Kevin Davies THE GOLDEN AGE OF PARAPHERNALIA (2008)


Imagine Nick Carraway as a breathless poet plugged into the Later Capitalist funhouse tasked with writing the sombre giddy elegy to online life, replete with weirdly anachronistic high jinks and dying ochra glow. Haven’t heard of ‘The Golden Age of Paraphernalia’? You might think of it as the glosses of an internet-mediated world. Davies defines it best in one of the more straightforwardly lyrical sections of the poem, which also happens to be the one which allows for most narrative control: '…Any surface at all, inside or out, you touch it and a scrolled menu appears, listing recent history chemical makeup, distance to the sun in millimetres, distance to the Vatican in inches, famous people who have previously touched this spot, fat content, will to power, adjacencies, and further articulations. And each category scores has dozens of subcategories and each subcategory scores of its own, all meticulously cross-referenced, linked, so that each square centimetre of surface everywhere, pole to pole, from the top of the mightiest Portuguese bell tower to the intestinal lining of a seat turtle off Ecuador, has billions of words and images attached, and a special area a little rectangle, for you to add your own comments. It is the great work of a young-adult global Civilization, a metaliterate culture with time on its prosthetic tentacles, at this point slightly more silicon than carbon, blinking vulnerably in the light of its own radiated connectedness.' (p58) While the extravagant use of enjambments, typography and spacing cannot be replicated in these citations, it's easy to see how the notion of a ‘radiated connectedness’, undercut by a shlock ‘futurama' tentacled monster, and no-doubt alluding to the prospect of nuclear annihilation as limit point for this ‘Golden Age’ of thorough neocolonial extraction, is also arguably an image of the human subject turned inside out, its thoughts no more than the detritus of phrases absorbed from outside; its limits, all it can articulate within its harried finite lifespan. But not to wax lyrical on what is already a murky interpretation. Arch wit, Witold Gombrowicz, chastises would-be critics who write poetically about poetry. Better to speak clearly and not complicate the already difficult with your own attempt at the same but worse. With Kevin Davies, the reader gets the impression that the author has internalised that lesson for his own verse. Aside from the above conceit, most of the lines here sound like they could be uttered by an average postgraduate just trying to get along in a world of sprawling referentiality. It is as if the poem has taken Lyotard’s postmodern collapse of metanarratives to its logical extreme and applied it to the level of the sentence. What we have here are fractal phrases, story-strands which never quite reconcile, and this largely because the poem’s authorial presence ranges across historical periods and geographic space, as evidenced by the mixed registers; nevertheless, the prospect that they might ultimately cohere is just over the horizon: 'Yesterday? I stayed in out of the heat, washed dishes Read a book Remembered a cow That as an ignorant boy with a board I walloped For breaking into our yard Eyes first puzzled then pissed off Bellowing near my asparagus patch Or was that later After the big cedar fell and destroyed the fence Or possibly when we mutinied, refusing to follow Alexander farther into the subcontinent Just wanting to go back to whatever inevitably temporary homes¨ With the baubles we’d collected and our blistered skins Eat an entire sheep with a group of cousins Maybe build a hut Imperceptibly alter a grammar Chase birds Stand in the midst of barley Centuries later Brand-new feudal nightmare, Dribs…' (p44) If there’s a ‘sentimental calculus’ (p44) at work in this poem, then it has some connection to the 90s everyman slacker-loser-hero; here, a transhistorical phenomenon who is just trying to get along under Empire, complicit in its atrocities one way or another, even if that's only by teaching the master’s discourse. ‘The Golden Age of Paraphernalia’ suggests that living under the despotic regimes of the past might not be too different from where we are now, even if our baubles radiate more noxious light. In the poem’s critical reception, it is curious to see how many have tried to apply either passé or retro Marxist cultural theory to the work in lieu of a legitimation process. A recent essay by Lee Patterson proposes that ‘The Golden Age of Paraphernalia’ can function as an elucidation of a venerable old Althusserian ‘interpellation theory’, where the jargon, phrases, and register we must employ to speak condemn us to confirming our subjugated social position. Arguably, despite its moral appeal, to assume this is to risk a reductive ‘operationalising’ of the poem for an even more simplistic moral stance in the guise of political gesture. Keston Sutherland alludes to this idea through gentle skepticism of Steve Evans’s contention that Kevin Davies’s poem is ‘fucking with the structures of conformist thought, negating them on their own ground’ through an Adornian process of ‘determinate negation’; surely, Sutherland contends, the poem rarely strikes such defiant poses, citing a radio interview where Davies declares his cynicism towards the idea that avantgarde poetry might challenge socio-economic power; late capitalism seems more than capable of handling experimental literary forms. Instead, to help clarify what is actually going on, Sutherland deploys the grand Mikhail Bakhtin to re-inscribe Davies’s fractal phrases into a ‘Bakhtinian sense of a linguistic unit which appropriates the words of others and populates them with one’s own intention’ which ultimately ‘shows this positive, funny, communal experience of disgust with the social world.’ Even this appreciation of the ‘positive’, ‘funny’, and the ‘communal’ must be wrapped up in an underlying moral imperative to show ‘disgust’. I detect a certain fear in these readings which relate to the ‘learned discourse’ of the poem itself. As well as being all the things these critics say, it is also, undeniably, a colossal series of in-jokes for graduate students, with all the elitism this implies. There are puns on allusions to Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’: 'The last guy, he had a lot of answers And a collection of vintage wanted posters. The new guy, he doesn’t say much The next guy hasn’t even been born yet And with any luck never will be.' (p52) And there are the humorous one-liners, like a Marx Brothers take on Freud: '…I could have used a bit more repression as a child' (p60) or: 'I can't come into work today because I am crazy' or: 'Zeno was half right' And, once or twice, a brilliant satirical aphorism is allowed to stand undoctored: 'sex, The ability to in each situation perceive the available means of persuasion' (p69) Even the most intimate cannot be extricated from seductive marketing and coercive managerial strategy, and yet it still retains its disturbing beauty. Inevitably, ‘The Golden Age of Paraphernalia’ alienates as much as it educates, but the tone is compassionate rather than smug, and it perhaps offers some camaraderie to those who can keep up.