Joseph Clayton Mills on Patrick Farmer’s Yew Grotesque

Listening is harder than you think, harder sometimes than to think. Sometimes it’s the case that a word is an object, with a strange clumsy body and a history, a hard carapace like that which holds a beetle or a seed. Sometimes an object is a word, on the page or in the mouth, spoken with an accent and a mumble. “My hypothesis: the subject as multiplicity,” someone said, or someone wrote. Yew Grotesque is a strange and lyrical book, and a grotesque book. For a long time Patrick Farmer has thought about listening. He has thought about writing, too, and written about listening, and listened to the sound of his own thinking. One of the ways that he’s thought, written, and listened is to traipse around the Lake District, and the forests and tarns that made such a decisive impact on Wordsworth make their presence felt here as well. Farmer is indelibly marked by the landscapes that he’s listened to so patiently. In place of the ersatz transcendence of the Romantic sublime, however, the topography that Yew Grotesque traces is precisely grotesque: a monstrous and phantasmagoric hybrid of self and other, tendrils of thought and sensation distended and intertwined.

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This is a book that comes out of a body and a mind and the uneasy, bickering love affair between them. It has an incongruous and improbable body, this book, and a head that’s full of holes. Sometimes a sound is a kind of thinking, and thinking is a kind of play. A thought is sometimes an event in the world, and in this book it is a drama and an act. Sometimes it’s a flower or a wound. It often has a color and a flavor, and sometimes it leaves a strange, strong taste in the mouth. This is a book that, like a child, chews on the world to know it better, sinks fangs to gauge its density and flavour and toughness. Yew Grotesque lets us marvel at the dehiscence of this flower or this wound, leads us through the labyrinth of the inner ear to give us vertigo like a gift. For in this book the natural—the landscape, the body, the language that seeks to encompass them both—is never given easily, but is a question, a subject of fascination and doubt. This is a book that brings the world almost unbearably close, presses as near to the thing in itself as possible, and in so doing it renders all uncanny and strange. It opens up a hollow space, a gap or a gasp in which another voice can speak and situate itself. A series of dialogues, in other words (in others’ words). Between any two voices of course there’s a silence, and between any two words a space. Room enough for a little misunderstanding; two strands twisting tight, each around the other in a dense, gnarled knot of language.

Perhaps it’s only the language branching out that draws one in and on, the language that in this book becomes so palpable and tactile; in Yew Grotesque one feels the texture and the weight of words on the page and on the tongue, that agile root. This is writing as listening, an attentiveness to the sounding of the world, the echoes that it gives off when struck or stroked with a living body and mind. The rustling of something indistinct, a presence, or the trace of a presence testified to only by the absence that it leaves behind. Signs, not to be deciphered, but acknowledged, wondered over, and mourned. Of course there’s no meaning to decode or unravel, nothing behind the obdurate opacity of that which simply is, but a queasy, uneasy glee at the texture of language; there is an intoxication with the crevices and whorls on the surface of each word and sentence. One of the ways that Patrick Farmer has thought, written, and listened is to sit alone in a room, reflecting, thinking, and listening. But then one is never alone; there’s always the other, the one whose answers echo back. The head, cracked open, lets in the world outside, in all of its confusion, awe, and disgust: history, culture, and memory unfurling in a sickly blossom.

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There’s a long tradition, from Sophocles to Freud, of using dialog to get at something that one can’t get at alone. But what if one feels always a little alone? Even with a skull that rings with echoes? This is a lonely, crowded book. It’s a well-read book, one that juxtaposes it’s learning with what the senses give it and cannot choose between them. This is a book that declares its loves unabashedly. The list of imagined interlocutors, given almost at the outset, provides one constellation for the reader to navigate by, but its other influences are just as transparent. There is the syntactical playfulness of Stein’s clipped dialogs; the comical, awkward sadness that one finds in Beckett’s lonely room-dwellers; and the erudition and vigor of Joycean wordplay, too. But the directness with which those influences are affirmed allows Yew Grotesque to speak in its own voice as well, because this is a book more than anything about the things that touch us: the pressure of a sound against tympanic membrane, or the pressure of an image on the eye; the pressure of a dead poet’s rhythmic breath in the reader’s lungs. This book is about fecundity, too, I think; it knows the need for more than just oneself and the world and the friction between. This is a sad book. Sometimes it seems that this book is about the others (other books, other bodies) who stand there between oneself and the world; or alongside oneself in solidarity, perhaps; or maybe, like a phantom limb, are not found at all when one reaches out to grasp. If one listens, one can hear sounds before rhythm and melody and harmony lay hands on them; the sound of a word in the mouth before it crosses the lips. There’s a burden that comes from carrying around the sounds that one hears, when every sound seems a chocked voice that one must struggle to decipher and every voice a noise. “Mirrors should reflect longer before sending back images” says Cocteau in the line that Farmer takes as an epigraph. Perhaps some images sink into the depths of the mirrors that hold them, like stones into lakes, rippling and resonating and echoing in the deep. This book, I think, is a mirror such as that.

Joseph Clayton Mills

Images taken by Farmer on his first trip to the Forestry Commission site in Grizedale.

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