Reviews of the Ephemeral

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‘Whitehall Jackals’ by Chris McCabe and Jeremy Reed

In All of the Above, Collaboration, Conversation, Play of Voices on July 23, 2013 at 9:34 am

-Reviewed by Billy Mills


Whitehall Jackals is a collaborative poem sequence written by Chris McCabe, a Liverpool-born, London-based poet whose work is new to me, and long-standing British avant garde poetry landmark  Jeremy Reed. The work is a kind of psychogeographic plunge into London in alternating voices, a tangled weave of intersecting, parallel and divergent lines through and across the actual and imagined city, a pattern woven in the shadow of Blair’s war on Iraq and the City’s war on probity and community as the poets swap perceptions and realities with something approaching what might once have been called gay abandon.

Reed’s introduction lists a number of antecedents: Black Mountain, the New York School, the British Revival poets Barry MacSweeney, Tom Raworth, Iain Sinclair and J.H. Prynne; though I have to say I just don’t get Prynne’s presence here at all. The poems themselves reference more, among whom Blake and David Jones and T.S. Eliot are the most visibly present. The result, allowing for the differences in style between the two men, is a recognisably late 20th/early 21st century ‘experimental’ idiom in which the relatively high proportion of stressed syllables in the average line creates an insistent, almost relentless verse dynamic with sentences that are rich in nouns. Adjectives are piled one upon another in hieratic visionary utterances laced with verbs that serve to move us from one gesture to the next.

White static runs to the reaches of ceramics & wires
as the river chants its outtakes.


The tattooed boozed-up brawler on Hog Lane,
knuckles slashed to ketchup dollops,
fighting at knife-point in rain’s
persistent steamy shattering


There are strong echoes of Sinclair’s 1970s poetry, specifically the two key books Ludd Heat and Suicide Bridge and of Blake’s prophetic books, but not the lyric voice of the Songs of Innocence/Songs of Experience, with consequences that I will return to later.

In many respects, I found it useful to think of this book in terms of the visual arts. Reed is a self-confessed plein air poet, writing a public life in public places, his words saturated in the here and now of their genesis, but also in his inner visionary not here, not now, as if Blake had painted after Monet.

Sea-green Starbucks cardboard wrapper
as hot finger stops on a paper cup
sipped on a street chair facing Heron Tower’s
47 storeys – clear reflective glass
like a hologrammed vertical coffin –

McCabe is something more of a studio-based collage artist, carefully integrating bits of found language from text-bearing street furniture, product labelling and the like into his poems.

THE RIVER HOUSE, flagged by a lamp-post’s tag –
Do not dig within two metres of this mast.
Every view of Chelsea is a vista of weathercocks.

The jackals of the title are equally Blair and his WMD advisors and the Tory politicians who connived with their wealthy patrons in the yuppification of the city (the last quote above, for example, is from a poem called ‘The Chelsea of Wilde and Thatcher’ and there are other sections on the Docklands development). However it would be misleading to suggest that the focus is narrowly capital P political; there is a good deal of observation of the everyday life of the city and its residents and the geography they inhabit, as well as ruminations on its myth and history. As Reed says in one of his poems when writing about some wild poppies, ‘Like everything I see, they’re poetry’.

The inclusion of this less overtly political matter into the book provides much welcome light and shade and it is a pity that this range of content is not reflected in the formal aspects of the writing. The intensity of the versification works well for the most part, and as texts bounce back and forth between Reed and McCabe you can see them feeding off each other’s energies. However, it can become a little relentless, and this reader at least would have welcomed some more varied verbal music. In the absence of this more lyrical element, the reader can begin to feel that they on the receiving end of a magnificent but somewhat overwhelming harangue.

I also felt that the righteous anger directed at potentially criminal government actions and rampant consumer capitalism was somewhat undermined by the celebrations of the equally illegal illicit drugs trade and of the hardly uncommercial Rolling Stones, David Bowie and the likes. The conflation of drugs, rock and roll and rebellion seems somehow a little too easy, and more than a little dated.

These criticisms aside, Whitehall Jackals is a very interesting and worthwhile read. You can sense that the poets enjoyed doing the work and learned a good deal from each other in the process. Despite the reservations I have expressed in this review, their enthusiasm is infectious and you can’t help but be carried along by it. Anyone interested in the poetry of London will find it an important addition to the genre.


‘The Debris Field’ by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe

In Pamphlets, Play of Voices on May 1, 2013 at 1:24 pm

-Reviewed by David Clarke


The Atlantic liner Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912 with the loss of more than 1,500 people, has achieved a remarkable status in western culture. It has become a persistent moral metaphor, serving to illustrate everything from the hubris of humanity (as in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Convergence of the Twain’), to the failings of the class system (as in Roy Baker’s still harrowing 1958 film A Night to Remember) and the dangers of a misplaced confidence in progress (as in Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s poem sequence The Sinking of the Titanic of 1978). In the Second World War, the story even served Joseph Goebbels as a symbol of the evils of British capitalism, the theme of a 1943 film drama he commissioned on the disaster (see The Titanic in Myth and Memory: Representations in Visual and Literary Culture for more on this). Slavoj Žižek has aptly described the Titanic as a symptom of modern culture in the psychoanalytic sense, a ‘knot of meanings’ occupying a space in our collective imagination that somehow pre-existed the actual disaster itself: as Žižek points out, one popular novel from 1898 had already described the sinking of a ship called Titan in uncannily similar circumstances.

It is this ‘knot of meanings’ that The Debris Field sets out to explore. Here the Titanic is described as a ‘double ship’, ghosted by its own myth. The pamphlet results from a multimedia project to mark the centenary of the Titanic that poets Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe developed in collaboration with filmmaker Jack Wake-Walker and composer Oli Barrett. The complete film is scheduled for release on DVD, but the publication of the pamphlet stakes a claim for the words to have an independent existence beyond the original project. In a recent article, Isobel Dixon relates how the poets’ ‘aim was to be evocative rather than simply narrative, to draw on striking nuggets of fact, but also ideas of labour and ambition, poverty and wealth, bravery and loss, brotherhood and love and nature’s power.’ This non-narrative approach is achieved in a fragmentary text that, while roughly following the ship’s progress from construction to destruction, does not seek to describe events in detail, focusing instead on the conjuring up of particular moments and images.

This is an exploration not just of the physical debris of the ship, but also of the symbolic field that has survived it and continues to grow. The design chosen by Sidekick Books also evokes this process: printed on blue paper, each page with its own creases and watermarks as a background to the text, the look of the pamphlet suggests this sifting through the debris in a deep, dark place. But the debris field of the ship is also a dreamspace, as the poets suggest when they begin by performing an act of hypnotism on their audience in the opening pages, counting down to ten as we find ourselves going ‘deeper and deeper’.

What we find in these depths is stylistically heterogeneous, but certainly contains some wonderfully effective poetic fragments that, taken together, capture a whole panorama of characters and incidents in precise, controlled language. These carefully observed and economically evoked pieces of the past seem to flare up out of the darkness of the ocean fleetingly before disappearing again. The poets have chosen not to identify their individual contributions, but the impression is in any case that of a compendium of more than their own three voices. There are direct quotations from witnesses and montages of contemporary popular songs, short rhyming lyrics, as well as examples of conceptual and concrete writing. The tone shifts between ironic depictions of the opulent life on board (for example in the sections ‘The bugler calls’ or ‘Rub-a-dub-dub, the Captain’s tub’) and more elegiac elements. There are also attempts to establish contemporary resonances, for instance in a piece of prose poetry that combines the words of a young girl who survived the disaster with fragments of text about contemporary capitalism and the effects of water shortages for children in the Third World.

Once the pamphlet has reached the point in the story where the ship strikes the iceberg, however, it is the elegiac tone that comes to dominate. The penultimate section is a slightly longer sequence of verses giving voice to the ship’s dead, highlighting how even the recovered corpses were treated differently according to their social status. However, this social message is finally held in balance with a tendency to see the sinking of the ship as more of a universal metaphor for human mortality: ‘From debris we come / and to debris we go.’

The Debris Field is convincingly executed as a meditation on historical events, and innovative in terms of its formal hybridity. However, while it was enjoyable as a reading experience, I did not find it entirely satisfying. The subject of the Titanic is difficult to approach from a new angle. As a ‘knot of meanings’ (to return Žižek’s phrase) it has been understood in so many different ways, many of which are explored in this pamphlet, that it has become culturally over-determined. The fragmentary nature of this text is perhaps a recognition of the impossibility of telling a new story about the Titanic. Rather, in a thoroughly post-modern move, the poets can only sift through the meanings that are already floating around in the culture. As a consequence, and despite the undoubted quality of much of the poetry itself, I could not say that the effect of reading the pamphlet as a whole was to make me feel or think differently about the Titanic or about any of the significance that we have been attaching to it now for over a century.



Saboteur Awards 2013

In All of the Above, anthology, Interactive Literature, Magazine, Novella, Object, online chapbook, online magazine, Pamphlets, Performance Poetry, Play of Voices, Saboteur Awards on March 1, 2013 at 9:35 am

Your Pick of this Year’s Best Indie Lit!

Nominations are now closed, you can view the shortlist and vote for the winners here. Buy your tickets here.

Once a year, to mark our birthday, we at Sabotage like to give out some awards to the publications we’ve most enjoyed during the year.

In the past this was restricted to magazines, and it was held solely online.

This year, however, we’ve decided to do things a little differently.

First we’ve BLOWN UP [geddit?] the categories to include spoken word shows, anthologies, pamphlets, innovative publishers, your favourite literary one-off, … And secondly, we want you to vote for the winners!

This is going to happen in two parts:

  1. First you’ve got to nominate your favourites, which is where the contact form below comes in handy. Nominations close on 31st March at midnight (UK time).
  2. The very next day, we’ll be posting a shortlist here made up of the top 5 nominees and we’ll open up a round of voting. Voting will close on 1st May at midnight (UK time).

Then, this is the fun part, we are going to have a PARTY on 29th May at the Book Club, London, where we’ll announce the winners. It’s going to be a big celebration of indie lit in all its glory and we’d love it if you could attend. There’ll also be performances, a mini-book fair, music from LiTTLe MACHINe and our very own critique booth. Ticket details will be here soon.

The small print: the works you vote for have to have been created between 30th April 2012 and now. If you’re voting for a publisher or a spoken word event then they have to have produced something during that time frame, ditto for the one-off literary project.

We’ll be showcasing the shortlisted works on Sabotage: if they haven’t been reviewed yet by us, we’ll make sure they are. Winners get to perform at our event, be interviewed for Sabotage (like these guys did), and feel warm and fuzzy inside.  If you’re looking for inspiration, why not plunge into our archives? Here are some reviews of anthologies, magazines, novellas, pamphlets, spoken word nights and poets, objects, … We strongly encourage you to vote for more than one category.

If anything’s unclear, read our FAQ and do ask!

‘Shad Thames, Broken Wharf’ by Chris McCabe

In Play of Voices on May 21, 2011 at 9:51 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Shad Thames, Broken Wharf is a commissioned play, or script for a short film, written by Chris McCabe. Each book is presented in a box, with a genuine relic salvaged from the river. Nice touch.

The cast: Echo, a middle-aged woman from the locality, Blaise, a Northerner, the Landlord, a Londoner with ‘the knowledge’ and the Chorus, representing ‘The Restructure.’  Immediately there are resonances of Greek mythology (Echo was the name of a nymph who fell in love with Narcissus), Beckett, Joyce, Shakespeare, even Orwell’s 1984 (The Restructure). The language is poetic, sardonic, dark, comic: ‘Consider the Gherkin: a suppository for the arse they made of things.’

The Prologue opens with the Landlord locating the setting: ‘somewhere between a warehouse & a backstreet, between the Thames & the City.’ Then he goes on to describe how he became a Landlord, defining his role as something ‘between a bookmaker & a doorman, an undertaker & a prophet, a pharmacist & a cab driver…’ He continues, philosophically, so that in the end, the Landlord’s role encompasses every occupation from an historian to a Griffin, minute-taker, anarchist, semaphorist and poet. And more. This is a play full of lists.

The ‘white strobe from the tower’, which reflects across the river, across each glass he pours, symbolizes the ‘forever-time position of making the moment happen on canned-repeat – each time new, each time the same…’ Here is where I am reminded of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where the conversation endlessly repeats, where nothing happens, where there is always a sense of anticipation. The language is wonderfully poetic and rhythmic, with unexpected images: ‘the tides percolating sea-saliva, clawing the bladderwrack beach ….binbags hunched as done-in men….’. There are also striking and incongruous juxtapositions of location: ‘…somewhere between Deadman’s Dock & a shop called Joy.’ McCabe makes effective use of rhythm, assonance, alliteration, lists and repetition to ensure his audience’s rapt attention.

The opening dramatic monologue, which locates the story ‘somewhere between the dead fish & fresh bread, the bunker & the turret, between the commerce and the cormorant, the greed & the grebe….somewhere between tonight’s first shout & what she said at Shad Thames’ – sets up an expectation – of poetic language, of a conflict, and creates a suspense: what did she say? The lack of a full stop in the final sentence leaves everything open-ended.

In the opening scene, the two characters, Echo and Blaise, appear to be talking to themselves. At any rate, their comments seem unconnected to each other. We start to get a sense of the contemporary: ‘the pulse of the pyramid’; ‘this husk of a remote control, battery-side up, in the sand’.  Echo describes the excavations and rebuilding: ‘They dug the bunker with tractors, diggers, cranes – it was like watching a nest of insects.’

She is bemused by all the activity, not able to concentrate on it ‘ – never knowing when he’d be back’

It is in fragmented suggestions like this that we get glimpses of her personal life.

Blaise lists items he finds in the river. Echo (whose dialogue is always rich with imagery) describes a book she found when the tide went out: ‘Have you ever seen a book thrown back by the river? It was open face-down like a drowned bird. I thought there might be a clue there. I picked it up – it was called Ulysses’

Blaise tells Echo (now they are beginning to have the semblance of a conversation together) about a friend of his, a bin-man, whose mate had a problem with ulcers. He found a copy of Ulysses in the bin, and read it because he thought it might help: ‘you know, being called ‘Ulcers’.

Echo talks in generalities. She mentions seeing seven species of birds. Blaise likes specifics: ‘what kind of birds?’ She lists them: ‘sparrows, starlings, tits, gulls, pigeons, blackbirds, crows’.

The conversation, and the journey she describes, goes round in circles, ‘or cyles’, as they buy round after round. The wisdoms they sprout are very Beckettian: ‘Never trust a man with a square watch’;  ‘It’s men with small wrists who dig deepest in their pockets.’

As Blaise goes out for a ‘piss’, the voice of The Restructure is heard, introducing a more surreal note:

‘When the weather changes THE

RESTRUCTURE replaces the crunch of notes with shreds of gulls,

conceals phonebooks of evacuees under fresh snow

so the contacts are mulched under boot-treads –‘

Although The Restructure gives a description of sorts, it is atmosphere rather than logic, which is conveyed:

‘…THE RESTRUCTURE uses a spirit level

of grey tube to level out the overspill of marshes,

shunts under the river to make North and South a tabula rasa,

a straight run of twenty-five minutes without delays

(time enough to think but not act on how much you owe)’

(For me, a ‘spirit level’ will always bring Heaney to mind, and so, another echo…)

In the layers between these fragmented observations of the Landlord, the Restructure and the disjoined dialogue between Echo and Blaise, we begin to get a sense of cohesiveness: the objects unearthed from the riverbed symbolizing the history of Shad Thames, the evolution of its story.  Echoes and repetitions continue the cycles and circles, symbolizing life: eggs, birds, snowflakes. Myth and legend surface in random fragments uttered: ‘Did I ever say that if the stone birds fly from the Liver Building the whole city crumbles back to earth?’

The conversation follows no specific topic, abruptly changing constantly, yet loops occur. The dialogue – such as it is – is broken by silences, which appear to be comfortable ones, or someone – this time, Echo – going for ‘a piss.’

The voice of The Restructure is heard again, with more riddles, surreal images and bizarre rules for a strange world:

‘THE RESTRUCTURE….positions fortune cookies

along the cobbles of wharves so subliminal messages

gum the soles of shoes; creates brutalist altars in converted

churches so new Gods can be seen from many perspectives,

ensures all citizens are buried with a coxcomb, a chicken and a


Oh, McCabe is having fun! This is a text that also continues to subvert expectations. Magic occurs: ‘transforming fish to dancing coins’.  Sometimes, spells are more like curses (as with the witches in Shakespeare’s MacBeth):  ‘….THE RESTRUCTURE mixes mercury

with syphilis to ensure mental collapse follows erectile dysfunction’.

There is gambling, with ‘the splenetic lighthouses of fruit machines’. Sometimes there’s the sense of a reversal of time to a Dickensian world: ‘THE RESTRUCTURE has already placed penny bets on fortunes in the smouldering quays of Galley, Dice and Smart’. And let’s not forget the ghosts in the churchyard of St Mary’s: it was like a canteen, a canteen for ghosts’. McCabe spins us, not only through time warps, but also through the literary worlds of the great classicists – back to Beckett again:

Blaise: ‘It’s a parallax!

Echo: ‘It’s a trick of perspective!’

Blaise: ‘It’s a dupe for terrorists!’

Echo: ‘It’s a maze for drunkenness!’

And Shad Thames, Broken Wharf, is, indeed, all these things. Amidst the piss, the alcohol, the river, flows the drunken drivel of two characters reflecting on transient moments in their lives, the history of this corner of the world. I even detect a hint of Paul Muldoon in Blaise’s sound epiphany of: ‘Black dock of Salthouse, black dock of Blitz; black dock of Brunswick, black dock of silt; black dock of brandy…. ‘etc. And The Restructure adds and deletes contacts – like Facebook or other social sites… this is an impressionist, fragmentary take on the dregs left behind by civilization, past and present, in all its mess and glory. Rather ambitious for a slim play. McCabe pulls it off though. Loved this.