Recent Reading: November 2020

The Wood Pigeons, James Davies, Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals, 2019, ISBN: 978-1086559958, £6.99

Flesh Rays / Daytrain, Rob Holloway, If P then Q, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-9999547-5-8, £8.00

Future Words, Mark Cunningham, If P Then Q, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-9999547-6-5, £6.00 or free PDG download

The Wood Pigeons is easy enough to describe. It’s a book in 261 chapters, the first being a page-long 365 word story, the remaining 261 being iterative redactions of the first, with words or phrases edited out and punctuation changes to retain coherence, the whole thing taking about a year and culminating in a single word final chapter. The reader is left to suspect that the original plan may have been to delete a single word a day for a year until life intervened.

Description is one thing, but interpretation quite another. what’s going on here? What is Davies pushing at? The most obvious thing is a questioning of what it is we read for. If plot, there’s precious little even in the original version. Ditto character development; the two characters are literal cyphers, C and D. And style hardly enters into it.

What’s happening here is a dissection of these elements of prose narrative and of the process of writing, seen primarily as a process of excision, of cutting away. And this is what you, or I at least, read for initially, to see what’s being removed and how the prose tightens up as a consequence. But after a while, things shift. For instance, the opening phrase ‘The living room’ implies a whole world outside, a house, other rooms, a kind of suburban normality. When this changes to ‘The room’, the world narrows to an enclosed box, with the outside present but unknown, and the text takes on something of the nature of a Becket play without words. And then when ‘C fell asleep’ becomes ‘C fell’, twice, the story becomes more sinister, the tone shifting. This shift is underscored by the fact that the titular pigeons move from being named twice and heard once to being only heard, an unexplained ‘hoo-hooing’ that stays with us almost to the end. The reading focus shifts from what’s being cut to what’s being left in, and how that changes things.

By about Chapter 200, what we have resembles a brief outline sketch, with memory filling the gaps and a combination of reader and author forming new patterns out of the remaining recycled words. The blurb refers to the Droste effect, but to my mind what we have is more like a set of nesting Russian dolls, each one a variation of the one before it, with scale and perspective diminishing incrementally. The blurb also says that the end is an inevitable nothing, but this is not really the case. In fact, the final chapter consists of the single word ‘Pattern’, a recognition that the work of reading, what we read for, is the emergence of pattern out of variation, a path through chaos.

As well as being a fine, interesting writer, Davies runs the If P Then Q imprint, focusing on what might loosely be described as experimental writing. The two If P Then Q titles reviewed here are not untypical of the press’s output.

Rob Holloway’s Flesh Rays / Daytrain consists of two long sets of shortish prose pieces, ‘Flesh Rays being considerably the longer of the pair. Holloway’s method resembles a game of exquisite corpse for one player, or perhaps Chomsky’s famous ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’, an instance of the distinction between syntactic and semantic coherence. Holloway’s sentences are always grammatically coherent, but rarely give up meaning easily, and he explicitly links his method to the ‘contract’ between the writer/text and the reader; these pieces are intended to radically disrupt our readerly expectations.


I’ve camped out on the sloping lawns of civility and mined the darkest

seams of sweet Rhoda, but now my face sits postmarked and sunned, as

innocuous as a lump on a desktop. Who’ll round up the lapwing’s habitat

now its book of yachts has harpooned the wind? Freeing ambulances to

careen down spines, we’re vicious, can successfully mimic emailing

children. There is no poem-reader contract strong enough to withstand the

exposure of my complicity. On finishing washing the computer early, he

enters the life of a knife-thrower’s wife to feel the banks she’s gestating.

Some things are more-or less regular in the poems: the subject pronouns within each piece tend to be consistent in number (first or third person predominantly) and the first and last sentences almost always sound like openings and closings via their cadences. Also, the actions and objects focused on are quotidian, for the most part, resulting in tales of everyday life, but not as we live it.

Smearing each other in ink, you say we witness each other witnessing each

other live; such the flight of the good, clean, daily rabbit.

[from ‘Tattooed Wraparound’]

The pronouns experience, and our readerly instinct for sense imposes a contract of sorts, despite the writer’s best efforts, so that over each of the two sequences, some kind of narrative arc emerges, indistinctly, a kind of exploration of love, even. Holloway’s explorations of the fringes of readability are interesting, but at the end I wasn’t entirely convinced that I’d needed to read 150 pages of them.

Mark Cunningham is also exploring aspects of language in Future Words, but as the title indicates, his main focus is on semantics, specifically on dictionaries, of sorts. Again, the book consists of two sections: the first, ‘Strategy and Tactics’, uses chapter headings from two books by Konrad Becker, Strategic Reality Dictionary and Tactical Reality Dictionary that explore ‘social programming and information management language used by governments, corporations and military organisations’ in new, more personal prose poetry contexts; the second, ‘Future Words’, is ‘an attempt to write dictionary definitions for words which do not yet exist but whose meanings may have started to form’, the whole laid out as two-column dictionary pages with blank headwords.

As an example of how Cunningham reframes Becker’s work, take the ‘Dimensional Framing’ piece. Becker notes that ‘[n]ot taking responsibility for the frames then means something else will…’ Cunningham riffs on this thus:

Doughnuts are objects, but I cannot look at one objectively. Actually, I’m a few feet away from where the You Are Here sign says I am. I went to the carnival, I bought my ticket, but then I was too scared to go into The House (trailer, really) of Horrors—so I guess I got my money’s worth. I put on Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon loud enough so we can just barely hear it, and the conversation gets better. When I look into a microscope, I usually see only a silvery glare.

How do we retake control of how the world is framed for us via language? Partly, it seems, by recognising that language and things are not coterminous, that language is a tool for mapping the world, and that there is an inevitable gap between the map and the mapped, as in the few feet between where you are and where the sign says you are. We implicitly understand this distinction, but by calling it out explicitly, Cunningham invites us to retake responsibility of how we process information in and through language.

The ‘You Are Here’ sign recurs in the ‘Future Words’ sequence’, in an entry that may serve as an instance of how Cunningham constructed this section:

_____. 1. to finish a sentence

started by someone else in a

manner in which you wish the

sentence to end, regardless of

how the person who started

the sentence may have

wished. 2. the belief that you

really are at the place

indicated by the You Are Here

sign, despite the fact that you

are looking at the sign from

another place. 3. a common-

collector junction that uses a

transistor amplifier; the

voltage gain is a little less than

one. 4. to have an answer

ready when someone asks

what you are good at.

Typically, these definitions bring together definitions of existing terms, often from science and technology, with hypothetical ‘future words’ in ways that ask us to consider potential commonalities that might lead them to be classified under a single headword.

There is another question that emerges from these entries, one that leads us back to the question of verbal mapping and the level of detail that we require of the map for it to meet our needs. For example, given that it’s something that people have been experiencing since before language, can we assume that we don’t actually need a word for ‘the breaths between the onset of a sneeze and the sneeze itself’? Is the circumlocution adequate for the limited number of times we would wand to refer to this thing? Are there, in other words, things without names and without a need for a name? My view is that we don’t need such new words, that language, on the whole, evolves to meet our requirements and that circumlocution is an adequate part of the mapping process in many instances.

Of course, I can’t know that this is what Cunningham was driving at, language being what it is, but I’m delighted that Future Words made me think again about these questions, as any writer might be.