Moolvees and Quennets.

I’ll probably never read any more of Philip Terry than is contained in this Colin Burrow piece in the LRB (13 July 2017), but he sounds like a lot of fun:

If the world of experimental poetry makes you think of pseudy dudes in black 501s and Doc Martens, then I would prescribe a small daily dose of Philip Terry, for whom being experimental chiefly means being thoughtfully rebellious and funny. In his translation of Dante’s Inferno (2014), Terry is guided through the hell that is the University of Essex (where he is professor of creative writing) by the Beat poet Ted Berrigan. They pass throngs of venal departmental heads and VCs (‘“It’s you and your like who have put the ‘vice’/in ‘vice-chancellor’, you should be ashamed.”/And as I ranted on at him like this,//Like I do when I’m completely pissed’) into the depths where Bobby Sands (Terry’s equivalent of Ugolino) gnaws at the head of Margaret Thatcher. In 2010 Terry produced a postmodern rewrite of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, where notes by editors, bits from newspapers and Shakespeareish phrases are mashed up with Joysprick: ‘Not marcasite nor the gilded moolvees/Of the Prince of Darkness shall outlive this powerful rhythm and blues.’ Sonnet 50 (in which Shakespeare grumbles about his horse) becomes: ‘Don’t talk to me about Raymond Queneau,/I’ve had it up to here with French theory./Since Althusser died/I spend my days on eBay.’

The delights of eBay have presumably worn off, since Terry in his latest volume follows in the footsteps of Queneau, mathematician, poet and founder member of OuLiPo, by offering a collection of quennets [Quennets by Philip Terry (Carcanet, 144 pp., £12.99, July 2016, 978 1 78410 268 5)].​ The quennet – invented by Queneau in his Morale élémentaire of 1975, though Queneau himself wanted to call it the lipolepse – is an OuLiPean arbitrary form consisting of 15 lines. The first six lines are divided into three sets of two-line ‘stanzas’. The first line of each stanza is made up of three noun-plus-adjective phrases (‘Drowsy marshes Green swamps Spewy bogs’ is one from Terry’s own 2007 translation of Morale élémentaire). The second line is just one noun-plus-adjective phrase (‘Latent waters’). After the first three stanzas the classic quennet has a middle section of seven very thin lines, arranged as a central column, in which verbs are at last allowed, though seldom do they readily unfold the mystery of the poem: ‘Passing/the usual threshold/the wood drifts/beyond rot/You must climb/the slick/greasy pole.’ This is followed by a final stanza which follows the same pattern of noun-plus-adjective phrases as the opening lines. Rhymes and repetitions are optional. Much is left out and much has to be inferred by a reader – hence Queneau’s ‘lipolepse’, ‘laisser, prendre’, or roughly ‘leave ’n seize’. The form brings out the Li Po within OuLiPo: Queneau, much influenced by Eastern writing, suggested readers should hear an imaginary gong as they read the noun lines and a flute melody behind those containing verbs.

The quennet in its classic form invites you to dart around. You can read downwards through the columns of noun phrases and feel as though you are encountering something haikuesque. Or if you are an orthodox centrist in your reading practices you can read the whole thing across and down in the usual way. It also invites you to bring your own mental conjunctions to the party, and link the noun phrases around a grammatical structure or a place or an experience or a prior work. […]

I love Bobby Sands gnawing at the head of Margaret Thatcher, and “Not marcasite nor the gilded moolvees” — what an imagination, verbal and otherwise! Since you’re probably curious, “moolvee” is Hobson-Jobsonese for mulvī, a Hindi equivalent to mawlawi.


  1. I trust the head of Margaret Thatcher is hollow and made of low-grade chocolate.

  2. AJP Crown says

    Colin Burrow is fantastic. If I may without intending to hijack your piece, here is an LRB review, repeated in the Guardian, that he wrote on English gardens & poetry & social status. It’s all so true, and it’s astonishing to me that a youngish person (as Burrow was in 2003) could have figured it out.

  3. A very interesting review-essay, thanks; you can hijack my threads any time.

  4. Of course, you’ve now made a liar out of me (“I’ll probably never read any more of Philip Terry”).

  5. John Cowan says

    A privy garden ornamented with sundials and statues, was set apart for the special pleasure of the most senior courtiers.

    I suppose that meant these courtiers chose to fertilize their gardens personally?

  6. AJP Crown says

    the hell that is the University of Essex:

    The county of Essex is along the South East coast of England [rubbish], stretching between the Eastern outskirts of London and the North Sea.

    Essex is home to a fascinating mixture of contemporary and traditional towns and villages. Depending on where you are stood in the county [in your Doc Martens & 501s], you could easily find yourself surrounded by a backdrop of captivating countryside, lively suburban, or costal scenery.

    The University of Essex has three campuses in the county, within the towns of Colchester, Southend-on-Sea, and Loughton. One thing that is for sure is that Essex living is like no other.

    Whatever your subject, and whatever your passion, we’ve got the space to make it happen.

    – Life at the University of Essex

    In my opinion Essex is an ugly place. It’s dead flat, at sea level and cold and damp, and it reminds me of the late director Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, The cottage is painted black, with a poem, part of John Donne’s “The Sunne Rising”, written on one side in black lettering. The garden, reflecting the bleak, windswept landscape of the peninsula, is made of pebbles, driftwood, scrap metal and a few hardy plants which is actually at Dungeness in Kent and not in Essex at all:,_Dungeness.jpg . Many people find his garden beautiful. Me, it sends shivers down my spine.

  7. David Marjanović says

    costal scenery

    very ribs
    much halloween

    Many people find his garden beautiful. Me, it sends shivers down my spine.

    It would look less out of place in Albuquerque.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    I assumed “costive scenery” was meant, more like what Crown describes.

  9. AJP Crown says

    less out of place in Albuquerque

    Dungeness is a suitable location for a BBC remake of Breaking Bad.

    Perhaps costal scenery refers to gothic rib-vaulting. Plenty of Essex ribs, groins and arrises are available for inspection in Steeple Bumpstead and Stansted Mountfitchet, according to Pevsner.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    An internet article says Albuquerque (where I have been, eons ago) is “near the Mexican border”. It’s 266 miles straight north from El Paso, for Pete’s sake, a 4 hours drive on I-25. They must be trying to get arrise out of savvy readers.

  11. John Cowan says

    It’s dead flat, at sea level and cold and damp

    This could also be said of Friesland/Fryslan, which is charming and delightful.

    An internet article says Albuquerque (where I have been, eons ago) is “near the Mexican border”. It’s 266 miles straight north from El Paso, for Pete’s sake, a 4 hours drive on I-25.

    Well, near is a relative term. From El Paso to the Canadian border up I-25 plus a hypothetical continuation is 1377 miles (2216 km), so by that standard 266 miles (428 km) is indeed “near the Mexican border”. The actual I-25 stops at I-90, a bit south of the Wyoming-Montana border.

  12. Marie-Lucie Tarpent says

    ” Much is left out and much has to be inferred by a reader – hence Queneau’s ‘lipolepse’, ‘laisser, prendre’, or roughly ‘leave ’n seize’. ”

    The two verbs are part of a common phrase “C’est a’ prendre ou a’ laisser” meaning “It’s take it or leave it”.

  13. Great to see you back, m-l, and thanks for the information!

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