Richard Osmond’s Rock, Paper, Scissors is a collection wherein violence and trauma has disrupted the social fabric to the extent that reality becomes a game of signs. Like the trickster of myths and fables, this collection undermines authority and convention.
The three principle signs of this collection are excerpts from Beowulf, Qur’ānic extracts and Osmond’s personal experience of the June 3rd 2017 terrorist attack in London. When grouped together, these signs manifest uncomfortable tensions. Using a game – the titular Rock, Paper, Scissors – to give context to an act of violence is taboo and could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Associating excerpts of the Qur’ān with a terrorist attack is, at best, controversial, and at worst, an example of the kind of ‘Orientalism’ that Edward Said describes. Nevertheless, whenever equivocation, comedic or absurdist leanings and underlying tensions are coaxed to the surface, I am inclined to feel that the archetype of the trickster may be at play.
Familiarity with the trickster archetype, also known as ‘the jester’ or ‘wise-fool’, is important in beginning to unpack this collection. So I would like to share a separate but related story of the Orisha god Eshu from the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria who represents the unforeseeable, chance and uncertainty. Although Eshu isn’t mentioned in Rock, Paper, Scissors, his character demonstrates how the trickster archetype operates. In one version of this story, Eshu walks past two farmers wearing a large hat that is red on one side and blue and white on the other. Each farmer sees one side of the hat. And when they discuss the incident later after Eshu has gone, a heated argument ensues. Each farmer believes that he knows the truth, i.e. the colour of the hat, and that the other farmer is wrong. Eshu is amused and laughs at the confusion he has caused. Archetypically, the trickster — who is usually a benevolent force in myth — is a troublemaker, a wise-fool and amoral. Despite making trouble for the sake of it, the consequences of the trickster’s mischief are that hidden tendencies can come to the surface and a deeper truth, a truth beyond binaries, has the opportunity to emerge. Throughout history and across cultures the trickster’s role has been valued. He appears in stories when old ways of thinking and doing things needs to be done away with. According to Carl Jung, one of the founders of analytic psychology , the trickster represents an aspect of everyone’s psyche.
Games in particular are the trickster’s forte. Where there are games, there’s bound to be the opportunity for fun, confusion and deception. In Osmond’s collection, the meaning of one sign is supposed to depend on the other signs chosen to contest it:
Put it this way: a photograph
of Matt’s third and losing move,
viewed in isolation, appears
to show a man raising his fist in anger,
about to throw a punch. Only those who know
which game of signs he’s playing at
will read the hand as rock.
And even rock means nothing
without further context […]
(‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’)
Revealed in this one photograph and elucidated through poem is the ambiguity of the symbols that everyone is exposed to on a daily basis. The symbols themselves, i.e. the fist in the photograph or the colour of the hat in the Eshu story, have no definite meaning on their own. Their significance depends on the observer and layers upon layers of context. Typically, as in the Eshu story, the average observer does not fairly examine multiple or contradictory versions of reality. Humans are notoriously quick to judge and slow to reason. But Osmond complicates our ability to choose sides by presenting multiple alternating perspectives so that their discord, synchronicities and equivocation can be witnessed. It’s a difficult balance to maintain and the kaleidoscope of narratives is made possible by the traumatic event which disrupts the dominant narrative of daily life.
When one experiences trauma, what previously seemed ordered and predetermined can seemingly give way to chaos. Osmond illustrates this in the collection’s first poem ‘The Creation Song’:
The singer said the Almighty made the earth —
He shaped or sang
every moving kind of thing alive to life.
And so the lord’s men lived the dream
until someone (a murdering fiend,
a wendigo, a demon from the depths of hell)
began to commit atrocities
His name was Grendel.
In this translated excerpt of Beowulf, from the men’s perspective they were ‘[living] the dream’, connoting a time of ethereal contentedness before everything changed. However when the status quo is ruptured, as is the case with tragedies, what becomes apparent are competing narratives and tensions that existed all along but are brought to the surface through the violent act. At the beginning of ‘The Creation Song’, the reader is told:
The brazen ghoul who dwelled in the dark
had a hard time, having to hear
each and every day the loud sound
of people having fun in the hall
Though the ghoul’s misery is mentioned in the poem, his torment seems to be a part of the natural order; one would expect that a ghoul would dwell in the dark and not partake in festivities. Grendel appears in the very first stanza and although discontent he’s safely contained underground until the last four lines of the poem when he emerges and commits acts of violence paralleling the turmoil brewing just below the surface on the day of the June 3rd terrorist attack in London. The poem ‘A tall thin man’ is an example of competing narratives coming from Osmond’s personal experience. The man in the title was a victim of the attack:
[…] neither did he perform his
suffering according to convention but looked frightened in a way
few actors would act when asked to portray fear
In this poem the reader has the opportunity to witness the falling away of artifice to see the ways in which it can be inadequate to describe or grapple with trauma.
What must be asked is whether this collection adequately challenges all sides. Can these signs (like in the game of rock, paper, scissors) capably contest each other? The Qur’ān in its original Arabic is viewed by Muslims as the unadulterated word of God; Beowulf does not hold as high of a position in Western culture and neither does personal experience. Though Rock, Paper, Scissors is unsuccessful in fully embodying the trickster archetype, as it doesn’t and perhaps can’t contest all sides equally, there’s value in using the archetypal tradition to better understand what Osmond is doing. Poking fun at human folly may be best rendered by using one’s own cultural symbols and reference points, otherwise it’s difficult to know how to most effectively draw attention to the absurdities and question the cultural symbols.
Rock, Paper, Scissors searches for meaning in the fragmented events of the June 3rd attack through three very different texts. In this collection there’s a sense of hidden meaning, ambivalent meaning, and meaninglessness all being explored. There’s both a sense of the June 3rd attack following a particular narrative (hint: it’s not the narrative of the Qur’ān) and being unforeseeable and senseless. Osmond’s intention appears to be to bring these complications and repressed feelings to the fore. What happens to them after that, is up to the reader.
You can buy Rock, Paper, Scissors by Richard Osmond from the Poetry Book Society website.
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