Contextualising Trauma and the Poetics of Dirty Concrete

Challenging language in the context of traumatic experience

At 0125 hours on the 14thOctober 2008 I was blown up by a landmine in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. On the ten-year anniversary of that incident, I sit at my desk at home and endeavour to trace the sequence of events that led me from a minefield in the Middle East to a classroom in a university in the North West of England. By what strategy am I able to contextualise the trajectory of that time period? Numerous forces have acted upon me during recovery, from the rehabilitating support of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service to the unwavering companionship of my wife, Catherine. The decade can be defined by the obfuscation of my perception of reality. Muddied waters have been provoked by the difficulties associated with contextualising militaristic experiential trauma with the subsequent regularity of civilian routine. The abstraction of traumatic experience has a lingering effect upon one’s physical and mental wellbeing, distorting the perception of reality long after the catalytic incident has finished. Consequently, I have drifted through periods of disorientation, where language has failed to construct for me a cogent and consistent reality. During these phases I have found solace in the poetics of concretisation. 

Figure 1. 'Silencio', Eugen Gomringer (1954).

Concrete poetry and poetics materialised across the globe in the mid-twentieth century with the contemporaneous publication of creative manifestoes from such groups as the Noigandres in Brazil and writers such as Eugen Gomringer in Europe. The Noigandres was co-founded by brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari in 1952. Theirs was an aesthetics of linguistic subversion; in minimising the ‘linear concept of form’ and its capacity to enable language to signify they emphasised a material study of the written word. Poems such as Gomringer’s ‘Silencio’ (1954) forgo the scaffold of syntax, meter and rhyme, choosing instead to dramatize text through spatial placement [see Figure 1]. The poem is indicative of the poetics of the concretists in its demonstration of awareness of ‘graphic space as structural agent’. As a veteran and fledgling writer, these approaches offered a mode of simplification, a useful antithesis to the failure of language as a mode of signification to manufacture the world around me. 

Eleanore Widger theorises spatiality in poetic texts and argues that poems defined to some extent by their ‘spatial presence’ possess their own ‘specific evidentness’. The term describes the defining features of a work that, when considered as a formal assemblage, provide the poem with a unique formal character. Gomringer’s poem is a useful example due to the particularity of its formal appearance. The significance of Widger’s claim becomes clear in the context of her description of another field engaged with innovative approaches to text and space, radical landscape poetry:

Radical landscape poems offer a way out of the tension between artwork as representation of something, and as object with phenomenal presence, in that they are both ‘seen’ and ‘seen through’…

The dramatisation of space in Gomringer’s ‘Silencio’ dictates that it is ‘seen’ as well as‘ seen through’. That is to say that ‘Silencio’ can be both ‘observed’ after the fashion of visual artworks and ‘read’ as a poem built from language. The imposition of spatiality upon the poem object encourages an audience to negotiate the work formally as well as negotiate its content. The work appears to minimise the primacy of reading as the act by which the poem is negotiated. 

However, the emphasis of the poem’s graphic characteristics also serves to call into question linguistic signification as a utilitarian and communicative process. Are we to assume, as the poem suggests, that the word ‘silence’ is motivated towards the abstraction of ‘silence’ as a concept? Saussurean formulations of the signifier/signified dichotomy suggest otherwise. He proposes that the signifier (the ‘word’ or ‘sound-image’ as Saussure describes it) is not motivated towards its ‘signified’ (the abstract notion of a thing). The sign, comprised of the signifier and signified, is therefore arbitrary and the association is learned. Marjorie Perloff expands upon the possibilities provided by concrete poems that, despite the appearance of simplicity, act to interrogate the word as signifier. She explains that:

representation must itself be called into question… issues of iconicity or even spatial design… are subordinated to the poem’s overall… composition, all of whose materials have a signifying function.

Gomringer’s concretisation of the letterform allows for the interrogation of the relationship between signifier and signified. It is this function of the concrete poem that paraphrases the difficulties of building and negotiating the traumatic narrative. Language at once fails to sufficiently construct reality whilst simultaneously comprising the method by which one seeks to build that reality. To explore and examine past experiences with language has been to discover the written word as an exploratory tool as lacking. 

However, Widger’s theorisation of the poem as a distinct object provides an alternate mode by which to perceive the poem and works such as Gomringer’s suggest a methodology by which language might be interrogated. To explore this claim, I present a poem of my own entitled ‘Collateral Damage’ that explores both the language of militarism and the fragility of linguistic signification [see Figure 2].

Figure 2. 'Collateral Damage', Adam Hampton (2017).

The term ‘collateral damage’ has been chosen due to the ‘sheer cloudy vagueness’ of euphemism and role it plays in the ‘defence of the indefensible’. The phrase is wielded surreptitiously in political discourse, particularly where that discourse addresses militarism. The phrase is initially made subject to anagrammatic reformulation, from which a number of subsequent words are derived. The original phrase and its derivatives are placed linearly before the poem moves through a process of verticalised superimposition. The lines become less distinct as the integrity of the letterform is transcended by overprinting. In one sense, the form of the poem is an extension of its content: the language acts to destroy itself. In another, the relationship between signifier and signified is questioned via the deconstruction of the phrase at the level of the letterform and its reorganisation into other words. 

Considering the phrase ‘collateral damage’ via the prism of concrete poetics allows us to both interrogate the relationships that foundation interrelatedness between signifier and signified, as well as emphasising the materiality of the language we use to construct reality. These possibilities offer a tonic to linguistic deficiency, enabling one to challenge language when it fails to succinctly describe the world in the context of traumatic experience. When ‘saying’ proves insufficient, ‘showing’ provides an alternate mode of perception. 


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