Penelope Shuttle’s ‘Retrieved Data’: 5 Reasons to Read

Penelope Shuttle - Retrieved Data

No – not a review. Instead, a ‘5 Reasons to Read’ and buy this book. You can buy it here: https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/product-page/penelope-shuttle-retrieved-data.

There will be many people who have just bought Penelope Shuttle’s newest collection from Bloodaxe Books: Lyonesse (you can buy it here: https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/lyonesse-1258) . Me, too. However, you may or not be aware that one of the best places to regularly read Shuttle’s work is in the journal Reliquiae. Part of Retrieved Data appeared there – and it was there that I first read it. Here’s five reasons why you should read it (it is limited to 100).

  1. The form. Do you know that bit in Tortoise’s brilliant 1996 album ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ where the samples are all jumbled up, giving a good twenty seconds of fractured, pulsing break-up (see the sound at 13:55 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDt4_n6xP0M) in which note and timbre are perfectly audible, but a melody is not made in a traditional sense. The book is like that when you read it as a whole – and you have to read it as a whole. So it gives the impression that you are combing through unmediated ‘data’ (sights, sounds, sensations) from this world that has been lost, or scattered. Perhaps pieces that didn’t make a metaphorical edit. It forces thought on the idea of who/what extracts ‘data’, i.e. our human memories, dreams and sensations. What causes them to be lost – and perhaps brings into play the idea that experimental poetry is a way of saving the experiences that otherwise are pruned away from recorded discourses. Will digital archaeologists be able to pull out scapes of mangled timelines (birthdays, first-times, questionable postings) and analyse them in the same way that scientists take a sandal out of a bog and assess it as a material piece of evidence. And I don’t want to tread into ‘Black Mirror’ territory, but it makes you think about how your own consciousness orders memories, and how it achieves this. I for one was quite happy when I read that we should reject the idea of the brain as a computer here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/feb/27/why-your-brain-is-not-a-computer-neuroscience-neural-networks-consciousness. Maybe the brain is actually a contemporary poem.

2. The ludic. There is, among other playful touches, a running reference to Ted Hughes. There is always space in contemporary poetry for the ludic. For ‘play’. I was teaching a Muldoon poem earlier today and I just could not convey that the playfulness of the poem (Muldoon’s ‘Long Finish’) was part of its meaning: far more so than any actual words you could catch with a net and scrutinise all the fun out of. A great poem (and a great long poem, and a great poem that goes long and is made up of fragments) can drift through exemplification and cycle back through the thoughts, times and places that it has already established. So it is with a reference to Ted Hughes in ‘Retrieved Data’. And his appearance is it first slightly provocative (is it a literary dig? is it a joke played with a straight face? is it a real moment of memory?), but also conveys through its juxtaposition with other material choices all expressed in glimpses.

3. Line breaks. Consider this masterclass (a full stanza/part of the poem): ‘nine-fingered monkey/ cut into the arid plains of Peru/ complete proof of eternity’. Yes. And the varied rhythm of this, from not too long after: ‘bones of/ goshawk/ mallard pintail. You feel in safe musical hands all the time, even given the changes; I think the best way of describing what I mean is that it feels like you are in a piece that has pizzicato sections that sometimes go double time: e.g. the doubled (trochaic?) nouns of ‘mallard, pintail’ after a shorter line pattern has been established, and sections of a more sweeping bow action – perhaps you can tell that I know nothing about violins.

4. Punctuation. Good writers, so it seems to me, clear the elbow space for them to do what they like. I have to read Dickens aloud every year: whole books of it. So, please forgive me for saying that he has his own rules and he sticks to them. You don’t write like Emily Dickinson, do you? She has her own set of rules. You trust in them. And good writers have modes for their work that create voice. Whilst I would love to hear the whole book read aloud (in a room… with a cup of tea… at an event… with other people…) I ‘hear’ the work through the choices (or lack of punctuation) just fine. And if I open up (sorry about this) the 1982 edition of Contemporary British Poetry and glance through Shuttle’s poems there… like ‘First Foetal Movements of My Daughter’ or ‘Travelling’ or ‘Three Lunulae, Truro Museum’… you can see the command of this. You can see the consistency and the variation – within the style, the voice, that the elbow space has been made for. There’s some study about stand up comedy that shows how a comedian has very few seconds to make the audience laugh for the first time when they get one stage. Or face disaster. This clumsy analogy is only to try to argue that any given poem (especially a long poem) has to earn the right to exist in the eyes of the reader – and it has to do it really early in the reading. To mix up my metaphors, you have to trust the pilot to fly a plane. We are strapped in and ready to go from the off here in Retrieved Data – and it’s worth thinking about how/why.

5. Line lengths. I confess here that I have an axe to grind about line lengths. You can do what you want in poetry – and every choice in a contemporary poem is a choice of form. There: I said it. That’s my axe. So, there is a lightness and a mischief with the line lengths here (after all: shouldn’t poetry be… fun, for the writer and the reader?). I write this now but (see below), I can’t prove it with a quote or two – you will have to buy it. See also what image follows image, when you have ‘sleep carries me through the world/ all through the nine-day week’. We are not reading the gnomic and the reverent, but rather the ludic and following the slippery power of the suggestion. History and archive ‘retrieved’ and illuminated in snatches of ‘play’ – rather than preserved in the sense of power’s attempt to document, historicise, or pedal false (nationalist) consciousness.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that I have only been quoting from part of the book. I’ve had this mostly written for a few weeks, and nearly had it finished… and then I lost the book! I have troubled deaf heaven with my bootless cries, but I have not managed to find it again. Please forgive that some of the points above are not text-rich. But do buy and read the book!


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