Maggie O'Sullivan
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Charles Bernstein

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from Reality Street Editions (UK)

from the publisher:
Body of Work brings together for the first time all of Maggie O'Sullivan's solo collections of poetry and visual texts published before her 1993 Reality Street book In the House of the Shaman. These booklets, long out of print, are here presented in facsimile, scanned from the original publications, or in some cases the original mauscripts, together with a selection of previously unpublished works.

My foreword to

Body of Work

is adapapted  from a longer essay on O'Sullivan
published in the most recent issue of

Colliderings: O’Sullivan’s Medleyed Verse

Charles Bernstein

Every poem was once a word.

If culture were an accident, then the job of the poet might be to write the report rather than rectify the wrong. If culture were the product of a supreme fiction, then the poet's job might be to find the authors and clue them into things ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­– not as they are but as they appear.

Maggie O’Sullivan begins one of her readings by invoking an “unofficial” word (also the title of one of her books). In this sense, and perhaps paradoxically, O’Sullivan is in a main line of British poets, a line that swerves, with clinamacaronic speed, from Blake to Swinburne, MacDiarmid to Raworth, Carroll to Bergvall, Cowper to Loy, Kwesi Johnson to Bunting, Rossetti to Fisher. In their own way, each of these is an anti-representative poet: one who takes the office of poetry as the creation of spaces between sanctions; outside, that is, received categories.

You can't make a poem unless you are willing to break some verses.

In Roots of Lyric: Primitive Poetry and Modern Poetics, Andrew Welsh makes the distinction between "song melos" (with its externally derived regular meter) and "charm melos" (whose more chaotic sound patterns emerge internally). O’Sullivan’s poetry is unmistakably charm. In “riverrunning (realizations” (in Palace of Reptiles), she put it this way: “A Song Said Otherwise, half sung / half said SINGS”; where “Otherwise” is also a music that is “Edgewise” [Palace, p. 59], wise to edges and others and also edgy; othering and auditing rather than authoring.

To half-sing a song is to stutter into poetry and back to music, your back to the music, part incantation, part pleat. “Stammering before speech,” O’Sullivan writes in “riverrunning (realizations” [Palace, p. 60]: not just prior to but in the face of. The beat is off mark so as to be on tangent. A stone thrown into a pond (pound, pun) produces rings of concentric circles around the point of entry. The charm is to create a rhythm in the counter-current, via the interference (the event): the shortest distance between two waves is a sign. This is what O’Sullivan calls “colliderings” [Palace¸ p. 63].

Compared to the magnificent hieratic credo of Bunting, “Take a chisel to write,” O’Sullivan sounds our poetic a-anthem of the Unofficial Word:

               me Cloth /
                                Shakings of chisel/
                                      Chounded all pitches

The shaking chisel (trembling, warbling, stuttering, faltering) marks a radical shift not just of aesthetic but ethic. The legitimate aspirations of pitch, not our tent, but our voicings. Chounded: a collidering of hounded, bounded, & founded with chow, with chew, what we eat in our mouths, the visceral words of the unofficial world we make by inhabiting.

O’Sullivan, in a 1990 interview, puts it this way: “… my work is driven by the spoken, sounded or breathing voice. Particularly I have always been haunted by issues of VOICELESSNESS—inarticulacy—silence—soundlessness—breathlessness—how are soundings or voices that are other-than or invisible or dimmed or marginalized or excluded or without privilege, or locked out, made Unofficial, reduced by ascendant systems of centrality and closure, configured or Sounded or given form & potency; how can I body forth or configure such sounds, such tongues, such languages, such muteness, such multivocality, such error—& this is perhaps why the non-vocal in mark & the non-word in sound or language—make up much of the fabrics & structures of my own compositions.” [Brown, p. 90]

On October 27, 1993, O’Sullivan performed “To Our Own Day,” from Kinship with Animals (Book II of In the House of the Shaman) at SUNY-Buffalo (audio file available at PennSound: MP3). O’Sullivan called the poem, “my favorite of all the pieces I have ever written.” The poem takes O’Sullivan just over 40 seconds to read. I keep listening to it in a loop, dozens of times. Each listening brings something new, something unfamiliar; and the rational part of my ear has a hard time comprehending how this is possible, how such a short verbal utterance could be so acoustically saturated in performance. To be sure, this experience is produced by the performance of the poem and not (not so much) by the poem’s text, where fixed comprehension (however illusory) comes sooner.

Each time I listen to “To Our Own Day,” I recall best the beginning, the first several words. But once the poem gets underway, I listen anew, almost without recall, the combinations of unexpectable words create a sensation of newly created, permutating sense-making at each listening. I keep thinking I will “get it” (and be finished with it), but I hear different things, make different associations, each time I listen. This is the primary condition of “charm” in Welch’s sense.

In the Buffalo performance, the tempo moves from a fairly quick speech tempo (some space after each word) to a more rapid song tempo (almost no space between the words) and then ends with the slightly slower speech tempo. The intonation (pitch) sounds consistent throughout: as a result there is no change in the inflection: each word is receiving a just measure of care. (I mean to relate this to “just intonation” in music, as well as to chant.)

The circular shift in tempo created a top-like effect, quickly gaining speed and slowing down slightly at the end. The words seems to trip on one another, gaining acceleration first through the echo of the accented vowel sounds and then, near the end, by a string of intense alliteration. The effect of word modulating into word is partly the result of the way O’Sullivan extends the vowels: it is as if a continuous stream of mutating vowels was punctuated by a counterflow of consonants; as if the consonants were rocks skimming in the water, surrounded by concentric circles of rippling vowel sounds.

O’Sullivan’s words lead by ear. Hers is a propulsively rhythmic verse that refuses regular beat; an always morphing (morphogenic) exemplum of Henri Meschonnic’s distinction between the ahistoricity of meter and embodiment of rhythm. But O’Sullivan’s is less an embodied poetics than a visceral gesture (“pressed synaptic”): not an idea of the body made concrete but a seismographic incarnation of language as organ-response to the minute, shifting interactive sum of place as tectonic, temporality as temperament, self is as self does.

“Birth Palette” ( Palace of Reptiles):
In the beginning was the enunciating; words are the residue of a hope.
So often O’Sullivan avers syntax for axial iteration, word / ord / wo / rd / drow, as if Adam grooved on applets and sugarcane, always on the eve of being able. Naming, here, is an avocation, kissing cousin of invocation and melody.
This is a poetry not of me/me/me but it/it/it.
Ecopoetics as echo-poetics.

“Knots, whorls, vortices” – O’Sullivan quotes this phrase from Tom Lowenstein’s study of the Inuits [epigraph to “Doubtless” in Palace of Reptiles, p. 31]; this trinity is emblematic, not of O’Sullivan’s forms but of her stamp. Which, in turn, suggests the connection between her project and the intimations of the archaic that infuse her poems: a cross-sectional boring through time, whirling the sedimentary layers into knots. The archaic material pushes up to the surface. Collage and pulverization are at the service of a rhythmic vortex.

O’Sullivan’s engagement with Joyce, especially the late work, is both intimate (in-the-sounding) and explicit (in-the-naming). If Joyce’s words are like refracting, crystalline black holes, O’Sullivan’s are trampolines.

“Plover bodying”: in flight; “irre-reversible ‘almostness’”: no more irritable striving after permanence (irreversibility), the inevitability of the not-quite, the now in neither. “MAPPING OF LONGINGS / we never arrive at”: Almost is itself subject to reverse – there, not there; here, not here. The inebriation of fort/da, the stadium of the “hap-hazard UNCLENCHINGS”: Fort DaDa.

There is no rhythm without song and yet song codes the acoustic surfeit that is O’Sullivan’s ore. “Iridesce!”

O’Sullivan’s visceral vernacular (“carnal thickness”): autochthonous verse, tilling the inter-indigenous brainscape of the Celtic / Northumbrian / Welsh / Gaelic / Scots / Irish / Anglo / Saxon transloco-voco-titillated strabismus. It’s not that O’Sullivan writes directly “in” any one of the languages “of these Isles,” but that they form a foundational “force field” out of which her own distinctive language emerges, as figure set against its grounding.

Native to the soiled, aberrant (“errmost”), aboriginality.

“At this point, they merge & ARE.”
[Un-Assuming Personas, Body of Work, p. 61]

Dialogic extravagance in the articulated, dithrombotic, honeycomb pluriperversity.

“TO BEGIN A JOURNEY, / enunciate.”

You say utterance, I say wigged-in, undulating, wanton specificity. Utter defiance as language-particle pattern recognition system. Defiance as deference to the utterly present, actual, indigestible, sputtering imagination of the real as punctuated rivulets of fragrant nothings in the dark dawn (stark spawn) of necessity’s encroaching tears.

The medleyed consciousness of these sounds, these languages, is made palpable in O’Sullivan’s poems, which lend themselves to recitation, while resisting thematization. Her words spend themselves in performance, turn to gesture, as sounds wound silhouettes and rhythms imbibe (“re-aspirate”) incantation.

O’Sullivan cleaves to charm: striating song with the visceral magic of shorn insistence.



An earlier version of this essay was written for The Salt Companion to Maggie O’Sullivan , edited by Lawrence Upton (forthcoming) and first published in Ecopoetics 4/5 (2004-2005). This essay was both expanded and excerpted as the introduction to Body of Work. 

Otherwise unaccredited quoted phrases are from “all origins are lonely”: “pressed synaptic,” “Plover bodying,” “MAPPING OF LONGINGS / we never arrive at,” “hap-hazard UNCLENCHINGS,” “carnal thickness,” “errmost,” “TO BEGIN A JOURNEY, / enunciate.”

In section 19, I quote two phrases of O’Sullivan (“of these Isles” and “force field”) from a conversation we had in London in July 2004.  

Works Cited by Maggie O’Sullivan:

“all origins are lonely” ( London: Veer Books, 2003)
In the House of the Shaman (London: Reality Street, 1993)
“Interview” in Andy Brown, ed., Binary Myths 2 (Exeter, UK: Stride, 1999)
Palace of Reptiles ( Willowdale, Ontario: The Gig, 2003)
Unofficial Word, which is collected in Body of Work ( Hastings, East Sussex: Reality Street, 2006).

– New York (2004/2006)

Maggie O'Sullivan on PennSound
transcript of "Close Listening" interview at Jacket 2

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