Maggie O’Sullivan: Palace of Reptiles

Maggie O’Sullivan, Palace of Reptiles. The Gig, 109 Hounslow Avenue, Willowdale, ON M2N 2B1, Canada. 72pp A5, £8. ISBN 0-9685294-2-9.

Maggie O’Sullivan’s new book, rescued by The Gig from the publication limbo which saw it first announced in 1995, is a welcome and enlightening addition to an already substantial body of work. No book should have to wait so long to be published, and no book could have avoided being hurt by the delay. Palace of Reptiles should have been around to participate, as its author did, in the most intense period of contact between poets of her immediate generation in the UK and North America: it needs to be read alongside her seamless and often very funny collaboration with Bruce Andrews, eXcla (Writers Forum 1993), and as part of the intense burst of communication which gave rise to her (I almost said seminal) anthology, Out of Everywhere: linguistically innovative poetry by women in North America & the UK (Reality Street Editions 1996).

Palace of Reptiles is probably the last-published of O’Sullivan’s books to have been composed on a manual typewriter rather than a computer. While it’s true that the existence of electronic texts created directly by their author opens up possibilities for distribution which essentially didn’t exist in the mid-nineties (the next time an O’Sullivan book goes without a publisher, someone, maybe the author herself, will post a .pdf file on the web and we’ll have it the same day), there are losses too. I’ll miss the closeness to the poet’s typescript-as-punched-out-score afforded by O’Sullivan’s many photocopied pamphlets from presses such as Writers Forum (Bob Cobbing’s multi-coloured realisation of A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts, produced for O’Sullivan’s own Magenta Press in 1985 is the most physically beautiful book I own). Equally important will be the ending, or diminution, of the sensitively-collaborative process by which the publishers and typesetters of her three perfect-bound collections (Unofficial Word(Galloping Dog Press 1988), In the House of the Shaman (Reality Street Editions 1993) and the present volume) have interpreted her monospaced typescripts into proportionally-spaced text which will pleasingly activate a page smaller than that on which it was composed. The time taken shows: Palace of Reptiles is a pleasure to read from.

The collection’s first written statement, “Birth Palette”, is preceded by three visual images, two of them wordless. The book’s cover reproduces a detail from a mixed-media assemblage called “Bound to Be Blue”, the form of which is echoed more than once in the text:

Part of ‘theoretical economies‘ is a BANNER.
It is one six foot length of bamboo pole horizontally
suspended from the ceiling somewhere in the centre of
the room.    On this length of bamboo all available
diamond-shaped cards are to be hung.    These cards
are to be glued together, edge by edge, in rows of
alternating colours up & down & across, so that a
‘patchwork’ effect is achieved.    On completion, the
BANNER should measure about six feet square.

(p.19)

Next up is a sparely-elegant collage of photocopied slivers, suggesting in form the dancer who is one of the central personages of the long poem “DOUBTLESS”. Thirdly, there is a page of small stencilled silhouettes of animals, arranged in concentric circles:

Dry each lead animal in turn with a portable hair-
dryer. AS THE ANIMALS ARE DRY, PLACE THEM, ONE BY
ONE, ONTO A LARGE SQUARE OF WHITE CLOTH.
A BLOODIED STAIN SEEPING OUT ITS CENTRE.

(p.16)

As well as reminding us that O’Sullivan is a visual artist as well as a poet, these visual/verbal cross-references are signals of the book’s unusually open texture. Palace of Reptiles is more accepting than much of O’Sullivan’s work of the possibility of “GOING IN & OUT OF SONG” (p.52) – that a deep material involvement with the form of words might be undercut or leavened by descriptive or discursive language, which itself must be undermined:

The works I make Celebrate ORigins/ENtrances — the
Materiality of Language: its actual contractions &
expansions, potentialities, prolongments, assemblages —
the acoustic, visual, oral & sculptural qualities
within the physical:    intervals between; in & beside.
Also, the jubilant seep    In So of Spirit — Entanglement
with vegetations, thronged weathers, puppy-web we agreed
animals.    Articulations of the Earth of Language    that is
Minglement, Caesura, Illumination.
Heart.

(p. 64)

While this openness means that Palace of Reptiles lacks something of the cinematic immersiveness of such long poems as “Another Weather System” from In the House of the Shaman, I suspect it makes this book easier to approach for a reader who hasn’t heard O’Sullivan perform her work: the contrasts of pace are pointed for you, you don’t always have to intuit them yourself from word to word.

“Birth Palette” is one of O’Sullivan’s very best short poems, remarkable from its multiply-self-echoing trochaic opening:

Lizard air lichens ivy driven urchin’s pry to a pounce.
Scribbled terrestrial traor, the paw actions tainy blee
scoa, blue scog

(read it aloud, slowly), to the closing evocation, more economical than Beckett, of birth and/or execution:

Jackal woke fresh, key made from Butterfly depths,
the Chrysalis,
the Spider.
Asterisms liced from the Skull
Nerve Surge.
Expulsions to a Rope.

O’Sullivan’s insistence on human “Kinship with Animals” (another title from In the House of the Shaman) recognises also the extent to which animals are subjected to technological and symbolic processing in their transition to food or art:

untilled kestrels carded,
ancestrous to a Song

or

Pig gathers in the lemon.
Cow, later of wood.

(and if a “wood” cow is also a mad cow, the “madder bled meat” that appears elsewhere in the book, the poem serves as a warning against the consequences of lacking imaginative identification with other living beings).

The two poems “narcotic properties” and “theoretical economies” spring from a region which is inalienably O’Sullivan’s, though it has parallels in the constructions and performances of Joseph Beuys, and the imaginary installations (“Written Rooms and Pencilled Crimes”) of Brian Catling. While they are filled with unstably-meticulous recipes for action

Wash THE FOLLOWING LEAD ANIMALS: trout, dog,
tiger, owl, moth, wolf, cat, drake, bat, fish,
pig, dolphin, buffalo, bee, scorpion, snake,
eagle, crab, goat, salmon, turtle.    IT IS IMPORTANT
TO WASH THESE LEAD ANIMALS WITH songerings-a-rung,
a-chant, a roughy
unsway
& stirs

(p. 16)

it’s never really possible to decide whether the actions are therapeutic rites, performances in a gallery space, or the private rituals of an obsessive-compulsive (“This connection (with how big is what is underneath; / at the foot of the BANNER on the floor) is vital.” – p. 18), but the mobility of O’Sullivan’s eye, panning from gallery views to close-ups of the language which made them

                                        on the final word of the keep,
place various pieces of air, spurious to stone, so that
the last words move w/fur pipistrelle circles
brood to skin-broken, pinched eye

(p.17),

is light years from Catling’s grand guignol, making these poems into deeply, humorously disquieting constructions that lodge in the mind.

The title “Now to the Ears” suggests a deliberate turning towards sensory evidence (in “narcotic properties” there “is no sound”): this is an almost unbearably intense enaction of perception, an opening of the senses to bloody nature in which the self is obliterated:

Ones
w/the Brink
Engouled
Skull    Brain
Boned Out
Mind Broke

be.al.di.di.
chats & thrushes
caca
configurations

                (p.28).

O’Sullivan’s humour offers a stick to the drowning one, in “wailed, wailed to the Peer of Liver Dance —” (how could she not subvert Michael Flatley?) and the poem’s charmingly beautiful ending,

the waste of it

sob — tick (ticca) — told.te.me.

Don’t Only Dance

shimmish?

                (p.30)

points forward, in its off-kilter word-coinage, to the shimmying, shimmering skirmish that is the book’s longest single poem, “DOUBTLESS”.

I have to say first of all that I find “DOUBTLESS” a very difficult poem to write about, which is not at all to say that it’s difficult to read. Part of the difficulty, for me, is a result of the long delay in the book’s appearance: I’ve known parts of the poem (from magazine extracts) since the mid-nineties, and it’s strange now to see, in defamiliarising context, passages which have worn themselves smooth in my mind. I’m also a little unsure of how self-contained the poem on the page actually is: the acknowledgements say that the poem’s “setting/title” “came out of a live art performance/collaboration of Poetry Sculpture Dance Sound & Movement” in which O’Sullivan participated in 1992. I’m not sure if knowing this fact has led me to experience the poem as somehow incomplete, as if its language cries out to be the accompaniment for a live, physical movement external to its own ballet of the speech-organs.

Of the poem’s three “characters”, the Painter, the Poet and the Dancer, only the Painter is represented as male (an intriguing choice in a poem written by a woman who also paints), and his relationship to the world he represents seems coercive and egotistical:

He moves to strap the faunal & avian
Crow-Crow Crawl to his
melanic beating sand
to spittle of
Impact
Attentioning
to
Exist

(p. 32)

leading to the closest thing to a mordant judgement in all of O’Sullivan’s work:

                                    There he measures & scrys the
sticks.    The long, long sticks.    And begins to build
the Curlew Leap from his mouth —
Pale Massiveness of Pipe —
Thistle
Cornelian
Pulsing & Grave he
Oxen cloth of works —

In the West

it Occurs,
Consider.

(p. 33)

The Poet, by contrast, who steps forward to speak (as the others do in turn) in first-person capitals, is subjected to nature, a dramatisation of the suffering voice that was presented as lyric in “Now to the Ears”:

HER SIPS OF UTTERANCE
HER CLUNG CLUNG HEATS —

SO THAT I WAS
UP-
TURNED
ROOT
PICKING CARRION,
A BARNACLE TO THE WALL,
BIRTHING THE WORDS I FELL THROUGH
BEATING THE WAY —
ITS VERY — BUT NO —
IT COULD HAVE BEEN ANYONE’S
AXING OUT
OR
DANCING
THE INNER PRONG
TO A KINDLING

OF
HARE

KNIFEWISE —

(p. 34).

The figure of the Dancer, not subjected to but part of the world she dances to and in, calls up the most lithely beautiful writing in the whole book:

The Dancer —

Jink —
Jointed
Uprised & Birth —

Stretching, Strung

Plover, low lowing in a far field
AY — PR — PRO — LONGED, LESQUING — OFF — OFF —
(fell, fell, soft)

An Oar Broken —
Axis
Drove Out —

(Recede, Approach, Recede)

(splotched, traction, trashing)

(p. 50)

– no apologies for substituting long quotations for a reading I don’t really know how to write. I’ve always experienced O’Sullivan’s poetry from the bottom up, amazed by the intensity with which the interlocking of word with word builds up into passages whose syntax might be deeply unconventional, but whose pace and movement is graspable in an instant by the eye moving across the page. That said, the time is now overdue for a top-down reading of O’Sullivan, one which recognises the deep awareness of history, anthropology and myth which is a central and structuring presence in her poetry.

The final section of Palace of Reptiles, “riverrunning (realisations”, is based on a talk given by O’Sullivan at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1993. It’s as close to a Poetics as anything we have from her, though it does suffer a little in being published so far away from its time and place of origin. A collage of autobiographical material, self-quotation, and an acknowledgement of influences (from The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry to Velimir Klebnikov and Jerome Rothenberg), it reads a bit stiffly without the author’s validating presence as performer. I’m grateful for the auto-destructive dream-notation of

(Include a Nightmare — i am in the house i grew in my family
abound me    Charles Bernstein & 2 aides alarm the fading door
they have bicycled in the rain    i know this because when i
move my air in greeting his hand drips all & of none    clanging
back the waters    so nervous & so tore my tongue frets &
webbing Bided        the 3 settee & ask me every piling up of
me my talk    i cannot speak    my family hover in multiple &
little spits of outness gentle    danny flexes the sun

(p. 60),

but miss the lightness and wit with which O’Sullivan says it all in her poem for Jean Cocteau’s Orphée:

Each night, poetry beats its fish.

(p. 15).


This review first appeared in issue 5 of The Paper. A CD of Maggie O’Sullivan reading her work her/story:eye is available from Stem Recordings.

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