Digital Poetics #2 Summer on Lock: Ed Luker
‘Will the corn be growing a little tonight As I wait in the fields for you Who knows what grows in the morning light When we can feel the watery dew’
- Arthur Russell
‘Tomorrow’s lush promise dragging its
rough tongue along your back. & back again.’
- Momtaza Mehri
for all of my friends
I. The Idea of Summer
Summer is for lovers, for stuffing the days with friends, for fleeing the city. It’s for swimming, for sweaty-backed cycling, for walking around all evening not wanting to go home, not even caring when you get home. My friend Jack said it’s “a higher bandwidth of perception,” as all your senses expand. It’s the season for taking delight in bad smells, like cigarettes in sand, like sweaty armpits on a bus, like uncollected binbags. It’s for eating outside and not resenting it, for getting an ice cream, for listening to pop songs called things like ‘Heatwave’ or ‘Fever’ while drinking a strawberry milkshake from McDonald’s and messaging a friend to tell them. The poet Brandon Brown calls this ‘so summer’, it’s the irony of knowing that the seasons are a part of leisure economies. Summer is not for staying indoors, not for having things to do, not the time in which we ‘get things done’.
Around a decade ago I told the poet Joe Luna: “Hope is what you do the festivals in summer for,” and he put it in a poem. I thought that hope was politically insufficient; I meant it in a snide way. Now, in spite of the bad habits of party politics, I think hope is a complicated necessity. To abandon it is to give up on its promise: a world where work does not exhaust us. I’ve been thinking a lot about summer poems, because summer is my idea of hope, of transformation, and of leisurely states of happiness (as these things complicatedly entwine with each other). And I am hopeful. Hopeful, that broader forms of solidarity and care might come out of all of this. But I’m also scared. Scared, that the responses of capital will be more personal debt and more surveillance, as the lives of the working classes are deemed expendable, sacrificed to the market.
I have been thinking about cultivating fantasies. I have been thinking about poetry as the space to do this. We all had fantasies about the summer we thought we were going to have in 2020. We are now unlikely to have anything close to that. So, what do we do with all these fantasies and desires? Instead of abandoning them, I think that poetry can help us to cultivate them, to grow, trim, crop, and plant our desires. When the external world is so uncertain, so restricted, now is the perfect time to use our imaginative resources to dive straight into the deep end of the fantasy pool.
When you start looking for summer in poems you find it everywhere, I am naming this phenomenon the summer-poem-complex. In ‘The Ivy Crown’, William Carlos Williams exclaims: ‘Daffodil time | is past. This is | summer, summer!’ Naomi Weber has an amazing summer poem called ‘Long Evening’ with the line: ‘Even the most | careless conversation points to the sky’s endless | opera.’ I love the idea of the summer sky as a dramatic falsetto. Eileen Myles has this poem called ‘Peanut Butter.’ Maybe you know it. The other night, in the bath, I recorded myself reading it, sploosh splooshing in the tub. After, I sent it to twenty people I love. The poem is about summer, sex, and states of leisure; in it, Myles writes of ‘summer as a | time to do |nothing and make | no money.’ Most of the verbs in the poem are in the present simple tense (and mostly state verbs): ‘I am always hungry’, ‘I am an enemy of change’, ‘I am absolutely in opposition to all kinds of goals’, ‘I write behind your back’, ‘I have you & you love me.’ Perhaps the present simple is the tense of summer? Summer, much like ‘Peanut Butter’, being opposed to change, goals, improvement.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, summer nights are when lovers sing up to windows, abscond to Athens, or escape to the forest. They are for ‘verses of feigning love’, under a full moon, exchanging ‘hair, rings, gawds, conceits, knacks, trifles,’ and ‘nosegays’ and ‘sweetmeats’. In the Frank Ocean song ‘Self-Control’, the summer night by the open window, is the last before the beloved’s departure: ‘I, I, I know you gotta leave, leave, leave | Take down some summer time | Give us, just tonight, night, night.’ Both are masters of conjuring reverie; in the ever-now of Shakespeare’s forest and Frank Ocean’s bedroom, the summer night is just before departure. It is before we become aware of our happiness, before it has gone. We have all had these moments, the pure romance of summer.
My sharpest memories are from summer. Last July, my friend Zara bleached my hair (some sort of subconscious Frank Ocean tribute) and everything was great. I love summer so much it becomes all that the other seasons are not. I hate winter, despise it. It’s so hostile to socialising. I spend all of the year that is not summer waiting for it. I think many people do. As an experiment, I just messaged a bunch of friends and asked: ‘Do you think you have more memories of summer than other seasons?’ Of the eighteen people that have got back to me, thirteen said “yes.” Onur said “in as much as I think I have a cognitive bias for remembering settings I associate with happiness and enjoyment then, maybe, yes,” Divya said “I’m half a person ‘til summer,” Orlando said “yes,” but “what you lose as you get older, I think, is the felt endlessness of summer.” I love that my friends love summer, too.
As winter made me bored and exhausted, I had spent my pre-pandemic months swimming in the idea of summer. It was the weight of my memories and fantasies, as they press into the images of a future. And perhaps for many, summer is happiness deferred. In recuperation, winter is for quietly sowing the seeds of self-improvement. To be reaped in summer’s endless states of dream, desire, and distraction; the laps of water on toes, tongues in arches, and lips pressed against cold glass. The actual arrival of summer is ambivalent, as Frank O’Hara puts it: ‘we shall find out | when the light returns what the new | season means’. But the idea of summer? It is fresh fruit hanging in the timelessness of our imagination. Usually, summer comes, in some form or another. What, then, do we do with all of our ideas of summer, when, in a pandemic, it has been suspended, shut out, cancelled until further notice? Summer is on lock. The antagonisms of class society continue. What do we do with the idea of summer now? I want us to indulge in this question in the most frivolous of senses (in the frivolity of our senses) because perhaps, now more than ever, we need to be desperately serious about frivolity.
II. Spring Has Sprung
Spring has sprung, with its dawn choruses, daffodils, and cherry blossoms. This morning I saw a fat bee in the garden. Lying tantalisingly close to summer, spring is when I think things like: “maybe I'll learn to drive, climb a mountain, fuck around and write a whole novel,” before summer ultimately dissolves spring’s goals. The transition from summer, through autumn, to the inevitable winter is more like: “maybe I'll watch all of Battlestar Galactica.” And I know it is spring because I have started writing poems again, having shaken off the chill that winter set in my bones.
I have two sharp memories of reading poetry from my pre-adult life. The first is listening to Michael Rosen cassettes in the car with my mum as a child. The second is reading Keats during my A Level lunch breaks. Keats was the second poet I loved, after Rosen. I was hooked on a poetry of sights, sounds, smells and their synaesthetic bewilderment. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ was the first poem I ever tried (and failed) to memorise. It still transports me to the exuberance of being seventeen, of ostentatiously reading it on the green banks of the park. Revision fragments of it have lodged in my memory: ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim,’ a snippet of miniscule movement in a wine glass. A deeply pleasing fixation for seventeen year olds and thirty-two year olds alike.
The other evening, standing in the garden of the Leyton flat I live in, I could hear so much birdsong. And not one single plane. The global aviation industry could possibly collapse (Coronavirus? Extinction Rebellion could never!). Having spent the day re-reading Keats’s Nightingale ode, during the actual birdsong I was reading Rousseau’s Confessions. I was struck by the following description:
It was the week after the festival of St John [the summer solstice]. The earth, decked in its greatest splendour, was covered with verdure and flowers; the nightingales, nearly at the end of their song, seemed to delight in singing the louder; all the birds, uniting in their farewell to Spring, were singing in honour of the birth of a beautiful summer day, one of those beautiful summer days which one no longer sees at my age.
The nightingales are at the end of their song just before the summer solstice. Spring is a time of transition and anticipation; the bird’s song heralds the near-arrival of summer, the moment before its last possible appearance. Rousseau made me notice something I hadn’t before about one of my most cherished poems. As well as bird song, Keats’s poem is an ode to spring, too. The songbird announces the hope that summer will come, as winter fades.
Keats’s nightingale ode opens with the poet’s melancholic ‘heart aches’ and desire to poison himself (the original millennial – this is the stanza I learnt by heart at seventeen, sunk Lethe-wards against a tree). The song of the bird becomes a means of escape: ‘And with thee fade away into the forest dim,’ a captivating idea for a teenager sick of their small town. As a portent of spring, the nightingale’s song announces the departure of winter: ‘where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, | where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’. As a dresser at Guy’s hospital, Keats would have restrained amputees during surgery (who often died from sepsis). His idea of spring is hope for an end to suffering and pain. This hope is bound up with the natural image of transformation, how spring blooms and blossoms with all its new growths and births.
We are well accustomed, within later than late capitalism (go to bed, capitalism!), of thinking of time as clocks. It is the logic of alarms, liquid crystal displays, and the punctuation of the working day. We see it in prompts, notifications, reminders, payslips, zero-hour contracts, even in money. But the seasons are an unpunctuated time, slow slips and shifts; they are a different rhythm we live within. There’s a poem by Peter Gizzi, ‘Tradition and the Indivisible Talent,’ that ruminates on this: ‘Birdsong and daybreak, | are they not the same at the root?’. And I’ve been reading this poem when the day breaks with the bird song. Time is weather, which is seasons, and also change, which we know through birds, through which we learn about song, which teaches us about light, through which we know dark, and learn of the dusk, and how it becomes dawn, taking us back to daybreak, through which we learn of work, and then of rest. It is poetry that taught me these rhythms, how to place myself within them.
The nightingale’s song in Rousseau and ‘the earth, decked in its greatest splendour,’ is an arrestingly beautiful moment of naïvety. It’s important to be frivolous about these moments of experience. Just yesterday, jogging across Hackney Marshes, I was listening to pumping house as a beam of sunlight timed perfectly with a hit of endorphins. I was thrown into ecstasy, into a memory of being in the garden at Berghain last June, surrounded by sweet sweat and shirtless flesh. Bliss was it on that jog to be alive! In Keats’s bird ode happiness is much more fleeting than in the libidinal gratification of clubbing or Rosseau. Keats knows that the nightingale’s appearance, the hopeful herald of seasonal change will disappear. In his poetry there is deep anxiety that things will dissipate in an instant, like youth and health.
It is through the nightingale and the experience of its song that Keats sings of the sanctuaries of truth, beauty, and happiness. But beyond the imagination, he can never long dwell there. In the poem’s sixth stanza, the spiritual passion of song clashes with his own profane predicament. Addressing the bird, he laments:
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy! Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain--- To thy high requiem become a sod.
The lustrous promise of song is fragile. Keats takes us from bird to song to flight to forest; the poem is full of these swings back-and-forth between hope and reality. He termed this negative capability, describing it as being in the ‘uncertainties, mysteries’, and ‘doubts’ of the imagination. In the final line of the poem, the poet laments: ‘Fled is that music.’ By attempting to escape reality through the bird’s song, Keats ends up back in a reality he already could barely tolerate. But the poem is a balm. It is paradoxically through the movements of the poem, through its music, that reality has become ever so slightly easier to live with.
One thing I admire about Keats’s ode is its arresting commitment to exploring modes of ambivalence. I think it served as a model of thinking for me for a long time before I even became aware of it. During a global pandemic, Keats’s commitment to contrary feelings could be of great use; to be negatively capable requires spirited hope while also taking hold of an unavoidable reality. Poetry is always a reworking of restrictions it cannot escape. Lying on the lush banks of our memory, what if all of our images of happiness and escape, each of our ideas of summer (or spring, or songbirds, or whatever else), contained within them this logic? What if this process could be the kind of imaginative work necessary for the cultivation of a truly revolutionary feeling? The image of happiness is always there in idea, as much as the restrictions are there in reality.
III. Fabrication and the Imagination
Like summer itself, I can recall the experience of reading a new Lisa Robertson book. Three summers ago, on the beach at Estoril, just outside of Lisbon, I read Three Summers (a timely coincidence we call poetry). As well as on beaches, I read it with sugary espressos in plazas, then during evenings spent drinking outside; this recollection of reading spots opens up to me a chain of memories and associations, of warmth and splendour, like those found across her work. I even associate the collection’s cover with summer memories; the sunset pinks and yellows throw me into the synaesthetic bewilderment of sandy toes, soft scoops of ice cream, pop records, and the rich burnt custard of pastel de nata.
The time of poetry becomes entangled with summer. In summer’s time, when breaking from the drudgeries of labour, memories are overwhelming and unyielding. They are in excess of their moment. I can be a little Protestant about such excesses. The result of a religious schooling. Instinctively refusing them, I reduce them to indulgence. But Lisa Robertson encourages us to be serious about the complications within excessive desires and memories.
I remember scattered phrases from Three Summers: ‘huge boiled flowers’ or ‘The imperium’s fucked up | How can we kiss and think?’, yet I struggle to describe the work with concision. I have often thought that Robertson’s poetry is a series of ambient moods or registers, twisting away from attempts to define it. These moods are often structured by moments of sculptural tension: the dewy downward fold of a leaf against stem, the upward curve of a kissed lip, the salted air of the beach’s sex, a litter of nasturtiums against a wall. Words don't simply mean but conjure the embodiment of sense experience to the mind. By maintaining serious fidelity to solitude, Robertson’s poetry ends up indulging in memory to create new forms. This is why desire is a profound weight within her poetry; the excess of desire is in excess of the sexual, such that it could never be contained by sex’s cruel logic of possession. It is a roaming mood that embraces what it touches.
In ‘The Seam’, the first section of Three Summers, summer is for moderate extravagance, like lying on the bed daydreaming at 4pm. But.there is an ambivalence about the arrival of the new season. It is when the poet reflects on the onset of the menopause, with its new set of restrictions and freedoms from old restrictions:
4:16 in the afternoon in the summer of my 52nd year I’m lying on the bed in the heat wondering about geometry as the deafening, uninterrupted volume of desire bellows, roars mournfully, laments like a starling that has flown into glass.
It is unclear here, whether the starling is the inhibition of the poet’s own desire or unwanted attention from elsewhere. Belonging to no one in particular, with its unsolicited bellowing, desire burdens some more than others. It is caught between its excesses and its inhibitions. If summer is for the birds, then it is also when they unwittingly slam into closed windows. We are living through a time of new restrictions and old restrictions. It is from poetry that we learn of the attempts to live with the weight of restrictions and also to circumvent them.
I read Robertson’s recently published novel, The Baudelaire Fractal, in two days. It was early March and I was anxious. Caught in the limbo of a world about to be turned upside down, I was angry about deaths yet to happen, that did not have to happen. Throughout the novel Robertson discusses the poet of the title; Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was first published in 1857, the same year Napoleon III oversaw Hausmann’s reconstruction of Paris. This reconstruction: ‘cut through and replaced the winding entanglements of life and art and desire in the city.’ Hausmann imposed the restrictions of capital on space. In Robertson’s reading of Baudelaire, she imagines spaces beyond these new limits: ‘to linger near fountains, to kiss strangers, to place an ornate pleasure at the secret core of our language.’ She reads in Baudelaire a timeliness where desire is excessively opposed to the new constraints of material reality. In Robertson’s writing, the essence of artifice is that desire enriches the objects of attention. It becomes how we place ourselves within the world. The paintbrush plunging into a pool of colour, or fabric wet with new dye, words wrung with the scent of memories by the fountain, they enliven what lies dormant in the recesses of our memory banks.
I thought about writing this essay late one night after watching an Esther Perel video called ‘How to adjust to your entire relational world being confined to one place,’ a title worthy of a poem. I watched it in bed, listless and sad. A lot of what she said was about how couples can cope, which, not being a couple, I thought did not apply to me (that is until my flatmate and I started roleplaying Come-Dine-With-Me judging while we ate, to ease the boredom, and I realise that we are a household, a new form of moral responsibility). In the video she describes how those of us currently confined, that is, those of us with homes, who are not ‘key workers’, will have to depend on our imaginative resources. Our inner lives can grant us what the outer world cannot.
In The Baudelaire Fractal there is the desire not only for people but also for objects. Hands and skin are endowed with tactile memory, tracing fabrics, textures, and weavings. Through the touch of words, surfaces become the sensualised locations of embrace. At one point, Robertson’s narrative persona, Hazel Brown, recalls a young lover’s ankh necklace, how it traced across her body after the caress of his bottom lip. The ornament forges a secondary memory. Remembering the weight of the necklace creates desire for the touch of flesh. It becomes an emblem of how words both sustain and reimagine memory: ‘the work of desire is borderless.’ By breaking the restrictions of reality, the work arrives somewhere new: ‘The sexuality of sentences: Reader, I weep in it.’ These acts of desiring reweave fantasy and memory.
Both Perel and Robertson have got me thinking about how poetry is an imaginative resource for living. In this time of a global pandemic our ideas of summer, spring, or nightingales can be our imaginative ties to each other. In the absence of friends, lovers, crushes: we feed on our memories; within my own restrictions, my recollection of Three Summers threw my mind into the lost senses of burnt custard, beach cigarettes and torsos. Because sometimes we need a revolution. But we need poems because we need coping strategies too. Moving beyond the restrictions of reality, in writing and reading, the imagination not only recalls experience. It transforms it. In Myles’s summer, Keats’s nightingale, and Robertson’s Baudelaire, poetry fabricates a substitute experience. Reading this work now, I see what I would have wanted to happen. It will not happen. Things can still happen, in the imagination.
The consequences of the Coronavirus crisis will most likely result in the re-imposition of the logics of capitalism, of debt, of surveillance, with increased ferocity. For now, with certain possibilities curtailed, perhaps our reading and writing of poetry can be part of how our desires can sustain ourselves and each other. I’ve been voicenoting and photographing poems, sending them to all my friends. In the continual now of crisis time, there is the space for the intense cultivation of our fantasies, in the tender-hearted gardens of our imaginations, stitching and sewing the fabrics of our worn-out memories. What forms of solidarity could be grafted out of this? When the possibility of experience is confined, restricted, and distanced, perhaps the work of making fabrications becomes of even greater imperative. Let us fabricate our poetic summers, cultivate our lustrous outgrowths, reweave our ardent fantasies.
A playlist to accompany this essay is available here
Ed Luker is a poet and writer based in London. He runs the poetry events platform and radio show Rivet. His work has recently appeared in Poetry Magazine, 3:AM, Hoax, and others. His latest book of poems, Heavy Waters, was released on The87Press last year. His newest collection Dumb Flux is forthcoming on Broken Sleep Books.
This publication is in Copyright. Ed Luker, 2020.
The moral right of the author has been asserted. However, the Hythe is an open-access journal and we welcome the use of all materials on it for educational and creative workshop purposes.