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Robert Bond

Babylon Afterburn

Adventures in Iain Sinclair’s «The Firewall»

Iain Sinclair, photo Belinda Lawley

Iain Sinclair
photo Belinda Lawley: contact

This piece is an extended analysis of Iain Sinclair’s The Firewall: Selected Poems, 1979–2006 (Etruscan Books, 2006). Iain Sinclair was born in 1943 in Cardiff, and studied at Trinity College, Dublin, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the London School of Film Technique. His early work was poetry, published by his own Albion Village Press, and including the collections Lud Heat: A Book of the Dead Hamlets (1975) and Suicide Bridge: A Mythology of the South and East (1979). He was connected to the British avantgarde poetry scene in the 1960s and 70s involving J. H. Prynne, Douglas Oliver and Brian Catling. He also edited the 1996 poetry anthology, Conductors of Chaos. The city of London is central to his work, and his books tell a psychogeography of London involving characters including Jack the Ripper, Count Dracula and Arthur Conan Doyle. His non-fiction works include Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (1997); London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (2002); and Edge of the Orison (2005), a reconstruction of the poet John Clare’s walk from Epping Forest to Helpston, near Peterborough. His novels include Downriver (1991), which tells of a UK under the rule of ‘The Widow’, a grotesque version of Margaret Thatcher; Landor’s Tower (2001); White Goods (2002); and Dining on Stones (2004). Iain Sinclair lives in Hackney, East London.


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I know scarcely any other Russian poet of his generation who was in time like him, thought with and out of this time, thought it through to its end, in each of its moments, in its issues and happenings, in the words that faced issues and happenings and were to stand for them, at once open and hermetic.
                                      — Paul Celan on Osip Mandelshtam, 1959


One way of pointing to a distinction between contemporary London and Cambridge poetries, may be to emphasize the widespread sense that whilst a leading Cambridge poet such as J. H. Prynne, or John Wilkinson, say, is a poet’s poet (or an academic’s poet), a major London poet such as Iain Sinclair is ‘only’ a citizen’s poet: a poet for the literate of the vast city. For instance today in 2007, still, the somewhat weary Leavisite concern with whether or not Sinclair is ‘a poet who “sold out to the mass market”‘ [1] continues to resonate within the essay collection City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair.


Or in conversation, one Cambridge poet — with something of a shudder — emphasizes Sinclair’s journalistic aspect. Sinclair, the understanding goes, is uniquely tuned to the ‘issues and happenings’ of the street, open to the moment. He is received as reporter, medium and alchemist of corrupt urban materialities. Which means, I sense, that Sinclair could remain somewhat discounted as an alchemist of sheer language: as a poet.


This essay seeks to create some awareness of the nature of Sinclair’s poetic achievement, on view in The Firewall: Selected Poems 1979–2006; an achievement which, it will be argued, is both — to use Celan’s words — ‘in time’ and out of time, ‘at once open and hermetic’. For — in a way that so often happens in the writing of London — it is precisely the extreme contemporaneity of this poetry, its grounding in everyday perception and lived historical profanities, which paradoxically generates fervent spiritual qualities and concerns: such as avid hope for the future, a militant obscurity, or a rapt attention to personal singularity.


In this commentary I hope to demonstrate how The Firewall shows the secret spirit-life of poetic language to be inseparable from our battered urban world. First I explore what we could call the spiritual form of Sinclair’s poetry, in The Firewall; the later areas of my reading reflect on the writing’s relation to the idea of a development of a spiritual life in the city.

Opaque barrier innocent


The poem ‘Nil by Mouth’, reprinted from the 1991 collection Jack Elam’s Other Eye, certainly presents a ravaged polis as ‘the only place/ where there is world enough to write’. Yet The Firewall also consistently reflects today’s rift between poetic language and the material environment. A 1999 essay of Sinclair’s introducing Bill Griffiths’s A Book of Spilt Cities, ‘Diorama of the Fixed Eye-Ball’, laid out Sinclair’s sense of this rift. Here he maintained that the earlier 1970s London projects of Griffiths and Allen Fisher indicated how ‘the proposition then was: London can be reclaimed, London can be described. The true life, worth reporting in diary, epistolary or conventional mode, could still be experienced.’ But following the collapse of our civic morality and ambition — the ‘powerful downshift in consciousness’ of the 1980s and 1990s — alert urban life has become increasingly impossible. Along with value and truth, the victim of rogue-capitalist relativism, the reduction of urban experience to the random positivisms of economistic facticity, is language: nil by mouth indeed. ‘Language is corrupted as the city embraces its entropic destiny. Living a written life within the circumference of the M25 is no longer a valid proposition.’ [2]


But, I want to suggest, the attenuated poetic formulations contained in The Firewall can be seen to represent the ghost — the afterburn — of a written urban life; and even also the skeleton of a re-born, spiritual, expressive life. When the imaginative liberties opened up by a specific place — such as, for Sinclair in his prefatory essay to The Firewall, his original ‘notional centre’ of the ‘floating Gothic principality of Whitechapel/Limehouse’[10] — have been removed by property development, new supernatural geographies can still energize the poet. Our access to spiritual topography, the way we can write from the map of another world altogether, is shaped by the actual faltering nature of post-historical inner London. ‘A city faded and dusty as the posthumous map. Nicotine paper impregnated with the disappeared man’s spirit, his reluctant breath.’[222]


In a way ‘Jack Elam’s Other Eye’ even suggests a rift between language and the spiritual environment itself, or the ‘dust-mouthed presence’ that is the ghost of Terry Waite. But the act of ‘speaking aloud’ is then distinguished by Sinclair from a much broader category of communication or expressive capacity, so that verbalizations are denigrated in favour of a muted and spiritual form of what it means ‘to say’. This silent speech, the implication goes, could communicate with the spiritual environment.


[...] not
fearing the dust-mouthed presence that
is forever here; more, much more
than my telling of it, speaking aloud
is all I have to say:[...][101]


Yet for Sinclair the rift between poetic language and the material environment remains, and in a way that recalls William Carlos Williams’s suspicion, in Paterson, of ‘the whole din of fracturing thought/ as it falls tinnily to nothing upon the streets’ [3]. It is not just that poetic representation is seen to be inadequate to capture, or ‘defeated’ by streetlife; Sinclair also posits the environment as a relief from language, writing in ‘Slooze’ of ‘language-hurt padded with a lost ocean’: ‘all I want from landscape is to be left alone’[212]. Hence, of course, this poetic would not even seek to fully capture the material world.


Here again we touch on the sense of a supernatural geography, a supernatural aspect of our experience — a stillness, perhaps — which escapes naturalistic representation. Sinclair’s writing characteristically seeks out and seeks to preserve inviolate space: a landscape innocent of — unaware of, unharmed by — our cognition. In ‘Landschaft (Oxford)’:


no camera gun so the rain slides unthinking
rapturous from glass & by arrangement
into a stone basin where it can recover its poise
lie still [...][165]


This is why the poetic raises what ‘Solitary Affrays’ calls an ‘opaque barrier innocent/ of sledges & sharp crystals underfoot’: tricks of narrative momentum and intrusive cutting perceptions are to be offset by opaque representation — which is to say by a relation of respect towards shocked life, or by an ethic of forbearance held out towards pain that does not want to be noticed. In ‘Solitary Affrays’ the shy transvestite is ‘successful only / in escaping from my sight’[108]. When the poet, on moral grounds, can only have ‘his back/ to the scene he is describing’[105], and must ‘never never allow that impropriety: reproduction’[270], the possibility opens up of celebrating that which is ‘proud to glow in/ negative plates’. This ‘unlicensed growth’[106] may be a cancerous excess of damaged life, yet alternatively it may be the supernatural quality of our experience, or an absolute perception to which the poetry continually aspires.


some days we take on more of the surface
than we can handle
this whole wide zone
is a plate nobody can swallow[23]


This sense of an absolute, and awareness of a spiritual overlap to our experience, of the way in which an event always remains ‘more, much more/ than my telling of it’, motivates the writing’s consciousness that it merely ‘shutters/ a faltering transcription’[21]. This poetry’s negative plates are never readily-legible photographs of the harmed world, complete representations, because they know that they also hold, equally falteringly, the afterburn of brighter experience. In Jerusalem, Blake asked whether we could see ‘the Great Light’: ‘The Eye of Man, a little narrow orb, closd up & dark./ Scarcely beholding the Great Light; conversing with the ground.’ In Brown Clouds, a 1977 collection of his, Sinclair similarly suggested that worldly human perception clouds the unworldly — a pre-existent integrity or unified esemplasm — so that for the poet ‘the pen races to obscure/ the awkwardly expressed sentence’:


all these split entelechies
flower from a single stem
& falter only in the liquids of perception [4]

A language of ruin and prophecy


The preface to The Firewall speaks of ‘unanchored imagery’[11], and the 2002 prose piece ‘Walking up Walls’ enables us to think of such residues of a spirito-linguistic single stem, of the Word, as floating light-fragments which — rather like negative plates — could either be scorch-marks of prior disasters or prophetic signboards, future profiles, of forthcoming events. ‘Silver lettering against carbonized damage.’[193] Within this poetic there is the sense that, as a city, we are on vertiginous terrain, our spirit under threat, and should attend therefore to what the 1988 poem ‘Significant Wreckage’ terms ‘profiles in the cliff’[93]. Sinclair as bookdealer tracked through ‘dust-cellars of ruined cities’[160] in quest of spoors of verbal heat; throughout The Firewall language is wrecked and exilic but, as in ‘Pogrom Music’, there is still ‘nothing to falsify the register of ruin’ because ‘all we transcribe is mute affection’[107]. Sinclair’s affectionate relation to the linguistic ruin-trace, admitting progressive ruination, both communicative and civic, as truth so that poetic language becomes love — how far from so many contemporary literary academics’ careerist exploitation of language! — recollects the vision of Isaiah. Here the charred remnant of a desolate mundane landscape, as imprint or afterburn, becomes a fragment of hope.


‘Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.[Is. 6.13]


It is within this context of a writing out of ruins, and scriptural echo, that we can begin to approach Sinclair’s affinities to Celan. The third area of Sinclair’s ‘A Serious of Photographs’, published in 1997, opens with caustic commentary on the erasure of European traditions of modernist poetry from (over-examined) British avant-garde poetic consciousness now. ‘In the “first book-length study of the work” of J.H. Prynne the name of Simon Armitage appears as frequently as that of Paul Celan. Discuss.’[187] Jack Elam’s Other Eye had already been prefaced by Celan’s line ‘wie anders sei noch geschlafen als stehend’, along with Michael Hamburger’s translation: ‘how else shall anyone sleep but standing’[100]. There is here a pairing of hibernation with erection or even resurrection, which looks back in a way to the Glasgow cemetery poem ‘Spirit Levels’, from the 1983 Flesh Eggs & Scalp Metal, wherein ‘resurrection blasts locks/ from[funerary] monuments’.


Sinclair claims linguistic creativity, re-birth, precisely as the next level up from the purgatorial hierarchies of ‘vertical corpses’ of which this ‘capital of dolour’[48] consists: the resonance with Celan’s poetic struggle in German in response to the Holocaust is unavoidable. In a 1954 letter, Celan referred to Valéry’s belief that poetry is (as Celan put it) ‘language in statu nascendi, language becoming free’. As John Felstiner glosses, ‘language in statu nascendi (“in a state of being born”) and “language becoming free” (freiwerdende Sprache): poetic process can deliver language from previous nonbeing. “Whichever word you speak — ,” Celan wrote only months before, “you owe / to destruction”‘ [5]. Both the form and the message of Sinclair’s poem ‘Drowned Fields (Whitechapel)’ — from Fluxions, the major 1983 chapbooktell us that poetic language can resurrect out of ruination, as if blasting itself free: the language of this great poem is explosive and revelatory precisely in its attenuation, its ember-like compaction:


‘catastrophe’ sealed within
my brain’s frozen apartments

rubble disappears
memory released[21]


In 1954 Celan was writing,


Look around:
see how things all come alive —
By death! Alive!
Speaks true who speaks shadow.


In Felstiner’s words, for Celan ‘the German language must go dark to speak the truth’ [6]. A similar principle of shadow-writing animates The Firewall, which responds to the market-led voiding of the city’s memory just as Celan reacted to the Holocaust: negatively and creatively. For in a sense Sinclair is formulating a shadow-English in the wake of historical London; a more ‘alive’ English, which also points to a future, ever more multilingual city.


Though of course the convergence of Sinclair’s twin registers of former ruination and future prophecy often appears not to be so optimistic. If these poems are (as in Sinclair’s own estimation) ‘quietly prophetic’[11], The Firewall is typically a world of ‘fossil evidence/ of a diminishing future’[57] — recalling the ‘reduced detail examined for potential omen’ [7] of Brown Clouds. A reference in ‘A Serious of Photographs’ to a ‘designer/ carrier bag’ which becomes ‘later a bank mask & sex aid’, and then ‘later still a shield against nuclear sunburn’[187], reminds us of the apocalyptic register of Sinclair’s essay ‘Nicholas Hawksmoor, his Churches’ (in Lud Heat).


Here already in 1975, the churches were held to at once hold ruin-traces of past phenomena and prophesy coming destruction. ‘The risk of the Manhattan Project is there ... the way the Japanese used the sun as their totem. Future suns of blinding energy do glint in the mute pallor of the stone. Fossil forms mark the ascending steps.’ Perhaps, however, we can read such fiery structures, Hawksmoor’s ‘great stone animals’ [8], as also representing emblems of protection, a form of radio-therapy: and so as then to contest Michael McClure’s statement, in his ‘Introduction’ to the book, that ‘The Firewall is not a protective or defensive wall’[7].


We could recall a scriptural firewall, in Zechariah 2.5. ‘For I will be a wall of fire all around it[Jerusalem], says the LORD, and I will be the glory within it.’ This verse enables a conception of Sinclair’s poetic firewall as both a potential nurturing source of linguistic energy, internal to the field of contemporary poetry, and a shield, protection or charm against surrounding harm. Sinclair’s book offers unique testimony to a contemporary British social climate of ‘otherworld anxiety’[9]; these poems are notations of ‘internal strain, external pressure’[10].


There is prophetic dread in Babylon, in 1983 and still in 2002; ‘threat colours the road’, and ‘tomorrow they know won’t be as fine’[20, 198]. For this administration represents ‘the calm before a midnight raid’[108]. Sinclair installs a millenarian scenography of ‘old men dry as sticks made ready/ for holy fire’. Seasonal festivities reduce to a temporary reprieve from doom: ‘hell is frozen/ for the Christmas skating waltz’[20]. Sinclair’s response to the impending doom is not the Christian promise of salvation. But in the 1991 essay ‘A New Vortex: The Shamanism of Intent’, he asserted a magical aesthetic project, which involves ‘a way of truth, preordained stages of ritual and meaning’, as antidote to the dark culture of threat we now inhabit. ‘We are prompted by the millennial twitch, the apocalypse packaged as a war game loop, to steel ourselves in search of some depiction of our deepest fears.’ Hence Sinclair’s own poetic urban depictions, for example, exalt and even exult in current terrors, in a sense: and they recollect Wyndham Lewis’s remark, in his epochal 1917 statement ‘Inferior Religions’, his ritualist’s manifesto, that ‘laughter is the emotion of tragic delight’. I will return to this aspect of urban modernity’s religious culture (which explains so much of the guilty pleasure of reading Sinclair’s satire) shortly. The art-magic projected in his 1991 essay, a ‘joyous shamanism of intent’, shares with serious Christianity a celebration of incremental faith and serial significance: it relies upon iterative practice to protect against doom, just as it constitutes in itself a repetition of primitive magical practice. ‘We must also believe that “makers” still exist who are capable of challenging the darkness with a reiteration, and refinement, of the most basic forms of sympathetic magic.’ [9] The ‘Combustible Stones’ section of Fluxions is prefaced by an invocation of such magic. ‘By means of a sympathetic powder which he imagined he had discovered: this powder was to be rubbed on the weapon causing the wound, not the wound itself.’[34]


In ‘Pogrom Music’ a practitioner of this magic has already been looked over by the future, yet — precisely as such — he remains partly unformed, not yet exited from the past, ‘potential’.


a potential man making his curse
forbidding a future
that has prematurely surveyed our corkscrew bones[106]


Flesh Eggs & Scalp Metal has a phrase for formless poetic spells cast to pre-empt a feared future, language still shifting in corkscrew motion: ‘photographs that remain potential’. These are negative plates, with ‘a peculiar opacity’[64]. Where Ian Patterson famously described Prynne’s poems as ‘photographs of processes of thought’ [10], we could think of Sinclair’s poems as negatives of the urban world: darkened visions of an as-yet-unformed world behind contemporary London, which would represent intimations of a re-formed, renewed city. A less fearful place, perhaps.


In ‘Room Service Declined’, a prose piece from Saddling the Rabbit, ‘photosensitive plates fix ambulant shadows and plot the transits of the conjured presence’. Sinclair here couples shifty spiritual formlessness with real ‘presence’: his point is surely that — as when ‘influencing pilgrim dreamers in their alcoves of incubation’[223] — the re-forming city is already here: if we pause and let ourselves be influenced. ‘Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”‘[Luke 17.20-21] McClure wrote of how Sinclair’s book ‘edges towards being a world rather than paper and pages’[7]; Douglas Oliver, in a letter quoted in the preface, voiced a belief in the arising of ‘a phantasmic world[...] appropriate and exact,[...] even phenomenal’. For Oliver ‘the good poet’ can access such manifestation inevitably and without volition: the poet ‘doesn’t necessarily “want” to see what he sees; he just sees it, impelled necessarily upon him’[10]. ‘For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ Perhaps it is the inevitability of the poet’s vision which explains the affinity of Sinclair’s conjured presences to the presence of salvation which the Bible would write into being: Sinclair’s writing (just like Oliver’s own Penniless Politics, which Sinclair published) shares with scriptural writing the quality of genuine vision, of faith in what is seen — or in the ‘potential’ which would be seen.


Some of Theodor Adorno’s thoughts about Beckett, drawn from Aesthetic Theory, can help us understand the intrinsic realism of Sinclair’s visionary poetic invocation of a phantasmic sphere, his act of conjuring through negative plates. The Firewall offers up, in McClure’s phrase, ‘the landscape of another realm’[7]; yet it is a second realm built up out of a celebration of the splendour of our current degradation. ‘sailing proud/ dust-lilies on petrol water’, as ‘Guignol’s Band Aid’ has it[199]. Sinclair’s search for an as-yet-unformed world behind the contemporary city hence converges with Beckettian realism which, for Adorno, holds the ‘negative imprint’ of our commodity trauma. This species of writing releases a field of radioactive conceits ‘both sad and rich’.


Because the spell of external reality over its subjects and their reactions
has become absolute, the artwork can only oppose this spell by
assimilating itself to it. At ground zero, however, where Beckett’s plays
unfold like forces in  infinitesimal physics, a second world of images
springs forth, both sad and rich, the concentrate of historical
experiences that otherwise, in their immediacy, fail to articulate the
essential: the evisceration of subject and reality. This shabby, damaged
world of images is the negative imprint of the administered world. To
this extent Beckett is realistic.


It is as if an art which dares to fixate on human dereliction and desperation, mimicking the absolute economistic materiality of this world in extremis, blooms into a strange anti-world, a spirit-world; or at any rate enables a return to a thinking of genuine spiritual experience. The bitter reality to which Sinclair’s poetic stance — precisely in all its well-stocked, packed privacy — testifies is that, in Adorno’s words, ‘the marrow of experience has been sucked out; there is none, not even that apparently set at a remove from commerce, that has not been gnawed away.’ Yet it is precisely such a rich and sad testament to atrophied singularity which, in effecting a ‘critique of pseudoconcreteness’ — revealing the actual emptiness or abstraction of experience centred on capitalist exchange relations — performs an ‘eclipse of concretion’ [11] and so suggests the possibility of viable spiritual life. The negative imprint, the urban negative plate, can hence be seen springing phantasms, potent charms against administered non-life, visions. ‘Walking up Walls’ finds the conjuror, back playing up, ‘wincing in a public garden’.


Regulated beds, grim rows. The frost, melting, gifted small cabbage-
like purple plants with an[sic] crystalline glitter. Neither one thing, I
thought, nor the other. Neither flower nor veg. Not ice, nor water.
Between states of being. A quiet flux.
What we see is what other people have forgotten. Keep going. Move
fast enough to access the stillness, the times when strangers pause, see
something out of the window, a landscape bent around the curvature of
wind-streaked glass. What is not loved is what remains.[194]


The idea that the unregarded, the stilled, the absent is the truly material and hopeful is at once a negative theology — if God is distributed into nature, ‘landscape’ — and an ethic. It also points to an exemplary hermeneutic or response to art, an access to today’s invisible and quasi-monastic cultural production, that of ‘anonymous masters labouring for our entertainment’[195]. Sinclair finds in the A13 [motorway] landscape which consists of light and absence — ‘out here, the missing squares of the map didn’t matter. Everything was missing’[194] — a ‘public art in landscape format’[195] which is as pared-down as the post-industrial urban space of total consumerism that it records.


Jock McFadyen’s inevitably blanked, self-erasing canvasses — ‘shaped like cheques. Like the windscreens of American cars. Like the space between quotation marks’[196] — offer a realist abstraction tuned to the eerie emptiness of the drive-by commodity run, the A13’s ‘transcendent weirdness’[196]. ‘Retail landfill. Cinemascope-sized chunks of nothing. The only way to access this shit was to walk along the rim of the inhabited world with a visor-shaped hole cut from a black rubbish bag, a hood on the head.’[195] The Firewall often adverts to the idea that the extreme focus provided by tunnel vision gifts insight into absence, or into the space of ‘what remains’ beneath or beyond a city reduced to a perpetuity of ritualist consumption. Here the eye-hole is ‘cut’ out; in ‘Deleted, Not Destroyed’, Sinclair writes, in connection with the performance artist locked into contentless ‘durational exercises’, that ‘the wound he unzips is an authentic door’[166]: here artistic vision of absence cuts through to a transcendent. ‘The slash of poetry’[103] — the radical emptiness opened out by language — too can hand out what ‘Angels of Chance’ calls ‘entry tickets to the 4th Dimension’[235].


Adorno wrote of how Walter Benjamin’s exegetical attention — rather like Sinclair’s poetic negative plates capturing urban degradation — ‘revealed the ordinary world in the eclipse which is its permanent light’. What Adorno here first calls Benjamin’s ‘glance’ turns out, nine pages later, to be more of a visor-bounded focus, an extreme immersive attention: a perception which is an over-exposure. For Adorno, Benjamin’s tunnel vision revealed blight and absence — ‘the chasm’ which we inhabit — but it also sought to prophesy the ‘hidden contours’ of a redeemed, less riven world. ‘Benjamin overexposes the objects for the sake of the hidden contours which one day, in the state of reconciliation, will become evident, but in so doing he reveals the chasm separating that day and life as it is.’


‘Walking up Walls’ carves out hope from the A13 chasm too, in the form of McFadyen’s paintings, of which Sinclair remarks ‘we’re lucky to have them. If we do. When we do. When we pay attention.’[196] He captures the sort of over-exposing attention that is required in a description of the A13’s own rabid light and landscape: ‘a post-nuclear clarity.’[194] (In the 1994 novel Radon Daughters, he had written of one ‘holy idiot’ that ‘the brickwork behind him is scorched with the afterblast shadow found at Hiroshima, the pitch of his absent concentration is so intense’. Sinclair’s 2007 essay on the art of Oona Grimes remarks on ‘the spectacular concentration of the contemporary artist’ — this is a workerist, specializing yet also childlike intensity which, in the animate shadows of harm on view in Grimes’s Conversations with Angels, is paired with the jittery insubstantiality and fragility of her crime-scene outlines). Sinclair then, like Adorno, can match the radical emptiness of a hope-laden space, too, to the extreme brightness of visionary definition — whether artistic or hermeneutic — which would draw out that hope.


It is perhaps worth thinking a little, therefore, about the particularity which makes a particular visionary’s insight so clear, so matched to the purity which surrounds hope. In The Penances, a 1977 volume, Sinclair had already connected a subjectivity of integrity, a genuinely singular subject, to the unity of a ‘wild clear space’:


Because self, you were
close enough in & filling the whole
wild clear space

I mean the whole space, suddenly
was ‘love’ [12]

A singular witness


Adorno indeed recognized the centrality of subjectivity within Benjamin’s thinking; ‘the subjectivity of his thought shrank to its own specific difference’. This meant, Adorno saw, that Benjamin’s thought became attractive, ‘compelling’, precisely on account of a privacy which could easily have discouraged and distanced the reader: ‘the idiosyncratic moment of his mind, its singularity — something which, according to conventional philosophical mores, would have been held for contingent, ephemeral, utterly worthless — legitimized itself by giving his thought its compelling character’. In ‘Diorama of the Fixed Eye-Ball’, Sinclair similarly elevated the contingent and private qualities of Griffiths’s singular poetic, finding in them potential protest against the normalizing, random platitudes — the contentless positivisms — of millennial urban historiography. ‘That’s the choice: to trust the report of a singular man (who speaks what he sees) or to let ourselves drift across an Imax panorama of over-clarified but meaningless detail. The poet refuses to collaborate in the “malfiguring of the Past.”‘ Sinclair noticed how the mundane propagandistic festivities of the New Millennium Experience were countered by Griffiths’s visionary singularity; within A Book of Spilt Cities ‘the inflamed monocular intensity of the private witness[is set] against the undirected sensationalism of the diorama, the tent-show stunt’ [13].


How was such fundamentally oppositional vision, so very rare today, formed? In a poem early in The Firewall, ‘A Bull Called Remorse’, from the 1983 Flesh Eggs & Scalp Metal, Sinclair suggests how poetic singularity is an effect of the radical poet’s contemporary distance from earlier countercultural or experimental formations, now that ‘the tribesman cannot/ write himself back into his former clan’. For Sinclair (as for Griffiths), moving out of the nostalgia trap — defeatist academic excursions back to the ‘British Poetry Revival’ or Ginsberg-in-London — his own highly personalized investigations are a fecund survival strategy:


inactive in a wholly alien period, he finds
the lock that his special interest deformity
can access: he is alone and singular[53]


But as another poem in the same collection recognizes, on this unique path through neo-conservative apathy and indifference there is a real danger of hermeticism — of in effect refusing poetic communication or ‘wanting to say it but not to you’[47]. The pursuit of defiantly personal researches and knowledges, of turning locks in inaccessible areas, can reduce the resulting poem to a journal of a private cultural itinerary: in a later volume such as Saddling the Rabbit (2002), further down the special interests route, a poem such as ‘Lost German Shepherd’ has become involved in a self-parodying litany of purely personal reference. The poem performs an unravelling of mental mono-tracks:


Kyrie eleison (an Alconbury tape)
ravelling between spools
counters hagiographic froth St Diana
Burberry huntress colour-enhanced
spinning diamond heart: sun’s moss
amber & away glutting on
‘the soundtrack of a Sean Connery film’
Umberto Eco’s medieval mystery
in the chill room on Glastonbury Tor


And the following stanza goes on to accumulate Bill Clinton with ‘rearview mirror French monks’[241]. But this is still poetry, no arbitrary verbal froth, because the language remains sharp enough — whilst operating within its extremity of singularity — to forcefully point up, say, the distance of a contemporary plaster saint moulded by the culture industry (what Princess Diana became), from the authentic spiritual heritage of the west of England. In fact precisely the wide extent and sheer ravening neediness of the poetry’s singular research — Sinclair’s cognitive trawl is truly, as ‘A Bull Called Remorse’ puts it, ‘all hooks out, defenceless’[53] — can open into social commentary which is far from inaccessible or privatized.


For all its elevation of singular personal information, Sinclair’s poetic resists the contemporary movement of the (non-)personality cult, or the modern conversion of mature self-expression into adolescent self-advertisement, such as is encouraged by digital organs of self-publicity like MySpace, or the lecturer’s overblown CV pasted on the English Department website. ‘Angels of Chance’ self-detonates with the accusatory closing lines ‘this this this is the ghosted/ autobiography I refuse to acknowledge’[235]: Sinclair’s intransigence towards an exploitation of biographical detail hence perpetuates Adorno’s insight into how ‘the concept of genius’ can become ‘the potential enemy of artworks’, when ‘the person back of the work is purported to be more essential than the artworks themselves’.


Adorno saw how the artistic personality cult denies the truth (which is foregrounded within Sinclair’s production just as insistently as it was by Wyndham Lewis’s), that ‘those who produce important artworks are not demigods but fallible, often neurotic and damaged, individuals’. Stable or integral subjectivity is what is sought. The cult of total creativity ‘suits crude bourgeois consciousness as much because it implies a work ethic that glorifies pure human creativity regardless of its aim as because the viewer is relieved of taking any trouble with the object itself’. Instead of engaging with art (Adorno continued), ‘the viewer is supposed to be satisfied with the personality — essentially a kitsch biography — of the artist’ [14].


The very impenetrability, the extreme privacy, of the autobiographical content on view within The Firewall militates against the construction of such predictable biography — if this means that the typically lazy potential reader can simply be deterred by the crossfading of Burberry into Connery and similar delights for troubled souls. Yet it is precisely the creation of poetry out of what Sinclair, in his preface, calls ‘coded fragments’[11] — bites of singularity which encourage a work of decoding — which generates the reader’s awareness of a wider social world.


Just as we find in a novel such as Radon Daughters, it is precisely the hermeticism and paranoia of Sinclair’s singular poetic which expresses contemporary social relations: his paranoid creative universe reflects that of the world’s shifty ideologies. This is why we begin to feel — if we bother to actually take this writing seriously, and to undertake some decoding of its singularities — that precisely the most apparently removed and alienated subjectivity can perhaps teach us more about contemporary society, its duplicities and the secrets they would hide, than more typical, less damaged subjectivities do. The Firewall can hence lead us back to the method of underground social critique of Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled, for instance — a neglected, prophetic book from 1926 which remains astonishingly contemporary in its focus on how, in the words of one commentator, ‘nothing in the modern political world is to be taken at surface value, for everything has already been manipulated, is already coded in some way or another, and bears another significance from the obvious.’ Lewis’s codebreaker’s optic recalls Adorno’s sense that, with Benjamin, ‘exegetical power became the ability to see through the manifestations and utterances of bourgeois culture as hieroglyphs of its darkest secret — as ideologies.’ [15]


Mark E. Smith, too, falls into the lineage of paranoid individuals whose singular runic observations on quotidian life decode social illusion and prompt readerly decoding in turn. The Smith-Sinclair conjunction would seem to define the significant British postwar artist, or post-Lewis British visionary, as inhabiting the public image of the charismatic or shamanic cult-leader: with an underside of urban male paranoia attached. Smith and Sinclair alike fall into the category of the ‘PARANOID MILLENNIAL VISIONARY’ (Radon Daughters), in terms of both their preoccupations and projected identity.


Smith and Sinclair share a concern with the operation of invisible power in the city, which manifests in their interests in occult cognition, the Secret State and a generally supernaturalist, neo-Gothic ambience: both fantasists are indebted to the horror writing of such as M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. [16] It is almost as if the techniques (and terrors) of secret research — the culture of singularity as threat and under threat — formulated by James in late nineteenth-century Cambridge, is still being developed by Smith and Sinclair in our modern day cities.


In formal terms, Smith’s lyric work with The Fall has relied consistently on a construction method similar to that of Sinclair’s poetic: the arrangement of coded fragments. These fragments are hermetically biographical and so inaccessible, yet they derive from an everyday urban experience we all share. ‘Auto-Tech Pilot’, for instance, on The Fall’s Bend Sinister (1993), pursues a mode of para-domestic, street-level reportage in common with Sinclair’s Autistic Poses (1985). ‘Auto-Tech Pilot’, with its muffled talk of dawn raids by maniacs and the police station over the road, is indistinguishable in theme and tone from Sinclair’s ‘Hurricane Drummers Self-Aid in Haggerston’, wherein fear of further crime again stimulates verbal creativity: the invention of fresh linguistic capital, a more convincing testament, to make up for lost credit.


Another team of semi-skilled dips

work the precinct, dry-cleaning my credits,
licenses and a thin wad of royal portraits:
they collect on unconvincing promises[85]


We can see how Sinclair’s singular poetic of street experience functions as a credit economy in two ways. A relatively arcane argot — ‘dips’ — offers comforting confirmation of street credibility, to both poet and cultist. Maybe we will survive outside the seminar room, after all! Further, this poetic language foregrounds a wider issue of aesthetic credit: of belief, or faith, in literary value. For in order to even want to launch on the quest of decoding these singular fragments, in search of meaning, we need to first make an investment of belief in the very idea of the personal, the genuinely personal — an investment which many academic critics are becoming increasingly reluctant to make. The notion of investing in, still less of collecting on, any linguistic ‘promises’ at all is alien to most literary critics now.


My hunch is that Sinclair’s writing, in particular, can deter many potential readers precisely because it so determinedly solicits readerly involvement or implication: that is, precisely because it installs a credit economy of faith in poetic value. Here it is not simply a case of biographical literary value: it is not simply that Sinclair’s singular poetries are judged inaccessible because they are viewed as being too personal, whilst the depersonalized, specialist, quasi-computer-generated discourses of post-Brass Prynne or Wilkinson, say, are seized upon as holding the blue-print — all the sciences — of future poetries. For attached to the issue of personal expression is the notion of genuine expression: conveyance of meaning or truth-content. Under nihilist relativism now, we are becoming increasingly incapable of establishing our implication with poetry’s significance. Perhaps postmoderns have become wary of value — in terms of truth-content or knowledge itself — and now turn to poetry for quasi-fact-based, scientistic models for the production of mere conditions of cognition.


So it is as if the marketist free-for-all has cut loose, not just the economy, but visionary definition too. The first stanza of ‘Blair’s Grave’ (2006) hints how an imperative of pure acquisition, our climate of unbridled, consumerist self-assertion, has dissipated a society — a social contract — formerly held together, however delusorily, by credit, in the sense of relations of trust. ‘“I want I want”, no trust-/ worthy rung on ladder, so shred it’. The removal of social trust means that truth is no longer assumed to be conveyed by expression: we do not listen to what the politician, for instance, actually says, but for what we intuit he wants to say — for what we intuit he is actually thinking. ‘believe what I say I say’. Playing up to our material greed on the cynical principle of ‘what the public wants’, actual political truth-content of course turns out to be non-truth content, sheer meaningless duplicity: ‘foul heart’s straw’[263]. There is perhaps some reference to Jack Straw here, and of course ‘I want! I want!’ is the title of an illustration in Blake’s ‘For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise’, illustrating the aspirational self.


Sinclair’s poetic attack on the current political non-discourse of ‘mendacity, warp-truth’[264], an attack which is itself an assertion of belief in the capacity of poetic discourse to convey truth, indeed recalls Blake’s suspicion, throughout Jerusalem, of ‘perceptions[...] dissipated into the Indefinite’, perceptions ‘witherd/ Into indefinite cloudy shadows in darkness & separation’. You could say that Blake had faith in the idea of literary value insofar as the literary performs an act of visionary definition, and he argued that ‘The Infinite alone resides in Definite & Determinate Identity’. Or again, ‘he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole/ Must see it in its Minute Particulars; Organized’. Sinclair can be seen likewise to seek the goal of crystallizing definition — the crystallization of an organic unity — as a means of conveying visionary meaning or truth-content through poetic language. He has spoken of the ‘brief glyph-notes’, compacted crystals of linguistic pre-cognition of truth, from which the prose sections of Lud Heat evolved; in the course of Kathy Acker’s confessional essay, ‘Writing as Magic in London in Its Summer’ — her 1997 report on an extended discussion with Sinclair — he commented: ‘for a long time you must train yourself to write in ways that are fast and accurate. You test yourself to see if you can make mental notes that mean something, represent something.’ [17]


As a testament of poetic singularity, built up out of verbal ruins and prophetic glyphs, The Firewall reminds us that it is just such a practice of visionary poetic definition which our prevailing warp-truth discourse threatens to smudge and smother. Writing of Celan’s inventive poems from 1960 to 1962 (assembled in the 1963 collection Die Niemandsrose[The No-One’s-Rose]), Felstiner saw how, for Celan during this ‘semantic explosion’, the conjuring of new language, strange experimental formations, was a response to a general voiding of linguistic resources, and a societal unwillingness to write so as to convey meaning or represent truths. ‘More and more he was seeking out new resources in German, because he felt its lyric vocabulary to be exhausted, mendacious.’ Foul heart’s straw.


Celan, like Sinclair — who signals the explosive capacities of poetic language by reproducing newspaper headlines relating to the Buntsfield oil inferno (‘ATOMIC BOMB’/ ‘Escape was a miracle’) on the back cover of The Firewall — pursues a belief in language’s ability to sear through to truth, alongside an unflinching recognition of the diminished scale of contemporary truth-culture. As Anne Carson noted in her Economy of the Unlost, whilst ancient Greek lyricists of Simonides’s generation paired the poetic instinct with wisdom itself, and ‘believed the exercise of poetic wisdom to be the clearest place where truth can obtain existence for itself’, by Celan’s damaged time the poet ‘seems uncertain of his readers’ tolerance for truth’. Carson cites the great phrase from his Bremen speech on how we are now people ‘wounded by and seeking reality’[‘wirklichkeitswund und Wirklichkeit suchend’].


For Celan saw humanity cut down to a minimum, understandably scared of facing the truth of what has happened, yet needing truth still. ‘We live under dark skies and there are few human beings. Hence ... few poems. The hopes I have left are small.’ Celan drew a radical, absolutist division between the two absolutes of diminished contemporary truth and residual poetic hope, or the limited hope which is a faith that poetic language can continue to convey truth-content, and not be stifled by foul heart’s straw. Further, as Felstiner notes, for Celan the very word eng, German for narrow, ‘came to signify those extremities which make art authentic’ [18]. For Celan therefore, the act of continuing to practice as a poet is predicated on both a sense of the present-day narrowing of our truth-culture, and the narrow absolutism of his own division of the two extremities of attenuated truth-culture and poetic faith: as we saw in connection with ‘Blair’s Grave’, Sinclair’s poetic project inherits both these predicates.

In the narrows


The poetic advanced in The Firewall takes off from a conjunction of verbal narrowing and singularization, such as had already been evoked by some phrases in Celan’s Meridian speech. ‘geh mit der Kunst in deine allereigenste Enge. Und setze dich frei’: ‘with art go into your very selfmost straits. And set yourself free’. Felstiner reminds us that ‘allereigenste’, ‘very selfmost’ (literally, ‘most own of all’), is a ‘new word’ [19] — indeed it is a word, referring to extreme singularity, which centralizes within itself, within ‘eigen’, all four letters of the succeeding word, ‘Enge’, referring to narrowness: hence the very letters constituting Celan’s words perform — with kabbalistic finesse — precisely the sort of liberating linguistic process of spiritual straitening which they describe. Sinclair’s preface to The Firewall maintains that the attenuated, skeletal, ‘tight-lipped scripts’[11] with which the book begins, from the early volume Fluxions, were an effect of the thinning-out — the evaporation — of  the experimental poetic culture in Britain around 1979. This is why he was forced into his very selfmost straits: ‘to become a bad poet, to start again, from zero’. In this climate of austerity the social conditions were set for a Celanian purity, at least. ‘Language pinched, imagination constricted; not many counters in the hand. Heat. Glass. Air. Night. Stone.’[10] As ‘The Glamour’s Off’ put it, ‘what he can use, he does’[16]. A poem in Fluxions is characterized by short strange lines, arranged as a sequence of enticingly tentative proclamations, which can explode with emotion:


trapped stars of whisky sulphur
caught in thermals

we have fucked out holes in the black foliage[17]


In Fluxions each line, each word stands alone, a trapped star, a potential means of cutting through, cutting behind a hostile world to an alternative wondrous space. It is the finest visionary poetry. Sinclair’s later work is much more of this world, and accordingly the language has accommodated more to the demanding rhythms of that place. Lines from the most recent years (even within the controlled, late Prynne-like stanzas of ‘Blair’s Grave’) have become expansive, accumulatory: omnivorous instead of tight-lipped. Images, effortlessly connected, rush us across the infernal commodity surface.


John Wieners is a cited model, at the opening of ‘Parrot Tarot’ (from White Goods (2002)), with his ‘bogus mendicants Parsifal muff’[203]. For Wieners’s poetic output traces a similar formal trajectory to Sinclair’s; Andrea Brady noted how, ‘after the syntactic and lexical economies of Nerves, many of Wieners’ later poems are dominated by polysyllabic words and convoluted syntax’. These ‘syllabic pile-ups’ are intrinsically associative: for Brady late Wieners ‘bears comparison to poems by O’Hara such as “Dido”, where parataxis feeds the flood of consciousness, words urgently vault over the absent syntactic or semantic connectives to produce a sense of urgency’. Though it lacks the ‘camp feminized persona’, perhaps because London remains superficially a very masculine city, a later Sinclair collection such as The Ebbing of the Kraft (1997) is fully in the North American metropolitan tradition summarized by Brady, when she writes of how ‘the frenzied pace of O’Hara’s prose poem, its associative structure and sociability combined with its morbidity, resembles Wieners’ techniques’. These poetries make us wary of their own expansiveness and the fluidity of their easy sociability: this mode of urban language reveals, in its formal properties, an awareness of forced connection and unfree association across a commodified, digitized polis. In the later Sinclair as in the later Wieners there is a notable turn to ‘similar suffixes or rough consonance which hook individual words to each other’ [20].


bird-creole or the billowing froth of bridesong
privately parsed & since unheard[175]

take silver spoon & scoop the dripping clag
into the infanta’s generous bodice[176]


This later emphasis on sonic associationism or phonic inter-marriage, however satirically revelatory it may be of our actual ongoing progressive privatization and sheer greed, is far from the neo-Vorticist isolationism of Sinclair’s poetic of the mid-late 1970s, which still reverberated in Fluxions. Sinclair’s 1978 essay ‘Servant to the Stars’ — which functions as a prime neo-Vorticist manifesto — had read into Brian Catling’s 1976 Albion Village Press volume, Pleiades in Nine, an Eng-aesthetic of ‘reportage of naked reality, stripped process’.


The task of poetic language was taken to be visionary definition, to be attained through verbal purification. In Catling’s work a ‘running flighted rhythm’, found in early 1970s Prynne, was seen eschewed in favour of ‘clean words put sharply down. In their forked nakedness. Savage and direct.’ When the linguistic terms were separated, the poet could achieve — with Vorticist Lewis — ‘a firm possession of his own ground. There.’ [21] The opening poem in The Firewall, from Fluxions, aspires still to a precise language, wild and direct — ‘driven hard through/ the eye of a needle’ — and continues to identify narrowing visionary definition with firm, free-standing location. ‘there is a place to approach/ a closer place to stand’[15]. Starting again from zero, using what he can in a flattened land, the poet of Fluxions constructs unerasable visions from words that are as radically separate and self-enclosed as the letters ‘o’ which they foreground, and as the national hopelessness which they capture:


one breath later a roadside pub
sunk in fens where gothick poverty
fed the English opium crop:
the moon-faced idiocy of dazed mechanicals[22]  


If Sinclair’s poetic is indeed formulating a shadow-English, a language which — like Celan’s — has gone dark and austerity-laden in order to speak truth, we can identify the truth as that which passes in through such shadow-writing, in visionary flashes: code red. In ‘Fluxions (Lincoln)’:


fog’d headlamps beam the stone,
salt-fired windows;
lights fanned into misty rain

‘His red eyes again! They are the same!’[18]


‘The Falls (Talgarth)’ states how ‘we are not given many and do not realise/ instants set quick out of darkening air’[17]. The (red) visions — in 1974 Sinclair was indeed at work on a book titled, with a glance at dope vision too, Red Eye — are both firmly grounded (‘set’), and rapidly emergent from the shadows: if captured by language, they are still not yet fully realized. There are echoes here of Henry Vaughan’s proclamation of visionary formlessness in his ‘Quickness’ — ‘life is, what none can express,/ A quickness, which my God hath kissed’ — as well as of Vernon Watkins’s equally Christian notation, in ‘Swallows’, of how ‘keen wings cut through dark’. For Watkins the suddenness and elusiveness of sacred emergence was matched to the permanence of the poetic vocation. As intrinsically eager as the divine quick, Watkins’s quasi-avian artist ‘live[s] but to praise the elusive mark’. An early version of Sinclair’s lines, published in Grosseteste Review in the early 1980s, emphasizes his sense too that it is the project of poetic language to attempt to draw out and make present truth in the fugitive moment in which it beams in:


We are not given many, & do not continue
to realise such instants —
set them alive out of dark airs [22]


Sinclair’s articulation of a neo-Vorticist visionary aesthetic in ‘Servant to the Stars’, had proposed that ‘Pleiades sustains that urge towards a new purifying ritual magic, or transformation. Light.’ Catling’s post-Lewis poetic was read as a genuine attempt — ‘no pose or Yeatsian séance or scribbled automatic writ’ — to make truth present as it beams in. No spiritualist performance or deranged writerly self-indulgence, poetic ritual — the shaping of language so as to capture, define, make present, realize — becomes, in this conception, a rational quest for dense cognition of shadowed worldly truths. ‘The face is resolutely turned towards that beam of light that is fed with compressed images (and meanings): “beyond the faint glow/ of sainted domestic/ fury”. The initiate’s sun, of power, the blood sun, black as a sacrificed heart, or bird within snake.’ The poet becomes initiate of a source of truth reminiscent of the spirito-linguistic ‘single stem’ of Brown Clouds, Blake’s ‘Great Light’, or Celan’s ‘redder than red’ light-beam, in Breathturn:


The beam hammered all
the way through you,
that writes here,
redder than red. [23]


In ‘Significant Wreckage’ such a beam is re-transmitted through red eyes, even if its import is not yet fully realized or told. ‘The primal version is untold, but/ flares in flash-lit eyes, a panic red!’[95]. Breathturn enables us to relate such expressions of visionary shock, recapitulations of the obscure miraculous, to the working of a firewall, ‘THE WITH HEAVENS HEATED/ firefissure through the world.’ It is as if the semi-told red beam, or the firewall read as a source of truth and significances, can cut through our sainted delusions and complacencies because it is itself riven, fissile, formless. When verbalized as ‘the slash of poetry’, a poetic firewall therefore becomes what Sinclair, slashing a single line in ‘Spirit Levels’, calls ‘o lovely / gash of truth’[49]. True, for instance, to a vicious polis within which ‘CCTV records: knife damage’[265]. Urban truth mediated by poetic language has been — in the phrase from ‘Pogrom Music’ — ‘cut clean, burnt’[106]: it has undergone linguistic rituals of purification. Celan had imagined a ‘from the city-ramparts gathered/ white comet’ to be a folded absolute, a cut source of value, rather like the ‘siphets and probyls’ — riven, complicated messengers. Celan’s syllables themselves fold over one another, like the flickers of the fire-beam as it forms, or initiates in quest of their sun.


A voice-rift, to
preserve him, in
the universe. [24]


Voice-rifts are familiar from Jerusalem, wherein Blake folded single lines, or even words (‘Corn :fields’) in on themselves. His punctuation — creative, mutant cockney — punctures. ‘Which separated the stars from the mountains : the mountains from Man/ And left Man. a little grovelling Root, outside of Himself.’ These syntactic cuts, or concertina fold-ins, underwrote the principle of contraction which Blake married with his principle of democratic visionary expansion. ‘[...] for contracting our infinite senses/ We behold multitude; or expanding: we behold as one’.


A single Celan vision in Breathturn yields three diffferent formulations of cutting, including ‘cut to the brains’ and ‘swept through, crossed’. ‘Iced-through’, the third take, points us forward to ‘Fishy Oils’, Sinclair’s poem from his Buried at Sea (2006), which opens with Kafka’s remark that ‘a book must be the axe for a frozen sea inside us’. Jerusalem had conceived the ‘wounds of love’ opened up by a mode of clarifying perception involving ‘intellectual spears, & long winged arrows of thought’. In ‘Servant to the Stars’, Sinclair aligns such cutting rituals of visionary purification with another familiar Kafka scenography, of loving spears and nerve-light script.


He[the poet-magician] serves: “taking up axe, wild star”. Smoothed by
star-light, water run, the dancing needles, Kafka’s Penal Colony, lightly
touch the scalp, weld, impress the signature of the 7 Sisters, cleansing
jets, scalding impulse. Servant of the neural, nerve slave. Soft morse,
corrosive at margin. To confirm, to make real: conform to these distant
purities. [25]  


Carson writes memorably of how ‘the act of poetic attention gathers to itself a directional force as mysterious as gravity from the poet’s instinct for true relationships’. If the Eng-aesthetic developed within The Firewall is one of ritualist purification, enabling ‘reportage of naked reality, stripped process’, then it is also one recalling the relentlessness of Celan’s greatest poetry, its self-narrowing into verbal inevitability. Both Eng-tactics seek to reduce language to a path of truth (but not ‘the’ path of truth). The last lines quoted from ‘Servant to the Stars’, or the lines of a Fluxions poem such as ‘Drowned Fields (Whitechapel)’ drive themselves into visionary definition, in a way reminiscent of Celan’s comments on his poem ‘Engführung’. ‘These words, these voices I have really led narrowly[enggeführt] — have let myself be led narrowly by them — into the inexorableness of the last poem (timewise it was not the last, yet I knew it was the last).’


The poetic principle of teleological compaction extends to Sinclair’s prose writing — to what I have called elsewhere its ‘relentless serialism’. Glossing ‘Engführung’, the poem which he describes as Celan’s ‘most demanding’ and which Celan described as a poem in which ‘what’s real happens’, Felstiner writes of how the poem’s title ‘pushes his earlier title[“Todesfuge”] further, denoting a fugue’s “stretto,” the intense, overlapping entrances of themes, literally a “leading narrowly” or “leading into the straits” — which describes this poem’s form and content alike’. ‘To confirm, to make real: conform to these distant purities.’ ‘Stretto’ has become the poem’s English title. [26]  



Though the work reprinted early in The Firewall certainly bears the mark of the neo-Vorticist aesthetic of the mid-1970s, the period of Fluxions was of course a later period than that: it was a time when, as Sinclair notes in his prefatory essay, there was really ‘no punk Vorticism’[10] remaining in the air. Just out of neo-Vorticism and post-punk, Sinclair’s 1979 Suicide Bridge had caught the tone and the meaning of the newly-emergent Thatcherite, rabid, uncontrolled, quasi-inevitable greed: the anxious miasma which has become our norm. Gradgrind Britain, speeding. ‘Voodoo gangs, packs, savage for territory, for land space, skull space, for the sealed passageways of the labyrinth, for ox heat.’ The term ‘stretto’ likewise evokes a rhythm of stress; or a serial repetition, modulation, of stresses co-ordinated so as to articulate psycho-social disturbance.


This term seems peculiarly appropriate to the post-punk period, when an urban remnant, made up of autodidact visionaries such as John Lydon and Mark E. Smith, was issuing records with auto-referential titles like ‘Poptones’ (Public Image Limited) and ‘Repetition’ (The Fall). The post-punks’ emphasis on modulated serialism, just like Sinclair’s ritualist expression of sealed passageways, was registering a narrowing of options and a strengthening of class barriers: the contraction of genuine opportunity which occurs when a standardizing principle of automatized personal gain replaces talent, merit and selfless labour as the engine of social transformation. This sensibility of attenuation, downfall and radicalized frustration is where the last gasp of the progressive English working-class, in music, meets one origin of European migrant modernism, in poetry. Celan’s mother — Felstiner records — used an evocative word for ‘hard times’, internal strain and external pressure. Enge. (Dire) straits. [27]


Sealed passageways and straits are of course also cuts and rifts, signifying social rupture. Simon Reynolds, in his Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978–84, described how certain British ‘dislocations’, particularly in the years 1978–80, produced ‘a tremendous sense of dread and tension’. The period was evidently a dry run for New Labour: primary collapse, the first beating before the consolidation of neo-conservative doom. ‘The post-punk period begins with the paralysis and stagnation of left-liberal politics, seen as fatally compromised and failed, and ends with monetarist economic policy in the ascendant, mass unemployment and widening social divisions.’


Within this fatal time, the era of Suicide Bridge, an artist such as Ian Curtis of Joy Division functioned (Reynolds observes) as ‘a seer-like figure whose private pain somehow worked as a prism for the wider culture’. A shaman of intent famously caught on film in onstage electro-ritual. Reynolds’s account of Curtis’s dark charisma returns us to the idea of creative radioactivity, post-ruination, which we have found throughout The Firewall, as well as to the black hole imagery of Suicide Bridge — Sinclair’s co-invocation of Stephen Hawking with Lewis’s Enemy of the Stars. ‘Left behind when a massive sun exhausts its fuel and collapses in on itself, a pulsar is highly electromagnetic and emits regular flashes of intense energy, like a light-house in the pitch-black night.’ A purist, ‘hard-edged and angular’ Eng-aesthetic was emerging out of social attrition.


The ‘post-punk pantheon of guitar innovators’, Reynolds noted, turned to ‘a clean and brittle spikiness’; The Fall’s Martin Bramah and The Slits’ Viv Albertine played reggae or funk-based ‘skinny rhythm guitar’. The ‘geometric jerky quickstep’ perpetuated a musical neo-Vorticism which infiltrated the prose of music journalists such as Paul Morley and Jane Suck. ‘The stark urgency and clean lines of their prose mirrored the light-metal severity of groups like Wire’, writes Reynolds, whilst ‘the record-design aesthetic of the time emphasized a bold, bracing geometry of hard angles and primary colour blocks’. Ska and the mod renaissance showed an ‘amphetamined obsession with “purity” and the minutiae of style and taste’, a ‘polarized vision ardour that divides the world into the righteous and the square’ [28]. It is Blakean.


This documentation of the post-punk emphasis on distinction enables us to see that, before it declined in the later 1980s into the commodity snobbism of the London rare groove scene, say, and then was blissed out entirely by orbital rave and the democratization of dance, the purpose of such divisiveness in musical taste was to generate social consciousness. The singular ritualistic identities opened up by subcultures were always, however superficially, oppositional to the neutral norm. You did not select from a gallery of dulled retro-identities at the store, as now: you were an identity, in defiance of pre-set packaging. Discordant style was constructed, e-ducated: brought out of the stressed individual, rather than draped over the norm like today’s cloaks of fake revolt. Reynolds finds in the attitude of This Heat (for example) a ‘ferocious sobriety’; their music, through its ‘fractures and internal clashes’, generated ‘a painful alertness’. Here we are reminded of how, in Die Niemandsrose, Celan provoked rejection of our exhausted post-Holocaust truth-culture, by the use of what Felstiner calls ‘disruptive syntax’, ‘odd compounds and fractures’, and ‘polyglot, heterogeneous formations’ [29]. The poetic language of The Firewall too tends increasingly to generate social consciousness via such intra-phrase clashes, cutting new formations and divisions of sense. In ‘The Konigsberg Bridge Problem’:


fly by night
& vulture-priest by day
woman always / my red poppy
bursts from the dump. answer[204]


These lines couple inventive line-cuts with the odd compound of the vulture-priest; characteristic examples of intra-phrase heterogeneity from the same collection, White Goods, would be ‘elective rubble’ (to alert us to the way our land-greed actively enlists urban memory loss), ‘genetic telegrams’ (to note technology’s colonization of intimacy) and ‘Xerox’d building’ (to note the death of architecture as a human craft)[200, 203]. The post-punk aesthetic principle of enlightening and enlivening discordance is indeed an appropriate challenge to an urban world in which the reproduction of the standardized — the infinite xeroxing of the norm through the sealed passageways of the media — vanquishes individual statement. ‘Diorama of the Fixed Eye-Ball’ pointed out how Griffiths’s poetry actively responds to a situation within which ‘what is (noise) has been superimposed upon what ought to be (signal)’. Pained, self-divided, sussed poetic language therefore itself becomes a valid, meaningful expression for a time of auto-replicating mediazone babble, cloudy information, when ‘London has been cleaved, divided against herself, split like the hemispheres of the cerebellum. Treated with earth-fire and iron rain. Then tipped from the bowl, spilled free.’ [30]


The affinity of Sinclair’s poetic to the post-punk ecology points to a general attempt, throughout the early 1980s, to renovate urban spiritual energies through the evolution of a post-lyric, visionary populism. A quick look at the titles of Simon Reynolds’s other books of music history — such as Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock and Energy Flash — tells us that he is the archivist of youthful, energetic, supernaturalism in popular music. Post-punk is just the latest area within which he has delineated the radical transcendence offered by contemporary music’s spiritual energy, and found precisely that visionary populism which is lacking in so much contemporary poetry, the lyric category, and present-day Protestantism.


Perhaps it is simply the case that entertainment Christianity, like the poetry seminar room, is insufficiently passionate and self-divided: a cosy, artificial club, or a ruling caste lifestyle rather than a vocation. Benjamin classically stated that ‘there has been no success on a mass scale in lyric poetry since Baudelaire’. ‘If conditions for a positive reception of lyric poetry have become less favourable, it is reasonable to assume that only in rare instances is lyric poetry in rapport with the experience of its readers.’ [31]


Sinclair’s project to engage with energies of the city, as seen in The Firewall, was probably attempted most programmatically within Autistic Poses, and particularly in the poem ‘To Whom It May Concern’. Here the bid to articulate street violence — ‘drumming soft ribs/ nervepitch’ — took Sinclair to a post-lyric, nervy rhythm rather like that of ‘Shoulder Pads’, on The Fall’s Bend Sinister. ‘pull out, back to the nick, fitted/ to fleece: nice try, lick tar’[72].


These lines recall the way that Reynolds wrote of the late 1970s, totally wired Smith: he sounded like ‘someone speed-rapping, the words spat out with an oracular urgency, encrypted but mesmerizing. High doses of speed create a kind of eureka sensation: the user feels he’s accessed a truth invisible to others, can see occult connections’. Reynolds notes too how the Eno/ Talking Heads collaboration drew on ‘born-again Christian preachers because of their rocking-and-a-rolling speech patterns, mid-way between conversation and incantation’: such passionate language spoke of ‘“a sense of energy and commitment to some belief or other’”. The principle of urgent pronunciation, locked in rhythms of faith, is central to Sinclair’s poetic. Now recorded on his Dead Letter Office CD [32], rocking spiritual communication was an explicit concern of Autistic Poses:


‘Music is music,’ says Cleveland
‘it’s the words that separates
gospel from the rest, only the words’[86]


The rhythmic urban language of The Firewall also recollects the way certain alienated, white post-punks found spiritual fervour in roots reggae’s millenarianism. Mark Stewart remarked: ‘Going to sound systems with black mates, they were like huge evangelical meetings, and you didn’t get that kind of energy with rock gigs. That kind of yearning for a better world, that questioning of the system’. ‘We did feel like we were on the frontline of Babylon,’ recalled Vivien Goldman. ‘Rasta provided this mesh of the political, the spiritual, and the apocalyptic, and it helped you define your enemies.’ Reynolds notes how it was precisely this spiritual passion which distanced the liberal white bourgeoisie from roots militancy, in the same way that it now distances conformist academics from Sinclair’s poetries: ‘the absolutism of its blood-and-fire visions was temperamentally alien to a secular British youth whose idea of religion generally derives from Anglicanism: non-committal, wishy-washy, as close to being agnostic as you can get without pissing off God’. For Reynolds, within post-punk ‘perhaps only one person really tapped into a spiritual ferocity to rival Rasta: Johnny Rotten’. Lydon’s ‘identification with the black British experience of “sufferation” and “downpression” and his passion for Jamaican riddim and bass-pressure suffused his post-Pistols music, desolating PiL’s sound with eerie space and heavy dread’. Another member of Public Image, Jah Wobble (John Wardle), as Reynolds records, ‘had grown up on Whitechapel’s Clichy Estate, located at the junction of Jamaica Street and Stepney Way — neatly symbolizing the collision of East End and West Indies that would define him’. (Sinclair, who toured David Rodinsky’s garret with Wobble, perhaps more accurately hinted at his status as a messenger of world music beats, when he wrote that he is from ‘Bethnal Green by way of everywhere.’ [33])


In his 1928 novel The Childermass Lewis cut up Babylon into its incantatory constituent syllables, stressing the religious ferocity of the place name’s own architecture, its heavy rhythms, and with reference to another ‘nebulous’, spiritual city — London.


Two ponderous sounds enter the atmosphere along with the image. They are Bab and Lun, of the continuous Babber’ln. The tumultuous name of the first giant metropolis echoes in the brains of the lookers-on. Heavily and remotely its syllables thud in the crowd-mind, out of its arcanum — the Lon as the lumbering segment of the name of another nebulous city, and the mysterious pap of Bab that is the infant-food of Babel. A stolid breath of magic, they are manufactured, as they are uttered, as a spell: nothing but an almost assonantal tumbling upon the tongue and lips, preserving the dead thunder and spectacle of a fabric of gigantic walls. What would Bab be without its Lon or both robbed of their copula; evocative of twin strongholds — in the separation of their powerful vocables — eyewitnessed by the sightseeing Greek; these are two roaring towers of sound, connected by a chasm that causes them to reverberate.


Bab and Lon as twin bass bins: for Lewis here ritualistic percussion is the truth-principle of urban experience, a unified rhythm in reciprocal relation with dislocation and struggle. In his White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings, Sinclair found the same principle. ‘Drumming Blake, Blake drumming like a madness, one of those sugar-hook addictions that get into your head, a spasm, won’t be shifted: set against local pain, pulsing against bodily exhaustion.’ Indeed Sinclair’s own compacting Eng-poetic, the incantatory relentless serialism of his language, converges with magical pulse. Fluxions sets up a reverberating environment, wherein ‘our map/ is animated by a pulse of emotion’[20]; ‘the road swoons in pulse’[22] between ‘lit fields in coming waves’[26]. Lewis saw the drum of ritualistic rhythm — the ‘almost assonantal tumbling upon the tongue and lips’ — to accord value to, to immortalize, heavy urban meanings: ‘the dead thunder and spectacle of a fabric of gigantic walls’. Only a feather-light pulse can capture such density of impacted meanings.


Sinclair likewise, in The Penances, wrote of how the poet ‘scores, what is to be noticed’: the installation of a bodily score draws out significances. In The Firewall he is still writing, in ‘White Goods’, of ‘the privilege of scoring the beat’[197], because breathing, bodily rhythm, defines — cuts out — truth with visionary precision. In Lewis’s ‘Franciscan Adventures’ a transcendent vagrant experiences ‘destructive hiccups that engulfed so many of his phrases, and often ruined a whole train of thought, even nipped in the bud entire philosophies’ [34]: fluttering spasm overcomes weighty speculation, as even conceptual systems, the most abstract conditions for truth, themselves become entirely contingent on the vagaries of rhythmic physicality. Any continuing spiritual life, any ‘roaring towers of sound’ or grounded visionary poetry of the future, is merely an effect of such magical ruination.


kingstone set apart
on ground that pulses like a warning

that stands because the rest has fallen[28]

— November 2007


[1] Celan quoted from John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 133; Ben Watson, ‘The Kodak Mantra Diaries: The Politics of Sinclair’s Poetics’, in City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair, ed. by Robert Bond and Jenny Bavidge (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), pp. 82–89 (p. 82).
[2] The Firewall: Selected Poems 1979–2006 (Buckfastleigh: Etruscan, 2006), p. 110 (further references to The Firewall are given after quotations in the text); ‘Diorama of the Fixed Eye-Ball’, in Bill Griffiths, A Book of Spilt Cities (Buckfastleigh: Etruscan, 1999), pp. vii–xi (p. vii).
[3] William Carlos Williams, Paterson, rev. edn prepared by Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1992), p. 23.
[4] William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, ed. by Morton D. Paley (London: Tate Gallery, 1991), p. 208; Brown Clouds (Newcastle: Pig Press, 1977), p. 5.
[5] Felstiner, pp. 77, 78 (quoting Celan).
[6] Felstiner, p. 80 (quoting Celan).
[7] Brown, p. 5.
[8] Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat/ Suicide Bridge (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 38.
[9] Iain Sinclair, ‘A New Vortex: The Shamanism of Intent’, Modern Painters, 4.2 (Summer 1991), 46–51 (p. 46); Wyndham Lewis, The Complete Wild Body, ed. by Bernard Lafourcade (Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1982), p. 317; ‘New’, p. 46.
[10] Ian Patterson, ‘“the medium itself, rabbit by proxy”: some thoughts about reading J.H. Prynne’, in Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970–1991, ed. by Denise Riley (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 234–46 (p. 234).
[11] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), p. 31.
[12] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’, in Prisms, trans. by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), pp. 227–43 (pp. 232, 241); Iain Sinclair, Radon Daughters: A Voyage, Between Art and Terror, from the Mound of Whitechapel to the Limestone Pavements of the Burren (London: Granta Books, 1998; first publ. Cape, 1994), pp. 437, 438; ‘Child in the Trees’, in Conversations with Angels (London: Danielle Arnaud, 2007), no pp.; Iain Sinclair, The Penances (London: The Many Press, 1977), p. 4.
[13] Prisms, p. 229; ‘Diorama’, pp. ix, viii.
[14] Aesthetic, p. 171.
[15] Reed Way Dasenbrock, ‘Afterword’, in The Art of Being Ruled, ed. by Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1989), pp. 432–47 (p. 438); Prisms, p. 235.
[16] Radon, p. 290; the influence on Smith of figures like James, Lovecraft (and Lewis) is mentioned in Simon Ford, Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith and The Fall (London: Quartet, 2003), pp. 12–13 (compare Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978–84 (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 195–96); James, Lovecraft and Lewis are all referenced in Sinclair’s essay ‘From Camberwell to Golgotha’, in Lud/ Suicide, pp. 77–87.
[17] The Portable Blake, ed. by Alfred Kazin (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 272; Blake, pp. 238, 219, 285; Sinclair quoted from Robert Bond, Iain Sinclair (Cambridge: Salt, 2005), p. 50; ‘Writing as Magic in London in Its Summer’ (photocopy, 1997), p. 5.
[18] Felstiner, p. 171; Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 94–95 (quoting Celan); Felstiner, p. 35.
[19] Felstiner, p. 165 (quoting Celan).
[20] Andrea Brady, ‘The Other Poet: John Wieners, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson’, Jacket, 32 (April 2007),

[21] ‘Servant to the Stars: B. Catling’s Pleiades in Nine, the Autolystic Defiances’, in Tending the Vortex: The Works of Brian Catling, ed. by Simon Perril (Cambridge: CCCP, 2001), pp. 46–56 (pp. 55, 52, 56).
[22] Henry Vaughan, The Complete Poems, ed. by Alan Rudrum (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 308; The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 2000), p. 369; Iain Sinclair, ‘The Falls’ (1980), Grosseteste Review, 14 (1981–1982), p. 51.
[23] ‘Servant’, p. 55 (quoting Catling); Paul Celan, Breathturn, trans. by Pierre Joris (København: Green Integer, 2006), p. 263.
[24] Celan, pp. 261, 237, 241, 237.
[25] Blake, pp. 162, 156, 189; Celan, p. 241; Buried at Sea (Tonbridge: Worple Press, 2006), p. 75; Blake, p. 189; ‘Servant’, p. 52.
[26] Carson, p. 94; Celan quoted from Felstiner, p. 125; Bond, p. 36; Felstiner, pp. 125, 118 (quoting Celan), 125.
[27] Lud/ Suicide, pp. 200–1; Felstiner, p. 20.
[28] Reynolds, pp. xxv, 186, 185, xix, xxviii, 293.
[29] Reynolds, p. 212; Felstiner, p. 171.
[30] ‘Diorama’, p. viii.
[31] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1989; first publ. 1973), p. 110.
[32] Reynolds, pp. 177, 137 (quoting Eno/Byrne); Dead Letter Office: Poems 1970–2004 (Optic Nerve/Birkbeck,[2004]).
[33] Reynolds, pp. 88 (quoting Stewart and Goldman), 6, 7; Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, Rodinsky’s Room (London: Granta Books, 1999), p. 265.
[34] The Human Age: Book 1, Childermass (London: Methuen, 1956), pp. 172–73; Iain Sinclair, White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings (London: Vintage, 1995; first publ. Uppingham: Goldmark, 1987), p. 50; Penances, p. 1; Wild, p. 123.

Robert Bond, photo by Bill Goenner

Robert Bond
photo © Bill Goenner

Robert Bond was born in London in 1972. He has taught at Cambridge, South Bank and Westminster universities. He is co-editor (with Jenny Bavidge) of City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair (Cambridge Scholars, 2007, [link]), and is now working towards a comparative study of Iain Sinclair and Wyndham Lewis. His book Iain Sinclair (Salt Publishing, 2005) is the first full-length study of Iain Sinclair’s writing to be published, and is Robert Bond’s first book. It covers Sinclair’s key texts from the early 1970s up to London Orbital. It situates Sinclair’s work in relation to a range of major London writers, from Blake and Dickens through to Peter Ackroyd, and offers innovative readings from a cultural Marxist perspective.

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