The Alexandra Sequence review – giving rhyme and reason to our online lives

Poetry: John Redmond maps our web interactions. Also: Róisín Kelly’s ‘Rapture’

 

How does our oddly bodiless online life make its way into contemporary poetry? The risky, tenuous poems of The Alexandra Sequence (Carcanet, £9.99), John Redmond’s third collection, attempt to map our modern communications onto a sort of autobiography. The long title sequence is named for the part of Liverpool where Dublin-born Redmond and his family live, but the poems are not much interested in either geographical or historical locations, touching, say, on the 2011 riots, but not really registering the grainy particularities of the past decade.

Instead, Redmond is interested in the way that we live now, between screens, and the book’s title sequence, which makes up two-thirds of the book, begins, “I open a window east of Microsoft Word,” and that language of online Windows, open tabs and “the backlit / pastel icons of Skype and Spotify” is key to understanding Redmond’s process.

The poems treat, side-by-side and simultaneously, stories (or tabs) about the past and the present moment, drawing from public life, family lore and Redmond’s reading, so that, in Alexandra One, he is watching footage (shaky) of a mummer’s play while a riot plays out in the car park beneath his apartment window, and when a neighbour calls by, the music of American band Pavement plays – the song Redmond namechecks, understandably, is the riddling Summer Babe (Winter Version).

Juxtapositions

Time, as SF writer Ray Cummings observed, is what stops everything happening all at once, and Redmond’s use of oddly lateral juxtapositions removes time or refuses to privilege one moment over another, so that each moment seems to contain within it all that has gone before and everything that will happen in future.

This is most apparent in the description of a pregnancy, where images configure a strange simultaneity, although the actual body involved is hard to track down,

The lemon’s nostalgia for the poppy-seed

is a memory of the placenta. The grapefruit

fills, as the grape foretold, with the incandescence

of not going back,

(Alexandra Seven)

a series of images whose sense only dimly comes into view when we realise the speaker is attending a pre-natal class. The comedy of comparison then re-imagines a police chase as “the former lentil hunted down by former / poppy-seeds”.

If we recognise this kind of overloaded, media-saturated, overlapped scene, and Redmond’s ingenuity in capturing it, we must also reckon with the fact that Redmond is feeling his way into the right form to represent this world. Is the fact that “it was there” reason enough to write it down? Maybe.

Another question Redmond asks is harder to answer: where do the poet and the writing fit in this world? Alexandra Two asks not “how to live”, but “how to live here”, territory on which Redmond is less sure. In Alexandra One, the writer becomes, confoundingly, an arm of the law, recording the riots on his Blackberry and calling 999. As the poem puts it, with convincing desperation, “We are blurs that would be vivid.”

Precursors

In Redmond’s book, this desire for definition pre-dates pixilation. The poems only see things and people in relation to their precursors, a method which draws attention to the artificial nature of both reality and the fictional universe. Reading Juvenal in December, he is startled by a “crash – not in the original but / outside. I flipped up the screen and there he stood – / looking at me with eyes he didn’t always have; / the knife in his no longer webbed hand / gouging the frame” ( Alexandra Seven).

Redmond’s insight is to write the internet age and the idea of homo deus not as SF but through a poetry of predestination, whose characters only come into focus when they take on avatars, which are also traditional roles. All we can do, he suggests, is play the parts we have assigned to us.

The title sequence is followed by a series of poems which describe Redmond’s student years. Maybe Redmond is too wedded to these real-world events, but the university scenes become, very quickly, a sort of generic Purgatory, a place between worlds, where the poet is figured as a key-chain-rattling porter, a Janus-like god of doorways who is himself unable to enter fully one world or another:

I tested it,

and twisted it.

But such a door!

It snapped my proxy off

and swallowed him.

When I knelt my eye

to the eye of the obstacle,

my little self

could not be seen. But

in the bloodied

keyhole tunnel,

a tiny door

shut.

(Rogue Lock)

Is the language here too freighted, too heavily leaning towards symbolic over-determination? It is, anyway, like Redmond’s disorienting scene-shifting between present, remembered and imagined worlds, a risk Redmond runs at various times across the book. The Alexandra Sequence sets itself a commendably ambitious task, and its difficulties show clearly the challenge of writing a cosmopolitan, necessary poetry of our present moment.

Traditional but sensuous images

Róisín Kelly’s Rapture (€5) is the first publication in what Southword Editions boldly promises will be a series entitled New Irish Voices. Kelly’s poems might be more traditional than Redmond’s, but they are fresh, sensuous and direct where Redmond drifts, teases and dallies. Addressing an ex, she writes: “Wherever you are, go / with a bride-thought haunting your shoulder, as lovely as snow” ( At a Photography Exhibition in New York Public Library). “The words are everything”, she writes in Easter, although her poem’s implication of “words” with desire risks, and gets away with, using some of the oldest images we have: “Now a rose is once again / not only rose but also soft and red / and thorn and bee and honey.”

John McAuliffe’s fourth book The Way In (Gallery) was joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Prize in 2016. He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.

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