Illegitimate Objects

I had the tremendous privilege last month of reading a poem I had been asked to write as part of the fabulous Illegitimate Objects project at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute. It was a project in which poets were invited to respond to a series of mathematical objects depicting surfaces created by mathematical functions. The objects had been discovered in the move to the new premises.

The exercise also prompted me to think in some very promising new directions that may lead to more than one new project. This is a brief talk I put together around the exhibition and the process of working on it.


There is a pivotal scene in Thomas Harris’ glorious piece of grotesque gothic, Hannibal, that takes place while Dr Lecter, who has a new identity as the curator of an archive at one of Florence’s great palaces, is enjoying his freedom in the city he loves. An Italian Chief of Police, who has no idea who the new scholar might be, catches sight of him standing beneath a starvation cage at an exhibition of atrocious torture instruments. Reflecting on the encounter later, and realising the seeds it would plant in the policeman’s head, Dr Lecter thinks to himself that it would have been “better to have encountered him at an orchid show.”

It is the curse of the artist to be committed to the rather unscientific notion of the subjective truth. If one wants to use that particularly skin-crackling term…authenticity. And so, however much I might wish it to have been true, I am in the familiar position of not being able to pretend that when I first saw these beautiful sculptures I pictured orchid petals, though looking at them I can see that I might well have done.


Instead I saw the spike of a Judas Chair, I saw the opening leaves of a pear, and I saw the retracting mandibles of an instrument whose name even is too grotesque for this setting.



In these scattered bones of objects I saw an exhibition of atrocious torture instruments.

There is a common theme in the notion of stretching, specifically of taking a surface and manipulating it, by stretching, to find its limit points, to see what can be done to a membrane before it splits, before it ceases to become a single surface. Those tantalising points on the objects where a shape had almost broken off and become something else, but remained connected, just, they are the same points as human skin on the point of splitting, the point the torturer seeks to find, to explore, to prolong, to repeat.

But this direction is not simply inhabited by the dark, damp medieval dungeon. But the well-lit, clean contemporary dungeon as well. Specifically, my mind kept throwing me pictures of shibari, the Japanese art of erotic rope binding. More specifically still the form of shibari in which one practitioner uses intricate knotwork and rope binding to suspend another from the ceiling creating a tableau very like, but utterly different from, the starvation cage, and these beautiful objects. The ropes, tautened and twisted in aesthetic perfection cross the skin like the lines connecting the points at the surface edges.


The stretched form of the suspended subject in shibari constitutes the boundary case of all stretching, it hovers at, constantly nudges against the edge between tautened towards infinity and split apart, embodied as the exquisite jumping of the nerve endings between ecstasy and agony.


As an artist of communication, it is my job to do something similar with words to this exploratory process of stretching, tightening, twisting, finding the limits of possibility, the place where new and wondrous landscapes of meaning break down into incomprehension. Language, with its myriad associations and perspectives, subjectivities, percepts and conceptualizations, is an almost but not quite infinitely malleable surface. Speakers and writers, listeners and readers, fall into it and, as matter gains mass by falling into the Higgs field, language happens when speakers and listeners, writers and readers, fall into this semiotic surface. That language becomes communication as the ripples and distortions from that act of falling reach someone else caught in the same net across an unbroken surface, layers of meaning accruing and agglomerating as ripples intersect, layer, distort across this surface.

As poets we jump into the surface of language with a force at once violent and passionate, creating ripples that twist, disturb, leap and pull with as much force as we can impart to reach as many as we can in as forceful manner as we can muster without breaking language altogether.


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