Blurring the senses of ‘vision’: a review of Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a timely and accomplished first novel.

The book is timely, in the first instance, because of the character of the narrator-scfthotsprotagonist’s life. He is a broken soul, depressed and suffering a kind of PTSD following the sudden death of his mother and sister in a car crash. His unresolved grief culminates in a psychotic break while waiting in line in a shop landing him in a psychiatric ward. When the story proper begins, we find him released and living alone and friendless, eking out his life on a combination of government assistance and freelance webdesign, self-medicating with cannabis and, most importantly, psychedelics, given him by a shadowy, semi-official figure, Ober. Despite the extremity of his condition, the narrator is a Millenial type, depressed, medicated, and living precariously, whose typicality is reinforced by his remaining anonymous.

The novel is germane, further, because of its thematic concerns:  psychedelia and entheogens, transhumanism, nonhuman intelligences, and, more traditionally, because of their inescapability, suffering and mortality. Without giving too much away, the novel plots the narrator’s treatment with increasingly experimental psychedelics under Ober’s, and soon his colleagues’, care. As one might well imagine, as the treatment progresses, what is real becomes more precarious and amorphous. The deftness and delicacy with which this aspect of the narrative is dealt is one of the novel’s stylistic accomplishments.

The narrator’s treatment and attendant visionary experiences introduce another timely topic, transhumanism. But, unlike the simpleminded, techno-utopian version of Ray Kurzweil, Rushton envisions, or so it seems, given neither the reader nor the narrator are sure of what is real or not at any given time, a transcendence via entheogenically-driven evolution. The plot is haunted, too, not only by visions of the posthuman, but of the non-human. Weird, protean intelligences appear throughout, impish, defamiliarized versions of the folkloric Faery, here turned to a more modern or postmodern significance. Rushton’s uncanny re-imagined Little People bring to mind David Lynch’s unsettling, daemonic inhabitants of the Black Lodge. And anyone acquainted with the evergrowing body of entheogenic literature will be reminded of the entity reports that compose one part of it.

In more conventional, literary terms, the emotional heart of the book is the narrator’s unresolved grief and the attendant need to come to terms with mortality. Beneath the theatrical trappings remarked above (nevertheless, a not unimportant part of the novel’s architecture) is the process of the narrator’s painful and harrowing exploration of the painful frailty of human connection, familial and otherwise. One risk the novel takes is in its attempts to employ the extremes of the plot as a means to defamiliarize and so make new its heady thematic and emotional content.

And it’s just here in how ably this otherwise apparently unassuming novel carries off this difficult task that its more literary artistic achievements shine. Despite being a novel of first-person introspection and profound experience, psychedelic and emotional, the plot never bogs down, an accomplishment in its own right. The growing disorientation of the narrator over the reality of his experiences is deftly handled so that that confusion is vividly represented but without ever confusing or frustrating the reader. Despite the gravity and complexity of its concerns, the novel is constructed with a sly, intertextual irony, drawing on Shakespeare, Byron, Lewis Carroll, pop culture, folklore ancient and modern, and other sources to weave the plot’s materials, which, as they are slowly revealed, complicate, intensify, and lighten the reading experience.

In the wake of the French Revolution’s descent into the Terror, trust and hope in Progress or the sudden advent of a new world or age both faded. Writers, then, struggled to understand and render this new, obscure relation to time, history, and endings, composing in answer works without a clear ending or even, sometimes, beginning, novels and poems where reality and imagination, realistic prose, fairy tale, and dream, all served to blur the meanings of ‘vision’, most notably in those works of Romantic Irony, such as Novalis’ unfinished and unfinishable novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, forerunners of those forays into postmodern undecidability, such as the novels of Thomas Pynchon.

Rushton’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a deceptively unassuming participant in this tradition, equally our condition. It combines the perennially, personally urgent matters of death and grief, the real material conditions of millenial life under neoliberal capitalism, a more overarching concern with the fate of humankind, and speculations about knowledge and reality all within a narrative equally introspective and plot-driven, woven of an ambivalent tissue of the present moment and the literary inheritance. Rushton’s book finds a home on the bookshelf, beside titles by William Burroughs, Terrence McKenna, and their fellow travellers.

Neil Rushton. Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun. London:  Austin MaCauley, 2016. 289 pp.

 

Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide rushtonvariety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. Recently he has been exploring the confluence between consciousness, insanity and reality and how they are affected through the use of a wide variety of psychotropic drugs. His first novel, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, explores these issues to the backdrop of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd. He also writes a blog-site devoted to the mythology and reality of the faeries:  https://deadbutdreaming.wordpress.com/

 

 

The Year in Review, or The Latest Album

gull bouyUnlike some poets, who seem able to compose and publish a new book every year, I learned long ago my creative metabolism is more like that of a pop musician, about twelve new pieces, or a new album, annually.

Here’s what I’ve produced this year, with early versions of poems shared here hyperlinked; italicized titles are sequences, while those in quotation marks are individual poems:

Cyberian Vistas (one of which can be read here)

Replies to Mayer Hillman (an early version of one of which can be read here)

Toronto Suite (two of which can be read here and here)

“Standard Eyes I Shun”

Pasqua Lake Elegies

“A Portrait of the Artist”

“A book I can’t read closed”

“I’m told you’re disappointed”

“Brief von München”

There are some miscellaneous “one-offs” here, too:  “Two [more!] for Mayer Hillman”, “Ontario Election Results in Real Time 2018”, and a little poem on the eve of the provincial elections in Quebec, here.

Happily, too, I delivered a talk on the poetry of Peter Dale Scott and the Postsecular at what used to be called the Learneds in May, while the end of summer saw my collaborator Antoine Malette and myself translating passages of Louis Riel’s Massinahican, which will hopefully appear in an anthology forthcoming from University of California Press in 2019 or 2020.

 

 

A Further Serendipity: Concerning Having Nothing to Write

DH readingI doubt there’s a writer who doesn’t experience times when there seems to be nothing to write. I’d wager, though, that that block or absence of inspiration often isn’t so much a lack of some subject as much as the result of some paralyzing judgement by that tyrannical Inner Editor every writer has that this or that matter isn’t worth writing about or that the writer, for whatever reason, just isn’t up to doing it justice.

Yesterday, the late Donald Hall‘s last poem in his notebook popped up in my newsfeed:

DH The Last Poem

Here, Hall turns the Inner Critic’s answer to the question of what’s worth writing about around, a witty if somewhat bitter solution to the problem.

Then, today, I chanced to read these remarks of Allen Ginsberg on William Carlos wcw15Williams facing the same void:

He’s almost dying, he’s got one foot in the grave (at that time, actually, he was saying, “I’ve got one foot in the grave”). And he thought he had cancer of the anus, actually, at that point. He was very sick, and he was also morbidly fantasizing, and he thought he didn’t have much to write about. (Around that time, I went to see him and he said he had nothing to write about – what can he write about? the cancer of his behind? – I think I mentioned this before). And I said, “Oh, there’s hundreds of young poets in America who would be interested in your behind! – Yes, of course, write about cancer in your behind, anything you can”.

Here, I’d argue, is a different response to the Inner Critic, one that tosses out its conventional, aesthetic criteria for some that are more radical, more ontological:  what’s there to write about? Whatever there is to write about.

 

Poeticritical Serendipity

Gloria_Graham_Lyn_HejinianDonald Wellman reviews Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing, describing it as follows:

Fourteen lines on each page, that’s sonnet length. Little rhyme [or] syllogism employed. No tidy conclusions. Each line as long as it needs to be. Most discontinuous with one another but not necessarily so. It seems there may not be a logic other than method in the construction of Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing (Omnidawn 2016). Nothing follows, no conclusions, the title says it all.

The well-read might be circumspect about a book composed in this manner, sections riming with a sonnet’s length, parataxis the lines’ principle of arrangement, by a poet long-associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (Hejinian is included in both Silliman’s In the American Tree (1986) and Messerli’s “Language” Poetries (1987)), published in 2016.

Such readers might be prompted to further reflection over the implications of these guendercompositional characteristics of Hejinian’s book when they read in Alice A. Kuzniar’s Delayed Endings: Nonclosure in Novalis and Hölderlin about Karoline von Günderrode’s fifteen-verse “Ein apokalyptisches Fragment” (published in 1804), that “…each verse appears as a disjointed fragment in an unconnected, nonteleological series”.

I leave this juxtaposition to speak for itself, for readers with ears to hear and hearts that care to.

 

“Rothenberg’s concept of ethnopoetics works as a brilliant counter to the dominant literary regime of tight ass Brits and their Yankee counterparts.”

I’ve said to anyone who will listen that any understanding of poetry—what it has been, Technicians of the Sacredis, and can be—ignorant of Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics is rootless and perverse.

Here’s an appreciation of his project I happened on by chance. Poets, ignore it at your peril!

Rothenberg Poetry University

The writing life

Insights, like poems, sometimes just fall on your path, like the leaves from the trees thisIMG_3124 time of year.

A friend wrote me, and his experience so paralleled mine, and many others’, it was light work lineating his letter into the following poem. If you’re a thinker, writer, or artist, I imagine you might well agree.

 

Brief aus München

 

Yesterday I had a day

sitting for hours at my desk

playing internet-chess, thinking,

 

“this novel that’s kept me

from doing anything useful

a year now will never work”

 

and it was all my fault: I

chose this way, I

was sticking to this

 

idea, I was thinking

I could be not only a

writer but a novelist,

 

my father was right,

I left the right path

when I went to Berlin…

 

This morning, I got the idea,

I don’t know from where,

how it could work. Sun

 

shining on my balcony,

and I think: “Best choice ever,

to live and work like this.”

“The poetry wars never ended.”

DftPWChicago Review has just posted a lively, provocative conversation with Kent Johnson and Michael Boughn about the motivations driving that equally lively web-journal Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.

At a time when Instapoets are lionized as The Big New Thing (because of their sales numbers) and the art is otherwise domesticated (in the MFA program and English class), I know of few more vital, critical, and necessary sites of resistance than Dispatches.

A nod to Louis Dudek

Louis DudekOne striking difference between, say, France or Germany and Canada is how the respective countries honour their cultural traditions. I remember seeing in Tübingen a plaque on a bookstore commemorating the one night Goethe slept upstairs, and, on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, the house where André Bréton resided during World War Two is indicated by a memorial from the French government, while the struggle to preserve poet Al Purdy’s A-frame is still fresh in my memory. Happily, we do have a counterexample to such willed amnesia, the Writers’ Chapel in Saint Jax Cathedral in Montreal, that features plaques for such canonical figures as F. R. Scott and Mavis Gallant and where, this evening, poet, critic, and scholar Louis Dudek will be honoured with a plaque of his own.

Bruce Whiteman provides a gracious portrait of Dudek on the occasion of Dudek’s death in 2001. I, too, had a chance to hear him read one snowy, weekend afternoon, and he was gracious enough to seek me out for a meeting when I published a polemical article on the reigning poetic aesthetics in Canadian anglophone poetry the year of his death. As it’s unlikely I’ll be able to attend the ceremony in his honour as I hoped and planned, at least I can post this notice here, now, and direct interested readers to a poem of mine that engages Dudek’s late poetry, “Reading Dudek’s The Caged Tiger.

Gratitude by the syllable

IMG_2590Tomorrow, here in Canada, it’s Thanksgiving. Regardless of the nature and origins of the holiday in the U.S. and Canada, there is mounting evidence of how gratitude can shore up happiness. It was this insight that inspired my composing the following poems, each noting some experience for which I felt spontaneously grateful. You can read the sequence, here.

Thanks!

RE: Itō Jetnil-Kijiner Niviana Pato

A lot of poetry stories get conveyed down my newsfeed. Here’re three of special http _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_thumb_1_12_Plato-4.png_200px-Plato-4significance from this week.

First is a short film of Hiromi Itō reading her poem “The Moon”. Itō is (in)famous in Japan, often credited with opening the space for a frank, fresh, new women’s writing. I discovered her in Rothenberg’s and Joris’ Poems for the Millenium, then her Killing Kanoko, a selection of poems translated by Jeffrey Angles, whose title poem recounts the common but no less hair-raising homicidal resentment mothers feel for their newborns. I still owe Action Books a review of her Wild Grass of the Riverbank—watch for it here….

Next is a short article by Bill McKibben concerning the poets Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and Aka Niviana, two young women, one from the Marshall Islands, the other from Greenland, who grapple with the realities of climate change poetically, a topic often ventured here. I already knew of Jetnil-Kijiner:  I teach her poem “Dear Matafele Peinam” every year to my introductory English students.

Finally is an interview with a poet not too well known in Anglophone poetry circles (or so it seems to me), Chus Pato, arguably one of the most important poets writing in Galician.