An Image of Itself: On David Grundy’s “Present Continuous”

By Tom AllenMay 23, 2023

An Image of Itself: On David Grundy’s “Present Continuous”

Present Continuous by David Grundy

PEOPLE MAKE HISTORY; they are also made by it. David Grundy’s Present Continuous (Pamenar Press, 2022) understands both halves of this sentence. The essay collection finds Grundy—a poet, academic, musician, and publisher whose Materials/Materialien press, co-run with Lisa Jeschke, has published some of the most significant poetry of the last 10 years—detailing Olivier Messiaen’s attempt to reproduce birdsong in music, uncovering the poetry of the enslaved African American writer Phillis Wheatley on the outskirts of London, and exploring the history of the horse as a tool for the enforcement of racialized class relations and an image of revolutionary emancipation. Each of these acute, sensitive, and deeply erudite essays would be worth reading on its own. Read together, they also make clear the extent to which Grundy, like those around him, is changed by the conditions under which these essays were produced.

Present Continuous is a book both of and about the pandemic. That is, it’s a book that tells the reader much about shared social life in London at the beginning of the 2020s, and which provides the opportunity to witness how an individual author’s intellect and imagination shift with world events. The chronological structure of the work means that we see intellectual and political horizons expand and contract over the course of a 12-month period in which Grundy’s city is at once a kind of urban palimpsest—a setting where the subaltern hope of the long-dead Wheatley meets the emancipatory urges of a vibrant social movement—and a “necropolis” whose monuments express a suffocating, “immutable” history of domination.

Constraint is built into the form of Grundy’s writing. The text is divided into three sections dictated by the period of their composition: “Spring/Summer 2020,” “Autumn/Winter 2020/2021,” and “Spring 2021.” Conscious of this objective measure of time, the reader is confronted with the recurrence of police violence as one way of dividing up the calendar. The collection moves from the announcement of the United Kingdom’s first lockdown to the international resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the face of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States and the death of Belly Mujinga in the UK, to a period in which, “as restrictions eased,” Sarah Everard was raped and murdered by a uniformed officer of the London Metropolitan Police who used the new powers granted to him during lockdown to stop her. Assault and violation occur metronomically, and the virus dovetails all too easily with the brutality that predated it.

Present Continuous is cognizant of the extent to which grisly state violence punctuates any and every year; the book shares a language, after all, with a prime minister who allegedly said that he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than take mitigating action against COVID-19’s spread. Still, the story Grundy tells reminds us of how the narratives imposed during the pandemic occasionally fractured in the face of what felt like a tangible potential for a different, better way of living. The first essays in the book emerge out of reading groups, long walks, and intensive periods of listening conducted during a time in which isolation accompanied new forms of closeness and distance was an expression of solidarity. Again, what one finds in Present Continuous is a combination of highly skilled writing with an extended demonstration that any intellectual project, no matter how tangential to social life, finds its origin in the shifting patterns of the here and now.

The “Spring/Summer 2020” essays seek to express the strangeness of their period and to contest its inevitabilities. The normalization of emergency is a consistent refrain, as one entry makes clear: “Tuesday, 23 March; as in the first few days of house-bound distancing. When I open the window all I hear is birdsong and building work and sirens and I’m not sure if silence or noise is more reason for alarm.”

Set against the persistence of this emergency are moments of stillness and conversation that begin to manifest counternarratives to those propagated by the British state. The existence of such narratives is inseparable from a sense of a suppressed past, of what Grundy describes in an essay on Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume II (English translation, 2020), which he read in an online reading group during the first of the UK lockdowns, as a “history from below, or history from somewhere else.”

The stakes of this “somewhere else” cannot be overstated, and the book’s function as both a scholarly project and journal enables it to preserve a sense of potential, of any number of elsewheres, as they persisted within the early months of the pandemic, and even as they seemed to fade in the face of “a kind of exhaustion of vocabulary and will” caused by the persistent objectivity of a shared disaster. In this way, Present Continuous contains and then answers a demand articulated in its first essay to maintain “narratives of our own” in the face of the “constant injunction to adjust to the ‘new normal.’”

The longest piece in Present Continuous, “Horses and History,” begins—like several of the essays—with an immediate sensory experience stemming from life under pandemic conditions, in this case the sound of police horses as they “ride down the road outside my flat.” Horses were a topic of heated conversation at the time the essay was composed. In London, a police horse had bolted during a Black Lives Matter demonstration and crashed into a lamppost, leaving its dismounted rider with a concussion and the horse itself temporarily roaming free. Official media channels responded to this by sending best wishes to the injured cop and by assuring listeners that the animal was alright, while those who felt that Black youth have more to fear from mounted police than mounted police have to fear from lampposts produced BoJack Horseman memes and laughed.

Across the ocean, live footage of Adam Hollingsworth, the “Dreadhead Cowboy,” tearing through Chicago on an animal he insisted that he had stolen “from the police” went viral and proved so infectious that the later revelation that Hollingsworth owned the horse himself did almost nothing to deflate the phenomenon. These two figures form a framework through which Grundy elaborates the relationship between horses, the state, and the possibility of radical emancipation. One version of this history—which stretches from Cortés to the present via Hegel’s mythical encounter with Napoleon in the streets of Jena and D. W. Griffith’s cinematic representation of the Ku Klux Klan—sees the horse as an animal that directly facilitates the domination of one configuration of race and class over all others. The other version shows us the horse as an animal which made possible both an imaginary and a concrete freedom that is at once real, fugitive, and antiauthoritarian.

“Horses and History” ends with one of the most moving moments in Present Continuous, one that speaks to the vitality of a time in which the pandemic felt as if it may still contain the seeds of a number of possible configurations. Grundy asks us to imagine the (self-) emancipated animal now roaming the streets of London as it joins up with “the spirits of military horses, police horses, workhorses who worked and died through the ages.” Exit from the world we know, the world that kills us, will be signaled “not by the ride of a heroic leader […] but instead by the rumor of a stolen horse and the collective, leaderless gallop of insurgents who ride in from the side: twenty-first century cowboys [who] come, not to perpetrate genocide, but to end it, not to ride down protest, but to extend it.”

The pathos of this passage as I read it in 2023 exists not simply because it is true, but because of the way that it makes good on Grundy’s desire to retain the occasional yet tangible promise of the modes of sociality that came into being in the early months of the pandemic. Things could have been, and still can be, different.

It is inevitable that this sense of potential erodes as the year grinds on and winter hits. The entries in the second half of Present Continuous feel more diaristic, focusing more on friendship and social interactions, presenting them less often as a point of departure for thinking about history and literature than as a necessary bulwark against the banal chaos of the everyday. The conditions of the pandemic, their intractability, and the overwhelming, callous objectivity of facts and data form a kind of reality against which friendship is a protection rather than, as it may have been six months previous, a reservoir of antagonism. The mood is sometimes one of entrapment. At the end of one essay, Grundy writes of how the transition into spring and summer, the moving of the clocks forward by one hour, feels like a way of reasserting control that finds its objective correlative in the statistics that “strip away the metaphorical force of our language.” The facts are calcifying, even as they form their own refutation.

The period of Present Continuous’s composition ends with the UK government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, a direct response to the previous year’s BLM demonstrations. The bill, drafted in March 2021, gives the state unprecedented powers to suppress protest and organized dissent and led to a number of “Kill the Bill” demonstrations around the United Kingdom. Grundy writes of this time as one of violent alienation:

This March [2021], the city weighs down over us like a necropolis. The weight’s that of their history, which they force on us, say is “ours”; the narrative into which we’re all shoehorned, merrily to hell in a handcart or a leaking boat, embodied in monuments and buildings, seats of power, fixed and immutable.

He quotes the bill at length, describing it as “the restriction of rights framed as their restoration […] the hollowed-out poetics of an endless vortex into which language goes to die.” These words describe an intensifying corpse-filled jargon, the soundtrack to the most openly repressive UK government in living memory. They could refer to any and all of the official declarations made by the UK political class throughout 2020–21. Still, we are soon back to things on the ground, away from the deranged abstractions of political missives. Grundy directs us to “another history in motion, swarming the square, live bodies and the supportive ghosts swarming in protest” The leaderless, horse-borne apocalypse entering from the side is replaced here by a sense that social contradictions, the stuff of life in its refusal to be smothered by “their” narratives, become more visible, more beautifully monstrous, the more intense the gaze that is fixed on them. These contradictions are like atoms dancing, or bacteria subdividing, under an increasingly powerful microscope. The limits appear fixed: the world will be won inside “their” boundaries.

It is appropriate, I think, that Present Continuous ends with an image of itself, and of the community to which its thinking and writing appeals, not as “scaffolding or a building but a lifeline.” The book does not seek to posit any kind of equivalent force to the monstrous banalities endured during the period of its composition. Rather, it understands an alternative to these structures as something harder to grasp, and for that reason harder to erase. The existence of such a lifeline suggests those who are cut off, cast adrift, and David Grundy’s book is, in several ways, a lonely text about a lonely time. Still, part of the singular value of Present Continuous is its capacity to remind us that the things we think and write about, no matter how distant the subject, stem from the things we do and see in the here and now, and that these things are completely embedded in things that have been seen and done by others. They could still be seen, done, and lived in common.


Tom Allen currently teaches literature, film, and translation in and around Paris. His essays, poetry, and translations have been published by, amongst others, Mask Magazine, Senna Hoy, and Earthbound Press.

LARB Contributor

Tom Allen currently teaches literature, film, and translation in and around Paris. His essays, poetry, and translations have been published by, amongst others, Mask Magazine, Senna Hoy, and Earthbound Press. 


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