‘The instability of definitions and the volatility of signs and signifiers’ – Plants by James Davies

As befitting a book so concerned with the instability of definitions and the volatility of signs and signifiers, with the connection and disconnection between what is being said and what is being apprehended, Plants, the first full collection by James Davies, has a title that is plural in more ways than one. What does it refer to? The most obvious first thought is of living organisms. This is a useful definition, for the pieces in this collection are dynamic, changeable and responsive to their environment. Just as a tree will soak up carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, so these poems absorb what is around them and give the reader back a new way of seeing. Those of us familiar with green baize may think of snooker, where a plant is a shot that involves playing one ball so that it strikes and pots another and this too is apt: this is a book of unlikely angles and causal collisions, of poems resulting from situations where less skilled practitioners would not think poems possible. But perhaps the most pertinent definition is that of a plant as an object that is not what it appears to be or does not have the provenance that it appears not to have, something that deliberately misleads, for this is a book of red herrings and false trails, but false trails that lead somewhere far more interesting than the beaten track. What looks like a cul-de-sac turns out to be a new path to the waterfall.

Plants opens with a lengthy sequence titled Unmades, twenty-eight pieces that deconstruct the notion of the poem as object. Most of the Unmades exist as declarations of what does not exist, for example:

The Green Bikini

                This is not the original title of the poem

                Deleted on 13th April 2005

Others stand in for what is not presented, such as:

Bottle Bank

                Written 30th July 2006

Taken discretely, the pieces are many things: provoking, perplexing, intriguing and, as important as anything else, very funny. Taken as a whole, they are an exploration of negative space that leaves the reader unsure of what they have read. Unmades delineates a strange dialectical struggle between what is and what is not the case, synthesised into something that Wittgenstein, clearly at work throughout Plants, might have said cannot be spoken of, only shown.

This liminal territory is explored further in an untitled piece which presents labels for six plates, as in the images inserted into texts for illustrative or decorative purposes, next to the plates themselves, which replicate the texts of the labels inside text boxes. Recalling Ron Padgett and Clark Coolidge’s Supernatural Overtones both visually and in its sly playfulness, this short sequence again makes us question what it is that we are looking at and why we should be looking at it. It is also a useful indicator for the collection as a whole in its interest in moving beyond the agreed parameters of poetry and into the area of art in general and conceptual art in particular, something we see again in another sequence, 16 Glass Bead Games. The reference here to Herman Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game is obvious, as is the appropriateness of the reference. Hesse’s novel is centred around an elegant, abstract game, capable of answering any question posed to it and of modeling the whole world but with no defined rules or stated objectives and, indeed, no definite idea of how the game is actually played. Davies presents here, without further direction, sixteen squares, each subdivided into sixteen squares each, with dots placed in varying numbers of these squares at varying positions in the grids. The meaning of these grids is deeply ambiguous: are they retrospective diagrams showing how particular games unfolded, like those found in the chess columns in newspapers, or are they the games themselves? The sequence sets up an interesting tension between different cognitive processes. One on hand, the grids invite us to simply look at them. No explanations are offered and no clues are given. On the other, the mind cannot resist the impulse to interpret that the medium in which the grids are presented, namely in a book, encourages. We find ourselves scrutinising the game grids for hidden meanings, like a haruspex, a reader of tealeaves or a football manager obsessing over Prozone.  Davies’ interest in the work of p.inman is noted on the book’s jacket. Inman’s influence can be noted more obviously elsewhere but is also detectable here. Whereas Inman does not present material as visual as this, his use of word fragments, non-words, sub-words and heterodox punctuation shows us that written language is first and foremost as much a form of notation as is a musical score or a quadratic equation. Davies also reminds us of this here, forcing us to pay attention to the contingent and far from immutable nature of our lexis. He also, in both this and the untitled sequence discussed above and in other pieces in Plants such as Wasps, Coins and My Name is Ray, subverts and short circuits the intellect’s reflex to institute dialogue between text and images placed in proximity to one another. Davies’ work makes us take note of exactly what it is we are doing and question its validity, even when we did not realise we were doing anything in the first place. A similar effect is achieved by Panther, which appropriates the diagrammatic representations of the card game bridge, inserting into such a representation text which is obviously incongruous but is sufficiently terse and gnomic to suggest some sort of perverse mutation, for example:

North

raddish

spiral that warps

lycra

seagull in plum sauce

call me ninny

dom one

The remaining pieces in Plants are pure text pieces but exhibit a similar scope and depth of ambition. The exuberant crypto-Flarf of Kate Bush is particularly notable in its aim to subvert a method which itself aims to be subversive, a sort of compulsive, recursive permanent revolution. Davies has described this piece elsewhere as an organic version of the conceptual procedure by which an internet search engine is fed a particular word or phrase and used to generate text, which is then simply presented or minimally manipulated; organic in the sense that Davies has generated the text himself, producing the “feel” of Flarf but eschewing its laboratory-like methods. The resultant text has all the tangential angularity of Flarf but also an added suggestion of human agency and the odd tantalising hint of a contingent and labile coherence which, typically, disappears as soon as it can be noted. Presented in twenty left justified paragraphs, Kate Bush reads less like a constructed poem, more like a transcription of a Dictaphone left running in a room full of surrealists or the script of a role swap comedy where Studs Terkel and Edward Lear wake up one morning to find that they are occupying one another’s bodies:

There’s something mystical about mountains unlike hot buns. Soya with three bean pasta. I got it from the web. I’m obsessed and can’t control it.

Any Cop?: Plants is a collection that gives no quarter, that has no truck with half-measures and is ruthlessly, mercilessly, defiantly experimental. There is not a single piece in the book that tries to do the decent thing or seeks to efface or excuse itself. Plants is not a wallflower. It is not the lilt of Pan pipes in the fresh fruit aisle or the scent of potpourri in the doctor’s waiting room. It does not seek to be balm for the furrowed executive brow, rather a bucket of icy water in the executive face. This is its strength. Davies makes high demands of us as readers and does not try to make our lives easy. This is invigorating. Language, to return to Wittgenstein, is not just how we describe our world: it is our world. Poetry, when approached correctly, when in the hands of a writer who is intelligent and unflinching is language in its purest form, unyoked from the narrative ox, no longer following the plough from A to B. Being asleep is pleasant, but we owe it to ourselves to be awake. Plants is what it feels like to be awake.

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