Helena Nelson reviews Imperium by Jay Gao (Carcanet, 2022)
Jay Gao’s Imperium required a full re-set of my poetry brain. I was more or less okay with the opening piece, but after that I was scuppered. I didn’t understand what the poems were saying, what the book was doing, or where it was going. I just knew it demanded all my concentration and I had no idea what — if anything — it was offering me in return. Cue two lines from Don Paterson’s ‘Letter to a Young Poet’: “By sixty, we had given up on the pretence / that we could understand one word of the poetry of the young.”
I turned 69 last month and other (younger) people were speaking well of this debut collection. While I was ironing, I watched the online launch. The chat said “amazing”. Fiona Benson on the back jacket said it was an “impressive reimagining of The Odyssey“, “nuanced, challenging, sometimes hilarious”. I had not only missed the jokes, I had missed the whole Odyssey. Odysseus pops up a lot these days, but unlike Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Pitysad’ with its frequent direct mentions of Odysseus and Penelope, or Sandeep Parmer’s Eidolon, with its frequent references to Helen, here there are no references to the chief protagonist. At least not by name.
Will Harris (the other jacket endorsement) helped more. “These poems reject the heroism of the legible ‘I’. If a central figure emerges it might be that of the Anti-Translator”. A relief: I had noticed this ‘Translator’, and how he was sometimes the narrator, sometimes not. And whatever ‘I’ is doing in these poems, it is … well, something else.
What were the reviewers saying? I cast about hopefully, picking up a red herring from Fiona Sampson in The Guardian. “Gao is searchingly intelligent across an exceptionally wide range of material”. OK, yes to ‘intelligent’. But what about: “the beautiful Body Sonnet, fractured by grief and haunted by “the breath of those / inert evenings … / hospital windows from the last night ever”?” I’d only read the book once and had failed to notice it was ‘fractured by grief’. I went back and tracked through the 14-page Body Sonnet without finding the quotation. Soon I realised there were two Body Sonnets ― exact same title, 34 pages apart. When I searched in the right one, I found Fiona Sampson’s gem. But her ellipsis had given it more coherence. In the double-spaced lines of the original, not just grief, but everything is fractured:
did the breath of those
inert evenings feel celestial even before a thing of joy
hospital windows from the last night ever.
I wanted to end it by any natural means; one last plea for what is
(— from ‘Body Sonnet’)
Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman also referred (indirectly) to the Body Sonnets (and had noticed there were two). But he observed that they “deploy Kenner and O’Rourke’s ‘Travesty Generator’, a Pascal-based algorithm to generate poems from previous texts”. In his Carcanet blog, Jay Gao himself says he has “exploded” the sonnets “like Cornelia Parker, into fragmented language ruins, imperial debris, and word rubble”. Whatever he’s done, he’s led Fiona Sampson to feel ‘haunted’ and Stuart Kelly to say ‘haunting’ (in a book where the words ‘ghost’ or ’ghosts’ appear nine times).
At this point I’d only read the book once and had failed to notice it was ‘fractured by grief’
Maybe trying to make ‘sense’ of these poems, especially individually, was my first mistake. Imperium is about power in many senses. It brings in alienation and diaspora, cultural influence and enchantment, language and tradition, entanglement and loss. And language, always language. It’s about the world en route to uncertainty, no idea where home (if it even exists) might be or what it might be called. It was not an accident that I felt powerless to position the book in the context of my own literary roots. But could I read while not knowing what was going on; could I live with that ― at my age ― and learn?
Adam Piette in Black Box Manifold was most interested in the long central prose poem ‘Nobody’ (astute readers may observe that this is a reference to Odysseus). He suggests the “political logic [ … ] is influenced by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire”. Having read the preface to that book (yes, reader, I have been on quite a journey) I think he’s probably right. Stuart Kelly favours this poem too. He finds it “astonishing” enough to suggest that the reader “skip to the middle” and start there.
I’d rather start at the beginning, although I think Imperium is a challenge however you approach it. The back-cover blurbs are not going to sort you out, and neither, I dare say, is familiarity with Homer. But if you just read, and open the windows of your expectation as wide as possible, something extremely interesting happens ― or at least it did for me.
By my second reading, I had grown more accustomed to the voice, the unplaceable accent. I threw caution to the winds and put my trust in the poet. And then ― this is going to sound weird ― I began to feel some of the words were ‘hot’. I’m always attuned to cadence and phrase, melody and echo. But this time it was as if some words glowed. This was partly the effect of repetition. But not just that. Some of the words were ‘hot’ because of oddness of placing, or oddness in context. Some even double-glowed with other hot words inside them. ‘Ghost’ contains ‘host’; ‘World’ contains ‘word’; ‘nobody’ contains ‘body’. It began to be more than usually interesting whether the narrative was propelled by ‘I’ or by ‘you’. But it seems to me that ‘I’ is no more Jay Gao, the poet, than ‘you’ is. Or to put it another way, if he is ‘I’, he is also ‘you’.
One of Gao’s favoured poetic forms also gives specific words prominence. I refer to the ‘stack’ (his own term), which requires a gap between the penultimate and final word in each line. This creates a zig-zag column of words towards the ragged right edge of the poem (like the geological formation). Six or seven poems in Imperium take this form. I like ‘Hostile’, which is short enough for a clear view of the whole stack and the white space block. At the same time the ‘hot’ words in the body of the poem jump out at me (nobody, Translator, blue, body, border, ghost, word, life, imperial, sweet, trap, stained, archipelago, accent, strange, lapis lazuli). I think ‘Hostile’ centres on an actual personal experience. But the event is fluid, malleable. The ‘I’ of the poem “could not see clearly, / not really” and neither can I.
But if you just read, and open the windows of your expectation as wide as possible, something extremely interesting happens―or at least it did for me
I confess I’m often impatient with contemporary verse where there are long lines with gaps apparently randomly (or decoratively) scattered. I find this hard to read easily, or with pleasure. I don’t believe, however, that Gao’s layout is ever random. When he reads a stack form aloud, he first reads the stack from start to finish, then the entire poem including the stack, and then the words in the stack in reverse, from end to start. It has an odd effect. As is intended.
An earlier version of the stack poem ‘Hostile’ appears in the 2020 Smith|Doorstop pamphlet Katabasis (the poet then writing as Jay G Ying). This time it is titled ‘The Ninja’ and there is no stack: the form is three six-line stanzas. Two other poems have previous manifestations in Katabasis. The form is different each time. For one, the new version expands the previous version; in the other it contracts it. There are significant differences of expression. The second version seems to me to be not to be ‘new and improved’ so much as re-purposed. At Imperium’s online launch, the poet observed that even now the poems were “not necessarily in their final incarnation”. But I suspect his work has multiple incarnation at its core.
The current Datableed contains another of Gao’s ‘exploded’ sonnets, this time with a first-line title: ‘Body Sonnet: what could I do or travel to in order’. Unlike Imperium, where each of the fourteen sonnet sections starts on a new page, here the numbered parts can be scrolled through continuously. I like this better. At first reading, I found I’d tuned into the expression instinctively and with pleasure. Not only did the ‘hot’ words leap right out, but also whole lines and phrases from the two Imperium Body Sonnets (the end has gone in a new direction). This third sonnet, for me, was instantly compelling.
In his Carcanet blog Gao writes: “Imperium can only ever be, at its most ambitious, a gesture towards seeking an authorial language — language, not narrative”. This is, I think, the key to what he’s doing. In early work, most poets work their way towards (for want of a better word) a ‘register’ where that thing we call ‘poetry’ feels as though it’s happening, a way to access the poetry bit of their brain. For some, a metrical pattern opens the door. For others, a vernacular approach (like writing in Scots) does something magical. Or the tone. Or the syllable count. And for a few, a totally off-kilter approach is needed: Gerard Manley Hopkins, e e cummings, Emily Dickinson. Jay Gao seems to me to be one of that number. “As a poet I rarely want language to be settled,” he says. “I want my poems to blow around at sea, off course, off the beaten path, lost, adrift, disorientated.”
In his Carcanet blog Gao writes: “Imperium can only ever be, at its most ambitious, a gesture towards seeking an authorial language — language, not narrative”. This is, I think, the key to what he’s doing
He likes setting physical objects adrift as well as words. Things like a stained shower curtain, a mosquito net, an earbud from some headphones, a silk scarf. So not just words, but some things, are hot. And perhaps certain personal experiences too. “I left my glasses on my bunk so I could / only see a few steps in front at a time”. Such instants are the elements with which he plays. They occurred in past time and now show up again from different perspectives to different avatars in different contexts in different ways in different places. And so he brings lived experience to bear, pulling in new references as he goes, an unrooted traveller on a complex, demanding, challenging journey.
I was privileged to travel with him for a while, and I have come back changed. When I arrived at the end of Imperium for the third time, two things were true. I was buzzing with ideas and questions, and I was curiously moved. Which is what I had been looking for all along.
Helena Nelson is is a poet, critic, publisher and the founding editor of HappenStance Press and Sphinx Review. Her first collection, Starlight on Water (Rialto, 2003), was a Jerwood / Aldeburgh First Collection winner. Her second was Plot and Counterplot (Shoestring, 2010). She also writes and publishes light verse, including Down With Poetry! (HappenStance, 2016) and Branded (Red Squirrel, 2019). Her most recent collection is PEARLS: The Complete Mr & Mrs Philpott Poems (HappenStance, 2022).