Louis-René des Forêts - A series of connected, loosely chronological, imagistic reflections that form an emotional history, Ostinato is neither poetry nor prose. Rather, it is a kind of antibiography, in which the facts of this life are less important than the style in which they are rendered. What is there to tell that matters? Neither history, nor memory, but emotions. It is not the events that make this work possible to understand but the work that gives the life its form and its music

Louis-René des Forêts, Ostinato, Trans. by Mary Ann Caws, Bison Books, 2002.       read it at Google Books

Written over an extended period, Ostinato is the long-awaited autobiography of Louis-René des Forêts, one of France's most beloved writers. A few sections of this remarkable text have been published in fragments over the years, and then, with some reluctance on the part of the author, as a series of fragments in France in 1997.
The ostinato-a persistently repeated musical figure or rhythm-is a continual, stubborn, and essential element of certain musical pieces and of the life that emerges in this book. A series of connected, loosely chronological, imagistic reflections that form an emotional history, Ostinato is neither poetry nor prose. Rather, it is a kind of antibiography, in which the facts of this life are less important than the style in which they are rendered. What is there to tell that matters? Neither history, nor memory, but emotions. It is not the events that make this work possible to understand but the work that gives the life its form and its music.

Louis-René des Forêts (1918–2000) lived in Paris. He was best known for his novels and poetry and was awarded the Grand Prix National des Lettres for the entirety of his work.

"Memory, untiring memory that multiplies its illusions with a perverse art, memory turbulent as a child running from room to room": style is substance in award-winning French novelist and poet Louis-Ren des Forts's (1918-2000) episodic and inventive autobiography (in the loosest definition of the term) Ostinato. Imagistic paragraphs follow one another with the dream-logic of a ghazal, and the power of emotions becomes the note struck again and again (the title means a musical figure insistently repeated). CUNY professor Mary Ann Caws translates and prefaces a volume that shies away from concrete dates and details, but relishes in the most profound sensations of the author's life. - Publishers Weekly


Louis-René des Forêts, Poems of Samuel Wood, Trans. by Anthony Barnett. Allardyce Books, 2011.

POEMS OF SAMUEL WOOD is a meditation on the mysteries of life and language and loss of others and the approaching loss of self by Louis-René des Forêts (1918-2000), author of The Children's Room and Ostinato, co-founder of the review L'Éphémère and a painter of the fantastic.

Poems of Samuel Wood, originally published in French by Fata Morgana in1988, is Louis-René Des Forêts’ meditation on life, language and mortality. Allardyce Book have followed Fata Morgana in producing a work of art in both form and in content.
Louis-René Des Forêts (1918–2000) uses the character of Samuel Wood to distance himself from his own thoughts on death and the act of writing. At the heart of this long monologue are the double voices of the poet and his imaginary character:
Samuel, Samuel, is it really your voice I hear
Emanating as if from the depths of a tomb
To reinforce my own in its struggle with sentences . . .

We are introduced to a dark and claustrophobic picture of the poet as insomniac trying to create meaning: ‘making his little gnawing noises, . . . /He is searching, blindly searching, but searching.’
One of the main thrusts of the poem is a Beckettian debate about ‘the pitfalls of language’ where the poet: ‘. . . hunches himself over a narrow strip of field/ As an animal hollows out a hole, he will make it his grave.’
In this nightmarish world the lost beloved alternates between ‘. . . this woman sitting on a window ledge / . . . her fingers gloved in red?’ and a figure ‘standing smiling/ Amid the asters and the roses’.
Barnett draws on echoes of Shakespeare to translate passages in which the narrator confronts mortality and makes a plea to:
Withdraw wisely as an old actor in his declining years
Leaves the stage . . .
Strutting the boards, fretting ineffectual words. . . 

In this night of insomnia we are at first ‘stupefied beneath the burning sun . . . drown under its blinding light’ but as the monologue progresses, and perhaps dawn begins to break, the sun becomes ‘glorious’ or ‘the morning friend who pushes us out of bed’.
Ultimately the poem finds a reluctant acceptance of mortality as the narrator advises himself to: ‘Rather look at the birds sailing across the sun/ Listen to their evening concert in the woods . . .’
The creative act may be ‘nothing but a fabricated shadow’ yet:
even after it has lost its meaning
Its timbre still resonates in the distance like a storm
No one can tell is approaching or passing.

Barnett’s translation offers an English reader an insight into an intriguing French poet. - Ali Thurm

The Children's Room - Louis Rene Des Forets

Louis-René des Forêts, The children's Room, Trans. by Jean Stewart, Calder, 1963.

John T. Naughton, Louis-René Des Forêts  


Alisa Ganieva portrays the influence of political intolerance and religious violence in the lives of people forced to choose between evils. She tells an excellent story about the rise of Islam, the fate of the republics in post-Soviet Russia and the traditions of a people little known in the West

Alisa Ganieva, The Mountain and the Wall, Trans. by Carol Apollonio, Deep Vellum, 2015.

"Never before has Russian literature produced such an honest and complete picture of today's Caucasus."—Kommersant Weekend (Russia)

"The Mountain and the Wall is a major event in contemporary Russian literature."—Ulrich M. Schmid

This remarkable debut novel by a unique young Russian voice portrays the influence of political intolerance and religious violence in the lives of people forced to choose between evils.
The Mountain and the Wall focuses on Shamil, a young local reporter in Makhachkala, and his reactions, or lack thereof, to rumors that the Russian government is building a wall to cut off the Muslim provinces of the Caucasus from the rest of Russia. As unrest spreads and the tension builds, Shamil's life is turned upside down, and he can no longer afford to ignore the violence surrounding him.
With a fine sense for mounting catastrophe, Alisa Ganieva tells the story of the decline of a society torn apart by its inherent extremes.

The Mountain and the Wall is both the first novel by Alisa Ganieva, and the first in English translation from the Russian republic of Dagestan. I have to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never even heard of Dagestan until I read this book, so I come to write this review more tentatively than I might usually. In a way, though, that’s quite appropriate; because it seems to me that Ganieva’s novel is very much concerned with hearsay and the limits of knowledge.
The prologue, set at a social gathering, is a cinematic carousel of anecdotes told by a succession of characters, until someone realises a critical fact that nobody knew. In the first chapter, we find Ganieva’s protagonist Shamil visiting a village of goldsmiths, on assignment from a newspaper to write about their traditional crafts – though he soon discovers that these are losing out to cheaper tourist trinkets, which is not the story he’s there to tell. These set the scene for a tale of hidden information, not least of which is the rumour that the government is building a wall to separate off Russia’s Caucasus republics – a wall that we hear plenty about, but never see.
Carol Apollonio’s translation from the Russian moves through a range of different styles, particularly as it quotes from various fictional texts – including a novel which Shamil reads, and about he which he might feel differently if he knew what we find out about its author. In all, The Mountain and the Wall strikes me as a story of characters on shifting ground, trying to find their way with incomplete information – and the ultimate sense is that, to go forward, they need to know where they’ve been. - David Hebblethwaite

Dagestan is next to Chechnya and is also an Islamic country. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Islamisation has become stronger here, as elsewhere. There has also been some spillover from the Chechen war. Ganieva shows this in a prologue where we meet Zumrud, whom we will meet later in the book, and her extended family. There is much discussion within the family on the changing situation in Dagestan, with stories of apparently liberal people adopting Islam wholesale, liberal women taking the veil and men taking second (and more) wives. But there are also stories of jihadists as well as stories of how people do or do not observe the Koran. Inevitably, there is also much corruption. There is also opposition to this intense Islamisation, as some people fight for human rights and a more liberal state.
The main story starts with Shamil (it is no concidence that he is named after Imam Shamil) in the town of Makhachkala, where Ganieva spent some of her childhood. Shamil is working as a journalist for a local newspaper. Indeed, we meet him when he is visiting a village, where there are goldsmiths who have a long tradition of making beautiful items but now seem intent only on making items for the tourist trade. It is interesting that he starts his article by staying Religious extremism is on the rise in Dagestan. However, two key events happen at this point. When he returns to Makhachkala, he hears rumours of a wall that the Russians have constructed or are constructing between the Caucasus republics and Russia. At the same time, the mobile phone system seems to go down and no-one can phone anyone to get this rumour confirmed or denied. Things seem to be heating up and we learn of another issue in the region. The various constituent nationalities are arguing among themselves, each one claiming that their nationality is the superior one and the one that has been most oppressed. The Kumyks want their ancient lands back, while the Lezgians maintain that their lands have been stolen by the Azeris.
While it is the wall that dominates the story, we never actually see the wall or, rather, Shamil does not see it. Indeed, with the Internet soon going down and most TV stations out of action, no-one actually knows for sure, though some people claim to have seen it in their travels. Much of the rest of the book is a fascinating mixture of stories, first- and second-hand, about what happens post-Wall and accounts of the lives of a few individuals. Shamil seems to drift around almost in a daze. He was engaged to a woman, Madina, but has decided he really does not want to marry her. When he visits her house, he learns from her parents that she has has married one of what are called the beards, i.e. the radical Islamists, who seem to be gradually taking over. Her parents are furious about this and bitterly oppose it. Shamil is horrified, so much so that he goes round visiting all his ex-girlfriends.
We also learn more about his past, in particular a key event when he and his friend, Arip, go hiking. They see what looks a fortification high on the hill and climb up to it, where they find a village which is almost deserted. However, an old man takes them in and feeds them and talks to them, often in riddles or proverbs. They fall asleep and wake up on the mountainside. There is no sign of the village. Was it a dream? If so, both of them had the dream.
Another key character is Makhmud Tagirovich. Ganieva interestingly gives us several excerpts from the works of other people, including Makhmud Tagirovich. Makhmud Tagirovich started to write a novel, abandoned it and then started to write a long poem, before getting a sudden burst of inspiration and finishing the novel. We get excerpts from both. Makhmud Tagirovich is also something of a lost character, berated by his wife for his failure to achieve anything and all too often a victim. All he wants to do is write his poem and novel and spend time with his friend in the local bar. His father had been a poet and something of a colourful character. It is clear that Makhmud Tagirovich cannot live up to his father's reputation.
The background to the story and to the stories of Shamil and Makhmud Tagirovich, is the changing situation. The airport is closed. The bosses seem to disappear. The police hide way and , when they appear, are often killed. The beards are taking over and are being ruthless in imposing what they see as strict Muslim standards. Inevitably, there is an economic crisis, with long Soviet-style queues for food. Madina comments the brothers aren’t terrorists, they are Muslims who want to live like Muslims. And soon everyone will live that same way . Even Arip says Maybe there’ll be some real change? We could have a new state, one that’ll care about truth, justice, and morality more than cash. But museums are sacked and destroyed, a Caucasian Emirate declared and a Mahdi is revealed as the new saviour, till he takes all the cash and disappears.
This is a superb book, giving us the Islamisation aspect from an insider's point of view. There is a certain level of chaos in the novel, by which I mean, it jumps around. This, however, is definitely a positive, as it it gives us an impressionistic view of what is happening in post-Wall Dagestan, both the rise of a traditional Islam view and sharia law, as well as the viewpoint of those who are opposed and those who hover somewhere between the two, i.e. the Russians are bad and we should return to our old ways but this might be too extreme. There is no doubt that Ganieva sees the Islamisation as negative but she is quick to point out the failures of both the Soviet and post-Soviet systems. Just as importantly, for us, the readers, she tells an excellent story about the rise of Islam, the fate of the republics in post-Soviet Russia and the traditions of a people little known in the West. - - www.themodernnovel.com/dagestani/ganieva/mountain.htm

Alisa Ganieva's first novel, The Mountain and the Wall, brings readers into a dystopic world that is slowly being ripped apart at the seams. The novel is set in Dagestan, which is located in Russia's North Caucasus region and is its most ethnically diverse republic. (It's worth noting that Ganieva grew up in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital city.) While no ethnicity forms a majority, approximately 80% of the population adheres to Islam. In recent years, Dagestan has been the site of occasional ethnic and religious tension, which has sometimes resulted in violence –including suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism—between militant and secular-leaning Islamist groups. This is the reality from which the novel grows.
There are many intersecting storylines in The Mountain and the Wall, but Ganieva centers these intersections on Shamil, a young reporter from Makhachkala. He is the observer whom we observe—a somewhat reluctant protagonist who, despite his best efforts to "postpone the collapse of his world," is continually thrust into rumor, conflict, and violence. Through Shamil we hear that the Russian government may or may not have cut off Dagestan by erecting the Wall along its border. Through Shamil we witness the resulting ethnic and religious unrest caused by the Wall. It is when Shamil's fiancé, Madina, joins radical militants that we observe the turmoil and despair that occur in communities when tension escalates to a breaking point. And it is Shamil who connects us to an experience of hope on the Mountain of Celebration.
Ganieva uses Shamil and his community to give readers a sense of the rhythm of life in a place of such unrest. That rhythm has two primary components: the struggle for information and the consolations of routine. After attending a tense press conference about the Wall (which is full of conflicting reports) Shamil, bewildered, wanders into the streets. There he observes taxis, girls laughing and talking as they shop, and a bread-seller shouting at a group of children playing. "What am I so scared of?" Shamil asks himself. Later, one of Shamil's family members will tell him that "things are always falling apart."
As Shamil watches things fall apart—Madina becomes radicalized and leaves him, family members go missing and are perhaps dead, the government collapses, the streets are filled with violence—he consoles himself with routine:
In a personal effort to postpone the collapse of his world, Shamil sought out forbidden DVDs of non-Muslim films, intensified his workout schedule, and went around visiting his relatives. They fought their anxiety and remained steeped in everyday routines and cares: changing diapers, counting money, repairing their homes.
As is often the case, the routine causes Shamil to disbelieve the extraordinary events he has witnessed. "Maybe everything's alright now," he thinks, "no Wall, network's back up. Maybe it was all just some kind of trick?"
But Ganieva's characters—Shamil especially—wish for something more than cheap denial or escape. As the escalating violence continually rushes at them, they long for hope. And Ganieva does not leave Shamil or his community to suffocate from the tension forever.
One of the ways Ganieva creates space in the narrative for her characters (and for the reader) is by interpolating texts. Throughout the narrative, Shamil encounters newspaper articles, propaganda masked as a children's story, and the manuscript of a novel by a character named Makhmud (as well as a few lines of Makhmud's poetry). Sometimes these interpolations highlight the tensions presented in the narrative—i.e. Shamil's sister's "schoolbook" that includes propagandistic stories of a culture that has thrown off religious tradition and has learned that "not in the mountains, not in the old ways, is happiness to be found, but in the new and joyous morning of freedom." But it is Makhmud's manuscript that becomes important in the final sections of the book.
Makhmud's novel-in-manuscript quickly becomes the subject of a different kind of rumor, marked by hope, vision, and the potential for unity. The manuscript includes a story about Rokhel-Meer, the Mountain of Celebrations. If the Wall is the unseen instigator of division and violence, the Mountain of Celebrations is the intimation that hope exists beyond the conflict and dystopic dread. And it is hope, not mere denial or escape, that Ganieva gives her characters.
Before it appears in Makhmud's manuscript, the Mountain of Celebrations is introduced to readers via a memory that Shamil recounts to himself after discovering that Madina has become radicalized. Shamil and his friend Arip had gone for a hike in the mountains. As they explored, they became drowsy and fell asleep. When they awoke, they followed a path that led to a deserted village, where they found a mysterious man. The man only spoke in proverbs, mumbling as if to himself. He called the village "Rokhel-Meer."
Shamil remembers how the mysterious man brought them back to his mostly empty house and fed them. Soon Shamil and Arip fell asleep again. They awoke on the same mountainside where they had rested before. As they attempted to piece together the incident, they searched for the path to the village again, but found that the mountain was bare—there was no village, and there was no man. It was as if they shared the same dream.
When the Mountain of Celebrations makes its appearance in Makhmud's manuscript, he writes that it is a place "where the soul ends up after death." What he describes is like an embodied dream, an enchantment grounded in work and feasting, a meeting point between heaven and earth: 
Our souls end up at the top of Rokhel-Meer, the Mountain of Celebrations. And there, on Meer, will be a place of purity, where there is no poverty, scarcity, or want. There will be a great village there with tanneries, armories, and stone workshops. Its dwellings are part of the very cliffs; there, benign white spirits will feast together with the people, and the celebrations will never end.
The Mountain of Celebrations in Makhmud's novel has a different character than it does in Shamil's memory. Each vision of the mountain is increasingly populated and celebratory. And it is this vision that Ganieva leaves us with at the end of the novel when she shows us a third scene on the mountain. It is a vision of hope that contrasts the dystopic violence in the rest of the book.
The real-life ethnic tension and religious violence in Dagestan and elsewhere since the novel's original publication in 2012 make this dystopian future seem all the more immediate and urgent. Ganieva's novel is about things we often see in headlines: fundamentalist / secularist tensions, ethnic clashes, personal and social collapses, shifting cultural dynamics, and the manipulation of information. But it is also about the survival of a people and the desire to move beyond postmodern cynicism and despair to a hope that lies on the far side of struggle.
Ganieva's novel is terrifying in many ways. But it is also courageous, timely, and clear-eyed. The book begins with the Wall, but it ends on the Mountain. By doing so, it acknowledges that pain and darkness are real. But it argues that hope is also a real and worthwhile endeavor. - A. T. Grant

Alisa Ganieva, born in 1985, grew up in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Her literary debut, the novella Salaam, Dalgat!, won the prestigious Debut Prize in 2009. Shortlisted for all of Russia's major literary awards, The Mountain and the Wall is her first novel, and has already been translated into several languages. Ganieva lives in Moscow, where she works as a journalist and literary critic.


Lauren Ireland - Throughout the book, Ireland balances concerns with mortality, sadness, and other philosophical concepts with the celebration of hip-hop slang, poetic language, and irreverent juxtaposition. At her best, Ireland is able to draw on both snarky humor and genuine pathos at the same time;

Lauren Ireland, Dear Lil Wayne, Magic Helicopter Press, 2014. 
July 14 and July 18 2010 in NOÖ JournalApril 1 2011 in PaperOctober 13 2010 in Flavorwire

Bawling and ballsy, these postcard poems by Lauren Ireland can see Rikers from their fire escape. They want to go down in history as a secret horror. Lil Wayne: they like your new muscles. Everybody else: you know how even leaving a place you hate is sad? These poems report the sugar-flavored blood like almost everyone is lonely, almost no one's amazing, confessing to Weezy that all spirit animals are bullshit and theirs is a giant knife.

Dear Lil Wayne,
  I have hot ideas. I’m all in. This week I had a scary dream. Furst woke me up and told me everything is okay. Everything is. Everyone’s winning at Uno. Everyone’s in love. I am high on drugs and also on being a person. There is such a thing as hot tracks. I have heard you lay them, in other dreams. Lil Wayne, I like your new muscles. I like not being dead. Don’t you? I’m not afraid. — Lauren Ireland (yes, this book just blurbed itself)

Although the epistolary poem has been around since the Roman Empire, it has taken a new turn with the advent of social media. Nowadays, the subjects of letters are much easier to reach; poets don’t need to be as hypothetical in communication. If we like Kevin Bacon’s performance in last night’s episode of The Following, we can tweet him to let him know, and he might actually read and retweet our message to show how much he cares. That said, if we tweet him to say, “Nice Prada shirt you’re wearing right now,” things might get uncomfortable.
In Dear Lil Wayne, Lauren Ireland explores this line where one’s desire to connect through letters can go beyond the comfort zone of the recipient. The book contains a series of letters dated July 2010 to April 2011, which, the speaker writes, “I sent … to Lil Wayne during and after his incarceration. He never wrote back.” Whether or not anyone actually sent the letters is beside the point; readers will get the sense of connectedness mixed with humor mixed with potential non sequitur mixed with overreaching, anyway.
At times, Ireland seems to be poking fun at the limitations of the letter while simultaneously reflecting on the inherent loneliness of a one-sided conversation. A prime example of this coupling can be found in the poem “July 29 2010”:
I wish I was basically made of fists. I wish I was dazzling and tough. I think I might be unlucky in love. Do you hate everything that isn’t on the inside? I know exactly what you mean.
Throughout the book, Ireland balances concerns with mortality, sadness, and other philosophical concepts with the celebration of hip-hop slang, poetic language, and irreverent juxtaposition. At her best, Ireland is able to draw on both snarky humor and genuine pathos at the same time; the humor eases the pain that surrounds it. The poem “February 24 2011” encapsulates a sense of isolation and desperation, but Ireland interrupts the emotional weight with amusing references to Lil Wayne lyrics, which, to the uninitiated, might appear to be non sequiturs:
Dear Lil Wayne,
Do you ever wish you could just die? I’m not saying this because I do; I’m saying this because I do. Sameness is terrifying. Everything startles me. I put my phone on vibrate. I avoid the racetrack. Last night, Max made me listen to a young rapper spitting codeine and blood. I wonder why young people aren’t more sad. I wonder why I give up. I think you’re right—I’m going to fly. I’m going to go totally hard, just like you said. I have to be honest with you, though: I’ve never seen a geese erection.
By gleaning an array of elements from the Lil Wayne lexicon, Ireland seems to be laughing at the rapper’s lyrics at times—or, more specifically, laughing at how they appear outside their intended context—but primarily basking in their absurdist appeal. Surely fans of Lil Wayne will find a lot to enjoy about this book, but the main audience for Dear Lil Wayne should include people who are interested in how non-celebrities believe it’s appropriate to write themselves into celebrities’ stories, and how these non-celebrities struggle to get their letters answered. - Daniel M. Shapiro

“There was some sadness, a tornado, some gladness”
Part whimsy, part pure love, part little kid writing to their hero, the meat of Ireland’s poems in Dear Lil Wayne are both new and familiar.
The book’s body of prose blocks and superficially random lines remind the reader of Hejinian’s philosophy on collage – the sentence as poem and movement in a poem as something that should be difficult to nail down. After each block / piece / letter, the reader is left with an earned emotion, generated and constructed from the parts provided. To say that the reader’s emotion is earned also means that few emotions are directly addressed; they accumulate. Over the course of the book, they become greater than the sum of their parts. For example, here’s the entirety of “August 7 2010”:
The universe becomes a fist and then we die. Okay. Naked under Perseids, big deal, the rip. Nothing anyone says matters anyway so just fucking say it. Bats, ocean, cessation of time. Okay, we love each other. Now what.
Throughout the book there is a pushing forward, and it’s not just the dates above each piece nor the simple fact that a sequence is happening. As the poems develop, the reader gets to know this letter-writer and her (assumingly) weird relationship with an unresponsive star. Bad things happen, guilt is admitted, feelings are unearthed:
“44 days. Not much has changed. There was some sadness, a tornado, some gladness” (“September 20 2010”).
“Running fast makes clouds. Was that fire? Yesterday I fell. I fell like this and my body looked just like this” (“July 15 2010”).
Undeniably, though, through whatever thick fog of analysis one can summon, these poems are funny and sharp and pretty. The goofiness in their abstract premise is absolutely not something that leads to a lack of effectiveness or soul, of real feeling or polish. If anything, the desperation of fan mail opens Ireland up to be as raw as the felt connection between a star and a stranger fully invested in someone they do not know at all. To quote from “July 29 2010 (10:01 pm),” “Remember how wet sidewalks smell? I want to feel like that again. So I am listening to music.”
Regardless of the book’s context, the poems are very much concerned with being striking and immediate. Each poem remains strong, relevant and independent. Some pieces, certainly, are much more focused on creating an effect than actually playing up the activity / game of writing to Lil Wayne. Less confessional, maybe, Ireland offers true attempts at connection, with lines like :
Were you very alone? I think about what I would do in a small room by myself: not very much. I guess I would think and sleep, maybe masturbate, maybe cry, probably both. I guess you wrote a lot. I guess you were basically being incredible. You wouldn’t understand, but it’s hard to be boring in a fascinating world.
These lines, the handful of times they raise their collective head, are moving in their static deadness. They are little orphan feelings borne from the honest heart of this silly letter-writer, and damn if we don’t know how that feels. But maybe the extensive and conscientious avoidance points the reader to the main argument behind these poems: connecting and sharing emotionally is tough, if not impossible. Especially artist-to-artist. Or at least this poet artist to this rap artist, at least Ireland to Wayne. It’s so tempting and inviting to identify with or admire or want deeply to connect with celebrity figures, especially the artists who elicit so much from us. However, those attempts at connection are just that, attempts and unfulfilled expectations. Ireland’s Dear Lil Wayne is shining a beautiful bright light on that broken relationship we all secretly or loudly desire.— CJ Opperthauser

1. Immediately I am reminded of Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s. The cover to his book and Dear Lil Wayne even kind of look the same.
3. The dedication of the book goes to Lil Wayne, but below that another dedication/statement reads: “hip hop, you saved my life.” I think this is particularly poignant. Sometimes when bands are interviewed they’ll say something like, “We get letters from fans telling us that this song/album helped them through a hard time.” The project of this book is proof of the kind of power music can have and I totally relate and understand, as I’m sure many other readers probably can, too.
4. The book has a type of preface in which Ireland gives us some information about Lil Wayne, primarily concerning his incarceration. This preface ends: “I sent these letters to Lil Wayne during and after his incarceration. He never wrote back.” There’s an almost even split of letters written while Lil Wayne was in jail and after he was released.
5. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Dear Lil Wayne is a form of hero worship, but rather an incarnation of the advice, “write about your obsessions.”
6. And in this writing through obsession, Ireland weaves together the comic and tragic for very memorable poems.
7. For example, “September 17 2010”:
Dear Lil Wayne,
Jason and Furst say they get fear boners. Do you? Probably not. Jason says there’s like a Nicaraguan death squad after his dick. Does this mean boys are just as scared as girls? All this time I was sure it was a joke when a boy liked me. In these cases, I don’t get fear boners. I just feel kind of bad.
8. From the first sentence this poem is engaging. The following “Do you?” and “Does this mean boys are just as scared as girls?” maintains a move that appears throughout the book: Ireland is almost always asking Lil Wayne questions in her letters.
9. “September 21 2010” begins, “Do people think you are funny when you are actually really sad?”
10. “November 5 2010” (the day after Lil Wayne’s release) begins, “Do you feel different yet?”
11. “April 10 2011” begins, “Have you ever touched something so painful, you can’t tell whether it’s hot or cold?”
12. These questions, and others throughout the book, provide moments where I really empathize with Ireland. Because even those these poems are addressed to Lil Wayne, the questions Ireland asks are not really questions for him. They are questions the speaker asks herself.
13. And one of the big questions that’s threaded throughout the book is, I think, how does one be “grown-up?”
14. This question comes up most clearly in “September 2 2010”:
Dear Lil Wayne,
One day I will have to be a full grownup, paying taxes on time and shit. Do you know how  hard that is? I just want a bus and all the time in the world. Beer tastes so amazing when I skip work for no reason.
15. Other examples that display this youthfulness in opposition to growing up pop up throughout the book. In “January 7 2011”: “I’m like sweating tequila. It’s 4PM and I am lonely and in love and thinking of the time I almost drowned in a lake in Knoxville, Tennessee. No one is ever going to be this happy, ever again.”
16. In “August 24 2010”: “Lately I have been sleepy thuggin over the lazy blankets. What makes pain? Stupid. In 8 million years everyone will be dead. At least I hope. That’ll teach them.”
17. In “April 20 2011”: “Lately, whiskey makes me feel better, all over my parts.”
18. I think all of these examples, and there are many others in the book, show Ireland’s speaker having an internal struggle, of being between the world of adult and the world of technically adult.
19. And this struggle is the heart of Dear Lil Wayne. It’s the second part of the American coming-of-age story. The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, those are part one. No one in high school reads books about part two. Dear Lil Wayne is part two.
20. And so what’s a reader left with at the end? Ireland leaves us on unstable ground. Some progress is made, but there’s not exactly a happy ending.
21. The one-way correspondence with Lil Wayne ends on April 23, 2011. And the tone of this poem quickly establishes that it’s the end: “Promise me you’ll never get too big for your bitches.” Ireland’s speaker is moving on.
22. Lil Wayne’s music has transformed by the end of the book: “When I’m listening to you, all I can hear is a warm intelligent hum.” The music is no longer defined by certain beats or lyrics. For Ireland’s speaker, it’s something that’s not even hip hop anymore, but is still positive.
23. The last two sentences of “April 23 2011” are what leaves me uncertain: “You are going to be okay. I mean, that’s what we’re supposed to tell each other.”
24. OOF. These last sentences slay. They reflect perfectly the situation that Ireland’s speaker, and I think many twenty and thirtysomethings, feel today. No one is really worried about Lil Wayne here, it is Ireland’s speaker whom the reader hopes is okay. It’s the reader him/herself that says these lines aloud and to friends. But the truth is we don’t know and that’s why this last poem in Dear Lil Wayne has such bite.
25. This last point would be some Lil Wayne lyrics that encapsulate the experience of reading Dear Lil Wayne, but I don’t really know any, sorry.
"No one is really worried about Lil Wayne here, it is Ireland’s speaker whom the reader hopes is okay. It’s the reader him/herself that says these lines aloud and to friends." — Nate Logan 

Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Sad to say, the book has not aged as gracefully as I had hoped. Every time I bring out a few selections from Letters to Wendy’s, my Intro. to Lit. students alternately roll their eyes or stare blankly at the overhead projector. In all likelihood they are overwhelmed by poetry in general—especially absurdist prose poetry about fast food—and Wenderoth’s epistolary book is hyper-graphic, too. However, I’m also sure that many have never even seen a comment card before and thus fail to understand the overarching conceit of the project.
Perhaps Lauren Ireland’s epistolary poetry collection Dear Lil Wayne is the Letters to Wendy’s of this decade. The book design even echoes Wenderoth’s, but instead of Wenderoth’s lonely, over-drugged, sexually-repressed man, Lauren Ireland depicts a lonely, oversexed woman in these letters to the incarcerated rapper Lil Wayne. “I wonder if I’m doing the right thing,” Ireland writes to Tunci. “Do you? All the haters, talking shit about us. Sometimes I listen to them, which I realize is a bitch move.”
At the beginning of the collection, the poet claims to have actually mailed all of the collected letters, individually, to Mr. Carter during and following his imprisonment. She reports that he never replied, and this is deeply satisfying given the wide range of disturbing and revelatory content of her letters. It’s fun to imagine him reading these messages, alternately horrified and titillated, as many readers of the now-published collection will certainly be. This is confessional poetry for the millennial generation.
For Ireland, celebrity is a stand-in for the divine, as in her letter from July 15th: “Dear Lil Wayne, … Oh Lord Jesus, the terrific lightning over the avenues. Over all the avenues and I was scared. Are you? Tell me what to do with these feelings.” This correlation between talent and fame and the divine is especially present in the rap game. Wayne even called himself a god at a New Year’s Eve DJ set in Miami back in 2012. Why not conflate Lil Wayne to a god-like status—at least for the next decade–before he becomes replaced by the next bastion of social institutions? - Quincy Rhodes

Lauren Ireland’s Dear Lil Wayne is about a lot of things: love and loneliness, fear and sadness. Obsession. Desire. Futility. Prison. Islands. Wanting to be a “rapper’s girlfriend.” Booze and drugs.
But mainly it’s about unrequitedness—of the fan to the celebrity, the poet to the reader and, implicitly, the lover to her object of affection/desire/obsession. In this respect it follows a long poetic tradition. Poets such as Yeats and his poems to Maude Gunn come to mind.
These poems are also epistles, in form and literally (Ireland sent postcards with these poems on them to Lil Wayne for the 8 months he was in prison on Riker’s Island–he never wrote back). Contemporarily, they are much in the vein of Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s. As an aside: it’s interesting to note how the “death” of letter writing has been lamented in the wake of email but is very much alive in poetry.*
But back to Ireland and Wayne. What I think I love most is how Ireland takes all these different emotions and weaves them together. On one page will be a Gaston Bachelard quote about how “The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams.” But a couple pages later will be these lines: “Fuck that noise. Every place is a place where someone died once. The morgue of your dreams.”
In other words, sure, you can have your dreams back, but they’ll very likely be dead, entombed in “the economy mourning, the park, the potter’s field in the kitchen.”
Also prison, where Lil Wayne is, is a kind of tomb. And an island (Riker’s), where he also was in solitary confinement. The houses and offices and island (Manhattan) Ireland writes from are tombs of a sort. Isolation is everywhere.
And uncertainty. Just look at how many times the word “guess"—a sign of uncertainty, but in some respects also giving up like when someone’s hounding you about something and your only possible reply is "I guess:” “I guess I am lots of things’ bitch. I guess I’m just guessing forever.”
There’s also a bit of putting the beloved/Lil Wayne on a pedestal and asking him to perform magical things. Being sure that “everything mystical spring from [Lil Wayne’s] head.” Asking him to “please give me back my time.” Donne did this often in his love poems to his wife by making her basically a stand-in for god, or at least a woman as holy as the Virgin (but also Mary Magdalene in that in his poems he and Anne More had just fucked or he was thinking about how much he wanted to fuck her, how good and holy their fucking was).
But then there’s also the realization that there’s “so much mystical bullshit,” the reality of love, taking the beloved off the pedestal and being like, what the fuck!?: “Okay, we love each other. Now what.”
If there’s one thing that is certain, it’s the feeling that, in the end, despite everything, no one really cares. None of it matters. “Lil Wayne, I have seen the face of god in the bathroom at Milady’s. He doesn’t care, either."
I mean, if you take the line seriously no one cares. If not, it’s funny and people can still care, things can still matter. If you take it seriously but also don’t, it’s funny and sad. People care, kind of. Things matter, maybe.
*The Self Help Poems book from The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather is a whole book of epistles that were actual emails back and forth between him and a friend, email epistolary poems, if you will. — Justin Marks

"Cheese fries, roller skating, dollar drafts, bad drugs, and of course Lil Wayne serve a higher purpose: the unraveling of our darkest moments. And never confined by realism, the poems veer easily into the territory of the mystical, the deep past, the fantastic." — Molly Dorozenski

"From the start it is clear that these poems, in the form of letters to the rapper in Rikers, are more than poetry. They are failed communications of longing." — Gabby Bess

"There are certain excerpts from this series of letters that are so hilariously bizarre they will make you laugh out loud. Dear Lil Wayne is a must-read for anyone in search of a fun and amusing book." — Malvern Books

"The deftness of Ireland’s words strikes a chord—her short letters may not hit their target audience (Weezy), but they sure hit home for readers. Though [Dear Lil Wayne] is painfully lonely at times, it spurs an instantaneous sense of belonging at its high points." — Kimberly Whitmer

Picture 9
Lauren Ireland, The Arrow, Coconut Books, 2014.
Picture 4

Picture 8

"It took almost a lifetime's worth of emotions to read Lauren Ireland's THE ARROW. She says Time eats at the edges of things so we hear her say other things, too, I am hating you from very far away and I am a grownup/flying right into the mouth of fear. This book is fraught with emotional emergencies, sometimes reckless, almost a little demented as one has to be when one faces who and what and where and how we are. Lucky for Ireland there are friends to whom many of these poems are dedicated who accompany her as she's permanently lost in this very very mysterious flight we all share."—Dara Wier

"Lauren Ireland doesn't shrink from the biggies—death and obsession, melancholia and doing it in the graveyard. She dies and dies again, with magnificent repetition and in all the different colors that the human heart comes in. In the drained sea, a dangerously low mood, the world where being alive is no longer possible, Ireland is your best friend. This book is both a love letter and an obituary to having a goddamn human experience."—Melissa Broder

"Wherever THE ARROW lands is the bullseye and everything else can go fuck itself. Poison tipped and true with feathers stolen from some dope's dream catcher it's the weaponized vehicle of choice for anyone with putzy exes making a winter of every season—and for a great love that better be out there because, even though THE ARROW has the force to fly forever, it came from cupid's quiver after all. How can Lauren be so sincere and so sarcastic, like a cutter cutting airquotes in her arm? It's like if love won't tear us apart, it'll tear us a new one.—Brendan Lorber & Tracey McTague

“I am not saying anything that bad. / My wrist hurts from masturbating. / The dirty window can keep my goddamned face” are the concluding lines of Lauren Ireland’s “Special,” included in her debut full length collection The Arrow. And emotions and sentiments of the above variety are indicative of the work in the collection as a whole—as such, Ireland’s poetry is largely aimed to prod and provoke. She doesn’t write to please some imaginary reader, nor does she write to invoke some imaginary muse. She isn’t much concerned with notions of “tenure-track” or “conceptual” or “metamodern.” Instead, she writes to expose the tensions of modern day 21st century American life—and, fickle and immense, there are a lot of them.
Reading through The Arrow one of first noticeable things is the amount of dedications the book contains; 22 of them are included, many of them to the same person in multiple poems. (A good guess is that Molly Dorozenski and Lauren Ireland are close friends.) On the face of it this, then, doesn’t amount to much, and yet thinking through/into these dedications one gets the sense that Ireland is poetically invested in people as much as language. Her poems thus employ the second person “you” fairly often, a “you” that, due to the work’s dedicatory nature, is very rarely the same “you” as the reader. Reading The Arrow front-to-back the immediate temptation is to find this element both problematic and insular; why go to the trouble of publishing a book of poetry with a national press if you can simply send the poem/poems to the person/persons you’re writing them specifically for? And yet rereading the collection—and mulling over the “you” in both the dedicated and undedicated pieces— one is forced to entertain a different insight, namely that Ireland’s personal poetics are, circa 2014, subtly revelatory. It little matters if, while reading The Arrow, one knows or cares to know the aforementioned Dorozenski (10 dedications) or Scott Larner (3 dedications) or Leigh Stein (2 dedications) or various members of the Ireland family (various dedications). In each of the poems dedicated to them they are mere stand-ins for Ireland’s speaker, one that is both combative and contrary. “You are going to remember how cold preserves memory,” Ireland writes in “There Was This One Great Day & It Already Happened” (Larner dedication); in the Dorozenski-dedicated “Satan’s School For Girls,” she asserts:
I was like            I hope you die                        You were like               killing them.
I think your power            comes from            your great beauty
& too much thinking.                        I think my power            comes from                                               
your mouth.                        Driving fast over snowy hills                   I am
wishing for you.            Defacing textbooks            writing your names.
I’m braiding your hair & mine            so you can never leave me     
The “you” in this poem might be, in Ireland’s speaker’s mind, directly influenced by Dorozenski, but for everyone else it’s a “you” that defines the “I” of the poem in far greater detail. “Satan’s School For Girls” speaker believes that “my power                comes from/ your mouth,” insists that, via, “Defacing textbooks              writing your names,” “I am wishing for you.” Ireland’s “you” is Jeffrey Eugenides’ “we” in The Virgin Suicides, is (to a degree at least) Jay McInerney’s “you” in Bright Lights, Big City. It’s a personal pronoun usage that—although directed away from its speaker, at or to someone else—is truly personal while at the same time being voluminous, expansive. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman writes in “Song of Myself.” “You know, / you are never alone—I don’t mean that/in a kindly way,” Lauren Ireland writes in “Cats.” The comparison is hyperbolic, sure, but Ireland’s own set of multitudes is one that is less self-referential or self-absorbed than a thousand other contemporary American poets. She writes for others as a way of writing for herself as a way of writing for somebody—anybody—else.    
The work in The Arrow certainly has predecessors—contemporarily, Chelsey Minnis and Tina Brown Celona immediately come to mind, as does, drifting a bit further back, early work/collections by Heather McHugh and Bill Knott, even Ed Dorn. Ireland is the type of poet that begins a poem entitled “American Poetry” with the declaration “Fuck off, Jorie Graham,” the type that might write an entire book of letter-poems to Lil Wayne, ones she might actually send to him during one of his not-infrequent periods of incarceration—which is something that she, in fact, did. (See Dear Lil Wayne, Magic Helicopter Press, 2014; “I sent these letters to Lil Wayne during and after his incarceration. He never wrote back.) Within the very same poem her work can be—and often is—callous and tender:
I fucked you right                          through                    the dream catcher…
Resting under the mountain    ancient trade road               I was here.
Tumbled neon grains, oh                        I am beautiful                        under the amber.
rubber                        roses.                          the last of the season.
(from “The Beer Can Museum”)
So when contemporary poetry wants its heart back—wants to forget about fellowships and residencies and arts colonies and gladhands and “aesthetic” posturing and prestigious publications that are less than “public” due to the fact that no one actually reads the work inside of them—it should know where it can find it. Staying warm in a microwave next to a busted blender next to Lauren Ireland’s bucket of beer.  Her poetry in The Arrow and in general teaches that you can’t miss what isn’t gone— at least not yet. - Jeff Alessandrelli

One of my favorite lines—and there are hundreds just as nauseatingly perfect—in Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s is from the letter written on November 14, 1996. It’s the first snow of the year. The restaurant feels exceptionally full of warmth and caring. Everything is just so perfect, he writes, “I felt like getting fucked up and watching t.v. forever.” You know exactly how he feels. Letters to Wendy’s essentially invents new emotions—or rather, it describes emotions that can only be described in exactly this form, the highly-charged, epistolary prose poem that Wenderoth develops.
Lauren Ireland’s poetry collection Dear Lil Wayne—with its collage of emotions and complaints and confessions—is written in the same spirit. “Tell me what to do with these feelings,” she begs. The answer, of course, is make them into poems. The book is composed of sixty-two postcard poems addressed (and some of them sent) to Lil Wayne during and after his 2010 incarceration on Riker’s Island for criminal possession of marijuana and a .40 caliber pistol. The poems are part diary, part letter, full of sadness and desire for everything Lil Wayne seems to represent, all the things the speaker doesn’t have: fame, love, passion, fearlessness. “It’s so hard to be boring in a fascinating world,” she writes. The self-deprecating awareness of the poems makes them both comic and poignant. “I mean, have you read my chapbook? I just want to be famous for being famous.” And some lines are very funny, for example, “Is it in yet? Ha ha no,” or, “There are so many different types of bitches.”
The poems feel very much like postcards—spontaneous, irreverent, abundant with the unexpected pleasures that result from experimenting with form. The postcard is a fragment of stream-of-consciousness that must be written quickly—you must think of something, right now, to say—but also carefully and clearly, because someone else will be reading. Take the opening sentence of the book: “Hey. I hate it when my hands smell like pennies. Do you think we’re too sad for each other?” Or August 24, 2010:
 Dear Lil Wayne,

Rain all over the rivers. and the concrete. Gentle ozone. Everything is sad and the feelings! Are you ever sorry? I am. Lately I have been sleepy thuggin over the lazy blankets. What makes pain? Stupid. In 8 million years everyone will be dead. At least I hope. That’ll teach them. My big dumb feelings spread all over. Don’t you wish people would quit stealing our shit? Or at least know who we are. 
The poems are less about or for Lil Wayne than they are a way of exploring what it means to write a poem: at its heart, an attempt at meaningful communication with another person, hopefully a broad spectrum of other persons. “What sort of sentences can you say to just anybody?” Ireland asks. At the risk of sentimentality and banality and cheekiness, Ireland seems to broaden the spectrum of feelings a person can have, and so broaden the spectrum of universal communication. “It’s like the time in Philadelphia when I felt pure despair while Augie masturbated in my bedroom,” she writes. There are no words for that feeling but the whole sentence—and somehow, you know exactly how she feels.
The hyper self-consciousness, the desire, and the inquisitiveness of the letters also play out in The Arrow, Ireland’s other full-length collection to be published in 2014, which includes poems from her chapbook Sorry It’s So Small (Factory Hollow Press, 2011). The first poem ends, “disappointment & glitter, disappointment & glitter / love stuff love stuff blah blah blah,” the speaker pre-empting any doubts or criticisms the reader might have, as if to say: Whatever you think of me or this poem, I think worse; now let’s move on. These poems are all about sex and death and fear of death—“tiny fear of tiny death”—and feeling so bad it must be worse than the nothingness of death. Though not composed of sonnets, The Arrow has a sonnet-sequence-like narrative—despair, break-up, despair, inklings of new love—of which the poet-speaker is all too aware: “O kill me I am dead,” she writes, and “How exciting to be heartbroken and glad of it.” To the beloved: “Please Get Out of My Poems.”
Like the poems of James Schuyler or the sonnets of Ted Berrigan, The Arrow takes place during a certain time in New York, and the poems often address or refer to specific friends and family members. They are like collages from someone’s diary; reading the book, you feel like you’re eavesdropping, as if you’re catching it in the act of being written. Or they’re like bird nests, worked up out of fragments of image and emotion. “I dream of animals,” Ireland writes, namely: mollusks, wolves, pelicans, a “shark’s vagina,” seagulls, bats, beetles, and, more generally, “large animals.” The speaker, here and in Wayne, always seem to be reaching for some dreamy outside.
The eclecticism and patchwork feel of The Arrow is amplified by the way Ireland scores the poems with large spaces, indicating how to read them, where to take a breath. “What Is True and What Isn’t” begins,
 To start     I am     the room silver     wallpaper     in the last light you turn over     I
 Want     I want to be a salt lick     a little hysterical
 The deer fly over slanted fence     at impossible speeds     to-day to-day cut for a 
 man     improbable tableax with kimonos     go ahead     I’m not listening     your
 small face     my dear green boots
Formally, the poems often work themselves into a repetitive frenzy. Ireland’s musical stutters include, among many others, “Shake shake / shake shake / shake” (“Polish Girls Sunbathing), “plenty of plenty of” (“In Mexico, Boyfriends), “Darling of / Darling of” (“The Feeling of Being Alone in the Woods”), “salt salt salt” (“Something Is Messed Up Real Bad”), “I fell down / I fell down” (“Things Back Home”), “the time the time that the time” (“Poppea in Milk”) and “give me my fuckin money give me my fuckin money” (“The Summer of Two Thousand Fine”). The end of “The Gestalt or Whatever” reminds me of the final stanza of Frederick Seidel’s ecstatic “Gethsemane”: “The animals, the soft things, / the horns & the horns & the horns & the horns.” (Seidel’s poem ends, “To the crowd. / To the crowd. / To the crowd. / To the crowd. To the crowd. To the.”)
The speaker of The Arrow seems shaky, but the poems have a ragged edge. The repetitions climax in “Long Division,” one of my favorite poems in the book. It begins, “O god inconstance simple terror. / This is my serious face terrible little blitzkrieg. / or something. I am the trembling preposition, fixed” and ends:
 I guess.     I just want.     I just
 Want to be     the sound     the arrow makes.
 I guess I’m     I guess      a little shaky shaky now.
It’s these “quiet details”—like the sound an arrow makes—that give life to the poems. In the Beer Can Museum they sell “rubber roses. the last of the season.” To quote Ireland on Annie Dillard, “How tenderly on window ledges ugly things alight.” One feels the edge in the final poem, when Ireland writes, “I’m so happy I can’t write.” - Sarah Trudgeon

Lauren Ireland is also the author of Sorry It's So Small, and Olga and Fritz. Currently, she lives in Seattle with her husband and her husband's cat.

Justin Barton - A work of philosophy, an account of experiences, and a biography of a year, it is simultaneously a challenging cultural analysis, drawing on novels, songs and films. It argues for lucidity over reason, becomings over conventional gender and familialism, groups over state politics, and for an escape to wider realities in place of the delusions of religion

Hidden Valleys: Haunted by the Future
Justin Barton, Hidden Valleys: Haunted by the Future, Zero Books, 2015.


The future is alongside us, sometimes closer, sometimes further away.
Hidden Valleys starts from the perception that the human world is an eerie place, particularly in relation to its stories and dreams. It also starts from events that took place in North Yorkshire, in 1978. A work of philosophy, an account of experiences, and a biography of a year, it is simultaneously a challenging cultural analysis, drawing on novels, songs and films. It argues for lucidity over reason, becomings over conventional gender and familialism, groups over state politics, and for an escape to wider realities in place of the delusions of religion. Most centrally it breaks open a view of a futural dimension that coexists with the present, and which intrinsically involves a heightened awareness and evaluation of the planet, of women, and of the abstract. Inseparably it is also a detective investigation into the causes of the eerie human predicament. The book reaches the planetary by starting from a singular place, it reaches reality by starting from dreams, and it reaches the future by finding a doorway in the past.

From an article about On Vanishing Land "At its most intense this audio-essay hollows out reality - the two artists are "a dream within a dream, the planet is a dream within a dream" - even as it viscerally conjures material presences from a land of disjunctive temporalities." - T. J. Demos

Hidden Valleys is an extraordinary and unique work. Amongst many other things, it is a philosophical autobiography, a vivid account of a place and a time, and a series of stunning new readings of cultural texts. Ultimately, it amounts to nothing less than a challenge to encounter the world more lucidly, more intensely, than consensual reality customarily permits. - Mark Fisher

Ostensibly an inquiry into the eerie arcadia of modernism Hidden Valleys takes the reader on a journey through a life and through the promises of the future. The reader will find themselves in the presence of a genuine writer, a becoming-writer, who has gifts of poetic and philosophical insight to offer, and to share into our haunted existences, with recollections of sublime moments in popular music and culture alongside meditations on North Yorkshire and New Zealand and innovative deployments of Deleuzian philosophy. This book shows that there is poetry in philosophy and philosophy in poetry...it is a rare book of tremendous power and beauty. - Keith Ansell-Pearson

In a large blacked-out room at the Showroom Gallery, sound artists and theorists Mark Fisher and Justin Barton of The Otolith Group have installed their haunting audio-essay On Vanishing Land. On one level it’s a simple set up. A projector shows us a series of snapshots from Felixstowe Container Port; deserted beaches to derelict pillboxes fading into one another. Images of a journey Fisher and Barton took in 2005 along the Suffolk coastline. On another level the main feature, a forty-five minute audio essay, is far from straightforward in its mix of storytelling and non-fiction. Narrated in the third person by Justin Barton, along with a series of interviews that include archaeologist Angus Wainwright (National Trust) and Editor Dan Fox (Frieze), there are ideas of hauntology, sonic theory, hidden history, and capitalist realism. It’s a collaborative effort exploring the Eerie that reinterprets M.R. James’ Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad (1904) and Brian Eno’s airport solstice like tracks from seminal album On Land (1982), with contributions from Ultravox’s renowned John Foxx and upcoming talent Gazelle Twin and experimental Farmers of Vega.
An evolution of London Under London, the first Barton and Fisher’s first collaboration, On Vanishing Land emerges as a squeal, pushing key audio essay elements further than before. Vocal pieces are re-sampled and abstracted onto the same plane as music, not simply played sequentially one after the other. Words are transformed and music breaks free of the constraints of a backing track, menacingly taking us into an unknown where interiority and exteriority surface as dualistic concepts. It invades our sense of the world around us, our fear of what lies beyond the vanishing point, a state of detachment on the point of deliriousness.
aqnb spoke to Justin Barton on his role in the project, whose interests include the concept of maps as a means for escaping the everyday of dead reality, and for whom art is visual means of breaking free of the mind forged manacles of convention.
Documentation of production of On Vanishing Land (2013) by Mark Fisher and Justin Barton, photograph.
Documentation of production of On Vanishing Land (2013) by Mark Fisher and Justin Barton, photograph.
aqnb: Why separate the audio from the visual?
Justin Barton: Well, despite our unbelievable love of music, human begins are excessively visual and there is a legacy –which is obviously bolstered by film and TV –that wants everybody to fixate on the screen, and allow what they’re hearing to be commentary for what’s on the screen. There’s that hole in their attention and the music becomes secondary. Obviously, often music can do a good job out of those situations but with this it wasn’t the case. Instead, we wanted people to use music as the basis.
aqnb: There are a lot of collaborators who worked on the piece. What was the brief you gave them?
JB: We wanted people to have a sense of what we were doing so Mark set up a website called On Vanishing Land, which gave a few images and two pieces of text, and all the people who contributed music had access to that. Some people we knew really well and we could just tell them anyway. In a way, we wanted people to know that we wanted music with an eerie quality that was also about landscape.
aqnb: How was the route originally planned?
JB: After London Under London we came up with an idea for a new project, which involved an interest in ruined spaces, derelict spaces, which were not gothic ruins but were more like Second World War ruins, for instance. In a way, we were looking at a sort of sunlit dereliction, an empty space that is not functional anymore and there is a sense it’s also not part of reality any longer, in the sense that it has no function with reality and sets you dreaming. If a child goes into a derelict space, it immediately starts dreaming up things and playing around in it.
But we went to Suffolk because Mark had been there on holiday as a child – the Suffolk coast has lots of World War II ruins, so we knew we were going somewhere that had what we were looking for and we decided to research it. What ended up happening was that walk that we did ended up being in part a basis for The Corridor, a novel I’ve just finished writing, but then also fundamentally became the basis for On Vanishing Land. We knew all along we had not only WW2 ruins and Martello Towers, we knew we had M.R. James as a key element in that space, where he wrote most of his ghost stories but we also had Brian Eno, who came from Woodbridge. When you start to see a space, not in terms of concrete but hauntologically, you see you have these sorts of figures, and we began to see that we had a seed crystal we could work it all up from. And from that it eventually managed to grow up and break free.
Documentation of production of On Vanishing Land (2013) by Mark Fisher and Justin Barton, photograph.
Documentation of production of On Vanishing Land (2013) by Mark Fisher and Justin Barton, photograph.
aqnb: Was going to the countryside an escape from London Under London?
JB: I think one of the best moments of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus’ is when they say: ‘in short we think you can not speak sufficiently in the name of an outside.’ Now London Under London was already thinking in terms of the outside but the outside is the outside of ordinary reality and the countryside is merely one outside. And if that’s what you’ve got in mind then there never is an escape to the countryside because there’s always the problem of getting outside of where you are – it doesn’t matter where you are in the countryside. The outside is already in London Under London, it was never just about the city and what’s at steak in On Vanishing Land is just the same as what’s at stake in London Under London.
aqnb: Is the fact that it’s on the coast significant? It seems like the coast itself, as a natural force and a plain between nations, serves as a barrier, a representation of interior and exterior?
JB: I mean, obviously it’s all constructed around one axis, which is incursions from the outside and one of those is the sea taking the land away but it’s the crudest of them. Also, invasions are there but not particularly important. Then there is the idea that capitalism floods into our ports, as the vast majority of our goods are shipped in to Felixstowe Container Port. And it’s worth bearing in mind, when thinking of exteriority, that capitalism came into the state from another world. The world of the state got defeated 250 years ago and the state is still now trying to cope with that fact, they have been for quite some time… but even that’s not really important in the end. Really, this is about being trapped in a locked down reality – that’s what is most important and that’s what we’re aiming at, in terms of saying radar becomes active in relation to the unknown.
Documentation of production of On Vanishing Land (2013) by Mark Fisher and Justin Barton, photograph.
Documentation of production of On Vanishing Land (2013) by Mark Fisher and Justin Barton, photograph.
aqnb: How did Brian Eno as a figure come to represent the themes you wanted to discuss?
 JB: Well, I think Brian Eno’s best work may be On Land. In a way the key concept, well a good way of thinking about a take on hauntology, would be we’re almost always fundamentally haunted by the future, and it would seem if the more you look at the stacked up death world of the past, the more there are times when the future appears to be closer then when it is now. Broadly speaking, me and Martin are working with a way of thinking that between 1962 and 1982 the future was a lot closer than it is now, this is in an anomalous sense of the future here. And Brian Eno’s place in this is that he’s being critiqued. At some point he began going wrong, at some point in the 70s an Unfamiliar Wind was released, and there’s real talent there but the songs kind of faded away into an indulgent serene space around about 1977. It’s real dreaming but there’s something of the affectation. Then at the very end, on the cusp, at the point where everything is beginning to collapse, it collapses in so many different ways that it comes ‘round. It’s no English or Suffolk thing because he mixes recorded bird song from his trip to Ghana, but it’s that very real de-territorialisation, which gives it a slightly eerie quality. It’s the darkest of his ambient albums, darker than Music For Airports, which already has that serene quality to it.
aqnb: What is the concept of Eerie fundamentally about for you?
JB: I think the main thing conceptually with Eerie is the unknown. The concept of the Eerie, in a way, takes you out of a dark entrapment space, the Kantian world where there is nothing but the utterly unknowable. The Eerie is always this sense that there is something there that’s on the same scale as you and, in a sense, could be aware of you. If you are in the wilderness and something eerie happens, it would be the sense that maybe you were being watched. There’s something there but it’s not the normal. It could, for instance, be a human being that is just not an ordinary human being; it’s something unexpected, on a different level to what you’ve experienced before. I mean, Eerie relates to the idea of the unknown, which is knowable, the fundamentally known but neither the less unknowable. It’s kind of like Ariadne’s thread leading out of ordinary reality. Kant traps us in a world where everything is the world of known, which is unknowable. The Eerie gives you the Ariadne’s thread, which is leading out. - Lindsey Starkweather

In British non-fiction there’s been a trend, of late, for books that involve men going for walks and thinking about things. Often these things are to do with history, cultural memory and landscapes; the walkers make their way through bits of Norfolk (Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places), or Yorkshire (Simon Armitage, Walking Home), trying to feel their way into the crevices of an island supremely indifferent to their walking and thinking. (There are plenty of photographs of an unhappy Armitage, in particular, who repeated the trial down in the South, and seems to have a mystical gift for attracting rain.) One interesting aspect of these rural travellers’ work is the way in which their stylised narration erudite, measured, occasionally dreamlike – differs from that of their contemporaries in the city: say, Iain Sinclair on these shores, or Frédéric Gros abroad. Those writers inhabit the urban world like it’s a frantic bestiary of the mind, in a register alchemically bound to the spark and drive of city-living. Everything becomes infected by style. Sinclair is the cardinal example of this: his sentences are instantly recognisable, and if anything, over time his books have become (weirdly) more like themselves than ever, as if drunk on their own spirit. But it was always there, even back in 1997’s Lights Out for the Territory: “Walks are permitted only on agreed paths. The ancient gates, energy sluices, have been replaced by tawdry plastic barriers. … Poisoned weather, sick skies, confused humans.” Gros is more mysterious, metaphysical; in A Philosophy of Walking he writes: “The urban stroller doesn’t put in an appearance at the fullness of Essence, he just lays himself open to scattered visual impacts. The walker is fulfilled in an abyss of fusion.” Different styles, but these city-voices share a love of self-display, corrupted by the sheer immediacy of what’s around them. Go back to the rural walkers: by contrast, their prose speaks with less surety, more hesitation, an inclination to pause. Armitage in the Pennines: “Standing among them, the only person in a vast and empty landscape, I feel both utterly insignificant and intensely scrutinised at the same time.”
Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys involves a large amount of country wandering, too, though with more precarity than the Armitages and MacFarlanes are currently enduring. During Barton’s teenage years, he and his mother travelled the country from hotel to hostel, town to village, against the sour backdrop of familial strife and a contested will. His investment in the landscape, then, was everything but professional: picking up paperbacks on the high street and retreating to hotel rooms to devour them, he was only just discovering what literature meant to him. There’s something refreshingly unguarded about how Hidden Valleys presents itself, one part memoir and one part philosophy (to be crude); it’s a book about time, grounded in 1978 and radiating towards what Barton continually calls “the Future”, or something like “a free non-transcendence dreaming or perspective – a free oneiric-abstract perceiving of the world”. Roughly speaking, it charts a moment in his life, and in the wider popular culture, where the moment comes for an opening-up of perceptions, towards greater “energy” and “lucidity”. The need, now as then, is that “the oneiric entrapment-worlds of territorial and religious allegiances have to be left behind in the direction of the planet, and in the direction of becomings”: since this didn’t come to pass in 1978, or (yet) in subsequent years, the book acts as a retrospective on what didn’t happen, a curiously hopeful memorial to hope deferred. Still, no loss. “The vital thing is to point out that the Future has been alongside all along, and a way of doing this is to see towards the Future by looking through the doorway of a particular time.”
Hidden Valleys’ two main aspects, the personal and the speculative, are brought into relation by their attitudes towards what’s been lost and what might be coming. The core problem here stems from the parting of these aspects into sections which are rarely woven together. The tone swings widely between poles, characterised on the one hand by sentences like the one glossing “Future” above, and then by flat descriptions of his home-life with his mother: “I recurrently felt acutely frustrated by being trapped on this bizarre parental bus, but I also enjoyed the travelling and the countryside and the hotels.” Barton, then, usually avoids the electrified (Sinclair) or the languorous (Armitage) by either using a thick style spattered with bits of Deleuze and Guattari, or avoiding anything conspicuously stylish. Polarised voices are true enough to Barton, to go by his publisher: he’s described as “a philosopher and writer”, as if those things might be separate enough to demand different names. The two sides of Hidden Valleys could, yes, be grouped under “writing” and “philosophy”, as loose ways to differentiate them, though that puts unwanted stress on the quality of Barton’s writing per se, which is by turns obscure and workmanlike, and rarely skilled enough to manage both.
This might sound uncharitable, but Hidden Valleys asks for it, including, besides its shaky prose, a number of literary forays in their entirety. For instance, this, from a lengthy poem:
Two days later I cycle off down the valley
Bright with sheer youngness,
The youngness that is the recurrent unconsidered joy
Of a wide now and dreamed astonishing futures.
And if I had known that it was all true
But that I was a fabric of illusions about when I would reach
These places, and their surface details,
I would not have cared at all.
But the last illusion within such exuberance
Is that it does not matter.
This extract isn’t dramatically worse than, say, the poetry of Adam Foulds or Sean Borodale, the kind of stuff which is either priestly-solemn about the power of line-endings, or admirably deaf to them. But Barton doesn’t need to trade on his poetic abilities, so you wonder why these poems made it into the final book. Turning itself around and around through verse, autobiography, philosophical speculation, and even his e-mails to friends, Hidden Valleys rarely gives off a sense of self-possession; what its disparate sections could use is either a total dismemberment, into something more like Walter Benjamin’s clipped, fugitive fragments, or a finely-woven, continuous texture, where the whole thing finds a form and then weaves into it the different voices-within-a-voice that Barton so wants to deploy. As it is, by dividing the “philosopher” from the “writer”, his formal splinters show the limitations of incoherence more than its possibilities.

What’s curious about this is that Barton evidently cares about literature, which was the spark that lit his youthful interest in “becomings” and “futures”. His central argument is that something called “modernism”, best understood as a kind of mode rather than a historically-specific cluster of authors and texts, has at times flourished here and there in English culture, displaying the attitude towards Futurity which he himself adores. Each instance of this mode has anticipated and recalled other moments of modernist blossom; a gossamer web of time is strung between these points. It’s unclear whether he means “modernism” in a merely literary sense, but the relation of literature to everything else isn’t clear either; some sort of totalising worldview seems to be implied, or maybe the distinction never came to mind. In literary parlance, the word “modernism” itself has often been a nine-letter weapon of critical repression, binding together disparate writers and artists under an impossibly wide banner; either it’s insidiously misleading – did Auden and Le Corbusier share anything of artistic note? – or it has to be defined in homeopathic dilution, very generally – “between 1910(ish) and 1940(ish), artists stopped doing what was done before, and began doing what wasn’t” the sort of thing which is unfalsifiably true. Barton, to his credit, uses “modernism” to unleash himself from directional time, and describe a kind of historically-inspecific state, the last element in a process of cultural change (where the process still might be – indeed has been – subsequently reversed or occluded), but not something tied to some given decades in some given milieu. It does result, though, in some eccentrically deterministic readings of that process, where there’s no sense that literature is at all separate from its material surroundings, if it’s looking towards the Future; witness the emergence of Shakespeare in the late 16th century:
It can be seen that for the ecumenal power-brokers of the time the situation is very grave. … Elizabeth being represented as a “Virgin Queen” is a vital step in the direction of giving her a good foundation-story for the new church… But the fact that she was a woman born into a curse (through being illegitimate from the viewpoint of Rome) dictated that anything would be used to give a glow of the “transcendental” to her image, including poetry that exalted her by means of allegorical complements [sic], and including outright magical tales. Spenser’s Fairie Queen [sic] is the intermediate state, making possible a very smooth transition. And after that the door is wide open for Shakespeare to create a work involving a Fairy Queen that is not allegorical, but is instead a vital element in an abstract-oneiric beckoning to the Outside consisting of several magical stories at a spectacular level of lightness and power.
Under the usual blend of obscurity (“an abstract-oneiric beckoning to the Outside”) and reckless speed (exactly what are “lightness” or “power” in this context?), this is a vertiginous bit of historicist chatter, but it isn’t literary study in any meaningful sense.
Barton has a knack for making intriguing claims and then never putting the actual literature under any kind of scrutiny; for instance, Brideshead Revisited, “despite its connection to modernism, is an intrinsically catholic [sic] novel”: assuming that “catholic” is a typo for “Catholic” an error of which Hidden Valleys contains dozens – this is swift and glib, pitting the two colossal concepts of Modernism and Catholicism against each other, and deriving a neat opposition for the sake of ignoring the nature of that unexplained “connection”, or, ultimately, sticking the boot into Evelyn Waugh. (He eventually returns to Brideshead and says more, but not for sixty pages; you wonder why the original squib wasn’t rewritten.) Someone out of their comfort-zone might be misled by the strain Barton puts on his links, such as the claim that “Shakespeare went back 2500 years to the time of his major predecessor, Sophocles”, in “the eerie arcadian worlds of the ancient Greeks”; this is bold and striking, but brushes away the fact that Shakespeare almost certainly knew no Greek, that he could only have read a few Athenian tragedies in Latin translation, and that whatever was particularly eerie and Greek about them would have been, at best, heavily filtered. Of the eighteenth century, he writes about matters in reverse: “the new unfettered dreamings were kept in the background by an ongoing puritanical tendency in religion, and by the locked-down ‘enlightenment’ fixation on critique and formal systems.” This isn’t even wrong, because it’s difficult to see any sense in which it’s specific enough to be useful.
Large movements, lofty sweeps. But fast-forward to the Seventies, and what interested the young Justin Barton, rummaging in bookshop discount-bins or tuning into the radio, wasn’t analyses with centuries of depth, but what hung around the bestseller charts, the earthy and the mass-market: Stephen Donaldson, Gerry Rafferty, William Gibson, Ultravox. On these everyday grounds, keeping the reactions and their register personal – so, when he isn’t trying to force an untimeliness – Barton’s best turns of phrase come through: “the songs were hauntedly bright. A brightness haunted by sadness.” Much of the best work coming out of Zero Books has this focus on aborted and abortive futures, traced in the grime of the cultural machine: the EDA Collective and their Everyday Analysis series, for example; or Owen Hatherley’s Uncommon; or, in particular, Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life, which covers Barton’s kind of pop-cultural material with an insistent, sharp-eyed agility. The attention is on what’s been recently lost or gained, what’s still haunting the everyday through its proximity, behind us in time or ahead. Barton collaborated with Fisher, his friend and contemporary, for an audio-essay called On Vanishing Land: accompanied by photographs of dereliction and empty countryside, it was “inspired by the cumulative force of the Eerie that animates this landscape” (as the press notes put it), and featured dark electronic sounds, brooding with the late-Seventies aesthetic of nerves and foreboding. Eerieness is a recurrent theme in Hidden Valleys, too:
Looking back at that year-long phase of living in hotels there is an elusive eerie quality, which primarily has a sunlit-eerie aspect. The eerie is here to be understood primarily as an awareness – however fugitive it might be – of unknown forces that could be either positive or negative, and that are both “out of sight” around you, and could perhaps in some sense be stalking you, or moving closer to you. But the sunlit-eerie is something different, and is to do with the feeling that the transcendentally unknown is there, in front of you, and that this direction is the beginning of the real adventure.
These notions – the eerie, the haunted, the spectral – align Barton with the other members of the Zero collective; much of his terminology is openly indebted to Deleuze and Guattari, such as the notions of “becoming” and, inevitably, the “body without organs”. His work, like Fisher’s, also has an affinity to the writers termed Speculative Realists – Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman – whose positions begin by discarding the Kantian assertion that noumena, those attributes of the world unreachable by phenomenal experience, are forever outside of reasonable discussion; in other words, speculation can in fact function outside the empirical, beyond the orbit of human thought which acted, for Kant, as the limit-point of anything usefully called Philosophy. In Barton’s phrase, “Kantianism overcodes the transcendentally unknown-but-knowable as the unknowable,” which is a clear enough summary. And, as with Speculative Realism, and as with Fisher, Barton’s thought and education can be traced back to Warwick University, the journal Collapse, the mid-Nineties, and figures like the mythical renegade Nick Land, who once wrote that “Kant’s critical philosophy is the most elaborate fit of panic in the history of the Earth”.
A lot more could be made of this large and intricate matrix, a whole constellation of thoughts and thinkers, but suffice to say that it matters, because at every turn Hidden Valleys is suffocated by the voices surrounding it, which are, right now, absolutely present and live, and buzzing for attention. If you’re a reader of this kind of thing (to use a vague phrase, but if you actually are, you’ll get the sense), then everywhere in Barton’s book your focus is pulled up, left suspended in frustration or disjuncture. A chain of distraction blooms and blooms. To pick one such sticking-point, it’s impossible to read “becoming-woman” without registering the strangely apolitical use of gender throughout Barton’s book – a book written about mystical sexuality and the power of womanhood from the point of view of a middle-aged man, remembering his years as an overheated teenage boy. And then, you wonder whether its view on femininity – somewhere between devoted idolatry and preservation in sexual aspic – sits very oddly alongside some other Zero authors: Nina Power, Laurie Penny. The phrase, “becoming-”, is from Deleuze and Guattari (“devenir-”): there’s plenty of work protesting about the gender-politics of their Anti-Oedipe, too, so Barton’s usage only reminds you of their work’s liveliness and punch, while simultaneously drawing him into their flaws.
In the end, Hidden Valleys covers ground that’s everywhere being done somewhere else, and done better. Barton makes forays into geocriticism his “love of the planet”, the rage of winter – but Eugene Thacker does it with greater energy and urgency; the pop-musical analyses are deft, but never as prolonged or engaging as Fisher’s; the list goes on. On several fronts, this book is too gentle and uncommitted, too conflicted about what it wants to be, and, fragmented into different modes that jostle clumsily together, it rarely captures the potential energy of any direction. As one of the latest offerings from one of the most electrifying publishers in Britain, it has several of that stable’s characteristic interests, but it ranges too loosely, and lacks a native panache. Zero are committed to publishing unconventional, speculative essays, “essaying” in the processive sense, making ventures, attempts, forays. But even among their sparky misfires – and there are a few – there’s never enough style or substance to let Hidden Valleys hold its own. - Cal Revely-Calder

Oleg Woolf - Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz, a vivid, surreal evocation of a liminal world. The characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Oleg Woolf, Bessarabian Stamps: Stories , Trans. by Boris Dralyuk, Phoneme Media, 2015. Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocod...