Plouk Town (Cambourakis, 2007)
by Ian Monk
Margaret Atwood, reviewing the aesthetically mediocre Snow in the New York Times, praises Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk for the ongoing project of “narrating his country into being.” Literature that can do this, that can bestow on a place a new and meaningful kind of existence, does not depend on an author’s ability to make us at home in another world: it is a question of making a kind of poetic tourism out of occupying our own.
Such literature usually requires either unswerving optimism or unflinching vexation, and Ian Monk’s Plouk Town errs distinctly on the latter side. A breathless poem of some 150 pages, it is constructed as a series of scenes that grow methodically in length, calling on people and places that drift in and out of focus, rotating among narrators who are by turns omniscient, unreliable, and incoherent. There are abstract soliloquies about the passing of time, unappetizing inventories of kitchen cabinets, telescoped stories of love and elliptical declarations of lust. In its inventive but endlessly familiar circuit around a single small town—“plouk” translates roughly to “hick”—Plouk Town’s pacing feels quite literally like that of a caged animal. If it is about anything, it is about the circumscribed life, about stagnation and the absentminded fantasy of escape.
Monk was born near London, but has lived in France for nearly 25 years, the last dozen of them in a suburb of Lille, France, where he works as a translator. Plouk Town pauses in a handful of locations that are specifically lillois—the Boris Vian elementary school, the public square named for Léon-Henri Lardemer—and also harbors an English poet, who is glimpsed intermittently as l’Anglais or le British or the rosbif upstairs. But not much is precise about the poem; rather, it has a creeping universality to it, a focus not on town or country but on a lingering moment of frustration and claustrophobia. The characters that appear and disappear from one page to the next are understood to be French, but their anonymity and interchangeability suggest that something global is speaking through them.
In the absence of anybody dependable or conventionally sympathetic, Monk’s extravagantly colloquial French becomes its own kind of main character. It is often unclear whether Plouk Town’s coarse, clipped register—which suggests subway graffiti sooner than it does poetry—is an elaborate homage or a boorish caricature; most likely, like the language itself, it is both at once. In Monk’s hands French is a volatile and oddly reflective thing, lending itself equally to the malcontent tirade and the philosopher’s musing. Just as words do not choose who uses them, each of the voices in this town is represented with a disarming lack of prejudice. The strung-out hooligan and the ascot-clad reactionary are at odds in all things, but they are entitled to the very same space on the soapbox.
Thanks to the perpetual mutability of its language, Plouk Town is oddly equitable. At one point early on, a post office clerk calls for intendances and nobody in the overlong line knows what the word means; later, a functionary laments seeing her country overrun with cretins who do not use the subjunctive mood and who liaise over the silent S in les haricots. One part of the tenth section is the inner monologue of a man waiting in line at the bank, where his account is about to be shut down; another is the inner monologue of the woman surveying the line from behind the counter. He curses in silence, she clucks her tongue in scorn. Both prove, in their thousand unbecoming words, that they are right.
In Monk’s case, a thousand words is not a figure of speech but a formal dictum. Beneath what often reads like free verse, the poem is carefully, if not tyrannically, constrained. Each of its eleven sections consists of x stanzas containing x2 lines of x words each: the first comprises one word (plouk), the next comprises two four-line stanzas with two words per line, and so on up to eleven sets of 121 eleven-word lines. There is no punctuation, apart from diacriticals and apostrophes: only words, aligned as densely and unceremoniously as houses on a street that looks the same as all the others.
Monk takes evident pleasure in pruning his verses, sometimes before they flower and sometimes after they have already wilted. The shortest stanzas are striking in terms of economy, whether ornately aphoristic (le silence de nuit / s’assoit comme chienne / qui pisse sur le / trottoir de tes rêves) or deliberate and crude (poubelle crotte voiture / voiture poubelle crotte / crotte voiture poubelle). Often there is a pleasingly polyrhythmic enjambment, for instance when a nameless narrator cycles three-word units through five-word lines while grousing that nobody says goodbye when you leave a shop anymore:
y a plus d’au
revoir monsieur dame aux magasins
y a plus y a
plus y a plus y
a plus de doigt levé
These mechanisms work in service of the poem’s sense of restlessness; ideas big and small whip about like flags in a turbine, but, like the characters to whom they are (or are not) attributed, they do not stick around very long. One set of seven-word lines stages a sort of relay race between subject pronouns; the poem’s formal centerpiece is simply 81 lines of identical length in which the same nine words—plouk, quoi, moi, bière, encore, la (alternately là), baise, merde, and toi—are permuted in a spiral pattern based on the end words in a sestina.
What the later sections lack visually they make up in internal coherence. As they grow longer, individual stanzas develop relationships and unified personalities. Section eight is intimate, focused on interpersonal affairs; nine is broodingly philosophical, right down to its own refashioning of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. Ten is its own compact story, conveying events only through a web of exchanges and concurrences—the line at the bank, the flamed-out car, the pregnant teenager. Even when the sprawl verges on chaos, as it does especially in chapter eleven, the narration maintains a clinical undertone.
This is not to say that Plouk Town is humorless. Monk nods occasionally to his own control, here by replacing a question mark with the French interrogative grunt hein, there by filling in the gap at the end of a line with a spontaneous obscenity. All the same, there is something very serious about the rigidity of Plouk Town, its total suppression of chance. The same calculated impartiality that balances all of the poem’s voices also strips them of their power: they communicate desires that are touching or repellent, vital or venal, comical or genuinely intimidating—but only as loudly as everyone else. Rage though they may, they are rooted to a map that Monk refuses to color outside the lines.
Monk is the only active English member of the Oulipo, a Paris-based collective of writers and obscurantists whose chief pursuit consists in creating literature from mathematical structures. The notion of place, both geographic and imaginative, has long been a central preoccupation for the group, culminating most prominently in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro, and Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. Queneau, who co-founded the Oulipo in 1960, produced a whole corpus of novels and poems that invent Paris in their own blemished but mythical light; he also remarked upon moving there from Le Havre that he already knew the city from reading Balzac.
Structurally, Monk takes many cues from Life A User’s Manual, which moves through the spaces of a large Parisian apartment building according to an algorithm based on the knight’s movements on a chessboard. Like Perec’s multi-novel, Plouk Town deals mostly in microcosm, using rotating vignettes to sketch the contours of something that would be impossible to represent at full scale. The resemblance is explicit in one part of section nine, where the reader systematically surveys nine floors of an unnamed building (once again using the permutation pattern of the sestina). In general, Plouk Town bristles with a similar kind of minutely orchestrated detail to that of Life A User’s Manual, as much in its formal mechanisms as in its characters’ lives. Yet, unlike Perec’s, Monk’s use of mathematics is not joyful or inquisitive; it seems meant not to transcend the inevitable and arbitrary qualities of life, but rather to entrench them.
Plouk Town also owes a great deal to Queneau’s lifelong fascination with the rhythms and truncations of everyday French, which to his mind deserved an entirely separate appreciation from schoolbook French. When Monk uses y a plus instead of il n’y a plus, or writes keskeu to abbreviate qu’est-ce que—just as Queneau once used skia for est-ce qu’il y a or kékchose for quelque chose—he is not merely economizing in the interest of word count: he is declaring an inherited suspicion toward decorum, a defiant affection for the way a language evolves through its own corruption. The fact that he carries this defiance in regard to French—that is, to a non-native language, in which mastery can be fully earned but is inevitably incomplete—raises, and never entirely answers, what is ultimately Plouk Town’s most important question.
In their best moments, Monk’s English poems have displayed the same kind of cynical omniscience that overwhelms this one, the same canny detachment between the narration and its emotional underside. The best recent example, “Our Why and Our Where and Our How” (included in a recent Oulipo-themed issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly), ambles through an enchantingly dour meditation on sex while picking apart the form of the limerick. But much of his other work relies on structural contrivance to a point that obscures its deeper import. In poems like those in the 2004 collection Family Archaeology—whose title poem is organized just as Plouk Town is, but with the same number of letters in each word too—the formal achievements are impressive, but rare is the ingrained meaning that justifies them.
The criticism most commonly leveled at constrained writing is that its challenges are artificial, that they allow the author to replace the creative impulse with empty acrobatics. As urbane and crafty as Monk is in his early poems, he never refutes that notion half as convincingly as he does here. After all, the fact that Plouk Town is in French is the least arbitrary thing about it: if the motive is to represent a place at once foreign and too familiar, the true constraint is not to do so in even lines, but to do so on that place’s own terms. The smugness and frustration that the poem holds in its tense equilibrium are both individual and demographic, both personal and projected. Each love-hate relationship to the country and to the language is believable because it belongs, ultimately, not to the character but to the author.
In a way, then, the place Monk is narrating into being in Plouk Town is a place that only exists inside language, a place of contradictions and impurities and revolted multitudes. It is a place for the foreigner trying to keep abreast of a language’s evolution and decay, and for the purist trying to keep it from evolving at all. It is for the resident alien and the permanent outsider, the armchair tourist and the amateur sociolinguist, the immigrant and the native who spends each day surrounded by immigrants. It is for people who are proud of their nationality, people who have none, and people who do not know what the concept means besides the fact that they speak the way they do.
If such a community is to exist, Monk shows us, it will not be without tension and rage, violence and effacement. As a conceptual project, Plouk Town is alienating because it undertakes to map a place that changes at every moment, where everybody and nobody will belong. As a piece of literature it is alienating in the manner of those modernist poems that bear witness to the birthing pains of a certain modern moment, nebulous but terribly heavy, the way Eliot’s Waste Land and Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone” did before it. As a place, though, Plouk Town is most alienating of all: it has so much to teach us about the tenterhooks of living in a foreign country, the vertigo of inhabiting a foreign language, and the place where the two become indistinguishable. Yet to translate it out of the spattered and mutinous French in which it was conceived would be to miss the point, because it is impossible to tell where the language ends and the story begins.back