Beginning an analysis of J.H. Prynne’s “See by So” (2020)
See By So (2020), by J.H. Prynne. 12 pages. Text lithograph printed on acid-free paper. Covers risographed in red, inside and out. Edition of 250. Stitched with brass wires. A poem in 8 stanzas. (Publisher’s promotional email dated 27/12/2020. The book itself is dated December 2020.)
In terms of formal features:
- The poem is printed over 8 pages, each with a stanza of 8 lines.
- Punctuation includes commas (on all pages), semi-colons (on 6 out of 8 pages), and full stops (on all except the penultimate page, so that the last sequence of words in the poem is across two pages).
- The first page has two full-stopped sequences of words, and the only capitalised word in the entire poem is ‘Arrest,’ at the beginning of the second of these sequences.
- Two words are hyphenated over line endings: ‘to-/gether’ prompts the reading ‘to get her’; and ‘for-/get out’ suggests a possible theme of escape (in order to get out).
- The feature which appeared most striking to me on initial reading is that some compound words are split into their component parts (foot path, break fast, patch work), other words which could have been split in this way are not (overseen, forsworn, forestalled), and still other obvious compounds are further separated by one or more other words (luke … warm, candle … sticks).
What reasons might there be for these choices? Let’s start by considering the subject matter of the poem.
You wouldn’t expect Prynne to give the benefit of the doubt to an alleged white-collar criminal, but in this short poem Carlos Ghosn becomes a playful Puck who turns a new leaf, and renounces global corporate power and intrigue for a simpler life, and the loving embrace of his wife and family. (In the following, I have highlighted words from the poem in bold italics.)
I paid close attention to the cues which helped me towards an initial tentative interpretation of this poem:
- Six words with the prefix ‘con-’ suggested some kind of a trick.
- Words like Arrest (the only word highlighted by capitalisation), offend, declaim, abjure, forsworn, miscreant suggested legal proceedings.
- Other words such as overseen, sentinel, abstaining, constraint, eremite suggested confinement.
- The phrases ‘chocks away’ and ‘up sticks’ made me think about planes and relocation, which in the context of ‘for-/ get out’ imply an escape.
However, most of the words in the poem don’t easily fit into this semantic space, and some (as usual with Prynne) are at first glance completely from leftfield (plaintain, robert, wicket, antidote, ivory, ointment, fishery, spooned). But for now let’s not lose sight of the wood for the trees – we will come back to (some of) these later.
“When one sees the tree in leaf one thinks the beauty of the tree is in its leaves, and then one sees the bare tree.” Samuel Menashe’s epigraph to the poem Prynne excerpts from in his own epigraph is about initially unnoticed structure behind surface appearances. If the tree is the poem, the act of interpretation is to see through the leaves/words and perceive an internal structure/meaning. But can a theme be stated by its very omission, especially when absence is part of the theme? Listing the co-hyponyms bark, leaf, flower, nut, nectary of the hypernym tree, what common part of the whole is missing? The branch of the bare tree. Ghosn (غصن) is the arabic word for ‘branch,’ a word missing from the poem as the man himself remains missing from (at the time of writing) ongoing legal proceedings against him (in absentia) and those of his close colleagues who did remain to face the charges against them in Japan.
After a long and successful career, Ghosn had already earned an outsized reputation as a badass, union-busting, cost-cutting top manager and leader in the automotive sector, but with his daring ‘made for Netflix’ escape from Japan while on bail pending trial for financial misdemeanours, like the ‘darkness stored’ in the epigraph to the poem, he ‘becomes a star’ making global headlines and earning admiration for his gall in defying Japan’s allegedly unfair and rigged legal system in which prosecutors rely heavily on testimonies arising from plea bargains.
Carlos Ghosn had presided over the alliance of two global car manufacturers, Nissan and Renault, from opposite sides of the globe, becoming the first person to simultaneously be CEO of two Fortune 500 companies. Mitsubishi was added to the alliance in 2016, and it was said that Ghosn himself threaded the patchwork together (just as a semi-colon stitches together independent clauses, winking mischievously all the while: the only full-stopped word sequence which doesn’t contain a semi-colon here is the one containing these two words.) The combined company, with its swallow/tail logo, had had its notable successes: most significantly, Nissan was reportedly saved from bankruptcy by the alliance with Renault, the Leaf became the best-selling electric car in Europe until it was recently overtaken by Tesla, and the wider alliance became in 2017 the largest producer of light vehicles in the world.
Ghosn’s personal fate at the helm would wax and wane — from being awarded the Blue Ribbon Medal of Honour in 2004 by the Emperor of Japan for significant public service, to being distinguished by a prisoner’s high visibility vest and blue cap while being escorted from a Japanese detention centre 15 years later. Was his cultural and company bridge/work ill spent, given that ultimately his Japanese employer proved as ungrateful for his many successes as the unremembering, feigning friend in Lord Amiens’ song which is quoted in fragments from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (‘Blow, blow thou winter wind/ Thou art not so unkind/ As man’s ingratitude’), a play about courtiers seeking refuge in the forest, and the relative virtues of country and court. For his efforts, Ghosn was reportedly paid only ‘a moderate and beseeming share/ of that which lewdly-pampered Luxury/ Now heaps upon some few with vast excess’ (Milton’s Comus, 669–771), and certainly less than some of his counterparts at the helms of global US-headquartered companies.
The legal proceedings brought against Ghosn in 2018 in Japan forestalled a closer union of the two companies, which the Japanese government reportedly wanted to avoid. The charges subsequently brought against him included the illegitimate diverting of funds through intermediaries in Oman and Saudi Arabia (sand dune coins), and in the case of the Saudi connection transferring personal foreign exchange losses to Nissan (price improvement).
Following Ghosn’s initial arrest at Tokyo’s Narita airport, in his bail application he declared himself willing to pay a higher amount of bail, surrender his passports, and wear an ankle bracelet to track his movements. But bail was denied, as he was considered a flight risk. Released months later from detention into house arrest, he was allowed to keep only his French passport, under seal in a secure container, but still had to live like an eremite, abstaining from contact with his wife, neither groom bridal, nor solid-banded (i.e. married).
In the background, love’s working continued as his wife Carole petitioned the French President and the United Nations on her husband’s behalf, and at the time of the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka, Carlos Ghosn was reported to be the fly in the Abe-Macron ointment. Carole also made initial contact in Beirut with the ex-special forces operators who would ultimately spring Ghosn from captivity after Christmas. Likely as a result of these efforts, the Japanese authorities have also been out to get her (to-/gether) for perjury (forsworn).
On the day of his flight, Ghosn went out walking as he was entitled to every day, though with every foot step overseen, but he managed to give the slip to his sentinel. Changing his clothes and wearing a surgical face mask (avail/a veil) he was driven to Tokyo’s main railway station from where he took the bullet train to Shin-Osaka station, and from there drove to the Star Gate Hotel where he climbed into a specially fitted box which appeared to be for musical equipment, and was smuggled through customs onto a private plane which flew him to Istanbul, where he changed planes and continued on to Beirut.
There are many cricket analogies in the poem. (In 2015 Nissan signed an eight-year sponsorship deal with the International Cricket Council (ICC).) Airport security can be thought of as being like cricket, where during play time the customs authorities bowl and field, and Ghosn and his batting team only needed a single to win by physically running once. Framing the analogy in these terms sets up a series of contrasting literal and figurative usages: Ghosn both wanted to get out (literally, of Japan), but did not want customs to get him out (metaphorically, in cricketing terms, by being caught out); he doesn’t want to remain in (Japan, literally), but does want to remain in (metaphorically, not caught out); batsmen who are obviously out will walk from the field to the gate in sportsmanlike defeat, while Ghosn’s walk ending at the gate of the airport was his illegitimate victory of sorts; Japan’s Supreme Court rejected a legal appeal against Ghosn’s detention, while the prosecution themselves had to appeal (as in cricket, to the umpire) for Ghosn’s dismissal; Ghosn was waved through Japanese customs at Kaneda Airport like a ‘bye’ in cricket, when the ball passes through to the wicket keeper without the batsman making any contact, while of course ‘bye’ can also be a cheeky salutation from someone taking their leave without permission.
Team Ghosn had done their research and knew the equipment box hiding Ghosn was too wide for the scanner at the airport, and customs officers at the end of their shift did not search the box. The batsmen scored their run. A damp wicket implies an easier time for the batsman, since it slows the ball down to the batsman’s advantage. The poem ends with the word spooned: in cricket terms, this is a ball hit into the air, perhaps off a damp wicket, possibly to be caught out ultimately, but who knows?
After changing flights, Ghosn arrived in Lebanon in time for a ‘cypress break fast.’ Prynne’s metonymical reference to Lebanon here is the cypress tree which is strongly associated with Lebanon, for example in the Bible, but not as strongly as the cedar which is Lebanon’s national emblem and features on the country’s flag. Just like the Greek bible translators avoided the secondary associations of the cedar tree with power and majesty by translating the Hebrew word for ‘cedar’ as ‘cypress’ in some contexts, Prynne selects the more modest cypress as his metonym in the context of the country as the final destination of the fugitive Carlos Ghosn: ‘in the cases where the term אֶרֶז [ʾarz, similar to the arabic أرز] in the Hebrew Bible is translated as κυπάρισσος in the Septuagint the translator does not want to associate κέδρος and its metaphoric and symbolic qualities of power and majesty to ideologically negative entities that are described with the term אֶרֶז in the Hebrew text.’ (Miller-Naudé, C.L., Naudé, J.A., Editorial theory and the range of translations for ‘cedars of Lebanon’ in the Septuagint, Herv. teol. stud. vol.74 n.3 Pretoria, 2018, my square brackets)
Similarly, blue, along with imperial purple, are colours anciently associated with Lebanon, for example in Ezekiel 27:7. Again, if blue rather than purple has been selected as a metonymical reference to Lebanon, it is to avoid the associations of purple with imperial grandeur, and to allow other secondary associations to resonate.
The couplet quoted from E. Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is apt in the context of Ghosn’s morning arrival: ‘Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night/ Has flung the stone that puts the Stars to Flight.’
By 2 January 2020, the Daily Mail reported that Ghosn had been pictured celebrating New Year’s Eve with his wife and friends, ‘sitting next to his wife Carole in a plush dining room in front of a table strewn with empty plates, glasses, a half-full bottle of wine and decorated with lit candlesticks.’
After his escape, Ghosn insisted he had not fled justice, but escaped injustice from a legal system with a 99% conviction rate. In June 2020, French investigating judges in Beirut opined that part of the file they were considering on Ghosn should be declared ‘null and void’ (‘nulle et non avenue’ in the original French) since it was tainted by the voluntary mistakes of the Japanese authorities.
The plant herb robert is also known as Poor Robin, which is the title of a Wordsworth poem which reprises some of the themes of See By So, and contains some of the same rhymes (gay, day, lay, play, sway, nay in Wordsworth, day, away, say, play, way, stay in Prynne; will, hill, fill in Wordsworth, mill, fill, ill, hill, willing in Prynne). This geranium variety has a leaf which is palmately divided, and its half-hidden stalks are red, so that Wordsworth’s poem resonates with Menashe’s epigraph about seeing the branches behind the leaves: ‘Poor Robin is yet flowerless; but how gay/ With his red stalks upon this sunny day!’
Wordsworth’s poem goes on to praise the plant’s cheerful and humble existence, while asking ‘what recompense is kept in store’: after all, Ghosn is not entirely penniless in his self-imposed exile in his home country, living in a large house purchased and improved by the very employer seeking his extradition.
Nay, we would simply praise the free good-will
With which, though slighted, he, on naked hill
Or in warm valley, seeks his part to fill;
Cheerful alike if bare of flowers as now,
Or when his tiny gems shall deck his brow:
Yet more, we wish that men by men despised,
And such as lift their foreheads overprized,
Should sometimes think, where’er they chance to spy
This child of Nature’s own humility,
What recompense is kept in store or left
For all that seem neglected or bereft;
With what nice care equivalents are given,
How just, how bountiful, the hand of Heaven.
On Prynne’s recommendation (in a footnote of ‘Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems’, Cambridge Literary Review, I/3, 2010), I’m currently reading These Fragments I Have Shored: Collage and Montage in Early Modernist Poetry (Clearfield, A.M., 1984). As a result, the inclusion in this poem of the word ‘dune’ (also featured prominently in the title of the miniature Dune Quail Eggs, 2021) now makes me take special notice of Marinetti’s 1914 poem of that name, and the poetic project behind it as detailed by Clearfield. Marinetti’s poetry of Parole in libertá (‘words in freedom’) claimed to liberate words from syntax and grammatical structure. The present poem (and in fact, to a different extent, much of Marinetti’s own output under this banner) is a case study demonstrating the opposite possibility: seemingly individual words are never fully free from syntax and grammatical structure, as they join with neighbours and near neighbours to form obvious compounds (foot+path, foot+step, break+fast, candle+sticks), groupings of similar words (confirm, congruent, connected, constraint, contrite, convex), sound rhymes (swallow, follow; day, away, say, play, way, stay; mill, fill, ill, hill, will), eye rhymes and near anagrams (avail, valiant), semantic rhymes and groupings (opening, entrance, portal; groom, bridal; winter, snow), repetitions (by, by, by, bye; slight, slight; time, time; work, work, work), other kinds of syntagmatic and syntactic units (in turn, herb robert, up sticks, chocks away, neither … nor), canonical allusions (blow winter wind, bowl of night) and even narrative sequences (seeded, corn, sift, thresh, grain, grist, mill). The words of the poem have a homogeneous texture, with few clear landmarks and only rarely any progression, and yet the words do interpenetrate and enrich one another, and the above techniques have the effect of helping the poem as a whole to cohere. This is only heightened and intensified by the words being held in a colloidal suspension, for example with the components of compound words being separated from each other.
Some other Futurist manifesto commitments and ideals of Marinetti and Apollinaire are put into play:
- Prynne invents no new words, except through legitimate hyphenation (‘gether’ is left over at the beginning of a line after hyphenating ‘to-/gether,’ strengthening the tendency to read the word as further fragmented into the three individual syllabic components ‘to get her’).
- He uses no foreign words, though some English words are used primarily in the sense of their polyglottic homographs (e.g. avenue from the French legal phrase for ‘null and void’).
- The timeline within the poem is not linear, and yet it ends with the whole matter being ‘spooned’ into the air as a ball might be in cricket, just like the ongoing story of Carlos Ghosn at the time the poem was written.
- He creates no new onomatopoeias yet plays with established (but largely subliminal) phonesthemes (conflating a ‘sly flight’ into ‘slight’ in the malapropism ‘slight connected’).
- No words are exotic, but some words are archaic (beseem), or selected for reasons due to secondary associations (cypress, blue).
- Developed images and analogies emerge almost subliminally, for example that of the slowly grinding mill of Japanese justice which ultimately loses its sifted and threshed seed as this particular miscreant escapes.
As for the words which do stand out from the homogenous texture, we have already risked some interpretations, to which we may add the following speculations:
- Is the plantain a reference to Bashō, who adopted his name from the tree outside his simple hut, and as one of the principle poets of his country may serve as a poetic metonymy for Japan?
- The word goshawk is an eye-rhyme with Ghosn (the first four letters of each are anagrams), and according to Wikipedia ‘goshawks trained for falconry not infrequently escape their handlers.’
- The fishery mandate may derive from the Japanese authorities refusal to release Ghosn’s files to his lawyers on the grounds that they were on a ‘fishing expedition,’ or else Ghosn’s pride in maintaining his work schedule of 65-hour weeks: ‘I am not just shutting the door and going fishing.’
- The Palm is an affluent real estate development in Dubai, where the funds for Ghosn’s escape (more sand dune coins) passed through the usual kinds of opaque financial channels designed to obscure their ultimate origins.
- The word russet may be a quotation (along with the words tree, dale, down and hill) from Wordsworth’s short poem Poor Susan, in which an outcast is welcomed home, like Ghosn: ‘Poor outcast! Return — to receive thee once more/ The house of they Father will open its door,/ And though once again, in thy plain russet gown,/ Mayst hear the thrush sing from a tree of its own.’
- The flighted ankle may be an apt reference to the God of Thieves and Speed, Hermes/Mercury.
As for any words still unaccounted for in all of the above, are they like the arbitrary structures Clearfield tells us the cubists used to fill empty space on their canvas? I strongly suspect they’re not random, but the more common ones at least do have the effect of remaining playfully indeterminate and multivalent in their direct relation to any interpretation which may be put forward.
It has become fashionable in some circles to say that the world is no longer run by national leaders, but by multinational corporations. A leading management guru wrote in 2012: ‘Management and national boundaries are no longer congruent. The scope of management can no longer be politically defined. National boundaries will continue to be important but as restraints on the practice of management, not in defining the practice.’ (Drucker, P., Management Challenges for the 21st Century) The cautionary tale of Carlos Ghosn shows the repercussions of a supra-national business leader challenging the objectives of national government, but also how national politics (Japan’s inability to extradite him from Lebanon) can also sometimes be used by the same individuals to serve their own ends.
Marinetti, who praised the car as a symbol of modernity and power, proposed that individual words can be freed from syntax, grammatical structure and semantic context. Prynne demonstrates to the contrary that this is not so in the case of language, and in doing so provides a poetic metaphor of how a top international leader in the automotive sector was unable to rise above the national social and political contexts he operated in.
But to the extent that ‘We are all Carlos Ghosn,’ as a well-known slogan of solidarity was repurposed at the time on street posters in his safe haven of Beirut, See By So can be read as a witty and satirical message of redemption and deliverance for those of us who may be too bound up in our work. ‘I don’t miss the travel,’ said Ghosn. ‘I’m enjoying the simple pleasures — being with Carole and my kids.’
How just, how bountiful, the hand of Heaven indeed.