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percy bysshe shelley

A Review of The Pistol Tree Poems by Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
– Karl Marx

You must be the change you want to see in the world.
– Mahatma Gandhi

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Experimental writers can perform no more politically effective feat toward that noble Marxian goal of changing the world than imaginative collaboration. To the central tenet of the old Left that one must change the world, Gandhi adds that one must be the change one wants to see in the world. By collaborating to create The Pistol Tree Poems (Shearsman, 2011), Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh have intervened in the lyric poetry tradition to our benefit.

Whether or not Marx, Gandhi, and Shelley’s wisdom resonates with us, today’s philosophers (read readers) do not absorb such wisdom by osmosis. Such wisdom needs a shape and language shapes wisdom. Therefore, since language mediates wisdom, a philosophy, in effect, means a love of language. This way, philosophers love wisdom only to the extent to which they love language. A hermit, for instance, knows he is a hermit because of the echolalia of the word hermit which goes bounding inside his head. Along these lines, poets Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh use language for its aesthetic and evocative qualities to make poetry. However, these poems enact the change Hughes and Marsh want to see in the world because the poems are constructed and presented as collaborative. Whatever the medium, collaborative work tempts new subjectivities into being.

Poetic collaboration keeps the selves we think we know in motion.

Such grand framing may be all well and good, but how do poets manage not only to change the world but to be the change they want to see in the world? The process of imaginative collaboration can change the world by changing how we think we know ourselves. We know ourselves, like the hermit in his cave, by how we use language. Writers who use language as a fluid artifact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves: Hughes and Marsh make the possible more possible.

Two basic formal constraints score Hughes and Marsh’s The Pistol Tree Poems, full of that selfsame swirling that goes in and out of egos, places, and senses of craft: Hughes writes the odd poems in the UK, Marsh responds via email from Italy with the even poems. The second constraining factor has each poem end with one line less than the prior poem, thus the collection of 106 poems tapers into silence with the formal whisper of one line from each poet.

just time to pull on the feathered leggings (Hughes 105)

& swap love for light (Marsh 106)

Hughes has a gift for the telling chop of idiom while Marsh is an accomplished handler of the heft of figuration. Hughes’ boisterous humor is tempered by Marsh’s Latinate vocabulary and concrete poetry layouts. Thus split, the author-function twains the reader’s expectations and the actual reading experience of how she should know the author. Always the twain shall meet.

The following poems show how Hughes and Marsh become the change they wish to see in the world. To be clear, I certainly to not presume to know the writers’ political or aesthetical intentions: my claims are those of a reader discussing a text and the function of collaborative writing. Nonetheless, watch and listen to how they perform a shuffling together like a deck of odd and even subject positions, perceptions, local names and concerns:

what to you now are eyes
in nights to come will be stars

__________now the pickled onions are fantastic
___a first bite twists the spine 20 degrees
__anti-clockwise with left shoulder dipping
_so folks developed language & language
developed people which helped us knock through
but also dumped too much weight in the boot
_thus fucking up most front-wheel drives & those
__who squat in the backs of caves wondering
_______what star-light might be like in ideal worlds
______instead of smacking fat pigs with ping-pong
_____bats from which the rubber mat flaps free or
_______licking Swindon nymphs in the fairy-light
____________lit gloom of St Cecilia’s Day where
_______Purcell no it’s Mahler is humming you
___mustn’t enclose the night inside you you
_you must flood it in eternal light

Norfolk    St. Cecilia’s Day 2009 (Hughes 75)

 And below I include Marsh’s poem sent via email (our contemporary letter-writing medium) in response to Hughes’ poem above. These two poems show the call-and-response nature of the collaborative process. Converse to Chevy Chase notions of the lone genius working in his study in a cabin in the woods unmolested by society, these poems suggest the social nature of the creative writing process. After all, being hip means what more than being social? In collaborating to make special objects, Hughes and Marsh perform up to the potential of man as a social animal:

Happy birthday, John Abercrombie

Chipset notes
_Mahler’s beamless
__loft of sky
__quietly hewn
___from torrential rain
____& anchored slipshod
______to Earth’s off-centred girth
__________it’s my turn so
_________I stare as far as we can
________beyond where the jazz is
_______to warm tucks of
______magnetic heat
_____coiled round
___hollowed out melodies
daylight flickers
-and is gone

Varzi    December 2009 (Marsh 76)

Readers will note the place and year of where and when the poem was written left justified under each poem. This information brands each passage with the mortality suggested by the passing of time and space during travel. Some readers may read such branding gestures as claims, however false or true, constructed upon the authority of the local or of the locale. Obviously, this kind of biographical information does situate the word-play in a specific place and time and such placing does invest the poems with that certain auratic glow of having been there. However, essentialism is not a weakness in art: capturing essence is the goal of aesthetics. The essence of places is alluded to throughout the collection with the names of local beaches like Old Hunstanton and local lunch specials like Norfolk Pork & Haddock Chowder.

On the one hand, a collaborative poetry sequence like The Pistol Tree Poems implicates readers in the flux of two writers becoming one writer. Moreover, this back and forth between political worldviews and aesthetic sensibilities offers an extended example for the reader of how two poets can work together to become one poet. On the other hand, more conventional lyric poetry with its tacit narrative realism accepts as established fact that market-driven illusion of the subject as a stable and knowable noun. Here, I define more conventional lyric poetry as the poetry of those who own the means of production who, because it would lessen their comforts, do not trouble the category of the “I.” But what can it mean to punch the Marxian ringtone of “the means of production” in present times, when every desktop PC is a publishing house? How must discussing “the means of production” shift when a playful epistolary dialogue transpires via email between two buddies across Europe? How does an epistolary conversation become a pistol tree conversation? And exactly how much “Jameson’s in jam jars” must have been consumed? (Hughes 103)

In The Pistol Tree Poems the word “soul” comes up 15 times (on pages 2, 15, 17, 18, and twice on 23, 25, 35, 40, 43, 50, 54, 58, 72, and 78). I bring it up not because I mind the soul metaphor: Emily Dickinson uses it to booming effect. I point to the word “soul” because I want to use it to illustrate how collaborative writing can destabilize the propaganda undergirding a certain kind of subject position.

Can one own the self, mind, or soul (like so many other nouns on the commodity market)? If one can in fact own these social constructions, it follows logically that one can also own the other, the foreigner, or the absent author as part of the free-market of human resources. What if I’ve been duped into believing that I am I? In other words, what if the I-function is an instance-location in the social fabric of time and space scored into being by the architecture of our habits? With the help of the work of writers like Hughes and Marsh who play with words and with the function of authorship, readers too can be the change they wish to see in the world. For instance, what changes if one thinks of the self, mind, and soul as attributes or qualities pivoting along the continuum of social conventions rather than as commodities to be possessed?

Am I my own property or do I have properties? Am I a piece of property with properties? Simply owning a self, mind, or soul requires no active engagement with the wisdom I receive about these objects or traits. However, weighing the attributes and qualities of a self, mind, or soul demands both critical and creative thinking. If the pre-Socratics, Immanuel Kant, and Jiddu Krishnamurti teach us anything, they teach us that it is bad to think of people as objects. Fine, but what do ethics have to do with two people writing poetry together?

Through its conceptual structure and effects, collaborative poetry inveigles us to consider the shattered and displaced condition of our subjectivities. Through the pleasures and surprises directed by the effects of cutup and syntactic enjambment of units of sound and sense, Hughes and Marsh show readers the aesthetic value that can come from relaxing the ego muscle. Many twentieth-century writers have used the jarring effects of parataxis from Ezra Pound’s adaptation of Chinese and Japanese poetry, to Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso’s work together, to the canon of experimenters represented in collections such as Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry.

To collaborate well as a creative writer, one has to give up the 500 year old idea of the Humanist self as a unique consumer of “the real” as defined by the commodity market from the beginning of European colonial aggression in 1492 up to the email age. This review does nothing new by pointing to the transitory properties of identity. Such a gesture has deep roots all over the world from Greece to Ireland to India as illustrated by the documents of Heraclitian paradox, Socratic doubt, and Romantic poetries. Sometimes these gnarled old roots sprout questions and suggestions as I’ve tried to outline by discussing the political implications of writing and reading collaborative poetry.

As formal innovation, Hughes and Marsh’s collaboration in the form of The Pistol Tree Poems entices and challenges readers of contemporary poetry to consider how they themselves could collaborate in order to face their own crises of form in the age of internet, easy travel, and increasing global hardships. How do we readers of the English language, all hermits in the caves of capital, face the freight of our received wisdom?