The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gann, Maria Taylor and Peter Daniels:
Phone in the Roll has a retro look, with its sans seraph font, it’s curve-cornered pages, and snakeskin-like flysheet. Although not my cup of tea, I think the design suits the content.
After I had finished reading it, I googled Ira Lightman. His entry on the Shearsman website offers insight. He is, it says, a “conceptual poet”; “Ira’s work is informed by music, mathematics, language-learning, computers and pattern-seeking.” Well, I certainly felt aware of the pattern-seeking. Above all else, patterns were exactly what I did start seeking—craving even—as I made my way through this pamphlet.
At first I felt quite lost. I was reminded of the dark underbelly, as I see it, of my spam folder, sitting, generally unvisited, just below the clean sculpted surface of my email inbox:
She thought she was in a meeting.
We took me in her mouth.
It was just the ones. Shoot my send button, speak into
the phone with my cock.
The jumble of clauses that make up these poems—like scraps of text messages, or the one-sided phone conversations half overheard on a train, then scissored together —gave me a feeling of faint nausea, a headache:
Then, maybe, someone else to have to
make me know when to it, me
and me for the functions of cream and in page
I want to be seen with
Over time, though, as I read on, I was able to begin to experience Lightman’s language more as a sort of makeshift skin—an uncomfortable one (despite the fact there’s only eighteen poems in the book, I struggled to get through it)—but a skin it did, disconcertingly, become.
I grew less anxious for those odd moments of relief when something nearly lucid happens. Increasingly I grew able to cope with all these fragments that half-mean a lot, but then bunched together, (spliced), end up meaning almost nothing.
Here is one short poem quoted in full. This is conceptual poetry: a collage in words.
AS I LAY
I don’t want to
sleep. You say. Things
so. What? Have you
found the song?
Stuffed sausage computers. Sexy
Home. This is.
For those of you who enjoy playing with voice-recognition Apps on Smartphones, Ira Lightman’s Phone in the Roll deals with what is lost and gained through using this technology.
For those of you who don’t, I’ll explain: Lightman’s approach is to talk into a Smartphone —the raw poetry if you like—and then allow the technology to offer its unique interpretation of what was said. What results is poetry that has the cadence of speech but is full of surprises. The writing has undertones of the comic as well as the sinister. Here’s an example from ‘In Place of a Letter to Her,’ appropriate as this kind of technology has, arguably, replaced letter writing:
I first met her and she hunted the child’s mind to me too.
The name is too nice. Try it and I’m very, very aware my vanity
Is wanting to write.
I wonder what was actually being said to produce this writing. There are no hints, which brings about a sense of being lost in the words themselves. It can be rather unnerving; a reader can never be sure where they are because Lightman eschews the reassuring signposts over which other poets often labour.
I would say this is a ‘concept’ pamphlet. Some readers may relish the confusion, whilst others may find it disconcerting. It’s difficult to lift short quotations from the text because the poetry is derived from the snowballing momentum of sense and nonsense:
Please shout, pumpkin
did you find a hole in the ground
and say when you played football?
It’s also about the moments of depth, which catch you off-guard.
For readers who may be wondering where the soul is in all of this, ‘My Money’ is a poem which Lightman wrote while he was suffering from cancer, screaming ‘I want my mummy’ into a Smartphone. It translated his anger into:
I want my nominee
To note to mom not as was,
Note to my foe, note bloom
From whom I want.
And sometimes even Smartphones have feelings too:
And I see you soon
kidlike coming from
inside the sun.
Ira Lightman is my Facebook friend—which is partly a ‘disclosure’, and partly to explain that I have come across the concept behind this pamphlet but have now forgotten it: something to do with words being processed through phone technology introducing creative errors. But this is nowhere mentioned in the pamphlet, so best to respond to the text we’re given. Limited researching only produced Ira Lightman’s 2007 blog saying “I don’t like to explain in person that much as it takes away from the found object”. I approve, as conceptual work can too easily become a shorthand for itself, “phoning in the role”. The unannounced concept puts the focus back on the words, the actual product, and even the inherent paradox there creates more enjoyment than “Feel the concept, never mind the book”.
Attention to the words is rewarded by a lightheartedness: you are not made to feel stupid or fuddyduddy if you don’t get it. But the jokiness combines with a certain sense of despair at times, and a considerable emotional mileage travelled. ‘In Place of a Letter to Her’ starts with an echo of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’: “To stone the generation immediately post war”, which continues in the driving long lines, though the rhythm is cut with characteristic short sentences as well as long ones, and also punctuated by the line-endings:
............She had a terrible frightening childhood and song. I had a
terrible, I think, childhood. I had sweetly then to be trivial about
Incomplete sentences not participating fully in standard syntax or contextual meaning seem in poems like these to come out in a characteristic kind of jerky blankness which can be dull, but the joy of word-texture saves it:
Beans count kind of cease fire. Send,
and future generations task castle to peace.
I still do wonder about what the poet’s original words were, and how they became these through the phone (as I know that much about the process). Most of the time there is “sense” being made, so this can’t be described in any way as pure language. Some situations are clearer than others, and the brokenness of phrasing communicates both fun and alienation.
that kind of mutual love-snow, to have to look back on tracks
with black is like a Boston cream cake in rancid smelly disgusting Boston.