Writing in Place: A Poetry of the Gulfstream

By Lytton SmithMarch 18, 2013

Writing in Place: A Poetry of the Gulfstream

The Method by Sasha Steensen
The Method by Rob Stanton

English? For the difference’s sake? As lingua franca? Coincidence?
         — Rob Stanton, The Method

In the distance, I hear American swimming. It is a hot day, and we are circling the island
         — Sasha Steensen, The Method 

BOSTON IS A RISKY SPACE for an Englishman and has been since on or about December 16, 1773. The word “tea” seems charged even today, on a snowy January morning in 2013.

Boston is the nearest city to where my parents grew up. It is where they met, as high school sweethearts. Except their Boston is a different Boston — the old one, or the real one, or the outdated model — and I can no longer remember whether the American concept of the high school sweetheart translates to a British context.

Time was I’d tell a New England story about my moving to New York City at the age of 21, would talk about something I thought I’d found in the pages of Moby-Dick but not in Bleak House. In Boston, on a snowy January morning in 2103, I find myself explaining that I am an American poet. 

I am travelling again on an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). I am no longer a Conditional Permanent Resident. I live in the Southwest, but not the Southwest of red rock, steep canyons, adobe architecture. Yet there are tempting confusions between the two as I wonder if Texan secession really differs from Cornish independence, from Breton aspirations. 

In Boston, I’m not alone in feeling elsewhere. Transplanted isn’t the word; roots are more like routes, these days. But how, then, to process it all — residence, writing, the national?


Rob Stanton was raised and educated around Northern England and the English Midlands, though he now lives in the US. The Method (2011) is published by the enterprising, relatively new London-based publisher Penned in the Margins.

It’s not that Stanton’s biography matters, and yet his debut collection obliquely explores questions of transatlantic identity. Wallace Stevens’ sense that “the absence of the imagination had / itself to be imagined” serves as epigraph for poetic engagements with Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. Somewhere in the process, Stanton becomes neither British nor American as a poet:

     Quickness equals precision (‘Paper has [already]
its own history.’) Gesture, expression, circum-
scribed. Page-as-scenery, formal, found. Collision. 

The Method reads like an accordion and a set of nesting dolls: at its center, a set of 41 fragmentary sonnet riffs on Tuymens’ paintings; framing them, a series of Odes, two addressing sampling as a creative practice, and a quartet of quartets comprising four short poems (“Sift.Want.Into.Bits”), each of four two-line stanzas, arranged in a grid, two poems to a page. 

Increasingly clear as one reads this collection is its interest not only in the constraints and sources by which “method” produces the poetic — “two shuffled contexts speak, & spark, each revolution” — but also in whether the poetic page can capture the kinesis of a writer’s method the way the painter’s canvas might offer a record of brushstrokes and layering (“you paint / the trees; the trees / have been / removed, you / paint the paint”).

It’s in this sense, then, that we can speak of paper’s history, of the scenery of the page: a rectangle on which documents collide and collude, a link Stanton perhaps draws from Susan Howe, another painterly poet. Beyond the “sorry repositories” of archives Stanton tracks a “commerce of voices / — on radio, tape, disc — / replacing memory.” We can’t, these poems seem to say, use the page as a simply memorial space — one thinks of Susan Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial — but instead something rather more like a palimpsest, writing written on writing written on overhead speech written on writing. 

Moments like “Spring, after all, is” might seem like coy in-jokes, a tip-of-the-bowler to William Carlos Williams, who felt that painters paint pigment, not thoughts. Yet such wry asides form part of a larger reconsideration of the historical space of writing, and Stanton’s comedy is often of the black kind, a laugh that sticks in the gut in lines such as “Coming / round the corner to / be storyboarded.” We can’t help, today, but hear waterboarding behind this story, a concern picked up later in the collection: 

The focal                                             Submit to
points beyond.                                   ‘reasonable’ force.

Language isn’t innocent, nor is its method. That, most of all is what Stanton inherits from Williams, whose “red wheel / barrow,” refusing still to be a wheelbarrow (or to be still), is echoed by Stanton’s encounter, in “Ode: on Arrival,” with a species of wasp: “yellow jacket (white & black-specked trim).” It’s the world that’s sampled here, lest “narrative continues / into sleep,” lest narrative forgets to arrest itself along the way. The sample, a recontextualization, is meant to make us prick our ears, take note. 

Stanton’s crafted phrases offer us the pleasure of language as one means by which method might be tailed. In the rolling sentence beginning “The egret’s tense, terse neck, beak — a record player’s stylus — drops — all taut aggression, skill, feint — & comes up with nothing,” description can’t escape the e and r of the egret, and the image of the turntable not only neatly pictures the natural world mediated through analog technology but also returns us to our preoccupation with that “commerce of voices.” What we’re hearing is already once recorded. Just where does the quote “Paper has [already] / its own history” come from, and does it matter if we can’t trace that history?

Charles Olson’s sense of methodology — meta + hodos, process, “how-how-how & what happens takes a certain amount of time to happen” — argues we should less be interested in origins (archaeology) than discoveries (“the way”), and that’s what The Method’s sampling puts in play. Finding ourselves before a Stanton poem written before a Tuymans’ painting we see and read “Burned images of burning. The most / basic, more or less. Seeing it, then reading down / to pick it up. Us seeing that. And looking down.” Even if we’ve not suspended our belief in the material object we’re holding and reading, we’re inevitably looking down the page, inside the poem’s unfolding time. We might not be sure of where we are, but hasn’t that always been half the point? In the midst of event, we’re called upon to act, our actions being recorded somewhere somehow — as here.           


Olson makes an explicit, albeit footnoted, appearance in Sasha Steensen’s book, also called The Method (Fence, 2008), as source for part of one of her poems. Steensen’s “method” most directly means a manuscript of theorems written by Archimedes in around 250 BC; its survival through several centuries owes to a complex web of unexpected uses, including being written over by a religious text. “Paper has [already] / its own history.” The manuscript “The Method” literally comes into contact with many hands and texts during its lifetime, and The Method explores an analogous, semi-imagined palimpsestual journey, especially in the extended prose section “The Future of an Illusion,” where we encounter Olson’s final line for Maximus: “my wife       my car       my colour     and       myself.” Steensen’s poem encounters Olson through citation, looks back at its own sources in order to create itself and its future.

Steensen’s tracing of the past is, we realize, all about the present, or rather how the present’s formed in part from our anxieties about the illusion of the future, to misquote the title of that central section. Olson’s line was projected, written in advance of the completion of Maximus, but it was also retrospective, an attempt to assemble the markers of a life. Here, in Steensen’s hands, it marks the impasse of the creative mind: “Imaginary friends attended the first tea party I ever hosted, and those same friends will likely attend the last.” (That business with “the destruction of the tea,” as it was known back then.) What, then, is life, that duration between two spells of imaginative play?

To trace is to follow carefully the outline of something else; the beautiful thing about tracing paper is that two (or more) layers of material object come to exist. To trace isn’t to replicate but to create through following. For Stanton, the outset of “the method” is a question about “First person singular?” Throughout this book the self is a ghostly presence — “I keep / not identifying” — best met through creative acts: “Meaning / held for you is not / the point: // we / see your evasion; it / is ours.” Steensen’s The Method is in the tradition of the personal essay, of a kind of poetry written by Eula Biss, in that it offers introspection — “I no longer believed belief was too busy / to worry about composition” — for an audience or readership prepared to act as co-investigator: “Can the concept of a holy way belong to a century, he wonders / do roads, by their very existence, express conditions of political power?”

Yet what’s most striking about The Method is the unnerving sense that the addressee of these poems is not the reader living in today’s world, where, “Weapons are just ‘geometry at play,’” but the manuscript of “The Method,” Steensen’s own source material. In this sense, “method” becomes the meeting between a writer and her materials: “I made this florilegum for you, you know, and now we have these things to put back in order before we finish.” The reader’s looking on, helpless but riveted.

Put bluntly, that means we are what we read, a pun hard to resist alongside poems with titles like “West Eats Meet.” Yet for all the lexical jiggery-pokery of Steensen’s volume, The Method is insistently upset about how things are going for us, today, in this world, and, “No wonder, / ourselves and our monsters on parade.” The monster is what we fear, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has pointed out, rather than the other way around. Too often we project that monstrous view onto worlds we don’t understand, have made too different from us, have militarized: 

of smiling guards
pointing to penises

(the other option was to take eastern Islam from the rear)

The Method dares that titter rising in your throat, invites it. It risks the flippant in order to get us to “consider the methods of torture.” The madness behind the method is an imaginative ability to think ourselves not into others’ shoes but out of our own: “Describe a church to me? / A church is always a large and imposing building proclaiming the piety of the congregation.” We have, one poem reminds us, “our own dazzling variety of sects,” here, too, there’s “a quiet fanatic hiding behind.” 

Olson wanted to write an American poetry in which he could use that term “no patriotism intended” (as he wrote to Ed Dorn); few will accept he achieved it. Steensen traces that same route here, trying to find a new use for the stars and stripes, “Our flag— / a souvenir of having been here before / a squirrel’s nuts, deep in the ground.” This path necessitates some border crossing both historical and geographic, always with the awareness our spaces are artificially delineated. In its entirety, “In Palestine”: 

Its hard to hate a people,
Method chants, 

Saba, Savva,
old man,

when you’ve read
their poetry.

The Method knows encounter alone is not enough; we shouldn’t need Edward Said’s Orientalism to make that point to us, and if we do the poetic history of “Christie’s Auction House (Since 1766)” reminds us why as we see Christie starting out, selling off brooches of “carved blackamoors.” But The Method also knows encounter is part of the process; what this book fears most is “emptiness where a relation ought to be”; it fears “how marvels became vulgar, / how we came to sneer at the passing vagabond.” 

We can’t escape the future: though we might want to “duck and run,” disappearing again, more-than-animate Method, the at-times charming, whining, offensive, and cartoonish sidekick and object-of-attraction for these poems, won’t remain stuck indoors, left behind. The lesson is in what persists, and how we put it to present use.


A key spoke of T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is the immediacy of what might seem distant, gone. Eliot explains that the writer “is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” That climactic “already living” is doubly unexpected, an emphasis on the past’s co-presence within the contemporary moment, an awareness that the past isn’t past and has been with us all along, always already here. Archimedes’ manuscript, surviving all this time under the layers of other texts. Luc Tuymens’s paintings, not simply fixed to museum walls, but in motion: “This sun // will not / go down / a thousand years.”

What, then, if what matters is not national but methodological? Where might we find the (poetic) landscape then? 

They try to call this part of the world, where I am now, writing to you where you are now (on a California coastline?), “the English Riviera.” We’ve Englished elsewhere (done so too often). Yet in saying so, “the English Riviera,” we’re tracing a geology, a formation of the landscape: riviera names a costal space, one marked by it subtropical climate. We’ve palm trees here, just like in San Diego, and there’s palm trees, too, just outside Glasgow. England isn’t always its metonymic oaks; a gulf stream lets palms thrive where national stereotypes would have them not. We call them tamar, borrowed from the Hebrew for “date,” and they’re really monocots, not palms, but they’ll let us believe ourselves otherwise grouped in the world, at a remove from England, if we want.

Steensen and Stanton’s methods are not neatly British or American, and nor do we expect them to be so. As Steensen chases an ancient Athenian manuscript and explores Arabian traditions of algebra, and Stanton seeks to “work backward from the words: imagine a speaker who could see them unexpectedly and unrehearsed,” we find ourselves reading a poetry of the departure lounge, or of the arrival hall — by which I mean we can’t quite be sure whether these collections are coming or going, never mind where from and to. We’re dislocated in The Method, left with the activity of the canvas, source material entering in with velocity. We’re dislocated in The Method as we reread our own rituals, rethink our reading of others’ rituals. 

We’re learning, I hope, a language of crossing rather than settling. If we’re writing in place, we’re situated but not rooted. A writing of the unexpected gulfstream, of the coincidental Boston. This isn’t quantum poetics — there’s a cause-and-effect, a following-on and following-in-the footsteps — but it isn’t without its wormholes, either.


LARB Contributor

Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.


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