Monday 18 July 2022

CC: DEATH CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF PERSONNEL & DEVELOPMENT, Cole Denyer (Veer, 2022) reviewed by Fran Lock for Summer Poetry Round Up


This is Cole Denyer’s first book with Veer, which feels like a perfect fit for a work that reads as a difficult and often frightening hex against the apparatus of the state.

With biting irony Denyer describes the book beginning as a ‘billet-doux to an Employment Relations Officer regarding the termination of my Occupational Sick Pay; it ended from the future by saying ‘if there are any other ways in which we can be of any further help or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.’ This was an attempt to think what those other ways might be.’’ (p.46) This thinking takes the form of a lyric forensis, interrogating the malignant operations of power through language. On first reading, I was reminded of one of my favourite poets Rachel Blau Duplessis, who writes in ‘Draft 52: Midrash’: ‘Every mourner as a black Letter unwritten/ every body, stick, or piece of body ash/ a silent blanked out sentence inside of a syntax of systematic/ revulsion.’ Denyer is similarly preoccupied with this ‘syntax of systemic revulsion’, and with the function of the name inside this system. CC: DEATH CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF PERSONNEL & DEVELOPMENT gives us, on the one hand, the violently anonymised and disappeared victims of Tory economic policy, and on the other the punitive visibility of surveillance capitalism. More than this, Denyer’s text is the tool by which the tactical concealment of Tory politicians, undercover operatives, and other agents of the state, is exposed and countered. Working at the semantic and syntactic limits of language, Denyer hacks his way through bureaucratic jargon and the numb affect of party-political pronouncements to summon and subject their perpetrators to a lyric retribution.

A particularly striking section of the book begins with a list of names and aliases belonging to undercover police, such as Mark Kennedy, who serially infiltrated left-wing activist cohorts throughout the mid-2000s, manipulating and deceiving several women into sexual/ emotional relationships, with the full sanction of his supervisors. Although Kennedy became the poster boy for undercover corruption, the list of some thirty-eight names is a visually arresting (and morally disturbing) testament to how rife and normalised this tactic was. Because Denyer does not terminate this list with a full stop, we are left with the unsettling feeling that the rollcall of informers is potentially endless. The list is followed by an italicised section quoting from a Hansard report on a Commons debate from 1818, addressing the ‘Motion Respecting The Conduct Of Certain Spies And Informers’ (p.29). This collision of temporalities signals the ongoing and recursive nature of malignant state power; its endlessly exhausting cycles of concealment and disclosure.

What follows is a passage in which the figure of the undercover cop is used to think about the ways in which identity – political and poetic – is constituted and riven. Here Denyer’s language is at its most searing and exciting. The poem resists readerly efforts to break down the text into conventional sense or syntactic units, instead multiplying constructions along different axis. The grammar is suggestive and slippery, and Denyer enacts the spy’s schizoid pinball between names, identities, allegiances, and lives on the blank space of the page, where fragmented stanzas of irregular length shuttle back and forth from left to right. It is Denyer’s phrase-making however that is most compelling: ‘friends/ your brightest human warmth/ assuming like other members/ the identity of a body who had died young/ & be made into braids of armaments/ & worships invisible now through the spy gash/ […] speak through stolen life,/ a name of deceased child’ (p.30). The uncanniness of Denyer’s language brings home to us the sheer perversity of a state cannibalising its infant dead as an instrument of surveillance. It is also hints at the psychic contortions necessary to undertake such a betrayal.

The tale of ‘Sergeant Yobbo’ is a grotesque masque in which Denyer’s oracular poet-yob turns the logics of infiltration back against the undercover agent: ‘I speak your mouths exit a bewitched helve’, he writes. ‘Yob’ by its very definition is a faceless working-class unit; a member of the mob, the swarm, the hoard. By stepping inside a ‘Yobbo’ skin, Denyer’s cop invites this seething multitude in all its warped and warping rage.

Rage is the substance and the subject of Denyer’s work, but his purpose is not merely to give vent, but to use the destabilising force of prole fury as a tool for reinventing poetic method. Sometimes this work is hard to read. This passage from the beginning of the text, for example, is particularly grim: ‘The crypt Janis Dobbie eats/ is of red-tapeworm sanctioned her dead son/ or bones blown into flag ended/ in the undercroft for ended; smyth’d/ for banisht; Iendeth/ for forgotten people screw in & be small & hard’ (p.8). Janis Dobbie is the mother from Gallowgate in Glasgow who lost two adult sons to heroin addiction, and who Ian Duncan Smith claimed to be responsible for the moral epiphany that led him to found the Centre for Social Justice. The pain in these lines is palpable, but so is the way in which this pain is bureaucratised and assimilated into the apparatus and language of the state towards political ends: ‘red-tapeworm’ connects the decayed physical body to the rotting body of the state through the idea of ‘red tape’. Government itself is necrophagous, parasitically feeding on the misery of the poor. ‘Flag ended’ with is aural affinity to ‘fag-end’ implies a spent and expendable subject, who is nevertheless yoked to a grubby nationalistic script. The use of archaic spellings ‘smyth’d’, ‘banisht’ and ‘Iendeth’ provokes another of Denyer’s temporal glitches where Dobbie’s grief becomes part of an endlessly looping continuum of exploitation and oppression.

For all the historical miseries visited upon the poor, Denyer offers a space of counter preservation. CC: DEATH CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF PERSONNEL & DEVELOPMENT requires an act of non-trivial attention, an attention seldom afforded the poor as either citizens or subjects within literature or in life. These poems are about language and what capitalism does to us on the level of language. They are also work sites, in which the work is the reclaiming of language and the renaming of experience. Don’t come to this book for catharsis, but to be provoked, confronted, and stirred into action.

Fran Lock