‘Dungeness’ by Stephen Emmerson – 5 Reasons to Read

Dungeness cover web.png

No – not a review (etc. – see the others in this series). Instead, this is a run through of five reasons you should read Dungeness by Stephen Emmerson, published by the always interesting Guillemot Press. You can buy the book here: https://www.guillemotpress.co.uk.

1: I don’t really know where to begin with this book, so let me quote you the first line: ‘One of the performers must assume the roll of the operator.’ So – you see – this isn’t an ordinary book. It’s a performance piece. But you will do the producing of it. It’s more like a score. Now, you’ll either need to take this at face value which will involve buying more copies of the text, assembling some reliable friends and following the instructions to the letter – or you’ll need to consider that what you’re holding in your hands is inviting you to ‘play’. You will read poetry books a range of different ways, most likely. There will be some ‘normal’ poetry books that you might read the first poem, and then leaf through to see what attracts your attention. Sometimes you may open up a poetry book at the back and start there. Or in the middle. All I mean to say is that a book of poetry itself invites very different ways of consumption. There will be some that you sample more like a flick book: prrrrrrrrrp through the pages getting a measure of what is contained. This may or may not be the best way to read British poetry, for example. Some books demand assiduous attention to each page chronologically. This may not be one of them. This book invites you to read the first (instructions) page carefully, then the eye hits the ‘texts’ which are numbered lists of single words in columns, or prose quotes. The reader, discombobulated, finds the ‘Actions’ tucked inside a pocket of the inside back cover. None of this is ‘difficult’, actually. This is not a ‘difficult’ book. You’ve read Geoffrey Hill, haven’t you? That’s sometimes difficult. This just forces you to read it differently. In fact (forgive me here as I stretch out an idea) you are forced to read the text your own way: your reading liberty is forced on you. As a literal performer of this text you would be one of several making your own way through the book in an order (‘#1’ to ‘#11’), alongside committing various actions (for example ‘Drop the stones into the bucket of water’ – part of instruction 36). As a reader you are doing it differently: you bounce back and forth between the actions, the text, and back to the instructions page. This makes the reader something of a ‘referencer’ to create meaning. What is true of our reality – which is that we comprehend things only through systems of reference that we compose for ourselves – is true of the text. This book, then, forces you to ‘do’ living/comprehending, as well as forcing you (through giving the eye freedom to move and the reader freedom to zip around the text in order to cross reference and create order) to complete the text in your own way. The reader produces the text, even if you were to watch other people reading out (of) the text.

2: lists. I love a good list. Now. One of the joys of the text here is that the reader has to decide whether to create their ‘poetry’ from the horizontal list of four words of, say, ‘#6’ – which would give you ‘Chalk Gas Fawn Other’. Or whether to read down the column to produce ‘Chalk/ Stab/ Bat/ Tab/ Whack/ Clock/ Lock/ Swag/ Stack’. I’ve made the point about freedom and ‘play’ already, so I’ll try to make a different one here: sound and sound alone can produce meaning. Read both of those lines that I-as-reader appear to have created (although of course -deep breath- in creating one, do I destroy the other… or do they coexist). The sounds are very different – you have to read it out loud, but when those K sounds come, the repetitive need to keep forming that sound does something to the mouth and it does something to the ear. Interspersed with other less abrasive consonants and the fire breaks of vowel sounds the feel is different. I think in food tasting descriptions I have seen the word ‘mouthfeel’ – the same word could be used about poetry: what is the ‘mouthfeel’ of that line, or poem?

3: taking the mickey. Now… you’ve made it this far, so let me make it clear that I am totally aware that Stephen Emmerson is messing with me. He is doing that splendid thing of taking me on a wild goose chase. But this is also a serious poetic statement about authorship, ownership, control – whilst also (critically, I think) making a point about the literature of place. However, that doesn’t mean that some fun can’t be had along the way. Like, for example the Melville quote that opens ‘#4’: ‘Shall I call that wise or foolish now’. And Woolf’s ‘So some random light directing them…’ which opens ‘#5’ on the next page. Y’see? Attempts to co-opt the text’s power by a third party (i.e. this blog) overlaying the actions of the text and the ‘text’ of the text are resisted by the text’s willingness to undercut itself by critiquing the serious and sombre way a third party might be reading the text. You have to allow your (presumably) silent and single readerly reading to assume a fourth dimension. If the ‘readers’ are asked to progress through the text at their own pace and there were (say) four, then only one voice would be reading ‘So some random light’, whilst another voice that hadn’t progressed as far might be reading the faux-sombre lists from other places (‘Ribbon Petition Steak Web’ from ‘#1’, whilst the other voices might be further on in the text reading the alliterative punches of (‘Knoll Knot Test Touches’). All four are overlaid. They might cut against each other in performance. They might compete for the ear in performance. However, the act of reading creates a parity and equality that performance can’t capture. The reader – book in hand – empowers and coordinates each part and allows the idea of all the parts being contemporaneous. Surely that’s as good a way of depicting any place as you’ve read? A quick look at Wikipedia will tell you that ‘Dungeness spans Dungeness Nuclear Power Station, the hamlet of Dungeness, and an ecological site at the same location’: so, go on – try to encompass that in a traditional text. Is it not the case that this non-difficult book is more realistic than a Realist text?

4: systems/layers. So, the instructions set up that when ‘one of the performers reaches the 17th instruction’ a tape recording that has been made of the reading so far is then ‘rewound’ and played over the remaining performance. So four voices become eight, for example. And the same ideas of confliction and competition between sounds and potential meanings are played with, except this time each reader is competing for space against their own voice. So, again, this is as realistic a portrayal of place and our thinking about it as I can invisage.

5: destination. So, if you’ve followed me thus far you are either intrigued enough to buy the book to ‘play’, or you are in such a state of indignation that you can’t tear your eyes away. So one last foray into the meaning(s) of the ‘play’. We get into fresh territory when we think about the props involved in the ‘Actions’ we are given; the instructions spell out that we need the following, for example: ‘2. A Bucket of water… 6. Ten sheets of A4 paper… 10. A two foot length of string.’ So far, so ludic. Item 7 is ‘Two medium stones from a beach, preferably Dungeness’. I have conjured my reading without said stones. Without said string. Without said water. Does that mean that I have failed to conjure Dungeness? Or does my thinking of the various readers/actors (as in the doers of actions) conjure them enough to conjure Dungeness. Am I ever (forgive me here) going to get To The Lighthouse. Is that important? If a language game of such complexity as Dungeness doesn’t conjure the place – what could? I really like the idea of poets out there gathering round their texts in little huddles and playing the poem. What possibilities are there for poems in performance, in sharing, but also for the poem in our hand.

And now I have to stop writing. And I have not really done this any justice. But do buy and read the book. Let me know what you did with it. You can buy it here: https://www.guillemotpress.co.uk/poetry/stephen-emmerson-dungeness. I love it – and I love its possibilities. And I respect Guillemot Press for publishing it.


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