Moving But Also Staying The Same
Crisis, Poetry and the Temporality of Brexit
The camera pans through a lousy looking American B&B room, on the radio ‘I’ve Got You Babe’ plays from a tinny radio alarm clock. We all know the scene, it’s Groundhog Day and Bill Murray is committing suicide again. Here in Britain we have gone beyond waking daily to the same song and instead live in a permanent refrain that seemingly never ends yet always starts again. ‘I’ve Got You Babe’ instead replaced with the numbing drones of the commentariat, politicians, and the voices of those who act for the 17.4 million, the 16.2 million and everyone in-between. What I wish to speak of is poetry in this time of crisis. Furthermore, beyond merely speaking of crises we must now ask the questions of how we come to be within crises, what forces are at work as we speak in these troubled times. We come then to a question of expression and being.
Crises today permeate us daily through the means of communication we have built up for ourselves, our 24/7 new cycle through to our Twitter feeds and the direct to pocket messages we receive. The speed at which we communicate today perpetuates the speed of crises and their potentiality to the speed of information, seemingly possibly instantaneous. Whilst these systems not only reveal a new crisis to us rapidly, they also allow the unfolding of crises to happen down to the nano-second with live streams and posts as well as the easy to read gathering of hashtags and similar topics. To not be aware of a crisis today growingly implies a wilful ignorance of the world we live in.
But must crisis be immediate? Must we process it at the blink of an eye as we scroll to the next update? In his series Bad Idea, British poet Robert Sheppard presents his ‘re-workings’ of the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton’s sonnet series Ideasin the light of Brexit, the sine qua nonof crisis in Britain and Europe today. The posts are temporary, only ever posted one at a time and usually reflect on the most imminent of Brexit related unfoldings. In the latest, XXXV, posted on March 14th, Sheppard writes:
‘My stitched-up eyes can’t see the way until you shine.
I hear the commentary but not the debate until you
explain that May’s last word tonight is to start again:
to bring her ‘ideal’ deal back until it’s sealed with tears.’
The temporal entanglement of crisis and poetry here manifests itself on more than one plane. There is the refrain of all refrains, ‘starting again’; a renewal and a rebirth. Our ‘sceptred isle’ reborn again. Yet alongside this is the very real implication of an endless and blind refrain, the one that drives Bill Murray to suicide in Groundhog Day. A refrain marred by May’s reluctance to budge, to ask the same questions of the EU whilst knowing the answer, to ask the same questions of the commons whilst knowing the answer. As though she herself can not get out of the loop. But what are Sheppard’s ‘stitched-up eyes’ made of, sealed by none other than the ‘tears’ he closes this quatrain with?
As Sheppard’s sonnets emerge and submerge into existence there is at their heart an uncertainty that is beyond a mere stylistic choice to represent the fleeting nature of the Brexit news cycle, but in fact an acceptance of the impossibility of living through crisis in a time of instantaneous communication. Britain has seemingly always aligned itself as Europe’s other, or to be more precise; Britain has never seen itself as wholly European. Beyond the simple illusion of a saviour-complex after the two world wars, by returning to Elizabethan poetry, Sheppard is taking us back to a time just as complex when it comes to European and British relations. Elizabeth I was of course the daughter of the queen that gave us our first Brexit, Anne Boleyn and the break with the Papacy. Yet sonnets are a timeless form, usually consigned to love. We see at their heart a setup and a turn. What Sheppard is challenging is this temporal moment, how we setup to turn and how this extends beyond the poetic and into our daily lives. It is a coming together of the instantaneity of ‘the turn’ (what we may call the morning of the referendum result on the 24thJune 2016) and the historicity of the setup (what we may call the broader historical motifs in Britain’s relationship with Europe).
In recent comments given by the French Minister for Europe, in response to a possible delay to Brexit, Natalie Loiseau asks of Britain, "grant an extension - what for? Time is not a solution, it’s a method.” It is in these comments that we see the true gap between European and British views on Brexit. For most of us in Britain time is seen as the solution; we beg for more time in order to better deal with the problems presented by Brexit. Whilst in Europe, time can only be the method towards which a solution must be found. Is it a surprise then that the methodology of Sheppard’s Brexit poems are so entwined with time and its relation to history?
A poem does not only slow down time, but it also slows language down and summons its presence in the face of an other. As Paul Virilio writes, ‘speed finally allows us to close the gap between physics and metaphysics’. That is, Sheppard’s verses, ‘start again’ every time they are posted and taken down, replaced by another in the series. For Sheppard, time, namely temporality, is the method in which we may approach the historicity and the instantaneity of our current crises, closing the gap between the very physical and material implications of Brexit with the very metaphysical and symbolic implications of Europe and Britain’s relationship.
Our eyes may be ‘sealed with tears’ now but they wait ‘until you shine’, or until crisis has been averted. Is that as simple as saying there is a light at the end of the tunnel? No. We sit and wait in time, for time. For a time when there is light at the end of the tunnel, an escape from our very own Groundhog Day. As Paul Celan writes,
‘To stand in the shadow
of the scar up in the air.
With all there is room for in that,
There we find the centre, the kernel’s kernel. Between Britain and Europe today is time as method and time as solution. Brexit sits like a ‘scar up in the air’, whilst Britain’s response to Brexit is a standing ‘for-no-one-and-nothing’. Sheppard’s poems are working between these poles and using temporality as the ‘even without’ of language. As these sonnets appear and disappear so do our hopes, our fears, our patience and our impatience. What remains is the memory of something now gone, and the acceptance of some unknown yet to come
is a British poet currently living in London. His work has featured in the RiPPLE anthology of poetry and has spoken as part of the Kingston Writers Centre on multiple occasions. His research field involves avant-garde and contemporary poetics in relation to political crises today and technology.