Poetry Salzburg at the University of Salzburg, 2010 £4.50
Reviewed by Gill Andrews, Robin Vaughan-Williams and Kirsten Irving
Note: Mark Terrill's prose poems are fully justified in the original publication but reproducing the precise format in
quotations here has defeated editorial ingenuity.
Empathetic, thoughtful, grown-up, wryly humorous, self-deprecating, ambitious, authentic. These are the words I scribbled down, reading Terrill’s Laughing Berlin Butcher Blues.
This pamphlet takes us round what I assume to be Terrill’s everyday life. We go shopping, into restaurants, on the train, we look out of his window at home. Since Terrill’s everyday life centres on Germany and various European capitals (Prague, Amsterdam, Paris), this is a pretty interesting place to be.
These are almost-unpunctuated prose poems. I was impressed by Terrill’s ability to write entirely comprehensible, unpunctuated, single sentences, sometimes over a page long. They often felt like streams of consciousness, with everyday concerns vying for prominence with more metaphysical musings on death, time, old age, etc. For example, in ‘A Poem for the Here & Now’, Terrill visits Kafka’s grave and finds it
.......neither gritty-gray-neorealistic nor film-noir-gloomy not lonesome-foreboding-grim but rather like a pleasant spring day in the park . . . & [I] .......suddenly have to wonder what all that existential angst & inner turmoil was really about
Terrill’s humanity is particularly apparent when writing about older people. ‘Up on the Hill’ describes an elderly couple, as the woman has a brief dizzy spell. In the elderly man’s face, Terrill simultaneously see[s] the deeply felt concern . . . as well as the obvious annoyance that is stirring in him as he thinks Oh and now she has to go and have one of her spells here in front of the damned post office but also visible is the disconcerting naked realization of his own helplessness.
I was moved by the shift, later in the poem: “& suddenly I’m choked up with the realization that that man could be me & that woman could be you . . .”
Death is a frequent concern. Both ‘The Undying Guest’ and ‘A Poem for Parking Lots’ engage with the idea that “actually it’s a good thing that we all get old & die . . .” ‘The Afterlives’ equates the ‘lives’ of the long-dead with those they had before they were born. I didn’t find the ideas in this poem especially interesting, but I do applaud Terrill’s ambition in engaging with this issue.
I had some difficulty extracting much meaning from a couple of the poems, such as ‘Change Remains Suspended’ and ‘The Grand System’. Also, Terrill sometimes strings too many difficult words together for my taste. For example, the otherwise rather lovely poem ‘Everything Has to Go’ ends with a [metaphorical] “conceptual installation”
.......slapping me back into existential sobriety with its sleek metaphorical transmission of the capricious nature of liberation.
This was really too difficult for me to appreciate.
“For me the prose poem is [. . .] the monster child of two incompatible strategies, the lyric and the narrative”, wrote Max Jacob in 1943, “On the one hand, there is the lyric’s wish to make time stop around an image, and on the other hand, one wants to tell a little story”. There is nothing monstrous, however, about Mark Terrill’s Poetry Salzburg Pamphlet Series collection Laughing Butcher Berlin Blues, which is entirely made up of prose poems.
They remind me most of the Canadian writer Sarah Murphy’s work, in so far as both writers abandon all forms of punctuation apart from the paragraph (if that can be called punctuation) and adopt a stream-of-consciousness tone of voice that allows them to fuse different levels of experience, such as the everyday, philosophical, political, and literary. Although I greatly admire Sarah Murphy’s writing, I admit that reading her work can be hard going. Mark Terrill, on the other hand, has achieved a degree of lightness in these poems that makes them far more approachable. My only irritation was his use of the ampersand (&) instead of “and”, which sticks out from the text and halts its flow, giving it a jolting feeling.
I was also reminded of the Beats by Terrill’s frequent use of homely, round-about expressions like “lonesome-foreboding-grim” and “hair tucked up into one of those disposable shower-cap-looking things”, his preoccupation with existentialist musings, and the quest for the euphoria of experience that many of the poems demonstrate. The biography on the back cover conveys a Beat-type persona as well—someone who has travelled the world and “worked as a shipyard welder, road manager for rock bands, cook, and postal worker”, implying a writer who has stayed rooted in life.
The title poem ‘Laughing Berlin Butcher Blues’ is a brilliant rant on a McDonald’s promotional video; it explores the contrast between the “happy cows” and “long rows of crispy lettuce” in the video, and “the whole computerized mechanized megadeath cowschwitz reality of what’s really going on”. As a rant, it captures a kind of activist sensibility, where politics is experienced as something intensely personal and immediate—the poet feels the contradictions he witnesses, and you, the reader, feel the pain that this causes him.
In a lot of the poems, it is philosophical concerns that infuse everyday experience, more than political ones, but in case you’re worried about the writer getting carried away with all these preoccupations, don’t—the writer is worried about that too, and manages to inflect an amusing self-parodying tone into most of the poems. In ‘A Poem for Catchers’ the poet starts to “freak out” as he wonders “why in the hell anyone in Germany would write Fuck You in English on the side of a construction trailer by the Kiel Canal”, but winds up remarking “perhaps I shouldn’t get moving before someone comes along & catches me standing here staring at a trivial graffito in a heightened state of dubious philosophical limbo”.
Starting off in San Francisco, it's understandable that a writer might be heavily influenced by the Beats. There's no doubt whatsoever that Mark Terrill is on this particular bus. The poems in Laughing Butcher Berlin Blues are energetic rambles and runs through fragments of American and European life, full of ampersands and 'and's and abrupt halts that send you flying over the handlebars at times. Opener 'Yes I Did' even strays into New York School territory, with its O'Hara-ish speaker confiding, “I saw a Japanese sky above Germany yes I did”, as breathlessly excitable as a kid, while subsequent pieces name-check or reference John Wieners, William Carlos Williams and William Burroughs as they tear out of the door.
This style is winsome, engaging and lively, but works best in small doses. Read this pamphlet from cover to cover in one sitting and you'll be exhausted. Terrill belts through prose-poem after prose-poem and what begins as a road trip soon turns into an altogether longer haul, as all texts proceed at the same pace, in the same voice, and every image or reference is immediately knowingly analysed at breakneck speed by the narrator:
.......Looking out the kitchen window I see a gray & black striped cat . . . next to a gray & green wheelbarrow & I am relieved to see that unlike W.C. .......Williams' famous red wheelbarrow poem nothing is depending on them for anything at all although a very subtle kind of interdependence is being .......made undeniably obvious . . . independent of any metaphysical projections on my part . . .
The O'Hara influence is also present in the number of poems that begin “I do this” or “I go to”, and this, too, can seem a little relentless.
It's a joyful tribute to the author's influences, and there's a great deal of pleasure to be taken from the flashes of bright language in this collection, but my main issue with poetry so in love with its forebears is lack of evolution. Terrill does not seem concerned with forging his own poetic identity, so much as ensuring he stays true to somebody else's.
The production of the Salzburg pamphlet is simple and academic, with well-chosen colours, but there’s perhaps too strong a focus on house-style and not enough to suggest why this pamphlet stands out from its stable-mates. Nothing gives away the character of the work inside, least of all the lengthy blurb and bio on the back.