Ruth Larbey / Funglish
£5.00 / Nine Arches Press / ISBN: 978-0-9565514-3-6
In the blurb on the rich purple cover of the pamphlet, David Morley punctuates the end of his praise of Funglish with the word “gravid”. It is a choice adjective, & one can imagine Prof. Morley saving it up & dropping it in with particular relish. There is a very special pleasure in finding a new word & chasing it down in the dictionary. This is particularly apt for Ruth Larbey’s debut pamphlet: Funglish is, as Catherine Woodward describes it, the work of a “lexiphile”.
The poems within cover a range of themes — love, hate, sex, despair, war, politics, nature & the environment, the past & the present, the city — & all in relation to language & its limits. As signalled by its epigraph from John Berger, Funglish explores the relationship between the self & others, & the self & its location in time & space, looking at the places that are built up by the individual with words: “One can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man”. By looking at these relations, & with a constant awareness of language as the fabric which connects the individual to others, the poems are mostly found at the farthest perimeter of ‘sense’. As Ross Kightly points out, Larbey questions just how far one can trust language not to be hostile.
It is a difficult pamphlet, & one that is likely to alienate some readers. Stephen Payne, with some tact, remarks that Larbey “values comprehensibility less than innovation”. It is true that almost every poem has at least one line which refuses to relinquish anything to the reader. Nearly every line in ‘And the walls came tumbling down…’ does this; for instance, the first lines go:
The intervening years have been scuppered;
shipbuilding planks axed right out of time.
I paced where a morgue of tables faced across a
narrow room whilst, unseen, a pleated skirt’s rigour buckled
under that first tank-roll (occupied). Memory
(the chastened facts) paused, formed stalactites.
Despite her persistent difficulty, the effect is always of a skittering along the top of language, as the lines fall occasionally into an anapaestic trot — the favourite foot of the nonsense poet — , & the demands upon the reader are only taxing if he refuses to be carried along. Funglish is darkly playful; in the very first poem one is soon told that “funglish” is a portmanteau of fungus & English, rather than of ‘fun’ & English, which is how I read it initially. Larbey’s talent is in feeling the tense, magnetic pressure between words. The feverish intensity of this tendency away from sense in language favours the paranoiac & insecure, & so the darker, introverted poems of the pamphlet tend to be the best. In ‘Doldrums’ not-making-sense, or being “castled” & withdrawn in a private language, is shown as being inherently depressive (or vice versa). Similarly, the ‘lexiphilic’ listing of the “names/of things” in ‘Bedsit’ is shown as the product of anxiety as much as curiosity, stuck to the walls that keep out “the roar/of cannibalistic war”:
Crude oil &
Crime. Skimmed pages and phrases:
The obsessive desire to possess the name of things suggests the belief that to name something is to be able to control it & to reverse the power it held over you (cf. Rumpelstiltskin).
The urban “roar” in ‘Bedsit’ is part of the negative, isolating presence of the city in Funglish. The city is oppressive specifically because of what it does with language. In ‘Pause’, for instance, the speaker imagines they are away from the city, transported in space & time to a rural “ancient life”. This “distant” place is one completely without language, as the speaker tries instead to interpret nature’s “chaotic signs”: “the whispering of the leaves”, the “ravens”, the “piglet’s squeal”, the “grim, dead stare of the hills”. Since, as mentioned above, language is in Funglish recognised as a source of power, urban life alienates as: “devious metaphors/dog-fight; sell things; sell lives; sell/more discounted ways to get away from what we’ve got”(The Northern Line). In the relationship between society & the individual, “words are enemies”(A Lament for the Broken Promise of Something New) & “The problem is names. This war is language”(Why I Am Not a Singer of the City). It is in this context that Larbey’s difficulty should be understood. Whilst high-mindedness should not be a substitute for the simple enjoyment of a poem, the reason for skirting the limits of sense is asserted through the pamphlet as not just difficulty for difficulty’s sake, but a deliberate strategy to escape or control the alienating experience of modern urban life. I suppose whether that strategy is valid or not is a different question.
In ‘A Lament for the Broken Promise of Something New’ Larbey follows the conclusion that, if language is the location of the battlefield, writers have a responsibility to become engaged:
Now that a thousand miles of piping
can unfurl along the track of a gaze
(or, remotely, a pen)
heroic isolation’s reprehensible.
A poet has ceased to be
sealed in text.
While the false pulse of fiction invades
the non-issue of political sincerity,
these words are enemies.
Whilst it would be unfair to condemn Larbey here for not practising what she only briefly preaches, there is something inconsistent in a difficult poet calling for writers to become socially engaged. Although it is true that some of the poems in Funglish relate to social issues (‘Walthamstow Central’ being the most obvious example), poetry that consciously frustrates language’s capacity to communicate can never properly claim to be politically or socially active. This is shown by how it isn’t even entirely clear what is being asserted in the above quotation. Perhaps if Larbey’s poetry directly confronted or subverted the terms appropriated by manipulative language users — the government, politicians, advertisers, the mass media — there would be a case to make, but Funglish rarely adopts these vocabularies. I do wonder if I’ve missed the point here, & I’d appreciate a comment if it’s something obvious.
Much of Larbey’s success is in creating a challenging & thought-provoking set of poems which cluster around the central ideas discussed above. Poems about words & meaning are of course particularly attractive for an over-cooked English student such as myself, but all in all Funglish is fascinating throughout, with few weak spots, & uses a variety of effects to explore many different aspects of life. The pamphlet itself is beautifully produced by Nine Arches Press, printed on cream paper, & is excellent value for the price.
Searching the internet with a bit more intelligence than yesterday discovers Ruth Larbey’s blog, with some posts relevant to this review: a brief account of the genesis of Funglish, some poems, & photographs of the poet putting chocolate handprints on some chap’s naked torso.
Dr. Fulminare now has a review of Funglish by Jon Stone (of Fuselit magazine & Sidekick books), which focuses on the ideas of language in the poems. There is also well-deserved praise for the production quality of the pamphlet, & then this sneaky point:
I have to say, David Morley’s invocation of that old lie, ‘no word is wasted’, is tiresome. Every word in poetry is wasted; it’s simply a question of how thoroughly wasted.
It’s a deft trick to end a review on, but is admirable for the same well-executed recklessness that makes it pointless, like watching someone double-somersault into a well.