Hold your white horses

Alison Graham reviews J.R. Carptenter

The cover of An Ocean of Static makes reference to the text’s “splinter and pulse”, it’s transcription “of strange noises and of phantom islands.” Certainly the collection’s reputation  precedes it – it secured Carpenter a place on the Forward Prize’s Highly Commended list this year. For a deeply experimental collection that not only transcribes past and present experiences of the North Atlantic, but also envisions the experiences of these experiences and jettisons text and voices across every page, it has achieved a welcome level of mainstream recognition.  

Carpenter is a digital writer and artist and from the very beginning of the text, aspects of programming are integrated; the book’s ‘Legend’ is written partly in code. It is startling – jarring, even – to see JavaScript transcribed onto paper and turned to poetry. Initially, I was wary of it making for a reading so juddering as to impede any cumulative effect of the sequence. I was glad to be proven wrong.

These poems offer a passage that is engaging in its uncomfortableness, flowing and thundering by turn, its beauty challenging as the North Atlantic itself. Carpenter has said she “hope[s] readers will feel the surge of all that strange language coursing under the pages”. Her ear is closely tuned to differentiations in sound, and to proceeding, as in

            “how far the land you first saw

            was then from you”

The letter “a” diffuses through these lines without repetition of sound. As the distance between speaker and land closes, the vowels tighten. This movement from long to short, from stretch to immediacy is achieved through dislocation of syntax. Ordinary grammar is secondary to a grammar founded in movement. At the core of An Ocean of Static is a concern with relational movements. Indeed, none of these poems happen univocally; all have at least two voices. The poet’s use of prepositions consolidates this. The closing lines of ‘Etheric Ocean’ are thick with grammatical manoeuvre, the speaker issuing

            “about wonder I what know you

            in between shores”

Granted, I felt that this use of hyperbaton needed something in addition to make it convincing, that I might follow the meaning. The text isolates and diminishes the reader, just as a body of saltwater with an area exceeding one hundred kilometres might. But Carpenter provides; these lines are held together by their music, by the blips of between and the whalesong of about wonder. In the hands of her speaker(s), the vowels become points of orientation in a text that has no solid ground.

So this ocean has not been completely drained of familiarity; more mainstream poeticisms also emerge. The music may be strange, but it is music; the beauty of

“pack of hump-backed slick black rocks”

undeniable. It is a demonstrative aesthetic – as the smooth rocks clack, so too does the language in its abrupt vowels and stoppering digraphs.

Just as technique might be recognisable, so too are the intertextual references. It was these that offered me a way through the text; without them, I might have gotten lost in the dialects of coding and oceanography of which I have little knowledge. Literary precedents for singing the sea in many voices thread through An Ocean of Static. ‘Once Upon a Tide’ incorporates Shakespeare’s The Tempest by way of quotations, the poem’s speaker (re)telling “Solemn music” and “a noise of hunters heard.” The speaker’s wry insistence that “by islands, I really mean paragraphs” (‘Ten Short Talks About Islands…’) shares in the trickiness of

“divers Spirits in shape of dogs

and hounds…”

And it was always noises, even a thousand twangling instruments on the isle; in this sea, the poet has assembled a chorus vying and harmonising in equal measure. It is executed with the most affect in ‘Notes on the Voyage of the Owl and the Girl’, for instance:

            “in this place we continued


            be where

            be here

            here be dragons”

This is a rupture that generates as much as it implodes. Letters are lost and in return, a dragon. In these glitches, the energy, the enormous energy, of these poems is at its clearest. In

“The shape of the same land

as it appears unto you”

language is experience. The line break creates a moment for me to fix the image of the land into my mind before I am informed what I thought was the land is one of many. I have a moment to fix the image of the land into my mind before I am shaken, my gaze moved downwards and I am informed that what I thought was the land is one of many possible lands. With emphasis on “land” and “you” I am made aware that land is particular, not universal. It is because I hold the land in my gaze that I cannot definitively hold it.

On duality, Carpenter notes that the poems “are intended to be read on the page and to serve as scripts for the live performance of a body of web-based works.” They move towards a duality of bodies – the flesh of them – and technology’s scope of (re)making. These are poetries of glitches, an experience exact to each occasion of reading. Truly it is an


for trying of distances”


– a test of what and how we may know.


In the final poem, hierarchies of knowledge are ruptured.  The poet intersperses gathered and invoked knowledge; two voices speak in terms that are alternately melodic and eerie –  

“The time has come to talk of many things:…

…why the sea is boiling hot,

and whether pigs have wings.”


– and prosodic and empiric - “Numerous gigantic extinct quadrupeds.” Carpenter attends thoroughly to shifting voices like wind in their variability and consequence. One tributary of language is not inherently prioritised over the other; speculating language has as much to tell as describing language. These are permeable, clamouring voices, allowing the inflow and departure of ways of knowing. An Ocean of Static is a (re)vitalising permeability between physical – human – virtual phenomena. All of these are present, agitating and ebbing, on the page, directed exactingly over boundaries.

Andrew Wells