dart around. You can read downwards through the columns of noun phrases and feel as though you are encountering something haikuesque. Or if you are an orthodox centrist in your reading practices you can read the whole thing across and down in the usual way. It also invites you to bring your own mental conjunctions to the party, and link the noun phrases around a grammatical structure or a place or an experience or a prior work. So one of Queneau’s quennets is clearly a meditation on the Iliad: ‘Agamemnon boiling/Singular combats      Plural enemies      Wartime tricks.’ Others seem to be mainly about Brittany or boxing.

Terry’s volume of quennets or terrets or (sometimes) tourettes is arranged in three parts. The first, ‘Elementary Estuaries’, is a series about randomly chosen spots along the Essex coast. One quennet, about the Anglo-Saxon ‘Battle of Maldon’ (‘Shield-wall Hearth-troop Linden-shields’), is a tribute to Queneau’s quennet on the Iliad. Another is written beside the bronze statue of Byrhtnoth at Maldon: ‘A bronze/statue/commemorates/the defeat/A can/of Carlsberg/at its feet.’ Others ping around emptiness, or bring out the potential for rewriting William Carlos Williams in the form’s short lines: ‘the dog/barks at/the red/lawnmower/Is it/time/for lunch?’ The flat long lines of the top and bottom of the quennet give the effect of a long Essex horizon, around which an eye may dart and pick out things in their severalness:

Deserted benches      Resting gull      Tilted boat
                                       Rotten hull

The short middle lines can be a bit like rivulets of reflection on the mud in the middle distance, or can follow the eye as it looks back towards the observer:

                                      Prints
                                      in the
                                      sand –
                                      dogs
                                      bikes
                                      footsteps
                                      hands

The poem then stretches out, as it were, at your feet:

Sunlit shore      Still boat      Echoing cry
                            Dry throat

The Essex quennets work well because they are based in a place. Even if you aren’t always quite sure exactly where you are, the flitting eye encouraged by the form is always confident that a scene or a walk can be made up from the phrases before it.

The other sections of the volume vary the form of the quennet to suit different environments, and are less successful. In ‘Mauerweg’, Terry writes quennets at various points on a periegesis around the route of the Berlin Wall. To make Queneau’s form more wall-like Terry fattens out its slender middle, so the quennet becomes a series of long horizontal lines:

Whiteness of the border walls: to facilitate shooting.
Electronic devices. Original searchlight.
          Directing centre. Panoramic view.

A lot of the landscape around the old wall is literally concrete, which becomes the most frequent adjective/noun in the collection (‘concrete bed’, ‘concrete bank’, ‘concrete obstacle’, ‘grey concrete’). The form itself becomes a correspondingly concrete representation of its long thin subject. Maybe the frustration this produces is deliberate: the regimented lines of the reformed quennet may be designed to prompt a readerly resistance analogous to the desire to break down the literal Berlin Wall. But the formally purer Essex quennets offer much more imaginative space than their claustrophobic Eastern European variant.

The third section, ‘Waterlog’, retraces the journey around the Suffolk coast narrated in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Here Terry turns the quennet into a thin ribbon of 12 noun-plus-adjective phrases, with an off-centre burst of seven short lines which may contain verbs, followed by a string of four more noun-plus-adjective phrases. The central segments are sometimes direct quotations from Sebald. Sometimes they draw attention to discrepancies between the landscape Sebald described and the landscape that is actually there. So Terry looks for the narrow-gauge Southwold light railway, whose rolling stock Sebald says was originally built for the Emperor of China, which prompts a long digression in the Rings of Saturn on 19th-century Chinese history. But ‘There/is no/train/and/there/never/was.’ This is misleading: there was a narrow-gauge railway, though it had nothing to do with China. But it shows what Terry is up to. Sebald’s form and his mind were elaborative. Places were occasions for drifting into half-truths and digressions. When Terry follows Sebald’s journey he strips away the para-facts that made it distinctively Sebald’s. So at the end of The Rings of Saturn Sebald visits ‘Chestnut Tree Farm’ (presumably the one near Diss) to see a model of the Temple of Jerusalem made by ‘Thomas Abrams’. The model did exist, but it was made by a farmer called Alec Garrard who lived at Moat Farm, Fressingfield. Terry visits a place in search of the model (which is no longer on display) and finds ‘There is/no moat/anywhere/to be seen/there is no barn/no temple.’ Did he just go to the wrong house, misled by Sebald’s fiction? Have the facts changed, or is it just that Sebald’s psychogeography can’t be reconstructed? Terry’s conclusion takes us dangerously close to the thought that following the footsteps of a predecessor might just be a journey into the void:

The
ultimate futility
of imagining
that treading in the steps
of an author
can illuminate
anything at all

But that negative vision is offset by the burst of noun phrases which conclude the collection. These suggest that even if following in someone else’s footsteps leads nowhere, a quennet can still offer a world of implicit connections akin to those which held together Sebald’s journey:

Inexhaustible traces
Gathering dusk
Invisible pasts
Imaginary connections.

[*] Quennets by Philip Terry (Carcanet, 144 pp., £12.99, July 2016, 978 1 78410 268 5).