Considering the prodigious work of SJ Fowler, I find myself wondering whether I (and the rest of the poetry world) aren’t maybe subject to a brilliant and utterly benign hoax? In the first place surely one man can’t, in four years, with five collections, and hundreds of collaborations, with hundreds more shows, events curated and web-pages written for the leading online magazine 3 AM as its Poetry Editor, not to mention a flourishing mixed martial arts background, a doctoral thesis bubbling under with said Carol Watts, a course in avant-garde poetry he’s just beginning to deliver at the Poetry School, and a job at the British Museum, just be one man? Does he cook too?
And secondly, because try as I might, with antennae quiveringly extended, I can’t, reading his latest collection, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner, quite grasp many of the poems, the mystery of their underlying principles of construction, or explain to myself, initially at least, why I find them so goddamn superb. Yet finding, occasionally, poems among those impenetrable ones which seem completely transparent in meaning, makes me feel like an idiot who ought to ‘get’ the rest. So let’s wrestle awhile with this Renaissance uomo, this human dynamo, this arch-channeler of the Zeitgeist, setting to one side whether the S and J are identical twins or an entire collective, in deference to a Barthesian insistence on the text(s) being father to the man. In their exquisite phrasing, their ear for the sublime and the ridiculous, their seemingly frictionless absorption not only of the Poundian mien but, according to the Poundian mantra, all human life, Fowler’s poems at their best are jewelled masterpieces, constructions that thrill with endless possibilities and no one dominating as in ‘Unicorn Baby Shower’:
unison singing future family folkbank
a herd of buffalo’s trying to fly is AIDS apparent heir
we’d never go to marry new york when it was enough for
heat & even the women said she looked beautiful dressed
as curbs of terror
are all the more risk of horror now
DON’T RUIN it
Even the apparent typo of ‘buffalo’s’ here is intriguing as to its purpose, those wayward buffalos being sternly corralled by the capitalised and underlined announcement on one of the frontispiece pages that ‘ALL ERRATA IS INTENTIONAL’ (itself a slyly self-mocking grammatical error).
In tone mandarin, limpid, hard-edged, amused but curiously accepting and resonant, Fowler’s poems are redolent of the early Pound of Lustra, seeming almost to find their subjects as luminous details by the wayside, yet wiped clean of Pound’s belittling scorn and democratised for the twenty-first century. More surreal than Pound though, elements occasionally seem to belong to a decidedly private language. Unlike the approach of Watts, where one is cast straight among the wonderful tendrils of language as if bathing, swimming for a shore that is always shifting, arrived at for just long enough to catch one’s breath, only to recede, I return to the jewel metaphor for Fowler. I think of surfaces, endless reflections. Depths that are found only by living with the jewel-poem and returning to it, until one’s imagination perhaps projects something into the crystalline structure.