reviewed by the Judge
Sam Riviere’s debut collection, 81 Austerities, started out as a blog of verse. Its virtual poems were written, the back-cover tells us, ‘in response to the “austerity measures” implemented by the coalition government in 2011’. There is little trace left of any of this. The language is chopped down and has little patience for punctuation, adverbs or pronouns (deliberately ‘austere’); it is free-falling and very well-executed as a style, but I’d be hard-pressed to say that it evoked the internet lingo for me. And the political engagement that supposedly inspired the collection is impalpable. Riviere seems much more concerned with contemporary media than with politics, as so much of his imagery and meditations revolve around television, photographs, print, advertising, social networks, mobile phones, telesales, and other digital tropes. His engagement with discursive criticism is always aimed at the closed intellectual world of poetry, academia and art. Otherwise, and even on these subjects, his poems are rather intimate and self-reflexive. If there is anything political about them, it is so subtle that it escaped me.
Riviere is making explicit the act of making explicit, and he is conscious of the double nature of the poem as another (potentially violating) medium.
The concern that is central to 81 Austerities is the way that identity is mediated – or, media(ted), as identity is not only informed by the media but physically contaminated by them. The digital / cultural objects and signs that we find in Riviere’s imagery repeatedly cross the line from pervasive to invasive, to the point that imagining experience without them becomes impossible (I’d be screwed if I woke up one day / without all my cultural supports / & apparatus hey lucky for me / that will never happen. ‘You’re Sweet’). Riviere’s numerous poems touching on pornography make this point explicit: porn is the ultimate, carnal invasion of privacy via a digital medium, intimacy framed by the borders of a screen and made commercially perspicuous, interiority objectified and economised. But porn is an easy example – Riviere is making explicit the act of making explicit, and he is conscious of the double nature of the poem as another (potentially violating) medium. It is a satire informed by impressive intelligence – arguably the prime quality in this collection. Elsewhere, he forwards this problem more subtly:
as if everything on earth were texting furiously everything else I could feel their texts arriving in my body this has been a blue / green message exiting the social world ('When it came').
The media are so engrained in our bodies that ‘exiting the social world’ is tantamount to exiting the ‘body’ in which the texts are arriving. The search for an inviolate, inviolable identity is a constant of the collection, though it is conducted in terms which are mostly rather bleak. Even discounting the atmosphere of degradation that permeates the porn poems, the imagery is often somewhat desolate. Here is a passage, randomly selected among several others: seeing the couples circulate the otherwise / dead town centre like leaves in a big ashtray / in a sort of drugged calm ( ‘The Pinch’).
(It is worth opening a parenthesis here to note that most reviews and appraisals I’ve read of this book insist that it is ‘comic’ and ‘funny’. I sometimes wonder if the label ‘funny’, in the world of poetry, should not be used with greater austerity – whoops! – as anything short of deliberate nihilism can be described as ‘surprisingly comic’, ‘deeply humourous’, ‘genuinely funny’, and so on. If Sylvia Plath had published Ariel in the present day, it would probably have been termed ‘hilarious’.)
Riviere’s ‘Dream Poem’ brings out both the qualities and the weaknesses of the collection and is worth considering extensively. At one point, it details what it is that the poems are looking for: I dreamed I wrote a poem / beginning ‘Hi!’ and ending ‘See You Later!’ / the middle part was amazing / that’s the part I don’t remember. The ‘middle part’ of the dream is what these poems constantly try to access, with the surrounding socio-formal phrases like ‘Hi!’ and ‘See You Later!’ being artificial constructs not much less distasteful in this context than pornography. The dream that he goes on to describe is this:
I was dressed up as a witch doctor And used this stick of judgement Taking back the names of creatures Restoring them to myth I was doing wisely with it […] I kept hold of my stick using it To designate the categories that really matter While adding bones and wings to my hat Sitting up here out of danger I hate this / I like that
It is a beautiful, dizzying moment in which taxonomical rules suddenly become malleable, giving us, via metaphor, a view onto a broader type of freedom than the purely lexical. On the other hand, it is also a distinctly childish scenario (over and beyond the obvious Freudian allusion in the boy ‘keeping hold of his stick’ and sitting ‘out of [the]danger’ of castration). Worryingly, as the poem progresses it seems to slide more and more towards infantilism rather than away from it, suggesting that Riviere’s response to the concerns about violated identity is regression into a man-child figure. Am I alone in thinking that this scarcely seems like an appealing solution, never mind an adequate one, to the problems he so intelligently poses?
‘Dream Poem’ could be overlooked were it an isolated case, but the man-child seems to reappear all over the place once you learn to recognise him. There are childish calls for attention, when the poems talk of doing something awful for no reason (being a bad boy): I would like to ruin your life (‘No Touching’), all I will do is think of increasingly / horrible things to tell you (‘Heavily’). There are childish vignettes: this will probably sound cheesy and weird / but maybe we’re a couple of cartoons / let’s convince the animators / we’re two kinds of animal (‘What Do You Think About That’), I was playing my game with the little piece / of dirt on the window / moving my head to make it vault / the obstacles at stations (‘Best Thing You Can Do Now is Do Nothing’). There are childish titles, like ‘The Council of Girls’ or ‘Nobody’s Deep’. There are even moments when the poet’s composed voice gives way and literally starts sounding like that of a little boy: wow there were birds in my coffee, he cries in ‘When it Came’, and again woo is it true when / I get you home are you going to let me / spank it I’m going to spank it in ‘The Prince’. This puts into new light images such as that of the stupefied android that thinks he’s a man (‘Sensors are Tingling’) – the identity one so anxiously feels is missing is not that of ‘man’ as a living, feeling thing. It is that of a ‘man’ as a masculine, fulfilled grown-up.
Advocates of Riviere will claim that he is satirising the immaturity of modern society’s sexual relations (or some argument of the kind), and no doubt this is sometimes the intention. But I’m not sure these 81 Austerities make the distinction clear between satirising an attitude and being an example of it. The fact that these poems are highly (sometimes exceptionally) clever in their phrasing and intuitions does not necessarily make them more self-aware – and the most piercing irony, in fact, is precisely that for a book about austerity it is simply too damn long! Riviere makes most of his points (and plays most of his aces) within the first two-thirds of the collection, and the rest feels a bit like going back to a baby and telling him the same story again (except that you’re the one listening). It is an interesting first book, initially touching, intellectually agile and consistently well-crafted, but ultimately unable to grow into its own overlong sleeves. [A]m I not a child at the Opera of emotions, wonders the poet at the end of ‘Heavily’. Well yes, Sam. An extraordinarily clever child, mind you, but still a child.