Both Ancient and New

Sam Riviere, After Fame: The Epigrams of Martial

Faber & Faber, 128pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780571356928

reviewed by Frith Taylor

Confessional poems have been a mainstay of Western poetry since the middle of the last century. People love the theatre of confessions; it's exciting to think that someone is telling you the truth, or telling a secret. In its original religious meaning, to confess is to avow one's faith in spite of persecution. In Old French confesser had a figurative meaning to 'harm, hurt or make suffer.' Go further back and you find that the root bha, meaning to speak, tell or say, has another meaning, which is to shine. It's where we get 'beacon' and 'epiphany' from. It's also where we get 'sycophant'. In confession we have both holy violence and the queasy prospect of total exposure.

There is a contradiction at the heart of confessional writing. While it promises the whole truth, it is mediated through an editorial frame. We are still dealing with a narrative, after all, and the attendant problems of artistry, what may be embellished or edited out in the name of improving the text. Riviere chooses an interesting tack, to confess through a translation of someone else's work. The starting point for After Fame are the 118 epigrams from Roman poet Martial's Book 1, exploring ideas of translation, plagiarism and ownership. While I initially resent Riviere pulling an Ezra Pound and making me Google Latin, skimming through Martial's epigrams is fun and entertaining, full of the self-aware witticisms that Riviere writes himself. Martial was the first to use the term 'plagiarism' to mean the unauthorised reproduction or theft of intellectual property. What we see are confessions managed by degrees. Riviere dramatises the promise of catharsis alongside the danger of becoming ensnared in someone's confession.

The collection was written, Riviere explains, 'specifically' to 'avoid specifics'. These poems aim 'to discover whether you can game a poem's legislation from within.' After Fame continues Rivere's 'process' works, poems that are not so much written as filtered through search engines and translation tools. Riviere then teases out registers until a poem hangs together. What I'm assuming he's done (interpreting clues from a curiously withholding blurb) is feed Martial's epigrams back and forth through Google translate, and then augment the resulting text into a poem. The idea is to have a poem with no centre, nothing to anchor it, and in which words slide around over the surface of meaning.

At the beginning of After Fame Riviere has a poem whose speaker is an apologist for plagiarism:

a fake masterpiece is better than a real one because at least
    it's affordable
permadeath in virtual warfare is better than actual death in
    actual warfare
imitation is better because it's sincere
whereas innovation seeks to impress

As the collection progresses, this certainty unravels, and he explores some of the shabbier elements of copying, curation and self aggrandisement. At first Riviere gives us fairly straight forward translations of Martial's epigrams, if in his own spare, prosy style. Once in the middle sections, stage directions and footnotes start to appear. Then the footnotes have footnotes. Here Riviere departs from Martial and adds adjacent speakers that embellish the narrative by sharing a litany of anxieties and dreams. A group of recurrent characters emerge in different forms, a kind of Martial extended universe. Riviere frays the edges of the poems; these crumbs of narrative feel both ancient and new, at once Greek chorus, academic notation and pop-up advert.

There are moments of real originality and beauty in After Fame. The poems are sharp and affecting, and a little frightening too. Poem 51 is a menacing and lovely poem about a rabbit, or someone the speaker addresses as 'rabbit':

rabbit don't tempt me
[. . .]
now can you or not
on your white throat show
with a vanishing breath
a worth slenderer than this

Poem 73 imagines a stylish necropolis:

There are spirits in the kiosk
Rich friends with dark opinions, suspicious of the boycott
In sepulchral apartments their views sound placid
Inspiring individual awe for a public necrology
It's heavy garlanded flowers a dream world
Watching lightning striding up the Thames
In a description of the present, or the actual present

While in poem 39 we see the perversions of love under late capitalism:

There are few
[. . .]
it's simple to love and for whom
you'd happily sue

As always, what is striking about Riviere's work is his mastery of tone. His poems are cool and elegant, executed with a persistent sense of control. There are smatterings of references throughout; Auden surfaces in a poem about a Roman woman's cough, and Becket can be heard in the background of poem 38:

If you sign the petition
then I'll remove my name
(the only reason you added your signature)
and if you remove yours
I suppose I'll add mine again
and it will go on like this
for a really long time

His characters talk about books too. Poem 72 begins 'The authors on my bookshelves include Chekhov, Kierkegaard, de Sade, Mishima, Joyce, Ellison, Kesey’, while the speaker is described as 'Salingeresque'. What we get is Martial percolated through Riviere; his treatment of reputation, integrity and relationships echo Martial's concerns while exploring them in a completely new way.

Or does he? We are so used to saying a writer 'explores' a subject, but everything Riviere writes is inflected with a kind of stifled misery that hangs over the poems like a dark sheen. The poems are often over before they've begun; you know you are going to be left with a speaker who is being very clever about being very sad. It is this circularity that gives Riviere's poems their distinctive quality. They take you somewhere else, but he sustains the aesthetic and tone with such control that you remain firmly within a specific landscape. It's strange because it's funny too. Riviere is really funny, and I laugh out loud throughout; it's fun to read about someone hating the same things you hate.

There are places where pushes his luck, however. One of his footnotes/poems describes attractive women as 'post-hot', and I'm transported immediately to the cramped pub basement populated by slouching Norwich School of Art boys where I first saw Riviere read. This kind of laboured humour makes the seams of the work visible, dissembling the clarity and completeness that Riviere works so hard to achieve. There are also moments where the narrative swallows itself. Making plagiarism your subject is a smart move because it becomes part of your 'practice'. I remember seeing a BBC documentary about an artist who stole a diamond, swallowed it, and after she'd excreted it had it cleaned then made it the focal point of her exhibition. ‘So you stole it?’ Someone asks her at the exhibition. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘I've made art about stealing.’ Reading After Fame, I become concerned that I have somehow been tricked. Tricked into liking it, or tricked into disliking it for the wrong reasons. I do not want to be one of the two groups of critics that Riviere describes, people who say he goes 'too far', or people who say he doesn't go far enough. Featuring your critics in your work is another smart move, because it makes your current critic (me) interrogate their criticism. It almost distracts from the fact that writing a poem caricaturing your critics is one of the most self-indulgent things I can think of doing. But that's probably wrong too: it is art about being criticised; it is a parody of a male artist reacting badly to criticism. Parody seems to cover a multitude of sins, like in poem 3 where Riviere writes, 'if someone calls you a genius you get to kiss them'. Parody of male entitlement? Satire of the London poetry scene? I suppose I am in that first category of critics after all — the one that thinks Riviere has gone too far.

The Latin I had to Google at the beginning turns out to be dick joke. Riviere starts with a quote from Martial 'saepe soloecismum mentula nostra facit,’ which he translates as, 'my pen is often erring . . .' but as I discover comes from a couplet that can be roughly translated as

You ask why I don't marry you, Galla? You're too eloquent.
My penis makes too many grammatical errors.

It seems strange to me to frame a collection with an epigraph that describes the rejection of an intellectual woman with a penis/pen allusion. Dick jokes haunt the collection. Poem 59 is riddled with impotence, and in poem 58 there is a weirdly erotic manuscript/penis allusion. I'm not sure how to describe Riviere's eroticism, or whether it can even be called eroticism. Can something be erotic when it is so sad? Or is he merely parodying phallocentrism?

And then there is the theme of slavery. The first section is called 'A Slave Reader,' drawing attention to the many guises and deceits of the narrators, as well as the unequal power relation between author and audience. Riviere tells us that the word 'plagiarism' comes from plagium, meaning to steal someone's slave, or to force a free man into slavery. Slavery is not a term many contemporary writers use metaphorically, considering that the balance of global wealth and privilege is shaped by the transatlantic slave trade, and that various forms of slavery still exist. It reminds me of seeing a primary student's Latin homework. On a page of vocabulary alongside 'father' and 'house' was 'slave'. The child (a white, privately educated child) was learning to use the word slave not from the position of someone who had been enslaved, but as a slave owner. Slavery should not be treated as an intellectual category; while it can be exciting to hollow out poems and create monologues with no speakers, some things should remain concrete.

To be a confessional poet you must necessarily be centred on yourself, and I think it's Riviere's permissiveness that keeps pulling me back to his work. Whatever my reservations about Riviere his work has an addictive quality I can't seem to leave alone. At its best After Fame is a clever and beguiling exploration of self and authorship, money and AI, full of peculiar and masterful shifts in register.
Frith Taylor is a writer and researcher based in London. She is currently writing a PhD on 18th-century queer domesticity at Queen Mary University of London.