‘The construction, or if we want to be more accurate, the excavation of the multitude of realities lurking underneath the practice of everyday life has come to be seen as a basic writing tool of writers and poets dealing with urban life. The mechanical nature of urban time and usability as urban life’s ultimate precondition change drastically the imagination of the urban dweller. The ability to read maps and construct alternate routes to navigate oneself within the city; the ability to collect and catalogue information regarding the cultural, fiscal and real estate value of the urban space – all of these are but a brief selection from the basic survival tool kit for the urban dweller. The urban dweller has access to a nexus of mulitple realities and it is this nexus that allows for an ambulatory, phantasmagorical reading of urban space.
Tom Chivers in his poetry does not simply map the experience of urban life. The poem ‘How to Build a City’ is not simply an alternate geography or a psychogeographical impression of London; it is an occluded autobio(geo)graphy of the city as impressed upon a native of the city. Antigone Vlavianou, when writing about another writer dealing with urban space, Yorgos Ioannou, notes that the ‘alternation of narrative masks culminates in a functional intertwining of all pronouns; said alternation is made manifest in a sprawling narrative identifying the body of the city with the narrator’s body. The narrator’s body bearing the marks of the city on it goes on an act of auto-bio-geography’.
Chivers as a poet writing about the city and the marks it leaves on the poet’s very body approaches city life in a markedly different manner; the body of the city and the narrator’s body do not come to be identified in Chivers’ poetry. In Chivers’ work, the narrative feeds in the way a parasite does on the fauna of fantasies that make up the body of the city. The narrator in these poems is a paradoxical, malleable entity: the narrator transforms ceaselessly in his wanderings with no hope of ever escaping the city. The narrator of ‘How To Build A City’ (and The Terrors, to a lesser extent) is folded inside the very body of the city; a body made up of badly lit alleyways, exposed brick walls, an ever changing skyline, electrical wiring and ruins. The terrae incognitae of the flaneurs become the hipsters’ terrae nullorum in Chivers’ poems: spaces without any permanent identity (and affiliation) despite the attempts to map them thoroughly. The minute details as inscribed in these poems construct the portrait of a city made up of disparate elements; this particular city portrait is structured more like the factory that is the unconscious rather than a ‘real’ city (whatever that might mean).
If one wanted to, one could make a pretty accurate map of (East) London based on Chivers’ poems but in reality this particular map would only make even more apparent the reality of an urban space consisting of sedimentary accumulations: sounds, images, ideas and temporalities. The city one would construct based on Chivers’ poetry would be the city in which decay and ultimately catastrophe reveal the vertiginous collapse of inner into outer, past into future, urban space into whatever might potentially exist outside its boundaries.’
First published in Greek in Poiitiki
So, whilst I was in Edinburgh I took part in the site-specific walking tour of the city: En Route. The ‘show’ is the brainchild of Melbourne-based collective one step at a time like this. It goes like this. You meet in the foyer of the Traverse Theatre in a group of 2-3. Someone takes you half-way up the road, splits you up from the group, gives you a set of headphones, straps an iPod to your wrist, takes your mobile number, and tells you to cross the road, walk down a set of stairs and wait for further instructions. Orienteering, then, crossed with a treasure hunt, and with dashes of psychogeography.
What follows is a 70 minute (?) tour of Edinburgh which leads you down dark alleys, across busy roads, into a Hotel lobby, a shopping centre, and up to the top of a multistorey carpark. Instructions are received as texts on your mobile phone, from the soundtrack on your iPod, are discovered in envelopes behind garage doors and in record shops, daubed in chalk on the increasingly slick pavements.
All the time you are being shadowed, discretely, by your ‘helper’ – ie. the person who fit your iPod/headphone gear. In my case, the shadowing was less than fluid as I failed to receive the first few instructions by text, meaning that I ended up hanging around rather aimlessly. I didn’t mind this though. In fact, it was the interaction with my ‘helper’ – as well as the sense you are being watched over – that gave this experience depth of meaning. I’m pretty au fait with psychogeography/Situationism/derives &c. so all that ‘looking at the city differently’ stuff, whilst fun and important, was hardly new to me.
The sense that you are being ‘controlled’ (however benevolently) also, inevitably, leads to the temptation to rebel against that control – even in small ways. At one point I caught a glimpse of my ‘helper’ behind a wall trying to find me, a fantastic role reversal which gave me a brief moment of pride in my urban strolling.
At one point you are led into a backstreet where a hidden wall has been covered in chalk graffiti (by previous participants). You stand here for a few minutes’ contemplation, and are asked to add your own.
Sometimes, you spot other participants; your journey through the city coinciding with others’.
Edinburgh in August, you hardly stand out amongst the street artists, lost tourists, pipers and performers running to shows in full costume. Moments of recognition, though, are compelling – a passing glance with someone who’s “in” on the trick.
You are instructed, at one point, to wait in the lobby of the Balmoral Hotel, and make a phonecall to someone.
… and then into a shopping centre, to browse the cosmetics department of John Lewis.
There are some nice tricks too. In the multistorey carpark, you come to an abrupt halt, at which point you pick up the path by using a flick-book, which animates a woman towards a door.
The experience ends with wonderful views of the sea (no need for Arthur’s Seat, then), and then back down for a complimentary cup of coffee – at which point I took off my headphones, and started to interrogate the barrista about the deal the cafe has made with En Route.
In his review for Eyewear, Kayo has lots of very interesting and acute things to say about my poems, particularly the 7/7 sequence ‘Rush Hour’ and the title poem.
He concludes (I repeat this for my own vanity):
Chivers shows himself to be a poet of genuine range. […] How To Build A City shows him to be firmly at home among the many talented writers that make Salt Publishing’s list one of the best in British Poetry.
Cheque in the post, Kayo.
This might also be a good place to draw attention to the continuing plight of Salt Publishing. To help keep them afloat you can buy How To Build A City for £10.39 direct, or why not order it through your local bookshop. They probably need your custom too, given the perilous state of the book trade.
Last week I went to see Chord, an installation by Conrad Shawcross in Kingsway Tram Tunnel. It was an intriguing experience, a chance to explore a small fragment of London’s forgotten subterranea. Here are some snaps I took on my phone; just the tunnel (the miraculous artwork itself can be seen at Londonist and elsewhere). Arts organisation Measure deserve praise for putting the project together, as do Camden Council for letting them take over the Tunnel, which they normally use for storage.
I heard about The Mannahatta Project via the latest issue of the TLS. It looks fascinating.