TOM JENKS Reviews
The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner by SJ Fowler
(Eyewear Publishing, London, 2014)
Poet, artist, martial artist, vanguardist, organiser, instigator, catalyst, collaborator extraordinaire SJ Fowler’s presence on the British and European avant poetry scene is large and significant. Given the scope of his activities and his seemingly inexhaustible energies, if someone told you he had invented a hydroelectric powered vacuum cleaner or discovered a new type of wallaby in North Kensington you would believe them. We in Britain, with our innate, rain soaked suspicion of “showing off”, have a sorry tendency to hold such multifaceted polymathy at arm’s length. We like to watch our fireworks from indoors. But ambition, purely founded and directed towards the service of poetry, art and, to make a singularly un-British bold claim, the enrichment of the cultural life that makes the world a better, more civilised place, is to be welcomed, applauded and celebrated. Fowler’s devotion to the cause is impeccable. His own work – voracious, protean, perpetually in motion – embodies his wide ranging, interdisciplinary approach, his oeuvre encompassing sound, performance, and visual poetry to name but a few.
The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner is, by Fowler’s standards, a relatively straightforward work, comprising discrete sequences of poems that are, with the odd exception, simply set and presented. The innovation here comes not from any particular technique or method, but in how the work carries itself and the spirit it exemplifies. Here the flavour is not in the menu but in the meal. Most of the pieces presented were written for commissions, a process which can sometimes yield arid, formulaic results, but Fowler’s poems deftly transcend their origins and have the strength to stand alone. Fowler’s work is unquestionably of the now and ahead of the curve, but in summing up what I like about this collection I find myself reaching for older, more traditional concepts often dismissed or disregarded in innovative poetics, such as readability, personality, authorial charisma and that most unfashionable thing of all, the notion of the unique voice. The writers namechecked at various points in the book, such as Raworth, Spicer and Hollo, all have that quality and so too does Fowler. This is a diverse, disparate collection, catholic and collagic in its aesthetic, but one that remains coherent precisely because Fowler has the gift of making whatever he says be said unquestionably by him, whether he is talking about the desert, the gods or tea. His voice, tough, hard edged and sharp elbowed, at times confrontational and controversial, but always fundamentally human, weaves through this book not so much like a silver thread as a glinting, stainless steel wire. This is a work of brutal beauty, or beautiful brutality. Phrases glint like quartz:
a river in the marble
exhaustion pay is bank double
the forest burns bush green hair
Elsewhere, we find moments of surreal, homespun wisdom:
chilean watches are the best movement
all those emails unanswered
might be a tiny ear
in the palm
This is by no means a brief book. It runs to over 100 pages and is, as all Eyewear books are, a sumptuous, defiantly physical artefact with enough ontological heft to hurt if you dropped it on your foot. But it is nonetheless a swift and urgent one. Lines are, in the main, short and uneven, jagged and fractured. Impression crowds against impression, images jostle and smash into one another like atoms in the Hadron collider. There is almost no capitalisation and still less punctuation. The focus switches back and forth between the internal and external landscapes with delirious rapidity, giving these poems the feel of memos found in Valhalla or drafts in Zukofsky’s outbox, or as if Wyndham Lewis left his Dictaphone on the District Line. This is a book not so much of the I but of the eye, of an open, perceiving intelligence at the centre of multiple worlds, their circles overlapping as those of a Venn diagram. Fowler’s antennae scan the frequencies and pick up many signals. Connections and conjunctions are sometimes oblique, occasionally opaque, often tangential but always, on an instinctive, subliminal level, tangible. And always there is discipline. Fowler never loses control of his material. Whilst The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner is an extensive work with its own weather systems and topography, there is no sprawl. No words are wasted. This is a book of clean lines and elegant economy.
Artist, yes; martial artist, yes; vanguardist, yes; organiser, yes; instigator, yes; catalyst, yes; collaborator extraordinaire, yes. All of these things are important in gaining an understanding of SJ Fowler’s work and his uniquely open and communitarian poetics. But what must not be forgotten is that Fowler is first and foremost a poet and that all else proceeds from this. The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner is the work of a writer and a writer that should be read.
Tom Jenks has published six collections of poetry including Items (if p then q), On Liberty, Repressed (Knives Forks and Spoons) and Crabtree (The Red Ceilings). Other projects include a Twitter re-write of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Ubu Roi, I Boris, a re-write of Jarry’s Ubu Roi with Chris McCabe. He co-organises The Other Room reading series and website, administers the avant objects imprint zimZalla and is a Ph. D. student at Edge Hill University.