A review of Ha Ha by Steve Spence
From Tremblestone, issue 6
This is landscape poetry with a difference. Both the cover artwork and the punning title suggest Jordan's deconstructive streak, and if that isn't enough of a hint, then the prefacing poem, brazenly entitled 'Giggle', hits the nail squarely on the head with its final lines - "these places/are taking/the piss/out of us." Jordan's aim isn't to produce reverential 'spirit of place' poetry which fuses the Romantic tradition with Hoskins' 'The Making of the English Landscape' but to open up a dialogue (multi-voice response!) about our relationship to our surroundings and the conditioned nature of our response(s) to our time and place as related to the power of received mythology and historical constructs. The fact that Jordan is writing 'about' the South West and such heavily over-mythologized concepts as 'Wessex' makes his enterprise all the more intriguing. That said, although the spirit of satire saturates this text, Jordan's writing has a fine lyrical streak and his modes of thinking about language and archaeology are serious attempts at breaking out of reductive models of 'the pastoral'. There's an important political edge to his writing which is as hilarious as it is anarchist and he's a poet whose work has been ignored for too long.
The book is divided into four connecting entities: 'In
Outline'; 'Mythopoeia'; 'Wessex' and 'The Source'. His sources for Ha Ha are
wide-ranging and embrace both high art and popular culture - he's clearly
been informed by Heidegger's writings on poetry and language as well as being
a fan of Stewart Home - although I doubt somehow that he'd want those divisions
made explicit. His fascinating commentaries in his magazine 10th Muse on various
aspects of 'complicated poetry' are among the most clear-sighted and informative
essays I've come across. He engages with
'difficulty' and its pleasures but he's well-able and indeed, positively-inclined, to call a spade a spade when necessary and is upright and frank when he feels someone is trying to pull the wool over his (our) eyes.
Jordan's method is to include the deconstructive mode within the body of the writing, so there is often a sort-of humorous dialogue going on within the poems. Occasionally, the ending of a piece will be explicitly polemical, in the sense of undermining any 'literal' reading of the poem, and poems are often prefaced by hilarious commentaries, sometimes by the elusive Dr. Charles Mintern, as in Palimpsest, where we have this:
" ... on our field trip we found giant letters
concealed in the
landscape. Huge forms edged by footpath and motorway,
the ditched and banked council estate. A text of place, a
knowledge in the field edged with pylons."
— Dr Charles Mintern
This playing with the forms of linguistic and archaeological past is sheer irreverence and Jordan is clearly having a lot of fun in these poems. The way he manages to both evoke the 'mysterious presence' of the past while also taking the mick out of ideological mythologizing of such ('ideological' becomes a leitmotif in this collection) is extremely entertaining. There is an almost-symbolist, 'high-art' method to his tracing of the landscape which is constantly undermined by the bathos of his asides and deconstructions. Quite how he achieves this 'effect' is difficult to pin down precisely (I can see him grinning at this) but there simply isn't anyone else around writing 'about' landscape in this manner.
In 'Georgics' (1. The Field and 2. The Winnowing) Jordan plays with the Latin poet's mixture of celebration and didactic intent. The tone of The Field appears serious and descriptive: "In the field a labourer works / alone, the job is specialised." The allusions to 'space' and 'place' - combined with Jordan's reference to 'edging' and 'placeless(ness)' - shift between an almost mythic attitude towards the land whilst also undermining the ultra-serious tone of the text itself. This is the sort of parody of landscape poetry that Attila the Stockbroker could only dream of achieving and this is so because Jordan's attitude is more sophisticated - he seems to mean what he is saying while also having fun with the serious nature of any such attempt. 'The Winnowing' includes a more obviously sexual theme where the 'bland' style fuses with the language of pastoral to produce an effect which is serious and funny at the same time: "The soldiers watch her, diffident, / and wait their turn for winnowing . . ." I'm also reminded here of David Harsent's dark explorations into archaeology and language but Jordan's work has satire at its heart rather than Gothic excess although there are also dark suggestions in his poetry.
The cover art includes a reworking of the 'phallic man' chalk drawing plus three figures 'in a landscape' and an esoteric diagram which includes a Celtic cross, a maze, some capital letters - which collectively suggest a Von Daniken style alien mystery. The three figures (silhouette photograph) seem to depict two women and a man but it's hard to be sure. This may have 'significance' because the female characters in Jordan's poetry often have a role of muse/goddess which he plays with to hilarious effect.
The final poem in the book - Wee Willy - (I ask you!) is one of the funniest of these poems where the pathetic fallacy is so up-front as to almost be farcical, but not quite: "I walked through a fog to the lay-by / beneath / colossal legs rising from / the melancholy lustre of the trees." You can almost feel the EVOCATION screaming out at you, and it's Edgar Allan Poe, but E.A.P. with a serious sense of humour. This time I'm reminded of a guy called Michael Dames who wrote a book about Silbury Hill and argued that it was, without doubt, an ancient fertility symbol. He then photographed a number of art students who were encouraged to run down the hill each carrying a white-paper toilet roll which they unravelled as they ran. This was mythology in the making and I believe it turned Mr. Dames into a minor celebrity for a while. There's a lot to be taken from these poems. You can enjoy the serious nature of the enterprise, relish the high-art nature of the language or you can laugh your socks off as Jordan undermines his own seriousness as he goes along. However you decide (or are 'decided') to approach this writing, it's well worth the effort and I sincerely hope that Jordan hits the wide readership he obviously deserves.