The author of the last of these four new Cordite books, Alan Loney, has international form. His volume is called Crankhandle. I don’t know how many of you here tonight have ever started a car with a crankhandle. I expect Loney has; I certainly have. My first car was a third-hand 1952 Austin A40 sedan, and it was as British as a boiled egg, as the motoring journalist Peter Wherrett once said of its smaller cousin the A30. Seemingly constructed of steel left over from the wartime manufacture of tanks, it weighed literally a ton and came with flip-up trafficators and an optional crankhandle, in case the starter motor ever gave you trouble. Unfortunately it was the engine and not the starter motor that gave me problems – but howsoever that be, I would occasionally show off in public by attempting to start the thing with its crankhandle. A dangerous activity, if you didn’t whip your hand away quick enough when the engine eventually turned over.
What has this morsel of nostalgia got to do with poetry? William Carlos Williams compared a poem to a machine, because each are ‘pruned to a perfect economy’ in which ‘movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character’. Loney’s aesthetic in these ‘Notebooks’ as he calls them, is certainly intrinsic and physical, and represents an undulant unfolding of the voice into the world, in parallel with an infolding of the sense perceptions from that world into the voice. When we step into the machine which is Crankhandle, we’re already in motion: ‘how did it go’, Loney begins, ‘what’s it like/what’s next’, because ‘writing’s anticipation/of writing words coming/ready or not’.
But it’s not a smooth, continuous journey, because ‘poetry = utterance & stutterance’; in other words, it involves both saying something, and not saying something. I think of Loney’s stutterances as his turnings of an imaginative crankhandle which sparks his poetic engine into life. The gaps or discontinuities are fundamental to the overall project of getting things mobile: they are part and parcel of the book’s meaning, like the troughs between waves. For a stutterance, in Loney’s parlance, isn’t nothing. A stutterance may not say some thing, but that doesn’t mean that it says no thing at all. In his preface, Loney insists that his fragments aren’t parts of a larger text, they are the text, because: ‘fragments are all we have, and will ever have. If some are very long and some are very short, then that is simply how things are’.
That’s not to say that Crankhandle doesn’t contain certain motifs. Two birds call to one another across the spaces of the text, ‘a benison of birds’, as Loney calls it:
one bird to the left makes one long high note ending in something like a whip-lash, another ahead does something between a soft hoot and a boom
They may or may not be a lyrebird and a brush turkey: the specifics don’t ultimately matter. What they generate is a dialectic between utterance and stutterance, in which learning to listen – to infold the world rather than unfold the voice – is itself the deepest poetry:
I’m told there are lyrebirds here – I’ll wait and watch – perhaps the song of Orpheus is the song let in, the song of bird & tree he was supposed to have charmed, you sing not by making a noise but listening open to the singing of the world alongside all the good & terrible things men & women do, and descent into Hades is the collapse of song into speech
I’ve been collapsing into speech too long already. Success to Cordite books, and all power to its presses. I don’t suggest you try to fold these terrific books into T-shirts, but you should buy the whole series today and wear it with pride.