reading p.inman - part one
Be prepared for the possibility that I will get many things horribly, hilariously wrong. The motivation for this post and the others that will follow, although I'm not currently sure how many that will be, is that I'm simultaneously enjoying and finding it hard to come to an understanding of P.Inman's work. Therefore I've decided to document my thoughts on reading Ad Finitum - which at present I have done in full twice, and will do several times more in the course of these posts. The intention is to write about each poem individually, and see whether I am able to summarise anything useful by the time I reach the last poem. But I will not offer a minute analysis of every poem in the order in which they appear in the book, rather I will start by looking at a poem, and will then shift back and forward through the book. The exception is this first post, which will spend a lot of time examining the first poem in the book, ilieu (2), for reasons that I will make clear.
As this is a dynamic ongoing process I am interested in your comments. Not so much about what individual poems are 'about', or about whether you really like or dislike the posts as they emerge. What interests me more are any reading strategies that you think may be effective, that you apply to texts, or indeed that you may have used with this very book. Where I would be interested in 'meaning' or whether you like/dislike the posts is where you think I may be getting things horribly, hilariously wrong, and don't want to see me chasing off into the distance after something that isn't there.
If you'd like to follow my reading alongside the actual text of Ad Finitum then you can follow this link to the books page of if p then q and order a copy there. In fact even if you can't be bothered with my ramblings I'd suggest you go and buy a copy anyway.
Let's start with the title. Is ilieu a fragment of another word? Is it perhaps milieu, or is it a foreign word that unlike milieu has yet to be adopted by English? At a stretch, and there will be a lot of stretching in these posts, it might be a pun or wordplay on Iliad. Admittedly unlikely but perhaps worth keeping in mind. The other part of the title, (2), suggests there might be an original ilieu that I haven't read. Already the questions have begun and understanding is withheld for a little. Not letting the title detain us too long we turn over to the poem.
The first word, or part of a word, is st., including the full point. There is no indication as to whether this is the beginning of a word, or the end of a word, or perhaps an abbreviation/contraction - saint, street. The full point is significant, it doesn't seem to be just a stop. The book is full of full points and other punctuation used in unconventional ways. Almost every word in ilieu (2) is followed by a full point so we have to think about how they should be approached. Do they represent punctuation, breath, a caesura, or some more personal symbol indicating how the poem should be read? Or are they merely there to make the reader slow down. Or perhaps they show that something is missing, that part of a word or sentence has been cut off by by the full point. Perhaps the abbreviated words, the punctuation, are a form of shorthand.
Let's try to move on. The next word is august., again with the full point. Are we to read this as august, or perhaps as something else, augustine possibly? St. Augustine is a tempting reading of st. august. even though it means that the full point represents something different each time. But I don't think that it's possible to close down the meaning to a single possibility in this way. I think part of the reason for the apparent opacity is to keep open the range of meanings available to the reader. In this sense the full points might be seen as points at which the possibilities of the poem open up. Each suggests a number of readings of the word to which it's attached, and a number of ways for that word to relate to the words around it.
Finally on the first line of the poem we have ice'pl., once more including the full point. But what is more interesting, or a least more novel at this stage is the apostrophe. What purpose does it serve? Conventionally it can show possession (Peter's book), omission (Peter's a writer), or be used to close a quote (Peter said, 'August'). If we look at only the conventional uses then neither possession nor quotation is likely. Omission is possible, but the poems read as though they are full of omissions. We've already examined the possibility that full points might represent omissions. Is it possible that different punctuation marks will be used for the same purpose? If so, why? Is it part of a visual scheme for the poem? Or the punctuation may come from some more personal, idiosyncratic place. Let's look then at 'pl. or possibly just pl. Is it the abbreviation for plural? If so, why is the apostrophe there, and what is the relationship to ice?
I'm taking a long time over the early stages of the of the book to reflect the experience of reading Inman, and to introduce ideas that will recur and slowly develop through the reading process - at least I hope they'll develop. I also want to capture some sense of the fascination I feel, to indicate why I'm choosing to read a book that seems so resistant to reading. I want to demonstrate the attraction of the writing, the radical possibilities that it opens up, and the trust which it places in the reader. At the same time I also have to acknowledge that people find it extremely off-putting. An intelligent (I'd say a lot smarter than me) and by no means conservative friend who is also an artist showed an absolute distaste for the book. 'It's just maths', was one comment. They believed that the work was simply the result of sterile generative processes, and could see nothing of any human interest in it. I disagreed, but even having read the book twice, and some sections far more than that, and having spent time writing the notes from which this post is drawn I still couldn't say exactly why I think that opinion is wrong.
Another question that exercised me immediately on opening the book is how do you edit a work like this? Is it by feeling? Now certainly James Davies has a far longer experience of linguistically innovative writing than I do, and in particular of P.Inman's writing since that's what we're discussing. But other than (possibly) an instant answer what would be the purpose of asking James Davies, P.Inman himself, or any of his other editors, what they understand by particular aspects of the work? What's on the page is what's intended to be read, we have to start and finish there.
So to return to the text and worry again at that recalcitrant st. It recurs a few times within the two short pages of the poem - in august., in last, whitenst., and as st. again. Is this deliberate, accidental or something not quite either? Does the meaning of st., if there is a meaning, change? Is that part of the point? That written language is a limited number of combinations of a limited number of symbols, representing a limited number of sounds, arranged into 'words' that represent ideas and objects (to grossly simplify matters). So st. can be many things, saint or street, or the beginning (static), part of the middle (blister), or the end (list) of a word. Some, any or all of these at once. But going back to an earlier part of this paragraph, that whitenst., what is it? Is it an archaism (thou whitenst)? It doesn't seem very likely. Is the st. or perhaps just the t. an interloper, something added to the word to create confusion. Maybe there should be a gap in the word, whiten st.? Perhaps it's wordplay, a mispronunciation of 'witnessed'. And of course the sound of 'essed' is effectively identical at the end of a word if not in isolation to the sound of 'st'. Not that replacing st. with essed throughout would make the poem or the book any clearer.
Again, let's try to move on. It's unlikely we'll ever reach an answer by that sort of speculation. I suspect it may be the equivalent of trying to drive a car though soft sand by revving the engine in high gear, you're only likely to kick up dust and get your wheels stuck. It may instead be more fruitful to read one or more poems in their entirety a few times and see what emerges from that process. Where poems are presented as limited blocks of text on a page it makes more sense to read the whole a few times. The whole may shed light on the parts, and certain of the parts may shed light on the whole. That said, a couple of simple exercises that I have found to work in the past on challenging writing, which can radically affect and improve my understanding of a piece, haven't really worked in this case. One is to copy out a poem or piece of text. Here the only noticeable change was to become more acutely aware of the spatial arrangement of the poem and of relationships between parts of the poem that are not strictly linear. The other is to read the poem or piece of text aloud, but there are immediate and obvious questions. Do you pause? Where do you pause, for how long? How are unfamiliar elements pronounced? What account do I take of punctuation marks and parentheses? How quickly should words follow one another? Where there seems to be a pun or some wordplay is that real or imagined, should I draw attention to it?
Of course many (or most, or all) of these questions are questions that we have to resolve while reading any text. Most texts, however, follow a predictable set of rules in a relatively consistent manner. Here those rules are thrown into question, which could of course be part of the intention.
But as I suggested, it does begin to look more sensible to read through several poems at a time, then reread as often as seems necessary. Even if understanding doesn't immediately emerge there is at least the comfort of familiar words and fragments recurring - st, pl, whiten, ice, and others that don't appear first until later - neap and agnes for instance. Later in the book the poems fill out a little, they even start to resemble poems constructed out of recognisable sentences. It is as though the book rather than the individual poem is the unit we should look at if we want to reach an understanding. So for instance elements of pluper or qua at the end of the book may be illuminated by ilieu (2) or aengus at the beginning which may in turn open up sided or situ in the middle of the book. Which itself raises a question of why I assume a non-linear reading. Why not assume that an understanding might be cumulative? Again I'm not sure and could be wrong, but it seems from my experience that the book makes a certain sense read this way. That you do flick forward and back from any given poem, drawing clues from various locations in the text.
Notwithstanding that I haven't got past the first poem's title and opening line there will be more of this shortly. Future posts will proceed a lot more quickly, my main aim here was to set out initial thoughts, questions and reactions to contextualise what follows, and to give some impression of the ways I've approached the text. Watch this space for the next instalment.