Palimpsest, Clive Birnie
Verve Poetry Press, 2020 £7.50
‘If You Believe the Rumours’: Palimpsest as Embodiment of the Post-Truth Age
Ours seems to be the age of Fake News, of ‘Truth’ as a tool to be bent to political ends. We live in a time when expertise is shunned, even when most needed; a world in which the President of the United States withdraws funding from the WHO during a global pandemic. It is a time of climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, clean eating and echo chambers.
Palimpsest by Clive Birnie is both a reaction against this world and an embodiment of it. In the first instance, these are poems that, as the blurb states, ‘are built from scraps of text appropriated from magazines, junk mail, ephemera; erased, redacted, cut up and overwritten with original lines to create palimpsests’.
Quite literally, then, this is poetry constructed from the noise of our society. Palimpsest speaks with a magpie voice, parroting the language of newspapers, weather reports and advertisements. Untitled poems blur into one another in a sequence of stolen, resonating scraps of narrative.
‘Cool, rather cloudy at times, / becoming / variable / later, / in the south’ (p. 16) ends one page of poetry. Another trails off like a holiday brochure: ‘whether windsurfing / or scuba diving, the choice is yours’ (p. 23). The effect is to confuse and mislead, to create a mishmash of voices and stories which deliberately don’t quite hang together.
The central character — the eponymous Palimpsest — is equally representative of the pamphlet’s reaction to a post-Truth world. She is a mistress of disguise, ‘junk and / ephemera distorting her sense of self’ (p. 6). Sometimes she is a witch-like murderer, telling her victim that he is ‘cleansed of the past, / but not forgiven’ (p. 18). At other points, she describes herself as a kind of protester or warrior, a ‘verb’ (the inverted commas around ‘verb’ are the poet’s) ‘for the defiance you should expect from everyone, / you underestimate, marginalise or disrespect’ (p. 21).
Birnie’s poetry is timely and dark, speaking to an age of ‘nations haunted by history’ (p. 19). In its exploration of the impossibility of newness, authenticity and truth, Palimpsest manages — ironically — to approach these issues in strikingly original and creative ways.