J.H. Prynne and the Late-Modern Epic

1 December 2009

IV: Red D Gypsum & 'Marzipan'

Avail what would clamour so late. Three trammel birds
cut-out flat in fury department, have entered denied
for terror fallen off the track directly smeared,
bilobar hand signals way marking, so giving way over
to see the bones in his fingers frothing clapped up at
eye to eye birth intervals. Their three gaps gefangen
across the doorway, soaking up iron occupant sights
for a level palate, hit fresh on a low set at the back.

	(From Red D Gypsum, 437)

In the poem Red D Gypsum, Prynne has worked to establish the pattern of the epic within the structures and references of a geomorphologic context. Alongside of the poem's initial referential patterns is the establishment of patterns of microscopic life, neurological functions, economics, photosynthetic processes, and shifts of register which expand outward to indicate the mapping and study of the cosmos.

The layers of interrelation and etymological interaction within the poem have taken on an even greater role in Prynne's late poetic and have caused many a reader to struggle to find points of accessibility within the work. From a provisional reading of the poem, few dictates or resonant meanings easily present themselves. The enjambment of any one of Red D Gypsum's stanzas represents a force of compression and occlusion. The signals for semantic, semiotic or referential invocation are present, and as is often seen, represent a striking together of thematic devices, instances of replication, and obscure, eckphrastic references.

The title, Red D Gypsum, initially offers few indications of the poem's thematic intent; nor, from the outset, does the epigraph, a quotation from Lillian Chew, ‘the volatility smile is not symmetrical' (434), offer any preliminary insights into the matters of the poem.

From the first line of the poem we are given at least three clear instances of acknowledgeable and translatable image-complexes, thus allowing the reader a preliminary position from which to engage with the poem. ‘Now trek inter-plate reversion to earth buy out' (434), provides the reader with the overlaying matrices of economic, geomorphologic and nomadic references from which to actively assess the interrelations of the coming lines. The commodification of nature suggested by the ‘earth buy out' adds connotations that may seem to suggest the denial of pastoral modes, but the further we progress through the poem the more strongly resurgent the pastoral themes become.

This resurgence strengthens the suggestion that the trek – undertaken by one or many, this we cannot yet differentiate – is taking place over great and treacherous distances. The relation of ‘inter-plate' to concepts of tectonic, seismic, or intercontinental plates suggests the subject's macroscopic position within the world, thus situating him within a greater terrain, and by this scale, reinforces the arduousness of the journey. The epical journey expresses lamentation for the commodification of nature and follows this pathway through the woods.

Wheale writes that ‘The trek is certainly sustained, often through woods, traditionally the place in which to become lost; in the Middle Ages a wood was allegorically the world of mere matter that betrayed or destroyed higher aspirations.'35 Adding semantic weight to the possible definitions of the trek are Basu's definitions from The Red Shift Trekking, which exemplifies the idea of the trek as historically unified with settling a new area of land with the aim of establishing a new home.

Historically the trek is indicative of anthropological treks which sought out new mineral deposits and new social information. The trek also has direct connotations to religious pilgrimages, both monotheistic and paganistic.36 Upon first encounter, the first lines of the poem may seem meaninglessly paratactic though upon careful examination they open up the potentiality of the poem to an epical journey as a return to a greater and simpler past.

The annunciative demand, ‘Now trek', displaces the elegiac calm of a return to origins and positions the subject of the poem in a diminutive position, being ordered across foreign terrain. The subject's foreignness to the area is implicitly imbued within the complexity of such a densely packed vocable terrain and is further signified by the reader's unaccustomed response to it. In this manner Prynne is replicating the subject's response with the reader's reaction to the line.

The first stanza is packed with demands for action, specifying, ‘set carrier up ready' or ‘rip out brace here' (434), the ambiguity of the lines which align the poem with both the possibility that the subject is part of a military complex, moving temporary barracks and military command centre, or even part of a nomadic tribe, packing up their wares and loading them onto a travois, to begin to undertake their journey. Both military and tribal definitions remain as coherent possibilities throughout the poem, adding a timeless effect to the journey.

The movement throughout Red D Gypsum is also mandated through the reading of the lines: their compression, pace, and assonantal pattern. Breaking from the fast commanding pace of the first lines the reader is shown a measure of authorial concern and a meditative shift in perspective is induced by the final line of the first stanza: ‘you may | cover down over, a flawless glucose shimmered sky' (434). This line represents the suppression of an unbridled urgency from which the subjects hide for cover; it is a figural and referential point of retreat.

The localised shifts of register from internal to external that we examined in the previous poem are also replicated here. There is a less registered weighing of the transitory threshold between the internal and external and more reliance is placed on the unification and replication of language as linking the descriptions of mineral deposits with anatomic structures of the brain. These two subjects are weighed out against a pastoralist specific discussion of crops and the prospect of growth.

In Red D Gypsum the consummate and analogous terms of agrarian life, ‘burning friable stubble already coerced', mesh with the technical diction of geological testing, ‘Did you light furtive aggregate late-flow samples', taken from, ‘lower still to steps | grounded for all rejoinders to miss so new a weave' (439,436, 436). The ‘stolon rising' (439), which appears at the beginning of the ninth stanza unifies the agrarian descriptions with veins of mineral deposit to the rhizomatic patterns of thought, linking the conceptual development of ideas within the poem to many contemporary language and linguistic theories.

The connotations of contemporary linguistic theories are also bridged through the poem with reference to the language centres of the brain in ‘Broca's lumen' and ‘fusiform'. As veins of mineral are described so are patterns of growth depicted; the direct linkages to patterns of linguistic development force the reader to begin to question the relation of the subconscious, the germination of ideas and their development as they are depicted throughout the poem.

The most obvious pattern linking Red D Gypsum to the epic is the notion of the trek. The plants which the reader witnesses take root, are suddenly trees, those: ‘vivid strips of bark which circle the room'. ‘The bark scripture', and ‘the wood rewound in felt' add differing connotations to the semantic structure of the trees with which Prynne is working with. Early on in the poem the reader encounters the line, ‘Accredit late cut dazing | underside selvage obscure, peltate divided refound as | for holding both cover traps' (436). From this perspective, the epic journey of the poem is read as a recapitulation of the tale of Dante, threading the selvage obscure (the dark woods) at the beginning of The Inferno.

The application of Dantean ontology also draws a drastically moral and epistemic thread throughout the poem. The implication of ‘holding both cover traps' seems to imply that no matter which end of the underworld the subject enters, exit is an impossibility. Further explicating the ontological and epistemic connotations is that the bark referenced within the poem may contain scriptures, and this unifies the journey to the biblical ‘Sacred Scriptures,' which were found originally written on bark.

The imagery of religious writing on bark (as well as connotations to papyrus) continues to resonate with the scriptures of numerous indigenous tribes, and works to place focus on the moment when the epic tradition of song was transformed into the written word. These concepts unify the epical journey back to midrashic, back to the origins of ritual, as well as the origins of language. The journey, as is seen through Dante, and with the parallel of indigenous customs, represents a quest for salvatory ends.

The Dantean imagery forms a resurgent pattern late in the text and the reader finds exemplary discursive indications linking Red D Gypsum to ‘Marzipan' from Bands Around The Throat, ‘wherein this blanching of body politic has becomes a desolate image of spectral existence'.37 The imagery, as pointed out by Perril38, is also strikingly reminiscent of Eliot's Wasteland:

We poor shadows light up, again
slowly now in the wasted province
where colours fall and are debated
through a zero coupon, the de-
funct tokens in a soft regard.

(‘Marzipan', 347)

In ‘Marzipan', as at the conclusion of Red D Gypsum, the totemic journey traces our steps across the earth, on a pathway which has left us desolate and without much hope. The only possibility of survival offered the reader is the ‘remontant' growth offered in the final lines, and therefore a hope for new beginnings, ‘Vivid strips of tree bark circle the room its introit fading flood | across broken sky reflexed, repelled threads mercuric | took bounds remontant to grasp out along its line' (449).

Further connotations to Dante and epic are highlighted by the entrapment of ‘Three trammel birds | cut-out flat in fury department.' Trammel has at least three applicable definitions in this instance: the first designating a net specifically designed for catching fish and birds; second, an object that is impeding activity or progress; and thirdly, an instrument for drawing large circles or ellipses. From this set of image-complexes the reader understands that the subject has entered Dante's shrinking circles of hell and has become an immediate a captive amongst Dante's sinners, who are sought after with ‘fingers frothing clapped up at eye to eye birth intervals' (437). This is the condemnation that Prynne has devised as the end result of the constant metallurgic and agrarian exploitation of the land and has necessitated the epical journey in a hope for new beginnings. Despite the aims of concurring new lands, in the end, he claims, ‘You | know the outcome so to say' (445). The rise of Dantean imagery and the repeated introduction of shades, often represented in the poem as darkened or silhouetted figures, where ‘snake roots break their chain in fighting harvest'; ‘breeding uproar', where 'dark shades clatter', ‘bribing their locks' further implies our pathway amongst the demarcations of hell (447). Where the three books of Dante's epic end, with a glimmering and distant image of stars, Prynne's poem ends with a vision of the ‘broken sky', indicating, perhaps, that we too have reached the end of our own bleak journey.

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About Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall is working on a dissertation on J.H. Prynne and Violence at the University of Western Australia and a series of poetic essays that pertain to the radical pastoral. His poetry, occasional prose and criticism have been featured in journals around the world. Hall is Editor of Cordite Scholarly.

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