Simon Eales Reviews On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne

20 June 2016

Hall’s depth and rigour of analysis relating to single poems, concepts, or words is necessary with Prynne’s work, which deliberately charts its own various, thoroughly developed, and interweaved, ontologies. In chapter three, for example, Hall identifies in ‘Fool’s Bracelet’ that ‘specialised languages of economic theory and financial trading, biblical data, reports on psychoanalytic testing, and nursery rhymes all have contingent and mixed operations’. Hall doesn’t ease the complexity of these interweavings, rather he pin-points some of their affective capacities and suggests connections. On the poem ‘Ein Heldenleben,’ Hall states that ‘Leisurely movement and its pastoral associations are radically juxtaposed against the imposed restrictions on movement for the people living in the direct line of fallout of the Chernobyl reactor,’ incorporating a historiographical sense-making into Prynne’s deliberately jarring juxtapositions. Hall refuses to simplify Prynne’s interruption of these lines of movement, whether they chart the passage of thought, displaced persons, or lines of a poem (as in the poem ‘Write Out,’ in Bands).

Another key introduction to Prynne studies is the book’s focus on ‘experiential knowledge within the poem,’ as is the argument that the experiential is fundamental to Prynne’s work, ‘even if the manner in which experiential knowledge is utilised is not explicit’. The argument along this line is that, in response to extra-linguistic violence, as well as the violence of the speech act, both of which he would say he (as a representative of we) is complicit, Prynne ‘turns upon his own prior propositions and reinserts presence within the questioning framework of the poem’. An effect of this experiential approach is that Hall’s work is very much middle, and not so concerned with resounding conclusions. Linking the torturers’ craft in staging the Abu Ghraib atrocities for cameras with their self-protection against the recollection of childhood trauma in the last paragraph of the last chapter, for example, leaves a lot unexplained. It opens a psychoanalytic line we have not yet pursued, and will not. We are not left with the realisation of an argument Hall has been building, rather, a hypothetical question, and highly contingent strands of its constitution. The subject we began with, namely, the poem, has transformed into the subject we finish with, a polysemous one: ‘life,’ but in the tight framing of the function of sovereign power, ‘unreal suffering’ and the violence done to identities. I think this is testament to the kind of reading that Hall provides, which shares traits with the reading styles of his Australian poet-critic contemporaries, Michael Farrell (see a really nice section on constriction, bridging, camping, and puns on pages 158-9) and Astrid Lorange: precise and radically generative, theoretically accomplished, referential and witty, and less concerned with dictum than it is with the responsive stuff of the procedure.

Hall uses the word ‘the’ a lot, which might seem facile to note, but it indicates a few important things about this scholarly style. The’s effects is to encumber Hall with a mandate to prove existent knowledge. The ‘the’ sentence’s passivity indicates an objectivity conceit. Similarly to Prynne of his conceits, Hall seems acutely aware of the semi-permanence of his scholarly voice, only willing to lean truth-objects against each other in an almost deliberately awkward way, and not against anything more ecologically certain. As mentioned above, his close analysis feels palpable and counterposes any ‘innocuous tedium of the “slogan vestry”’ that might be represented by his ‘the’-full sentences. A further effect of Hall’s ‘the’ sentences is the feeling that these sections are collections of sense data. Their pieces are valuable in themselves – the book is highly quotable – but they sit together, I think deliberately, uneasily. It’s indicative of Hall’s internally cohesive argument concerning attention and responsive intertwinement that the ‘the’ sentence is endemic to Prynne’s own theoretical style. For example, charting a sentence like, ‘Through these experimental linguistic means, the conditions of labour and the relation to the sustentive are also problematised’, would involve the kind of minute deconstruction of the phrase that Hall conducts on sections of Acrylic Tips.

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne is a valuable addition to what should be described as an invigorated moment in Australian poetic criticism. Taking on the transnational, decolonising, and ecopoetical sensitivities of this moment, Hall turns alertly to a powerful poetic, and perhaps pioneering, proponent of this mode.

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About Simon Eales

Simon Eales is an artist and researcher from Melbourne, Australia. He lives in Buffalo, New York where he is working towards a PhD in the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo.

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