SJ Fowler's 'The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner' Reviewed by Colin Lee Marshall

SJ Fowler’s most recent book of poetry, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner, is permeated with error at almost every stratum of its composition. A keen eye will pick up (before the book has even properly begun) that such erroneousness is not only premeditated, but also intransigent. As we are informed on the copyright page: ALL ERRATA IS INTENTIONAL, AND THIS WORK HAS BEEN THOROUGHLY PROOFED. Lapsed agreement between verb and noun occurs in at least three other places throughout the collection: “the past are taking over” (‘Atacama’); “otherwise it’s just noises” (‘Wortwedding’); “I see a tower with a clock & remembers” (the first ‘Epithalamia’ sequence). But these examples barely hint at the extent to which error – to use that term as a broad catch-all for a panoply of different schemes and tropes – infects the grammar, lexis, and even the sequencing of the poems.

It isn’t feasible to enumerate even half of the errors of the text within the space of this review; nonetheless, one might tease out a few of their constellations in an attempt to get something of a handle of the book. While initially it might be tempting to read constructions such as “I’m a emotional epic” or “a herd of buffalo’s trying to fly is AIDS apparent heir” as mere stylistic filigree – discrete ludic bursts that don’t transcend their local effects – a close reading will cause such errors to accrete into various densities of suggestion (if not blatant argument) that seem essential to the philosophical thrust of the book.

Perhaps unsurprisingly – given the apparent extent of Fowler’s travelling (both domestically and abroad) as part of his various poetic and curatorial commitments – The Rottweiler’s Guide is studded with geographic and topographic references (Granada, lublin [sic], Hackney Town Hall, etc.). However, Fowler also moves beyond planet Earth, plundering liberally from a number of well-known pop-cultural heterocosms (those of the Star Wars, Pokemon, and Game of Thrones franchises salient amongst them). These alternate terrestrial moorings and defections throw up interesting questions about Fowler’s engagement with the so-called real world. And yet, the distinction between worlds is often misleading; for even when the poetry is ostensibly rooted in a recognizable historical event or situation, things are seldom straightforward.

The loaded title of the book’s best poem, ‘Wolves in Chernobyl’, adumbrates a landscape and fosters certain expectations even before we have begun to read the main body of the text. But as it turns out, the titular wolves don’t make a single appearance, and amongst the poem’s nine sections perhaps fewer than half of the lines evoke the Chernobyl disaster—and then only tangentially, and always as necessarily buttressed by knowledge of the title. Instead, amidst the usual peppering of errors (“couples sunbath around the cooling ponds”; “do not eat green vegetables / or milk”; “a parents plot of land”) the poem unfolds largely as a series of gentle philosophical ruminations on “wood” (perhaps an indirect reference to The Red Forest) and “the thing”, lacerated only occasionally by unambiguous moments of toxicity or levity. By invoking disaster thus, only to then sidestep a direct reckoning with it, Fowler perhaps risks inviting the charge of flippancy. But not only are the occasional lacerations of ‘Wolves in Chernobyl’ far more effective than any overwrought sentimentality could be, they also force us to confront the politics of our personal reactions to uncomfortable material. Consider the following excerpt from the same poem:

a foal had been born with eight legs
piglets without eyes
calves without heads or ribs.
                 deformities due to inbreeding

The easy thing would be to dismiss this as mere levity, to decry the poet’s insensitivity to the very disaster that he is only too happy to invoke. But from a different point of view, it might be seen as a tactic by which to draw attention to the complicity involved in reading a poem about Chernobyl. Here, the error becomes our own. We have likely been reading about the radioactive fauna of a restricted region, only then to be hit with a paraprosdokian – “deformities due to inbreeding” – that denies us our moment of cathartic confirmation, and simultaneously skewers the presumptuousness of our attempt to subsume the actual disaster into our understanding of it.

But it is more typically through modifications to language itself that Fowler unsettles the act of easy assumption. At the end of the poem ‘Scent’  (via the rendering of a hairdresser’s comment, only partially overheard) the modifications are orthographical:

[…] “…exicans have been decapitating
peeple for thousands of years
it doesn’t mean there,
what it means here.”

The aphaeresis of “…exicans” is a sly lexical analogue to the decapitations to which the text refers—assuming, of course, that we take “…exicans” to be an aphaeretic rendering of “Mexicans”. Irrespective of whether we make this readerly decision, and supply the missing ‘M’, the sense of violence, of complicity in what things “mean”, and of ultimate detachment from what they are is insurmountable. This is further reinforced by the fact that “peeple" are being decapitated, and not ‘people’. ‘Peeple’ and ‘people’ are homophones (what looks like it should be a diphthong in the standard spelling isn’t) and as such, whoever overheard the hairdresser’s words would not have been able to infer any orthographical difference by sound alone. Contextually, the subtle de-anthropomorphic tweak makes perfect sense, given the implication that the value of human life is lower in the culture in question than it is in the “here” of the utterance; but the homophony preserves the problem of whether we are to read this as satire, or as a straight-faced semantic downgrade—a problem compounded by the ambiguity as to whether these are words cognized as heard, words cognized as (vicariously) spoken, or words that have been tinkered with at the extradiegetic level. Regardless, the text aims deliberately to upset the facile imputation of the spoken words—and perhaps, by extension, any facile imputations that we might be tempted to make upon reading it.

At around the halfway point of the collection, the pages of the book turn grey, so as clearly to demarcate the ‘Wortwedding’ sequence of prose poems (originally written as part of a collaboration with the artist Alessandra Eramo.) This stark demarcation is entirely appropriate, given that – in the context of the The Rottweiler’s Guide as a whole – ‘Wortwedding’ seems utterly like a foreign body, an interpolated text. In this section of the book, Fowler unleashes a logorrheic, largely unpunctuated sequence of eight different “lessons”, at times making metapoetic references to what he perceives as the work’s infelicities or longeurs. It might seem a brave decision for Fowler to have included this particularly challenging and protruberant sequence in the collection; but not only does ‘Wortwedding’ add a further dimension to the prevailing tenor of error, it contains some of the book’s most interesting material:

be varied in your words […] otherwise it’s just noises
(but that isn’t interesting asks the one in the front row who will learn)
like choke choke choked laugh laugh chalk chalk chalked
the mind is not a violin to be tuned […]

Here, rote pedagogy and earnest learning are contrasted with the idea of liberated disobedience. The erroneous doublings of what we recognize as the present tense (and, in the case of the word “laugh”, the apparent absence of any but the present tense) are simultaneously a rebuke to the rigidities of standard verbal conjugation, and an instantiation of the very “noises” that their supposed variation aims to sidestep. In one way or another, the yoke of language remains, yet through poetic play one might open up interstices through which meaning can elude the pedagogical fescue.

Such creative rebuttals to prescriptive grammar allow Fowler to write things like “and in so did” (‘Atacama’) instead of ‘and in so doing’. But perhaps eschewing authority in this way isn’t an empty means of dissent as much as it is a legitimate groping for new semantic possibilities. Any unquestioning trust in existing grammatical structures has to presume that these structures will admit of no error, and one of Fowler’s preferred ways of exposing the precariousness of such trust is by robbing declarative statements of their conviction. If we look once again at the above excerpt from ‘Wortwedding’, we can see that what appeared to be a statement (at least according to one possible parsing of its polysemic syntax) has been branded a question: “but that isn’t interesting asks the one in the front row who will learn”. Such confidence, which belies the uncertainty of the one “who will learn”, occurs in similar fashion earlier in the book: “and have you I’ve / noticed the disproportionate amount / of enormous men who are the police?” (‘calling the doctor makes me feel better’). Revealed here through punctuation (rather than through exposition, as in ‘Wortwedding’) the question forces a jarring shift of cadence. Re-routed in the midst of its utterance, the sentence flits uneasily back and forth between the poles of authority and deferral, forcing, if not readerly choice itself, then at least a reflection on the ethics of such choice.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge the obvious fact that error in The Rottweiler’s Guide serves to disrupt the trajectories of some of the book’s more traditional themes (love, death, marriage etc.); but so too would it be remiss to limit error solely (or even primarily) to this function. Fowler’s main achievement (or so it seems to me) consists in intensifying a certain kind of cognitive dissonance—a dissonance that emanates from the hinterland of creative agency between text and reader. We read constructions such as “just fourteen years of visit” (‘that god blesses them fuck drogue’) or “in every / slice of year round” (‘calling the doctor’), and can’t help but feel their irregularity, however much we may wish to defer to the new temporal conditions that they appear to conjure. Even when presented with constructions that are couched as imperatives, meaning is typically compromised through solecism (“wish me not to make me glow, but diminish my desire”—‘Wolves in Chernobyl’) so that there is a constant tension between the urge to extract a clear command from the rubble, and the urge to allow the errors to short-circuit any imperative force. How we read these error-strewn poems is governed by shifting degrees of resolution and abeyance, and by a constant reappraisal of which of these two states is the more appropriate.  

Peter Riley: Excerpts from Due North

                                                                                                         from Part II

Far from “art”. Crannogs and beehive huts / herding
horses to the docks at Belfast, priests in black gowns
walking the pavements       Tenant farmers
in the hills around Halifax—
       walking mummies in dungarees and flat caps
       life of slopstone and clarts, the curlew
whistling failure over the top fields and obviously,
souldom gained and lost, thoughts that bite, dreams told to willows
by haunted streams
                 (the muses in a ring about Apollo’s altar sing)
and the pipes played The Flowers of the Forest.


And there we were, serving new industries
cotton and print mills, brick cottage rows in
cobble and dirt streets without so much as
a tap and the great sky held, the great arch
of experience stretched over the parklands and we
gained our own,  the long songs and stories
were ours for the telling and our sad fates
woven across the night nobody, nobody
stood any higher than us in the meaning of the world
whatever mess we made of it our heads were alive
with our dialect and the end we saw coming
clearly over the town we lived in.


The old men still there, in a row on the stone bench
round the palazzo, watching the tourists, sharing the wine,
       to be willing to talk, to learn from anybody (Mandelstam)
amplifying a procedure, a work between stations
work of day night weeks years on end
       to be something, something more
                 than bits of paper blown in the wind, more than words,
                                        to be bound together like
                                        words in a sonnet, to enact a solution
instead of replicating violence.  Anything’s better
than skulking deep in some university
casting spells and hating the world.


                                                                                                        from Part IV

Smoke standing over the houses in the valley below
we tempered ourselves into an ecstasy of forgetting
and farmed ourselves into the next generation
and rolled down the hillsides to the town
to set up shops, and ache with servility when the man
calls in to take away the profit.  Consolation starts to slide
       into counsel, tragedy into accident.

And where there was a local consolidation is now
a  subsidised circus. Our old romances return
freshly laundered on the backs of migrant workers
from former colonies and recent war zones.

en la tarde  in the evening, when I consider
the termination of my life the owls call, meaning no harm,
and the northern winds rattle the windows.
A shrinking recess in the dark surface of place
holds such authenticity as is left. This stinking Eden (clarts etc.).

And wake in the morning to find the birds have formed a co-operative

and the children have all remembered their fathers’ names.

       Child on bike
       it’s all right
       I’m still here
       holding on
       don’t worry
       you won’t fall, go


                                                                                                         from Part V

...and the people who promote this madness are always calculatingly sane, and build reputations and
careers on the madness, while the people who are mad hate it, and destroy themselves, because they
know they are mad.


Walking long streets of house rows
deep and clear autumn sunlight between cloud masses
all the fair faces in the rooms and their abandoned destinations
                 with no hope of repair
betrayed workers, paid up and forgotten,
their language vilified, the plain speech we offer the world in
all honesty described as “a source of evil” by
       priest academics chanting etymological curses
while the world bears its own evidence on rays of sunlight
                            all along the rows of dancers.

Indeed we know we are nothing, our language is lies
       my sighs, my broken words, the sink of my passion
into inarticulacy, the everyday which is where we live
in which we are trapped
       Gentle shepherd, rain on the window
                 It is an honour.


               So the final descent into madness and death
               is down a Pennine hillside, leaping small streams hung
               with elder and hawthorn chest pain image pain stumbling
               over tufted meadows down cinder tracks, vetch,
               ragged robin, cow-parsley, dandelion, speeding
               between hedgerows into the edges of the town the
               garden fences the meeting places the towers, then
               to slow and stagger panting and fall silently
               across the threshold of the public library in all the gladness and relief
               of total incomprehension.


                                                                                                         from Part VI

In sleep “we” is restored to the choral “I”
And the singing can start
the great chant of humanity suddenly unafraid
under contract, rights offset to duties

Song of Myself / the boat on the water / the water on the window
expanding from unison through all the suburbs
       to the cemetery beyond the town edge, choked with growth
In which (uncomprehending) we build our singing platforms
and lie waiting


Dying, she turned towards me and gave a last, sweet,
pout. “I gave my life to poetry.” At the funeral
we got through nine bottles.  Miles of damp fields.


Peter Riley's Due North will be published by Shearsman in 2015.

David Barnes

       The Charm

The goldfinches
     scatter song on frost-furrow –

a cowbell-hymn
      thrown to field & copse,
           cast over waters –  dewpond,
                  cattle trough:                   

The Charm
    trodden in ditch,
             tramped through market-town,
     echoed in train’s heave,
                       pounding off concrete.

Passing Magi in rotting rags
      bring the Charm, like bells, like Plague bells,
                   to the gates of the City

a poem by Luke Allan

for Tom Betteridge

black hugs
at the zero hour

spoons the hole
ripe with neighing

brine on brine

a white cross punches
some colours from your eyes

Read pdf

Four poems by Denise Riley

Pers. Comm.

It willed to be ordinary, easy
as rain sifting through woods
but doubt shrouded the mind 
to warp its aim of kindliness. 

Fires were lit and sap hissed
in green branches torn down 
by anxiety contorted to shield 
itself, biting its angry hands.

It smoked out each transparent joy.  
It strode well away from its heart.  
Darkness absorbs the mind, once 
it starts calling itself ‘unwanted’.  

Oh go away for now

Persistent are your lost or dead 
intimates and buried child.  

They won’t leave their wants unsaid          
but tag you with appeals and prods
while your ‘work of mourning’ quails  
before each sibilant attack

inveigling you to lead them back: 
‘You’ve loved us terribly, and so  

you’ve kept us going even though …’ 
Calmly heap fresh soil upon them. 

They can wait for you to join them 
as soon you will; you’ll soon gang up 
to poke and give some new grief to  
whoever, left living, once loved you.  

On the Black Isle

Three ginger temples of oilrigs clamped at the bay’s mouth, a  
big navy sky roiled over cloud pillars; the notebook goes riffling 
through its colour chart for rose-flushed stonework cut clean as
these rain-beaded fuchsias or until that notebook, a mental one, 
flips round to enquire whitely:  Just what do you think you’re up to?  
‘Any gay thing’s worth a chase, for as long as its shade distracts,
so drape, far rain, hung in cinematic swathes’.  Its next reproach
isn’t appealing, either: So where am I in this?  ‘We aren’t – this is in 
rosy Cromarty, its broad fields racing by and silvery ruthless rain 
nettling our scoured skins.’ – Quite vanished and never said why.   
Thick kelp straps gleam in the shallows and loll on the rising tide. 

Boxy Piece
Exhibit of small boxes made from wood 
to house their thought and each an open 
coffin of the not-dead with their chirring. 
Satin-lined frames stack square in blocks
nested to a columbarium – then mumble
closet doves, whose fond carpenter drills
piercings for more air, won’t let you flap.

Index of Poems By Year


Peter Riley
     [#] Excerpts from Due North

David Barnes
     [#] The Charm


Luke Allan
     [#] Peasant

Tom Betteridge
     [#] Of A Silent District

Amy Cutler
     [#] Rumpele stilt

Dan Eltringham
     [#] mystics

Sarah Hayden
     [#] Women & Labo[u]r I-II

Benjamin Mullen
     [#] Easter Monday

Denise Riley
     [#] Four Poems

John Seed
     [#] from 'Brandon Pithouse: Recollections Of The Durham Coalfield'


Felicity Allen
     [#] The Installation

Oliver Dixon
     [#] Four Poems

Peter Jaeger
     [#] A Philip Whalen Mala

Pansy Maurer-Alvarez
     [#] Rapture Stripped Of Confetti

Drew Milne & John Kinsella
     [#] from Reactor Red Shoes

Stephen Mooney
     [#] from The Cursory Epic Pt 3 – The Seven Serpents

Benjamin Mullen
     [#] The Aral Beach

Matthew Paskins

Denise Riley
     [#] Late March 2013
     [#] You Men Who Go In Living Flesh
     [#] Signifs

Daniel Tiffany
     [#] Three Poems


Tim Allen
     [#] from Default Soul

David Ashford
     [#] Pulgarsari

Amy De'Ath
     [#] Cuteness Is A Landscape

Ben Borek
     [#] from Sissy

Emily Critchley
     [#] For Him

Andrew Duncan
     [#] Precipice of Niches

Elizabeth Guthrie & Andrew K. Peterson
     [#] Two Poems

JD Melling
     [#] truth table analysis

Sophie Seita
     [#] Little Trauma


Amy Cutler
     [#] Wild Pansy

Tray Dumhann
     [#] Two Poems

Ralph Hawkins
     [#] The pflight of a Poet (Four Chanson)

Colleen Hind
     [#] From "DP"

Lisa Jeschke
     [#] Lines 1, 2, 3

Sarah Kelly
     [#] Two Poems

Francesca Lisette
     [#] 3 Poems

Tom Lowenstein
     [#] The Apartments of the Great Khan

Fabian Macpherson
     [#] Two Poems

Luke McMullan
     [#] Dawn, Vision

R.T.A. Parker
     [#] 9 sonnets from 99 Short Sonnets about Evil

Nat Raha
     [#] Three poems from 'mute exterior intimate'

Sophie Seita
     [#] Fragonard

Helen Slater
     [#] Easter Sunday 24 April 2011

Samantha Walton
     [#] 3 Poems

Tessa Whitehouse
     [#] Draft Folder Poems


Sean Bonney
     [#] The Commons set 3 // 31 - 33
     [#] The Commons set 3 // 27 - 28
     [#] (after Rimbaud) "complaint registered March 18th 1871"
     [#] (after Rimbaud) "september 2003. we were wondering why the poets were silent"

Dominic Fox
     [#] After Slumber (xiii)

Harry Godwin
     [#] Experiments in Deconstruction : Flushing

Abdulkarim Kasid
     [#] Two Poems (translated by the poet and Sara Halub, with David Kuhrt and John Welch)

Alistair Noon
     [#] Three Poems from Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution

Jonty Tiplady
     [#] Happiness 4


Tina Bass
     [#] s'wet
          my cyclamen

Carrie Etter
     [#] Divining for Starters (65)

Nathan Hamilton
     [#] Sunbathe

Ralph Hawkins and Alan Halsey
     [#] From The Incomplete Pseudo-Necronomicon

Peter Larkin
     [#] Lean Earth Off Trees Unaslant, IV

Johan de Wit
     [#] from annulus
          6 statements


Jenny Allan
     [#] from Intermittent Voices

Jeff Hilson
     [#] from In the Assarts

Federico García Lorca
     [#] Nocturno del hueco (translated by Michael Peverett)

Alice Notley
     [#] Ten poems from Negativity's Kiss

Joshua Stanley
     [#] The true shape of proteins

Anna Ticehurst
     [#] Open Season
          Abasement Marks
          Open Practise

Timothy Thornton
     [#] Scrap, Manifest

Tom White
     [#] from Old Sense


Tina Bass
     [#] Emmenogogue
     [#] "not diligent"

Jennifer Cooke
     [#] Phew

Mark Dickinson
     [#] from Nematode
     [#] from The Speed of Clouds

Carrie Etter
     [#] Anthro-

Peter Finch
     [#] Old

Helen Macdonald
     [#] "Between her wings the novitiate"

Richard Makin
     [#] Nine Poems from Erratum's Lip

Dee McMahon
     [#] Satiety

Andrew Nightingale
     [#] from Maps of my Hermetic Future

Alistair Noon
     [#] Postcards From Home

Francis Raven
     [#] I Thought This Was Better

Hannah Silva
     [#] 'can live with this music we'

Matina Stamatakis
     [#] Behind Eyes

Joshua Stanley
     [#] The Return
     [#] Untitled

Simon Turner
     [#] La Città Nuova: a construction for Antonio Sant'Elia
          To Be Bewildered

Lawrence Upton
     [#] NAMING for Lucio Agra

James Wilkes
     [#] Two reviews


Tim Allen
     [#] from The Failure of Myth

heidi arnold
     [#] Red Checks

Aase Berg (trans. Johannes Göransson)
     [#] Deformationszon / Deformation Zone
          Filt / Blanket
          Fotboj / Foot Buoy

Mairéad Byrne
     [#] That West End Blues Syndrome
          Climbing the Stairs

Jon Clay
     [#] 'Windblast a vibrating landscape'
          Pyrite (Flare Hope)

Emily Critchley
     [#] I just want you to know that we can still be friends

M. T. C. Cronin

Steve Dalachinsky
     [#] blank space in a car pool

Ian Davidson
     [#] Baltic
     [#] from Partly in Riga

Nina Davies
     [#] Mzuzu University Inauguration Day 1999

AnnMarie Eldon
     [#] scrubbing up
          house calls and the slattern's self-disparaging emesis

Giles Goodland
     [#] Three poems from Capital

     [#] from Please Eat Yourself

Peter Larkin
     [#] From "Shade" (At Wall With The Approach Of Trees, 2)

John Latta
     [#] Landskip And Fit

Tom Lowenstein
     [#] At Uqpik's Cabin

Rupert Loydell
     [#] Two Poems

Peter Manson
     [#] Poems
          Labour 1995
          That Door
          If by dull rhymes our English must be chained

D. S. Marriott
     [#] from Speak Low: Poem To Jonas

rob mclennan
     [#] last night: thirteen lines

Geraldine Monk
     [#] from Raccoon

Daniel Nester
     [#] Two Douglas Rothschild Laments
          To Be Imperfect, To Be

Dawn Pendergast
     [#] from Zoo Po Day
     [#] Hi mouse.
          The Even

Frances Presley
     [#] Creswell Crags

Lisa Samuels
     [#] Civitas
          Song: body's end
          The morning of departure

Mark Scroggins
     [#] Flâneur
          'The spillage of sunlight...'

John Seed
     [#] From That Barrikins

Robert Sheppard
     [#] The war had ended; it had not ended
     [#] From September 12
     [#] From Thelma

Joshua Stanley
     [#] "It is a persistent floatation on the glass, the conflict there"
          "The exchange of temperature unfelt bent blades of grass"

Scott Thurston
     [#] from Separate Voices

Lawrence Upton
     [#] i.m. barry macsweeney
     [#] oscillation
     [#] Marcus Vergette
          Pete Kubryk-Townsend

Stephen Vincent
     [#] from Tenderly

Carol Watts
     [#] from Dogtown

Tom Betteridge: Of a Silent District

Of a Silent District

On the duct pace is leased under light
at an hour’s turn, the field dampens and white
stills, threads its rate.

[. . .]

Read the whole poem (pdf)

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