nick-e melville: ALERT STATE IS HEIGHTENED

Collage has a long history in avant garde practice, from Picasso, Braque and Schwitters in the visual arts to Cage, Mac Low and Pound in literature. Marjorie Perloff, whilst noting its experimental origins, is dismissive of its current value: “What was once a revolutionary technique is now the staple of advertising and greeting cards.” Part of the reason for this it is now, in the digital age, so much easier to do. Cut and paste has replaced scissors and glue and the internet gives us all the library of Babel in our pocket. It is true, as Perloff notes, that some examples of collage are unambitious and uninteresting. It is also, true, however, that a lot depends on who is doing the collaging. nick-e melville’s work is very far from being a Hallmark message or a commercial break. Rather it is a sustained detournement of the tricks and tropes of advanced capitalism. It is a work of deconstruction in that it picks apart the smoothed texts of reification and commerce that are forever around us, but it is also a work of construction, taking these threads and fragments and weaving them together into a giant magpie’s nest. ALERT STATE IS HEIGHTENED is as dense as a cubed car in a scrapyard and as heavy as the Death Star. This is a text made of texts, artificial in its conception and execution, yet as authentic an expression of individuality as you are likely to find.

The book’s backbone is a column of text composed from a variety of sources. Those identifiable include student induction material, communications from the Department of Social Security and the glib argot of advertising. This is broken up by sparser pieces that, whilst being discrete, are nonetheless part of the whole. Some take the forms of familiar phrases excised from their usual context and placed in isolation, forcing the reader to consider their meaning anew or perhaps for the first time. One such piece presents the phrase “BREAKING NEWS” which, when set in block sans serif capitals with no frame other than the white space surrounding it and no news following it, becomes stark, spectral and unfamiliar. Other intercessions include letters and other texts which melville has re-tooled by erasure and further phrases presented in white on vividly coloured backgrounds that recall the jump cuts of a Jean Luc Godard film. These interventions, as well as being jagged and often beautiful pieces in their own right, also serve to force re-engagement with the main thread of the text. Just as we might be getting into some sort of groove and begin cruising through the text, melville pulls us up short and makes us start again.

The text itself is extraordinary: thick, clotted, rich, nuanced, allusive, and elusive. melville has taken ostensibly banal material and composed a work that, whilst obviously political and polemical, reads not as a manifesto or a broadside but as a poem. Of particular note is meville’s use of repetition. Many collage poems will use their source material only once and stop when it has been exhausted. melville, however, appears to have used multiple versions. The same phrases and fragments surface, submerge and re-surface time and again. The power of collage usually resides in conjunction and disjunction: disparate texts being forced into collision. melville’s text has plenty of pleasingly jagged and euphonious mash ups and nonchalantly plays the full register from pathos to bathos. But it also, through its circular evocation of an obsessive, hot-wired fugue state, transcends its sources to itself become a source, forever splitting and re-splitting, spawning and multiplying. ALERT STATE IS HEIGHTENED reads like the output of an overclocked machine with William Burroughs sparked out at the controls. It reads like a book that could go on forever, the last page simply a break in transmission rather than a terminus.

ALERT STATE IS HEIGHTENED marks melville out as a key innovative writer of our time. It shows also that Perloff is too pessimistic: collage is not a busted flush. It simply must, as all forms must, renew itself. Writers need not be limited or defined by the techniques and methods they use. Innovation is not simply copying previously innovative practice, but finding different ways of doing things. nick-e melville shows us the way forward.

Tom Jenks

 Published by Sad Press.

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