The Gestaltbunker: Selected Poems, 1965-2010
174pp., Shearsman Books, £10.95
The eponymous poem to this varied and stylistically-meaty retrospective, ‘The Gestaltbunker’, contains a startling line which encapsulates many of the effects and fruitful frustrations of Green’s Selected Poems. We are told that
each word jerks off into the void
Not only does the form here echo the sense, with the gap between the ‘word’ and the ‘void’ (i.e. the disjunction between sign and signified) represented by line’s blank, but the sense is self-reflexively difficult to glean. The brilliant and disorientating circularity of this line is not unique in Green’s work. There are many such instances (‘the world is eating the sum of its parts’), and they are deployed with an impressive intelligence which is not meant to confuse but to demonstrate the surreal logic of Green’s worlds. In short, this rewarding difficulty is typical of a poet whose work is muscular and challenging through and through.
Green is a natural experimenter, and this trait is demonstrated effectively over the course of his book, which charts a career spanning 45 years. There are large, sprawling poems such as ‘Basement Mix’ and ‘The Slow Ceremony’; prose poems; poems propelled by a rapper’s attitude (‘SIT DOWN SHADDUP YA KNOW WHAT I MEAN / ONE WORD IN MY HAND GONNA CLEAN YOUR SCREEN’); and a poem conceived as a video poem for television (‘The Slow Learning’). What remains consistent throughout the selection, however, is Green’s experimental faculty, which inhabits new voices and styles with confidence and ease. We get the sense that Green has always been a poet pushing for new experimentation as his interests shift and mutate over time. All this linguistic and stylistic play can occasionally lead to an awkwardness of delivery (such as in the collection’s opener, ‘Aquarius’, where the direct address becomes grating as the poem progresses), but there is a great quotation from Gertrude Stein which might give us (and Green) some leverage. In her Picasso, Stein observes:
Picasso once said that he who created a thing is forced to make it ugly. In the effort to create the intensity and the struggle creates this intensity, the result always produces a certain ugliness, those who follow can make of this thing a beautiful thing because they know what they are doing, the thing having already been invented, but the inventor because he does not know what he is going to invent inevitably the thing he makes must have its ugliness.
Green has affinities with the warping imaginative approach of the modernist experimenters. Lines like ‘your future could be sharp, bloody and glittering as a looted shop front. Or as lumpy as your first baby-food’ seem imagistically confused and impenetrable, but occasionally Green hits on a Beckettian mix of the lyric (or even the Romantic) and the experimental. It is on these occasions that his work becomes most captivating and memorable: ‘Noah’s houseboat wallows through the wine-dark sea’. Its compromise is effective and deeply-felt.
Green describes to us disturbing worlds, riddling with the difficulties of logic and sense, and yet often these worlds seem to be as difficult to him as they appear to be to the reader. His nature is uninterested in man: where Wordsworth’s nature may be described as the vehicle for his thoughts, Green’s doesn’t take much notice of the poet at all. In ‘The Slow Ceremony’, for example, the flowers are simply ‘existing’, and in ‘Basement Mix’ Green acknowledges the speaker’s own sense of his separateness:
outside the speckled window
church gongs time tremors
through a whole pearly sky
that won’t need me to milk it
and pink wet hydrangeas
It is man, not nature, who bears the weight of Green’s force. In one of his most impressive cityscapes, ‘Metropolis’, nature’s haunting absence pervades the poem. The opening image, reminiscent of the empty chair or rocking swing so often used to depict loss, shows the deliberate and shocking self-destruction of humankind:
another diplomat hangs himself to swing slowly
like a briefcase bulging with small burnt sins
Just as we might hang up pictures, decorations, even coats, Green’s diplomat hangs up his own life, becoming the very briefcase he has worked so hard to stuff with corporate achievements. This ironic futility brings us back to Green’s subtle circularities, which distort logic just as they offer to deconstruct it.
The result of this is that we are never allowed any certainty of belief or understanding, with Green constantly pulling the solid ground from under our feet. He gives us precise, exacting detail only to undercut his own sureness with a qualifier, a technique which frustrates as much as it illustrates our need for sense. In these lines from ‘The Throne Room’, the firm and decisive ‘are’ and ‘is’ are harried by immediate uncertainties:
The sources of light are outside the room, somewhere in the tubular tunnels diffused, diffracted, perhaps.
In the mouth of the north-west tunnel, a throne is stationary. It is probably no longer in use…
Uncertainty is coupled with exactitude, lines offer sense just as they deny it, ‘words jerk off into the void’.
This dystopian, experimental poetry skirts the fringes of a variety of forms and styles, but ultimately undercuts each to form its own unique idiom, situated somewhere at the very edge of logic. It is drenched in science, astronomy, and pop-culture, yet it also borrows from Romanticism, post-modernism, and spoken word. It is purposefully and excitingly frustrating, and it is a credit to Green’s dynamism that he has pursued different forms of experimentation throughout his career. This book is one for lovers of the surreal, for those who prefer the uncategoriseable to the mainstream. It won’t be a bestseller – and is definitely an opinion-splitter – but it makes you think, makes you argue with the words on the page, makes you defend yourself, and makes you aware, in an unsettling but addictive way, of your own position as a reader. The Gestaltbunker is a challenge, calling for courage and tenacity in its audience, but if worked at, a book that confidently repays the debts it demands.
Seán Hewitt, 21, recently graduated from Girton College, Cambridge, with a degree in English. His poetry has been published in magazines including Agenda, The SHOp, Northwords Now, Crannóg, The Cadaverine and The Mays XIX, amongst others. In 2011, he won the Rima Alamuddin Prize, and he has recently been nominated for a Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. He will be Apprentice Poet-in-Residence at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival. He keeps a blog at seanhewitt.blogspot.co.uk, and tweets @seanehewitt.