A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN CULTURE

 

by Michael Peverett

 

Section 9. 2004-Now

 

 

Contents

(Note: entries marked with a * are separate HTML files. Click on the link to get to them. You can't get to them just by scrolling further down this page!)

 

ahadada reader 1 (2004)     Alan Halsey, John Byrum, Geraldine Monk

Charity-shop chuckouts (2005)         notices at the last

June (2005)     hairy tare and general silveriness

Lisa Samuels: Paradise / Invention (2005, 2008)*    

Rosanna Warren: Departure (2005)       inches of topsoil

Mark Ford and Rosmarie Waldrop (2005)      two poet-critics in action

Arielle Greenberg: My Kafka Century (2005)         string of milk-teeth

Lara Glenum: The Hounds of No (2005)                NEW

Elizabeth Willis: The Great Egg of Night (2005)     parataxis in pieces

Thomas Kinsella: Marginal Economy (February 2006)     residue pamphlet

Four poets: Lew, Peterson, Rakusa, Sutherland (2006)   stacks of unread plays

John Wilkinson, Lake Shore Drive (2006)*      notes on all the poems

Catherine Daly (b. 1967)*      a literature

rob mclennan: aubade (2006)       facing unit

Leevi Lehto: Lake Onega and Other Poems (2006)  post-language-competence

Jessica Smith: Organic Furniture Cellar (2006)*         memory-grid and islands

Richard Makin: St Leonards (2006-)     after seven chapters...

Alice Notley: In the Pines (2007)     being stifled

My haul (hours in a library) (2008)   Sir Geo Etherege, Hroswitha, etc

Elisabeth Bletsoe: Landscape from a Dream (2008)     NEW

Tony Lopez: Darwin (2009)   

Jim Goar: Seoul Bus Poems (2010)  *  NEW

 


ahadada reader 1  (2004)

Alan Halsey, John Byrum, Geraldine Monk

 

[First published as a book review in Stride Magazine, 2005.]

 

ahadada reader 1 by Alan Halsey, John Byrum, Geraldine Monk, 85pp, Ahadada Books (2004), Meikai University, 8 Akemi, Urayasu-shi, Chiba-ken, Japan 279-8550

 

This isn’t a ‘Reader’ in the sense of being a kind of best-and-most-accessible selection for students, like the venerable James Joyce Reader, for example. In fact you could argue it’s not for reading at all, at least so far as John Byrum’s concerned. His work doesn’t really fit into book format, which might be one way of making sense out of the wan grisaille of ‘Approximations’.

 

I can’t quote from ‘Approximations’. No, I’m not being lazy, I mean this literally. I could tell you some of the words I found in it, but it isn’t a text. It’s visual poetry, and you can’t detach the verbal element from the graphics. It triumphantly fails the ‘Blake test’ proposed by Ron Silliman, who claims that the words of a poem should always be able to do their business when taken away from their original context. That seems a pretty good definition of what visual poetry isn’t. It isn’t illustrated poems, or poems used as calligraphy exercises.

 

So what are we going to talk about? We could talk about Byrum’s ideas, which are basically about merging and dispersing the category of art into well, human activity itself. That seems a logical destination for visual poets. You can see their work being exciting on the website of Byrum’s Generator Press; much more exciting visually than the monochrome of ‘Approximations’.

 

In principle, a visual poet needn’t be skillful with the linear disposition of words that we call ‘writing’ at all. ‘Approximations’ could have been designed to test that principle. Byrum chooses the most lifeless kind of intertextual theorising about art as the material for his pages; the sort of text so gnarled and over-familiar that it looks like some forgotten essay that you wrote yourself when you were really worried sick about something else.

 

This, for example, is the text of one double page, big white letters inside two identical grey oblongs:

 

cyclica

ltropes reveali

ngconc

ealing   

oneth

ingint

ermso

fanot

her

 

No question but that you can read this off as ‘cyclical tropes revealing concealing one thing in terms of another’ – Oh, please! But the presentation brings submerged sounds out of their prisons. ‘ngconc’ begins with a liquid (though indefinable) vowel and ends with a hard k-sound. ‘reveali ermso’ wriggles across the middle of the page. More to the point, this has occupied two whole precious pages of the Reader’s modest 85 – and the next five are on the same gigantic scale. Never mind, Byrum makes up for it later with three pages of text so small and cramped that I accepted the invitation not to read it, merely to enjoy the interference patterns. In ‘Approximations’, neither text nor space has an inherent value. But in your mind it does. The pages I’ve, well, ‘quoted’, look opulent, a half-naked penthouse. The cramped later pages are slum tenements.

 

*

 

You would think that the instantly visceral power of graphics might lead to an art full of passion. That isn’t how it turns out, not here anyway. In the middle of the word ‘approximations’ is the word ‘proxy’ (as Byrum’s text flat-footedly points out), a defining image of modern poetry. Whatever real things there might be out there, the modern poet doesn’t feel anything about them because they’ve all been endlessly spun in the discredited virtuality of the media. Consider these phrases from Alan Halsey’s section of the Reader:

 

Terra In-  

Cognita known & anticipated only as an Under-

 

Song by sub

Tler suppressed initials unified by natural

Contingency....  

 

So even Terra Incognita is already qualified by hordes of past participles.

 

severall wayes of flying

I have now forgott

 

A little tease. You’d like to know about that, wouldn’t you?

 

‘There was a time when people forgot

their responsibilities.’ At Harken Energy

phantoms priced the bad news in without a negative spot-

light. ‘Everything,’ the ex-director said, ‘seemed easy.’

 

So the bad news doesn’t seem bad, and even the lively words “harken energy” are smeared by being a trade name.

 

Certain mendacious

emendations

such as asterisks

for airstrikes.

 

Are you supposed to feel indignant and horrified about airstrikes? No, just notice a clever pun.

 

Or here, finally, are some shorter phrases: ‘hoovered goodwill’, ‘sugared safeguards’, ‘a library garbled’, ‘For ‘faculty’ read ‘faulty’’, ‘a sign saying DANGER or DANCER’**. Every noun comes ready-wrapped in cynicism.

 

It seems fairly appropriate to quote Halsey out of context. You’re never too sure how many of the words are his anyway, and he often builds page after page out of decontextualized quotes of other people.

 

The few attempts I’ve seen at dealing with his work seem to throw their hands up and just regard him as a force of nature. I think I can agree with that. His writings are the dark side of the moon, and reading them from the front isn’t very profitable. They have a recognizable cast of mind, of course. They are basically belittling. Every promise is a false promise, every word and action discredited. It produces an oddly liberating kind of equality. 

 

Halsey’s favourite ornament is the pun. At one point he says:

 

A pun’s a written-out’s blast or boast weapon in or upon class or crass struggle.

 

A sentence that, typically, manages to trash itself. Occasionally I find Halseyan word-play bracing – for example, ‘Wall to wall coverage on Cogito Live’, or ‘the cutting-room ceiling’. For every mind-expanding goodie like that there’s a mass of ‘uniform as cuneiform’ and ‘literal or littoral’ where the pun is manifest only in its negative aspect, as a way of reducing significance, not adding to it. The pun drains away the potential strength of the unpunned word.   

 

But to see Halsey’s writing more fully one needs to be constantly thinking about what it doesn’t openly express. At one point he talks illuminatingly about an ‘emblem firewall’ and I follow the suggestion that, though the writing on the page consists of belittling emblems, these are a very screened version of what lies beyond that firewall.

 

Consider, for example, the ongoing composition that is extracted here, ‘Lives of the Poets’. This consists of a series of short sections headed by the names of British poets – generally, what were once called “silver poets” – of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. I think none of the words are Halsey’s own – they are all either the poet’s or contemporary with the poet’s life. For example:

 

GABRIEL HARVEY

 

no bones to take the wall of

what good liking Maister Dyer had of youre Satyricall Verses

happiest Inuentor of the English Hexameter

ink-squittering Howliglasse in Newgate

Piers Penniless the Pamfletter says borrows my name

 

I recognize some of the sources here (Spenser, Nashe), but it’s probably best not to. At least I hope not, because nearly all the other ‘Lives’ are outside my range. Anyway, vividly collaged as this is, it clearly denies the satisfaction that one might have hoped for from that hallowed title ‘Lives of the Poets’. What did we really want? A narrative in which the subject poet goes about doing things? – But, a narrative told by whom? Or perhaps an interpretation of the poet’s significance, whatever that might mean? Halsey’s ‘Lives’ aren’t biographies, and they even avoid the commentary of punctuation. They are, however, lives; or at least bits of them. So why all jumbled, then? Because that’s the way it was, perhaps – in their lives, which are not their works.  

 

Here Halsey’s procedures are turning a spotlight on the integrity of the various things that we mean by authors and their lives. And it’s surprising what comes out of this self-denying and humane project. Gabriel Harvey’s heaviness and suspicion are perhaps encoded in the lines above; at least, they seem so to me. But conceptions of a unified character or personality are themselves under review here – the poets themselves, from such different eras, wouldn’t have had anything like the same conceptions as me, or each other.

 

*

 

The challenge of John Byrum’s and Alan Halsey’s work is, in some sense, to avoid reading it as poetry – at any rate, not as poetry the way we have known it. The difficulties of Geraldine Monk’s poems are somewhat different – perhaps, to take them seriously enough. Her voice is playful, populist, impatient with pretension and highly resistant to being told how to speak. That must be what Andrew Duncan meant when he said ‘Perhaps it's significant that she has a command of oral skills, to go with her acute lack of academic skills’.  ‘Manufractured Moon’, the first piece in her selection, is pretty much in ‘Dear Diary’ format, and it reads like she took about as much time over it as someone dashing off evening emails, which is unnerving as well as pleasing.

 

(Subject: Falling Outs)

 

The blind even quivered at the iddy girl tungsten thin and burning bright fell out with all gods in a big way such as only youngage can with starry id. They conjured miniature animals for warfare but they readily scorched and rebelled.

 

The lambs a-lit

 

                        Its face turned a shiny teaspoon to the

                                      west beam that was.

 

Always always,

Getha.

 

When, towards the end of ‘Manufractured Moon’, there’s a complex and marvellous three columns of listening out of the open car window to voices in the street, you’ll be convinced that this is a much more worked piece than it might appear in extract. But though there’s many games to play here I’m not satisfied overall. Recurring images of an apostle who might be a sashaying female*, or an annoying stranger under the streetlight outside, or a Freudian nursery rhyme about crossing a golden river to bring our father’s dinner, are woven together and produce an insomniac, sensually hungry fabric. But my appreciation is, too much, at the level of picking out and admiring shiny teaspoons.

 

‘Latitudes’ undersells itself too, with weary ha-ha subtitles like ‘Eulogy written in an unmarked Northern city pub’, but this strikes me as an altogether more pointed sequence, omitting everything but strictly functional words (which, with enviable sophistication, manage to look completely casual). It’s the same kind of approach that Monk takes to using the space on the page.  

 

Consider this highly ambiguated northern meditation on southern countryside, and its eloquent line-breaks:

 

Alchemical minds turn

cold boreal winters to molten

gold and

all

roads flanked with

hedgerows and horses – swish and

rush and

giddy curves of thatch.

Dumbswept.      Vibrant.     Earth-hug.

 

Or the ending of a not-at-all grave meditation in a summer graveyard, which keeps flying upwards, and keeps getting more serious:

 

Growth gang.  Ging and.   Blue chipped.   Marble.

Date to date.   A hands span.   A spirit cheer.   Clinks.

Let’s fly.

Lark.

 

Rich one.   Poor one.   Beggar both.   The

opposition to life is

massive and sustained.

Innings and out.

Clock.

Tock.

Cuckoo.

 

The graveyard sections are paired with pub sections. So now read this:

 

It is still night.   It is still day.   It is moving.   Timeless.

The traffic.

The cues.

The ebb and flow and chink of glasses.

The spills.

The queues.

 

Lay the two passages thus alongside (e.g. ‘cheer.   Clinks’ next to ‘chink of glasses’) and you’ll register the echo effects that someone who listens to every sound and rhythm can deploy to create an intently focussed exploration of society out of bird-song doodles.

 

Monk’s selection ends with three poems that are, a little more directly than the others, about the worsening international situation and the Iraq war. The best is ‘Opus Anglicanum–‘. Monk’s poetry does not, admittedly, pretend to an international kind of poetic reach. What she sees is strictly here and now. I think it makes the poem’s discoveries more urgent.

 

stuckup on thorn hedge

hemmed in

broderie anglaise

capped

pearlies kink the may day

blossom floss

a fly pass is

buzzing her maj

at enormous expense

the sky streaks red white

blue

on blue

 

It takes more than lateral thinking – lateral feeling, maybe – to connect dental flossing with the Red Arrows. So, yes, I conclude that someone who insists on saying ‘her maj’ and talking about ‘pearlies’ is nevertheless someone I do take seriously. Whether you do or not, you ought to keep a watchful eye on a poet who falls out with so many gods.

 

* Note: The female apostle in ‘Manufractured Moon’.

 

I didn’t know when I wrote this, because I hadn’t read schlockbusters like The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but they’ve aroused much popular interest in the highly effeminate St John of Leonardo’s Last Supper. It took a TV program to bring me up to speed. The books place Leonardo in the legendary Priory of Sion, keepers of the secret of the holy bloodline, and they identify the figure not as John but as Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ wife and the mother of his daughter Sarah. The relevance of this popular conspiracy theory background to Monk’s poem, if there is any, isn’t clear to me – and “leaning too willowy to Christ” is not the posture in Leonardo’s wall-painting – just the opposite, the two figures lean away. Perhaps Monk’s playful meditation on cake (“Was Sara Lee a gypsy?”) might make some reference to the “bloodline”. The conspiracy theory isn’t just a joke, after all – for example, it releases the potential for a feminist critique (and revision) of Christianity. But though any specific relevance to ‘Manufractured Moon’ escapes me I’m quite sure that this connection illustrates Monk’s hotline into popular culture, one of the things that interests me most about her writing, and a major source of its strength. What I also like about Monk’s work is that it’s never ironic. It makes fun of things, loves and detests and dismisses them, but it doesn’t manifest any security in its judgment, any superior class-consciousness. Most British poetry does (as it always has), and not even very subtly.   

 

** cf. Charles Tomlinson, ‘Autumn Piece’: “and at a curve was a red / board said ‘Danger’: / I thought it said dancer.”

 

 

(2005)


 

Charity-shop chuckouts (2005)

 

This is not about then, but about now. I’m clearing out, the way you want to sometimes, things that can go to Barnardos. Books, tapes and bric-a-brac.

 

Let’s start with the books. The first one is a Ladybird book with a smiling old lady on the front-cover. The lady is wearing a triple rope of pearls and she has pearl ear-rings to match; a floral dress. The eyes are kind, the smile perky, posed, and with a touch of authority, as if the photographer ought to feel lucky to get it. It is H M Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the author is Ian A Morrison MA Ph D. In sepia at the age of seven, looking out winsomely from a cosy wrap, she was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Robert the Bruce and Owen Glendwr were ancestors, the family had owned Glamis Castle since the 14th Century. They also owned coalmines in the North-East, but that’s not in the book. The book was published in 1982, so it precedes the marital troubles of the Windsors. Her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret

 

were eleven and six years old before their father and mother were unexpectedly made King and Queen. Instead of taking Court life as their model, their parents looked on family life as a sanctuary in which people could develop despite the pressures on them in the outside world. The happiness of her own early days seems to have guided the way she and her husband decided to bring up their own family. This is important, because the pattern of family life that she set with Albert then... has been continued through to her grandchildren’s generation. Many people feel that this feeling of the Royal Family being a real family has contributed a lot their continuing popularity in the last part of the 20th century.

 

As more recent commentators have pointed out, this investment in the idea of a nuclear family has in the end risen up to bite her successors. If you want to maintain that vision it’s best to lose your husband early and become famous for your madeira at Clarence House.

 

Next book: Beer and Skittles by Richard Boston (1976). This is a document in the early days of campaigns for “real” beer. I suppose it was bound to start with alcohol; subsequently the same powerful feelings, of nostalgia for what has been lost and suspicion of profiteering technology that seems outside our control, has extended to food. Draught beer was rescued for CAMRA, the nurturers of heritage, and all the other complainers, mostly old or educated; while the youthful mass were easily diverted into valuing lagers and other well-advertised concoctions. The same pattern seems likely to keep organic food afloat as a minority option, harmlessly absorbing the shock of dissent, though in the latter case it is about much more than “the spreading curse of blandness”.   

 

Famous Reporter 24 (December 2001) – an Australian “literary biannual”. I’m in this one. The editor, Ralph Wessman, used to trawl the emails of the BritPo forum looking for likely candidates. But the best outcome of that sensible approach is the presence of Geraldine Monk’s defence of the author as individual, which I’ve read many times. “Once you do commit yourself to the public arena (small as it may be in our case) then you cannot seriously be striving for anonymity or an ego-less state.... Seems to me that the ultimate ego-less state is death which probably lasts a long time (hopefully) so why on earth anyone on earth should want to achieve it while on earth has always puzzled me – it seems a bit anti-life and definitely against the individual.” Go Geraldine!

 

The History Man (1975) and To the Hermitage (2000) by Malcolm Bradbury. Summary of the The History Man could easily make it seem a straightforward conservative satire; summary of To the Hermitage could easily make it seem a nostalgic adieu to the life of academic talk. Both conceptions do less than justice to an author whose comic vim insinuates a broad and complex vision, almost effortlessly making us feel that we haven’t done any thinking while we read. In fact, I admit it, I meant to write properly about these books but I’ve given up – it would just take too much thinking. Bradbury’s garrulous society is something I don’t feel up to adding to. Many others have read these books, and everyone seems to think well of them. The health goes deeper than being healthy diversions.

 

Discover Britain, the illustrated walking and exploring guide (AA, 2001). Something paradoxical in a motorist’s “walking” guide? – Well, you drive somewhere, then you have a walk. The walks in fact seem rather random, avoiding the obvious. This is a heritage coffee-table thing, surely too bulky for practical use. The titles of the walks are what chiefly take the attention: “Dorset Heaths of Thomas Hardy”, “Castles and Mansions in Peaceful Seclusion”, “The Heart of the Capital”, “Constable’s Suffolk Landscapes”, “Land of Legend, Lair of Outlaws”, “A Fairy Lake and the Black Mountain”, “On Elgar’s Malverns”, etc. This monument depends on a heady assemblage of tributes, e.g.  of Gordale Scar, “Wordsworth’s friend, the artist George Beaumont, rightly described it as ‘beyond the range of art’.”

 

Haynes Manual – Citroën 2CV, Ami & Dyane. I owned two 2CVs, and I did read about how to reverse the windscreen-wipers which are set up for left-hand drive, but I never got round to it, an expression which I am discovering could be the motto for most of the cultural residue that passes through households like this. The text is beguiling if you don’t understand it: “Lubricate the shaft splines.... Chock the axle arm to support it and drive the hub from the pivot to separate. Use a wooden block or soft drift.” Depressing, too. I want to “live” but do the same as yesterday – the less I accept it, the bigger the barriers seem.

 

Now for the tapes. After selling the last 2CV I finally had a car whose engine was quiet enough for it to be worth putting in a music system, and I chose a tape player, which turned out be naive because I had not realized that tapes had just been phased out and you couldn’t buy new ones. This was about three years ago. My only source of tapes was charity shops, and tapes have proved less resilient than vinyl or CDs to the passing of time; lots of the ones that circulate and re-circulate were budget productions and don’t really work properly.

 

Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 (LSO, Wyn Morris) is a case in point. Besides, the flying-saucer theme in the first movement is inaudible over a car-engine, which spoils the drama. It was composed 1822-23, a fair while after the other eight. I’ve long wished to say that I don’t rate it compared to those other symphonies, but this isn’t true. I even like the choral finale (which I wished to say was just not symphonic). It’s an enormously brilliant work; every time new vistas open. The first movement, for example, passes way beyond the cavernous ice and hammer-blows with which it begins; much of it is, if not exactly friendly, certainly full and chequered like a river teeming with fish. All Beethoven’s scherzi are terrific, but the second movement here is like a gigantic, burly sort of gift, bearing its sumptuous trio with soft hands. And then there’s the slow, slow movement, the Beethoven we all like best. To finish, we begin as it were all over again, with a vast celebration.     

 

Liszt, Symphonic Poems. I have plenty of cheap taste when I want it, and I think these are great, but the recording level is desperately low. Les Preludes is possibly the best of them. Tasso is like a Scott romance in music, but better, and I know every note of it by heart. This poem is subtitled Lamento e Trionfo which is rather misleading. It begins with a fight, and then with an uneasy, melancholy series of scenes around the castle, including a nocturnal passage where a young girl is alone with her thoughts in a high turret. This music is briefly interrupted by some sort of royal fanfare, then there is a morning busyness including the preparations of musicians for a dance. These preparations gather momentum but suddenly fighting breaks out again. It’s good fighting, but much less cruel and bloody than the gladiators in Respighi’s Feste Romane. Up to this point the drama is enitrely gripping and convincing, but now there’s a slightly awkward, too-sudden transition to the triumphant celebrations and triumphant blaze of brass at the end; Liszt gets the pacing wrong. It sounds as if the complexities of the earlier narrative have been merely cancelled. The whole piece is built with surprising consistency around Liszt’s method of “theme transformation”. In this case even a non-musician can hear that the motif of an ornamentally descending grace-note.      

 

Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos 1-3 (Ciccolini). This, on the other hand, has never done it for me: garish, tasteless and supremely lacking in melodic invention. That ought to be a recipe for interest, and I’ve sometimes thought I found it by focussing on the dynamics, but I felt from the effort I was just working this up artificially. Probably this is a case where having the concertos one after another (inevitably playing the whole tape through) does a disservice to the music. I would feel quite excited about hearing one of them at a concert.

 

Joni Mitchell, For the Roses (1972) and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975). And I’d have chucked Court and Spark, too, if I could have found it. But I’m keeping the earlier albums, Clouds and Blue. In those earlier records you can hear what I really care for, her voice and her expression of a generation’s feelings. These later albums strive to be brilliant, detached and critical, and I don’t think even she with all her talent can do any of that within the parameters of rock. You end up admiring her desire to make an adult music, at the same time that you feel her incapacity to realize the issues at a musical level.

 

Mahler, Symphony No. 1 in D. I do like this, principally the first and last movements, but I’m a mere visitor to Mahler’s oeuvre and his preoccupations; and since I’m 46 already, I perhaps always will be. It’s time to put it aside and wait for another space; if there is one, so much the better, but I hardly expect it.

 

Brahms, Sonatas for Cello and Piano. These are not Brahms’ most persuasive works, especially the first of them; its first movement has too much of the same expansive melody. It seems to think it’s very fine. The second is better, the first movement heroic and the finale one of those Brahmsian constructions that is faceted; it seems too short and you never want it to end. But here Brahms seems to have solved his problem of balance rather drastically, by reducing the cello-part to a source of bold pizzicati and zooshing sound-effects; he seems to have written it right through on the piano and doesn’t want to leave any space. I’ve heard these sonatas a hundred times, always one after another in this murky, greyish recording.

 

Sibelius, Symphony No 2 in D. My least favourite Sibelius symphony, though I have come to admire that gigantic second movement more with the passing of time, and not (as I’d once expected) less. The finale is admittedly his worst, the kitchen-sink failing to disguise the lack of crucial ideas. 

 

Sterne, A Sentimental Journey – abridgment read by Donald Sinden. This was mildly entertaining, once, and less so, twice. I haven’t read the book, but it seems to be the same joke over and over. Very disappointing, remembering the vast wonderments of Tristram Shandy.

 

The bric-a-brac: a two-level lunch box that splits apart when you don’t want it to, with the Chino-English motto, “food is suel of human body”. A vase for a single stem (this should be called a solitaire) that could conceivably be just the thing, but somehow never is. A shower-radio, still in its packaging because I’ve already got one. I must admit that it’s become an indispensable part of the routine of waking up. In this fragile part of the day I am briefly immersed in Moyles, Comedy Dave, Rachel, Dominic and Carrie. I am as uncritical and ego-less as an animal, except I also laugh. 

 

Some of these things I’m sorry to part with, especially the vase. But it seems important to get rid of at least one thing that I think I’ll miss. What lies behind this is the feeling, as Gösta Ågren puts it, that “your life slowly becomes more important than you”. As he also probably says, to possess something is no longer to have it. Only now, while writing these two pages, have I briefly had my things again.

 

 

 

 

(2005)


June (2005)

 

When spring turns into summer at the beginning of June there is a change in the landscape that is a kind of silveriness. The main constituent of this is the grasses which all at once, as it seems to us, grow tall and throw up glistening grassheads; above all, the ubiquitous false oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius) with its pearly strings of spikelets.

 

Spring is the time of year when even people who have no special interest in wild flowers are compelled to notice them; snowdrops, crocusses, daffodils, primroses, cow parsley, bluebells, buttercups. Now the variety of flowers is  greater, but as individuals they are not so starkly apparent. The silveriness of the lowlands creates a shimmer, a hazy, greyish mirror that denies the human eye the directness of its delight in the flowers and shoots of spring. Its real function is to cool the ground and protect the plants from hot sunshine by reflecting it back into the atmosphere.

 

Hairy tare (Vicia hirsuta) is a plant that no-one but an enthusiast notices, though it’s common as a mass of filigree on hedges and roadsides. It’s a small annual vetch; small in the sense that the leaflets and whitish flowers are small, but it can easily scramble to a meter or more through a hedge. The plan is to rise above the fast-growing summer growth and to flourish in full sun; no energy needs to be wasted on structural strength, since it merely floats on the massed herbage. Compound tendrils cling around other plants and, in particular, around themselves, so the plant pulls together and develops a kind of sprawling latticework, the natural equivalent of knitting.

 

 

I have no idea what kind of insects, if any, are enticed into visiting the small flowers – I have never seen any insects showing an interest, and I suspect all the flowers self-pollenate. Under a good lens the flowers are seen to be perfectly formed small pea-flowers, white finely streaked with violet. Their larger relatives are perfectly designed for bees, but what kind of bee would be small enough to manage these flowers I can’t imagine. The plant goes to seed quickly and bakes brown; every pod has two fruits, and all the nutrients for these pods can be produced from the shrivelling up of the rest of the plant.

 

Scramblers and climbers have highly evolved mobility. This is obvious in the tendrils and no less so in the leaflets, which open or close along a central axis and will bend in different directions to provide a precise control of light, wind-resistance and moisture-loss.

 

The plant’s common name presumably indicates that it was once a nuisance to farmers, though the biblical tare must have been something different (possibly darnel, Lolium temulentum).

 

The elderflowers appear in creamy saucers; they are harvested up in Gloucestershire. The harvest begins in the farm’s own orchards, but is permitted to spread out to the lanes nearby.

 

The common grasses of lanesides are false oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius), Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) rough meadow-grass (Poa trivialis), perennial rye-grass (Lolium perenne), barren brome (Bromus sterilis). On chalk these are replaced by upright brome (Bromus erectus) with its first buttercup-yellow anthers showing, quaking-grass (Briza media) and crested hair-grass (Koeleria macrantha).

 

I went up to Cley Hill, a detached chalk capstone perched on the greensand ridge separating the young limestone of Wiltshire from the old limestone of Somerset. Elsewhere the greensand produces a forester’s soil, attracting the builders of large stately homes such as Longleat and Stourhead. But Cley Hill is pure chalk. I looked around for the bee orchids and found eight flower-stems, some with their first flower. At this time of year the hill also has numerous common spotted orchids, fragrant orchids, and twayblades; along with other chalkland flowers such as horseshoe vetch, milkwort, rockroses, wild thyme, sainfoin etc. All these flowers are currently rather small, and the overall effect remains a grey-green sward with brilliantly-coloured flecks.

 

Elsewhere the most noticeable drifts of colour come from the eerily tilted masses of moon daisies (aka ox-eye daisies), the horse-fields full of meadow buttercup and on waste ground the dazzling dandelion-like flowers of beaked hawksbeard.

 

When it rains in June the days are particularly grey, and all the abundant growth of flowers and grasses is knocked flat and looks as if it is seriously damaged. But new growth is so fast that it recovers in two days. When the sky clears it is suddenly really hot – sunburn, damp clothes, open windows, ice-cream.

 

 

 

 

(June 2005)

 


Rosanna Warren: Departure (2005)

 

(previously published in Stride Magazine)

 

 

Rosanna Warren is a late-comer in the Lowellian tradition. There are lines in Departure that you would swear are half-remembered quotations from For the Union Dead. It’s raining, and

 

                                                therefore the ex-Presbyterian fieldstone church

            on the corner of Fairview and South

 

            announces “The Boston School of Modern Languages”

            in an eddy of street torrents and regurgitating storm drains

 

            and foists its mute megaphone clamped to a chimney pot

            against the gargled sky.

                                                  [from ‘5 P.M.’]

 

Or, in a plane,

 

            Unbolted, my heart

            is a missile

            heading, in every sense, in the wrong direction.

                                                   [from ‘Travel’]

 

But I can half-imagine Warren saying (like Brahms when they discovered the echoes of the  ‘Ode to Joy’ theme in the finale of his First Symphony) ‘Any donkey can see that’. Warren, one must assume, is perfectly aware of being another gigantic carved head invoking Rome and endemic violence from a place that is Bostonianly near to the power-centres of our own time. Her inauguration poem for Clinton (an imperial reading of the Aeneid) is not only another recollection of Lowell but is also patently concerned not so much with the emperor as with poetry that aspires to the emperor’s ear.

 

To speak in a tradition is not to stand still or cease to exist as an individual, though if any poet would accept that fate you think it might be Warren, who loads her book so heavily with the work of other artists that she is sometimes almost a hostess whose greatest happiness is to ‘bring someone out’. At least that’s how I think of ‘Mud’, whose stanzas add hardly anything to the exhibition catalogue of John Walker’s paintings (though some of the lines can hardly be understood without it – the inexplicable ‘duchess’ is Goya’s Duchess of Alba); while ‘Departure’, though it ventures to weave in a few words of Guido Guinizelli, seems to sacrifice its own modest claims completely by inviting you to experience for yourself the terror of Max Beckmann’s triptych. Inevitably, the painting just blows the poem away.

 

But though I don’t admire either of these poems I’m interested in the process by which, thoroughly accepting the moves of an all-too-familiar tradition, they end up taking them to a kind of extreme and, in the end, giving birth to something different. Here’s a stanza from ‘Mud’:

 

            the clay grew tall?”) across canvas: he can’t

                        bury fathers, uncles,

                        sons, they keep

            sprouting, worms their words (“Men went

                        to Catraeth as day

                        dawned”): Our words, his

 

This is, in part, Warren on Walker on David Jones on Aneirin. It’s a kind of compost of the chattering classes, and there’s an awkward dissonance between the horrors of the ostensible subject and the pert natter of the delivery (‘”God” rhymes of course with everything’). The poem in fact by setting out to be so programmatically worn and derivative actually turns into something else, it bites its tail by acknowledging that ‘The words belong to no-one’ and permits – though it hardly enforces – a critique of civilized lamentation (for instance about the nightly newscast) that is ‘a seethe on the surface we cannot possess’.

 

‘Postscript’ is a better poem that evinces the same kind of pressures. It arrives in the middle of a group of poems about the death of Warren’s mother, and seems willing to conform to its grief-stricken genre; a familiar one of course. It is painful to ask, what are such poems doing? For their pressure to be written means they are certainly doing something. But I think Warren does ask. ‘Postscript’, faced with the fact of loss and the all too abundant material of pain, keeps trying to assume the shapes of verse narrative:

 

                                  toothbrush and dentures

            a still life on the faux-marble washbasin;

            her washcloth slowly stiffening on the towel rack;

 

Yet its assumption of lyrical forms is short-breathed; one after another they founder, and we become conscious of an impatience, both in the mother:

 

                      how to ease things a littleif

                             anything can—

 

            Time to break this off—

 

and in the daughter-narrator:

 

            So she floated in the red

         armchair, so her tongue couldn’t find

its lair in her mouth:

 

so her ankles swelled, so

          each breath snared and hauled

up a groan from its burrow of dark:

 

Warren over-emphasises the structure of narrative, its logical colons and its “so” and “and”, until we become aware that the speech-act is ready to snap because of the huge weight of its inner desire to stop, its awareness that loss is really empty.

 

            We are Greek figures in a bas

                     relief, two women leaning

 

But only in the poem’s narrative, which creates the bas relief. Outside the poem these two figures are not there, one of them in particular. And though the poem is so intimately close to those seared moments in the hospice, it never aspires to using the second person.

 

Without narrative, what conclusion? The poem ends:

 

            So have whole tribes

            passed from the memory of earth.

 

The missing article is significant. There is indeed a memory of earth, though it’s a short one, little more than a surface. Warren’s imagination is always quickened by these few inches of topsoil and by the surface water that runs along and through it, its destruction but also its expression. Thus Janáček (in ‘Intimate Letters’) is seen taking dictation from

 

                 the little well hidden through tall grass at Kazničov,

            springing up through the roots of three lime trees, “Helisov’s Well,”

 

and in ‘What Leaves’

 

                the fountain acknowledges the epic of water

            and keeps spurting, from its aorta, its own small line.

 

The capability of these surfaces is everything we have, but it is limited to now, or rather to a sequence of nows:

 

                                       since now is a proposition

                            molded over and over

                            in water, loam, and stone.

                                                   [from ‘Portrait: Marriage’]

 

I am only slightly committed to Departure as a collection, and these are all the poems (with the addition of ‘North’) that I like. But in them one can begin to fasten on the source of its vague sense of subversiveness within tradition; it is humility. Warren is ‘chancellor of the Academy of American Poets’, but this extraordinary title becomes part of the collection’s meaning. Her poems are full of names, but nothing suggests that the poems claim immortality or claim to set canons in marble. It’s just the opposite. The poems use names because they instantiate language making its small responses, the names are like ‘a nick of light, as from broken glass’ or part of the ‘endless mumbled rosaries of water’. This is a book that knows, as few do, that it will yield almost at once to the books that come after. The third part of ‘North’ asks about ‘ablution’ and soon this becomes absolution, but

 

                                              How absolved, if the heart keeps sloshing more

            pleas forth from its dim

 

            pump?

 

As the poem continues we see that its answer is neither ablution nor absolution but dissolution.             

(2005)


Mark Ford and Rosmarie Waldrop (2005)

 

[This review first appeared in PN Review, April 2006]

 

MARK FORD, A Driftwood Altar: Essays and Reviews (Waywiser) £10.95

ROSMARIE WALDROP, Dissonance (if you are interested) (University of Alabama Press) £28.50

 

 

If you turn to A Driftwood Altar seeking a fix on the distant excitement of Mark Ford’s poems, it eventually supplies one: “Like too many of my poems, this one ends up being about empires, their rise and fall...” Ford perhaps was making the same discovery as Rosmarie Waldrop did when her collage-poems still ended up being about her mother. She comments:

 

Tristan Tzara has a famous recipe for making a Dada poem by cutting words out of a newspaper and tossing them in a hat. He ends with: “The poem will resemble you.”

 

Besides this, the character of the connection between Ford’s own poems and (especially) Raymond Roussel is surely a tacit sub-theme of his major essay “Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair: Early Bishop, Early Ashbery, and the French”. It sheds its light on Bishop and Ashbery, too: a fairly timely reminder of just how “explosive” The Tennis Court Oath was and remains; a reminder too that Bishop’s poems have a radically different resonance once you forget about New England.

 

Elsewhere Ford is sympathetically concerned with his subjects and keeps himself out of the picture; his imperial obsessions perhaps manifesting themselves only in an odd phrase such as “the French” and in his relish for the kind of journalistic challenge presented by reviewing Weldon Kees for the LRB: addressing, as it were, an audience whose wide interests and high intelligence will most probably not involve a personal investment in the poetry world, who perhaps have never heard of Weldon Kees and are content to suck his marrow from a lively article. It’s what few poets would dare or have the skills to dare or wish to dare. 

 

On July 18th 1955, the Californian Highway Patrol reported two abandoned cars in the sightseers’ parking lot at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. One belonged to a fifty-nine year old salesman called Joseph R. Eppler, who left a suicide note acknowledging the failure of his business and requesting forgiveness; the other car belonged to Weldon Kees, a – a what? All that was found in his 1954 Plymouth was a lab coat from the Langley Porter Psychiatric Clinic, where he had worked part-time for a number of years, collaborating with the psychologist Jurgen Ruesch on a book published the following year entitled Nonverbal Communication.

 

You can see I hope how instantly we get interested in the case of Weldon Kees. Ford sees the dramatic moment, organizes beautifully, and is preparing from the outset for the quiet drop goal of that title, Nonverbal Communication. And he’s also trailing another question that he knows full well arises from Kees’ obscurity: why is this essay about Kees at all, and not about Joseph R. Eppler, to whom (as we don’t doubt) Ford’s sympathy could win us no less completely?

 

This is splendid writing, but when it comes to Kees’ poems rather than his case, Ford calls them “successful” and even “addictive”, yet somehow he hasn’t addicted me to Kees; nor for that matter to Mina Loy nor Ginsberg nor even Roussel himself. What criticism of their work requires, perhaps, is not sympathy but methodological concessions unknown to the society portrait. It’s curious to see what is basically the art of Strachey or Philip Guedalla applied to writers who themselves have broken away so utterly from the values of belles lettres; there’s a dissonance that isn’t always fertile. But sometimes it is. Aside from Bishop and Ashbery, the writers for whom Ford most compels my interest (rather against the run of my own tastes, and possibly rather against his) are Auden, F.T. Prince, Marinetti and André Breton. I am a little ungrateful; Ford is hugely informative, and much of his information I’ve absorbed so effortlessly that I’ll soon have no memory of how I came to know it.

 

That was a kind of dissonance that lies wholly outside the ambit of Rosmarie Waldrop’s book (Consonance might have been a better title). This is a ragbag of a book, and sometimes it even starts to merge with Waldrop’s poetry (chiefly around the time of Reluctant Gravities), which I consider a most valuable bonus. Waldrop’s pieces are guileless, autobiographical, and almost totally uncritical; of the books that she herself lives by, I mean to say. These are generously sampled so that what emerges is the picture of a community at work: Waldrop is trying to write her poem, and as she does so is continuously refining a statement of poetics that seeks to illuminate not only her own work but that of her contemporaries. The casual and repetitive nature of the pieces only emphasises the formidable clarity of her direction.

 

“SHALL WE ESCAPE ANALOGY” (CLAUDE ROYET-JOURNOUD); OR, COMPOSITION AS PROCESS

 

Nothing is given. Everything remains to be constructed.

   I do not know beforehand what the poem is going to say, where the poem is going to take me. The poem is not “expression,” but a cognitive process that, to some extent, changes me. Cage: “Poetry is having nothing to say and saying it: we possess nothing.”

   As I begin working, far from having an “epiphany” to express, I have only a vague nucleus of energy running to words. As soon as I start listening to the words, they reveal their own vectors and affinities, they pull the poem into their own field of force, often in unforeseen directions, away from the semantic charge of the original impulse.

   Valéry: “When the poets enter the forest of language it is with the express purpose of getting lost.”

   Jabès: “The pages of the book are doors. Words go through them, driven by their impatience to regroup . . . Light is in these lovers’ strength of desire.”

 

The book contains several variants of this passage, and of course that operates as an invitation to get stuck in: to read across, to worry at fault-lines, to make your own connections: I think it functions best as a manual for a working poet. 

 

This is not to asperse the breadth of material in Dissonance. Waldrop has close connections with poetries in Germany and France as well as the USA: it’s illuminating when you suddenly see names in apposition that you think of as in different worlds (in my case it was Inger Christensen brought up against Ron Silliman); and of course it’s yet more illuminating to be gifted some kind of engagement, however much they are abraded into bon mots, with poets I didn’t know of at all and immediately want to pretend I do (Royet-Journoud, Albiach, Heissenbüttel). I feel the loss of nuance in passing those wise pebbles back and forth, I admit; but that’s literary. Here conversation asserts itself as the central process of language.

 

In this world the poems themselves are not privileged: they begin to seem like illustrations to a larger discourse and the larger discourse is what really constitutes a poetry. You might suppose then that reading is highlighted in its pilfering aspect rather than its receptive aspect, but that turns out to be not quite right: Waldrop’s reading of Olson is close, indeed absorbed. But that isn’t primarily what Dissonance is about. Its friendliness shouldn’t perhaps make you like the writings it talks about (that would be uncritical of course); what it certainly has to offer is a view of why they’re being written.

 

 

(2006)


 

Arielle Greenberg: My Kafka Century (2005)

 

First published in Intercapillary Space.

 

This has to be read, I think, as a collection – not exactly a sequence, but a collection. I mean, not as individual poems. Images and themes swim across these constructions: which individually are loose, zany shoulder-shrugs; glossy and hollow, perfect for reading-groups. Let’s take a tour.

 

      my draped milk-white pearls

which I have pulled out on their silk strand

from the blood-hole, one by one, sobbing on the string

 

is from the violent sexuality of “Private, I”. In “Red Rover” (children’s game where you try and break through a line formed by the opposing team), this clot of imagery shows up again:

 

How are you, friend, across the milky highway?

This blood-moat, a fairy tale made of lost teeth?

 

The expression “milk-teeth” never actually gets used. But children, like dogs, and other disturbingly cutesy domestic, innocent things, get snarled up in these discourses. “The Missing, The Maybe” begins with a real tooth extraction. Greenberg is still preoccupied with that silk strand, the nerve of the tooth or whatever it is:

 

This is the central text:

middle of the book with its white silk thread

cut through like a tooth. 

 

The collection does, sometimes, take on aspects of a sequence. At the end of this same poem, she’s talking about a pet dog:

 

I keep an animal with me like an Eden,

for protection. From God. From history. From the spells.

Me and her, we speak with the same black tongue.

 

In the poem that comes next (“Hotel”), there’s more about this black tongue:

 

Death is a very close door in the hall –

see how our foot slips in?

(The sweet taste of shit.)

See how everything, history, is a chute?

See how our tongue, this close door,

is also that black, that sweet?

 

And in the next poem (“Babel”), more again:

 

A Jew tried to bleach his tongue…

the towering desperation of the Jew to be clean;

our spirits, the language of a dog.

 

Perhaps this poem is, as it purports to be, about Dr Zamenhoff and Esperanto, which “never worked”. But is it also about Hebrew, effectively a dead language in the mid-nineteenth century, now the first language of millions of people (and thus an inspiration to the makers of auxiliary languages)?

 

Anyway, let’s go back to the dog and its language. In “Shirley Temple, Black”, Greenberg is trying to get outside the shutter of human reason:

 

Go through the window and you become an animal,

and are so happy to lie in your little round bed…

I mean that madness is a ship to back where our thumbs did not oppose.

I mean that this is where we relax back into our cracker shapes…

I think I am most a home inside the ear of a dog,

sweet portal to lunacy, where no day is Jesus, and a kickboard

keeps me from bursting into yet another child star.

 

But maybe it’s not such an exciting experiment for the dog, kidnapped like all dogs from its mother and responding with dumb loyalty to the kidnapper:

 

She adores me, goes off leash

impeccably, is my own pretty Patty

Hearst.   (“A little ditty I like to call ‘Stockholm Syndrome’”)

 

Greenberg, whispering repetitious endearments to her little pet, likes the euphony in that and varies it:

 

She’s my own Patty Duke… She’s my own Patsy Cline…

She’s Tom Verlaine to my Patti Smith Rimbaud.

 

For most UK readers this needs notes. Patty Duke, another child star, was kept “a virtual prisoner” by her management, the Ross brothers, whom she later accused of abusing her.  Patti Smith’s first single, around the time she was hanging out with Tom Verlaine, was “Piss Factory/Hey Joe” (1974): the A-side celebrated her discovery of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. On the flip, there was a spoken-word piece about Patty Hearst. Hearst’s attorney would later confirm Smith’s surmises about the sexually-abusive origin of Hearst’s own case of Stockholm Syndrome. 

 

Substantial threads in my own Greenberg glossary (that is, all the things I knew I didn’t really understand and had to look up) included: US pop culture icons (Patty Duke, Chuck Yeager, Katie Smith, Nancy Drew); US cultural commonplaces (carpetbaggers, John Henry, President Howard Taft the trust-buster, soda fountains, dry jack, the Superball craze of 1965, the Bicentennial of 1976, Crisco cooking oil); US vocabulary (back to smarts, drink along, kickboard, stink-grass, lugnut, foamcore and various baseball terms); Jewish expressions and concepts (Dybbuk, menorah, mitzvah, Hallel, mama-loshen, chalilah); Biblical allusions (two references to rubies refer mainly to Proverbs 31:10, “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.”); and fabrics (organza, damask, cotton duck, gingham, luxe). You also need to know that Peter Lorre played a child-killer in Fritz Lang’s M, how an ocularium is used, and who Robert Wilson is.

 

And Kafka. Besides A Country Doctor, The Hunter Gracchus, Letter to His Father (all named explicitly), there are stray references to In the Penal Colony, The Castle, America  and probably others. Kafka’s other legacy, the wearing of hard-hats by construction workers (according to Peter Drucker), seems to have been skipped. Here’s how A Country Doctor plays out, in “Kafka Bicentennial”:

 

As they say, born old.

Winter brings its white rape,

its endless wormy prostrators, each sudden,

expected as a guest –

that’s the belief, anyway.

We (who?) sing the Hallel, a grace after rape,

the tuneless of the hills dancing their demise,

and woe of fever.

Another chosen pervert – save you, save they –

hushly drops enchanted sodomy onto its favored child.

The horses, in their glittering rape bells,

stir like Russian moons.

 

(“The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs” Psalm 114:4, part of the Hallel group of Psalms sung on days of thanksgiving. Prostrator: [religious] in general, a worshipper, supplicant, or penitent; more specific meanings in the Buddhist, early Christian and Islamic traditions; [political, pejorative] an uncritical follower, an abject apologist; in Zionist circles, a pro-Palestinian Jew.) 

 

The moral discomfort, the feeling of getting embroiled in unacceptable positions, was already a large element of Kafka’s fable. Greenberg develops this element further; here and elsewhere in the best parts of My Kafka Century, you’re left feeling queasy about where your imagination is made to go, the incompatible things it has to negotiate.

 

I seem to have come to rest on a poem that’s highly concentrated, where even the small lines (“that’s the belief, anyway”, “and woe of fever”) do disruptive work. At the opposite extreme the poems can get too conversational to generate enough of that friction: “City of Paper”, for instance. Mostly they stake out a bewildering between-land. They can be various mixtures – always a mixture, though – of sentimental, brutal, mocking, personal, sexual, devotional, grotesque, glittery and childish; they usually resist coherent expression and coherent reading, but not quite always (if they always did, it would be a lot less unnerving).

 

Greenberg’s own reflections, so far as they went in April 2003, can be studied in her essay On the Gurlesque, an attractively modest and lucid account of a new feminist wave of poetry whose own attractions are neither modest nor lucid.

 

 

(2007)


Lara Glenum: The Hounds of No (2005)

 

First appeared in Intercapillary Space.

 

In The Hounds of No (2005) Lara Glenum makes a brattish, body-popping forcemeat out of the world's religions, folk-tales, celebrity, theory and the other junk narratives inside our heads.

 

Snow-White in Versace

 

The glass coffin, it was clogged with hair. My meaty kept on growing.

The prince yanked me. My fingernails became a six-foot nest of

 

curl-i-ques. I was eight. I lived with seven men. Time had not been

butchered out successfully by the queen. The queen sighed,

 

embroidering on the tool of the king. Doodle-doo. The king gave queenie

a looking glass. To corset her milky eye into a fit. To absent her

 

from court life. Here, he cooed. The chunk of apple dislodged from her

shrieking crotch. The mirror, at least, had pity on the pearl-inlaid handle.

 

Of her sobbing knife. I did not. I offed her, the pleather-clad vixen.

With my crystalline nerve-coat. A jerking foxtrot. Diamond-tipped shoes.

 

Time having been butchered out by the poet, there are no eras in the narratives. Persons are not so much born as split off, already fully sexual, and as instantly dismembered, orgasmically spawning pluralities. The narratives flourish puerile jokes; poetic colouring is relegated to a side-effect. This one gets a bit stuck doodling on "queen" and "king", eventually kicking itself free - neither funny nor clever - with "queenie". Then the snow-white but frowsty heroine washes, as it were, the blood on to her hands and brilliantly steps forth in high fashion.    

 

Most people relish The Hounds of No for its fit-anywhere meaty lines, which catch your eye on every page.

 

The sky will appear onstage in full war regalia

The horizon will be a thick caramel smear with bombs bubbling out

 

 "Shrieking" is maybe the word that unites all the horrors and delights of this poetry:

 

The embryos inside you rode around on conveyor belts, shrieking with glee.

 

                 the girl found

the skin of God

hidden away in a velvet box. Early mornings, she'd put it on

                                                                    and run shrieking

                                                          through the dried-out riverbeds.

 

(2010)
Elizabeth Willis: The Great Egg of Night (2005)

 

Fist published in Intercapillary Space.

 

 

Most of the reviews I’ve read of Elizabeth Willis' poetry are unstintingly enthusiastic; though sometimes the enthusiasm seems to be for floral wallpaper. John Latta (http://isola-di-rifiuti.blogspot.com/2006/08/preen.html

) indeed registers a doubt, but it isn’t a doubt about how marvellously Willis has written, more a “But what of it?” kind of doubt - and to grasp the charge more accurately you need to read the whole piece. In other words, it's an external criticism of the kind of thing that’s achieved, not an internal question about whether she has achieved it. And this too is praise of sorts, because mediocre writing never raises that kind of big metaphysical issue; the evidence on the page is too shot to make it worth thinking about.

 

These reviews, I should explain, are of the full-length volume Meteoric Flowers (Wesleyan University Press, 2006). The Great Egg of Night is an Equipage pamphlet of 2005 containing 16 poems, all of which (with the exception of "Female Figs Supposed to be Monsters") are also in the larger volume, so you can read this as a mini-review of Meteoric Flowers as well, if you prefer. Both books are records of a project: the titles of the poems (and occasionally sentences within them) are taken from Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791). 

 

This is one of my favourites:

 

GRATEFUL AS ASPARAGUS

 

The house of mirth is casting its shadows. My bureau, my agency, a wall of sliding glass. Without its leaky reverie, the face is a shield. Who wouldn't love the sycamore in spite of its skin? For a minute the fountain was an indoor labyrinth, a garden gone wild into perfect order. See the bleeding ankle? The meat of the body left alone to run the house. In the company of A or B, in the company of M or W, unfixed by science, a leaning spectacle. The delicate column, the poppied hill.

 

The structure of Willis' prose poems is not, as that term can so easily mislead us into assuming, the same as typical prose; it is just as formally exclusive as any stanza in verse. Adam Fieled (http://adamfieled.blogspot.com/2006/12/elizabeth-willis-meteoric-flowers.html) has described the poems as "hard-core paratactic", and this is true grammatically as well as semantically; in the whole of The Great Egg of Night the word and appears only twice, that once and which not at all. Commas are nearly always used paratactically, and when I read the poems discursively - or intone them lyrically - there's a steady thud of full stops caused by shortish sentences whose shortness is exacerbated by the lack of obvious connection, which offers no bridge of passion between the sentences, and thus no way of keeping the voice animated. Which monotony tells me that this isn't a great way of setting about reading them.

 

It might be better to think of other highly paratactic forms and how we read them, for example the mise en scène at the beginning of a play:

 

Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front right, a door. Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins. Centre, in an armchair on castors, covered with an old sheet, HAMM.

 

Or perhaps, (in deference to Erasmus Darwin and his master Linnaeus), a standard botanical description:

 

Stems erect, to 1.5(2)m; cladodes on main lateral branches (5)10-20(25)mm, flexible, usually green; pedicels 6-10(15)mm; seeds usually 5-6; grown as vegetable, very well naturalized in dry sandy soils among sparse grass...

 

(slightly adapted from the entry for Asparagus officinalis in Clive Stace, New Flora of the British Isles, 2nd edn. 1997)

 

For such passages of parataxis one adopts a particular kind of reading behaviour. One is trying to assemble a comprehensive picture from the materials given; one reads so slowly and with such long pauses for assimilation that all sense of underlying rhythm is sacrificed; one flicks back and forth to check on things (it not seeming important to maintain the sequence of the phrases in the reading); or one dwells for one's particular purposes on a single phrase to the exclusion of the rest. In short, one studies them. 

 

That is at any rate analogous to the kind of tempo and reading-strategies that I've gradually found myself dropping into, reading this pamphlet. One of the things I've omitted to say before in praise of pamphlets is that they are a good  format for sneakily infiltrating poetry into the workplace, because a pamphlet looks like promotional or training material and therefore attracts no interest,  whereas a book connotes putting your feet up as flagrantly as a glass of beer. Most of the reading, and some of the writing, of this review took place in the office. And this is about the best pamphlet for the purpose I've ever tried, since its sixteen poems, if studied sufficiently in the empty sounding-chamber of work, yield material for sixteen novels.

 

Indeed even a single sentence, such as this one -

 

I see the face in flower and want to draw it, I chop the tree without thinking, a book or a subtle lean-to.  

 

(from "Sympathetic Inks")

 

-  it makes so many changes of direction that it's hard to hold all the elements in the mind, never mind review them. I've found myself wondering, as an interesting exercise, if any substitution of the nouns and verbs in this sentence could make its syntax acceptable. (This is not such a trifling consideration as it may seem since there are times in these poems when a noun-substitution is insistently suggested: e.g.

 

the springing scent of consensual facts

 

briefly hinting at consensual acts - and then focussing us back with redoubled emphasis on consensual facts.) Or I've wondered about how such mental reverie as is expressed in the first part of that sentence could be combined with such sharp if unpondered action as is claimed in the second - the best idea I could come up with was when driving a tractor. As it happens a scene of business-pastoral (a rapidly changing scene,  of course - of mixed farming, horse-breeding, fishing and forest clearance), lies back of this poem. That distinctive juxtaposition of tranquillity with violence is insistent too. Perhaps it is a characteristic experience of a machine-driven age, in which vigorous action is effected without breaking the flow of thought.  Or perhaps it reflects that familiar moment of belated global awareness in which we discover that the habit of innocently going about our own business has ruined ecosystems, weather systems, and other people's lives.

 

"Sympathetic Inks" isn't the only poem to have, in one corner of its eye, a piece of political grit. "The Great Egg of Night" likewise proceeds mistily at first, with the vaguely disconcerting feeling that plural subjects are acting in singular ways, and vice versa -

 

Palmed and tendered in subaltern shade, I could not shake the memory of a train that whitely striped the hills. The surrendering pike pours out in uniform. Butter-gloved epiphanies slide past us in their muscle car.

 

A little later the political relevance of language's capacity to personify and aggregate becomes manifest:

 

What form do women take? Or is she taken like a path to frosty metaphor, a seed easier crushed than opened?

 

The poem doesn't end there, though. Its end is a conspicuously rigged self-betrayal of language's capacity for huddling together a fake conclusion:

 

Rigging our descent to decent landings, mistaking angle for angel, piloting home.

 

 

But what then of "Grateful as Asparagus", the poem I quoted in full? It isn't only sentences with difficult syntax that are worth fixing on. What could be simpler than

 

See the bleeding ankle?

 

But what does it imply about its context? Surely that the person addressed is, whoever else, not the owner of the ankle; the owner being considered insensible to what is being said: whether comatose, dead, absent, unable to understand English, or unable to participate in professional talk. "Ankle" at least tends to suggest a human owner, but an owner as it were dehumanized. The speaker is, we suppose, an investigator, which chimes with "My bureau, my agency", and also with the dirt-digging notes of "In the company of A or B, in the company of M or W". The poem's title, Darwinian as it may be, is also Chandleresque. Dehumanization brings us to the sentence that follows, the one about "the meat of the body". It may be that the asparagus, that "delicate column", is also a dehumanization.

 

The quietly elegant appearance of these poems (I am thinking of Latta again) is not to be gainsaid. Still, it may be that this very elegance is an accident of efficiency: that (to take the final poem,"Ferns, Mosses, Flags", as an example) the aestheticallly-pleasing words "weathers", "haystack", "brook", "skin", "eyebrows", "chalk" etc, occur because they are also the most useful words for Willis, her chisel words. In this case it's the idea of a nation that gets cracked open.

 

* 

 

Two notes on "Grateful as asparagus": The house of mirth: Edith Wharton was quoting  Ecclesiastes 7:4, "the heart of fools is in the house of mirth". The tree called sycamore in the USA is Platanus occidentalis, the American plane. Its bark, like the London plane's, appears strikingly mottled. [The biblical name "sycamore", which in e.g. Luke 19:4 really means fig-mulberry (a Levantine tree) is differently misappropriated in the UK where it is used for the maple Acer pseudoplatanus.]

 

 

 

(2007)

Thomas Kinsella: Marginal Economy (February 2006)

 

First published in Intercapillary Space.

 

 

Reviewer beware! Here is Kinsella noticing an old adversary at a funeral and listing their past clashes:

 

Recently, and sharpening

our exchange across the grave,

his finding the occasion

in the press of public affairs

– debating his fixed viewpoints

in a three-piece colonial accent –

for a murderous review :

a flow of acid colloquialisms

dismissing a main thesis

based on a misreading

of the images off the cover. . .

 

The review may have been murderous, but it can’t have been more deadly than this. Copying it out, I count the strikes on my fingers, savouring that bit about the mock “debate”, performed solo by the possessor of those fixed viewpoints. This is from “The Affair”, one of the best of the dozen or so poems in this pamphlet; from the middle part of that poem, when it’s in full flow. But very soon afterwards the poem breaks out of its rage and subsides:

 

his thick back moving off

familiar among the others.

Under a shadow, forming

and descending, unfamiliar.

 

“Familiar” is an important word for Kinsella, but here it’s the word “descending” that catches the ear. Here’s the ending of another poem:

 

The soul confined,

     her face pressed against the lattice.

Looking out at the day and the bright details 

     descending everywhere, selecting themselves

     and settling in their own light.

 

It begins to be clear that there’s a common pattern in these poems, a pointed abbreviation that puts a distance between the poem and the kind of writing (confiding, oracular, lyrical, or whatever) that it seemed to consist of.

 

So “First Night” leads us round and about, building up to an encounter with a famous bar-room narrator, like the frame of a short story. But when, finally, the encounter is made and the narrator starts talking, the poem ends without us hearing a single word. This is abrupt, and of course a good way of making you read the poem over to try and guess what’s missing. But then the fact of it being missing is important too. There’s no local colour in the pamphlet, not a single Irish name or turn of phrase, Dublin is only “the city”. Kinsella in his seventy-eighth year writes with the energy of a younger man, the interests however go beyond a local setting; their sternness and pessimism suggest what is only reasonable, a sensibility formed in the 1950s. “Blood of the Innocent”, “Marcus Aurelius”, “Songs of Understanding” are all variations on the image of liberal humanism surrounded by a barbarous darkness which nevertheless is confessed to be in some sense more true to the realities of existence and thus a limiting critique; it registers a pressure-point that to younger writers no longer seems critical. Not that the problem has been resolved, such problems are never resolved, but it’s drifted out of our focal range.     

 

Still, you couldn’t mistake this for the poetry Kinsella wrote in his formative years. Long gone are the terza rima and the blank verse, their refined spirit a potent residue in broken prose and intensely worked space.  

 

This I think is meant for the reader:

 

Nightwomen,

picking the works of my days apart,

 

will you find what you need

in the waste still to come?

 

Waste takes centre-stage elsewhere, too. The ecological accent in this shit-stirring and in the slash-and-burn title poem has pulled the preoccupation with liberalism into some different shapes.

 

For the past thirty years Kinsella has committed himself, admirably and presciently, to the pamphlet form. The burning desire to publish a “full-length” collection – ultimately this is a publisher’s conception, not a poet’s – used to be fuelled by the belief that books broke into market-places where pamphlets didn’t, but that doesn’t make any sense now. Unless you live in a very privileged spot indeed, it’s not possible to buy interesting books of new poetry from a shop. The pamphlet is therefore no less available than the book and is as often as not the more credible artefact; what I mean is, we more easily believe that it has a purposeful shape, a topicality, an intention. And besides, it marries better with the wave of online publishing that is giving us everyday access to large samples of what current poets are doing, which will certainly lead to a generation of better-informed purchasers who aren’t at all moved by the publisher’s implication that “this is a real book, therefore the author must be worth reading”.

 

In Marginal Economy the economy is also assured technique: things are said once. Thus the brief final poem, “Rhetoric of Natural Beauty”, describes a marine sunset, and nothing grows from the minutely troubling resonance of that title, until in its last words the affirmation that’s forming becomes (so swiftly you can miss it) an ironic glitter and another baulking descent.  

 

(2006)  

 


 

Four poets: Lew, Peterson, Rakusa, Sutherland (2006)

 

(First published in Stride Magazine)

 

ANYTHING THE LANDLORD TOUCHES by Emma Lew, 80pp, £8.95, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD.

THIS ONE TREE by Katie Peterson, 98pp, $14.00, New Issues, Western Michigan University, 1903 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5331.

A FAREWELL TO EVERYTHING by Ilma Rakusa, trans. Andrew Shields and Andrew Winnard, 101pp, £9.95, Shearsman Books.

BURNING THE HEARTWOOD by Janet Sutherland, 86pp, £8.95, Shearsman Books.

 

 

The weather moves fast in Emma Lew’s Anything the Landlord Touches. The moon appears fourteen times, usually memorably, usually changing as it passes overhead. Suns rise and set, it’s midnight again, clouds form and dissolve in an instant.

 

Not wholly distinct from the changing skies are the changing characters, like this pair for example:

 

                 her lies

were her own to tell,

and everyone who knew him

 

knew that one of the great

events of his life had

occurred at the Place de

 

Pyramides, when, like clouds

worn down by a summer,

their paths crossed. Charm

 

went with a sympathy for

ruin, meaning a woman

who lisps slightly, gifts

 

snatched up, impulsively

taking the wheel of the car.

 

[from ‘Fugue of the deal’]

 

The cast of characters, enormous and transitory, are all in motion, riding somewhere, perhaps buffeted by their own violence. And perhaps like clouds they sometimes bleed into each other, so that when in another poem we’re standing beside a revolutionary agitator, suddenly there’s the lisp again:

 

All our lives we have hated white moonlight.

All our lives we have been hating, as we learn

to hate here, tonight, on the ramparts, where

the sentries, the snipers, crave a strong moon.

We have gone through the streets, lisping

our words, hearts full of vicious light,

and always the stars above us that way,

and small children bearing the sonorous names.

 

[from ‘Pocket Constellations’]

 

All of these characters are busy, but the stories don’t completely come into focus. What we get is a vast mutter of passion, like stacks of unread plays by M. Hugo. You can almost hear him:

 

There’s parish in the spittle of an angry man

 

[from ‘Flourish’]

 

That would be ‘Paris’, I suppose? Lew is an Australian poet (this book, her second, was published there in 2003) but the locations of its rabble are often European. I like to think of the poem ‘Fine Weather of the Siege’ as Paris in 1870; but since its properties include both musketry and petroleum, it’s clear that these scènes historiques do not point to stable locales but are dreams of actions that roll with the skies:

 

                the children

 

particularly remonstrating with

hunger, and words fell blindly

 

out of mouths onto bare earth.

The sun set like a guillotine,

 

bricking up the cellar windows,

and the moon grew grave,

 

artillery horses clattering up its

steep ascents.

 

Who else do we have? Slaves, seducers, tycoons, penitents, entomologists, people who limp, riders across the desert, ghosts, businessmen, philosophers, fathers, concubines, camp-followers.  No-one is just someone, everyone’s in trouble, and a word often used to describe them is ‘fast’. The poems are surcharged with the detritus of narrative, the only person who seems to be completely absent is Emma Lew herself.

 

There’s so much narrative material that I think the book would amply repay reading just for its adventures; say, on a blowy winter night beside the fire; you would then enjoy the way that some themes (the open air, war-time, hotel assignations) seep in from nearby poems and create the effect of a group of chapters. But I’m sure that the narratives are not really the point; they are veils blowing across the sky but these poems have another kind of interest which is more abstract and delighted, perhaps exemplified by the gleams cast by some of the oblique titles, e.g. ‘Rice’ and ‘Plantain’.  Or consider ‘Fugue of the deal’, and how the shadowy lovers make a pattern of echoes; in fact, they animate the form of the poem. This quote continues from the earlier one:

 

She was all she had to be

 

by being, and the voice

in which he called out to her   

was her own, calling himself

 

back in the same frantic

phrases of estrangement,

the same tones of entrapment,

as smoke.

 

I think this is at least as much about fugue as about the deal. Or if you want to get analytical, something like this: the waves of action and psyche that underlie music and passion. But it’s better not to be analytical.

 

The book also contains three pantoums. Not a form that I’ve ever felt like attending to before (not even Ashbery’s), but Lew’s poems develop a curious feature of the form: that you can also read it from the bottom up and if you do you get a sort of echo-poem, a cousin of the top-down version. I could swear that Lew first composed these poems the other way around and then reversed the line order. Anyhow, they are very fascinating constructions, like those toy snakes made out of wood and ribbon that turn inside out as you play with them. As with the other poems, one begins to understand that the action and the account that can be made of it are inseparable, slithering out together from the same egg.

 

 

*

 

This One Tree is Katie Peterson’s first collection. It has pleased an impressive range of other poets (Donald Revell, Fanny Howe, Dan Chiasson...); more than enough, in fact, to make me feel suspicious. The fruits of this suspicion are that I no longer think the collection half so imposing as it first seemed that it was going to be; on the other hand, the things I do like, now doubly put to the question, I like more positively. 

 

The poems look deceptively plain, their vocabulary spare and simple, their  pictures empty of detail. Three times out of four, when I’ve picked up the book, nothing’s really happened; and in some of the longer pieces that emerge in the book’s later sections, I don’t think there’s much that’s ever going to happen.

 

But after all, those arid readings of good poetry are hardly an unusual event for me. It’s only the fourth time that matters; it requires, perhaps, an off-guard state of receptivity, perhaps a willingness to completely discount the subject or to drop my other expectations of what you should look for. This is difficult to illustrate without quoting a whole poem, so I hope the publishers will forgive me:

 

Job

 

Sound of a rake,

many-pronged, dozened

across the crisp dark.

Go towards it now.

Ask the old man

(true he might laugh)

what you can do,

here, what accomplish?

He might refuse you.

This world comes alone,

take it that way.

Piles to make.

That’s not your job.

Light them on fire.

Light the whole hillside.

What of the rake?

So soundly steeped,

ear in this darkness

wherever it moves,

to empty trees:

rake in the branches.

 

 

All of the poems in the first section are like this, in dimeters. The first three lines might appeal to an older sensibility as ‘capturing’ the sound of the rake; one could dwell on the hidden criss-cross in the third line, but the point, I take it, is the inadequacy of this attempt; no sound of the mouth really sounds like a rake, it lacks the sense of outsideness; you need the feel of open space around you first, and how will an onomatopoeia give you what even a good hi-fi can’t give you? This poem is full of prickles and frustration; for a moment the rake is not a sound coming to the ear, but a rake across the ear (ouch); finally it clangs inappropriately in leafless branches. The prickles show like beads of blood in the weird syntax of ‘Light them on fire’, or the archaism of ‘here, what accomplish?’; this is not about establishing the patina of a voice. Darkness, we think, ought to attune the ear and make it more open to sounds, but Peterson’s images, of drowning (‘steeped’) and of a moving and therefore muffling darkness, suggest an ear  being dulled out and rejected (‘That’s not your job’). While the poem’s lyrical engine is a thirst for communication, its method of via negativa responds with a different draught to the expected one; necessarily oblique, electrical, conceptually distinct from the false promise of onomatopoeia.

 

That’s one reading, but it’s understandable that Peterson has managed to engage such a broad range of supporters because she’s reluctant to give things up. This is the end of another poem:

 

Backtrack of experience against the grain of philosophy,

loving the world and leaving it alone––

 

[from ‘Backtrack’]

 

Those are lines that will be greeted with relief by some for seeming to tap the pretensions of ‘philosophy’ on the nose with a rapturous assertion of humble (but really philosophically superior) ‘experience’. And I don’t think this reading is wrong, I think the poem does propose to keep it floating there. But I also think that the contrary position is proposed, for example by the italics and the broken ending. This image of backtracking against the grain, as in a kind of woodwork that is difficult and ungrateful and sometimes correct, compels the poem’s experience of weather and body to reside in conceptual dubiety and this is simultaneously great and actually not good.

 

At its best this reluctance to give things up produces poems that intrigue by paradoxical effects. Thus the poem beginning ‘Church bells at the same time as sirens’ (its title is ‘The Tree’, but lots of the poems have this title) is organized about its centre, a sad little childhood narrative about a tree house, but a quite different kind of poetry is active at the peripheries which kicks off other sorts of trouble and play until you can’t even hold them apart.

 

A good many of the poems develop this kind of dynamism, indeed most of them in the first three sections, and they read very well (even best of all) as places where you can discover fragments. For example, this evening I found in one of them this, which I felt free to take off and enjoy on its own:

 

There was no tree where we came from.

There were only the hillside grasses (these

 

never needed names), the faint

cry of the towhee, the comforts of science fiction.

 

The formal, close but uncrowded arrangement of the fricatives and parentheses is itself an essay about the comforts and empty comforts of the grass.

 

If you want to find out more about Katie Peterson’s poems, then Simon de Deo has a good account of one of them on his blog (http://rhubarbissusan.blogspot.com/2005/05/katie-peterson-adam-and-eve-in-morning.html).

 

*

 

Ilma Rakusa is a noted translator, cultural commentator and academic. She is of Hungarian/Slovenian parentage but her poems are in German. A Farewell to Everything is a translation by Andrew Shields and Andrew Winnard of the 1997 collection Ein Strich durch alles. I think this literally means ‘A stroke through everything’ – the pen-stroke of a dissatisfied author.  But in English the word stroke has too many other meanings so the obvious translation didn’t work out. Translating poetry is a frustrating business. I’m inclined to think that quite a lot of the work’s original impact must have gone the same way as the title because I felt quite disappointed with it. 

 

It’s a sequence of 90 nine-line poems that look like unpunctuated notebook jottings and express, in large part, a straightforward heartache, her lover departed for the other side of the world. It’s good to hear someone prepared to say what they’re feeling:

 

       and he is alone

she alone not a pair

nightmare for all time

 

or to say (of children swimming in the moor pond)

 

the others brown and

arms held high

and bubbles in the water

sunbeaten joy like

the uphill paths heading back

 

but (in English at least) too many of the poems don’t seem to do enough with their passion and collapse into trifling observation:

 

In the train just dozing off

when the horizon tips inward

this sandhill yellow and huge

African it towers up

behind the tracks of a

provincial station vastly different

Where am I? and deep red a

bulldozer enters the picture

to take down the illusion

 

Sometimes the observation turns elliptical and the words begin to do more work, and these are the poems that interested me most:

 

If the oak is an ash it returns

home turns the slim

wand – sound wand – in wind

and shadow falls into the bath

the ornamental forms swim

on the grass tin zinc

subsides and in the boughs

the fifths flow both brass

and bamboo druidically

 

The contradictions in an oak being an ash or in bamboo being druidic make the poem swirl restlessly, we begin to experience the bathtub as a sonar space, both resonance and vacuum like the interval of the fifth.

 

There are perhaps a dozen poems like this but not enough to build momentum and though the sequence is easy to read through it’s in a deeper sense wearying. But passion always burns. It gives poems an energy of intention and it may be that this is a book that will jump out at me when it’s hung around on the shelves for a few years.

 

*

 

No such reservation applies to Janet Sutherland’s Burning the Heartwood. Nothing here is likely to spring out at a later date; what Sutherland has to give, she gives immediately. This is ‘Hearth’, the first poem in the book:

 

The hiss of flame before earth

 

Sometimes the ear listens

without thought

 

Unbuttoning the heart

we hear rain

from a wet coat

leaping and cracking

on stone

 

It’s a lovely poem, and you just take it to your heart and memory: exegesis is unnecessary, it could never go deep enough anyway.

 

Only a handful of the poems that follow match up to that opener, and they are  all nearly as short (‘In my father’s store room’, ‘Crumble’). This is really not a satisfying book at all and the rest, the bulk of it, is made up of poems that didn’t need to be written called things like ‘The Reckless Sleeper (René Magritte)’ and ‘In the House of the Terracotta Warriors’ with an explanatory note at the end; or naive writing like

 

ascending the cliff steps we talk of other days

your calm voice strengthens in a time of need

solid you rest me in a pool of words

and save me drowning

        

                                 [from ‘The road to the beach’]

 

that it’s disconcerting  to see in a book.   

 

I’m not sure I understand where the audience for this book live, but I suspect they would be a lot less interested in Poetry than you and me and a lot more interested in ‘trees like ragged lace / along the horizon’ and ‘unclothed / creamy downs’ and ‘tussocks of strong grass’. But if the whole book was like that I think I would be enthusiastic too.

 

 

 

 

(2006)


rob mclennan: aubade (2006)

 

First published in Intercapillary Space.

 

aubade, a sequence of twelve sequences, themselves mostly comprising what are putatively shorter poems, has some beautiful pages. The page rather than the poem is how I see this; which perhaps is surprising - you might not consider the visual aspect of rob mclennan's poems as especially noteworthy on the face of it - but that's how it is. What I would really like to "quote" for you here is a complete double-page, for my impression is that the facing pages do a lot of work in partnership, but I haven't found out how I can do this on a blog, so you'll have to be content with a single page - a long quote nevertheless, but this is more telling than lots of little ones that would miss the most important thing. This page comes from somewhere in the middle of poem for a sad november, which unlike most of the sequences is not further broken up into poemlets each with its own title, but is all the clearer in its effect (the last word on the preceding page, I ought to explain, is "requiem"):

 

for sour grapes / to justify

 

five spaces left

 

 

*

 

 

corona down the macrolevel of a

 

novel spent overwritten on the trees / crack

ice or air she culls it, glass, en français,

 

glace / not wrong but one language overlay

the other

 

beautiful & binary, irregular & dangerous

 

 

*

 

 

this lyrical twoness--breaks apart

    distinction of the heart & beauty myth,

binary / yang/ying that completes the

hidden circle / i miss you

like alberta moisture, dry snow

so wet & cold & damp

sung deep in the bones

 

 

*

 

 

presents a reasoning for this cold november

more than seasonal heat & lack thereof

prevents a making of

stone cold soup / hydraulic sage

& microwave blaze / old

radiation-king / & roommate

    argues with her boyfriend, screams

 

thru the wall a desire that has not been spent

 

 

What we notice first, most simply and not least importantly, is a lyrical energy driven by the preoccupations (impossible to disguise) of a male poet under thirty-five - mclennan was born in 1970 but most of aubade was written in 2000-2001. 

 

This lyric pulse is the way in to the poem, or inverting the metaphor perhaps it's the engine-room, but anyway it isn't the poem.  And as is patent the "lyric" is also a topic within the poem - mclennan is a very literary poet - I mean, a poet who inhabits a literary world and writes through that.

 

The word "spent" appears twice here; a word whose meanings waver around financial, sexual, seasonal, extinguished; the sun comes in and out of this sap-sunk time of year: "corona", "seasonal heat", "radiation-king".

 

But here's what I mean by taking pages as units: there's a way of looking down into the poem and seeing other things. So in the section beginning "corona" you can take in at one glance, just as clearly as you can hear it, the sound-sequence that goes corona ... macrolevel ... novel ... overwritten ... overlaid. Going along beside this are the icicle evocations of culls and glass. Most visual of all, the solidi and the ampersands make, respectively, disjunctive splits and conjunctive knots.

 

(And yet, in talking this way about the page I'm also aware of a feeling that this is just a snapshot; I've stopped the poem in its tracks. Though it's taken me personally a lot of attempts before I've grown accustomed to the movement, it's eventually possible to read poem for a sad november straight through and to experience the poem's transformations as a thrilling adventure, its final pages for example obviously a bit slower in tempo and with different melodies, yet feeling like some substance deposited out in the course of the chemical reaction, and not very like a coda.)

 

*

 

It's clear from his very name that rob mclennan takes the minutiae of orthography, layout and punctuation quite seriously ("to justify / five spaces left"). At first glance you might suppose that aubade evinces a consistent group of presentational choices, and to a certain extent it does: no capital letters, no apostrophes, and abbreviated particles such as thru, w/, abt, yr, &, tho. Part of the point, no doubt, is to create the right kind of casual, liberated landscape in which the poetry can develop; besides,  – mclennan's work being constantly in dialogue with literary community – past participles like wrappt, calld, etc instantiate the Robert Duncan spelling-choices so widely used as identification-markers by poets in non-SoQ traditions; thot (for "thought") is also a Duncan spelling, though perhaps the more relevant invocation in this case is bpNichol.

 

But what I find interesting and inventive in aubade are the subtle ways in which orthography, punctuation, and syntax interact with more narrowly poetic formal choices to make varieties in this overall landscape. poem for a sad november, for instance, has a distinctively different feel from some of the other sequences. If it flourishes its deviant use of the solidus (creating an impression that the lines of verse are making hay with lines of verse from some other text), it makes only minor use of the aforementioned abbreviations - the phrases are long (if often incomplete), not here suggestive of slangy notes but of discursive amplitude. In its ten pages there is only one non-standard past participle: turnd - it emerges that "turn" is an important verb in this poem, so we then find turns, turn, and (decisively) turned.

 

Or consider the use of full stops. In some of the sequences, like the opening aubade, there are none. In poem for a sad november there are none, except for a sudden eruption of three in successive lines:

 

the only significant pause. oh, there

little aesthetic shocks. gets between

 

the blanket & her warm thighs.

 

Then, in a later episode, they make a sort of transformed return with spaces to either side, falsely implying metrical marks:

 

inevitable . a sequence

of diminishing numbers . & days

 

the roof falls in on . dogs

bark at trees . squirrels

 

The adventures of the full stop, like the adventures of the word "turn", are secret narratives interlaced into the larger action of the poem.

 

Try another one. This is the first poem of exile:

 

south keys (he who became lost

 

this is a poem w/ neither light. time of day

evaporates.

 

by the teeth of the river, they slept. the tip,

the tongue.

 

expands across the water. lets lost balls

float slowly past.

 

the taste of anything this morning. the snow here,

does as snow does.

 

a candle burns brightest. the box it came in,

even more.

 

a telephone is not a detection system. beats

the myths of early warning.

 

tristan took the wrong south bus, & never saw

isolde again. wandered crescents

 

for hours. who then

became.

 

the loss becomes him. that is,

turned into.  

 

Most of these sentences are incomplete. (Despite this, the lyric is very nearly in focus, as many of the lyrics in aubade are.) This poem exploits one feature of dispensing with capital letters; there's no formal distinction between what seem to be the beginnings of sentences ("this is a poem w/ neither light", "a candle burns brightest") and what seem to be the ends of sentences ("the taste of anything this morning", "lets lost balls float slowly past") - not to mention the middle part ("who then became"). The poem and its firmly-positioned full stops maintain an unstable poise between the derangement of loss (time of day evaporates) and the apparent sprightliness of its solid things (a river, a candle, this morning).

 

For a final variation in this survey of the full stop take a look at this poem, which comes from a translation: stones & ice, a sequence where everything, even the titles of the poems, is conspicuously over-punctuated.

 

adverse to shifts in other states.

 

appears like smoke but isnt, merely

had the vapours. reverts, from stories

told thru motel phones. a long distance

 

prairie. the miracle of technology, &

close reminder, of what is no longer

there. the front desk emits, & says,

 

ask me nicely. reroute this. ask.

 

The typical line is hindered by one, two or three stops. Only a couple of lines in the whole sequence are allowed to take in more air and those lines are important for the sudden long breeze and long view. You realize then how the rest of the sequence is stifled, jumbled together, still in its boxes. Block ice and soil packed with boulders.

 

Reading across, the poems keep striking out the same things: stones, ice, translation, words, skin, sex, motel phones, rooms you stay in for one night only. I imagine an ingenious reader could find each of those things in each of the poems - try it with the one above if you like. "Emits" and "contains" are the two important and not quite oppositional verbs.

 

*

 

I tried a similar approach to voice-over 3: bloodletting when I finally happened to make a connection between a handful of references to blood or (as I persuaded myself) to implicit blood. But it's no use pretending this gives a very secure foothold in the sequence, which plays off its title-quotes in pursuit of sheer width of reference. That way the slender texts remain upright and become interesting more as a kind of architecture, shaped spaces to negotiate, than for what they "contain". The poetic experience lies as it were between the poems, so this is bringing me back to what I said earlier about pages. Here is one of the 11 poems, just to give you an idea, but I think the best way of reading is to flick between them all as rapidly as possible:

 

'Paradox is to poetics as coffin is to corpse: how'

                    –Pete Smith

 

harkens the world, goes out to

pitter-patter.

 

ambient noise across the amphitheatre--

heartbeat, breathing.

 

i hear the sound of,

sound judgment.

 

there is an opening. i stuff it

full of leaves.

 

letter drop, or songs from a room is perhaps an even more baffling sequence. But it does give me an opportunity to highlight another in mclennan's arsenal of techniques, the curious recurrence of phrases that cuts across the structural division of aubade into sequences. Examples:

 

sing a song of sixpence (from "old standards, 2"  (aubade)).

sings a song of (from "and comforted", (letter drop, or songs from a room)).

 

just call me angel, trilogy (from "undercurrents" (underwater)).

just call me angel, trilogy ("'How you transform the wet / late-winter snow' - Jan Zwicky" (from voice-over 3: bloodletting)).

 

the / minds deluge (from "hair" (aubade)).

the minds deluge (from "poem for my mother" (winterlong)).

 

letter drop, or songs from a room (sequence title)

letter drop (from "hair" (aubade)).

film & letter drop / break (from section 4 of poem for a sad november).

 

What do these recurrences mean? Contrasting with the immediacy of the lyric pulse, the implication is construction from pre-existent materials. Consider too the nature of the recurrent phrases listed above: they are more than a little enigmatic. What is the significance of "just call me angel, trilogy"? - a Google search picks up "just call me angel" in the chorus of that much-covered Chip Taylor standard "Angel of the Morning", but it doesn't record any instances of this phrase being linked with "trilogy". The phrase "letter drop" could refer to a rather dull word-game, or to the "dead letter drop" beloved of spies and revolutionaries, or to an Oulipian poetic form, as in the 1999 collection Letter Drop by the Toronto poet Victor Coleman, which mclennan surely knows of. The "angel, trilogy" phrase crops up in snowy contexts - but aubade is very interested in snow and ice, so this might not be all that significant. As for the Chip Taylor song (and the song of sixpence), well, "old standards" is the title of two poems in the opening aubade, a sequence much concerned with music.

 

It may be that a reader from Ottawa could take some of these lines of enquiry a lot further than I can.  All I want to point out is that the first impression of the poems - conceived as lyrics - as, for all their personal lyric pulse, oddly inconsequent, or perhaps I might say (without pejorative implication) blurred, is partly due to an intense hum of other things going on within the text. Whether mclennan throws things together or not (and the more I read, the more I doubt this), the result is a very complicated pattern.  

 

*

 

Much of what I've just said about these more overtly difficult sequences applies also to the final sequence, death & trauma: a deliberate play of births and endings.

 

The end-note informs us that it's "a very loose translation of fragments from an essay by Robert Kroetsch, 'For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem' ..., while over-writing the story of the Frank Slide, Alberta (near Crowsnest Pass) disaster of 1903". Readers hoping for an epic historical narrative along the lines of Zane Grey's Thunder Mountain will have to look elsewhere; in mclennan's poem detailed evocation of that brief and monstrous event (Note 1) is left to the reader. The historical event is mixed into a relentlessly intertextual play of ideas about delay and deferral (presumably, Kroetsch's terms); but for all that, there is something unexpectedly moving in this contemplation of the unintelligible/untellable catastrophe of 100 seconds. With what justification I don't know, I connect this sequence with the death of one of aubade's three dedicatees, Anya Brebner (Note 2). How reality, in the form of Turtle Mountain, lies aside from the text as a challenge to its poetics - a challenge, nevertheless, to be met only by poetics - can be sampled from this tense over- or under-writing of a poem we all know:

 

the essential difference between

 

             of wallace stevens,

the poem of the mind in the act of dealing

what will entice. it was never so hard

to mind. the lean was set; it retorted what

was already built.

                 then the features changed

to claiming else. its currency was unclear.       

 

 

 

NOTES

 

1. "In the early morning hours of April 29, 1903, Turtle Mountain collapsed, resulting in the greatest landslide in North American history. In 100 seconds: at least 76 people were buried alive under tons of massive limestone boulders; three-quarters of the homes in Frank were crushed like balsa wood; over a mile of the Canadian Pacific Railroad was completely destroyed; and a river became a lake." (Quoted from http://www3.sympatico.ca/goweezer/canada/frank.htm)

 

2.  aubade is dedicated to Diana Brebner, Anya Brebner, and John Newlove. The Ottawa poet Diana Brebner died of cancer on April 29, 2001. A few weeks later (June 16) her 16-year-old daughter Anya was killed by a bolt of lightning. The Saskatchewan poet John Newlove died in Ottawa on December 23, 2003.

 

 

 

(2008)


Leevi Lehto: Lake Onega and Other Poems (2006)

 

First published in Intercapillary Space.

 

Leevi Lehto is a totally net-enabled poet, so one can begin anywhere. For example, in his corner of Anny Ballardini's Poet's Corner (http://www.fieralingue.it/modules.php?name=Content&pa=list_pages_categories&cid=166), where everyone has a corner.  Here are four of the sonnets from Lake Onega, the English version of this work, which appears in totality in the book I'm reviewing. (This totality, however, is only partial, because of the work's previous incarnation in Finnish, at which stage it also had a web interface that allowed you to generate new poems.) The English version is not exactly a translation in the traditional sense, Some of its sonnets are homophonically derived, some present quite new material. E.g. "Oft and always" - The note explains: "The Finnish version is a translation of Sir Philip Sydney's 'Sonnet 45' in Astrophil and Stella (1581-82), the English one an improvisation on that".

 

Also in this corner are a couple of translations of classical Finnish poets, Eino Leino and Aaro Hellaakoski. The classical era in Finnish poetry is not much further back than the start of the twentieth century - before that, Finnish was not often a written language. So Eino Leino is a patriarch poet, though roughly contemporary with Yeats. When Leino comes into English the results tend to be barbaric, no more so in Lehto than in Cid Erik Tallqvist (Voices from Finland, 1947):

 

Said his say thus the Earth-Spirit:

»Three-lock Kouta art by name called

 

Gloomily smiled Gloomy Kouta;

»What man can know, I know also,

What the gods can, that can I, too;

But not bind the blue flame's burning,

Nor bring back by black art bygones

 

And here by Lehto:

 

My heart is a harp-of-the-wind, of-the-wind,

its strings are a seat for a ceaseless song,

when in night, and in day, alone, alone,

it sounds to the air, ever-shivering.

 

Here on earth so cursedly familiar

are the yards of the clouds, the huts of the winds.

No brothers nor sisters I ever can have:

As strange is my self, just tingles and rings!

 

But Lehto's barbaric English is adopted more methodically. This is from Aaro Hellaakoski's most famous poem "Hauen laulu" (the Pike's Song):

 

From his hole so wet and drenching

a pike rose up to tree to sing

 

 

when through the greyish net of clouds

first gleam of day was seen

and at the lake the lapping waves

woke up with joyous mean

the pike rose to the spruce's crone

to take a bite at reddish cone

 

 

[Kosteasta kodostaan

nous hauki puuhun laulamaan

 

kun puhki pilvien harmajain

jo himersi päivän kajo

ja järvelle heräsi nauravain

lainehitten ajo

nous hauki kuusen latvukseen

punaista käpyä purrakseen]

 

Or take the later lines:

 

               opening his

                mouth so bony

                sidewise moving

                the jawbone phony

 

Nothing in the original really excuses the word "phony", it is there for the felicitous sound like "crone" and "mean".  Lehto says, in the introduction to this book, a bit plaintively: "There may be an element of Second Language English in at least some of [the self-translations] - if so, the reader is asked not to see it as altogether inadvertent." As that sentence itself shows, Lehto's English is as near fluent as dammit - and why would it not be, since he has lived and taught in the US for the last twenty years?*(See Note 3 below) This linguistic barbarism is intentional, even when it is accidental, as perhaps when the poem by Eino Leino ends "I give rice to the feelings", a mere typo for "voice" as I suppose. If you want an unpoetic sample of Lehto writing in English, then pick one of his many important and engaging essays on transnational literature in a post-Language context, as sampled here:

 

I've at times thought of myself as an American poet only writing in Finnish, at others as a Finnish one, yet whose medium is more or less "barbaric" English. ("Finland Between Coercive Swedish and Barbaric Danish" - Interview with Annelie Axén in Kritiker 5 (June 2007)  - http://leevilehto.net/?page_id=77).

 

I'd like to speak about language-fugal sublime here. ("Plurifying the Languages of the Trite" - http://leevilehto.net/?page_id=44) - and see Note 5 of the same essay.

 

I have proposed a concept of literature of "Barbaric English" - the English spoken as a second language.. This has now developed into an interest of all kind of barbarized versions of all the languages involved (I just finished a longish poem in Norwegian, a language I don't know enough even to know what I have said in the piece.) These development will evidently pose new challenges for American poets, many of whose, if truth be told, are only too complacent with only disfiguring their own dear English. ("In the Un-American Tree; The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetries and Their Aftermath, with a Special Reference to Charles Bernstein Translated" - http://leevilehto.net/?page_id=78. The Norwegian poem is here: http://leevilehto.net/?page_id=14)

 

..about "Nations Being Enemies of Literature". I've used this slogan to describe a special mission of ntamo [Lehto's internet publishing house] to chart a new (public) space beyond and between nations, a transnational literary scene.... ("Nothing That Is Initially Interesting To More Than Seven People Can Ever Change The Consciousness Of The Masses" - http://leevilehto.net/?page_id=79)

 

But the best arguments for Lehto's barbaric English are 1. His inspiring reading of one of the sonnets, "Exactly. Absolutely" (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Lehto.php) with its authoritatively deviant pronunciations, and 2. The national self-crippling defence-mechanism of identifying and bonding over the extraordinary quaintness of foreignisms, as evinced not only by lovers of true poetry and standards in Hampstead but by motorists complaining about offshore call-centres and by almost-daily comic routines on the Chris Moyles show.

 

Paradoxically, to fully appreciate the contrariness of Lehto's slogan about nations being enemies of literature, you have to see it against a Finnish background, i.e. the devout Herderian nationalism that gave such enormous impetus to the birth of written literature in Finnish, in e.g. Eino Leino. 

 

*

 

So, on to the book in question. Salt, whose translation series has never really got off the ground, have presented it as a translation (a self-translation, mainly) from the Finnish, and have put the inevitable iconically unspoiled lake on the jacket so we appreciate that we're abroad and that this represents an added attraction. To a certain extent this is wrong. Some of the poetry was written in English from the start, and some of the rest has been not so much translated from Finnish as composed anew in its new language. So is Lake Onega and Other Poems really an exemplary work in a new mode, the true transnational literature that Lehto envisages in his essays, the first sample of this new World Poetry, as he names it in "Plurifying the Langues of the Trite"? Well no, I think it is premature to characterize it in that way: more accurately, I should call it a dream of a new world poetry, or perhaps (to further misquote one of Lehto's favourite quotations) the "pursuit of transnational poetry by other means".

 

For a start, there is that traditional-looking title, which deserves to be considered in two halves. I suppose some non-Finnish readers might assume that Lake Onega is a lake in Finland: it is not. It is a big lake in Russian Karelia. Nevertheless, the foregrounding of this lake is turbulent with political resonance in a Finnish context. As Lehto himself helpfully explains: "This was the furthest the Finnish troops advanced during The Continuation War, 1942-45 - too far in many people's opinion, me included." In other words the title invokes the whole vexed, buried and inflamed matter of ultra-Nationalist Finnish claims (romantic or realistic) to a larger Finland incorporating some part or other of the Karelian backwoods where the Kalevala oral traditions once supplied the material for what became reinvented as a national epic (the one thing that the oral material very certainly was not...). But how does Lake Onega manifest itself in the sonnet sequence to which it gives a title? In the most deadpan way imaginable: as a word. For example Ääinen (the Finnish name for Lake Onega) is treated as a kind of stretched pun, since it also can be interpreted as meaning "little sound" and therefore a literal equivalent of "sonnet". Besides that, the name links up with Pushkin's Eugene Onegin - the hero's surname (not a genuine Russian surname) is derived from the lake in question. And the eponymous sonnet itself consists of a series of mainly hilarious book-titles, a deflation of all the pretensions of title:

 

Maigret and His Lady Friend. Widow of Yours,

Hostess of Mine. Fumbling Poems. The Sin.

Manners of the Youth. Wine for the Wise. Lake Onega,

its Plants, & Fish, & Flow, & Waters.

 

Eugene Onegin. A Conversation. Sister.

The Horse's Sex-Life, Short Stories.

Tax-Index of the Helsinki Region. ...

 

Lake Onega (here as elsewhere referring specifically to the sonnet sequence of that name, not the whole book) therefore blankly refuses to invoke nationalism and history, it absolutely insists on its internationalism, its word-games, its messy open space into which almost any subject may stream, but from which nothing like a subject emerges.  "Not written against a horizon of meaning", as Lehto somewhere felicitously puts it. Yet at the same time for a Finnish poet to name a sonnet sequence Lake Onega is somewhat akin to a US poet writing a non-referential book and calling it Bay of Pigs, or maybe like when Swell Maps put out a single about "sucking city boys today" in 1978 called "Dresden Style". (Don't press these analogies, history fans...)  

 

And now for the second half of the title, and Other Poems.  The book proposes itself as a kind of selection of Lehto's later work, arranged chronologically so that we can read a story of metamorphosis from (in the early 1990s) lyrics in the manner of Finnish modernism to (in more recent times) "more procedurally oriented work" - for example, the Google-based poem "Of the Help Her Art" from around 2003. So while the materials are distinctly innovative in form, the book itself is quite an old-fashioned kind of artistic narrative, a reader for the uncommittedly curious. Lehto is no doubt a realistic enough operator to know that getting a poetry book published outside your native land, except by the most miniscule of book presses, is difficult enough on any terms; some such compromise as a putative "Selected" is probably inevitable. But anyway, how should this narrative be read? Should we say of the earlier poems in the book (though they are by no means early ones in terms of Lehto's entire career) that they are there to be seen as outmoded, merely to introduce and set off the more radical work that follows? Or should we see this later work as accepted by the publishers only on the proviso that there ought to be some "real" poetry as well? I don't know, but the resulting mixed impression is certainly absorbing, even if we don't perhaps know the code - maybe because we don't. And I'm willing to believe that it's considerably more absorbing than e.g. Lehto's hardcore Päivä (Day) of 2004, a response to Kenneth Goldsmith's Day that easily disproves Goldsmith's claim to be the most boring writer who ever lived (it consists of Finnish newsfeed from Aug 20, 2003, but with the sentences rearranged in alphabetical order) - though even this produces unputdownable reading compared to Craig Dworkin's austere Parse or Emma Kay's numbing Worldview (read about all of them here: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/Goldsmith_ConceptualWriting.pdf).

 

As it stands, you will spend a lot more time reading the exquisite "Snowfall" (1994) or, of course, Lake Onega (1997) than "Of the Help Her Art". The relation that this last poem bears to e.g. "Snowfall" is like the protective translucent tissue page to the relief-coloured aquatint in an old book, i.e. you are affected by the tissue page, you may even appreciate its purity and lack of datedness compared to the aquatint, but you don't spend much time staring at it. But as Goldsmith has often remarked, it is not necessarily the point of writings in the conceptualist zone actually to be read, or readable.

 

However, the contrast is not quite so stark as all that. Unexpectedly, there are continuities in Lehto's work that pass across these quite radical formal boundaries, for example a musical witnessing of urban business, as here:

 

80

timely too                   all, the buried ones included

And without forgetting the dead ones, he specified         

 

81

as an across-this-world's-swarming-and-whirling-large-

flat-floor-walking,

                       specifying shadow

 

82

as a snowy rain

a-flooding with butterfly- and certain kind of bread-formed

                                     words

 

83

with cities, objects with their aftermarket, pots, flowers

on window sills, with carpets shelves light-spots measure-

          sticks houses

                        concepts

 

(from "Snowfall")

 

and here:

 

containing partly acoustic music, partly that from the turn

          of the century,

reflected at the surface of the wall using a computer and a

          video-gun,

and during the intermission to the holy ceremony,

          refreshments. I really was taken over by horror

when I saw burned that good man form Biscay, who as

          godfather had married the godmother

 

reflected at the surface of the wall using a computer and a

          video-gun:

XXL size lush big-breasted shaven offers relief to men of

          all sizes and descr in Yliviesk evenings nights.

When I saw burned that good man form Biscay, who as

          godfather had married the godmother,

I'm excited by him having sex with another man:

 

(from "Ananke: A Pantoum", in which, Lehto tells us, "The bulk of the poem is based on direct quotations from online and newspaper dating services".) A Lehtoic sound and manner emerges clearly from both these poems, the first of them perceptibly late-Finnish-modernist and the second broadly procedural. In that respect Lake Onega and Other Poems reads very well as a unified book, not merely a historico-biographical record of experimentation.

 

And, in every way central to the book, I keep drifting back to Lake Onega  itself, which is the most fascinating piece of construction here. Sonnets - a rare form in Finnish - could hardly be more traditional in English terms, and Lehto (unlike many modern sonneteers) is continuously interested in realizing the traditional sound of a sonnet, e.g.

 

Ear's yelling question's killing seismograph,

in linkup one, two thousand chilling mall

virtually uniting all the drunkards

 

to really vouch it all, for rotting vitamins,

vigils whereat? Men may take it all,

consigning even. Or reeling moonward.

 

This is the sestet of "Negative Capability", - "Half-homophonical on the Finnish original which, again, is half-homophinical on John Keat's 'Bright Star' sonnet". Whose sestet goes:

 

No---yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever---or else swoon in death.

 

It's surprising what survives this double mash-up through the sieves of language - the play of double-L sounds, the resumption of the repeated absolute "ever" in the repeated absolute "all", and the near-rehabilitation of "ever---or" in the last line. But Keats' vision of swooning inactivity is thoroughly translated away from its tender context of a loved one's embrace; socialized, it turns into reeling drunkards in a mall and also into human technological progress, e.g. travelling to the moon. Both "stedfast" and both mindless, exactly as per Keats' recipe, and sarcastically offering a new interpretation to the phrase "negative capability".

 

Perhaps sarcasm isn't quite the right word. Though mordant judgment, or potentially mordant judgment, characteristically surrounds such comic episodes as the admin department in "Back Office", or the cod-opera trimmings of "Jagellonicae", one thinks rather of the stance of Lake Onega as distinctively open-minded. Judgments stream into the poems because human discourse tends to be highly judgmental. But in using the phrase "open-minded" of Lehto's sequence I don't particularly mean "non-judgmental", either. What I refer particularly to is the openness at source, i.e. to the range of materials allowed in, not to what is judged of them. Most poets, I suspect, exercise a very strict control over this phase of the process. You might choose literary models (such as Sidney or Keats) or philosophical or scientific ideas, or popular proverbs, you might treasure found particles of slang or obscenity or objective perceptiveness or pop culture. You might give vent to private-personal expression. You might make the poem represent who you are, or you might try to avoid that at all costs. But generally, you decide to exclude some few of these possibilies: they're not part of your vision. In "Lake Onega" none of these are excluded, so that possibly a teleological "vision" has been junked altogether. By continually messing up the materials by further destructive processes like barbaric English or backwards quotation or the double-homophony mentioned above, more source-material is allowed in than was allowed for; it is not just musical ingenuity, though it is that (Lehto evidently gives full musical weight to his term "language-fugal sublime"). It is one of those overflowing parties, like the one in Carry On Abroad. 

 

Lake Onega even finds room for an open-minded admission of Finnish modernism, in the form of a palimpsest on Pentti Saarikoski. You can discover a critique in this, but my perception is that for all the manifest difference in the kind of poem this is, there is no definable distance between Lehto and his subject. The concerns of the world transgress both languages and poetries. 

      

The Language of Flow (I think)

 

Asking the Water, I ask where I swim:

what gets "in-read" in you, being a "dream";

that and no more? not consciousness?

deep as a major, strong as a minor, as

 

a traitorous hunch, a wizard so white, as

a parish or garish, a gang, parasite - and a kite

(in my view), and perhaps a swaying

of night - and the steeple I broke myself

 

against, a shipwreck (not transposing to earth).

A luscious being, in view of the uncles.

A blossoming flight. A translative. Full

 

as vacuum, though full of you,

encircled, departed, in view of the strand

and all the bundles there, if you please.

 

*

 

NOTE 1: As readers of English poetry we naturally tend to associate Lehto with his American connections e.g. Bernstein and Goldsmith. The Finnish connections are doubtless as important: Jyrki Pellinen, Arto Kytöhonka, Matti Tiisala, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Jukka Mallinen, Aki Salmela, Janne Nummela, Cia Rinne, Tuukka Terho, Jukka Tervo, Markku Aalto,  and many other writers - mere names to me - on ntamo (http://ntamo.blogspot.com/).

 

NOTE 2: It's time to take issue with Lehto about something, and it's this: "It wouldn't surprise me to see the next step in this process to be a certain return to creativity - this time not based on a vision of authentic language but on the authentic experience of the strangeness of all languages instead: in the spirit in which I have proposed Finnish to be seen as one of the real world languages - i.e. marginal to the point of being able to stand for all the others' marginality..." (from "Nothing That Is Initially Interesting To More Than Seven People Can Ever Change The Consciousness Of the Masses" http://leevilehto.net/?page_id=79). Applauding the general concept, I feel like pointing out immediately that Finnish and the other Nordic languages are in some ways very exceptional - consider just for instance its remarkably high standing, the high regard in which the Nordic zone is held within e.g. the rather xenophobic English-speaking zone - popularly perceived as (not only white and first-world and affluent but) more culturally advanced, better at design and technology and politics and education and politeness, than even we are... an uninspected esteem that e.g. this essay contributes uneasily towards cementing. Or consider the unique relationship of Finland to two super-powers, its mysterious if sometimes fraught closeness to Russia and in another respect its cultural fraternity with the USA - no other western European nation has succh a young literature, so unreservedly committed to international modernism and secularism. Obviously I am speaking at a high level of generality, and anyone who knows better could have fun ripping these generalizations to shreds, but the point is that there's no way that Finnish can usefully represent e.g. the 520 languages of Nigeria (English excluded), most with no written literature. If Finnish poetry is an important growth-point marking one pattern for future transactions between cultures (and it is), this is precisely because it is unrepresentative, it is marginal in unusual conditions.

 

NOTE 3: "lived and taught in the US for more than 20 years". I don't know where I got this erroneous idea. Leevi told me he has never lived outside Finland. 

 

(2009)

Richard Makin: St Leonards (2006-)

 

[First published in Intercapillary Space.The online version of St Leonards begins here: http://www.greatworks.org.uk/poems/Makin/stl1.html.]

 

We're not going to forget it, the opening screen: poultry, jack or tin and paper case, ditto section. You have to move in close to read all this, using negatives, saying what is not—torn in a seacup, eye full of clipse. First the green line. One thing I am certain about: the language filched from passers by. Immaculate simplicity of narrative. It's a method known to stop anything in its tracks.
http://www.greatworks.org.uk/gifs/indent.gifShe is born with her head wrapped around a name, a big chunk of it.

 

(Opening moves of St Leonards, Chapter 6)

 

For the last few years Richard Makin (the "A" seems to be optional) has been publishing in monthly instalments on the Great Works site run by Peter Philpott. Work in Process began publication in 2004. It was supposed to run for a year, but in the event it carried on for more than two, so the complete text runs to 30 parts, separated by photographic images. St Leonards followed immediately and is, as I write, on its seventh instalment: not too late to get with it and to enjoy - if that is the right word - the curiously compulsive exercise of waiting for the next episode and its surprising turns (which are always a surprise) and its revelations (which never materialize). Right now this is one of my favourite books.

 

The two works are not entirely discrete, so that for example "a rust chute emptying into the sea" in SL2 repeats an image that first showed up as far back as WiP2; "the great arterial trunk that carries blood from the pump" varies a definition of aorta first seen in WiP29; longstanding motifs such as the descent and the hexagon continue to outcrop; the "young man with an ashplant" of WiP30 returns fragmentarily in SL3, part of a narrow thread of references to the Telemachia of Ulysses that still makes a remote rumble in SL7 when "She loses her implant". 

 

Serial publication posits an active relationship with a public; it recalls, perhaps, the popular frenzy whipped up by Dickens' early novels, the anguished letters and the tearful crowds waiting for news of Little Nell. Or the ill-fated serialization of Ulysses in Pound's Little Review, which finally foundered on the Nausicaa episode. Makin's serialization bears only an ironic or parodic relation to those analogues ("What she misses is that he has silenced the crowd"): what invisible audience there may be is subjected to a continuous mockery of its expectations and motives: "I am so grateful to listen in on all sorts of people thinking aloud" (SL2).

 

Still, there are certain analogies that bear investigation. Reading a serial work as it comes out, we know that the book is still being written; we are involved in a narrative about the author's progress - something that Makin self-referentially feeds into the text. We receive the text in a series of timed releases, each advancing and not advancing our conception of the book that does not yet exist, resembling and not resembling the parts that came before. When the book is published complete, if it ever seems complete, this particular aspect of its generation of radical indecipherability will disappear, only to be replaced, however, by the ironic suggestion of indecipherability proposed by book-spines along a shelf.

 

We also know that the book title has been made up in advance of  composition; we tend to assume that it provides an insecure and provisional marker (like the material on which this note bases itself) to how the book will actually pan out. St Leonards refers casually to where the author now lives, but the book is not about the place in a simple way (it is not a simple place, except in Thomas Campbell's poem). Very occasionally, almost with a joke-like effect, a local reference crackles into view: "castle nowhere near camber, swift running flame" (SL6).

 

And finally, Makin's serial works, like The Old Curiosity Shop, are illustrated. Illustrations for St Leonards have yet to emerge; this one is from early in Work in Process and has the caption "RX12+?".

 

 

What relation the images bear to the text is a question. Perhaps a few of the recurring motifs, the pyramid and the rust chute for example, owe their origin to the images. What the text tends to emphasize about the images is how much you can't understand about them; a radical indecipherability of our surroundings, not at all diminished by me supposing this to be Dungeness and knowing that RX12 specifies a boat registered in the port of Rye. Topography, both in and of the text, is stretching; reading it tugs at our patterned conception of our surroundings.

 

Serial publication is an invitation to read; Makin's work is an experimental prose  that connects, at its extremes, with both the novel and the installation - I would call it, in our present state of incompetence, partially readable. In some of his earlier work that meant reading a few words here and there. The work I'm writing about here accommodates - yes, invites, -  a reading-through somewhat as a book of reflective essays or even a novel, but it does not resolve into characters, action or locale, and in fact it's impossible to hold the non-sequential material sufficiently in the mind to perform the mental exercise that we normally think of as reading.

 

What kind of a serial is this?

 

I have heard Makin's work described as "non-generic prose" and I like that description, which emphasizes the freedom of the reader, the potential for pioneering into land that neither author nor reader may recognize. But I know it's not so easy as all that to be truly non-generic. Makin knows it too. Programmatically self-referential, the text constantly implies descriptions of itself, as an essay ("Let's start with some basics"), lecture ("whether you might be persuaded to say a few words"), novel ("no story although a great many things happen"), automatic writing ("This is an underthread"), travelogue ("we're heading off to the opening sea"), anthology ("A selection is given"), residue ("charred leaves go up the flume"), apology ("He's reduced to justification").  Those are all in the first section of St Leonards. In the second, there's others; a trunk in the attic ("This is where I put things I reject but wish to keep"), and a crime fiction ("They believe his motive was revenge..."). That last one keeps nagging at us: coroner's reports and post mortems, archaeological pathology, provide a sinister undercurrent. Without fixed characters or locations it's going to be a tough case to crack.

 

Where the "non-generic" tag really falls down is that it doesn't suggest the definite character of the writing, which I suppose is in this case the thing that makes anticipation (and therefore serialization) possible.

 

This, for contrast, is a stretch of one of Makin's earlier works:

 

the list of loss ashen graille sunk low in the minute past participles of braun sand. pin umbrella tube epic horrorscope pictures worlds for collapse in monte de pietá of wergild. an equivalence of chunnel hoping. kufa kef impulse alienated from the bable televisionary progrom twighlights of the idle of the tribe the den the cave the forum the theatre the fumes from music rising verdigris.

 

(from Forword)

 

This is fantastically inventive, but it's a bombardment. The tempo of the serial works is less frantic. Space, silence and nervous tension have crept out to the surface of the text.

 

Animals are box office. The first impression is recovered. Box of fire. Box of ash. Words stuck to the concrete redeem the evening ground and delivered, with screed pull to deep background square, collided. What if one of us expires on route. The ghoulest thing is the image of her face at the fourth floor window. He is conscious of, but cannot apprehend, its wayfare and flickerbook existence.

 

Tell them the general needs you, he allows you to breathe in the sea tonight. I break away. First train back. He goes to search in his pack. Now you must away too. Carry with you this common place book. Utilize primary methods of sensation, the quality of being limited by a condition, like rising earth each side of a furrow, the ineluctable etcetera. I don't have time for this now.

 

(from SL3)

 

Perhaps the right question to ask is not about the meaning but about how the text was made. Some is arrived at by direct transmutation: "Box of fire" a typo variant of "box office", for example. Some responds to a particular groove within the chapter: in this case, a recurrent sequence of transformed cricketing terms ("pull to deep background square").

 

Then there are unmarked quotations and allusions: "breathe in the sea tonight" inevitably induces a spectral hint of that pained Phil Collins ballad In the Air Tonight. "The ineluctable etcetera" alludes to the start of the Proteus section of Ulysses. Other sentences look like they could be quotations but are possibly  invented ("Carry with you this common place book"), like those epigraphs in the Waverley novels that are attributed to Old Play. No reader is going to know them all: the text's materials are unlimitedly various (it was by the merest accident that on second or third reading of a sentence elsewhere, "the madness in my area", I remotely recalled a Fall B-Side from 1979).

 

Almost as tricky, if you enjoy difficult games, is the use of dictionary defnitions that are detached from their headwords; as here, "the quality of being limited by a condition", which I am still trying to work out. Sometimes the headword may show up in due course, as happens elsewhere with distal and bearings. Often the definition is mutated, like "the part of a cartel that receives pollen" (SL7) - which would have defined stigma, if the fifth word was "carpel".

 

Perhaps most crucially, the text develops from its own foundations. Take the penultimate sentence from the passage above; this, three chapters later, is what sprouts from it:

 

She stands in a timely passage: the inenarrable modality of the invisible. There is a clerical boundary, the quality of being limited by a condition (law). In the middle of the compass a kidnap, a net: feldspar whose tissues are not at the right angles—all that bite, any mixture of them—oblique fractures, crosswise of mouth like sharks and rays, crosswise returning with transverse slit on underside of head. Vouchsafe, the walk is round the back of myself. Climb the ascent and back on to the road. Use any of the primary methods. His tendons are crushed. Classify the sensations as to whether true, false, necessary, possible or impossible (log).

 

It's a method of moving forward that makes one persistently aware of vague recognition; it suggests the illusory idea that if you could only hold the whole text in your mind at once, you'd learn something. At least, I suppose it's an illusory idea, but maybe it's only impractical.

 

If that long-distance grasp of the material seems difficult for readers with the vital thread of fixed text to work with, it seems nothing short of astounding in the writer. A method there must be, or it would be impossible to bring this book together, page after implacable page. Though one category of favoured words witnesses to where Makin begins from in British writing (revenant, simulacra, mephitic....), yet he utterly transcends that point of origin through the vast scope of his content/allusions, his multi-threaded scenae, eye-opening wordplay, most audibly perhaps through such casually skilled sentences as these (all drawn from the same page):  

 

He touches his cheek. It's dry, but still the sting of cold spray, the taste of salt.

 

Glister on beaded rubble, a collapse of boulders.

 

His knuckles knock against the uneven surface of the table like dice.

 

Erosion and sand-drift, the itinerant pebble.

 

One flies towards him with a live coal and purifies his lips.

 

 

Bringing these excerpts together (they are not adjacent in the text) reveals them as more or less closely connected; they ignite each other. The elegance too is not there for its own sake, but is part of the procedure.

 

(2007)

 


Alice Notley, "In Forgetting" (from In the Pines, 2007)

 

[First published in Intercapillary Space as part of Constellation: Alice Notley, a collaboration between Birkbeck Centre for Poetics, Openned, and IS...]

 

 

 

Why should I respect, or convince, or even interest you?

 

In the Pines (2007) is a stifling book. Apart from its unrelenting animosity towards the reader - this was the book's first line, the final poem is called "Beneath You" - it exists entirely in a death chamber. If the title poem is, as the back cover proposes, a lament, then the word lament does not include elegy. Do not look here for poetry's starry recreation of past, for conferring immortality on the good times, for

 

                   thou in this shalt find thy monument,

When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.

 

But here: "I remember no-one's fine eyes; I remember no-one's large heart"; "the story is false. Why is the story generated? For beauty's sake?"; "I'm almost telling this story but I'm not going to. The old kinds of details aren't right any more"; "but if they say what you did, that isn't what you did".

 

Here the dead are the dead, unless they are still dying, it is death that is remembered, its negativity that is upheld, The book is about no-one, nothing, denying that things exist. This negativity, well it's cheap of me but it seems reasonable to say "this negative theology", I like in "In Forgetting":

 

                  I see bodies in the snow, as I walk out, but I'm dead myself. The entire north knows this. He took the manitou on his knee and I succumbed. So why read the murder book? The only real murder is mine.

                  As I fly above the white north. Wonder who's dead and if their souls will appear.

                   Everyone in this land is a frozen eyeless heartless forgetting.

                   One might recognize the form of someone you knew; you won't know if this one recognizes you. You may not know exactly what recognition is, if they have killed you.

                   Well someone has. Do you care who kiled you?

                   There is a walrus-like man, a silkie, in the night exchange coming towards me. He walks upright and would like to say something, but the counter-exchange is formless; my words are lost.

 

Notley doesn't talk about a cloud of forgetting, she doesn't like clouds or food (it sounds too positive), the forgetting is just called forgetting, and it is formless. How does one bring formlessness into a poem? By misdescribing the form (lament, noir fiction), or by tattered, defective forms. In the Pines, quite as much as Kenny Goldsmith, is indifferent to the writing of good poems, though what does get written dispenses also with the acceptable surfaces of the game or the forecast. I think it's a committed private endeavour, a search for contact "in those rooms where we can no longer touch our lovers, because their skin hurts, or touch them with words they can answer", a shamanistic search for a soul. If it's in any way directed towards the world of the living, it's not about aesthetics, it's an instruction.

 

To catch the full force of the book's hostility to being "read", it helps to be a male reader, but any reader is going to examplify the "he structure" ("something is of interest if the he structure says so"). As we stand, all culture is corrupt, the reader is an institution of the culture and so is everything else; there is no nature in In the Pines, or rather, it is just as acculturated as everything else: "if I'm the earth or ocean, you have ruined me". 

 

This poem begins: "Because he took that strange girl on his knee." Which is a perfect image of betrayal, abuse or love, or all three together, or who is to judge which? Is there love which is not abusive and a betrayal? In this false culture? How deep will this radical negativity cut?

 

It's interesting her eyes are torn places.

 

The weight of denunciation in "interesting" is clear enough. In "Beneath You" that sarcasm smoulders on:

 

In my crushed-out                 eyes I beautifully

 

.........

 

 

working for you my-

self. which took lives

in this crushed-out room where

all times come, between the

spokes of my broken irises

there's no one who can sing like me.

 

In the Pines comes up to breathe only twice, once in part 14 of the title poem, the already celebrated section about the world tree that had also appeared in Grave of Light (2006), and which Notley reads memorably in a soundclip on Third Factory (http://www.thirdfactory.net/lipstick.php?id=P119). The second time is on the book's last page, but here I'm not sure if the gulp of air we take isn't mostly to do with the white space that signals that this bruising encounter is finally ending. The real work of the book is elsewhere, not in these stray concessions.

 

Make nothing of this; to be this negative is an action with no known flower yet, but I prize it, I said.

 

(2008)


My haul (hours in a library) (2008)

 

 

PART 1...

 

Comfortably secured from anything like real poverty, the extreme parsimony of one who has merely over-extended himself is more of a luxury than a constraint. While my friend at work treated himself to a shotgun, ninety quid's worth of cartridges, an iPod Nano G3 and a KFC Variety Bucket, we window-shopped for a bar of chocolate.

 

So there was a book sale in the reference library near where I work. There is something liberating about the mere act of taking books away from a reference library, but in my present state of indigence I did not indulge myself very much. I bought, for 20p, a book about Henri Michaux which abundantly conveyed (or rather, reiterated) the author's enthusiasm for Michaux, and there matters stayed. It seemed that the book sale was not a great success. These, of course, are the kind of books that no-one wants to read any more, but that doesn't bother me much, a lot of my lifelong tastes (e.g. for Scott) have been determined by what I could pick up for almost nothing. A few weeks went by, and then appeared an offer that I really couldn't refuse. For the last few days of the sale, we were encouraged to fill an ample plastic bag to the brim and to pay only a pound for the whole lot.

 

So vast an influx of literature could not, of course, be entirely read through, and perhaps I scarcely intended it. What follows therefore is in the spirit of Pierre Bayard, the result as much of surveying as of reading.

 

Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classic). I never get very far with his poetry, but I really enjoyed the early and unfinished Platonic dialogue about the leaf of the horse-chestnut tree, which involves itself ever deeper in imponderable difficulties.

 

Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz - two volumes of selected poems in English translation. I've only glanced at the introductions - these two poets who came of age during the German occupation and who drew from it such different ideas for their art. This reminds me that Enright (see above) wrote scornfully of the dire influence of all such translations of foreign poetry into English,  with the sole exception of Cavafy. Well, I like translationese. Reading it certainly breaks you out of that sad conception of "verse". It probably doesn't even matter much whether the poetry being translated is "good" or not. Venturi and all those currently fashionable protestations about allowing the foreignness to come through are just continuations of Enright. As if you could possibly prevent it! As if you are even in a position to know what is foreign!

 

Phaedrus - like the Hopkins, this is a book I've owned and read once or twice before. I don't hold on to these kind of books, I let them go knowing they'll come by again. "It's lucky I came out without shoes. You, of course, never wear them. Our easiest way is to get our feet wet and walk in the stream" - this walk by the Ilissus might contribute unduly to my fondness for this dialogue - though Socrates is portrayed as a thorough urbanite. It's only quite recently that I've understood that both Plato and Aristotle represent quite a conservative line within the broader context of Athenian culture. 

 

The Rise of the Greek Epic, by Gilbert Murray. This irresistible book would have helped with that. (This was the one book in my haul that I immediately read from cover to cover.) It was mostly written around 1906, and gives the most comprehensive explanation I've ever seen of what "Homer" is (and by the way of the conditions of Athenian Tragedy). The subsequent history of Murray's theories I do not know - to what extent later scholars have rejected or accepted them. What's enthralling is the quality of the searching questions that are addressed here - Murray begins with the uniqueness of the Homeric poems as a datum and as something that demands explanation; he ends up with a detailed image of the "ancient book" as a collaborative evolution that is even more unique than we supposed - it was fascinating to read this back to back with

 

Teach Yourself Postmodernism, by Glenn Ward (1997). I suppose a lot of people get their postmodernism from primers rather than primary sources; I certainly do, and even so these contacts are fleeting, I remain quite ignorant. It seems that my conception of Baudrillard's hyperreality (drawn as I recall from another primer) was largely mistaken, if this one is to be believed. Now I have two conceptions, both with explanatory potential, and I'm not really bothered about resolving them. It's sobering to find that a lot of what I imagined to be my own more original ideas are in fact just part of the zeitgeist, the kind of things that everyone is thinking these days.

 

Two hundred poems from the Greek Anthology, trans. Robin Skelton (1971). This selection mainly represents (in spicy tetrameters) the gentlemen-authors among the whores and boys, giving vent to every fantasy in prospect and every cynicism in retrospect.

 

I wish I were a nodding rose

for you to watch me bud and blow,

and pluck me with that slender hand

and press me to your breasts of snow.

 

Balzac's Comédie Humaine, by Herbert J. Hunt, 1959. Balzac's work is so vast that being a Balzacian scholar is necessarily a way of life - Hunt has absorbed certain qualities of Balzac's aesthetic into his prose style, where they do more harm than good; it's rough going, (tougher still if your French isn't perfect, books on French Lit were at this time language-mosaics; it was then assumed that the reader of literature knew a basic toolkit of four or five  languages), -  and Hunt doesn't seem to want to think very much about what he is reading (contrast Gilbert Murray, above) - "Grandmother Tonsard is one of Balzac's most colourful old hags..." etc.  Clearly the book contains a vast quantity of information, but it strikes me the only way to understand what this information means is to read the whole of the Comédie humaine first. Balzac is one of my very favourite writers, but the idea of ever doing that is monstrous, it would be suicide.

 

The Plays of Roswitha, trans. Christopher St. John (1923). More commonly known as Hroswitha, she was a tenth-century nun in the convent of Gandersheim in Saxony. These plays are quite exciting. Hroswitha is an auteur who loves the quick dissolve, chiaroscuro, multiple viewpoints and 30-year jump-cuts. She knew the Roman dramatists, but she didn't find any of this in Terence. What she did find, and systematically inverted, were plays in which women were compliant: her own plays are fierce celebrations of militant chastity. DIOCLETIAN. Enough of this presumptuous chatter. The rack shall put an end to it. IRENA. That is what we desire. We ask nothing better than to suffer the most cruel tortures for the love of Christ. ..... CHIONIA. Your Emperor has ordered you to put us to death, and you must obey, as we scorn his decree. If you were to spare us out of pity, you also would die.

 

This takes me to nearly the bottom of my first shopping-bag. Oh, didn't I mention? - on the final day of the sale I went and filled up another one. More to follow when the feast of gloating has finally calmed down.

 

*

 

PART 2...

 

 

OK, let's get on with it.

 

The Literature of the Highlands, by Magnus Maclean (new and extended edn, 1925). "After receiving a fair classical education, and while yet a student, this wayward fondling of the Muse fell in love with a Glen Etive damsel, Jane Macdonald of Dalness, or Sine bheag nam brogan buidhe (Little Jean with the yellow shoes), as she was locally called, and this winsome maid he married..." (this is about Alexander Macdonald). Not much of whatever may be interesting in the subject (Scots Gaelic poetry, 18th-19th century) is still interesting when it's been translated into sweet Victorian parlour-lyric. Besides, there's a filtering process at work so we hear nothing of what would shock us in Alexander Macdonald's "Praise of Morag" ("His amorous language, indeed, needs frequent asterisks at the hands of publishers and translators"), nor of his 1735 pamphlet with the promising title "An Essay upon Improving and Adding to the Strength of Great Britain and Ireland by Fornication". The terms of critical language create their own story, in this case entirely distinct from the story I think I want to hear. "'William Ross,' says Pattison, 'is a graceful poet, perhaps the most polished of any of the Highland minstrels; although he is certainly inferior to more than one of them in point of strength and energy. He is tender and easy and plaintive.' He delighted in pastoral poetry, of which he seized the true and genuine spirit, and in his descriptions of nature is very sweet and pretty. His 'Praise of the Highland Maid' is a masterpiece of its kind..."

 

Tres pasos en falso, by E. Jarnés Bergua (1970) - detective novel for students of Basic Spanish; very fascinating. I spent about half my time speculating about the intended audience, apparently good enough at Spanish to negotiate the astoundingly ingenious reasoning of the investigator, yet sufficiently unacquainted with Spanish life to benefit from laborious explanations of eg. cigarettes, nerves, facts, saying goodbye, and even smiling (to laugh without noise). It was only just now that the penny dropped, that the book being designed for readers from any country cannot translate any of its unknown words but only indicate their meanings by using Basic Spanish itself. The other half of my time was spent admiring the darkly intricate story and the bizarre perspectives of the illustrations - e.g. of falling masonry as seen from overhead. Reading a story in another language massively intensifies its effect; what would be beneath notice in English disturbed my dreams for several nights with an impression of desolate sadness. 

 

The Works of Sir George Etherege, vol. 1 - containing a lively account of the author's scandalous life (most of it comes after his brief dalliance with the theatre), and also The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub (1664), - the first real Restoration Comedy, though still partly intermixed with heroick love in couplets. It's difficult to read it without thinking of the brilliant new genre that would solidify immediately afterwards and as a direct result of this play (but from which such transitional vestiges as e.g. a dejected lover falling on his sword would be utterly sloughed off). 

 

Land in Bloom, by V. Safonov. This won the Stalin Prize in 1949. Pentti Saarikoski (I am still reading Saarikoski in the midst of all this), struggling with Le breton sans peine, reflected: "Lenin's method of language study was brutal: he read his way through a dictionary and a grammar book, then proceeded to construct sentences. He was equally impatient in his construction of the Soviet state. Never would he have put up with this idea of proceeding in daily twenty-minute increments. Everything had to be done now, not on the fifteenth." Safonov's Lysenko is also like this. "Perhaps it was only his perseverance, his extraordinary thirst for knowledge and his undeviating pursuit of the road he had chosen that distinguished him from the rest. And one other very characteristic feature: for him, knowledge was something that was immediately put into practice... The fact that, having arrived in Ganja in the autumn, he did not wait until the spring to commence work on his legumes, already revealed the 'Lysenko style'." The result was a demolition of the fallacious "laws" of the spluttering Morganist Mendelists, representatives of the science of the West in terminal decline. For, as Michurin said: "We cannot wait for favours from Nature: we must wrest them from her." Johann Eichfeld, interviewed by Safonov, explained: "One must not mark time in science. Not on anything, not on any theory - like the theory of intraspecific struggle. Ossification means death for the researcher." He held a book in his hand, "one that he, evidently, was constantly consulting, for its margins were heavily annotated and numerous passages were underscored... He put on his spectacles and read the following: 'Content is impossible without form, but the point is that a given form, since it lags behind its content, never fully corresponds to this content; and so the new content is obliged to clothe itself for a time in the old form, and this causes a conflict between them.' These words, the utterance of a genius, sum up the dialectics of the development of the science that casts aside the old, that seeks the new, and pushes ever forward. They are the words of Stalin..." (Robert M. Young shared my fascination .... )  http://marx.org/subject/science/essays/young.htm.

 

Soil Biotechnology, by J. M. Lynch (1983). This does not, for the most part, mean genetic engineering (then a technology in its infancy) - it means, more generally, "manipulation of soil micro-organisms and their metabolic processes to optimize plant productivity". In that sense cultivation, straw mulching and burning, fertilizers and pesticides are also biotechnology. The two irritants of the proponents of a "sound scientific basis" are snake-oil salesmen selling miracle preparations and emotive, inaccurate, environmentalists. But the author is reasonably fair: "it is interesting that organic farmers using composts as a basis for their system seldom encounter major pathogen problems...  Organic systems include the composting of plants and animal wastes, the science of which is generally poorly understood." More generally an adequate grasp of the entire ecology of what one is manipulating seems not to have been attained: the science has tended to be funded where significant money is at stake, i.e. to treat specific problems of current conventional methods, a kind of patching-up. Facts thus drift in a void, but some of the facts in the book catch my eye, e.g.: "Most plants form non-pathogenic associations between their roots and fungi (mycorrhiza): the sedges, crucifers, some chenopodiaceae (e.g. sugar-beet) and certain aquatics are the exceptions".

 

Rubens, by Kristin Lohse Belkin (Phaidon, 1998), who writes persuasively of the linked themes of peace and women in his later allegories. But basically, this is the kind of art book you get for the illustrations; a large and excellent selection, though of course there's no shortage of material - it doesn't show e.g. the National Gallery Judgement of Paris [http://michaelpeverett.com/rubens.htm]. When I want to read about Rubens - or Van Eyck, Rembrandt, or Cuyp, - I'll always drift back to Eugène Fromentin's lovable classic, but it's even more rewarding to read him while keeping this book open at e.g. the Antwerp altarpieces. The only time I ever wept in an art gallery was in front of the Chateau de Steen landscape, much to my own surprise. Hysteria, I thought as I hid my face. Must be a bit over-wrought. Nothing to do with the stupid painting. Which to a large extent was true, but somehow Rubens has happened to punctuate my life at important moments. His paintings, therefore, become portals to an inrush of memory. What do these private associations have to do with the character of an art? Nothing worth public discussion - ?

 

Diplomat, by Gunnar Hagglof. Memoirs of distinguished service as a Swedish Envoy, including during the Second World War. This golden era of diplomacy depended on an upper-class cultivation of non-specialist hunches, in turn on the conception of national types - "I have never found it rewarding to try to define the 'character' of a nation," Hagglof sensibly remarks, but the zeitgeist was too strong for him, so he spent the next couple of pages doing exactly that about Germany. The book slips down easily - Hagglof, of course, knew "everyone" - the usual anecdotes about Goering, Roosevelt, Gide, Eliot... the raison d'être of memoirs is to lay bare what was confidential at the time, but something makes this less than arresting - a feeling that the author's temperament remains innately diplomatic...

 

Our Lady of the Sewers: And other Adventures in Deep Spain, by Paul Richardson, 1998. Of all the books in my pile of treasures, this was the one that, before opening it, afflicted me with a feeling that it didn't fit; it looked like the kind of book that sells to casual passers-by and keeps the book trade alive. The author, columnist for Harpers, the Sunday Times, etc seems to meet in Spain a sort of analogue of his own media conceptions; searching for "Deep Spain", the disappearing Spain that still resists homogenization, he keeps finding media events. For authenticity is itself an imaginative projection of media culture (this is Baudrillard's hyperrealism in one of the senses I've learnt to give it) - inexplicable search for a lost paradise. (This reminds me that Richardson speaks of "shiny happy po-mo Barcelona" - in contrast to Vigo, "rough-edged Atlantic port city,... rusty, musty, sad...") - This is bookmaking, luxuriantly stuffed with facts, not because anyone will ever seek them here, but because facts go into the mix. Richardson uses words like "unfazed", "downside" and probably "into the mix" - perhaps I have a snobbish problem with ffinding these chatty contemporary Islington Barcelona words in the books on my shelves? - Still, I did learn a few things. "The downside of whitewashing is that it leaves your hands feeling like dried-up bits of leather, But for this, too, deep Spain has a solution. A leaf of the aloe cactus, which grows wild all over the south, is broken and the jelly inside is smeared on the skin, for near-instant healing.... The dog barked and bared its teeth at her... she reached inside her dress and discreetly rubbed her right hand under her left arm, holding out this hand for the dog to sniff. Instant recognition, instant respect..." To be honest the more I quarrel with the book the more I begin to discover a friendly feeling towards it. Isn't this essay of mine, also, a diverting concoction of facts?

 

 

PART 3...

 

Alarcón, El sombrero de tres picos (1874).  I read this in English a long time ago but can't remember anything about it, and my reading of the Spanish is so painfully slow that nothing has yet happened. But this caught my eye in the introduction: "Surprising to say, the Eco de Occidente [magazine started by the young author and a hometown friend] fared far better than most little magazines. In a short time Alarcón found himself with sufficient funds to be able to start out to seek his fortune without any help from home.." This unlikely success, I am sure, is not unconnected with how Alarcón's literary career afterwards went so wrong, declining into persecuted conservatism. It just isn't right that a little magazine should actually make a profit.

 

A selection from Modern Swedish Poetry translated in the original metres by C.D. Locock (1929). The poets in question are not what we would call modern: the young Karin Boye just sneaks in at the end, but this basically covers the period of her predecessors, Oscar Levertin, Verner von Heidenstam, Anders Österling, and E. A. Karlfeldt, gaily sad, rather portly Prufrocks for the most part, who mildly rebel, or dreamily escape, from the oppressive uprightness of Swedish society.

 

Our Lund is conquered - hath no choice at all:

Off bubbles Winter through the sluices brimming,

And Easter brings - alive! - in Persian shawl

Ghosts of quite unexpected little women!  (Österling, from "Spring comes to Lund")

 

Vainly now in grey October pryest thou mid rocks and islands:

No new Venus, bridal-vested, craves thine escort o'er the sea:

Thou art God of the dumb fishes - through thy realms of gloomy silence

No sea Flora passes scattering sunny blue anemones.

 

Goodly storehouses thou ownest, halls beneath the deep waves sunken,

Gorging priceless roe and draining many a shipwrecked flask of rum;

And that figurehead thou bearest, ruddy, shaggy-haired and drunken,

Smiles contented thro' thy dreams of pleasures past - and yet to come?

(Karlfeldt, from "Ode to the Autumnal Neptune")

 

Richard Borshay Lee, The !Kung San: men, women and work in a foraging society (1979).

 

This is a detailed study of the last days of one of the last groups of hunter-gatherers, - nearly detailed enough to use as a survival manual -  and I think the reference library is impoverished for not still having it on its shelves. In truth, I don't think many people visit the reference library to look at the books unless they are on local subjects. It seems to be mainly visited for its computers - (by the way, the South West Grid for Learning bars access to all sites ending in "blogspot.com", thus preventing public library users from encountering many of the most best sites about modern poetry, among much else. Probably the users themselves couldn't care less about that, but it seems wrong). Anyway, back to the !Kung San. One abiding impression of Lee's book is that the hunter-gatherers are very like us; they are about as superstitious as we are, no more. Because his study covered several stays that were years apart, it usefully points up how life changed quite dynamically, and at roughly our kind of pace: for example, plants that were widely eaten in one season were never seen to be eaten again - most earlier anthropological studies were too short to generalize safely from, they just recorded a snapshot. I liked the following exchange: - Lee noticed that the !Kung preferred boiled meat to roasted meat, so he asked: '"How did you !Kung live long ago before you got the iron cooking pots from the white man?"  /Twi!gum regarded me with a twinkle in his eye and replied, "It is well-known that people can't live without iron cooking pots, so we must have died!"' (Those apparently diacritical marks refer to various kinds of click produced with an ingressive air stream - there are four,  / is a dental click, ! is alveopalatal - try it... )

 

Lope de Vega, El Castigo sin Venganza (1631)

 

Curious that in Spanish stage directions salir means to come onto the stage, not to leave it. But then (I've never thought about this before), why do we say e.g. "Enter Macbeth" and not "Enters Macbeth"? As you might gather, I haven't got very far with this one yet...

 

The Poem of the Cid, trans. W.S. Merwin, 1959.

 

According to Ron Silliman the best translation is by Paul Blackburn, but Merwin's pleased me. As for The Cid itself, I'm not so sure. The image of the poem is laid before us in the first cantar, and everything then is fascinating, the war-lord in enemy country, the fierceness, the bare narrative with its sudden ellipses; but I didn't think much of the story about the heirs of Carrión marrying and disgracing the Cid's daughters - it seemed only on about the level of an episode in a Robin Hood ballad. I suppose I was expecting something with a bit more epic stature, and perhaps this was wrong. Nevertheless, the poem intrigues at the micro-level. Here is the Cid in Valencia, after the arrival of his family, welcoming a Moorish invasion:

 

Delight has come to me

                                       from the lands beyond the sea,

I shall arm myself

                             I cannot evade it,

my wife and my daughters

                                           will see me in battle,

they will see in these foreign lands

                                        how it is that houses are made,

and how we earn our bread

                                 their eyes will be filled with the sight.

 

Misjudging my own response I tried to find some decent criticism on the poem, but it's a curiosity of how Google works that the better-known a literary work is, the harder it is to track down any detailed writing about it; your searches are completely swamped by encyclopaedia summaries written for the very ignorant and school essays written by the very ignorant, interspersed with the usual tantalizing hints of stuff in Jstor and Project Muse that we're not permitted to read and that probably aren't half as exciting as they look when you can only see a few broken phrases.

 

(2008)


Elisabeth Bletsoe, Landscape from a Dream

 

First published in Intercapillary Space.

 

Volumes could be written on this, Elisabeth Bletsoe's intricate Shearsman collection from 2008; here, I won't get much beyond the first page.

 

     intelligence       lies

     at the edge of the body

           in the skin

     along the littoral

     feeling:

 

This is the beginning of the title poem. At the end of the poem there’s a – what would you call it – topographic note: “Purbeck coast from Swanage to Kimmeridge”.  A lot of my thinking around this book, when I move away from the detail, is about regionalism, which has been a big piece of grit in poetry, with a whole lot of questions around it, since Wordsworth. And of course not just in mainstream poetry. Brixton Fractals is a regionalist book. And a re-envisaging of shape/space/time may be particularly connected to regionalism. Elizabeth Bletsoe’s poetry is full of flying dislocation like a post-avant book, and contrastingly full of careful evocation like a mainstream book, and full of bodies of knowledge unrecognized by the academies, like a hippie avalon south-western book, and in short she is exactly what a modern Dorset poet ought to be. But. Would she, for example, be giving a second thought to Paul Nash's surrealist painting (http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999957&workid=10544&searchid=9874&tabview=image) if it had not just happened to incorporate a view of cliffs near Swanage? Doesn't this local repossession of internationalism imply a drastic foreshortening of context? And, by the way, an unsurrealization of Surrealism?

 

The acuter pressure of this issue in regard to Bletsoe as compared to Allen Fisher is twofold: 1. Landscape from a Dream scrupulously suffixes its poems with locations, and never puts a foot outside Dorset. 2. Bletsoe’s poetry is welcoming and immediately attractive and for all its learning pretty accessible, and I’m sure she really does reach a regionalist audience that includes some people who are more interested in matters Dorsetian than they are in the supposedly wider world of poetry, and that audience is something that most P-A poets don’t either have or want.

 

The nearest I can come to understanding this regionalism is via homeopathic provings (Bletsoe is a trainee homeopath), which involve an assertion of place as a definite and individual fact, not just something that "happens to be". I "happened to find" this well-documented account (http://www.maryenglish.co.uk/stantondrew1.html) of a proving of Stanton Drew (stone circle near Bristol), if you'd like to take it further. 

 

This intelligence of the coast is two-way: here the exposures are what give names to Jurassic sedimentary stratigraphic formations that course through Europe – Kimmeridge Clay, Portland, Purbeck. That geological map is an intellectual construction, true. Kimmeridge Clay is economically very important because of the hydro-carbons on offer. You may think that the poem is aware of this larger context, though it doesn't say so as such.

 

the weight of the cumulux

      hearing:

your tidal breath

filling my cavities

in liquid carbonic interchange

 

fissility of shale, its

       slaking,

plasticising when wet;

relict textures of petechial haemorrhage,

 

spermatozoa,

        saliva,

                   oil

foliaceous, split-

layered like fingernails, revealing

the stem-ossicles of a crinoid

                   ghosting

 

shattering

      with equinox

 

 

nb "cumulux" maybe isn't a neologism, I don't have the OED to hand, but it is anyway a very rare word, though adopted by that fast-emerging Canadian player in the cloud-computing market.

 

nb "equinox". I first thought to say that this was a neat, Latinate, intellectual way of referring to the rhythms of freeze-and-thaw erosion. Does it ever freeze right down on the Dorset coast-line? More to the point, probably, is the "x" in cumulux, texture, equinox..., visually representing the shattered X-shapes of shale exposure.

 

On to the next page, and we're swimming.

 

walled up inside

translute bricks of water

 

....

 

making a slip,

             slipping in

grafting on a limb

to a limb, fused

       & drifting

                through the amnion

in marbrine light

 

above our bodies,

the underneath of the surface envelope

         is an ametrine laminate

 

 

nb "marbrine", from old French, e.g. memorably in Ronsard, or Aucassin and Nicolette: "A la fenestre marbrine / La s'apoia la mescine" (at the marble window the girl leaned out). Bletsoe borrows the word because its "ine" sound suggests transparency to English-speakers - ultramarine, piscine, tourmaline etc.

 

*

 

Landscape from a Dream is, kind of refreshingly, just a bunch of poems and not a project. I don’t mean this is rare in poetry generally, but it’s rare in the kind of poets that I like to read. There are basically six poems, and each one is a world to itself, and four of them, at least, have the dumbfounding clarity of recently-witnessed miracles. Apart from “Landscape from a Dream”, the others are:

 

“The Separable Soul” which goes into a kind of sustained take-off, as if the swan’s water-beating were effortless.

 

“Birds of the Sherborne Missal” which is a kind of reinvention of the art of illumination, in words.

 

River-ephemera gather at Smear’s Bridge: pollen spicules, florets of eltrot, a meniscoid bulging.

 

Four women-from-Hardy-novels monologues – (they don’t have a collective title) – not very reminiscent of Hardy, or of novels. In fact a transformation, whose distance from Hardy is there to be measured and wondered at.

 

swollen, we are twin horns

you standing at the mouth of a shining-walled labyrinth

 

*

 

Through all those poems the vocabulary is gripping, the realization more so. At some point I planned to compare or to contrast  this:

 

 

                                               their flames

Light a sycamore-key, turning it to old gold

As it unicycles gently down to the table.

 

Peter Redgrove, "The Feast Under the Clitoris-Tree" from Abyssophone (1995).

 

My original point, I supposed, was to compare the sensuality of that well-placed Latinate word. But now I think it was because Redgrove is also a poet of transformative miracles. Either way the comparison is inevitable and Bletsoe must have been dogged by it all through her career. OK, so it's lazy thinking, I just love to quote Redgrove. But her poetry can stand that comparison, I hope I've quoted enough to show. As the "Hardy" poem epitomizes, regionalism is transcended in the action of the poetry. And surrealism, though some will resist this suggestion, re-surrealized.

 

(2010)


Tony Lopez: Darwin (2009)

 

(First published in Intercapillary Space).

 

Darwin, which will form part of a larger work called Only More So, consists of a photograph of Icelandic mountainside, a dirty snowstreak below and a whiter skystreak above, and of ten sections each containing 55 sentences. The sections are convincingly paragraphed and, seen from a distance without reading them, have the same appearance as any other bit of discursive prose that you might catch sight of without knowing what it's discursing about. But when you settle down to read, it becomes clear that the text is a collage of found sentences from numerous sources. Here is a fairly randomly-chosen extract:

 

A regular series of lists and brochures will keep you in touch with the latest finds and best deals of the moment. He came from California and his father was an inventor. This test would satisfy most philosophers but not all people. On August 12, 1992, John Cage died. Paintings are not spread all over the entire surface of the cave walls. There is a Michelin map of the railway route at the top left, balancing the title information. I called on the secretary to show my passport. Standing alone in another cavity is an indeterminate figure that could be either an unfinished animal or human. The tubes, as I have already remarked, enter the sand nearby in a vertical direction. Plate 15 is a very similar shot to Brassaï's plate 54: trees in bloom, for example. The Turing Test was the first serious proposal in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Skinny whales arrived in Mexico after swimming from the far reaches of the Arctic Ocean. This vase was deliberately deformed by carving and incising, giving it a rough appearance. The manifesto version is both longer (three pages opposed to two) and more typographically daring. More than 50 still visible imprints indicate that prehistoric people walked over the cave floor. This curriculum kept alive the memory of other avant-garde artists. We had never realised what mudguards were for but by the time we arrived in Nancy we knew.

 

Lopez could, if he'd wanted, have annotated the sources of all these sentences; as Giles Goodland did in Capital, where the annotations become part of the form. Both books draw attention to a certain transparency in the manufacture, but the transparencies are of different sorts. The nature of Lopez's sentences in Darwin is overwhelmingly discursive: written, formal, serious, informative. Reading a paragraph such as this, one is not shocked by drastic changes of voice or social context: on the contrary, a certain uniformity in the voice and the nature of the writing being essayed is apparent. This is the kind of thing that educated people, academics, literary authors, broadsheet journalists, produce in huge quantity.

 

The sources, though not given, do not present any particular difficulty. Though there are a handful of wilder sentences in Darwin, one or two of which I like to imagine were composed or deranged by Lopez himself, the others easily betray the kind of source from which they come, and since Lopez tends to work the same source repeatedly we soon become aware of chains of sentences, now separated from each other, that clearly originated in the same ur-text.

 

In the extract above, for example, we have what might be the first and last sentences of a short bio of John Cage, a couple of sentences by Darwin himself (a pervasive presence throughout) , and several sentences from an account of the cave paintings at Lascaux. The Lascaux piece is a recurrent source of Darwin's material; other recurrent sources that show up here include the history of artificial intelligence, the article about polar ice-melt and its impact on whales, a lightweight introduction to philosophy (of the Anglo-Saxon variety), and Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which contributes the final sentence.

 

Darwin, most lovable and readable of scientists, is the primary source and by some distance the oldest. You might understand the book as a portrait of intellectual endeavour in a post-Darwinian world. Not only are the other sentences more recent than Darwin in fact, but arguably not one of them could have been written without the influx of comprehension that we associate with his name - and this is no less true of the art history and the journalism than of the science: whatever the topic, our thoughts are inflected by concepts of evolution, growth, animal, plant and planet that are entirely different from what could have been thought before Darwin.  

 

The scale of that influx is difficult to grasp, because earlier writers naturally write about what they know, not about what they don't know. But sometimes the chasm opens at our feet. It usually requires an original and lively mind - such as the engraver Thomas Bewick writing a footnote to his memoir in 1822 - to reveal it:

 

Ants. The history and œconomy of these very curious insects are (I think) not well known - they appear to manage all their affairs, with as much forethought and greater industry than mankind; but to what degree their reasoning and instructive powers extend is yet a mistery. After they have spent a certain time toiling on earth, they then change this abode, get wings, and soar aloft into the atmosphere. It is not well known what state they undergo, before they assume this new character, nor what becomes of them after. 

 

It's not much of an exaggeration to claim that a general (though doubtless not very exact) knowledge of flying ants has now reached every person in western society: they are understood to be, at the least, something known to someone else (e.g. to the people on the TV), a commonplace of August. In contrast, the "boggles, ghosts and apparitions" who terrified the young Bewick's Northumberland mates (in other respects so madly courageous) into keeping the house at night, have faded into nothing. 

 

The material of which Darwin is largely composed is scrupulously high-minded and very properly concerned with the environmental problems that must have seemed so distant on the Beagle yet were already in an unseen way being brought into existence by trade, industry, affluence, health and civilization. The wonderment and observation of Darwin's consciousness, and of others like him, made perception of those environmental problems possible. Yet the scientific consciousness is not without stain itself. In Darwin animal testing comes before us with notable frequency. Though no academic now protests against what used to be called vivisection (unlike those otherwise opposed spirits of the 1950s, C. S. Lewis and Brigid Brophy), still, it leaves the effect of a question mark. If our damage of the planet's ecosystems has often been ignorant, yet exploitation is the fruit of knowledge: science, which sees the effects of our behaviour, also enables it.

 

Darwin, composed out of bits of discursive prose - itself a highly artificial production, though consensually accepted as normal - is also an examination of it.  Isn't there a lurking incongruity between the dry serenity of tone and the earth-shaking nature of the subjects discussed that is, maybe, something less than human? Here the notable absence of spoken sentences in Darwin, of language in its principal use, can begin to affect us as a kind of claustrophobia. There is an absence of the domestic - so far so good, you may think. Yet along with this absence, there is paradoxically a vein of infantilism, for example in that philosophy primer ("There is no hippopotamus in this room at present"), in the material about AI, in Darwin's own charming humility and in the quirky childishness of Stein's prose. As if intellectuals are somehow not quite grown up. "We get more done by not doing what someone else is doing", as one of the sentences fatuously (yet questionably) remarks.   

 

It is possible to admire Darwin as an aesthetic pattern built out of the materials of discursive prose. Ron Silliman (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2009/07/last-week-when-i-was-having-my-way-with.html) has written about this, and I too have felt that unfathomable depth, which Ron characterizes as "more lush than Proust". You could explain this effect as a sort of double-plus realistic fiction in which the prose goes beyond evoking real events by actually containing the events: because a sentence once used in sober earnest by another writer is among other things a historical event. (By contrast, consider the mere muddiness produced by only referring - not quoting - as frequently evinced by the discursers themselves, e.g. "Dickens refers to the industrial coal-produced pollution that shrouded and choked nineteenth-century London".)

 

But Ron's approach poses, for me, the central question about Darwin. Is it best understood as an independent artwork that merely seizes on the abundantly rich materials of discursive prose and makes its own use of them, or does it succeed in making a direct contribution to the universal debates instantiated by the quoted sources? It's really only the latter view that deeply interests me.

 

Darwin becomes an enquiry into discursive prose itself because of the remarkable properties of decontextualized sentences. Or rather, the properties of our readings of those sentences, which eagerly seek clues to the missing context, and thus super-sensitize us to sociolinguistic and other markers, that is, to precisely the aspects of language that the conventions of discursive prose seek to play down as embarrassing distractions. The decontextualized view is pitiless.

 

An easy example is this: "Two women, one of them blind, were walking the footpath on the edge of Sandy Bay Caravan park." I suppose everyone will recognize this as the opening sentence of some piece of popular fiction - it's just too obvious what kind of writing this is: the intriguing detail intended to draw us in, combined with the anxiety to get a few names established as quickly as possible. Or, equally suggestive of its source: "Do you get anxious if you can't drink your cups of tea at the same time each day?" Just because it is so easy to identify the character of their source-texts, the decontextualized view exposes these sentences as profoundly artificial, only passing muster within a framework of social conventions. It's surprising how many of the sentences in Darwin, in its pitiless light of decontextualization, reveal themselves as quite badly put together, as if the kind of thing they are attempting is after all rather difficult to achieve. Misspellings and stylistic mishaps glow blandly at us. But it's not only style and syntax that are exposed. Facts reveal themselves as questionable: "Autobiography is notoriously a charter for dissemblance and rationalisation." One becomes pedantic: certainly, autobiography may sometimes dissemble and sometimes rationalize, just as a street may contain a crime, but is the street a charter for crime? Don't we discern behind the tough pose of "notoriously" the timid recognition that "I know some of you people are going to think what I'm saying isn't terribly original"? Vague generalizations, bluffly appropriated assertions, come rolling into view, display a terrible chasm of lost thought, and then disperse into the shallows: "The nature of whole landscapes has been transformed by human-induced vegetation change"; "In these cantos, vast spaces intervene between ruler and subject, giving the relationship an almost iconic quality"; "The medieval artist was a craftsman with no desire for personal expression (the concept would have been meaningless)..."

 

But would any of these unnaturally magnified flounderings have amounted to anything when the sentences were locked into their original contexts? It's like when you turn the sound down on the box and watch the news: we've all done it, and have all been struck by how mad the whole performance then appears. Are these real insights, or just tactical sniping? Isn't discursive prose, with all of its chasms, nevertheless the only way in which a global community can discourse on science and art and politics at all? So you'd be mad to turn the sound down?

 

And really, we are talking about only a few of the sentences in Darwin. I don't have, nor do you, any slighting remark to make about, for example, "The strong force is carried by eight particles known as gluons". But the small betrayals mentioned above are nonetheless indicative. While the conventions of discursive prose seek to eliminate gender-markings, class-markings, ethnicity-markings, all the irrelevant particularities of the author, yet we know that the author is so marked and is, in other words, a mere human being. It does not seem simply a good thing that this human provenance is obscured: when the reader's awareness of it is lost, we end up with holy books; with marvellous things like "Homer" and the Bible. But scientific writing, especially, should never thicken into holiness. Darwin, as angry and humane as any of Lopez' writings -  as, say,  "When You Wish. . ."  -  compels us to see all discursive prose as thin, hopeful, problematic, heuristic, and uncontrolled: and to see its problems as ours. 

 

*

 

Note:

 

The relevance of Lascaux to Darwin, as a paradigm case of the interwoven threads of discovery, admiration and ruin, was well outlined recently in a piece by Clayton Eshleman that I read on Pierre Joris' Nomadics (http://pierrejoris.com/blog/?p=2937).

 

(2010)

 

A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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