On J.H. Prynne’s Rich in Vitamin C

This poem is from the 10 Uncollected Poems section of J.H. Prynne’s forthcoming Poems, which collects 30 years work and will be published early next year, and was originally collected in the earlier Poems volume published in 1982. It is a strong example of the Prynne lyric in which tensions between external social, political, and economic forces and interior, personal, emotive, and reflective experience come into play. The tone is almost of a love poem, yet there is a darkish irony at work as well. There is a sense of collusion and lightness in “snowy-wing case”, “your pause like an apple pip”, “sweet shimmer of reason”, but all is tainted by the “cross-fire of injustice”. There’s a military metaphor at work – “from starry fingers/ noting the herbal jolt of cordite/ and its echo” which is in itself destabilised by the lyrical gesture of “starry” and the reference to the natural in “herbal”. There seems to be an unholy alliance between the stealth of military incursion and the processes of the natural world. “The baltic loved one who sleeps” might in fact be a submarine skulking and “echoing” in territorial waters, with “the motto we call peace talks”, some kind of Cold War suggestion. Is it a precursor or even an ironic hymn to something like the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties – the love/lust cycle of interaction between enemies? Whatever, we are lulled by the mellifluous language and the haunting beauty of the piece. But the sense of threat is never far away.

The title is interesting in this context, as “Rich in Vitamin C” is both a scientific fact that has particular ramifications with regards to healthy growth – “it’s supposed to ward off Colds!” (maybe I should capitalise the C in Cold) – and an advertising slogan. Prynne seems to be taking to task the commercialising of the personal – love, as well as the political-military dialogue. The references to a “screen”, “sight-lines”, and “pulse”, also suggest an interaction or collusiveness, even conflation of acts of the body – seeing, visualising, pumping blood – and the processes of the economic, military, and social machine. All of this is superbly united in four tight metrical nine-line stanzas. For Prynne, the field of the page, or maybe the space of the margins, the position of the text, and measurements of indentation and so on, are emphatic to meaning. They affect how something is said, and how it is read.

For Prynne, the production of a poem, the production of a book, are as much part of the cycles of commercial fetishisation as the creation of the poem itself. So, it is the responsibility of the poet (and reader) to work at diminishing a degree of moral irresponsibility that overshadows the creation and production of art. Which explains why most Prynne works have been available in small print-run pamphlet forms published by presses for whom profit is not a motive. The forthcoming Poems are being published by a combination of Bloodaxe and the Australian presses, Folio and Fremantle Arts Centre Press, keeping costs down and avoiding, as much as possible, the usual dictates of the market.

The work of Prynne is often seen by many as being difficult – both in its language and its apparently hermetic references. Meaning seems to be flexible, speech is destabilised, and readers are confronted with questions concerning their own status – even complicity – in the relationship between the mediated word, the crafted text, and the external world, without which it cannot exist. It’s the idea of the self as centre, the so-called lyrical I that’s being questioned here. “Rich in Vitamin C” shows how every human interaction, personal reflection, and meditation on time and place involves others, and effects, and is influenced by, macro and micro changes in the social, economic, and political climate. Above and beyond all else, Prynne’s concerns are moral and ethical – he believes even that in the intimacy of the lyric moment, we have an obligation to recognise what is happening in the greater world.

A personal anecdote. Six or seven years ago I was hitch-hiking in the South-West of Australia, living in hotels and camping out, in search for a silence in which to write, to discover a new voice in myself. I carried only one book in my pack – which was a new experience to someone who usually has at least half-a-dozen books on the go at once. It was the early J.H. Prynne Poems. It was like a technical guide manual, a map book to new poetic territories, in addition to being a collection of poems of sublime and challenging lyricism. As I read these poems in my aloneness, I realised that my need to “escape”, to find some new voice, was self-deluded, that voice is interactive – the traumas and concerns of the greater world were still there – I was simply avoiding them. It was then I realised how political Prynne’s voice is, and how, indeed, my own has always been. I started writing again – confronting, rather than avoiding it. A new angle, the same voice.