Tuesday, 17 November 2015

First thoughts – poetry we want to hate: Kim Kardashian’s Marriage by Sam Riviere

The title of it makes it a collection we want to hate: ‘Kim Kardashian’s Marriage’, and that’s why Sam Riviere’s collection, published by Faber and Faber is so important. These are poems which push us into questioning our prejudices. Often clipped and cool in tone, they explore a culture focused on titles and titillation: making us question what is actual and what is invented, what is ‘personal’ and what is ‘performed’. Celebrity is a metaphor  for the ‘empty’ born out of the digital age.

Welcome to a world where reality is a show, rather than shown.  And you might not want to admit it, but it’s our world. Many may recognise Kim Kardashian after all as a symbol of digital celebrity culture: where personalities are the subject of performance. Her 2011 marriage to Kris Humphries lasted a reputed 77 days, hence the 77 poems in this collection; quickly unfolding as the exploration not of personal events but pictures of events, images. The click, click, click of quickly turning pages over these brisk poems is like the inevitable camera shutter.  This is not a collection about Kim Kardashian. It’s a collection which about our increasingly digital culture, dependent on appearances rather than reality. The work is split into sections based on the structure of a make-up routine, from ‘primer’ to ‘gloss’; highlighting a focus on inventions and images, rather than individuals.

Perhaps the ultimate sign that the collection is an exploration of ‘invention’ is that Riviere created each of the poems not out of natural compulsion, but using search engine results.   In other words, the poems are visual results of the internet’s visual results.

"Uncovering abnormality in what we are served up as standard"

Sam Riviere, born in 1981, is an English poet, now living in Belfast, who communicates contemporary issues in a clever way; uncovering the abnormality in what modern life serves us as standard . His 2012 collection ’81 Austerities’ in response to the governmental spending cuts won the Forward Prize for Best First collection. His skill is especially shown through the array of voices in Kim Kardashian’s Marriage: a mixture of intense and impersonal; communicating a society close to chaos.  As in the poem ‘thirty-three dust’:

‘The inventor of rock and roll, amongst others
Allowed to dry in a gentle stream of clean air
Then stored in a dust-proof container’

Perhaps this is showing the culture of ‘celebrity’, not as sordid and scandalous, but what I felt powerfully, on reading this collection - saddened.    Here we see ‘the inventor of rock and roll’ just as empty as the ‘others’ set to be ‘stored in a dust-proof container’. Perhaps what the word ‘others’ highlights that at its most base, not even individual personalities are preserved by celebrity culture, just presence. It reduces people to presence: after all, we’ve all heard the term media ‘presence’.  To be part of that is to be officially modern. That is why this is a collection not focusing on Kim Kardashian specifically, but the society which underpins her just as any ‘other’. After all, few of the Kardashian’s names are actually mentioned; instead we see a combination of impersonality along with everyone from Roosevelt to ‘cousin ricky’. They are all reduced to the same: a presence rather than personalities. We don’t ‘know’ them, only see them as a title. Colder still, we are given no opportunity to know them.

Sam Riviere’s collection gives the impression of a culture which runs on presence and impression, rather than personalities and realities: digital culture. The poems form the tracing paper above it. This is reflected at the close of the poem ‘infinity weather’:

'Give me one minute
I’ll give you cosmic’

Here the matter-of-fact tone clashes with the usually loaded terms of ‘minute’ and ‘cosmic’: words typically filled with expectation and excitement – now shown as trivial, meaningless. It is so often that we say what we don’t mean, use words that don’t give meaning, but indicate it, like ‘cosmic’ – especially online. In this light, Kim Kardashian's Marriage, both the collection and the real thing, reflects the emptiness of a culture that constructs a layer between itself and reality. The layer is digital: just like the ‘reality shows’, where what we are given is perhaps not a ‘show’ of ‘reality’ at all, but an invention to hide the truth.

We are constructing a culture at the expense of reality.

Another part of this layer between culture and reality, and again, digital, is indicated through the symbol of ‘images’. In the poem ‘beautiful pool’, the speaker’s tone is imperative, demanding  to ‘view images as ‘river of photos’. The blunt phrasing of this, shows how a traditional symbol of nature like a ‘river’, has been pulled into this ever-hungry human culture of invention. As the dubiously titled poem ‘infinity hardcore’ reflects:

 ‘This has been a huge trend
But it ain’t enough’

Think of Instagram, Pinterest. Forces of nature, like rivers, don’t seem to even phase us anymore – instead society is focused on forces it has invented itself, digital ones, like the force of ‘trends’. It’s almost sad to think that we are  a species who once followed rivers, water as a source of life, now committed to following trends. Why? It is clear consumer culture is never full. The casual tone of ‘ain’t enough’ shows how easily, perhaps appallingly, we seem to have accepted that.

"This is a culture of recycling and replicas which is perhaps closer to our own lives"

And how do we attempt to feed the consumer appetite? Riviere suggests that the first method is through words, like advertising – turning the same terms and phrases over and over, in different contexts.  We come to realise the emptiness of words in a society which treats them this way, especially online. The poems use language interchangeably, often revolving on the same symbols and terms within the different sections – especially considering ‘berries’ ‘dust’  heaven’ and ‘infinity’. These terms can be applied positively or negatively, fashionably or unfashionably as desired. On one page ‘infinity berries’ on another page ‘infinity hardcore’. This is a culture of recycling and replicas which is perhaps closer to our own lives than we first think. After all, we are just part of a culture of commodification and invention like Kim Kardashian is; and we’re all guilty of indulging from time to time.

Riviere uses poetry as part of this culture, perhaps in order to uncover how awful it can be.  A voice in the poem ‘Spooky Sincerity’ considers a video which ‘might be the funniest yet/ left a spread of blood on the bedspread’.  Typically if we see the word’ funniest’ and ‘blood’ close together when reading, we think them somehow disparate, nonsensical. Yet because ‘video’ is mentioned, so many of us can quickly recognise the concept of ‘blood’ being something funny; we expect the feature in a screen prank or a gory film. This digital culture we invent has changed not only our relationship with language, but our relationship with our feelings.  Blood can be funny in the digital age. This is powerful and cause for refection.

"A process of invention"

Reflection is theme which builds and builds throughout, as we see through the whole structure of the collection based on not just Kim Kardashian’s reported ‘make-up routine’ – but  how society adds to this layer of culture at the expense of reality. How Riviere works with this structure is interesting too, often at a grave contrast to the language within it.  We would typically expect the section ‘Blend’ to be bringing consistency, but instead the poems within are filled with ominous and jarring images, a repetition of ‘grave’. Then in the section we would expect to be dark, ‘Shadow’, we are instead hit with apparent optimism, especially the repeated exclamations such as ‘hi guys!’ and ‘I will confirm this tomorrow!’ in ‘thirty-three pool’. The poems present an absurd structure in themselves by taking on the language and  layers of Kardashian culture, which is ultimately what we incorporate as ‘culture’ in society.  Riviere serves up the changing rhythms within this, ‘from soft serve in California to scooping in Washington’, suggesting that it is a process of invention occurring at different rates, in different places, different flavours even. But it is still happening.

"Warning about how we are constructing a society of insecurity"

Just by description the collection likely sounds tiring, and it is: revealing digital culture’s role in draining our energy. It is in making this realisation we can perhaps make moves to address it/ or not. It seems appropriate that the collection ends with the section titled  ‘gloss’, the final layer of fakery over all the recycled language and characters emptied of personality but full of ‘presence’. This isn’t poetry warning against Kim Kardashian. It is warning about how we are inventing a culture of insecurity. In one of the final poems ‘the new heaven’, the ‘bible’ could be seen as a symbol of invention at its biggest. Whether positive or negative we don’t know, for all the lines seem pre-occupied by is its ‘new’-ness, that of ‘new heaven/ and a new earth’ repeated. This is society which writes ‘reality’ not on the basis of religion or family: but on the digital need for something ‘new’, something different to consume.  Just like reality television – but in every vision.

Riviere’s unsettling collection makes us question whether the inventions of a digital consumer culture have created a doctrine more of us are coupled with then we would like to think. It’s far beyond the question of Kim and Kris’ coupledom, that media presence most of us were aware of . It’s a question of ourselves.  

Kim Kardashian's Marriage by Sam Riviere. Faber & Faber; Main edition (5 Feb. 2015) http://www.faber.co.uk/shop/poetry/9780571321438-kim-kardashians-marriage.html