‘Ear Loads’: Neologisms and sound poetry in Maggie O’Sullivan’s Palace Of Reptiles

by Peter Middleton

 This essay was first published in Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, vol. 2, no 1 (2010), ed. Robert Sheppard and Scott Thurston. It was collected in The Salt Companion to Maggie O'Sullivan (2011). Reprinted with the permission of  Peter Middleton.
PDF of full essay here.


- I SING –






                        Maggie O’Sullivan, from ‘Doubtless’

To read ‘Doubtless’ and the book where it appears, Palace of Reptiles, is to be filled with ‘ear loads’ of clongy, phonempathic language songs, creating whisdomensional rituals cut with the unknown. Maggie O’Sullivan’s spondeeeling non-lexical vocables have such wonderful sonic associations that one wants to break out into one’s own creashining, arkhaptic neologisms (and trying to do so I realise how subtle and wide-ranging hers are compared to my efforts). Charles Bernstein’s preface to a collection of her earlier books, Body of Work, applauds ‘dialogic extravagance in the articulated, dithrombotic, honeycomb pluriperversity. He calls her style ‘clinamacaronic’ (playing on clinamen, macaronic, and the German kleine), an especially apt neologism; the sequence repeatedly swerves away from expected syntactic or syllogistic climaxes, and employs so many strange words or recognisable words made foreign by unexpected prefixes and suffixes, that it might well be borrowing its macaronics from an unknown language just emerging into perception, like the Borgesian language of Tlön. The passage above reflexively describes its use of liminal phonemic inventions as the fruit of ‘occiputal distentions’, which one can take to mean intentional distortions of the rules of language by the back brain. What form of sound poetry is this? It accommodates familiar lexical items, short bursts of regular syntax, and intimates both lexical and syntactic placement for many of the non-lexical sounds. It is both phonemic and non-phonemic, both purely sensuous sound and semantically active lexis. How therefore might readers (and listeners—O’ Sullivan is a consummate performer of her work) respond to those ‘ear loads’ of ‘chismeric’ sounds of Tlönic language?

‘What is the function of sound poetry today’? asks Stephen Voyce in an interview with Christian Bök, and then qualifies the question by adding that he is interested in how things have changed since ‘the groundbreaking work of the 1970s by poets such as the Four Horsemen, Henry Chopin, or Bob Cobbing’. This is a question that might equally be put to Maggie O’Sullivan, who was mentored in Cobbing’s poetry workshops, and whose poetry and performance, though very different to Bök’s, similarly dances along the borders of sound, sense and disorientation. Bök’s response to the leading question’s inadvertent functionalism and its invitation to dogmatic generalisation is to shift ground to the poetics of sound poetry. Earlier generations of sound poets, he says, ‘justified their work by saying that such poetry allows the practitioner to revert to a more primitive, if not more infantile, variety of humanism.’ Bök proposes instead that we think in terms of the achievements of civilisation and adopt a cyborg poetics: ‘I think that most of the theories about sound poems are too “phono-philic” or too “quasi-mystic” for my own tastes as an intellectual, and I think that modern poetry may have to adopt other updated, musical theories to express the hectic tempos of our electrified environment.’ Salience of the acoustic in Maggie O’Sullivan’s poetry, especially her use of non-lexical word-like assemblages of recognisable phonemes, readily elicits characterisation as a primarily sound-based poetry that courts animist, bodily, zoomorphic spirits to express themselves in raw, passional sounds that can be reductively explained as primitivist (as can the work of an artist on whom O’Sullivan researched for the BBC, and who could also be mistakenly taken for no more than a primitivist, Joseph Beuys). As an alternative to grounding the phonic in a pre-rational culture, Bök follows what he calls a ‘techno’ standpoint towards the practice of sound poetry.  Techno probably wouldn’t help us understand O’Sullivan’s practice,  but I think Bök’s emphasis on the value of a rationalist poetics for sound poetry is well  worth pursuing when considering her poetry’s use of sound. One way of doing this is to consider the history and concept of neologisms as a backdrop for her use of words that are on the margins of language or even entirely outwith semantic range.

As the passage above shows, the neologisms have a special context that requires acknowledgement even before considering the individual words themselves. These poems take time, time to happen, sound out, reveal thought, and they respond best to immersive reading and attentive listening. Nothing remains the same long enough to enable a truth claim to assert strong rights over the reader. Each line, each word, and sometimes each phoneme, mark shifts of being, changes of perspective, transformations of feeling, altered understanding, hits of new perception. She can be a good modernist and doesn’t explain this process as a stream of mental event, or provide a capacious subject whose identity might be the locus for all these verbalising moments. More radically still, her poems don’t unfold in evenly spaced verbal moments. Typographical and visual use of the space of the page, as well as painterly marks in some books, stretch and slow elapsed time, and the changing intensities of expression create wide differences in the scale of the poem’s instants. The poetry can feel very small or terrifying large, imminently integrable or a rubble dump where horrors lurk (I can think of no other poetry that has learned as much from the contemporary genre of horror fiction and film). Even the words ‘slip, slide and sometimes perish’ in a manner alarmingly literal, so that words seem familiar, old, new and damaged, keeping the element of surprise on their side. It’s within this altered sense of time and spacing that the neologisms occur, so many that the poetry might be called Adamic, although the power of naming often seems less a gift and more a desperate ruse in the face of unknowable and unsayable forces, entities and events.