Lawrence Upton


to sense

and sound

this world

look to

your snifter


take oil

and hum          [lorine niedecker to my small electric pump]



I introduce Maggie O'Sullivan's poetry to people who say they like to read poetry; but I am often told that it is too difficult to understand or some similar judgement.

All poetry is difficult to understand, especially the less you know its contexts, precursors, assumptions and methods. The Swan of Avon, up there in some pantheons with the Queen Mother and Saint George, is often damnably difficult, not least because we are now so separate from sixteenth and seventeenth century contexts, precursors, assumptions and methods; yet many quote him, often without really grasping much of the significance of the words he uses in the sections they quote. No worry about understanding there.

One does not always notice the difficulty of what is familiar. Real difficulty can seem less than difficult when it lies in familiarities - and lies might be a significant word there in that the familiarity deceives us. There's one Star Trek film that seems to be half Shakespeherian tags - The Undiscovered Country, I believe, and the contemporary resonance of that phrase can no longer be experienced - and Shakespeare's plays are far from straight-forward unless we have studied; but it is a popular film. Tennyson is difficult; fragments of him litter the speech of the many. And Wordsworth! The ideas underlying his verse are wrenched apart in the way that the lines depending from them are quoted. We can take / make meaning from sets of words we do not really understand; and we do not always notice our lack of understanding. The difficulty of poetry, new poetry, is that it is unfamiliar... By definition. If there is no unfamiliarity, then "new" is an inappropriate word except as applied to the writing date.

Whether, for instance, "in my mind's eye" was coined by Shakespeare or taken from others' contemporary speech by him, and maybe someone knows, there was a time when it was new and, I would have thought, very exciting; but that was lost centuries ago. Of course, we tend to use it, and a thousand other such useful metaphors; it works. However, like d.i.y. quick fixes, what one achieves by using them is the opposite of doing it oneself. Proverbiality clogs creative thinking and response by patching in others' well-worn speech products. In social intercourse, that is probably what is needed. Similarly with familiarity.

There is bound to be a slackness of thought if one performs the spoken equivalent of painting by numbers; the process of expression interacts with the process of originating that which is expressed. Too often, what passes for new poetry is in fact performing a smells and bells trick - certain triggers are pressed and you think that you have had a poetic experience. Most likely, it is the poetic smells and bells that you have experienced - a mimicry of a previous poem by someone else or by you reproducing the response to that earlier poem. There is a television programme called "Stars in their eyes" in which people aim to look and sound as much as possible like someone famous doing something they are famous for. The libraries and bookshops are full of stars in their eyes poets.

What I am saying, if it is true, has always been true; we may learn still from Ovid and Vergil... and anyone else. If we may learn something new from them, they remain vital to us. As familiar as they are, they remain unfamiliar in that way.

A completely original poem, whatever that is, might be unrecognisable. (i). What matters is the degree to which there is anything to be newly achieved by the poet working on and out of particular influences. To the extent that something new is achieved, there will be a commensurate difficulty of resultant unfamiliarity; and it will remain until we develop a means of receiving the poetry which makes the difficulty navigable - until, that is, we learn. A lively poet will learn from all sorts of poetry, consciously and unconsciously.

The unfamiliarity of the poem is allied with what I call the energy of the poem. I am not entirely happy with the word "energy", but let it stand for now. I am not saying poetry ought to be difficult; I am saying that it has to be difficult if it is worth reading, not to make it worth reading but because it is worth reading. The "simplest" energetic poem has its difficulty.

Familiarisation is achieved by reading / hearing carefully and closely and learning. We learn about anything by starting from what we know and moving out into unknown territory, as a walker making a new walk looks for landmarks; and then at compass and map; or checks the sun's position and the time. So, in reading, let us look for what we recognise, map, devise a compass, see what the sphere of that text is like and what its time is; thus we make our way less difficult and less unfamiliar.

The signs may be misread because of assumptions based on existing familiarities: I can usually read the sky in my own climate, but not elsewhere. At the start of In the house of the Shaman, we'll find Another Weather System; and its first sentence, if it is a sentence - I preserve the capitalisation but not the line break after each word, nor the big space and margin shift between the fourth and fifth word - runs "Contorted lure of Circles, fur at beauty." It could be a rather long anagram. In the world of instructions and proverbs, it is not utilitarian - or it has other uses than we anticipate.

When we speak of the weather, we may be speaking of any all-encompassing power system – “looks like we’re in for stormy weather”. In another weather system, we may find ourselves at sea when we thought we were on land. What meaning do you attach to the word "weather", [as noun and as verb, a sense of “to survive” for centuries] especially when it is another weather?

This poem, Another Weather System, is on page nine of the book. If we had never seen a book, we would not jump so quickly to page nine. When so many books are alike, and so familiar without being read, it is easy to assume that they are all alike and easy to assume that the real reading is to be found within. But this is a small press book, designed by publishers who are poets. Perhaps there were telling signs further back.

The book is not the poem, the poem is elsewhere and /or other in Maggie's original ms/ts, in her memory, in our memory, on tape, and... Look first at the book which contains a representation of the poem and see what it tells us of that which it represents.

The cover features a photograph of a mixed media piece by Maggie O'Sullivan. It looks large, though I was surprised to find just how large; it sits in a notional square of twenty four square feet; a visitor to my house found the image familiar (I use the word "familiar" deliberately). Seeing it on the book on a table, he thought it was an image by Joseph Beuys. I suspect the word "shaman" in the title above the image had something to do with the response.

My friend's mistake is informative. To some extent, the word "shaman" evokes or has a connotational connection with the name "Beuys" in this part of the world and in this era. That someone who knew Beuys' work but not O'Sullivan's should mistake a mixed media work of hers for his, and I too saw it when it was spoken, may be useful as a clue to some of her interests and intents.

Book 2 is called Kinship with animals, a possible / probable reinforcement of the insight - shaman / Beuys / Kinship with animals. Read down from the title, over the poem titles, scanning: bees, water, asphodel, starling, a split second of Paradise; and intrusion, naming, narrative charm. Naming and Mutability. Equities. There is a nexus here, it seems; and there is something else: "Cobbing". If it is else. [The thing about the else, the other, the difficult, the new, the outside, is that it ceases to be other when you know how to look at it.] Should you not be familiar with Cobbing, I urge you to find out. (ii).

A dedication is significant in that it tells us of someone / something significant to the poet, at least in the context of the piece of work containing the dedication; but what it tells us is unlikely to be more than we let it tell us. Significance is unlikely to be spelled out in the house of the shaman, though it may be spoken in a way. Is what is easily said and learned worth learning? If it is, is a poem the correct means of communication?

There is shamanism and shamanism (and assuredly there is also shamanism and more, but two is enough). There is the mystification element... There is in some of Cobbing a pull that I do not like - Hymn to the Sacred Mushroom with low lights and robes; but that to me is not the main pull. There is the Cobbing of experimentation, relentless experimentation, transformation - Of mutability - of texts by switching media - Mixed Media, use of machines... A main node in an internationalist, innovative and various movement of poet / artists, expansiveness, generous, feisty interaction with a recalcitrant world.

We must read this book knowing that the poet who made it knows about Cobbing, him / his work, and values him / his work; and we might therefore look for methods / content analogous to his; or look for different methods / content which, nevertheless, have analogies with his... We have not reached the end of the contents page. Close reading.

Research would show - and you may know - that Cobbing was one of her earliest publishers (iii), seeing the quality of her work early and making physical books of her books whose design is sympathetic to their content and intent; and that O'Sullivan has published a volume of Cobbing's collected poems, the design equally suited to the content; and that O'Sullivan has made a book, Excla, with Bruce Andrews - in which the individual poets' contributions blend. And that Cobbing and O'Sullivan have performed together, including a Sub Voicive Poetry reading when Maggie played Maggie and Bob played Bruce. This knowledge will inform our reading of the books. It is knowledge not contained within them, but it is not withheld by them either. If, on the metaphorical High Street, the practice is less than accessible, perhaps that is more to do with the functioning of the Lit Crit Industry than with the understandability of these texts.

Book 3 is Prism and Hearers - prisms analyse light, making that which was invisible visible, information, the means of seeing, and concentrate it; we hear that which is diffuse; we discern that which is almost unheard. Prisms and Hearers... a synaesthetic linkage? Hearing the visible, seeing the audible… One of the poems in this book is called Hill figures - images of prehistoric shamanism? Or figures on a hill in populous Britain. Both? Neither? Possibilities.

And Giant Yellow. Giant yellow what? Never mind. Giant yellow. I can live with that; and you can too. A painterly collocation. "The artist must be able to sound [colours] when [s]he needs to." Henri Matisse.(iv) Remember this book is covered by an image of an image made by O'Sullivan and remember the connection / association with Bob Cobbing whose poetic origins are painterly. O'Sullivan's own press is called "Magenta".

I wrote about this section of this text in 1991(v) and what I wrote is reprinted after this essay. At the end of that, I asked Is this a closed system? I think not now. Finally, I thought not then, though I still think there are - what shall I say? - issues:

A stylisation, is it? of word constructs spoken which could become decorative / mannerist but has not, retaining buoyancy and elasticity, and shows no sign of decay; but the risk is there, because of strength. It is risky in many ways. Weak writing, anecdotal, reliant on familiar structures, offers some recompense to its willing readers when it fails even on their terms, in much the same way that pre-cooked meals fill you up. If this writing fails , it may offer little. The otherness / elseness derives from the radicalism of the point of view, not just the point of view of the eye / I of the poem but also of the point of view of the poem-maker as poem maker herself.



       Ruby too took

               dark sadly sodden, cuppy

                        laid inwards

                under-Earth / carrion


                bud clamorous (vi)

OK? It is the point of view of one more startled by the world, the apparent phenomenal world, and more startling to it than one who, with access to interplanetary travel, would write postcards.

If this is the unofficial word, then it performs no office or service, it pertains to no place [in society], it is employed in no public capacity, it has no sanction, it has no authorisation and it is not ceremonious - all because it is unofficial. Or that is how it sees itself: “yammer suck w/a system/”

Her voice itself is sonorous. Remarkable ("Ring. Ring. Gang. Gang. Gones, Done") I said then, avoiding the issue - note the precision of the punctuation; trouble is being taken and it changes the effect considerably - but noted that her manner is compelling. Her voice is compelling. Is it her voice that compels or my response to her voice - self-compulsion? Does she need a groupie?! It is neither her voice nor her manner but her vocal manner

She compels as a performer, I am sure that is objective, because I know many whose judgement I respect who are compelled by her performance, though they may not use that word whereas it's really quite normal talking to her, very pleasant, but no sense of the B-movie; and that is skill, to compel an audience, to get and hold attention without needing an audience to be polite.

Performance voice not that different to speaking voice, but different nevertheless. In manner. The poet present. Almost but not exactly what I said before. More difference than there is in the work of other poets? I am not sure. Perhaps. Suppose there is.

A combination perhaps of the text itself - which is remarkable and always unexpected, a sign of its energy and innovation - and a quality of voice. Because getting the poem written down is not enough and vocalising is not enough.

I have heard people read badly, mumble to themselves. I have heard shouting declamation in the belief that what is being uttered is right on and somehow made the more so by declamation. Would be comedians; and people who put on "poetic" voices, the dying fall, the beautiful gush, oh! It's none of those, Maggie's. None of them are good enough.

Precise - or attempted precision of - performance, reading a text as script as score, counterpointing speech, and extending it - Mottram spoke of a prosthetics of poetry in relation to Cobbing... I have been trying to think of a comparison.

No one recent. Someone who reads from the official mainstream said Dylan Thomas. But Maggie O'Sullivan's reading doesn't leave any of the aftertaste of falsity I sometimes get from listening to DT's. Maybe I only considered this because of Thomas' coinage and unexpected imagery. I still get a sense of astonishment, and know in advance that I am going to get it, by reading Thomas, providing I pick the poems very carefully. There's a lot of dead wood.

Following this line of thought back and then on - because, as I say, the performances are successful, she doesn't, in Bob Cobbing's found phrase, "fall off" - or hasn’t in my hearing - let me say that once Hopkins was proposed to me as a precursor of O'Sullivan. Again, I see no real connection despite a similar interest in / delight in language (though Hopkins' and O'Sullivan's view of what language is would be quite different) and a response to the seen world that might seem similar because they seem so difficult compared with the official word. Of course, Hopkins is there and has been influential on a range of poets; but this seems wrong to me. Hopkins stands out as an oddity because of the paucity of so much that has been lauded since, its lack of invention, dreaming away, while painters and composers who have kept their eyes and ears open have received more official / public attention.

If you want to find possible influences, look at the books. Book 1 of In the house of the Shaman has a superscript from Gertrude Stein; Book 2 from Beuys; and Book 3 from Heidegger. Of Mutability has a superscript from Pound's Cantos. She speaks of Mina Loy, HD , Niedecker as well as Stein as EXAMPLES of pioneering poets who are in a "marginalised tradition of innovative writing" (vii). Not one Englishperson! And not the official word on poetic history which leaves so many out that the best that sensible people can think of, in comparison, is Thomas and Hopkins (both males of course). While Radio 4 does half hours on Larkin and others are paid by the broadsheets to commend each other, here is a poet who simply ignores the whole pack of cards - "the agenda-based and cliché-ridden rallying positions of mainstream poetry" (viii) - "bound" in the words of the Stein quotation, " express what the world in which we are living is doing."

That’s not the Newtonian world. Not the Hegelian world. What shall we call it? A lot has happened since those thens, including a few revolutions in our views of language and the extent to which we create our worlds linguistically in the act(s) of expression. One of the superscriptions to unofficial word is from William Carlos Williams: "Language is not simply a vehicle for representing one's time, but a material force in its creation". Stein’s “Each of us in our own way” suggests idiolection perhaps but “the world in which we are living” is shared - we / our -and what we share is language and, despite the high incidence of word and grammatical invention in these books, the language here can be shared, is meant to be shared, is shared in its performance, which may include private reading

The two superscripts to unofficial word chime with each other, placing Maggie O’Sullivan’s fundamentally conscious linguistic process in the centre of today's lively work, which is at least as female as it is male, whose "poets have... committed themselves to excavating language in all its multiple voices and tongues, known and unknown." (ix)

The only comparable British poet for acuteness of ear combined with inventiveness in form and collocation is Bill Griffiths:

the full seas

rains, splits

all the angel'd syllables (uncounted)

az bizarre in brachial flapping.



looked sane, dead.


and in the gray lamps

or the leaves, merging  grapeshot  grass (x)

A useful word here is constellation - and a quotation too from concrete poetry - "the words [must grow] into statements that cohere thru opposition or apposition - congruously or incongruously" (xi) - the text does not necessarily have to be read linearly; linearity is not the main thing; it can be as if one has come upon a snapshot of a linguistic system in mobility:



Mixed Pulses etched

Finningly, brilliant corners decapitate. Beasts's

coat Loading

battlegivens: wound


laid into rivers, nails of

similarly blood-fine hatching

this is called/



fish. (xii)

An attempt not just to get inside the process of the subject of the poem but to get inside the linguistic process of the poem itself, of poetry and concentration upon the words that are being used as language rather than rhetoric - analysis-synthesis, not a distant eye at the end of the microscope as if silent upon a peak in Darien, but surgical intervention side by side with the fibre-optic source of information guiding the tool-holding hand, watching, intellectually controlled, making creatively - which is a world away from making craftily, Another Whether System.

Recently, it was remarked to me a propos of something else that Sound Poetry [his term, not mine] involves the separation of meaning from words - and I disagreed. Too often, one experiences poets reading whose concentration upon the sound of their words is slack. When one hears Maggie perform her poetry, every word is clear and rings; the clusters of words are defined and the hearer is forced either to stop listening or concentrate considerably. It draws you in, into multiple linearity and so more than linearity. The poems are placed on the page - in that bread should be there is much space at the top of each page, half a page left clear, unyielding as it were. The words are positioned. On the page. A page of words. Not lines. They are positioned in time. The words fill the room as she reproduces the page to the ad hoc constellations of the audience. Reproduces the page in time in space.

Not poems of ironic detachment. From the world, the world in which we are living. They are not separate from it. They are poems made in great awareness of the processes of composition - to a great extent the musicians and painters precede the poets here - and the reasons for inclusion of material and the methods of inclusion need not be limited by precedent, have their own rules: I think, here, of O'Hara's poem (xiii) where a reason for a painter including material is that "it needed something there” and a reason for exclusion is "It was too much”.

Earlier, when I quoted dsh, I missed out the beginning of the sentence, deliberately. Now it is time to repeat it in full: "The letters must grow into words and the words into statements that cohere thru opposition or apposition - congruously or incongruously”




There are some changes between the text of GIANT YELLOW published in 1991 and that published as part of IN THE HOUSE OF THE SHAMAN two years later.

"craft & bodies" became "craft / bodies", a small change in aural experience; but quite a significant change in meaning. "craft and bodies" suggests two entities, probably related, whereas the new formulation implies a composite entity, or something with two aspects and / or natures. But which entities? We are not going to find one-to-one representation here, but nor is this so-called nonsense verse, so such questions may be put.

There is craft as in art and (sullen) craft; there is craft as in a boat. The latter might be possible: there is a zephyr present and there is "DRAKE'S FLIGHT" - a pond, a boat upon a pond? -

                                  "how paper & swan


     made is"

Boats have been called swans before. Or is a swan being called a boat? Or is there the idea of making living things from inanimate things? (“What a piece of work is” observation + the extra-natural.) All our gods have done it; that, it is written, is how we came to be as we are. See Ovid. And magicians may do it. Though they tend to work with things already in existence - see further on. I thought I was on to something, seeing the second line "STRUT figure white many downwards anciently" followed by "ULTRA flutterings" as supporting these thoughts - the early Braque / Picasso take on what the eye sees and how to show its output to the brain; or cut together rapid bits of film; or collage; or all these; but the text is called GIANT YELLOW; it is more complex or collaged or both if we are to make room for "Eagle's Bone"... This is a page that ends "FOOL'S PAGE"!

What should we make of the inversion "made is"? And singular is, not plural are. Placing "is" at the end of the line, puts emphasis upon it, throwing its emphasis back on to "made" which it, "made", would not have itself at the end of the line; and it also allows "is" to lead into the list next line "is / Eyes, Tongue, Jaw -"

and so it makes the "craft / bodies" change sensible. In both senses of sensible. In a way. Making of a being? If so, only in the poem. That's the way. What a piece of work is...

There are other ways of making being than the Frankenstein mode. Proverbs have us making something of ourselves, making men of ourselves (though not women, I think) and so on. It is a spiritual making, bringing forth from potential into actuality:

"A pen ticks,

Body of the Animal Altered





Another change - "brine dyed" was "the lots are brine dyed"

·         lots - things discarded and awaiting new owners

·         lots - cast - our world, despite appearances, is an aleatoric world, quantum mechanical, post Mallarme

Taking out "the lots are" makes the line less easy to consume, but that is not the point, in the proverbial command line hello world construct - where's SARDINES? - all that's left is "brine dyed" - and so the poem has become less a descriptive construction and more a linguistic construction.

What was typed in capitals and underlined is in caps only now; what was in upper and lower case is now upper and lower italicised - print design change probably

"JAMBEAK" is now "JAMBREAK" - in so far as there is an accessible meaning to this, the meaning has changed a lot and the vowel sound. A misprint in the first? In the second? Sound before meaning? It foxes me.

Some lines that are now inset were against the left margin: "Mixey"

Change of timing? "A pen ticks"

... Mixey? An evocative word. A word a child might make. If it is not yet defined, that is because there is a lack of precedent on which to base the definition. It is new. Welcome! These texts welcome and so create newness and new views - as newcomers to parties change the parties when the parties are not under the control of the dominant. Here, as we can see, the words are told where to sit in a way that worried me in 91; but our eyes are free to move over them and construct from them in the way that what others have called The Britpoem does not allow. If you read ahead, the writers' manipulations break down. This is mixey writing. Deliberately.


             Sinuses," was

            "Lateral Sinuses"

A change in flow and possible emphasis.

There are words, Words and WORDS in this text. This should cause us no theoretical trouble. Musicians have shown us how limited and temporary conventional / official notation really is.

"Syllabled Garjey" is now


        bled Garjey"

A change in flow and possible emphasis AND a discovery of, within a word, a word. Syllables bleeding. As colours bleed. Or another kind of bleeding when the cook transforms what has been killed into a meal for the living. Transformation. Transmogrification. Metamorphosis. Yes, but is it beautiful?

"death provides the frame for beauty

immortality is a corollary

bleeding colours

along a temporal axis

haphazard matings" (xiv)

Read again the quotation from Pound which superscripts Of Mutability.

Towards the end of the text are eight lines centred. In 1991, they were ranged left on two margins, one for the three line section and the most leftward for the five line section. Use of centred text (Ulli Freer does it all the time) certainly has an effect but I have never been able to put my finger on what the effect is, quite.

The last lines, ranged left, were:

where vast is


in summary, a layer of"


but now are, centred:


birds & their habits - jump the channels


call the visions in

Water channels? Sound channels? Meaning channels? I choose all three, simultaneously; and "call" is third person plural AND imperative. Simultaneously. Calling visions in may mean encouraging visions; it may also mean terminating their activity. Control. There is Control and control ("Because I say so" and "I say because")

This text isn't clear in comparison to some poems, but it isn't trying to be. This is poetry in which everything, including in particular the language in which it is written, is malleable material. It is not representational. I refer you to an early piece by Gertrude Stein on Picasso. That makes it clear if you let it. If I knew what Giant Yellow referred to, if it refers to something substantive (in the way that Big Yellow Taxi refers to a taxi), and I doubt it, there would be no tilting of the pages in the brain and there would be, suddenly, superficial clarity as with simple puzzles...

One comes to the Lanyon canvas of Porthleven and experiences a consonance and interaction and not so much a reference out but an awareness that there is a beyond beyond the canvas; but you don't strongly think, at least the first time, of Porthleven or of any place like it. It isn't a postcard - of any solar planet. And when you do know it's Porthleven, it still doesn't work like a postcard. If you know the town fairly well, it still doesn't. But it is certainly very like Porthleven. That relationship is not of the essence in appreciating the painting although it was in Lanyon's making of it. Seeing and studying Lanyon's 3d models (xv) and knowing that he would fly in order to see the ground from another angle, may inform us of the method of composition and its method of operation post composition and completion; but the paintings work within their own space on their painterly terms now. This does not mean that they have no connection with the phenomenal world. Quite the opposite, I think. And so too with this text of Maggie's, these texts.

Regarding Lanyon and thus, in this paper, O'Sullivan, there is no awareness in the canvas / poem; but in its manner it encourages certain awarenesses. When you have looked at the painting on the wall of the Tate St Ives, you will see more if you go out and look at that part of West Cornwall of West Cornwall. You could get a bus and go to Porthleven, but it works elsewhere; fittingly in all that Penwith landscape and passably everywhere; and it works in a way that looking at a representational postcard would not. As Lanyon analyses the construction of a phenomenal world for me, so too with Maggie O'Sullivan's poetry. But you have to want to see it in the world and the world in it, whether it is the work of art of the phenomenal (artificial?) world - so many people don't ever look up at the sky unless there's a signpost to it.

It is the nature of this writing that, in it, one is concentrated upon the NATURE of the world rather than DESCRIPTION of its objects... There is a moment, towards the beginning of Middlemarch, where George Eliot speaks of "the other side of silence" and, in that context, of hearing the grass grow; concern with great detail, empathy with all existence of which the human is only a part. Time lapse photography. Close up observation. "ULTRA flutterings". The official language is inadequate. Like colloquial language, it is exclusive. Language is political. As Adrian Clarke put it some years ago: "No representation without representation."

This is work which tilts away from the official denotation. (xvi) Unofficial word starts:

Under the Yellow Iris -





Not soil; not ground; land. Land of our fathers. Attached to the land. An old word evoking, inter alia, oldness. Us in the landscape. We walk over it and we look at it from our point of view. In the summer when there's time to lie down in the park, or when you slip, and fall land over sky, you may see another reality, where sizes are seen as relative and the small stems out of the land are forest-like; but we tend to take our realities with us even when we trip. Pip sees, in shock, an analogous transformation at the beginning of Great Expectations; but we stand up again when we can, though we may remark on the yellow flowers, and on we go. The small flower and the great spread of the lines stretching beneath it so long they seem flat, although they are curves, going on for ever, Under the Yellow Iris. The iris seen as central. The insects' stand-point.

Sit in a tree, and you see the land stretch out beneath you; but here is someone who sees the same thing under a flower. The ability to change perspective - or could "the Yellow Iris", be, in some way, the sun? It does not seem likely to be so intentionally; that kind of figure is not now one of Maggie O'Sullivan's tools. I say "not now" because you will find writing which is of a kind of figuration in the early work: "Sometimes she entered, partially, his shadow. The moment first detected, to watch its gradual encroachment. A scar borne glare venting sleep: perfidious insignia. Motto in RED, the central gorged swan. (xvii) Serendipity could present the sun to us, ink-blot-style; then it is an eye in the sky, a pre-existing trope; and I don't feel that is what is going on here.

When I read stuff like: "the snow of craving waves / in blizzardy sheets of time" (xviii), I don't want to see any more. But metaphor can be used well; in CEZANNE AT AIX, Charles Tomlinson starts "And the mountain: each day / Immobile like fruit." That fits, it builds, it does not show off. It works... But with this work's constellatory visual interaction, figuration as such is not its process.

The poem changes more than perspective, it changes subject, while its objects change as part of its / their process, it changes narrative direction. The next word after "land", after a space / pause is "seizures", "land / seizures" - Seizure - when a system breaks down - or Seizure - when economic / thug reality intrudes - at almost any time in history, summed up here in a few words placed on a page.

What the inhuman world doesn't do to stop you, the human world will: "Access & Barriers. / Shouted / Mummeries, Granite". The mutable-immutable nature of the nature of that which resists our making urge, "the ineluctable modality of the visible" (xix), under the yellow iris, the flowers, or the sun, that which is outside... You may go into the wilderness, but you may still be visible. All our gods have told us so. As to wilderness, there aren't any, not any longer. When were there?

Europe is walked over, mapped, watched from the sky and owned; yet it is relatively easy, after some trial and error, to be on your own for days. Whether, in the effective wilderness, you are any nearer to The Nature, "an agricultural factory marked Piss Off” (xx), I very much doubt. The distinction between the city and the country always was blurred - there's a proprietorial sense of subjugation, a sort of factory owner's eye / consultant's tone, in The Georgics - as the private / public line can be crossed but not always identified. As far back as we can go, there were communities of habitations. Even with large spaces between dwellings, place-names tell you that most saw themselves as linked to others. Unknown Land started near at home. There are still many places in this country where people have never been further than a metropolis-worker commutes to work, perhaps less far. So that to the individual eye, the accessible land was small, effectively an island in an unknown world, known and harvested. If you go out away from humanity, wishing "to be nowhere", you will find yourself "with an un / interrupted view of what / where" (xxi) It is the quality of observation which matters. There is only rus in urbe: "It rained in the night, bringing colour back to the landscape. I walked to the Long Pits. The first of the yellow flag irises are out, as are bristly oxtongue, welted thistle and, over by the power station, curly dock. The sorrel has turned the ground a misty red. “ (xxii)

Survival of the non-human world. Survival of multiple states, unofficial stand points, place.

As to place, the name Colden in the penultimate line of page one of unofficial word is where the poet lives. A linguistic survival. A word unknown to most of the people in the world. A label stuck on the world as haphazardly and deliberately as a post-it note. What's it doing there? In time it will drop or be knocked off. Perhaps it needed something there. COLDEN. SARDINES.

Someone says: It doesn't tell us much about the place; I can't see it. Why should you? Someone reads:

A gaunt, gabled house,

grey, fretted, soars

above a verdigris canal which

sours with moss. A bridge

lithe as a schoolboy's leap,

vaults the canal. (xxiii)

I can see the place clearly, they say. Can you really? Yes. Are you sure?  Show me.

But why isn't there more about Colden if it's a place? There could have been; perhaps it was too much. The aim is to make a poem rather than to define or reproduce or illustrate a place.

As with swans, paper and craft, the verse - the more you look at it - makes clear that its method is not in finding visual similarities expressed in words. It walks the line, its lines, between this and that, hear and their, a voice of no one, not no one, unpossessed, spirited of places, not closed off from the objective world, quiet the opposite; but it "resist[s] exemplification... because the stylistic virtuosic and procedural devices are its very constitution" (xxiv)

The aim is to make a new poem. Existing poems have been made already; unfortunately, almost all of them by definition; copying them is unnecessary art restoration, what Richard Tabor called craft-stasis.

The aim is NOT self-expression. Excla, for instance, is written by two people, geographically separate, utilising aleatoric methods. It is NOT automatic writing, so the verse is not the voice of an entity external to the poetry. If there is a persona in an O'Sullivan poem, there are personas. The voice(s) of her poems is/are recognisable - in that one may be fairly confident about spotting a Maggie O'Sullivan poem - from book to book, but that does not make them one voice. Each constellation may be a multiplicity of voices, but they are not voices striving to be heard. They are as they are. Invented voices flowing into the poem, ceasing to be separate, ingredients, self-catalysts, un assuming personas.

In Winter Ceremony she talks... well... I don't know... She talks out of the poem


(about eight or ten letters I cant pronounce

A written equivalent to the aside to one not physically in the performance area that I have seen used by a range of poets - that has a curious effect, both emphasising to the audience that it is an audience by making clear artificiality and somehow denying it also because there is something involved in the performance which we are not able to witness. Whether by sleight of hand or unusual ability, the poet communicates with what / whom we cannot see. Or is the poet deluded?

Here though we are party to the text of the poem as it is made. Some source of the poem is being read. There is some inability certainly. She is in a position of having to or wanting to utter what she cannot pronounce.

Is the saying of the word part of the ceremony perhaps whilst remaining part of the making of the poem called Winter Ceremony, the poet sourcing the poem or part of it from other books? She comes upon a word she cannot pronounce, or says she cannot, or says she has come upon it, and she makes that real or imagined difficulty part of the poem by making its expression part of the poem's text so that the poetry and the making of the poetry become(s) a commentary upon the making of the poetry and the poetry. Yet it isn't a poem about itself; it is a poem which acknowledges its own materiality, undermining the surface "beauty" of its words.

Beauty of its words. "Give me the beat, boys, to free my soul, I want to get lost in your rock and roll and drift away". And too many are willing to do that with poetry. They want their souls to rise up, leaving their brains behind. I am going to open myself up here - what do you mean by lyrical? - but to hell with it. Maggie O'Sullivan's poetry is lyrical. And she undercuts it. You might have difficulty setting it to music as a song; but it sings itself:

the grainey ones shuffling on in the broken dragging

rain shuttered steep of their shrouds without

mourning (or ceremony) burying on

And when she reads, the way she reads and the qualities of her voice are good to listen to; but there is more to it than a good tune and she can do more than sing a good tune. Melodies are there but they are part of something complex, something less lyrical than it appears on first hearing which uses the lyricism but doesn't wallow in it or lean on it. It is free freeing poetry, not by denying the prison house but by analysing it.

Two lines pipe down the page, piping down the roll of those sounds just quoted ; but not, notice, a line or lines drawn across, separating sections - if the device is a barrier to some extent, it is a link, a baton waved. Both. The next verbal line "& in the sky" runs on and jump cuts from burying on, ending and continuing the previous lines simultaneously. That's quite a skill. The same thing happens again, the shift marked quite clearly by italicisation:

my father cutting the corn and my mother behind him

piling and binding to the ways of spelling i huge

Now something very odd is happening there too, but let's leave that out of it for the moment and stay with this father. We've met the father before in

once the father was going up to the quarry

That the father distances him, making mythic to some extent, an example dragged back from what remains of the past, some thing / one continuing - if only in the poem. Now it's my father, the tonality of the poem changes for the brief duration of that change.

The "narrative" had started earlier: "She had 7 sons. It begins with her by the door of their small tidy little farm." Notice that this section is set as prose, though the flow of that prose is soon diverted.

So it begins; and then it begins. But the text of which this text is a part (apart) has already begun. A series of beginnings, coincident / simultaneous beginnings, a text blossoming.

And not all the beginnings continue... a few lines on from the last quote, it begins again

Once Upon -

Once Upon Thorn Hill

Thorn Hill, Curragh

The familiar formulation of folk tales, once upon a time, not quite making it. The formulation is used, but remade. Yes, here is a folk tale, but it isn't a folk tale. The lines continue in little bursts of energy

in the townland of Darreen Dangan

off the Marsh Road

out of Skibbereen

summoning a verbal image of a Celtic and pre-Celtic past. Áine, Sun-Goddess appears, her name spoken three times, as the word "sun" has already been chanted and "SÚILE" which Ms O'Sullivan will say at readings is both the origin of SUL in her name and the word for sun. People named sun, working under the sun - there's nothing new under it, some say - and all this linked in some way with worship and ceremony.

I won't try to hide a certain irritation here. I won't go so far as one of my peers, at least in terms of generations, who said modern poets shouldn't bother themselves with poets who write out of religious belief; but I do have some difficulties with anything smacking of the transcendent... But a ceremony does not imply belief. One has only to compare the religious observation of so many of our high and mighty with their behaviour. Were not the priests of Amun apparently easily persuaded to get on their bikes and ride from Thebes to Amarna to set up the infrastructure of worship of Aten, the reclaimed sun deity, when Akhnaten turned off the cash flow to Thebes?

I shall limit myself therefore with this observation of the nexus sun - SÚILE - SUL - Áine - shine - Verbal signposts to the world made visible by sunlight, the warmth, the yellow of flowers, the words themselves in and making up the world.

But Áine is apparently also a muse - another worrying idea -

Áine of Music &

Harp & Song &

Poetry -

and at this point, the "Once upon a time " kicks in again

Poetry -

Once Upon -

Interestingly, the formulation is both disrupted - she doesn't get to the end of "once upon a time" - and effective in that we do get a little story starting

Poetry -

Once Upon -

there lived a tall woman

tall her long black coat

And the section following would be exemplary of economic story-telling:

once the father was going up to the quarry -

over six foot - the deep pool -

where he'd quarried the blue stone for the house -

and she shivering we all dead - was gone in -

couldn't put it out of her

that doing away -

not once but many times -

and only for he pulling her back -

she'd be drowned

Back to the father, cutting. There is an odd transition which is marked by the sudden lack of italicisation: piling and binding to the ways of spelling i huge

Spelling is both the use of language as communication and as magic. They aren't always, possibly often, separable. Language is used to gain power, as is magic. And that would be something known only too well to the poor of somewhere like Skibareen where the local language was being supplanted by the foreign rulers, where the ability to learn their language (Dear Sir, / I am empowered) might be to gain some of their power or to evade some of their power.

The chants and the repetitions of folk and children's tales, children's repetitions and word play are close to spelling, close to language's fluid potential, before it forms itself into meaningless phrasing (Let's face it at the end of the day), aware of the power particular formulations have upon others. The effect of language upon people is one thing; the effect upon objects is quite something else. But children don't yet know that, they are still poetic, nor do folk takes. (Open Sesame) One time, I watched a child chastise, verbally and physically, a plastic toy which had had the audacity to break. Why are you shouting at that toy? I asked. Because it doesn't work properly, the child returned.

Here, it seems to me, this section, we have something of a child's sense, rightly or wrongly, of the power of language and of course of ritualised movement, piling and binding, piling and binding to the ways of spelling. Those movements, structured almost ritualised movements, would go way back. And the child watching and seeing the power(s) in the people and their inherited knowledge. (There is a danger I shall inadvertently pastiche the start of Women in love so I shall move on)

There follows a chant or a verbal formulation:

Black & White Magpie -

Magpie heartgown -

Magpie heartwork -

Magpie Heartrise - Rise





though I am not in a position to offer any effective exegesis, if one is possible. I can see the kind of use of language that it is and the magpie and the heart, two symbols (?) to which meaning is routinely attached (It's raining in my heart, the thieving magpie)

The voice(s) heard here will be many. We are not being told one story about one thing. This is explicit in the transitions, the breaks, the fracturing and repetition of traditional story-telling.

We are given a series of states and circumstances voiced, no more, no less; and how appropriate that is to a text which is dealing in some sense with things which may change shape and state - for after the spell the bird must be made to "stir back from its shine... into its... gooseness"

The narrative in the section beginning "& in the sky" starts out with those exultant words - and what is in the sky? apart, that is, from the large figures of the labouring adults above the child, I suppose. [If you live in square town rooms and sit in chairs and at table you'll never see people in the sky; but if you go into fields where things roll and where there aren't chairs you'll see it differently; but it has to be experienced to be known - unless you are told, and such is not the kind of thing we are told - we must find out what industry needs from education.]

The child might dream and listen as I have suggested, but would also have jobs to do, the fetching of water perhaps, as the speaker a page on brings water to revive each goose back to its gooseness, and bird-scaring certainly. It becomes, then, recollective , "my father cutting the corn" (recollection rather than narrative, but not of course of the poet - nor not of the poet - While one knows from her verbal introductions to readings that Maggie O'Sullivan uses family and personal experience, she never produces the "poem about my father" kind of writing.

Bird scaring, bird-shape-changing. It is birds, or things appearing to be birds, that are in the sky, hunters and hunted, when they are not hiding from the sky. Look at page one


     going so




There's a bird. It's so quick you hardly see it, losing it in the white space of the shining page. But it's there, or was; and the old woman in her long black coat has, or sees, or both, feather dipping feet. That flying away of the bird precedes the eight or ten letters that cannot be pronounced - a spell being learned? a youngster learning language for the power it brings? the poet making a poem?

Certainly the poet making a poem. For all that this is poetry to be heard and is more greatly appreciated when it has been heard, it is poetry made of words rather than speech. Look at this from unofficial word

Trancers -

Toyed Mead / Can-Can Kiddy


Bitumen Stutter Clarels


and those words might well have been culled from books. This, from Lorica for Zoe, in House of the Shaman:



may well be, whatever else it is, of words sourced outside of the process of the poem, words tipped into a process. And that takes us back to the idea of spells and ceremonies where the words may either be meaningless or have lost their meaning (O'Sullivan containing an old word for sun) or to have a meaning only known to initiates (Pater noster qui... / Kyrie eleison)

There are other kinds of meaning than narrative meaning. Never mind what happens, what about what is, the gooseness of a goose, the way a goose is, or a tree or a person?

Recently a friend spoke to me of looking at a magnolia tree; but he said "I was watching a magnolia". It sounded odd. Why should one watch something that doesn't change? But that assumes that the something indeed doesn't change. What if it does? What if the world behaves in ways that we have not imagined and we are too unobservant to pick it up?

I am not about to go into a new age ramble, nothing like it. Whereas the poet / shaman as an inculcator via the power of words proposes a world which may be controlled by language, the poet as student and remaker of language proposes a world which exists in words. One thing the poet engages in is the construction of counterbalances to the confusions caused by and powers of language, earthing the earthly powers, denying the automatic truth of the stories we are told and tell ourselves: "Itinerant Hungers / coining LIVE / BLACK / systems out over mouth (xxv)






MAGGIE O'SULLIVAN: Giant yellow - a response


Coined / coigned language:



2 Horns, scalded, misspelt. Approximal

membraneous shadow plaiting, the

Letter Missing, Missingly

Not deprived of semantic meaning charged with it - double treble entendre quadruple - charged as with a battery and charged as in required to carry the meaning:

mouse ear



Grips dumbed


This is language organised and marshalled and piloted. Each phrase a pilot taking the reader into new space securely - the layout and placing on the page is precise and professional, follow me, walk this way please, we'll talk this way - and tried out, as in a pilot




Triply Hooves

pounded stomach on string







of a tv programme.

The text is clearly crafted but is also playful; and play implies inquiry and experimentation. And this is text(s) to be read aloud and therefore heard. Not the language of a herd but the language of an individual leading many:


it possesses

in the hollow of trees

in return

of blue

of nuts

its long sleep

Language of one with multiple meaning, not - I think - language of many saying the same thing simultaneously: "A coast thumps, flank of a Corpse".

Maggie O'Sullivan has a remarkable reading voice - and manner, her manner is quite compelling though friendly and supportive, drawing in audience (they who hear) - which is warm, resonant and not colloquial, not casual but causal:


BELLOW geometries

Note the trochaic tendency of the rhythm:






zipped differ

zephyr leaning to plight,

Cordoned, Colap


which is quite unlike speech in English:

- acro  pleural  petal  fugal


 - thick  fat  spat  fast

A most written English transposed into speech, and the sudden monosyllabic outcrop. This is far from strident speech but it strides ahead, emphasising, encouraging - all these monosyllables stressed? -

made is


Eyes, Tongue, Jaw -

easily us jump over making the dislocation of Clapham omnibus speech. Not that such parole ever could be heard on the Clapham omnibus no matter how deregulated it becomes (the language does not release us easily), such source sure of itself; yet communicative, choral, even, is memory bits, packs of pattern shuffling

strictly and promptly is

queued on the cards


"Tear-low Slaughter

Steady on Horror


We are enjoined to join in, become joyful hearing, if we hear together. Here I am saying that we hear takes over us. Over and around our heads go the words around us. We are a patterns respondings to pattern, the patter of syllables running around us ruining discourse in the cause (course?) of discourses:

      Field, The Casting Out of


  collie dog pearls, purslove diarying


delete, DESIRED

play of sounds I said. but is it sound? that is, is it both kinds of sense? and are either or both sound sense?

She shows love of words, many ending y. Why? Crackly. Laddery. Spaces in the lexicon which though lexically perceived may not be lexically filled from the lexicon because there the lexicon is vacant.

Discursion no. It is cursive speech says she to us, stylised. A breaking up of English but with such style. She puts such order to it that we see new patterns. In the country, I mean where human is not, even if near, the daisy and the fern and all plants have their places and take them. Things work, form their structure as all things held down to the surface of the earth in their wait do. In a garden the differences shows the difference the planting makes. Lines found, items do not founder, arrangements made, a range of things meant to be truly not as in "if God had meant us to" but meant as in "I meant to make the garden this way, look at my flowers..."

That is the kind we have of dislocation - transplantation of specimen groves of the language where you see all their shapes, stark, see - such words! - all round, all leaves in space, leaving space round each other.

Maggie makes language make itself accommodate more meaning than we bed it with. ease with it green. Shades of meaning we've though in, not expressed, pressed in with her expression of it


But it makes,

that's my worry now,

like paving, fences, labels to say


Sonorous it is

but sometimes    I snore in language

so sure I am    I sleep


She wakes, sonorously, dazes me,

walks me down paths between the phrases

as in dream the daisies white as

I scream wafers and chocked bars of light


The title, trochaic, adjectival double unless GIANT YELLOW is a giant's name. Then the giant yellowness of things - de rerum yellow.


Stress as anxiety as productive - Adrenalin is NOT all bad - concern for precision as passion "Want as a Province of Sheer Retinal Directory"




lower case

Upper And Lower Case

Underling to show voice perhaps

or stress placing


Commas for spacing, pacing

      -and space -

but no periods

so that clashes -

        show connectivity


... three periods at the

foot of the page indicating continuity,

I induce


It sounds "auric fin spun key skins" good to hear

rings on the air

shimmer gifts meant



as rings move out from a dropped stone pond intentionally in tension all

but do they all add up to

or make patterns just?



Is it enough to make patterns?

Enough to find patterns, to pose stratagems for exposing strata of sound and ways practically of meaning?


Is this an open system?


Is this a CLOSED

please call again which is

which SYSTEM?





(i) I cannot quote the words verbatim or anywhere near, but Eric Mottram made something like this point at the 1991 Sub Voicive Colloquium and he was saying it as a given


(ii) May I direct you to two articles by Robert Sheppard:

* Bob Cobbing: Sightings And Soundings (And 9)

* Biblioklast! Bob Cobbing: Text: Book: Performance (Artists' Book Yearbook 1996-97)

and to:

* Composition And Performance In The Work Of Bob Cobbing: A Conversation (mainly involving Eric Mottram and Bob Cobbing in March 1973) in Kontextsound, Kontexts Publications, Amsterdam, 1977


(iii) An Incomplete Natural History (Writers Forum, 1984) and Un-Assuming Personas (Writers Forum, 1985)


(iv)[1] quoted Barr, Alfred H.; Matisse: His Art and His Public; Secker & Warburg, 1975 - page 288


(v) Published in Responses 6 which was republished in Complete Responses, February 1992. Republished in edited form  as Transfusion (Pointing Device GiveAway 1) in October 1991.


(vi) from unofficial word


(vii) O'Sullivan, Maggie; Out of everywhere; Reality Street, 1995


(viii) O'Sullivan, Maggie; ibid.


(ix) O'Sullivan, Maggie; ibid.


(x) from Cycle 4


(xi) dsh in begin again: a book of reflections & reversals by dsh; Li Yuan-Chia, Cumbria, 1975


(xii) final lines of NAMING from In the house of the shaman.


(xiii) in Why I am not a painter by Frank O’Hara


(xiv) Miles Champion, Sore Models, 1995


(xv) they were on exhibit in Camden Arts Centre in 1992


(xvi)  This "tilting" when different realities meet is an idea taken from a novel by C S Lewis, Perelandra. When the angels arrive before Ransom - it's a novel with a Christian message - the room is felt to tilt because they are more real or the room is less substantial. The mix-up between land and sea is swiped from that novel as well.


(xvii) Un-assuming personas, 1982


(xviii) An example picked randomly, first time, from a poetry mag


(xix) James Joyce, Ulysses


(xx) Peter Riley Alstonefield


(xxi) Robin Blaser, AT LAST. The bulk of Robin Blaser's poetry is now available in one volume, The Holy Forest, Coach House Press, Toronto, 1993, which is still available despite the demise of Coach House Press


(xxii) Derek Jarman, Modern Nature, 1991


(xxiii) Derek Walcott, Another Life, 1973


(xxiv) Eric Mottram on Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew Reality Studios Vol 3 Nos 3/4 1981 - I have done some violence to Mottram's meaning, but I wanted the words!


(xxv) from By heart from unofficial word


Regarding Maggie O'Sullivan's Poetry was previously published, hardcopy , with only very minor differences, by Pages (Liverpool, UK; 1998; edited by Robert Sheppard)



Copyright © Lawrence Upton.

Return to