By Peter Riley.
Variations on Painting a Room: poems 2000-2010.
Skysill Press 2011. 198pp. £10.95
Shearsman Books 2012. 114pp. £8.95
The Pursuit of Happiness.
Shearsman Books 2012. 96pp. £8.95
The Marble Orchard.
Shearsman Books 2012. 88pp. £8.95
Waters of the Night: complete poems 1974-84.
Caparison. 62pp. £10.
Itinerant Press (from Longbarrow Press). Concertina format, 10pp. £10. Edition of 40 copies signed.
I SUPPOSE THE “books received” column is often assumed to be the spare parts department – various products which nobody wants to say much about, and which don’t add up to anything. In fact, given the amount of poetry publishing that goes on now, many a choice item is likely to end up in this bin, and the lack of a parameter offers the possibility of gaining glimpses of what’s going on across the field – all the various things that poets get up to. Some of the books I have to deal with here leave this reviewer rather baffled, which may be a fault of the book, or of the reviewer, or possibly of some entity larger than either of these.
Alan Baker’s is to a degree one of these. The book is dominated by a long sequence of 64 prose pieces, “The Book of Random Access”. Outwardly this is a congenial ramble, or a meditational diary: ideas, observations, quotations, descriptions, reminiscences, travels. There is a great sense of a calm, unthreatened but critical position towards the world. The pieces are like letters to an equal, freely cruising among today’s thoughts and observations, pointing in any direction, mocking the cant of politicians and advertisers, in fact free to range over the whole perceptual field accessible to us in modernity except the technical – he is not drawn into specialised vocabularies but operates within a democratic sense of accessibility. You feel it could go anywhere at any moment and yet there are hints at a purposeful unfolding of subject-matter, even grand themes. It is never drawn into a bitter or violent tone but is nevertheless capable of moving swiftly and unexpectedly from one percept to the next.
The prose is stuffed with quotations, skilfully woven into the texture without visible joins. A lot of poems, pop lyrics, news, books, but also, noticeably, quite a few encyclopædia entries on major topics such as “Time”, and a lot from Buddhist texts and commentaries. These last, and the beliefs we can presume from them, are obviously very important to Baker, but they fortunately don’t result in a predictable evenness, that attitude to the world where everything has equal weight and nothing is allowed to disturb the mind’s equanimity. There is too much energy and even anger in these texts for that.
Some of it I disagree with. Some of it I might find naïve or inconsequential. I might feel that the attention given to pop culture is excessive, or that some statements are cod-philosophy, and one or two other complaints. Some pieces seem to me to generate their own energy and move tellingly across unpredicated fields of attention; others disperse their energy.
But there is a complication. Not only do the 64 pieces follow the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, though we are rarely made aware of the fact, but each piece has exactly 256 words (“64 and 256 are significant numbers in computing”). And he somehow manages it that the last line never dangles untidily, but always reaches the right margin of the justification so that each piece is a solid rectangle of print.
What difference does it make if something you don’t agree with is exactly 256 words long, like its companions? Are you then drawn to sympathise with it in deference to the strictness? I don’t know. Since the human brain does not work like a computer I’m unable to recognise any cognitive necessity in the structure.
I’ve concentrated on this half of the book because although it presents problems it is an impressive undertaking, as if the author has staked out his entire mental life in it. The poems in the rest of the book, especially the sequence at the end, arise confidently from quotidian experience, carefully clipped and richly suggestive. From “Driving Songs” —
revolve on the ring-road
between gear changes
and ferocious word-play
by the Bank of England
what time will I get home
to revive the economy…
Andrew Jordan is a scholar, magician, poet, topographer, historian, autobiographer, revolutionary – most of these and perhaps some more, but operating in little space. Almost the entire book is concerned with Portsdown Hill, a chalk ridge north of Portsmouth, one of those spare pieces of land which has fallen to the military, littered with 19th Century forts now ruined or re-used for both military and civic purposes, and a labyrinth of underground tunnels which were mostly intended as air-raid shelters but the extent of which remains uncertain. The hill is encroached upon by apparently dismal estates and in the vicinity is an office of the “defence giant” Qinetiq, a private company who for a fee will help you to kill people and rule the world. These and other entities inhabit Jordan’s writing as actors in an apocalyptic theatre.
I avoid describing the plot of this drama. Suffice it to say that it is a series of encounters with destructive forces, delvings into concealed and lurking power-focuses, confrontations with anti-democratic war machines and local thuggery and prostitution, and other scenarios. Always the author is the witness, venturing beyond the rational frontier, and he is the medium through which the “consciousness” created at these sites is articulated, for this exploration of nineteenth- and twentieth-century military structures takes on, not without scepticism, the methods by which “new age” believers plotted ley lines and force fields from the forms and mappings of prehistoric monuments and church towers. The drama involves such figures as Mary Millington, “Britain’s first shameless hard-core porn star”, represented as a goddess who becomes the hill itself, and ends with an apocalyptic war between children and adults which represents fictively the final defeat of the destructive forces. There is a particularly effective long walk in the middle, a release of comparative calm, cultivating disorientation and vision.
But the actual discourse does not just wildly pursue alienated and paranoiac vision; it can be both subtle and sceptical, and the self-image in it is courageous and discerning in its abstract thought as much as its ventures into holes in the ground or closed military ruins, in its disclosure of institutional harm at ground level as much as meticulous detailing of topographical forms which translate into mental acts. There is also a prosody, which is not the kind of thing normally taken into account with this kind of poetry; it consists of a use of enjambement, incantatory echoic structuring and paragraphing which constantly urges the writing forward into its adventures.
There might be a problem with belief, but I don’t think there need be. Some might consider the thesis nothing but hippie ravings, but that needn’t matter. The author himself describes it as “A delusional narrative, an ode to oblivion [...] a therapeutic journal [...] a decoy (but not a plan).” I read it as an adventure, a personal narrative of desperation and hope in a bid to encompass individual and total perception, and I’m happy to do so. It is a passionate writing and at its heart is the shaping power of perception. From “Theory: The Self:
The psyche exists within affective walls.
It has a single bank and ditch enclosing
a rectangular precinct surrounding a circular
timber structure which may have been roofed.
The latter appeared to him in a dream
as a series of three concentric V-shaped gullies,
the innermost containing post holes. Two
large post holes flanked an entrance
on the eastern side. This is where the self lurks,
holy mutant, craver, administerer of small things,
an addict swayed by sentiment, stupidly
vain host to thoughts, this dark interior.
It would be difficult to find a greater contrast than between Andrew Jordan and Laurie Duggan. Jordan is sending an urgent message to the world, a revelation; Duggan says on page 81, “almost since I started this notebook I have had ‘nothing to write’ / and I am writing it”. That refers to a section that started 15 pages previously rather than the whole book, but it could apply to a lot of it.
Duggan is an Australian currently living in Kent. His previous books involve a lot of quite substantial poems (“pastoral” in the best sense) as well as a big documentary poem on Australian colonial history, but his writing has more and more taken on a notebook format – strings of various length of small verbal constructs out of what is noticed from day to day. Episodes of a more continuous writing survive, but the mode is generally like that of things noticed and stray thoughts jotted into a notebook he carries everywhere with him. There is of course no guarantee that these are actual notebooks and there are from time to time structural features inserted – recurrences or focuses which are maintained or dispersed. One place, or one mode, might govern the accumulation of separated images, bits of word play, sardonic noticings – all the fragments and squibs which make up these compilations. The first six sections of “Oxenhope Revisited”:
a dormouse in the church car park
a ‘wind farm’ above Haworth
clouds hang on the moors
rain falls on the conservatory
boots dry on the tiles
an umbrella, furled
in the garden
(a soccer ball, a pair
lost on the lawn
visible for miles
frequent dead rabbits
how do you say ‘Brontë’ in Japanese?
This one has some landscape function, but the refusal to do anything but name things (apart from the sixth section, which I don’t understand) is typical. There can be seriousness, but only momentarily; there is often humour, as he is ever alert to wayside absurdities, ever liable to tiny quips or anecdotal mottoes or casual epigrams, but I think that his central interest is in the verbal constructs themselves. It is as if there is no world, only details, only words. He quotes Creeley: “our words are our world… what they lead us to us all we have”. Thus a nominalism, which, with a permanent present tense (if active verbs occur at all), denies validity to any kind of summation of experience. There are opinions and observations, but they too are brief details floating by among others. There is a sense of grabbing things out of the jaws of time.
The working focus is on the minute work of construction, the spacings, lineation, internal echoes and phonetic patterning (cf. no. 3 above). There is a sense of someone carefully putting together a device with tweezers – focussed through a lens on how they are shaped, lineated, their internal echoes and enigmatic curtailments… and I think that for him this is poetry. Or this is what is left of it.
For the title is no doubt sincere, and these do represent a personal hope, but if so it is internal to the writing act, and not a hope which can be shared. He is cynical, detached, and at times declares the entire enterprise an exercise in failure: “the notebook is a record of failure. I mean in the sense that only a few words of innumerable pages make it in any interesting way. not these.” (p.76). And “anti-poems are what poetry is; / poems are the real fakes” (p.40). Is this the work of someone who has abandoned poetry, but who then rediscovers it in casual and inconsequential notes to himself? And yet the book contains at least two very real and normative poems, particularly the one called “Impaludism”.
Sceptical as I am about anti-poetry, of which there is a lot around and which can assume many different forms, the fully formed poems are not the only writing I can value in a book like this. There is too much wit, absurdity, and sheer verbal craft to be ignored.
The Marble Orchard is a first book which plunges to the heart of modern poetry. Sandeep Parmar’s background is Indian and her main concerns involve the treatment and status of women in her ancestral society and, echoically, here, but boldly written into a densely figurative and syntactically free poetry. The concerns remain acute and specific but the poetical technique forces each question back onto the individual, the reader mainly, as well as building a rich and inexhaustible artefact out of experience, a bejewelled crown offered to the victim and the world.
The book begins with a prose “Invocation” which I take to be addressed to poetry, expressing her hopes for the art: “To be of use, but nothing will decant. Perilous consonant, betrothed as fire to the ordinary. A spell; a note. Combatant of will and engraver of sighs…” The blending of disparate percepts from word to word here, constantly moving to a different vocabulary zone, is typical of her figurative language throughout. But as against this, the quite traditional function and tone of the “Invocation” is noteworthy, “To my muse” as it were, and there are similar instances elsewhere in the book, sitting perfectly well with the modernistic writing, and affirming poetical writing as the “high art” which so much England-centred and academic poetry refuses now due to a panic about elitism.
Not that all the writing is dense, and Parmar is by no means committed to the ex-Pound lineage. The degree of contraction varies according to the focus of the poem, and becomes quite extenuated and normative in some of them, and to my ears sometimes distinctly Shakespearean. A modern lyrical technique has been mastered in a number of short poems of tense calm, but there is a strong ambition in the book towards narrative, principally to recount the female experience in a traditional society of gender delegation and polygamy. Here the linguistic units are phrases or sentences, which stand distinct from each other, whole or broken, among silences. A hint in “Invocation”—‘Poultice to the hush, to the whispers of women in corded rooms and to the glows beneath doorways’ – suggests a rationale for the technique in the conditions themselves, of women kept separate and not party to the full societal discourse, but living on hints and whispers, all narrative impeded and dispersed, a condition of powerlessness and inwardness. And that this is replicated in the writing, while enhanced poetically into a telling. (To some extent I owe this interpretation to things Parmar said at a gathering in Cambridge recently.) If this is the case, it certainly doesn’t close the discourse from the male reader but is transcended in the fictive mode.
In any event I think the principal achievement of the book lies in these longer poems, which also offer the reader some help in what can be a difficult discourse, by being sectioned so that the framework is clear. “Archive for a Daughter” goes through the process of opening a series of boxes and folders revealing a personal history. A particularly strong piece, “Multigravida”, goes through the women of one family under the headings of their gravida codes (records of pregnancies and births) in a series of sometimes clear sometimes obscure addresses and accounts. Being myself of a fairly indolent disposition my favourite is the long series “The Wives” in the middle of the book, a perfectly clear, but no less poetic, discourse on the conflict between older and younger wives of one man (though it gets rather mysterious at the end). The more relaxed mode also allows Parmar’s humorous turns of phrase to emerge (“a plague of aunties hibble and hex”).
I don’t want to pretend there are no problems, and certainly it would sometimes help to be told where we are and what is going on, since the obliquity of the account obviously masks a singularity, but the information is held back as if already known. But I feel this is a book that can be trusted. Here is the opening of the poem “Homecoming” (after Christa Wolf’s Cassandra), one of the more orthodox poems in its mode of address:
Voices spear the darkness. Troy is no more than a glint
of departing soldiers. We pass in and out of the smoke.
Soon, it is morning. It is not morning.
The false night of forensic lamplight is the dawn.
A distant wood reflects, thick with torsos blaring white,
and hands raised, empty on the approaching shore, to deny.
The light accuses every surface. All are mute:
thorns and swollen lips stiffen the undergrowth.
I am Cassandra, née Iphigenia, Cassandra, née Iphigenia.
I have exited time, prophet and sacrifice, to speak….
I wanted to mention the book by Howard Mingham, who suffered from schizophrenia and died, probably by his own hand, in 1984 at the age of 32. It is a book compiled and edited by his friends, which is a known genre in poetry (there was an interesting one published by Many Press in 1992, Near Calvary by Nicholas Lafitte). Mingham was a capable writer. There is no strong realisation of his mental condition (or his Marxism) and he appears more as a thoughtful writer of uncomfortable, sometimes anguished poems, with a facility for precise metaphors and irregularly disposed rhymes and half-rhymes which keep the verse moving:
I have stood on carpets soft as cats,
soundless, in pastel rooms.
I have stood by the windows where the wind
rips trees leafless
I have stood by mocked-up tombs
and watched the wandering heedless.
Studying tempestuous tedium.
All life is a moment found
in the right museum.
It was worth the effort.
I also wanted to mention Kelvin Corcoran‘s Sea Table. In fact I wanted to devote an entire article to it, in spite of its length, but if I don’t mention it now all 40 copies will probably be sold by the time I get a chance to.
Craft production of small poetry items is a venerable tradition. The print colour is a greenish ochre. The paper is a gently off-white acid-free and wood-free cartridge. The text occupies six A5 pages concertina-folded. The heading and colophon are on two sheets of semi-opaque paper encompassing the text pages. The cover is quite thin matt card bearing a swirling sea-water design in the same colour as the rest. The binding is sewn not stapled. It is designed by the publisher, Philip Kuhn. At one time there were a lot of people doing this kind of thing on hand presses, though the production here is by adobe and inkjet. They often seemed to have difficulty acquiring some poetry which deserved the care and attention, but that’s not the case here.
The poet sits in a small house in the Peloponnese at a table which he has inherited from an Oxford classicist who used to live in the vicinity. Ghosts of the prehistoric, ancient Greek, Byzantine and Renaissance past approach the table and come and go one by one, as does Ezra Pound. The table is the writing. The table is the sea. The table is the ramp down into the sea, and other images more or less without limit while the time lasts. At the end the poet sets sail on the table: “Then set said table to breakers” (that was Pound nosing in) bound for “the mouth of hell” but the ending reverses the itinerary:
White engine of thought
brought to the table;
of marble, of obsidian
the first figures stand.
That’s all I’m going to say about the poetry, otherwise I shall go on to the further bounds of cyber-space.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.