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A Cacophony of Tongues

A review of Michael Lee Rattigan's poetry



Michael Lee Rattigan

(Rufus books, September 2012)


‘Poetry’, wrote Octavio Paz, ‘is the other voice. Not the voice of history or of anti-history, but the voice which, in history, is always saying something different’. He was of course talking of what is re-created in silence, beyond History and of what governs its conversations and logical discourse. Michael Lee Rattigan also is seeking to pinpoint that ‘other’ voice, for everything that he writes it seems exists only to advance silence, or at least our unmediated access to it—while consciousness is no more than a fine vessel of flesh and blood stretched over the diaphanous musculature of each word; for this poet does not produce a merely verbal language, no, rather he is writing the syntax of listening, the anti-aesthetics of un-naming and sucking back into the lungs the protean impulse of a visible mind. In this collection, Rattigan is in many ways attempting to cross what the French poet Philippe Jaccottet described as ‘the unique uncrossable space’, that which constitutes our ‘elsewhere’, the incongruously familiar place that occurs when our reality-horizons are wheeled out of the mind. It is in fact the logocentric destination that a writer like Rattigan would like one day to return from.

In his ‘Statements on Poetics’ Charles Olson wrote that from ‘the moment [the poet] ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem underhand declares for itself.’ And while a lot of what Olson wrote on ‘poetics’ resembles something approaching a negative theology for the spirit of one who just wants to ‘communicate’, Rattigan himself is acutely aware of this ‘Open Field’ and likewise attempts to re-enter his own mind in the process of realising it actually exists. He has seen clearly the ‘verbal crater and gaping / presence’ of his own imagination when daring to take his eyes off the map of his mind. For to think of metaphysics is to think of life, but only of a life lived inside the mind. The ultimate achievement of Rattigan’s poetry then lies in abstraction, and with his words like floating bricks which seek always to complete some invisible and metaphysical wall:

            the head pounding, ready to split

            with metaphor. Voices slide

            and crash, overflow in palm fronds

            of clattering talk: the throaty high,

            familiar, mid-stream inflected, all

            caress as they clash, indwell

            and flow, take breath and fly—

            mutter and pattern to an event horizon

            of endless turbulent speech; to a shuffle

            seeded with silence.


            (‘Language Minus Zero’)

This poet wants the geography of his own mind to empty itself at the time of writing so that not even his readers can locate the polytechnic fuse that burns at the base of his words. If Wallace Stevens was right and that at ‘the centre of images’ there exists ‘congenial mannequins, alert to please’ then the need to evade a writer’s own personality has never been greater. For when the image fails us then only the birth of a truly inhuman imagination will remain, as metaphor returns to its origins of a pre-verbal state. The result of this would be the birth of a kind of neuter-poet, one shedding only non-imaginative solutions, to lend to ‘language’ poetry an even greater need to communicate itself in fragments, half-shards and splinters. Rattigan’s poetry conceals itself by remaining secularized by his own sense of what each ‘fragment’ strives to achieve. He evades himself by wriggling free of the egg of the birth of his own ideas, so that ‘formlessness’ is itself the one landscape left open to him. He wants the mind to be released from his own supernatural concepts of it, from the confinement of its own languages, to allow himself to out-imagine the imagination and to self-correct the distances between language and flesh; as Octavio Paz commented ‘opposites are fused in man himself as the centre of his experience’. And in his poetry Rattigan quite clearly believes that the most impregnable and most secret act is, for the poet, also his most subversive one.

When Rimbaud in his poem ‘Ô Saisons Ô Châteaux’ attempted to elude the ‘matter’ of himself he of course contrived to deceive his own quite terrible mind, placing his body upon the spit of his ‘I’ to watch it turn slowly in the fires of another imagination. Likewise Rattigan returns to his own poems to transfer his own principal ‘matter’ of thought into something else, enquiring in his homage to the Rimbaud poem, ‘Who isn’t burdened by their being? / Outreaching trees, / metaphors for body and blood.’ (‘O Clear Night’). It seems too obvious to suggest that this poet has been influenced by the Objectivists, for whom language resembled a vast mental web, created from the central ball of the full-stop by the five-fingered spider of the hand, for Rattigan, while having some similarities with that particular ‘school’’s way of thinking, is ostensibly a destroyer of that ‘web’, a poet whose revolt is a syntactical one to the idea that language must be divested of its ‘emotional slither’ (Pound), or what Zukofsky called language free of its ‘predatory intent’. Far from securing for himself any kind of a facile posturing or irrational dramaturgy, this poet is content only to be reborn in his own body, and over and over again:

            Every poem’s a new beginning

                                                           from zero:

            as bird note, blade, scrabbling leaf fall,

            sun’s break through crow’s throat

            at chain-ticking pace—

            neutral tree-strided breeze

            clocks ground, blurs wing

            afterburns the nape of the neck.




If ‘beauty’ could ever be imagined to be a painfully ill patient, then Rattigan suggests that by delivering a series of metaphorical-shocks to its body, for an indefinite period, he can keep it alive; for he sees and hears it breathing. But his is not in any way a ‘romantic’ poetry, rather it is a strong, brick-like and tautly-welded one. Yet it is a poetry that has no overwhelming ‘theory’, no oral-platform in which to speak from, and which is obsessed with no act of histrionics; it is simply a poetry that believes in Paz’s idea of a poetry that can be un-historied by words, of what occurs in language when time itself seems ante-dated by new forms. Rattigan’s poems display all of the qualities and incremental word-wombs of what the critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis wrote of George Oppen’s work, that it consisted of ‘the inner dynamic of gnomic fragments’, the incomplete and apothegmatic crisis-point in language that continues to fracture long after the meaning has passed. Certainly in the lapidary structure of the poems themselves there is evidence of sediment being disturbed at the deepest depths of the mind. Rattigan like every writer wants to disarm history, or the ‘type’ of history that hinders his own work, along with any ‘old’ ways of being in language.


The modern writer’s plunge into metaphysics is still to fully incorporate what Rimbaud decided for us, that ‘no matter how, no matter where, even / in metaphysical journeys, —But ‘then’ no more.’ The idea being that the ‘journey’ is no more than a momentary salmon-upsurge of self, the act itself of writhing uselessly onto transient bone-slabs; but can any movement be described as metaphysical? Rimbaud is informing us that the answer is ‘no’; and Rattigan might be inclined to go along with this I think, for he captures perfectly this muscle-strain of nothingness, this apocalyptical lassitude when he writes: ‘Annihilation’s limit. / A match unstruck / in deep time / beyond heat and pulse / and all thought / benevolent or otherwise. / No more.’ (‘Incognito Fragments’). When Wallace Stevens wrote ‘The consolations of space are nameless things’ he was himself burrowing deep into our human obsession with the impalpable, the metaphysical hypothesis of the spaces that exist outside the mind. Man of course lignifies God by breathing, lends form to his formlessness by existing. The poet likewise seeks out each neuter-vowel, every nominal metaphor and unborn noun to ‘people’ the zero plains of the imagination, to sway his own borrowed gait into the draft world of an invented silence—‘Tho it is impenetrable / As the world, if it is matter, / Is impenetrable’ (George Oppen). Rattigan it appears then is also beginning to arrive at anywhere, or anywhere where silence breeds and the imagination, womb-stricken, journeys toward fresh births.

Yet if grammar itself is not to inhibit the speaking mind then an opposite territory for the mind needs to be located, a non-ontological plaine in which the imagination can be projected anew. Rattigan himself is constantly in the throes of this task, as ALL language-poets have been before him; the idea being to escape the act itself of ‘escaping’, to create a poetry that is always ‘saying its nature’ (Heidegger). To attach a name to a fictive personality via the allegorical presence of poetry is primarily the task this poet has set himself, as from poem to poem, we are treated to a poetry that is acutely aware of the pain of what Artaud depicted as to ‘feel one’s thought shift within oneself”; one’s own mind then not as mere object and shadowed by thought, but a living organism infected with the bacteria of ideas. So then the biggest imaginary problem for a poet like Rattigan to overcome is how to invent/speak the form that might well authenticate a total existence. He succeeds by ignoring mere literary gestures and by opening himself up to his own poetical anti-worlds, the ars cogitandi, or the purest unknowledgeable contingency which is to watch the world rot about its own words. It is naturally the knowledge that language fails us which is the poet’s most fruitful and inevitably his most imaginative propulsion, alluding to Cocteau’s rather sober dictum that ‘the only work which succeeds is that which fails’, a stolid truth that delivered the modern author from the inescapable responsibility of common sense. In this mode of thinking then these poems are but a by-product of rupture, and I think Rattigan would concur on this, that if poetry is to temporize reality then it will also be required to undermine it. This then is a poet who is listening to the miscarriage of the birth of his own thoughts:


but the silence


by them,

flashed by intention’s

blank-eyed stare

(on dark macula),


                        the blind-spot’s

unshadowed orb.

(‘After Words’)


George Oppen wrote ‘There is an almost audible click in the brain to mark the transition between thought which is available because it has already been thought, and the thinking of the single man’, an image of the inner-mechanics of consciousness that seems well suited to the poems of Rattigan, for he hears clearly his own voice ‘click’ in the brain, hears the pauses in silence that drag like a chain across the anti-ontological territories of the mind. The fact that it is a poetry about poetry is not so unique a thing, neither are the transitions between image and word and mind, yet what is original about these poems is that they are closer than most to the successful attainment of his own human mind; for this poetry leaves virtually no trace of a personality upon the page, is happy merely to approach the frontiers of all that ‘limits’ us, whether in language or in the silence that gives an unassimilable voice to that limitation. Thus this collection seems to be just the beginning of an audible climb towards an understanding of what the poetical mind IS and/or can be in the future, but this poet should be content with what he has achieved so far, for it is surely enough to ‘experience how the words come to meaning’ (Oppen).Rattigan has indeed begun to close the gap between what appears permanent and what, in the future, might well ante-date our already existing formulations, for he has seen

            the bone raised,


                        airy monument

            of untold memory, future form.



The fact that Rattigan is working against the grain of his own influences and imagination is already indisputable.

Paul Stubbs

Sept 2012


Also available by Michael Lee Rattigan Hiraeth (Black Herald Press, 2016)

A review by Andrew O’Donnell in The Fiend

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