Maimes at Groin

by Jack Solloway

I want to write about knowing one’s place. But first let’s play a game of anagrams. I’ll give you a jumbled-up name and you guess the famous author. We can compare notes later but just remember: the real answers are the friends we make along the way. So no cheating.

OK, first up we have SLUSH MARINADE:

Published in the New Yorker, Slush’s short story — an allegory about cancel culture — was summarily lampooned on Twitter when it came out last year. (A slush pile is a shelf or stack of unwanted books publishers keep for pulp. It’s also the leftover snow no one likes.) Some pointed out, however, that Slush wrote a novel in the 80s that made people want to cancel his head from his shoulders. That we should probably listen, because it’s a unique experience, people wanting to rearrange your whole anatomy just for putting a few letters one after the other. (A marinade is a savoury, often acidic sauce used for soaking food to tenderise or enrich its flavour.) Two years ago, Slush lopped off an appendage himself, unprompted — from the nether regions of his name — to become Miss Salma R, the love interest, in his quixotic junkie novel OTT QUICHE. The book received middling reviews.

Next, we have Slush’s friend MINT MARIAS:

A fellow novelist, Mint is more famous than Slush for writing autofiction. (Mint is a fresh perennial herb – unless you heard verb, in which case ‘minting’ is what you do to make lots of money.) In 2014 Mint appeared on a panel discussion Slush put together hosting luminaries from across the globe. The idea of the panel was to interview Mint about an interview he did in the late 1900s, to see if things had gone downhill from there. When asked how his writing had moved on since the turn of the century, Mint credited the literary influence of his own brain: ‘Sometimes I think I could just lie on a hammock with a vodka and tonic and let my subconscious do the whole thing.’ (Marias are the prayers we tell ourselves but take away the S&M and it’s just an old-school word for solo.) Post-9/11 Mint did a flaccid impression of the kind of sweeping anti-Islamic rhetoric touted by HENCH CHORISTER’S PITH at the pulpit of New Atheism, for which he said he was sorry. Or that he regretted. But which? Tick the box marked amen or mean, as applicable.

But no more clues. If you’re not already sitting there with a smug look on your face, you can scroll down to the bottom of the article to find out the answers. See also, available from your nearest bookstore: poet’s poet VIES THE MIST, bestselling author LOOSELY YARN (new book too), and — unparalleled in his field — the psychoanalyst-cum-critic A SAD HILL PIMP. Please send your guesses to Review 31’s editor Houman Barekat (A NARK MOUTH BAE), who will happily field all of your answers individually and at any time of day, especially during the early hours of the morning.

Most authors enjoy wordplay, and the worse the better it seems. Writing mischief into French, English and every other language under the inevitable sun, Samuel Beckett (LES MEAT BUCKET) knew a thing or two about name games. His play Not I features — not an eye — but a mouth, suspended 8ft off the stage in total darkness. In Krapp’s Last Tape, as Beckett himself explained in a 1960 letter to Alan Schneider, he pits white against an anagram of ‘darke’ in ‘Bianca in Kedar Street’ and there’s plenty more of this interplay between light and shade strewn throughout (‘darke’ means dusky or dark-skinned in Hebrew). While we’re on the subject of Krapp, Beckett also noted that ‘T.Eliot is toilet backwards’ — an anagram T.S. Eliot (SLIT TOE) was apparently aware of. According to Twitter user @PragJag, a bookseller from 20 years ago who was pally with Faber, the nameplate for his Faber office door read Thomas Stearns because ‘probably fed up of people barging in looking for a loo.’

Dyslexics, often maligned, are excused. Any reader would be forgiven for thinking Eliot’s poem ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’ – the one that goes ‘Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited / If you consider my merits are small / . . . For Christ's sake stick it up your ass’ — was just an honest mistake by anally retentive writer who finally mistook his desk for a shitter, and emphatically not the ribaldry, misogynistic flashings of a poet upset at his female critics. Certainly, other writers have found Eliot’s arse ripe for material. Take this palindrome by Alistair Reid, from his 1963 collection Passwords: Places, Poems, Preoccupation (a palindrome is just a pretentious anagram, a fact proved single-handedly by director Christopher Nolan, whose summer blockbuster Tenet found cinema-goers less than impressed by a plot that barely made sense forwards let alone backwards). But here’s Reid redeeming the palindrome as a form:

T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot-toilet.

Of course it would be ridiculous to suggest that an anagram of someone’s name provides a kind of window into some essential part of their character. The exercise is all but entirely pointless. There is nothing especially clever nor funny, for example, in pointing out that Simon Armitage is an anagram of MAIMES AT GROIN. It would be unreasonable – not to mention totally unfair – for anyone to make a judgement of the man based on this deliciously freak coincidence, as if it were already written in the stars just waiting to be discovered. Nor would I suggest that the discovery reflects in the slightest degree his poetry or the experience of reading it. Or at least, not in the way one imagines. Like many from my generation, I learnt to read serious poetry because Armitage made a reader of me. (Serious poetry is an awful phrase, since all poetry — like speaking in tongues or clowning — is a ridiculous practice of a very sacred kind, but the distinction is important here.) Admittedly, that one should read MAIMES AT GROIN into their literary forefathers is, even for this columner, perhaps a little too on the nose.

Now that restrictions are being lifted, Daddy Armitage has resumed his library-resuscitating tour of the UK. The tour, like one of those defunct-until-the-sat-nav-dies roadmaps, takes the Poet Laureate from A-Z. Great news for Aberdeen, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Belper and Bootle, who had their virtual visits pencilled in after they were cancelled last year. But if you’re Zennor or Zelah in Cornwall, well, you might be waiting until 2030 to see the Yorkshireman read from the Good Book of Regional Arts. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that the national suppository behemoth that is the British Library has pushed to the front of queue, somehow making its way into the ABs of the tour in 2021 rather than the KLs of 2025 where London belongs, much to the chagrin no doubt of the card-carrying locals of the libraries of Loughborough, Liverpool, and Leighton Buzzard.

The move to prioritise the As of over the Zs is down to what Armitage calls ‘the DNA of language . . . the basic building blocks of all literature.’ It’s an inventive twist on ‘We didn’t know how to organise the tour’ or ‘This was the least politically provocative way of sticking our pins in the map short of blindfolding ourselves and throwing a few darts at an OS.’ But even this would be a more random form of selection. We can’t pretend that the building blocks of language Armitage refers to are just lying about in disarray. While the approach may feel even-handed (it certainly would have stuck a welcome two fingers up to London as the centre of the universe if the BL hadn’t snuck ahead), there is – not to put too fine a point on it — a whole song dedicated to memorising the letters of the alphabet in a particular order. Rarely do we stop to joyfully race through the incantatory ellemmennos of our youth; that is, until we are called upon to recite it backwards after being asked to please step out of the car, walk in a straight line, and blow here. At which point its definitiveness as a sequence is thrown into sharp relief.

The building blocks of language, learning our ABCs by rote, is one of the most important arbitrary sequences of our childhood education. But how can we say the alphabet is truly arbitrary when, for many of us, the success of our schooling was graded by the scale, from the A-grade to F for failure? Georges Perec, writing on the alphabet in ‘Think/Classify’, asks a fine question of the sort that’s best to dwell on exactly because it is unanswerable: ‘Why start with A, then B, then C, etc?’ What gives Aberystwyth a head start but puts Trotton at the arse-end? Or as Perec has it: Why should a B-movie be thought of as ‘less good’ than another film, which, he says, ‘no one has yet thought of calling an “A-movie”.’ As it happens, video game publishers do make the distinction, referring to blockbusters as AAA, AAA+ and AAAA to distinguish them from independents, who have since started their own ‘Triple-I’ system in protest. That alphabetised ratings now read more like a pack of batteries on a supermarket shelf reaffirms Perec’s suspicions from the 1970s and 80s.

As far as Perec was concerned, as a writer who’s interested in these sorts of things (he famously wrote an entire novel without the letter E), ‘the fact that there is obviously no answer to this question is initially reassuring’ because the alphabet is supposedly ‘inexpressive’ and ‘neutral’. But try telling that to the good people of Yarmouth, York and Yeovil. At the rate we’re going, we’ll have all succumbed to the Zzzs of Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep before the residents of XYZ get a look-in for a decent day out with the laureate roadshow. And this, ultimately, is the point Perec makes: The alphabet’s neutrality is only initially reassuring because each element in a series, no matter how arbitrary to begin with, ‘becomes the insidious bearer of a qualitative coefficient.’ In other words, any kind of nonsense order will eventually be accepted as indicative of a newly embedded, potentially long-standing hierarchy.

After reading Armitage’s elegy for Prince Philip (RIP PINCH-PILE), I have been wondering what it might mean to rewrite someone’s life in their name. Or more specifically what our titles have to say about our place in the world. How we judge someone is inflected by the titles they have taken on and the expectations conferred on them. Dropping a title, as Prince Harry has done, is one way of rewriting people’s expectations. Historically titles either reveal or withhold someone’s duty to someone else, whether a Dr, a Lt., a Mrs or a Ms. (There’s more to be said on the problems this raises, and one suspects that the discussion around pronouns is not entirely unrelated.) When Armitage took on the role of Poet Laureate, he wryly referred to Her Maj as his new ‘line manager’ in a rolled-up sleeves sort of way. The deflection from the historical and honorific title of Laureate tells us something about his approach to the job, which is — as his recent elegy has confirmed — that he will treat it like any other. ‘I didn’t want to presume to write a personal poem about somebody I didn’t know,’ he said, ‘so I took cues from various interesting facts about his life, and thinking of him as the last in that generation of patriarchs.’

Titled ‘The Patriarchs’, the elegy is a poem about duty, ostensibly to Queen and country. But it’s also about Armitage’s duty to the office he holds, a job whose duties he’s managing to fulfil seriously on his own terms. Indeed, it’s worth asking whether this truly constitutes duty. Reading the poem, one can clearly see that it’s an upending of its priorities — a handstand rather than a bow — less interested in commemorating the Duke than examining the task of commemoration, since ‘to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up / for a whole generation.’ Armitage gymnastically salutes his betters, feet first, and performs the duty he owes to his line manager in such a way that one wonders how he waved through the occasional poem with a solemn wiggling of his toes. It’s an old trick to circumvent the patrons. That’s not to say the poem isn’t accomplished but that it simply has different priorities. That it smacks a little of the Nationwide adverts, with its broad, of-the-people, vox-pop panorama, is, under these circumstances, to his credit. The man knows what he’s doing, and the handwriting of the poem is recognisable to anyone who’s been put in a tight spot by an incredibly difficult, casually racist employer.

Whatever his personal feelings about Philip (his admission that he wouldn’t presume to know him by his public remarks is telling), I’d give Armitage’s elegy of Prince Philip an A+ for delivering on his brief to the letter. Even if the letters themselves aren’t quite arranged as they’re supposed to be. To the patriarchs indeed.



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