On Keston Sutherland

Ian Patterson

Occasionally, really not very often, a translation makes something like a jagged hole in the even surface of literary reception, out of which emerge half-familiar figures, dazzling in their new accessibility. Most translations fail at some point because of the twin principles of fidelity and compromise; too often, especially if they are translations of poems, they are not enough like original writing to carry the conviction they need to embody if they are to come anywhere near the force of the work itself. You can’t just carry over the words of a poem into a different language, across that space Anne Carson describes as ‘like no other’, nor can you just re-create the thinking or the experience in the poem. Both Proust and Valéry described writing itself as an act of translation: translation, equally, is an act of writing, and at its best can make the same kind of impression.

These thoughts are prompted by the recent publication of Whither Russia, a slender pamphlet by Keston Sutherland (Barque, £5). Flanked by two substantial poems in prose, one of which, ‘Sinking Feeling’, occupies half the book while the shorter ‘Instincts on Trump University’ concludes it, there are seven translations from French, Italian and German poets, each one revelatory. The whole book is a passionate intervention into politics in the widest sense and our inevitable complicity in the cultures we inhabit. The poems anatomise the possibility of love in a time of unprecedented corruption, self-interest, lies and destructiveness on the part of global capitalism and its leaders and followers.

Sutherland has been publishing pamphlets and books of poems for some 25 years, known at first to a small but steadily increasing number of readers in the UK and the US; he edited the occasional but influential magazine Quid, which produced about twenty issues over as many years, and with Andrea Brady he runs Barque Press, which has published some eighty titles since its inception in 1995. After the publication of Neocosis, in 2005, and more particularly Hot White Andy in 2007 and Stress Position two years later, his poems began to reach a wider audience, helped in part by his own dramatic readings of them, uploaded to YouTube. In the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, his extreme serio-satiric investigations pushed verse towards prose (and vice versa) in a process that culminated in the Odes to TL61P, described by Sutherland as ‘a kind of album or masque of metrical variations, everything from strictly perfected tetrameters to the most psychotic arrhythmia’(the TL61P of the title is the code for a replacement part of a defunct Hotpoint washer-dryer). The Odes have a kind of openness to everything, to any form of knowledge from the most complex to the most insignificant and ephemeral, and a compulsion to plunge as deeply as possible into an abundance of facts without excluding dreams and unconscious responses or impulses. In a recent interview published in the online poetry journal Blackbox Manifold, he says that

poetry has to scope out these zones, to sound them out, these regions of experience, which are pressed right to the threshold of unconscious life and beyond, and to produce noise, music, syntax, grammar and fiction which somehow feels as though it both touches on the most exposed and sensitive, hidden, even secretive parts of that whole region of experience, to give it some voice, wrong or right, to make it eloquent.

This is the drive that created the almost 400-page Poetical Works published by Enitharmon in 2015. Taken as a whole, the book is an eruption, a word Sutherland uses frequently in interviews. Poetry, he argues, has to contain enough force to try to erupt out of containment by the social relations we take for granted. In the same interview, he explains what this process, if not the result, means:

In my poetry, I’ve tried to explore down to the roots of existence – individual and psychic existence – to find zones of experience which can’t yet be accommodated in the form of knowledge, zones which feel much more wild than that. There’s a beautiful expression by the philosopher Merleau-Ponty in his text The Visible and the Invisible: ‘sens sauvage’, wild meaning, and for me, I’m not trying to write the poetry in which the thinking has already happened so that the knowledge can be presented … I’m trying to write poetry which explodes under its own immanent pressures – and in a way that I could not possibly predict and would never want to predict, is a kind of sudden eruption, a kind of instantaneous metastasis, or flourishing, of wild meaning. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what it means, literally.

What it doesn’t necessarily mean is incomprehensibility. Sutherland’s writing is for the most part beautifully lucid, even when the object of attention shifts rapidly from one frame to another, even when the pressure of the material is shocking or surprising. This is nicely exemplified by the writing in the latest collection. The first prose poem, ‘Sinking Feeling’, takes lines from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound as its epigraph, and establishes a tone that unifies the book. Part dream, part vituperation, part desire, part bafflement, it is addressed to a ‘Dear secret object’ and moves like a piece of music through recursive and repeated moments, shifting and developing its described and conceptual spaces, its logics of representation, and its narrative. The thinking it follows is not always easy, but the disorienting effect on the reader is exhilarating because of the intellectual and emotional space it opens up as you try to follow it:

There was a desk. That you cannot get in since the entrance is the obstacle itself is what it means for life to end at emptiness. Despite the space. Then to move it through a doorway blocked up with evacuated footholds now laid flat for sliding under you get in. There was a desk or table here in what despite the space from which closeness had been torn out but was still streaming away was still there to playact the middle of the room and when I was standing at this desk in silence repeating, the pain started here and goes to here, der Schmerz wandert von hier nach dort, j’ai mal d’ici à là, I felt irritable …

The sentences are necessarily long, so the waves of the poem’s rhythm are long, which makes excerpting quotations difficult, but this may still give a flavour of what I mean about the phenomenology of reading it. When Sutherland writes, ‘There was a desk or table here in what despite the space from which closeness had been torn out but was still streaming away,’ the complexity of the very idea of tearing closeness out of space lifts the reader out of their own space in an act of imagination that reminds me strongly of the kind of conceptual effort required by the only writer I can think of who achieves comparable effects, the novelist M. John Harrison. The repeated motif of a phrase returning in two other languages also acts to shift the reader’s perception of the linguistic basis of reality by referencing shared experience at the same time as it reminds us of the different ways it can be articulated.

This also quietly prepares the ground for the translations that follow, which render extracts from Verlaine, Goethe, Gautier, Tasso, Toulet, Heine and Hölderlin into a startlingly contemporary English idiom without losing any of the force of the originals, and which retain for the most part the metrical, syllabic or rhyme patterns of the source texts. There’s a short poem from Paul-Jean Toulet’s Contrerimes, LX, for instance, which Sutherland manages to turn from fin-de-siècle gothic into an elegant post-punk aesthetic entirely free of the embarrassment of past attitudes but at the same time fully aware of its formal debt to earlier English poets:

I rhymed my life away to bind
        The lover in my head,
Rhymed on at her till she was dead
        And I out of my mind.

Then all at once, like one deep breath,
        Her rhyme and mine agreed.
The thought of it is all I need
        To choke myself to death.

All the short poems here manage a version of the same thing, even the excerpt from Aminta, which despite its post-Nietzschean tone of measured anger unobtrusively retains almost the same rhyme scheme and metrical variety as Tasso’s text. The two longer poems, both in rhymed quatrains, provide updated versions of Gautier’s ‘Büchers et tombeaux’ and Heine’s ‘Affrontenburg’, both juicily naturalised. The former starts:

When art still mattered long ago,
In capital’s heroic youth,
The skeleton was not for show,
But living beauty was the truth.

and continues with equal fluency to update Gautier’s

Quand le siècle devient frivole
Il suit la mode; en tonnelet
Retrousse son linceul et vole
Comme un Cupidon de ballet


The age grows frivolous as time,
Trends like the contemporary;
The liberal MFA makes rhyme

Sutherland finds a way to keep the expansive bitterness of Heine’s poem, too, without letting it get swamped by biography, topography or anachronism.

It requires a lot of thought and hard work as well as knowledge to take poems like this and give them the bite of new writing. There is a violent and self-inculpating rhetoric to the last piece, ‘Instincts on Trump University’, the appeal to instinct one with his all-permeating recognition of the inadequacy of reason on its own. ‘Come to me,’ the final paragraph begins,

the insane, the hateful, the shamed by not bearing it, the starving, the dirty, the incapable of love, the humiliated at work. Personally he and I don’t happen, like death, picking holes in the sea, pedantic, but free, getting on with it. After years, the surface of the air exhaled by everybody in the world bulges over as it expires, trickling down into sense and what we make of it. A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. That it has come to this is your fault, you who know how to read this.

Sutherland’s concern with satire, which reflects the frustrating inadequacies of rational discussion of irrational forces, and his complex search for truthful life and truthful language, so energetically evident in his prose poems in this book, provide a coherence to these translations so that it stands as a poetic intervention into present cultural horrors. The Goethe and the Hölderlin provide examples of the direct expression of moral thought alongside an awareness of its imbrication with the culture that prevents its realisation. Goethe’s ‘drowning’, Hölderlin’s swimmer sinking in mid-song, Shelley’s vision of Demogorgon and Jupiter sinking dizzily down to the dark void all contribute to a new Art of Sinking in this poetry. These translations are much more than supplements to Sutherland’s own writing. A deviant hommage to dead poets, they face and engage with contemporary political reality, falling with it through the watery depths of hatred and desire in a ridiculous, serious, mutual embrace.