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Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Guest Review by Kayo Chingonyi: ‘The Terrors’ by Tom Chivers

‘The Terrors’ is, by nature, a mysterious book. Even the preface, in
which the sequence is introduced as ‘a series of imagined emails to
inmates at Newgate Prison between […] 1700 and 1760’, is far from
explanatory. However, what might seem an overly complex book is shown
by attentive reading to be an engaging, if not always immediately
understandable, work of linguistic playfulness and incisive satire.

It is, perhaps, the juxtaposition of such a contemporary form of
discourse as the email with the style of the 18th century Newgate
Calendar which throws up the most questions. In some quarters it is
felt that since email has, in many ways, usurped snail mail we might
one day, as Michael Ravitch envisages*, appreciate the email as a
literary form rather than just a means to the end of relaying a
message.

The opening poem ‘A Guide to Email Etiquette’ serves as an orientation
to the world the reader is about to enter as well as an introduction
to the tropes at work in the book as a whole:

Don’t make personal remarks.
Don’t send unsuitable email.
Don’t mention Lilly’s hieroglyph.

The shift in register from the diction of an acceptable use policy to
the historical ‘Lilly’s hieroglyph’ hints at the tonal and referential
shifts that follow in the rest of the book. This approach suggests
that History (or, more specifically, Time) be understood as the
concurrent interplay of past, present and future. Well worn though
this notion may be; what is striking is the absorbing and, ultimately,
compelling way in which it is examined by Chivers.

Of the book’s successes the foremost, to my mind, are the emails
addressed to William Dodd, a clergyman, and sometime poet, who fell
into disrepute after being convicted of forgery. Dodd numbered Samuel
Johnson among campaigners for his release but not even an extensive
petition could save him and he was hanged. The plight of a prisoner
awaiting a very public death is captured with great skill in this
passage from ‘Terra Incognito’:

It’s a doddle, Will: just get yourself a pen to write
your soul’s way
outta there. In place of Shepherd’s rusty nail and
knotted sheets
you’ll have a memoir worth the reading.

This satirical look at the consolation offered by notoriety after
death not only brings into focus our morbid fascination with those who
teeter at the precipice but also the human need for recognition. This
is explored further in ‘speculate to accumulate’ which begins ‘Treat
this as fan mail, or whatever’ and goes on to explore the manner in
which criminality can bolster one’s ambitions for ‘infamy’. In the
face of an increased focus on the description of the ‘criminal
classes’ in today’s society it seems precious little has changed.

Elsewhere in the pamphlet Chivers muses on the fates of some of
Newgate’s other notorious inmates in fine style. Not least in ‘Other
Side’ where the parade to the gallows is described in all its horror
with an ear for the music of the words:

Ox-cart’s a pretty way to go. Clipping, shipping, scaling, lightening.
Thank god you were throttled before you were burnt.

This poem, in particular, is one in which the juxtaposition of
eighteenth century London and that of the present day is employed to
great effect in the shift from ‘Ox-cart[s]’ to ‘burger vans’ humming
in the following stanza.

Though I did find this approach illuminating I did feel that some of
the poems suffered because, since I hadn’t read the Newgate Calendar,
there were a number of references which I didn’t understand. For me
this challenged the notion that a poem must be ‘got’ to be enjoyed but
there are, I’m sure, some readers who would be turned off by the
pamphlet’s occasional murkiness. Ultimately, though, I found the
sequence to hold genuine interest beyond a single reading both as a
way in to the history of London and as an exploration of what can be
achieved in the email format.

What are we, then, to make of Chivers’ exploration of the email as a
literary form? For me the most useful way into the pamphlet is in the
description of the work as a set of ‘imagined’ missives. This sequence
announces a poet awake to the strangeness thrown up by flights of
imagination which variously place the snappy media-speak of our
information age aside the gratuitous crime reportage of 18th century
London.

The fact that this pamphlet was published by Nine Arches Press, a
relatively new player on the scene, says a lot about the freedom of
small press publishing. Here is a poet tackling the contemporary
sphere without recourse to the continual use of explicitly topical
references. It is this freedom which makes the small press and the
pamphlet an essential part of poetry publishing. Long may Nine Arches
release books of this calibre. The Terrors is well worth a look for
those who enjoy poetry that defies easy reduction.

Tom Chivers, The Terrors, (Nine Arches Press, 2009), £5
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