Whirlwind Records Sampler Tracklist: A Response

1. as if reprogramming were possible

2. crisis sounds no slackening

3. stable bass in its old scrape

4. looms thin as royalty

5. an unconvincing radio show

6. this party only happens in code

7. spring signs itself slow

8. marks breaks in hard waves

9. majestic extinction’s wingbeats

10. up the monotone slopes

11. only shapes are glorious

12. calling once and once and once

13. our angles flee and reconfigure

14. beneath a broad belly of green

15. shape hopes to a low horn

16. the re-education in opposition

17. held between dim hands

Shuffle as required

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Niall O’Sullivan and Ventriloquism

Niall O’Sullivan has an interesting relationship with ventriloquism.

For one thing, he wrote an excellent poem called ‘A Once-Famous Ventriloquist Learns to Cope with the Drudgery of a Normal Life’. The ventriloquist of that poem is both a collection of voices for any occasion – ‘a confident chirp for the bank manager… the stage voice / whenever he’s recognised at B&Q’ – and also eerily denuded of any essential humanity.

In his daily window-cleaning job the ventriloquist imagines his own reflection as ‘another puppet, brilliantly operated’. The bedside photograph of his ex-wife tells him wistfully that they are ‘so proud’ of him, ‘pronouncing the ‘p’ in ‘proud’ / with passion and precision’. Human society viewed entirely as bodies waiting to be filled with voices, as less real than the stagecraft that animates them, is both funny and a little nightmarish.

In his pamphlet Caffeine Songs he probes this theme further, whether through his much ironised ‘lyric I’ or ventriloquised through the man he calls ‘Sully’. In the crowded urban press his poems evoke, overheard voices are often unwanted, from thin walls letting in noisy neighbours (‘one of the twenty-somethings / who slum it Sarth on Daddy’s patronage / has just told the funniest joke ever known’ #3) to terse disagreements over ‘who should be the first to board a bus’ (#10).

Taking on the voices of other poets heightens the sense of claustrophobia, as well as mischief. O’Sullivan gets to ‘flick the Vs’ at the vaulting ambition of a poetics of prophetic vision, as he turns on Whitman and notes it is ‘the multitudes that contained him’ (#4). He envisions his own slide into ranting decrepitude ‘like Wordsworth at his reactionary worst’ (#2).

At first you might think that this is a plea for some kind of genuine, artless expression – a wish to destroy the ventriloquist’s dummy.

In the fifteenth and final poem O’Sullivan effectively calls time-of-death on the persona he has constructed:

‘The man that I call Sully has been dead

since the moment I first placed him in a line

of unrhymed iambics. He is a thought’

O’Sullivan toys with the notion of a ‘failed poet’ who is kept scribbling only by the imagined ‘reader or listener’. A poem, we are told, must be accepted as an encounter, ‘an agreement between at least two minds’. Which, of course, this can’t be if O’Sullivan’s persona is simply speaking for, and to, itself.

Then he tells Sully in the final couplet,

‘My friend, I finally accept you are not real

so this can’t be a poem. We should talk.’

Who do poets talk to when they speak or write? And with whose voices do they speak when they do? If you ask O’Sullivan (or indeed Sully) one answer to both these questions seems to be: ‘my imaginary friend’. And yet this ventriloquist’s dummy also seems to be every bit as real, and therefore capable of being a sounding-board for real poetry, as anyone else. And, as it transpires, no less surprising.

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Tim Kiely is a criminal barrister and poet living in London. His work has appeared in: ‘Lunar Poetry’; ‘South Bank Poetry’; ‘the Morning Star’; ‘Spontaneous Poetics’; ‘Allegro Poetry’; and ‘Ink, Sweat & Tears’, as well as in the Emma Press anthology ‘Everything That Can Happen’.

Photo of Tim Kiely by Tyrone Lewis.

Banner image by James Knight.

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