A Commentary on ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’
In 2013 I went to Oxford to see Kate Kilalea read at the launch of Bloodaxe’s anthology Dear World and Everyone In It. She wore round glasses that made a heavy noise when she put them on a chair. Of the few people on many empty seats, there seemed more poets waiting nervously to read than people there just to listen, which I took as indicative of poetry generally, although I’m not sure this is the problem it’s made out to be. I felt conspicuous, as if my part as audience carried unspoken responsibilities, more weighty considering we were few. I gripped my notebook, as if writing things down would help, as if it would account for me and turn the moment to some purpose, as if it would placate that hot, pricking question which rises again audible from the background at such moments: what am I doing here?
I was eager to hear her after finding ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ besides Don Share’s commentary on the Carcanet blog. In it, Share describes his thoughts as he chases the references of the poem. He articulates how it feels meaningful without being understood. I wanted to experience this directly. But I only remember her reading from a forthcoming book, House for the Study of Water, particularly the poem ‘Whatever you love most dearly’, which includes the lines:
[…] I have
so much confusion. I lay on my
stomach and made notes in pencil.
From the veranda in front of the
waiting room I can see the entire
garden, including the river, and
further, the shapes of people I
knew, including you. I’d like to
get closer but what the hell. In
any case I can almost hear you
saying to yourself he always was
an over-ambitious but timorous
child to which I can add only the
assurance that now I am a man
and nothing in a man’s life is
more certain than his being too
timid or too stupid or something.
She mentioned that the book, which hasn’t been published yet, is inspired by the architect Bruno Taut, who, I read, is most known for a Glass Pavilion and for utopian architecture. I remember that she also talked about psychoanalysis, but not how she related it to an architect or to her poetry.
‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ was commissioned for the BBC’s The Verb and was read by Kilalea on air in January 2010. You can find a few other recordings of her reading it online. In them she recites it without notes, so it isn’t clear if variants are other versions or quirks of memory, or if there is a difference. The version I discuss here, for convenience, is as published in Carcanet’s New Poetries V (2011) and then the Dear World anthology (2013). In the recordings she introduces the poem in different ways. In one she mentions how, in architecture, the approach to a building — perhaps a winding drive — is as important and as artful as the building itself, as if the meaning of a building inheres also in its framing, as if we can never tell where the world ends and the artwork begins. She then adds how, like a winding drive, her introduction prepared us for her poem without realising it.
Then she begins.
Like the pages of a book
‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is a mess. Voices and characters come and go, change and blur, as the “I” of the first line becomes “he”, “she” and “we”. The italicised ‘Dear Circus’ passages, which Kilalea calls the “chorus”, come from elsewhere. Tenses shift. Locales float in and out, a series of views rather than settings. Corridors, baths, windows, verandas, lamps. People pass through doors and shut them, always enclosing space into something smaller. We travel as if in a dream. It is a little dark, and the light — of course it does — flickers. We finish the poem giddy and discomfited, ringing with the words without being sure quite what they meant. It is hard to write anything about it that isn’t fragmented too.
The poem begins:
I stood at the station
like the pages of a book
whose words suddenly start to swim.
When the “words suddenly start to swim”, we imagine a reader overwhelmed by emotion. But if the speaker is like the swimming pages, who is holding the book? Whose eyes falter? In this simile, the speaker seems to suffer, but as the object rather than subject of an emotion, as the observer of themselves. The speaker finds themselves in their own frame. The emotion, in the adverb “suddenly”, is sealed off within a simile, while the speaker simply ‘stands’. It’s a disorientating, slippery start, even in its strange calm.
A few lines later, we have the first new voices of the poem:
Ickira trecketre stedenthal, said the train.
Slow down please, said the road.
Sometimes you get lucky, said the estate agent
onto his mobile phone.
it all depends on the seller.
From this rapid trio, there is the fear of being unable to understand, the fear of being unable to stop, and the fear of being unable to afford. The voices are all ‘heard’ differently — overheard, imagined or read — but all in parallel and all without dialogue or response, creating a feeling of overload. These lines, and the opening lines above, suggest a heightened exposure to experience, as if the speaker’s accustomed perception has been stripped away, leaving them amazed by the rain and the rose beetles, the border around a subjectivity broken and the world rushing in. These shifting perspectives — the slipping through and containment of objective and subjective frames — continues through the poem; the uncertainty imposed on the reader in the first few lines pervades throughout. The poem’s fragmentation is integral to its tone, in that it expresses not its units of sense but in how the reader is forced to leap and adjust between.
The poem’s opening is an entrance, as it narrates an approach to its main setting: the train towards a coastal town. Its inversion of relative movement and agency in time and space — the months “coming for us”, the headland “announcing” the sea — echoes the emotional inversion of the swimming pages, and creates a sense of helplessness and inexorable menace. And so alongside this entrance into the geographic space of the poem, the opening section pulls the reader into its psychological space, where the world is emotionally threatening and the individual is trapped in its midst, unsure of how their consciousness is separate from their environment. Furthermore, with its opening simile (and pun on “formal lines”), the poem suggests that this situation is, above all, literary. Through its poetic effects, the main person it wants to situate in this space, as with its direct imperatives of “See…See…” is the reader, is you.
In his blogpost, Share cites Kilalea describing ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ as a “series of characters and observations” — ‘The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock’ was first published in Prufrock and Other Observations — and characterises the poem as Eliotic. (With its accented vowels and dog called Henry, the poem, as Share notes, also acknowledges Berryman’s Dream Songs.) Whilst the obvious similarity to Eliot is in the Doing of the Police In Different Voices, the Eliotic in ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is mainly its music. An example is one particular pattern of repetition, a false start that provides its own gravity by reflecting on itself; e.g.
He closed the door and came in.
He closed the door and the sound of the bathwater dimmed.
He wore a street hat. He wore a street hat and
carried a belt over one arm.
Thirty-one back gardens.
Thirty-one back gardens overlooking
of thirty-one houses.
I see you. I see you. I see you
in our murky bath.
I see you in our black and white bath like a cat.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.
(‘The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock’)
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
And so on. This dramatises the speaker’s fastidious nervousness and self reassurance, but also expresses language’s failure, of its ‘raids on the inarticulate’. (‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is, in part, a poem about failure: within one such repeated pattern, a voice sighs “I have used up all my reserves.”) With Eliot, this early nervousness fades into portentous High Anglican ritual and incantatory drama; in ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ it has the same grandeur, but feels more like song than a chant or prayer. In these repetitions, Kilalea often seems to be lingering over a sound.
Introducing the poem before one reading, Kilalea remarks: “There’d been a criticism […] which I really took to heart that said my poetry wasn’t very musical, so this really focused on trying to work with sound.” Consider the line:
A necklace. Vacant. Light wrecked the road.
This repeats an earlier triplet line of “Wow. The rain. Rose beetles.”, but with two trochees at the start with a hard K on the second syllable. There is the L in “lace” and “light”; the R in “wrecked” and “road”; the move in the last phrase from high to low vowels, I E O, like 3 steps down the stairs. You can feel the rhythm in your body. Amongst the gloom, there’s a dark beauty in the music of ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’. Indeed, it is so interested in its music that it sometimes becomes nothing else, as in the nonsense words of the train or the refrains “Tick-a-tick-ooh, tick-a-tick-ah” and “Bot bot bot”.
In Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), Julia Kristeva argues that sound in poetry is where our biological energies and drives are made known, in calling back to the preverbal babble of infants and the relationship to the mother. For Kristeva, in the normal use of language, the referential and social element of meaning, the pre-existing rules and order, takes precedence, as we attempt to communicate clearly; but in poetic language the trace of the unconscious and of the unintelligible and irreducible disrupts conventional modes of meaning. This is more than a formalist idea of poetry foregrounding its medium, in that it links sound to the body, to the centre of our being, and to something beyond verbal comprehension. It gives a space for the intimately personal and inexpressible to erupt through into the social and structural. Kristeva, quoting Mallarmé, identifies this trace of the body in language as poetry’s “mystery”, its unaccountable quality. It seems to me that the heart of ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, its mystery, is very much in its sound. It invokes a deeper pattern of meaning, something irrational and corporeal. Kristeva’s book suggests how ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ beguiles so much on the first encounter, as its sound needs no further interpretation.
In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), Eliot argues that in the best poetry, the dead “assert their immortality most vigorously”, making the canon sound spooky, making the poet sound like a medium at a séance, in their pale green face powder, waiting for the raps on the table. Allusion and influence mostly work by spookiness, by the unheimlich of half-remembered words and patterns, by the strange but intimately familiar voice coming from our mouths. It is all a ghostly business: in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom’s last “revisionary ratio” is named “the return of the dead”. Strange that so much vital to a poem should come from the departed.
In her writing on intertextuality, Kristeva discusses how any work is a “mosaic of quotations”, how it sits within a network of other writing, amongst an endless field of connections. In this thinking, allusion is less the work of patriarchal influence, as Bloom would have it, and more a quality present in all literature, not so much a grapple with the dead as an acceptance of their futures. ’Hennecker’s Ditch’ is haunted by Eliot and Berryman’s poetry, gaining impact from resonance and echo. And now, six years since its first appearance, Kilalea’s poem haunts a whole set of contemporary writers, passing on these ghosts. In terms of its presence within a network of other contemporary writers, ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is one of the most significant single poems published in the UK in the last decade.
The trees walk backwards into the dark.
What to do with a line like this.
The light from a moving train illuminates the landscape as it passes. Relative to the train, the trees will appear to move out of a stationary pool of light. We are already looking from the window, seeing the headland and the moths. This inversion of relative movement, ascribing motion to the trees rather than the train, partially suggests why their walk is “backwards,” just as cars overtaken appear to drive in reverse. But this interpretation does nothing to cover how it feels so dreadful, so much like an omen. Perhaps it’s their ‘walking’, conveying a nightmare of mossy jointed limbs, of creaking, knotty spiders creeping from sight. Perhaps it’s that they do so “backwards”, like the angel of history, and “into the dark”, like Eliot’s “vacant interstellar spaces”. But, over all, in its final inexplicability, in its timing in this first section of the poem, the trees walking backwards from sight, slipping from apprehension, conveys only dread.
Susan Sontag argues in her 1966 essay ‘Against Interpretation’ that “real art has the capacity to make us nervous”. Deploring that the “world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough,” she goes on:
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
She suggests that art’s power and value arises from its ability to disturb and provoke, an ability that requires art to escape or exceed its interpretation, to be a naked thing experienced in the world, like the rain or the rose beetles. She says that “real art” is that which rewards a form of reading whereby it’s not so much understood as felt. She frames art as properly being emotionally threatening, something that addresses and touches us where we are vulnerable.
‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ makes us nervous. Kilalea mentions in a recording that it was written in a time when she “had a lot of anxiety” and that it was “trying to come to terms with that emotion without resorting to putting it in language or explaining it, and trying perhaps to work outside of language and finding a way […] to give people a sense of what it was that that feeling felt like.” Her intention was for the poem to not only encapsulate anxiousness, but to pass it on. Integral to this is the idea of doing so “without […] explaining it” or putting it into words. In The Hatred of Poetry (2016), Ben Lerner gives the most recent expression of the old idea that poetry is doomed to failure, as a poem attempts to convey in language something that exists outside of it: he writes that “‘poetry’ denotes an impossible demand.” Similarly, there seems an impossible paradox in Kilalea’s intention to express anxiety “without resorting to putting it in language” when her medium is words. But this paradox of untranslatability is inherent to poetry and to anxiety. Somehow, anxiety can’t be spoken directly. And something in that interface between language and the inexpressible world beyond gives poetry a nervous power which ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ exploits directly.
It’s maybe necessary to attempt a description of anxiety. It would seem to be the malignant dread of not knowing or seeing what you fear, but fearing nonetheless. It is, according to western philosophy, specifically the fear of nothing: fear without an object. It would seem to be the worry for an uncertain and threatening future, even if there seems little immediate danger. As Freud writes in his Introductory Lectures, anxiety is bad expectation, the anticipation of disaster. At its worst, anxiety often feels like an inability to let time pass, or an inability to relate or release oneself to the present’s continual defeat by the future. (This is soothed by counting breaths, or, I find, listening to the ticking of a clock.) But the behaviour of the anxious is not so much being afflicted under fears as maintaining the ritual practice of containing them, tracing their circuits and prompts, as to learn them closely is the only way to keep them at bay. Rather than the fear of nothing, perhaps anxiety is better described as being too sure of your insoluble fears, of knowing them too well, the listing of which being endless, the listing itself being the anxiety. It is the uncontrollable proliferation of bad possible outcomes, more so than the feared outcomes themselves.
Physically, the sensations of anxiety, when most acute, are linked to stress hormones. Their release carries the evolutionary advantage of aiding in escape from or defeat of threats. But with anxiety, no real threat exists, or at least not one that can be simply escaped or beaten. It is a bodily effect without an objective cause, or at least without a complete one, like a dog growling at an empty doorway. It is an interpretive problem, a false response to ambiguity and complexity. It is therefore inherently inarticulate, a mismatch, a profusion of partial objects that never resolve into what can be fully determined and expressed. The inability to translate bodily dread into understanding is anxiety, or anxiety is the result of this endless attempt at translation.
This endeavour entails a sort of suspicion and self-reproach where the outline of the self is hard to determine, a blurring and breaching of internal and external borders. The menaced enclosure of the future, the compression of the anxious self into a present moment, watching always for the dread, brings about hypersensitivity, whereby feeling is projected outwards onto the world. It causes an immense self-scrutiny, but one that is outward- rather than inward-looking, one that encompasses the whole perceived world as well as the person within it. Anxiety therefore brings about a fierce relationship with space. Its spatiality is felt in boundaries, in the breaching and establishment of enclosure, the lack or imposition of control.
But even this description makes anxiety seem too tangible and clear, like the trees, when anxiety is without name or limit, like the dark.
If anxiety suggests the closure of the future, those born after 1980 have had the future taken from them, or perhaps had it turned against them. Today there is a sense that the yet dominant political order is increasingly unable to inspire the hope it should need to persist, and so lurches on through worry; a sense that, especially for the young, when even our modernity provokes ecological disaster, neoliberalism does not cohere into narratives of progress. As our cultural and economic mode reduces the future and past into an illuminated, (self-)surveilled, continual present, the imaginative horizons are reduced to a hypersensitive here and now. Of course, dread is not exclusive to the young. Our parents prepared for nuclear apocalypse. I don’t think that any period is unusually anxious, only particular in its fears; just as although we might share anxiousness, we suffer alone.
I’m also conscious that, despite the supposed universality of the context I describe, ‘anxiety’ is often placed in a particular race, gender and class context, one not far from my own. A political reading might characterise ‘anxiety’ as a way for the partially privileged to register powerlessness and to pathologise the contradictions of their position. Perhaps an objectless, self-reproachful dread is appropriate for those whose existence is not threatened by (and may be protected by) the state and its violence: the anxious have nothing to fear. But anxiety is not peripheral or superficial, something for those without enough at stake for rage or joy. In Ugly Feelings (2005), the critic Sianne Ngai argues that ignoble, self-reflective feelings like anxiety, envy or paranoia represent a predicament of “obstructed agency”: just as these “ugly feelings” are seen as shameful, troublesome and purely individual crises, personal failings of the disempowered, so their invocation in art suggests a wider powerlessness of the individual and of literature as a whole. Citing Paolo Virno, she points out how anxiety is as much functional for our economic system as it is a rejection of it (as, for instance, precarity compels a workforce towards greater flexibility). In this, anxiety is caught in an ambivalent situation of being supportive of, as well as aversive to, neoliberal capitalism, whilst imposing that ambivalence upon the individual. It may therefore give insight into the experience of contemporary capitalism through “a noncathartic aesthetic: art that produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release […] and does so as a kind of politics.” The aesthetics of ‘obstructedness’ present in anxious poetry is not merely the “rhythmic grumbling” of the relatively affluent, but is key to the political intersections of our contemporary experience.
It’s a commonplace that we are in anxious times. We read that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the anglosphere, that there is an epidemic of its symptoms, especially amongst the young. But I’m less interested in anxiety as a psychiatric designation or illness and more as an approach to the world, as a response to circumstance, as an expression of the emotional situation in a particular economic and political context. As such, for my purposes anxiety’s appearance in poetry is indicative of an aesthetic engagement with the conditions of living in the UK in the 2010s. Furthermore, I’m interested in anxiety as a stance on making sense of things, either in how a poem relates to what it wants to say, or how a reader interprets a poem. I’m interested in anxiety as a negotiation between interior and exterior spaces, between the inside and outside of what can be said or understood.
These are anxious times for poetry: the first in the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets series (2016), featuring Emily Berry, Anne Carson and Sophie Collins, is subtitled “If I’m Scared We Can’t Win”; Kathryn Maris’ pamphlet 2008 (2016) includes found poems from journal entries describing anxiety dreams and medication; Rachael Allen’s Faber New Poets 9 (2014) portrays anxiety as suburban and social, with a speaker who asks “I was told I have a bright future ahead of me/but I think it’s now, or I’m using it all up.”; Jack Underwood’s debut collection Happiness (2015) is troubled throughout by background menace “like “bad news” that “ticks/in the kettle as it rests”; Sam Riviere’s pamphlet Standard Twin Fantasy (2014) expresses, in David Wheatley’s term, “stylised paranoia” and an atmosphere of intense suspicion. Recently there has been a cohort of poets for whom anxiousness is an inextricable part of their approach towards the world, particularly in the young British poets practicing the ‘Faber Anxious Style’.
Emily Berry is, of her peers, the most purely anxious, in that her best lines arise from, even depend upon, their worrisome state. Her lyrics don’t so much consider anxiety as constitute it. For Berry, the anxiety is not linked to specific objects or destinies, but is an excessive, extra quality on top of everything. And it is, above all, verbal.
In her first collection Dear Boy (2013), Emily Berry’s ‘Some Fears’ is a list of worries, beginning:
Fear of breezes; fear of quarrels at night-time; fear of wreckage;
fear of one’s reflection in spoons; fear of children’s footprints;
fear of the theory behind architecture
The poem, in the variety of its objects of fear, uses the trope of unusual phobias to expand ‘fear’ into something all-encompassing, something that is not so much an attitude to external threats (mistaken or not) but a relationship to the world, something acutely social and fragile. It’s a particularly anxious poem in the overwhelming accumulation of it, in its sensory receptivity and nervousness. Its only form is its anaphoric repetition, as if the naming of fears is a comfort or compulsion. This anxious mode runs through the rest of the collection, as in the “Arlene” poems and their studied invocation of dread through American gothic, or in the poems with the speaker trapped in absurd quasi-institutionalised, oppressively paternal relationships with her ‘biographer’, father and ‘doctor’. However, Berry’s most anxious poems, apparently incorporating the model of ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, are the recent ‘Canopy’, ‘Everything Bad is Permanent’, ‘Sign of the Anchor’ and, most particularly, ‘Picnic’, published in the aforementioned Penguin Modern Poets One (2016).
‘Picnic’ sits in the centre of this recent set of Berry’s poems, where the mood has shifted from the absurdity or longing prevalent in Dear Boy to a sort of fragmented self-inquiry. The worried self is a problem without a solution, even as it laments in a recognisably Eliotic pattern:
My thoughts are wrong. My thoughts are wrong
The thought that my thoughts are wrong is wrong
Instead, the speaker appears to be adrift within a landscape upon which emotion is projected:
If you are not happy the sea is not happy
It sulks in and out of the bay
The use of ‘sulk’ as possibly a verb of movement recalls Kilalea’s cars ‘sobbing across town’. The unhappy sea recalls the sea being, of course, “marbled and contorted”. In the meantime, the speaker seems to be disconcertingly numb. The speaker’s only recourse seems to be in pattern, as when the poems resolve themselves into structure, such as the hint of metre and end-rhymes closing ‘Winter’
‘Picnic’ also has the same self-awareness as ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, as when the lyric voice suddenly leaps forward at least a month in time to comment on itself:
This is the rain, the October rain
I wrote that when it was still October
It must have been raining
In all this, the anxiousness seems to reside in the poem’s inability to lay out what it needs to say, to find its end. It’s like nervously picking at the unravelling thread of an endless jumper, where the attempts to find the source of the anxiety, to express and name it, become the anxiety itself:
Stop, language is crawling all over me
Sometimes if you stay still long enough you can make it go
With ‘Some Fears’ the poem expresses how language in its potential endlessness is perhaps the problem, how anxiousness is like logorrhea. In ‘Picnic’, poetry appears to be the vehicle for and the defense against these ‘wrong thoughts’, as if the struggle to master fears was indistinguishable from the struggle to express oneself. It is as if, through self-inquiry, our running thoughts are both the cause of and the tool for the remedy of our anguish.
Whilst I don’t want to reduce the variety and range of these contemporary writers, from Berry to Underwood, the similarity in outlook is significant. For these poets, the future is uncertain or even somehow inaccessible, and the present is inflected with dread. They are trying to access something unnameable both beyond and within themselves, talking it out but never quite finding it. Their poems orchestrate a mood rather than reach a point. Their universes are often absurd, but more in the troublingly unheimlich than the playful. For these poets, even when addressing themes like adolescence, love, grief, parenthood, memory or desire, the lyric is, over all, anxious.
I was a rickety house.
In the third section of ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, the same voice who declares “You’ll never find it” issues a further challenge:
Look at my face, he said. Can you see what
This suggests ‘The Waste Land’:
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.
Sometimes I think the real puzzle in ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is other people, that problem of another’s mind, something that seems so unimportant when we are happy and so maddening when distressed. Characters in the poem alternate between expressing a suffering both vague and intense (e.g. “this is what I’ve been afraid of/all my life”) and merely being seen, listening to the cricket in the garden or walking along the coastal path, inscrutable and inaccessible, like figures in a painting. Even the host of intimate, disembodied voices are somehow distant, as we know how they suffer but not what from. Like Prufrock, unable to tell us his “overwhelming question”, the characters in ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ — like the poem itself — are unable ‘to say just what they mean.’ Instead they seek separation: they push “a chest of drawers against the door”, saying it’s “nice now that the corridor’s empty”; they ‘fasten their lonely shadows’; they come upstairs and “[make] love to her/then [go] back down” to read a book. They are individual and alone. By the end of the poem, “[n]othing has passed between us.” The only genial voice addresses the dog.
Andrew McMillan, in an essay on the poem, points to its invocation of the isolation and loneliness of contemporary urban life, of the “unreal city.” He relates this to the history of the flâneur and of psychogeography, to the emotional experience of city geography; in particular, in ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ he finds the estrangement characteristic of the postmodern city. As can be seen in the examples quoted above, the voices expressing suffering in Kilalea’s poem do so as they interact with the landscape, shutting doors or resting their heads against windows. It often seems like their main expression is through movement and enclosure, as in going up or down stairs or into rooms. Their relationships to each other are prefigured by their positions in space, in their movement through “those dark towns”, to quote Ashbery.
In Warped Space (2000), the architect Anthony Vidler describes how, following the psychiatric discourse at the turn of the C20th around the mental afflictions of the growing metropolis, an understanding of space as a psychological dimension influenced Modernist artists and architects, in their “emphasis on the nature of space as a projection of the subject, and thus as a harbinger and repository of all the neuroses and phobias of that subject.” Through the anxieties of space (such as agoraphobia and claustrophobia), ideas of three-dimensional, objective space are troubled by the blurring of the borders of subjectivity. Space itself is ‘warped’, in Vidler’s term, by desire and repression, and explicitly so by architects and town planners seeking to create environments that fulfill the ideology of the individual consumer.
The second section of ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ describes perhaps a guesthouse or block of flats, and ends with:
The washing machine shook so badly
that a man asleep four floors down reached out
to hold it:
Shut that dirty little mouth of yours…
It conveys something of the poem’s somnambulant quality that someone reacts to a noise in their sleep, as if reality and dream have found a shared point of contact. When the man reaches out to the washing machine, it collapses reality into dream just as it collapses the distance of the “four floors”. It makes the boundaries between exterior and interior worlds flexible, and physical space just as malleable as it is in our desires.
With “Shut that dirty little mouth of yours”, the sleeping man’s reach becomes menacing and sexually aggressive. Seen like this, the anthropomorphised washing machine shakes perhaps from fear. To be human is to be afraid. Indeed, with its walking trees, talking trains and roads, sobbing cars and contorting seas, it seems that it is less the human beings in the poem who are “so full of emotion” and more the objects. An example of this is at the very start of the second section:
Hello? Hello? The snow
comes in sobs.
Cars sob across town.
Kilalea’s variations on ‘sob’ destabilise it, as its use in different contextual positions causes the reader to reevaluate its meaning each time. ‘Sob’ is made so elastic that it starts to swim. It becomes sound. That it is made into a verb of motion suggests how the poem’s drama comes from transit through its dream space. And that it began as a verb of distress suggests how, in the malleable dream space of the poem, emotional truth has mastery over all else.
Whilst these sobbing cars and contorting seas are in some ways an unremarkable use of pathetic fallacy, what’s interesting in ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is the persistence of it. The device is so frequent that it becomes something more, less a trick of the poet and more an interpretative mode of the speaker. When “cars sob”, it is not a single actor feeling sadness but sadness being put in the place of all else. As with the shaking washing machine, we begin to suspect all actions of or done to objects, such as light ‘wrecking’ the road, are synonyms for emotional devastation. When the speaker announces that the “air was blood temperature/and the consistency of blood”, besides from their almost Gothic horror, these lines suggest that the pathetic fallacy ascribing human qualities to the world is total. It’s not so much that an emotional state has projected itself outward, has seen itself reflected in other things, but that subjectivity is unable to distinguish its inside from its out. Before the shaking washing machine, the chorus voice says “I was a rickety house”, as if we were walking around thereafter inside their metaphor for themselves. The pathetic fallacy is total, such that the speaker doesn’t see their whole emotion encapsulated in single things, but glimpses fragments of their anguish all around.
Commonly in poetry we are depicted as creatures of time, our consciousnesses presented as overlapping planes of past and future, mixing memory and desire. Collections of established verse are much enamoured of recollection, centred on the stable and presumed self-evident consciousness of the speaker. The poet, like a blinking replicant, threatens: “Let me tell you about my mother”. However, Kilalea’s poem is invested instead in space: the movement of ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is such that we travel through a landscape of frozen despair rather than seeing the emotion or narrative progress. Although obsessed with duration — “painéd months”, “three weeks”, “we’re in the middle”, “a hundred years” — the poem, at its end, doesn’t so much resolve as petrify. No one knows any more than what they started with. In this operation ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is primarily architectural. By this I mean that its main concept of subjectivity is interior/exterior space and its enclosure. The chorus’ penultimate request is “to see more glass!”
In an interview for tender, Kilalea addresses the relationship to architecture in her writing:
I’m working towards a PhD which hoped to find general points of correspondence between architecture and poetry – the fact that both struggle with the word ‘form’ gave me the impression that such a thing was possible. I started looking at the concept of space in poetry. I.e. How ‘going into’ a poem is similar to going into a building (which it is, for instance, researchers scanning the brain while it reads discovered that the way one’s mind’s eye moves through the images in a text uses the part of the brain which orients the body in space). The feeling of ‘being in’ buildings is very powerful and it would – in theory – be interesting for the manipulation of the mind’s eye (zooming in and out, etc.) to be treated as a poetic tool like rhyme, meter, etc.
I’m reminded of a favourite essay on poetics: Luke Kennard’s ‘The Architecture of Fictional Rooms’, published in Stress Fractures (2010). It’s a playful, fragmentary essay, beginning with the thesis that “poetry creates a fictional space which itself contains a fictional space”. In fact, it begins, before that, with Kennard’s “recurring nightmare about a secret room behind the gas oven in [his] gran’s house”. He imagines this room as all red, and used for some horrible ritual. He is so convinced of its existent when awake that he demands his father pulls out the oven to look. Although shown otherwise, he still believes the room to be there. Despite its horror, he wants his nightmares to be proven real. Kennard then goes on to describe, via Prufrock’s “insidious arguments” and other examples, the power of art that creepily bears a secret at its heart, a central blank, pointing always towards this hidden room whilst refusing to reveal what’s inside. It uses this fictional space within a fictional space as the source of its power over the reader. We imagine what horror may be behind the door, as it were, and then are struck that all possibilities we have imagined are of our own creation, each with the awful potential of being true; we find ourselves culpable, our own fears projected onto the absence, but with the uncertainty over whether they are external or internal. We fear the worst, but both do and don’t want to be proven right.
For Kennard’s essay and examples, streets, hallways, rooms, and doors all represent and dramatise the limits of knowledge, and the fear and desire that such a limit incites. They provide a symbol and a narrative mechanic to force some degree of unknowing on the reader, and create a space for participation in the text. They impose partialness and question (or represent) the borders between the interior and exterior. These nightmare spaces place the reader in a state of hypersensitivity and self-suspicion, a state which Kennard argues is necessary for all effective poetry. They represent the internal/external dilemma of anxiety, as a function of what Ngai calls “obstructedness”.
Anxious poetry is architectural. The reader is not addressed but shown, not persuaded or moved but disturbed or spooked. The matter of the poem is objective and overwhelming for the speaker as well as the reader. The “manipulation of the mind’s eye” depicts narrative developing rather than progressing. It allows experience to advance without any growth in understanding. It presents speakers who are situated within an environment that can be laden with menace, free of the comfort of memory or hope, without that environment being interpreted or understood. It forces out the future or the past. It is closer to dream than memory. With the poets discussed above, this approach allows them to talk around or within a feeling that they convey ‘without putting it into words’. Their poetic devices — their similes, metaphors, symbols — are partial, as fragments of a mental state that blurs the border between internal and external space. The prevailing tone is of the flat surreal, as images of intense psychological power occur in apparently objective space.
You’ll never find it, he said over dinner.
Chadwell Heath, Goodmayes, Seven Kings, Ilford, Manor Park, Forest Gate, Maryland. The train from Romford to Stratford took about twenty minutes last summer, looking out at cow parsley and buddleia, cables and graffiti, back gardens, minicab offices, letting agents, self-set sycamores, t-shirts on drying racks on balconies, the shells of cars in breakers’ yards. To see the rubbish down the embankments behind garden fences, I think how easy it is for these waste places to be meaningless, how a train line’s slice through the city presents travellers with a succession of intentional spaces and their blank borderlands without the usual manufactured cohesion, like rolling the dial on a radio, breaking from one wavelength to the next. I had been visiting friends in Romford. I had my notebook and a hangover. The night before there was a housewarming party for their new flat. I suspect it was smaller and with a longer commute than what they wanted. Average house prices in London have doubled since 2004, rising steeply after a brief dip during the financial crisis in 2008, well ahead of any other region of the UK. A housing bubble benefits some to the detriment of the others; home ownership is an ever-sharpening class watershed, a rising tide that lifts only those with a boat, leaving more at a landlord’s whims. Rental prices in the city, which are harder to measure, have according to one report increased on average by 36% since 2011, or by more than £450 a month in total. Cost of living radiates out from the centre, driving people ahead of it, along the commuter train lines and beyond the M25. Everywhere someone is looking from the window of a train to work. Everywhere someone is building and letting flats.
If home ownership is a threshold in the established narrative of middle-class adulthood, its increasing unaffordability is a widening gap between us and our futures, trapped within the horizons of a tenancy agreement. House prices become an obstacle to self-realisation, even if that dream is false, the hope for the wrong thing. It becomes a metonym for diminished opportunity, for student debt, for the concentration of wealth and divisions in opportunity, for shitty housemates and shittier landlords, for job interviews and funding applications, for broken boilers, for not being sure what’s going to happen, for being unable to plan a future.
The Olympic Park in Stratford bristles with cranes that look like the serious-minded offspring of the alien twisted loops of the ArcelorMittal Orbit. The ArcelorMittal Orbit is the country’s tallest sculpture! Much of the sculpture’s construction was funded by Lakshmi Mittal, chairman and CEO of ArcelorMittal, who supposedly has a net worth of £7 billion! He spends his time between central London and New Delhi and says “at the end of the day you have to keep emotions away” (from ‘8 inspiring quotes by Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Niwas Mittal’ www.entrepreneur.com). Past the new Westfield Stratford City (opened September 2011), which seems always to be in sight, I walked north in front of the flats being built in Chobham Manor, on the site of the old Olympic Village, in the direction of where I thought the velodrome must be. I picked my route arbitrarily, diverting through the new willows of the “Wetlands Walk” then emerging near a cafe. When wandering, in following my feet automatically, I seemed to enact an understanding of the landscape without knowing it. I felt free from needing to be anywhere, including where I was. An aeroplane banked overhead. There are new pavements, new shops, new cycle routes, and in the new grassy park, along the River Lea, are signs for free wifi on the masts of CCTV cameras. Like the Olympic Park itself, the balconied flats peering back towards central London over the trees look to have been dropped from above, alien colonists on former industrial land around Hackney Marshes. .
Wealth, like the wealthy, moves around without friction. London is one of the few places where it touches the ground, normally in property, digging basements or building higher. It requires the same rootlessness of us, whilst protecting itself with barriers and borders. Its pressures and contradictions crystallise in us.
Even on a warm Sunday afternoon, with couples walking or cycling and a family at one of the barbecue stations, Chobham Manor felt sparse and too big for itself, with the same determinedly aseptic, expansive characterlessness that nominally public spaces, like airports or large hotels, mistake for friendliness or utility. Among the slim silver birch, it feels like nothing in immediate view is more than 10 years old, which it isn’t. Walking through the last part of the park before the velodrome, diverting only to climb a small mound on impulse, I couldn’t work out how I felt. The curved tarmac paths are broad and smooth, with the thin turf in places already worn with new paths off at tangents, marking some idle dissent. There is something eerie in its lack of history and its expectant peace.
Stratford was recently named as one of the “best places to invest in London” by the Daily Telegraph.
Henniker’s Ditch, a waterway feeding into the Lea, now runs as a culvert parallel to the A12, beneath the expanse of empty benches and bicycle racks in front of the velodrome. The mouth of the culvert, by the river, is amongst the landscaped wetlands; the rest is underground, serving as drainage from the new houses of Chobham Manor. In the development’s maps, it runs through like a ley line or a forgotten dream. In most it isn’t marked at all. You wouldn’t really know it was there. You’d never find it.
In the recording that Don Share refers to in his discussion of ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, Kilalea prefaces the reading by warning that there is “no work to be done”. As guidance for readers, it’s more than a little teasing: where does the reading end and the ‘work’ begin? (It begins, you might say, when you take a train to Stratford.) This guidance is, I suppose, part of Kilalea’s artful, architect’s introductions, as it braces us for the appropriate interpretative outcome.
To revisit Sontag’s essay, more fully she argues that:
[…]interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.
Kilalea calls for a similar eschewal of the interpretation of content, asking instead, like Sontag, for an attentiveness to form. In her tender interview she makes a similar point about the pleasures of listening to poetry being read:
[…]there is something special about listening to poetry, which is its speed— you can’t really think while you listen because if you stop to work out the significance of a line, or its relation to something earlier in the poem, you might miss the next line. Which means that thinking – or intellectual work – gets disarmed, but also that the ear is free to experience sounds more immersively.
Again like Sontag, this emphasises the “experience” of poetry over its interpretation. And crucially, what comes when the listener is ‘freed’ from “intellectual work” is the immersive experience of “sounds”, so key to ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’. But what interests me in Kilalea’s account above of listening to poetry is that it splits two processes in understanding: the experience, which runs along with the poem, and the work, which arrests this in its attempts to interpret. The work puzzles out the patterns that the experience already registered, dogged even so by doubt that it hasn’t yet accounted for everything. The work, like poetry, is characterised by insufficiency and failure. But, beyond this, the tension between the experience and the work, the running forward versus the looping back, the trap of thinking, suggests something of the experience of anxiety.
Criticism is an anxious practice. Its position in literary culture is marginal, sitting at the back making notes, categorising, re-visiting, re-reading. Its work is a reading that is unable to finish, a belated one that attempts to recapture and understand that first experience, still bewitched and bewildered. It is also, if it has the necessary humility, in continual question of its own frames of evaluation, challenged to be more than brute opinion. To the critic, openly accounting for their reading, is given the prejudices, the preconceptions, the ignorance, the failure. Like anxiety, it becomes a reading of its own reading, a self-reflective, potentially endless loop. Welcome to your doubt.
Unlike the world, of which there is too much and which happens too quickly, a poem can be re-read. Interpretation of a poem offers a comfort unavailable beyond it. But, as Sontag argues, the work of interpretation often creates the enclosure that it relies upon. And so sometimes criticism becomes talking over the poem’s overwhelming otherness of voices and experiences beyond our own, sealing them off and (to paraphrase Sontag) replacing them with itself. How then do we use our voices responsibly? Although criticism is always being pressed to other ends — to praise, to sell books, to damn — we should recognise our ability to promote writers different from ourselves, or at least our tendency to stifle them. As, for instance, the VIDA Counts have shown, simply the source and subject of book reviews is political and in need of address. But it’s only through self-consciousness, through doubt over the limits of our experience, that writing on poetry can be constructive and progressive. This hopelessly dogged re-reading is the only alternative to thinking that our last interpretation is all and final. It’s an anxious practice, but necessarily so.
I don’t really understand ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, any more than when I first read it. I know it better, I suppose.
If these are anxious times, we should be glad to have the poetry that expresses our doubt for the future and for ourselves. I’m unsure, though, beyond consolation, what cause this can give for hope, especially when the causes for dread seem so far beyond the address of mere literature. Probably the best a poem can do is deeply convey the experience, such that the reader is absorbed beyond their understanding. It is through finding doubt and worry and fear in a poem, through being confronted with an ultimate absence, that I am perhaps reconciled, albeit for a moment, in finding the same in myself. It is through this that maybe I can find that my anxieties are not just shared but the result of larger forces, and so prompts not just for kindness but for solidarity, not just for acceptance but for political action. Probably we should hope for the strength to be anxious, to feel it fully. Certainly we must be brave.
I’m grateful to Kathryn Maris for our discussion about anxiety and fragmentation, and to Dave Coates, Dom Hale and Alex Read for comments and suggestions.