Maria Sledmere, Existential Stationary: 42 Mad Men Haiku (SPAM Press, 2018)

You know how Confessional Poetry is/was a thing? Well Confessional Reviewing is too. You see it all the time. Well, this is my turn to try my hand at it. Confession: I've never watched Mad Men. But I'm the biggest sucker for advertising ever so I probably will now I've read this pamphlet and I won't even realise why. Plus, I worked for a year as a copywriter for a marketing agency. Plus I'm bald and yo yo diet. Shit. What is it about advertising speak that plays on one's weaknesses and has one reveal oneself so suddenly?  The only other thing I need to confess is that even without having watched Mad Men, I loved this pamphlet of haiku, interspersed with quotes from Mad Men, and prefaced by a strangely seductive marketeering voice - like a Saatchi and Saatchi Virgil:

"Let the lines curl away as expensive vapour, marketed madness, excess ink from the broken printer."

"It's all about distribution, baby."

Well of course I'm putty from the get-go. All it takes is that command of language, and italics. It got me reassessing all my life choices. But the haiku themselves, and the weird Don Draper pronouncements that accompany them (I'm getting the hang of this) , just do more to simultaneously comfort and discombobulate: 

"Snap me clean over 

the head of every intern 

who tries it with you. 

Measure me against  

your favourite wall; I’ll be that 

tall, lustily small. "

Haikus as jingles, as little word-viruses. It doesn't matter that "tall, lustily small" seems to be a paradox - it's exactly this slippery play with signifiers, desire, aspiration with which this whole manipulative theatre of nerves is underpinned. In Revenge of the Crystal, Jean Baudrillard wrote that the function of advertising is "its logic as an autonomous medium... referring one sign to another, one object to another, one consumer to another." Elsewhere in the same book, Baudrillard writes: "advertising is a spoken prophecy to the extent that it isn't meant to be comprehended or apprehended, but to be foretold. What it says doesn't presuppose a prior truth, but a posterior confirmation through the reality of the prophetic sign it emits". The short circuit in Sledmere's poem here - "tall, lustily small" - the awkwardness of that three syllable "lustily" - is prophetic in the same way - the rhyme takes us to "small" before we get there. The language sort of consumes itself here.

One of the other pivots around which this collection flexes is corporate culture, office life. Part of Sledmere's accomplishment here is to reveal the filing-clerk's appreciation of poetic form: meticulous, bean-counting syllables, while simultaneously allowing there to be this coursing press of bodies into trouser suits and throbbing stress-neck underneath:

"The coruscating

waterfalls of staples peal

like the purest bell"

This is poetry that attunes to the chanting chatting cha-ching of staplers and sheets of paper, this orchestral machinations of corporate culture. A haiku is like a staple of course it is - punch, pierce, combine. These poems make overt and bring to the surface this bouncing, seduction of being part of something (even if that something is kind of monstrous but why focus on that). Like "tall, lustily small", this poem too has its strange causal twist. Sledmere chooses the poetic form that is perhaps most causally organised - because of the first two lines the third line has to follow (even when its peculiar energy comes from the fact it doesn't seem to quite follow in any discernible logic). Because its a haiku, and the event of a haiku is that it follows. The same thing goes on in advertising: Baudrillard again: "this mode of self-fulfilling prophecy' is tautological. Reality is nothing more than this model of self-utterance."  

 

It's what makes poetry so uncomfortably close to advertising, and why its so yuk when poetry actually is about selling something (e.g. the nationwide adverts), but maybe it's also what makes poetry particularly  suitable to digest, unpick, destabilise advertising speak. This is what the sophist Gorgias was saying when he would boast he could convince his audiences of any truth or falsehood. And this is what Sledmere's pamphlet does too. Right, I'm off to buy a box-set to fit in around my busy busy busy life, catch you later.   

© 2018 Colin Herd and all the individual poets

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