Sunday, 13 January 2008

Magnitude by Jacob Sam-La Rose (Part I)


There are a million grains in a 20 kilogram sack of rice.
Give or take. It's a hard enough number to imagine,

the kind that slips through the mind's fingers, like digging
your hands in that same sack, trying to feel

for individuals; the kind of counting that surpasses
fingers, bigger than the mind's computational eye,

like the full, unending girth of sky, like death,
the kind of threshold you concede

and take for granted. Imagine the sum
in eleven of those sacks, and I’m trying to find a way

to make that number real, like how many pots and how long
it might take to cook that much rice, and still retain the detail

of each swollen grain; a real, fleshy equation that might capture
the percentage of wastage, the amount that would fall

and be forgotten even while trying to keep count,
the appetite that might be necessary to take it all in.



The title is integral to the poem from the outset; There are a million grains in a 20 kilogram sack of rice. The immeasurable size of the conflict the reader is about to be immersed in is conveyed within this single statement. It creates urgency and propels the reader to continue. The reference to a staple food source immediately suggests the issue is going to be on a global scale; it is evident that the poem is going to have a lot to say.

The opening statement is followed by a second, more colloquial Give or take. Its abruptness creates tension, and the conversational tone invites the reader into the poet’s internal dialogue. It also undermines the initial statement, which introduces a sense of uncertainty. This is quickly enhanced as the reader engages in the poet’s attempt to visualise the hard enough number to imagine.

The reader and poet are inextricably entwined; digging/your hands in that same sack. They journey together to try and find a way to make that number real; a number which is bigger then an unending girth of sky, so gargantuan that it is bigger than the mind's computational eye. The word computational jolts the reader, enhancing the struggle to compute the information required; emphasising the poem is about more than just facts and figures.

Human feeling and emotion are required to conceptualise the million grains of rice yet still retain the detail of each swollen grain. The reader quickly realises they are trying to feel/ for individuals rather than envision a single grand figure which is all encompassing. The reader tries to Imagine the sum and come to a real, fleshy equation, and so escape from the kind of threshold you concede / and take for granted. The point of the poem is the sum of its parts.

The themes of persecution (the amount that would fall) and genocide (the percentage of wastage) reveal themselves like the full, unending girth of sky, like death. Intermittently used figures (million grains, 20 kilogram sack of rice, eleven of those sacks) which reduce as the poem moves forward mark the inability to comprehend. Could these facts punctuate the incomprehensible, and make the cruelty of the world less real? The reader is constantly challenged by questions (like how many pots and how long/it might take to cook that much rice) and forced to remain involved.

The relationship between the poet and his heritage, history and present day, and every individual’s responsibility to mankind are in full view. The use of couplets creates an atmospheric closeness which links the reader to life’s realities, forcing them to acknowledge facts; the kind that slips through. As the poem is drawing to a close, the lines lengthen and the pace quickens to show the poet´s desperation to capture his audience before he concludes. They then shorten again and slow to finalise on a long lingering note.

The poem ends with a haunting suggestion that the points raised can be forgotten even while trying to keep count. This alerts the reader to the magnitude of the problem of becoming complacent and achieves the poem’s aim to find a way/to make that number real. The poet has focused the reader’s attention on each swollen grain and made the realities of the world forefront in their mind's computational eye. He has enabled the reader to capture/the percentage of wastage; the amount that would fall, skilfully generating within his audience an appetite that might be necessary to take it all in.


*Magnitude by Jacob Sam-La Rose was commissioned by the Arts Council England. Reproduced with kind permission from Samenua Sesher, Arts Council England.

Part II coming soon...

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Mario Petrucci´s response to critique

Mario Petrucci kindly offered the following response:

"I was worried when you said "...the internet has limitations and a style of its own" - partly because, if that's so, maybe we shouldn't use it for such things, and partly because the old pseudo-socialist in me senses 'well, isn't that precisely why it's being used... to dumb everything down?'... but you subverted both counts with your analysis, which I really enjoyed.

Of course, critiques like this are as much about the reader as the poet/ poem: you could probably see a penguin mating with a giraffe in there if you tried hard enough. But there are some really sharp observations here... I particularly thought the 'beast of two backs' and the Petronius 'recoil' were good.

You also picked up some 'negative' nuances like' suspicion' and 'hybrid gas' and 'warp' (you might have added 'cling' or 'spawn') which - together - prove that a writer is often as surprised by the content of what they've written as their reader: i.e. I was sensing an edginess there when I wrote it, but didn't quite realise it was so strong. And I really didn't see, at all, how the poem's tense shifts…which proves, again, writers need reflective, sensitive readers.

The one thing - perhaps the only thing - I think you could've raised is that this is - at its heart - an Eco-love poem... it uses, like the metaphysical poets, an extended conceit. The extended conceit here is that bacteria etc. from one body get transferred to another (through love-making, kissing, touching) and change the ecology, as it were, of those lovers' skins.

So, you can't ever disentangle from your previous actions: there's your metaphor for environmentalism, right there, in what appears (on its surface, its skin?) to be a straightly-quirky love poem. It's an important point because almost all my poems have some larger picture at their edges. Ecology, environment and the consequences of connection/disconnection are all here.

We can't escape Gaia just as much as we can't escape love. The blanket Gaia provides can also smother us."

Saturday, 5 January 2008

In Touch by Mario Petrucci

In Touch*

That ocean divides. Yet the yeasts on my toes

have stowed away on yours – at the heel

of a day crammed with doings, shoe-snug,

they waft up to you our distinctive tang.

There’s a suspicion in the breath I catch

single-handed, just after brushing my teeth,

of that must my tongue first muscled in on

when our kissing strayed across the Channel

and a hybrid gas hibernates in my warp

of sheets, in my nightclothes – a smell that’s

somewhere between us, nuzzling to my body

warmth, or nosing the weft of denim that

spanned four shoulders of our lumbering

golem through hugger-mugger November nights.

Those secret hordes make us a common host:

cling, spawn, multiply in and under these skins –

our bodies soft continents.

From: Flowers of Sulphur (Enitharmon Press, 2007)
by Mario Petrucci



In Touch reads as a modern rhetoric on the ancient idea of eros. The title suggests that although a lover can be aware of their own feelings, there is an outside force which cannot be controlled; a force creates uncertainty and separatism.

From the opening line of That ocean divides the reader is immediately flung into the paranoid and bitter recesses of passionate love;

That ocean divides. Yet the yeasts on my toes

Have stowed away on yours – at the heel

of a day crammed with doings, shoe snug

They waft up to you our distinctive tang.

Their union is looked upon with familiarity (our and shoe snug) yet repulsion (distinctive tang) hope (Yet the yeast...) and insecurity (that, on yours, at the heel). Like the satire of Petronius, Petrucci uses a private subject to catapult us into the situation with a tinge of recoil and disgust which echo the emotions of the speaker.

The conflicting emotions of eros are clear, with guilt linked to act of intercourse with the warp of sheets. The use of four shoulders is reminiscent of the derogatory term a beast with two backs, and yet he looks fondly upon nuzzling to my body warmth and their past lumbering golem. The word golem increases the sense of displacement and artificiality.

The speaker’s position in the relationship is uncertain; there’s a suspicion in the breath I catch. Initially in control (that must my tongue first muscled in on) the speaker feels that he is now trapped in a love that is crammed like a hybrid gas, dominated by his lover and his feelings;

Those secret hordes make us a common host:

Cling, spawn, multiply in and under these skins –

The speaker’s journey is clearly depicted; the poem begins with a statement of separateness (That ocean divides, I catch single handed), but as the poem flows past remembrances of hugger mugger November nights, the speaker comes to the realisation that love still exists somewhere between us in our bodies soft continents.

As the tenses change from past to present to future, the simple two line stanzas reflect the movement of the relationship and hope for its future, whilst the broken and disjointed sentence structure further depict the laws governing the common host of erotic love.


*Reproduced with kind permission from Mario Petrucci