Friday, 28 January 2011

Guest Review: Van-Hagen on Ttoouli

Steve Van-Hagen reviews
by George Ttoouli

In Static Exile, George Ttoouli, who will be known to some as the co-editor (with Simon Turner) of Gists and Piths, produces a debut collection of thirty-three poems that is an exciting, energetic fusion of myth, legend, satire, dark comedy and sheer surrealism. Often esoteric and always eclectic, Ttoouli’s is a collection and an aesthetic in which a B-movie, jobseeking Godzilla who is being hounded by the immigration authorities, the M.O.D. and the tabloid press can (and does) rub shoulders with (no) Oedipus, (no) Spartans, Atlantis, New Orleans, Gomorrah, Poseidon, minotaurs, Crete’s White Mountains, Venus, the Gorgon’s reflection, Aphrodite, Sleepwalkers, Mnemosyne and the bay of Tarsos (indeed all of these appear in just one poem, in the selection from “Parchment, Scalpel, Rock”). Ghosts (of many varied descriptions), dryads, an AEginan, Athena, and Minerva also make their appearances while, at their more provincial, exoteric opposite, the Conwy Valley also figures in poem titles, and “Artefact” concerns, its epigraph tells us, “Riding the Bus Northwards from Tottenham Court Road to Finchley”. Likewise, in “For Lilly”, we meet material as everyday as:

a Mothercare bag a Tesco bag a dishcloth a collection of tea towels a
woman’s belly button ring with a turquoise stone a pair of women’s
pyjamas size 12-14 sold by BHS in 2002 a pair of women’s pants size
12 from Debenhams a pair of black socks shards of electric flex six
Miles from Stratford four miles from Alcester

The epigraph of “Gists and Piths” is a Poundian homage – “A Japanese student in America, on being asked the difference between prose and poetry, said: Poetry consists of gists and piths – Ezra Pound” – and the eclecticism of the collection’s referentiality, its blending of the esoteric and exoteric, obviously recall Pound at several stages of his career.

            A number of recurrent styles and themes are apparent in Static Exile, however imaginatively they are sometimes invoked. A (very) selective list might include: the natural world (“Driving through the Conwy Valley”, “Optimism”), relationships (“Dear K”), politics, either in specific geographical locales of the world (as in “Ghosts” or “Noise Reduction”) or in a more general concern with outsiders, aliens and exiles, and the place(s) the marginalised (are forced to) occupy (“Static Exile”, “For Lilly”, “Fable”, “To Joe, from Kris”). Several poems engage with postmodern self-referentiality (“This Poem all the Time”; “Peaks”). A number of poems evince a fascination with the boundaries between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’ (e.g. “Mutatis mutandi”, “The GNER ‘Flight’ ”) and, playing with the idea of the poetry collection in competition with one of the pre-eminent visual home entertainment media of our day, the DVD, the satirical-epic title poem is followed three poems from the collection’s end with “Static Exile: DVD Extras”, containing “Deleted Scenes > Monster in Hiding”, and “Audio Commentary > The Monster Speaks”.

It is in its writing about politics, however, that for all of the evident influences of Greek mythology and experimental, late- / neo- / post-modernist aesthetics, and despite the references to bags from Mothercare or Tesco, that Static Exile brings us most sharply into the present moment. In “Love on a Monday Evening”, for instance, we are unmistakably in the present when the speaker informs us:

            An Arab sat opposite me on the train.
            I had taken the first carriage,

            the one we had imbued with likely death
            in a way we can only substantiate for each other.
            My fingers filled with static and my blood turned

            to white noise. I could describe him for you,
            a quick photo-fit sketch, but mostly it was his stubble
            and the wart on his left cheek, like in

            news reports. I have a spot in the same place
            on my right cheek. You’ve never called me
            a terrorist when I’ve not shaved for that long ...

The mixture of absurdity, comedy and the cutting satirical point is characteristic.

This same dissection of the socio-political present is apparent nowhere more than in the eleven-page title poem that arguably towers over the other works in the collection, much like the Godzilla-cum-Frankenstein figure whose story it largely tells. The monster is – as monsters usually are – a symbol of an all-encompassing ‘other’ figure, representing the poor, those without work, immigrants, the victims of petty officialdom and power-hungry authoritarian regimes that masquerade as democracies: it “has swum upstream for years / in its Sunday best / seeking employment” with a birth certificate that the authorities claim “has not been issued / by a recognised government” because “That regime ended decades ago –“, despite the fact that it has “today’s date” on it. The poem is presented as if in the form of a film that is being shot, at the same time as news crews are reporting on the story being told as part of this film, so emphasising the focus in the media on the style and presentation of the narratives they deliver up to us, without thought for the ethical dimensions of these stories (or the ethics of presenting them to us in sensationalised ways). “MORE EXPLOSIONS MORE FUCKING EXPLOSIONS”, we are told as the monster is being hunted, as if the wishes of a director, film crews and the authorities have coalesced. The scene is set for us as if we were reading a film script: “EXT. EAST VIEWOF THAMES FROM LONDON BRIDGE”; “EXT. TYPICAL LONDON STREET”. The poem’s targets are various, but the rhetoric of the tabloid media and its cynical demonisation of otherness in all its forms, looms large; as does the sinister, Orwellian manipulation of language by the authorities, and the abuse of anti-terror powers granted to them post-9/11. Mock tabloid headlines form a chorus, marking the (anti-)progress of the narrative: “MONSTER STEALING JOBS / FROM INDIGENOUS JOBS”; “CUSTOMS LET MONSTER IN: HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?” / “MONSTER’S ANCESTRY TRACED / TO ANCIENT CIVILISATION”; “MONSTER’S E-MAILS INTERCEPTED / BY COUNTER-TERRORISTS”; “GOVT. PASSES BILL / OUTLAWING MONSTERS”; “SWAN POPULATIONS DECIMATED BY MONSTER”; “M.O.D. PLEDGES: MONSTER WILL NOT LIVE ANOTHER DAY”. The monster’s final speech, although (significantly) relegated to an ‘Audio Commentary’ in the “DVD Extras”, reveal him, in an obvious allusion to Frankenstein’s monster, to be the most articulate speaker involved in proceedings:

            I was born in a snowstorm
            of English cherry blossom
            a red sunrise in April where light
            could have fallen for the first time
            and I stitched my mouth shut with every X
            I wasted on the ballot.

Static Exile makes a compelling case for the power of satire, dark comedy and surrealism in contemporary experimental / linguistically innovative poetry, particularly when married with political conviction and commitment and even, when it is justified, anger. Some of the poems are very funny, though they remind us, to paraphrase the words of the critic L.C. Knights, that comedy is a serious business, concerned with serious, urgent subjects. Ttoouli’s work is challenging and multivalent; sometimes resisting definitive interpretation, it repays rereading. Those who like the sound of its ambition could do worse than get hold of Static Exile and, having made it to the DVD extras at the end, treat themselves to a repeat showing or two.


Steve Van-Hagen is the editor of James Woodhouse’s The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: A Selection (Cheltenham: The Cyder Press, 2005) and currently has two books forthcoming from Greenwich Exchange Press, The Poetry of Mary Leapor and The Poetry of Jonathan Swift.
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