While others have dreams of a unified field theory or of the gesamtkunstwerk, I tend to have dreams of vending machines. Not exactly and only the machines, of course, more the interzone-like territory in which vending machines might appear – that space between airport, station, cathedral, library, gallery, mall, and hotel; that plaza, campus, park or pedestrianised precinct space where the dead can travel safely onward or return, where the famous figures who want to whisper some gibberish to me can do so without attracting a crowd, where robot animals can roam, and text – written or announced or transfigured into kinetic forms part-sculpture, part plant, part-technological whim – can form and deform and reform at, apparently, its own will.
Two vending machines in particular haunt or habituate these spaces which I am continually passing through in search of the toyshop that sells toy soldiers from specific regiments across the cultures and centuries going on picnics or being demobbed: the vending machine the exact length and height of the back wall in the little rectangular pizza shop in Lido di Jesolo that sold little rectangular slices of pizza a taglio, visited once at night when I was eleven; and the machine dispensing milk in small cartons that sat outside the entrance to the Arcades beneath the Caird Hall in Dundee, back when that space was given over to bus stops serving the whole city. (The Arcades were a mixture of market stalls and amusement machines that I assumed alluded back to the actual arcades of the demolished Old Town House or Pillars which the Caird Hall and City Square had replaced in the 1930s)
As I was going into the express branch of the national supermarket chain a man barrelled past me, exiting with a case of beer in his arms like a precious suitcase. The security guard was there too saying, ‘Give me that.’
I don’t know if I got in her (or his) way. He was a small, battered-looking feller, probably younger than me but blurred across a decade by this sort of experience.
Also blurred by this particular experience was my perception of what they then said to each other. He said, ‘See you later,’ as though muttering to himself, and she called out, ‘You’re banned from this store.’
It must have happened in that order, and yet his statement felt like a reply to hers. It was his tone that gave this impression: it was quiet, almost reflective – he wasn’t triumphant at all: he could almost be anticipating what she would say because this was what they had to go through regularly. Her tone on the other hand felt genuinely despairing: she couldn’t stop him and possibly couldn’t ban him either.
They were in this miserable loop of the world together and so for an instant was I. I can’t remember what I went in for.
The Small Potato
We were teaching, and I was coming in or going out of the library/teaching room, and I didn’t stop, but out of the corner of my eye I saw a pebble or something on the floor, and my mind said to me quite definitely, ‘That is a very small potato.’
By this I understood it to mean that it was some sort of model of a potato, perfectly fashioned, and that the potato it was based on was actually quite large. I have a great fondness for potatoes before we do anything to them, once the earth has dried to a dust on their skins, so I was delighted to think all this, but determined not to let it put me off my stride.
Had I been walking down a street, as I often am when these sorts of constructions occur to me, I might have stopped and had another look – I certainly try to, because I’m aware of how quickly we shove such ideas away, as if ashamed of them, or as if everyone will see and know what we’re thinking.
But nobody’s looking, nobody ever cares that much, and no-one thinks, ‘That person, they’ve just seen an earplug, a luminescent yellow one, and now they’ve seen a slice of chorizo, and they were wondering why the homeless person’s dog hasn’t eaten it yet, but then it occurred to them they could balance the earplug on the chorizo, and it would be a tiny monument, sort of like those flowers I can’t remember the name of – I must look it up when I get home but I won’t remember and, anyway, I’m not going to go back for the earplug.’
So this imagined witness, this mind-reader, has been with me all my life, and possibly with you all yours. I’d like to think of them as God or at least an angel, or a ghost or crowd of ghosts, personal to me or just taking a more or less idle interest. But I know that’s a projection of my desire to be seen, to be acknowledged for a small kindness, or forgiven a momentary lapse or foolishness. That’s your role in this, reader, to look for a moment, as though at something not quite understood, but you can watch as an interpretation or, more usually, a misinterpretation, spreads like ink blotting wet paper.
We can’t quite stop yet, though, as there’s the artist to consider, the invented fabricator, whom I imagine working like Ron Mueck, to produce the hyperreal root vegetable, just to the ‘wrong’ scale, in whatever the inverse to hypertrophism is, so to glance at it is to have the momentary dizzy sensation that one has sometimes contemplating beetles or flies, that things are actually huge, that the hallway is cathedral-like, but that you yourself are colossal, and that’s why you don’t notice.
The green-based transparent globular container and dispenser of yellow rounded-tipped earplugs fastened to the entry gatepost to the fenced-off roadworks. This post was made of cheap board also painted lime-yellow.
At the other end of the site there was a parallel gatepost on which someone had graffitied a skull motif. This had been painted over a slightly different lime-green, but, on the panel immediately beside it, you could see that the grain of the wood did indeed resemble a human skull.
The container was empty now and this brief history meant that it looked ever more like a space helmet for an alien species, which I now imagined as resembling those ‘Tell Your Fortune’ half-body manikins in glass cabinets, a feature of movies, but which they do indeed still have here and there at fairgrounds.
In this case, the alien head would surely be a rubber chicken.
The vending machine in the night in the noir LA movie where the victims goes to select Vulnerability Soda but the hero dials correctly and a Gun Juice drops into the tray at just the right second which the writer previously selected out of the narrative moments vending machine (there’s always an agonising pause at the cliff-hanger edge while the dispensing spirals seem to jam or freeze) on the lot at Burmansk Studios.
How might the letters of a poem be carried through a space – say a cafe, a small hall or church, a library or bookshop – in such a way as to be readable by those seated or strolling, working or idling or browsing within? What should the letters be fashioned from, and in what font? Should they be upper or lower case, and in what colour? How large, and on what kind of poles or stands? How many bearers would the poem require or indeed deserve?
Who should we ask this question of – the author or a director or choreographer of some sort? Should the author have written the poem expressly for this mode of delivery, this publication on the air, or is the director or arranger permitted to edit it to its new end or purpose? Should the audience be prepared or forewarned in any way? How shall they be selected, or will this be, effectively, a surprise?
Who are we to make this enquiry and should we do it in person or via some sort of emissary or go-between? If so, what is the medium this personage is passing through to ‘go between’? Should they be young or old, costumed or casual? Should it simply be a message or letter and if so should it be on a certain type of paper and in a particular ink or calligraphic style?
If a physical artefact of this sort (for a digital transmission might be entirely appropriate, depending on the circumstances) might the messenger be an animal – a bird or dog? A lizard or, perhaps, a large insect? Might these latter options be automata or robots of some sort, to ensure delivery? Or does receipt of our enquiries, finally, matter?
The old potato vending machine on Shore Terrace offered peeling, boiling, baking, frying, and mashing portals, and in each case you could specify the number and size of potatoes up to four large.
You could further select how you wanted your tattie. For instance, in the Raw section you could selected unwashed, washed, or washed n peeled.
Baked could be unbuttered, buttered, buttered with ‘spread’, or buttered with cheese (orange cheddar only). Chipped could be frites, chipshop-shaped, or fritters (scalloped or unscalloped).
Mashed could incorporate potato’s siblings: swede, or sweet, but, alas, no celeriac, and certainly no Jerusalem artichokes. Selecting rumbledethumps sent the machine into thunderous overdrive.
For Fondant there was the sort of lever/aperture arrangement you get in ice cream vans. It claimed to do dauphinoise, but the button never worked.
An apparently endless animation of various items of furniture perambulating on their tiny legs or feet: they all leave their respective houses by ingenious or dramatic means, and advance down deserted streets and country lanes. They all appear to be heading in one direction but, although the film has a stirring soundtrack, we do not find out where this is. The terrain becomes ever more rugged and the venturesomeness of the furniture is tested more and more. Various lingering shots of items of furniture which failed at some dangerous crossing, water or motorway, or were caught at fences or in brambles.
Notice how this description does not really need to specify the animation style, whether anthropomorphic or quasi-realist, whether sepia or with another dominant palate, say blues and greys. Nor does the style of furniture need to be defined – chintzy, deco, modernist – all this is already and immediately taken care of by the imagination of the dear reader, who is either sitting, eyes shut, rapturously imagining the adventures of a little bedside lamp from that hotel during the break-up of their first marriage, or they’re witnessing an entirely concocted occasional table almost at the end of its strength attempting to cross a swiftly-running mountain stream.
Either that or they can’t be bothered with this and they’re doing or thinking of something else entirely which will hopefully reward their attention – the last thing we want is for them to endlessly concatenate between bored and irritable thoughts all day long while there is furniture, brave, stupid, commonplace, or of great elegance, continuing its great pilgrimage in cartoon form.
There should of course be a memory vending machine where for a few ancient coins and a punched-in code you copied down somewhere backwards on purpose you can retrieve the floorplan of that house you thought you were so happy/unhappy in but where was the bathroom? or the surnames of that school bench ranked with the friends you knew you’d always know; or what you ate for years and the aisles of the stores where you bought it and the packaging, the bags you packed it in and then packed your papers in, and the look on the face of the person you sat opposite for years to eat it.
This morning’s dream would be in there and the locations of numerous items Saints Anthony of Padua and Agios Phanourios of Rhodes were unable to help you with. The items, faces, foods, and names are arranged in compartments of that vending machine as though in the long bare halls and empty alcove-rich chambers of whatever the opposite to a memory palace is, which I’ve just remembered, from several stories among the many manuscripts I can no longer put my hands on, is a Forgettory.
Agios Phanourios, an Orthodox saint much revered on Crete, although only known of because of an icon discovered on Rhodes around the end of the fifteenth or at the beginning of the sixteenth centuries, is venerated among other things as the saint of lost things. You bake a cake on his saint’s day (August 27th).
St Anthony of Padua would dispute that title if he had any competitiveness about him.* He doesn’t of course, because he’s a saint, but Anthony and Phanourios often have ‘lost-offs’ in Heaven in which they list the things they’ve each helped people find just to delight the blessed. These ‘lost-off’s could be described as going on for years if there were any duration in Heaven as there are hundreds of thousands of lost things to list. Every millionth or so item Phanourios serves delicious phanouropita to everyone.
*‘Thirty years after [St Anthony’s] burial, the vault was opened and his body had deteriorated to dust except for his tongue, which remained preserved and incorrupt: St. Bonaventure took the tongue in his hands and kissed it…’
The brass band struggles along the narrow beach in and out of surf made especially high by a combination of the September wind and the wash from an outgoing ferry. They are trying to play a march by John Philip Sousa, most probably ‘Manhattan Beach’. It begins with just the view from the beachside taverna and the sound of the waves and the view across the bay to the eponymous island, fortified by the Venetians, and the Akrotiri. Then the tune, seemingly distant, impinges, then gradually they come into view, already struggling in the heat and with the camber of the beach. There are close-ups on key players, especially those who fall into the surf and can’t get up because of their age or the unwieldy nature of their instrument and the slope of the pebbles shifting under their feet. However, most keep playing, or trying to, although the sheet music is in some cases blown away, and in others lost to the waves. However mangled, the tune is timed to finish as the bandleader reaches the wall of the seafront chalet, although in actuality he has to continue marching on the spot for some time, his nose millimetres from the whitewashed concrete.
The vending machines on the Metro platforms have been stripped out, leaving only a pair of, sort of, sentry boxes. There is indeed a temptation to stand or crouch in one if, as ever, no one else was there; a temptation to think of these as people-vending machines, producing others of some sort. Not that you would want to select someone else, but you might want some other aspect of the self, your self, as though these aspects could be optional, almost like ingredients or matters of packaging. Maybe there would be costumes or equipment and you simply put them on or use them and thus access those traits or personae.
What would you pay with? Something has to go into the aperture, something like a coin, something button-like or bottle-toppish or withdrawn from circulation, a former currency or disturbed hoard, the result of mudlarking perhaps and you should’ve handed it over to the authorities long ago, or just a plastic replica of money from a game or token from some other long forgotten machine, but still kept in the drawer, the jar, the pot, the puggie.
Then there’s the matter of the code: something must be punched in. But what would that code be? The panel that informed is gone with the real machine, so you’re left with the ghost of a code and the lottery option: shall I just be random or shall I be methodically random, punching through sequences of dates and addresses that ordinarily mean nothing to the code setter, but now… might now be the point at which all those strings of numbers we trail through our minds have consequence – those alphanumeric combinations of number plates, say of former cars, or cars that still exist, just in the elsewhere of the entire world, made proximate only by memory. What is the code that would enable me to access my car?
When two vending machines love each other very much the vending machine maintenance person acts like a bee or other pollinating insect and places a cold drink can, chocolate bar, fresh sandwich choice, or wash kit including comb from one of the vending machines into a compartment in the other vending machine. The other vending machine then goes out of order. An obscuring glaze forms over the compartment’s hatch while it reconstructs the cells of the can or bar or whatever into a tiny vending machine, perfect in all its parts, but not yet capable of being loaded with items to vend
On Surrealism and Poetry as Items Available from the Vending Machine of Infinite Commodification
- Oblong Stratocasters
As we were once enjoined by Lautreamont to consider beauty as the chance encounter of two nineteenth century contraptions upon a third, and as the third (an operating table) was then co-opted by Eliot as a way of considering a beautifully polluted evening sky, perhaps the best way to approach the question of a current surrealism and a contemporary poetry is to ask: what are Oblong Stratocasters?
I’m very glad you asked me that. Firstly, they are slightly distorted guitars with a neck and head exactly as wide as the body requiring prosthetic extensions to the hands or indeed cartoon or claymation appendages (as in the Zappa footage for ‘Stinkfoot’) to play.
Secondly, they carry with them a sense of cloudiness, as do all objects we are asked to imagine rather than simply see illustrated before or somehow made manifest above us: mile-long, guitar-shaped, stratocumulus.
Thirdly, their originary term, Brian Eno’s ‘oblique strategies’, has evidently undergone a sort of Oulipian shift, much as the results of a chance encounter might imply, in which its constituents have been replaced by nearby terms – ‘oblong’ for ‘oblique’, and so on. And so the phrase might refer to a slightly distorted system of knowledge (or aesthetics) by which I suppose I must mean that knowledge itself is being distorted (or anaesthetized) which is one way of critiquing it or rather us.
Note, however, that these terms are not selected according to a ‘pure’ Oulipian method such as N+7. Some extension to the concept has already taken place and so the category we are therefore working in is not quite nonsense.
We can see for instance that a demilitarising substitution has taken place: the root for strategy, ‘strategos’ (a general leading a ‘stratos’ or army) has been replaced by the root for the Stratocaster guitar: ‘stratum’, or layer, with its meteorological, geological, and biological implications.
This tells us we are operating in the realm of nearsense.
What, we are now obliged to consider, is nearsense? The first sketch broadcast on Eric Idle’s post-Pythons vehicle, Rutland Weekend Television, was one in which his character interviews an expert in something or other, played by Henry Woolf. Except their conversation is entirely made up of an apparently random but syncopated jumble of words in which the one phrase they repeat and appear to agree on is ‘Machine wrapped in butter’.
This would appear to be an instance of nearsense, in the sense that, while nothing the interviewer and interviewee say actually makes sense, we understand that it appears to make sense to them, and, further, we recognise its context: an authority of some sort is being interviewed by a thoughtful intermediary. We know its like, and so understand its ostensible purpose.
Indeed it is this purpose – the Reithian principle of bringing significant issues before the public gaze – that is being satirised, to the extent that the sketch is a satire, and not, as it clearly also is, a revelling in the extraordinary structures of possible and bizarre meanings that rise and fall as it unfolds. These do indeed have to approach or near sense without ever arriving at it in order to engage or enrage the listener.
This sketch is in its way an indicator that the role of whimsy in relation to the surreal is both revivifying and regenerative. The postwar British comedy take on surrealism (Goons, Python, Reeves and Mortimer, Boosh) acts as both second and third wave in the sense that it succeeds both continental surrealism and its own British antecedents in Dadd, Lear, and Carroll. It is simultaneously the simulacra of both and a replica which does not exactly replicate either (and thus suggests how repetition might be better thought of as a focalising form of non-repetition).
This oblique relationship, then, between language and its purposes is, in itself, a poetic, and, as such, wrapping machines in butter might be taken as a post-Surreal methodology, or, less properly, the sort of suggestion we might call an Oblong Stratocaster. (It is as this point that we must remember the March Hare’s stipulation that it be ‘the best butter’.)
- The Replica
What, then, is the replica, hideous or otherwise? It must be the haunting of sense by its friends and relations, not all of which, when laid out on the operating table for examination, are its friends. It must be nearsense’s near-sighted insight that not only is sense nested within nonsense, but that prose must therefore be contained within poetry.
(At this point the ghost of Graham Chapman, disguised as a cloud guitar wearing a British army officer’s uniform, neatly disembodies the point by entering our discussion and ordering it to stop on the grounds of being too silly.
We note that a laundry label has been attached to his uniform in the style of Milligan’s Q series, itself an instance of the Verfremdungseffekt, indicating that this was just a costume, and that the neatly written phrase on the label, ‘Eat Me’, has been scribbled out, and, hastily written under it in pencil is an ascription: ‘The Editor’.)