tue 23/04/2024

Colin Herd and Maria Sledmere: Cocoa and Nothing review - arts of sinking | reviews, news & interviews

Colin Herd and Maria Sledmere: Cocoa and Nothing review - arts of sinking

Colin Herd and Maria Sledmere: Cocoa and Nothing review - arts of sinking

Herd and Sledmere perform the highs and lows of poetry in a despairingly witty collection

A co-authored sequence of lyric confectionCourtesy of SPAM Press

In his mock-poetic manual Peri-Bathos (1728), Alexander Pope opens by describing the afflictions which beset inhabitants of the lower Parnassus. The aristocracy living further up the mountain commit burglaries, and, "taking advantage of the rising ground, are perpetually throwing down rubbish, dirt, and stones upon us, never suffering us to live in peace."

Against the declinism of Longinus’s first-century treatise On the Sublime, which Pope is parodying, the state of commerce in these lower areas has never been better: what is needed is an art of sinking which takes back these manufactures, ratifies the majority-condition of lowness into poetic method. Techniques include catachresis, mixed metaphors, metonyms: the sinking poet combines "the most various, or discordant kinds, land-scape, history, portraits, animals", compares the ocean to a post-coital bedsheet, returns abstract emotions and ideas to their requisite baseness.

It is a satire of bad poetry and high ideals, and its lasting achievement is its transliteration of "bathos" into English. Whether or not a conscious influence, the circumstances and me-hods of Peri-Bathos are ones which loom large in Colin Herd and Maria Sledmere’s Cocoa and Nothing: a confectionary-themed poetic sequence published by SPAM Press earlier this year. Beyond biographic resonance (Herd and Sledmere both live and teach in lowland Glasgow), this is also a work which assumes that a poetry might be made from – and of – arrays of commodities and litter, found in abundance. Variously-induced states of lowness attain to an art: through an achieved mock-lyric seriousness, Cocoa and Nothing amasses a capacious, frittering array of elations and sinking feelings.

Its short, raggedly-lineated poems take their titles from real and imagined flavours of Ritter Sport Chocolate, products so-named because the square bars can fit into the pocket of a sporting jacket without breaking. Measuring 120mm by 120mm and running to just over 400 pages, Sledmere and Herd translate this kind of convenience into an amicable, ironic solidity: its appearance recalls, for instance, the re-scaled pudding sculptures of Claes Oldenberg, or the translucent textile appliances of Do Ho Suh. (There is even lined paper at the back for "Snack Notes".) Portable, often tablet-sized foodstuffs translate into poetry, and poetry into foodstuffs, often via a kind of short-circuited homeostasis.

In the opening poem, "Chocolate Brownie", for instance: fragments of shame and waste are seeded among a polysyllabic sugar-rush; the production of a ‘spotless emotional moment’ exists within and beside gelatine, aluminium foil. The ending is particularly good, in the way that ornamented joy resolves back to its lowest common denominator, into square, calorific doses:

[…] O craquelure of cloud
biscotti. Can't wait to hear what yous all are
bringing for sure! Until then, have a fantastic
weekend, enjoy the sugar moon, enjoy the
sun (such a pill), and have a great Chocolate
Chocolate, Chocolate Chocolate, Chocolate
Chocolate Chocolate!

It is a kind of apostrophic kitsch that recalls Frank O’Hara — his poems "Today" and "To the Film Industry in Crisis", for example. As with other (so-called) New York School poets like James Schuyler and Bernadette Mayer, O’Hara is name-checked and nodded-to. Beyond that of cadence, affinities with these writers play out in how the residues of mealtimes and errands become the material for poetry: Cocoa and Nothing is something of a snack-equivalent to O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (1964). The divisions between work and leisure dissolve into ambient freneticism, and time spent writing poetry gets incremented into transferrable, casual chunks. In "Strawberry Yoghurt", for instance, sonic-poetic resource is made equivalent with a sort of strengthening roughage, something practiced-at but also consumed: "a bowl full of glossolalia / fifteen minutes is a good snack unit / a lychee of time or limeflower". Writing is revised downward, to sweet calorific conditions of possibility, to "the maraschino cherry / at the bottom of everything". The equation is made even clearer in the eponymous poem of the collection: it takes "a / chocolate Colin/ a lot of coffee / to locomote / from one end / of the poem to the other".

Such activity subsists, however, on an array of other contingently-recompensed exhaustion and elation: there are dehydrating stints teaching on Zoom calls, service workers managing their customer-facing postures, and even what appears to be a reference to Charles Baudelaire’s bad glazier. The evocative, imagistic selection of chocolate flavours affords Sledmere and Herd the conceptual space to wheel these varyingly-registered states in and out of view: the ode to "Ovomaltine – the high life!" descends into insomnia in rented accommodation; "Roses and Raspberry" finds likeness between hospital patients and soft fruit.

That said, there are also some poems where this allusive, line-broken trickwork compacts: in the nonsensical relays of "Cherry and Almond", for instance, and in the concrete poem "Ramazotti". The latter resembles a blanched reproduction of Kasamir Malevich’s Black Square, 1913: a Suprematist painting referenced in one of the collection’s epigraphs. Recalling Ian Hamilton Finlay’s own concretised typesetting in Homage to Malevich, 1983, "Ramazotti" repeats the phrase "(food goes bad)" in columnar array, forming a centre-aligned square. It offers a concentrate of the modes of contingency and malabsorption that loom so large across Cocoa and Nothing: the sinking feelings induced from a drop in blood sugar, or from the dim realisation of the dimly-visible damage attending production of "a / ready-to-discard / grapefruit". But the same concretised poetic matter also forms a parallax, a kind of reverse-bathos: the shape of the poem also approximates a square of chocolate, "a waffle iron / a stroopwafel", the dimensions of the book itself.

It is possible, equally, to get tired of the extended conceit of the collection, especially if read cover-to-cover. The poems of Cocoa and Nothing are staged around small things, and their ingenuity is most appreciable when read over several sittings, or read aloud. Mixing its metaphors and dwelling in litter, Sledmere and Herd have produced an amusing, prolific  meditation on the possibilities and harms lurking within and beside contemporary consumption and manufacture, poetic or otherwise. Here, sinking becomes something of an art: as "Dark Whole Hazelnuts" declares, "some of my favourite poets are big fallers".

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