The Alexandra Sequence review – giving rhyme and reason to our online lives

It snapped my proxy off

and swallowed him. All we can do, he suggests, is play the parts we have assigned to us. Maybe. When I knelt my eye

to the eye of the obstacle,

my little self

could not be seen. The grapefruit

fills, as the grape foretold, with the incandescence

of not going back,

(Alexandra Seven)

a series of images whose sense only dimly comes into view when we realise the speaker is attending a pre-natal class. Juxtapositions Time, as SF writer Ray Cummings observed, is what stops everything happening all at once, and Redmond’s use of oddly lateral juxtapositions removes time or refuses to privilege one moment over another, so that each moment seems to contain within it all that has gone before
and everything that will happen in future. He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. But such a door! If we recognise this kind of overloaded, media-saturated, overlapped scene, and Redmond’s ingenuity in capturing it, we must also reckon with the fact that Redmond is feeling his way into the right form to represent this world. Instead, Redmond is interested in the way that we live now, between screens, and the book’s title sequence, which makes up two-thirds of the book, begins, “I open a window east of Microsoft Word,” and that language of online Windows, open tabs and “the backlit / pastel icons of Skype and Spotify” is key to understanding Redmond’s process. Redmond’s insight is to write the internet age and the idea of homo deus not as SF but through a poetry of predestination, whose characters only come into focus when they take on avatars, which are also traditional roles. The risky, tenuous poems of The Alexandra Sequence (Carcanet, £9.99), John Redmond’s third collection, attempt to map our modern communications onto a sort of autobiography. Another question Redmond asks is harder to answer: where do the poet and the writing fit in this world? This is most apparent in the description of a pregnancy, where images configure a strange simultaneity, although the actual body involved is hard to track down,

The lemon’s nostalgia for the poppy-seed

is a memory of the placenta. Addressing an ex, she writes: “Wherever you are, go / with a bride-thought haunting your shoulder, as lovely as snow” (
At a Photography Exhibition in New York Public Library). In Alexandra One, the writer becomes, confoundingly, an arm of the law, recording the riots on his Blackberry and calling 999. Is the fact that “it was there” reason enough to write it down? Reading Juvenal in December, he is startled by a “crash – not in the original but / outside. The poems only see things and people in relation to their precursors, a method which draws attention to the artificial nature of both reality and the fictional universe. Traditional but sensuous images Róisín Kelly’s
Rapture (€5) is the first publication in what Southword Editions boldly promises will be a series entitled New Irish Voices. The long title sequence is named for the part of Liverpool where Dublin-born Redmond and his family live, but the poems are not much interested in either geographical or historical locations, touching, say, on the 2011 riots, but not really registering the grainy particularities of the past decade. It is, anyway, like Redmond’s disorienting scene-shifting between present, remembered and imagined worlds, a risk Redmond runs at various times across the book. The Alexandra Sequence sets itself a commendably ambitious task, and its difficulties show clearly the challenge of writing a cosmopolitan, necessary poetry of our present moment. Alexandra Two asks not “how to live”, but “how to live here”, territory on which Redmond is less sure. But

in the bloodied

keyhole tunnel,

a tiny door

shut. I flipped up the screen and there he stood – / looking at me with eyes he didn’t always have; / the knife in his no longer webbed hand / gouging the frame” (
Alexandra Seven). As the poem puts it, with convincing desperation, “We are blurs that would be vivid.”

Precursors In Redmond’s book, this desire for definition pre-dates pixilation. “The words are everything”, she writes in
Easter, although her poem’s implication of “words” with desire risks, and gets away with, using some of the oldest images we have: “Now a rose is once again / not only
rose but also
soft and
red / and
thorn and
bee and
honey.”
John McAuliffe’s fourth book The Way In (Gallery) was joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Prize in 2016. The comedy of comparison then re-imagines a police chase as “the former lentil hunted down by former / poppy-seeds”. The title sequence is followed by a series of poems which describe Redmond’s student years. The poems treat, side-by-side and simultaneously, stories (or tabs) about the past and the present moment, drawing from public life, family lore and Redmond’s reading, so that, in Alexandra One, he is watching footage (shaky) of a mummer’s play while a riot plays out in the car park beneath his apartment window, and when a neighbour calls by, the music of American band Pavement plays – the song Redmond namechecks, understandably, is the riddling Summer Babe (Winter Version). Maybe Redmond is too wedded to these real-world events, but the university scenes become, very quickly, a sort of generic Purgatory, a place between worlds, where the poet is figured as a key-chain-rattling porter, a Janus-like god of doorways who is himself unable to enter fully one world or another:

I tested it,

and twisted it. Kelly’s poems might be more traditional than Redmond’s, but they are fresh, sensuous and direct where Redmond drifts, teases and dallies. (Rogue Lock)

Is the language here too freighted, too heavily leaning towards symbolic over-determination? How does our oddly bodiless online life make its way into contemporary poetry?