Maximum Truth; Minimum Honesty

Aea Varfis van-Warmelo, Intellectual Property

Goldsmiths CCA, 47pp, £6.00, ISBN 9781739492427

reviewed by David Collard

A poem is a kind of conspiracy between the poet and the reader, and not simply in the sense of a plot or secret plan. ‘Conspiracy’ (from the Latin conspiratio) has the literal meaning of ‘I breathe together with others’ and that, metaphorically, is what we do when we read a poem. We share the poet’s thoughts and feelings, their position in the world. We share their air.

In her long poem ‘Lachrymatory’ (which appeared in issue 3 of Tolka magazine last year) Aea Varfis-van Warmelo set out to subvert this conspiratorial connection by listing all the occasions during a particular period when she had broken down in tears. While each was entirely plausible, and by turns touching or uncomfortably hilarious, she wrong-footed the reader by claiming that her mother was dead and then, a few lines later, that she was alive. It’s possible that none of the other lachrymatory episodes actually happened, so the pact between reader and poet was not so much broken as rendered non-existent. She also skewered the confessional tendency in much contemporary poetry, rejecting mere candour while aiming for something more complex and more interesting. What made the subversion so unsettling was the author’s sincerity, shrewdly calibrated. She achieved the maximum truth with the minimum honesty.

On her website you can read a startling piece entitled Mynthomaniac, a work-in-progress about being a pathological liar which exploits the conventions of memoir, auto-theory and poetry to explore (she says) ‘the role that lying plays in the invention of self, modern forms of interrogation, lie-detection in a criminal context, language philosophy, psychoanalysis, joking as a form of insincerity and, specifically, guilt.’ 

Thus forewarned we approach her first collection with caution. It was commissioned and published by Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art as part of Episodes, a continuing series of solo projects that provides an experimental platform for emergent practices. Intellectual Property is a substantial work, a series of four long-form free verse poems, each exploring a profound ontological question: do we own our thoughts, our ideas? Can these thoughts and ideas be copyrighted?

Prompted by a report that PepsiCo had sued four Indian farmers for growing a strain of potatoes that infringed the corporation's copyright, and intrigued by the point of transition at which something natural becomes synthetic (and therefore subject to legal protection), she explores the moral and philosophical meaning of intellectual property, and the extent to which we are each of us custodians of our thoughts. Can an individual claim ownership of an idea when it’s shared with the world?

A series of landmark rulings in the history of copyright law is punctuated by four very brief passages noting technical benchmarks in human history: the invention of the sickle, the crossbow, the steam engine and the atom bomb, with the first of these initiating a timeline that leads directly to the last (and, by implication, back to the first, if we screw up as a species). That a humble agricultural implement can lead to potential mass annihilation has been a familiar trope since the ape in Kubrick’s 2001 a Space Odyssey threw a bone into the air which, in a celebrated jump cut, became a space ship. What interests van Warmelo is that, throughout history, innovation tends to occur simultaneously in different parts of the world at more or less the same time.

The subject of copyright law is navigated through three case studies, starting with the author's sister’s surrogate pregnancy:

so unconventioned we must imagine procedured conception
and what is procedure but legislation — we must imagine:

   a sterile room with credible machines and gloved hands
   at the petri dish, crafting an assembly of cells that could
   variably further life with an unfeasibly small needle
   inserting, in, — only once — and the rush of intrusion,

       (and what do I know of procedure / a collage
      of TV snapshots with anaemic light and
       lanyards) (but I am imagining the person as
      best as I know to)

      (I imagine them feeling pride, taking credit in
       some way, for defying nature’s injunction)

Next the thoughts of an ordinary teenage boy exposed to depraved online violence — he’s only a click or two away from images of Ted Bundy and his victims — yet he is naturally kind and empathetic when he meets a neighbour on a bus:

she asks if he still plays football and he says Sometimes which is a lie and she smiles — it is glassy – brittle / she is thinking of her dead son, he knows, because they played football together — she turns away as her eyes give in to feeling and — so sudden — he takes her thin hand — it is all he can think to do // she grips his so tight — he will think of this all day, how he got something right

Finally we come to the Liebniz-Newton Calculus Controversy of 1711, when Newton’s supporters accused Leibniz of plagiarising Newton’s unpublished ideas and thereby taking undue credit for the invention of calculus.

gazing up and counting down from one — a race to a bottom
that does not exist yet / for them this mathematics is a matter
of divining a world that remains a half-made mystery / to
understand these men you must see the number one as a
perfectly sealed dome / you must see the dome as all that you
can see / sense beneath it there are an infinite number of
divisions — a slice, a cut, a cut

two men gazing up — beneath the dome they cast one shadow

All three cases — the pregnancy, the teenage boy’s inner life and this historic dispute — are mapped against standards both judicial and ethical, and this includes the so-called ‘Son of Sam Law’ (which I had to look up, and which was prompted by the case of the New York serial killer David Berkowitz). This prevents criminals from profiting from the public interest prompted by their crimes. They cannot monetise their thoughts.

Aea Varfis-van Warmelo has a light touch when it comes to this potentially ponderous subject matter and displays a casual virtuosity when she sees a baby with ‘a paint stroke of eyelashes’ and hears ‘the whistle spit of a firework somewhere distant.’ There are also moments of droll self-reflection, such as when the author reflects on her (presumably unique) name:

you must picture me at birth — named before the start, already marked with an aea and facing the double-barrel wordlessly // its unlikeliness the point / the solitude of a name like no other / each utterance aimed at no one else / a finger on a trigger

Much of this four-part poem is profoundly moving without ever lapsing into the sentimental commonplace; balancing the heartfelt and the cerebral, a cool warmth pervades throughout. Intellectual Property — beautifully designed and printed — lands hard, bright, fresh and clean, much as Prufrock and Other Observations did in 1917. It’s a comparably significant debut, and a breath of fresh air.

David Collard 's most recent book is About a Girl: A Reader's Guide to Eimear McBride's 'A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing'. He is currently working on a group biography of writers active in the London literary scene of the 1970s.