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Lyric, anti-lyric, and political poetry.

A Fortnightly Review of

Simon Perril
Archilochus on the Moon
Shearsman Books 2013 | 96pp. | £8.95  $13.50

Simon Perril
Nitrate
Salt Publishing 2010 | 90pp | £9.99  $14.36

Anthony Mellors
The Lewknor Turn
Shearsman Books 2013 | 108pp | £6.65  $9.91

John Mateer
Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’
Shearsman Books 2013 | 174pp | £10.47  $16.56

Andrew McMillan
protest of the physical
Red Squirrel Press | 28pp. | £5.00

By PETER RILEY.

Archilocus on the Moon CoverARCHILOCHUS, WHOSE WORKS survive only in fragments, is known as the first Greek “lyric” poet in a comparatively modern and vague sense, for the term in context means mainly poetry sung to a musical instrument (i.e., all poetry). But at least if the instrument is the lyre we have a probable distinction from epic poetry, and perhaps his best label is “iambic” meaning “satirical”.  He is known anyway as “the first poet to set aside the stock figures of literary [epic] tradition and build whole poems round his day-to-day experience of the world.” 1 It is this experience, as given in the surviving texts and in ancient commentaries, rather than the actual substance of the poetry, which Simon Perril’s set of 80 numbered short poems takes up. There is no translation and only occasional sightings of images or motifs from the poetry. Archilochus was a warrior (and so perhaps also the first occidental “amateur” poet) involved in several major expeditions of colonisation, and  can be represented as a lover from what bits of his biography may (perhaps!) be inferred from the poetry. In Perril’s book he has, at the end of his career, been sent to the moon to found a colony there. The lover is thus defeated by age and circumstance, and the warrior, with his army, is lost in a wilderness.

This fiction enables Perril to use Archilochus’ voice (though not every poem seems to be spoken by him) for a collection of modern lyrics mingling seriousness and wit and dominantly bitter in tone. The moon is a barrenness and a reversal, a nowhere, a dead land, a hopelessness and a futility, a sense of approaching death; it is both a mental state and a punishment, and it is inescapable. Archilochus remembers and yearns in vain for his lost mistress, notes dryly the reduction of his body to basic functions and his language to crudity. The poet finds no victims for his satire except himself and the commander has adversities but no battles to fight, no reward (“house of holes / land of collisions, / you rain rocks / like a battlefield / yet deal no victory, / heap no spoils.”) (No.12).  No.59 is a good example of how a poem can realise these possibilities and range out from them, then end cynically–

and what of our words
when the weight
has come off them

and Earth’s a sapphire
set upon black;
this space

that comes between all
folk and things,
yet strings us along

beads at market
among the stars
and other gaseous bodies

As in a lot of the poems, there is a chiming lyrical texture in tone, sound values and rhythm (words-weight/ sapphire-space/ things-strings / market-stars) only to be denied at the last moment.  Similarly Perril has a rich command of metaphorical resource, generally deployed negatively in the end. And sometimes there is more than metaphor, and the lyric is more than a theatre. No.40:

you can hide
the Earth
under your thumb

like casualties vanish
in a puff
of statecraft

exfoliate
like the bad skin
of the moon

This is less staged, even if the earth is reduced because it is as seen in the sky. The syntax is uncertain (I would read the first “like” as a conjunction, and “exfoliate” as either an adjective describing “casualties” or a verb in apposition to “vanish”) and the implications of the last three lines are left to the reader. The reach of the poem is extended beyond the fictive security of the plot. A lot of the poems seem to move towards this condition and even to approach a real poetical afflatus (glimpsed at “the earth’s a sapphire / set upon black”) but finally sink back to bathos.

Simon PerrilFor we know, do we not, that this scenario is our condition here and now, if not totally then in terms of the literary negative hyperbole associated with Samuel Beckett. We are irredeemably sunk into a failed society which allies with our mortality as a double victimisation. I get a sense that the poet feels obliged to follow this course, that his skill and inclination might be towards a more outright singing; his fondness for close internal/external rhyme is noticeable in many of the pieces, where it pushes the poem forward quite light-heartedly but towards a hole in the ground. This ambiguity is expressed too in Archilochus’ reluctant refusal of the Dionysian mode, the dithyramb (No.26: “Would that I could / accept Dionysus’ counsel / let his words / grease my speech-parts…” but the poem ends with desiccated testicles).  So it is, I think, that the forward-moving emphatic writing which seems natural to Perril, manipulating ingenious and thoughtful metaphors and at its best achieving poems like Nos.40 and 56, is not only constantly pulled down to a bathetic conclusion but is also intermittently peppered with the awkwardness of “advanced poetry” — grammatical omissions and confusions, clashes of singular and plural, items which cannot be connected… not everywhere, but liable to cause hiccups from time to time.

A helpful prose apologia at the end of the book suggests that Archilochus is a “rhetorical garment”, his song “an artefact, not a vehicle for personal rage”, and if that is so Archilochus is the “garment” that Simon Perril wears, and we are encouraged to read the entire scenario allegorically, the moon’s emptiness and barrenness a figure for the state of  society. That is not to say that Perril represents himself as a terminal wreck, nor indulges “rage”, but that the voice is the author’s, its lunar complaints his disguised or garmented version of the real. The very lyric mode which Perril obviously relishes is denigrated as it is said to be in conjunction, at its foundation, with colonialism: “Lyric is territorial, it stakes claims; it desires to occupy, it forms an erotics of coercion.”  So it is that so many of these well crafted poems seek to negate themselves, and become anti-lyrics. Why is perhaps more apparent in the other book.

                   ♦

Nitrate by Simon PerrilNitrate is more difficult. It too is a unified set of poems, concerned with the birth of cinema and its earliest manifestations. The poems dwell on the facts and circumstances, mainly concerning E.J.Marey, and in the second part early cinema is cast against the Situationism of Raoul Vaneigem in connection with “the discontinuity of continuity itself”, because in it “the human form is an exaggerated irritant spasm ticking across frames.” These are strong (again Beckettian) accusations not easily proven or disproven in their implications for the current reality. But there is no story line, no central protagonist or voice, no situation rich in possibilities of comic irony. The poems come out of information and theory; from moments of the cinematic history they spin out semi-lyrical accounts formed into poems by their movement towards a telling conclusion. But the tone derives from the theory.

I can indicate this best by reference to the prose “Afterward” [sic] which closes the book and the verse Preface which opens it. For we are here under the cloud of central European mid-century aesthetic philosophy, and even if Adorno is not mentioned, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch are. We are among talk of “the ideological vacuum of a time that corrodes salvation” [Bloch]; the emergence of cinema is referred to nineteenth century “increasing rationalization and standardization of time in capitalist modernity”. I’ve never paid much attention to all this and in principle have nothing against it; I just wish it would leave poetry alone. I do attribute partly to this current and partly to English academic study and teaching of poetry more recently, the sinisterisation which goes on in Perril’s account, the insistent entailment whereby quite harmless terms are made to reveal an unpleasant underside. Nitrate itself, the notoriously inflammable material of early film,  was derived from a substitute for gunpowder and a substance proposed as a dressing for wounds, “So the origins of Nitrate have destruction and healing all bound together.”  Indeed they do, if you work it that way, if you refuse to countenance the innocence of sheer accident. The terms “gun” and “shot” in Marey’s terminology “opened a wound that leaked contingency”, and his study of human locomotion contributed “more ominously” to “the industrial management of work” and “the pursuit of efficiency”. It is typical of this poetical climate that even “efficiency” becomes a shadowy figure of harm, though nobody ever explains how. Film (like lyric) is said to be “a holding, a claim”. We are constantly under threat, or we are constantly threatening the other.

It is not surprising then that instead of the lyrics teetering between sublime and grotesque of Archilochus we have this kind of textuality–

Wake up. Wake up now. Take
again piped wind squeezed off at the knot

securing a swing above ground
to touch you felt blistered brain

contaminant black. Reject
‘Consciousness as Doom’. X-ray analytics

bores a world-sized hole here
removes all prospect, burrows

out a hollow; an anti-keep.
From the fortifications the disenchanted forest

lies. At the edge some kind of ex-reef
since the sea died

boiled beyond doubt…    [p.70]

It’s difficult to know what to do about this sort of thing. Vocabulary, syntax, figuration and reference conspire to block the road and to mystify what is evidently a passionate address of complaint, possibly quite optimistic if you could reach it. Actions and events fall over each other in such a throng that there is nowhere to stand. This is not a problem to those, and there are many (mostly professionals), who relish this kind of writing, which already has an established tradition, for it inhabits the legacy of J.H. Prynne and its way with images and concepts resembles what he was doing in the 1980s (flinging them at you like cricket balls from a bowling machine).

Not all the poems are like this but they are generally a good deal spikier than in the later book, especially in an almost constant refusal of any ready figural recognition, combined with a tone of definitive impersonal address, among a lot of wobbly syntax. Twice a main section of Nitrate begins with the question, “What wraps the present so tight?”. I don‘t think the question gets answered, but the accumulation of poems seems to spin more and more webs which will either release the present from the constrictions of singularity, or bind it all the tighter in unreachable secrecy. There is, however,  no doubting the seriousness of the enterprise in both books, nor the invitation to a verbal circus enacted with skill. 2

Anthony Mellors inhabits in many ways the same poetical climate as Simon Perril, one which was largely made possible by the work of J.H.Prynne. Mellor’s commitment to this is the stronger of the two, and is in evidence most of the time, whether in verbal habits, or the fields of reference, or the general drift of the poetry, which is marked by an almost constant sense of identifying wrongs, especially those of a commercialist reading of the world.  Even the verbal rhythm can be Prynnian and sometimes we are faced with a glaring example —

The manner of subsistence is
chaos as vatic order, drifting on
a reed, stridenti, hard-wired to DNA
on multiple platforms.                                (p.78)

This is exactly Prynne’s voice, exactly his kind of syntactical manoeuvring, and his tone of disdainful reprimand. But normally the allegiance is more thematic than stylistic. None of this dismisses the writing as derivative, for Mellors has his own poetical identity too.

mellorsBeing influenced responsibly by Prynne means at least two things, and the principal one is that you are made to think seriously and critically about the cultural condition you inhabit, which you probably reject as entirely corrupt and derelict. Mellors sometimes takes on even the lesser details of the polemic, such as the idea that to seek to get anything at a bargain price is reprehensible, which has always baffled me, perhaps because I do it all the time.  You are also encouraged to make the reading process as problematic as you possibly can by all sorts of linguistic abnormalities and to throw in all technical terms and abbreviations without a murmur of explanation. Mellors is well able to take on these burdens — he did after all write a book on the subject. 3 I nowhere feel that he is making the Prynnian gesture nor acceding to the tone of this whole tendency without having done the homework. But neither is he exempt from complaints about the problems this way of writing constantly throws up. 4

This is not the whole story, though it is a dominant one. Mellor’s poetical inclination is on the one hand towards the joker, the professional Fool satirising all the holy cows of our cultural farm in archly elaborate and erudite terms, on the other a wish for plain self-declaration, to state his personal or public complaints quite directly. There are five sections in the book of which the second is “Homage to Rod McKuen”, a set of 16 poems in which he abandons the intellectuality of the rest of the book and, as the title suggests, speaks openly and plainly, the poems addressed to a “you” who is clearly a big love problem. Sometimes the writing is just too bald, but his skill in handling characteristically wry figures shows up clearly  (“The curling sandwich / of my misplaced love for you”)  and with an effectively pathetic ending, saying that hope is never abandoned–

…I maintain my exile
cooing over dogs and Christmas cards
my absent family rosy in firelight
and a station-wagon purring in the  yard.             (p.52)

Here and in the following “Epigrams” section there is an alternation of what I can only call the ups and downs of his discourse. One moment “the quality is the beauty .. the music of birds or fall of waters”, next “All a poet can do today is annoy”, which I think he means, but as always in this department there is no “why” offered.  We are expected to recognise our alienation instantly, and we expect to be annoyed.

The meat of this volume is in the first and last sections. The first, “bent out of shape” is a set of twenty-four 24-line poems which start from a location in Greece: a trip to the southern tip of the Mani peninsula in the Peloponnese to visit a cave which was a legendary entrance to Hades. 5 As the set moves on from there the sense of this or any place is more and more submerged as the text moves away from any siting, and we lose our whereabouts in a stampede of pronouncements which are themselves increasingly elusive. It is possible that the narrative of the journey to the entrance to Hades is allegorised, though if so it remains hard to trace; there is though a tendency for poems to begin quite brightly or serenely and end in bitter recrimination, a self-chosen Hades.

The everlasting problem in this currency is the precise identification of the enemy. IX, for instance, goes through an extended quotation of a visit to an ancient healing site of wells and springs, eloquently lineated, switches to “a dull urban waste” and suddenly ends with a fierce but unspecific literary attack (the first two words do not connect to anything graspable) —

xxxxxas in silly poems
dedicated to the well being of rus in urbe charlatans
always lifting up their hope in the hope that metaphor
will relieve them of the adequate symbol.
(p.19)

Who are these charlatans, and who are the authors of the silly poems? What is wrong with “the rural within the urban” ( such as allotments? I find the use of glass and trees in new architecture of the City of London a very satisfying thing), what is wrong with metaphor (which he uses constantly)? The claim to have avoided metaphor in American poets and their admirers remains (like Pound’s claim to have avoided symbolism) unproven, especially if this avoidance can only produce entirely untransferable tropes (such as the title of the book). I think this is an Olsonian insistence, and Olson does raise his head now and then in this sequence, notably at the phrase “the causal mythology of the 9/11 premodern” in XIII, which raises immense historical and cultural questions which I’m not prepared to accept or deny, and would need them spelled out at length in prose. But it does propose something entirely serious.

If I have complaints about this very serious and ambitious sequence it is not to deny Mellors a strong sense of commitment and a sharp analytical mind deployed over a vast cultural range. It is just that the poetical stance keeps throwing up completely inert formulations which yet seem to challenge the reader’s perceptual abilities. No. XII for instance leaves one scratching ones head about “the red glow of an illy sign”, evidently a roadside sign in America.  Perhaps it is a sign of which the first letters don’t work, but who would want to tempt you off a highway with the words “Silly” or “Hilly” or Frilly”? 6 Sometimes you just pass on, which finds you, in this case, among attractive descriptive lines of a classical feel concerning landscape.  Another such  case, in XVI, is the declaration “Randomization causes clumping”. 7

I must emphasise, though, that for those who accept the foundational thesis there is no problem with any of this. The thesis is apocalyptic, and requires basically two commitments: first to what amounts to the total damnation, corruption, and despoliation of the entire western world (or in Prynne’s own version, the planet); secondly a belief that language is the governing mechanism of this disaster, and to use it in any way serviceable to humanity at large is to be complicit in the harm. Given these premises all the ups and downs of Mellors’ lively and richly inhabited poetry will be accepted with relish, as a kind of vengeance.

What I have said about “bent out of shape” serves well for this sequence too, save that the brevity of the form makes the quest through it seem more approachable.

The book ends with a set of 25 sonnets called “The Gordon Brown Sonnets” (though sonnets only in having fourteen lines and a roughly pentameter line length). What I have said about “bent out of shape” serves well for this sequence too, save that the brevity of the form makes the quest through it seem more approachable. And again there tends to be a calm in opening lines which is shattered by the time you get to line 12. The very first sonnet opens: “In the softening gloom of mid-November / fill the bin with gold…”. This obviously could be the overture to a very different performance from what we get, which by line four has turned the tables on itself: “the feeble sonnet of supine content / from a mound of rubbish”. The poet seems to want to destroy his first line and all it might have promised, its Pre-Raphaelite richness. At the end: “I can’t begin to tell / how the rot set in…” We could ask “what rot?” but we don’t, because we know that this poetry constantly seeks totalisation, and the rot is all round us, represented in the undermining of the poem by itself. And the justification, of course, lies in the implications of “gold” in the second line, where “supine” happiness at natural bounty is already wrecked by the appropriations of the finance industry, all our “gold” passing out of circulation into their (rubbish) bins.

There’s no need for me to enumerate further instances, with which this sequence is crowded, many more acute than this, as it gallops along in a dominantly homiletic mode, but a homily which seems to seek to evade our grasp in its constant leaps from figure to unprepared figure. But sometimes the homily is entirely pointed and clear:

The man who walks away from his bonus
without remorse is no toga-party
emperor amazed by plastic laurels.    (XXI)

There are also 11 pages of notes on this sequence (but on nothing else) some of which are actually helpful, others prolix and entertaining tongue-in-cheek dissertations, including a lot of fascinating information well beyond any required by the poems, and some acute and highly challengeable literary judgements.

The main question I am left with is Gordon Brown himself. I have no idea why the sequence bears his name, or what it “says” about him (“say” is a verb you have to be careful with in these regions) or indeed whether it is for or against him.  The word “Brown” appears once in the 25 poems, as does the expression “a fur of Brownian noise”.  There are a few references to an unnamed blamed voice (a deep one), and four possible references in the notes, only one of which is certain, in which Brown is paired with his enemy Blair. If we have to take into account citation of Sir Thomas Browne and Elizabeth Barrett Browning things have got out of hand.  The poems don’t tell us, and yet I think I know full well — if  you’re committed to the group beliefs it is axiomatic: mention the name of any living politician, British or American, of any persuasion, and you have before you a contemptible figure, whose speech is lies and whose acts exist on a scale from ineffectual to harmful. It seems more than likely to me that the “Gordon Brown Sonnets” are titled as an act of mock homage, because it would be absurd to dedicate any poetical work to a nonentity and a figure of fun. I don’t think that anything about Brown’s career or beliefs is involved.

I shall always be glad to have The Lewknor Turn in the house because you never know what you might come across when you open it, what points of stabbing critique will be made by links and undertexts which you hadn’t noticed or thought of. In this respect the writing seems inexhaustible.

Unbelievers, or 'The Moor,' by John MateerJohn Mateer comes from somewhere quite different. After an immersion in Anglo-American modernity his poems stand on the page as bejewelled things,  bright, exotic, calm and sometimes cryptic utterances in perfectly poised language, free of literary hostility or gesturing, but entirely contemporary. The first-person, the “I” in it, is far too taken up in experience and discovery to start claiming a position anywhere. But exactly where he comes from is difficult to say. Geographically, in Unbelievers, he comes from South Africa (where he was born), Australia (where he lives), Portugal, Al’Andalus, Egypt, Istanbul and other places. Culturally he comes from everywhere and nowhere, he comes from where places and languages leak into each other.

His concern, explicated in a very helpful Afterword,  is with overlapping margins, with perception of linguistic, cultural, poetical and political currents which are concealed by our normal mapping, but are “influential although invisible”, “histories that appear and disappear” and he traces these, often as a kind of slippage, in both personal and public areas of experience. He pays homage to the book Echolalias by Daniel Heller-Roazen (“Echolalia” is the title of his Afterword), a thesis on just such submerged currents as seen by a linguistic scholar, which begins from the fact that the babbling baby, not yet able to speak, has at his/her command all the sounds of which the human organism is capable globally, and can only progress into speech by forgetting almost all of them. Remembering and forgetting become, in poetry, simultaneous acts of creation and understanding. As Heller-Roazen says of a renowned eighth century poet:

xxxIt is as if for him [Abu Nuwas] the sole place of poetry were in an indistinct region of speech in which memory and oblivion, writing and its effacement, could not clearly be told apart.  8

And Mateer on page 39:

(to be translated into Farsi)

I will learn what the world is,
not from the beginning, that’s
the impossibility of meaning,
but from that place where
shiny thoughts are twilight
and everything, like a child’s first NO,
furthers the sun.                                          (p.39)

The poems seek out moments, and narratives, of realisation that the western “either/or” position is eroded by incursions arriving across time and distance which are “not really there” but are recognised. These are moments of translation, possession, even vision, but importantly not obtrusive or violent or proclaimed. Possibly they do not fully register until embodied and clarified in a poem. And the self of the poems, usually identified as “the poet”, remains a written entity serving as the agent of the process, not necessarily identified as “John Mateer”, though a sense of the authentic event is everywhere.

The political dimension of this, which does not take up a great deal of the poetry directly but is implied in many more intimate scenes, perhaps makes the process clearer, especially that these echoes are not a product of agreement, not a harmony, but of a deeper sense of lost identity across conflict or a forgotten refuge in no man’s land.  (Farsi is the Persian language as spoken in Iran, and indeed some of Mateer’s poems have been translated into it and published in Tehran, officially the enemy zone). Here he turns to another  scholar, Maria Rosa Menocal, who proposes, rather surprisingly, “that Provençal poetry, the source of much of the poetics of the Romance languages, and the ideal of Romance itself with its notion of unrequited love, has its origins in a repression of the syncretism that is to be found in the poetries of Iberia under the Moors.”.9  This would then be a Christian fundamentalist repression which carried with it into its own poetry much of the lyricism of Al’Andalus, but shorn of what the French call jouissance. The lyrical side of Mateer’s poetry seeks to get behind that division and connect across opposition rather than across emptiness. He follows the story to the expulsion of the Moors from Iberia, and later the Jews,  as the beginning of the take-over of the world by Spain and Portugal, in which these powers initially trod in the Moors’ footprints and followed their example, as also in their entry into the slave trade. “I saw the War Against Terror as something akin to this expansionism… I felt then, as I do now, that the conflicts and political structures of the Middle Ages have more to teach us about what is going on today than the ideas of the Modern Era.”  Rather than a simple historicism, this is a question of the hidden presence of Islamic and Arabic structures (and possibly tones, acts, understandings… surfacings as he calls them) in the ideologies of a West that has remade their bearers into enemies.

And the purpose of all this in the poetry?— “…wanting to rid my language of violence” which these intimations do because they induce peace; they merge the enemy into our history, they identify war-lords both here and there,  and they do this in the poet’s diurnal experience as much as in the News:  “a voice, calming, calling / across centuries of noise.”

This says “All poetry is political” in a, to me, completely new way, where the impulsion is not towards alienation, rebelliousness, hoisting the banner of opposition, the substitution of noise for music, but a much broader and less driven sense of capturing forgotten historical forces cloaked in modern politics, and the same processes at work in the most small-scale and intimate areas — memories of submergence. He also makes it clear that there is an ideological presence in the very tone of the poetry, which works against “a fear of the emotional and the personal, a fear of the honesty that is required to pay attention that is typical of our kind of Western capitalist logic. With this book I am hoping, in one way at least, to introduce this idea that we need to imagine tones we can’t quite hear, that we should acknowledge, too, how partial our sense of reality is.” (p.169)

This results in a variety of poems, many of which are very short, like memos, marginalia, asides, notes made in passing when a cultural junction is noticed. They are superficially reminiscent of parts of Personae but with none of Pound’s disdain. There are nine sections in the book and some of them, such as “(Twelve Poems)” (of which there are ten), consist of such tiny pieces that we are persuaded to read them as verses of one poem, especially as they seem to use the same vocabulary in concurrent progressions. However short the poems, they connect to larger concepts, even two lines–

Am I hearing a mbira warmed up by twenty thumbs?
No, it’s the flock of sheep down there in the misty valley.                        (p.106)

which is not merely an impression, but the surfacing of a submerged sub-Saharan presence in  Portugal. It is from the section “Monsanto”, written from his residence in a Portuguese village, a particularly endearing picture of the poet as stranger embedded in the local, and transcending the singularities, as too in the section “Azanians”, set in south-east Africa, the homeland where the poet particularly acknowledges “my half-heartedly foreign soul”. The thematic sectioning is never rigid. In the middle of one locality is a poem from another, and this locational flexibility is important. The poet seeks to be a stranger in his presence, his language, and his poetry, all the better to see through the dichotomies imposed by power. But again, it is not a campaign; it is more a hoping and an urging. There is, in spite of everything, never too much seriousness and there is room for fleet-footed prancing across ponderous zones–

Question for António Damásio

Doesn’t all European thought
disappear into the void
between Spinoza and Pessoa,
that cornucopia
of nerves and that Tibetan
skull-cup? 10

and there are poems of outright sensuality, but in which the quest is never set aside–

With me she sleeps
as though the world were intimate and curious.

Like a small animal, her tongue walks
around my face.

And when her tongue is over my eyes,
I remember the visionary,

and how he kissed his girlfriend:
her eyelids were translucent, stainless,

a flickering name…                                                 (p.46)

and the emphasis is not on the Romance of unrequited love.

Mateer’s poetry is passionately wide-ranging because every notation he makes is offered as a personal experience, and is entered into a passionately inscribed theatre. He is aware that “in the poem the poetic form and the language are always at issue” and however slight or attenuated the text there is always a tension between singular and extended awareness which brings every word into line. He refers to poetry as double voiced, “half way between one culture and another” and “a kind of ghost writing”. The poetry is also incomplete (“Poesia Incompleta”, the name of a bookshop in Lisbon, is one of his titles) — as if space must be left in it and around it, not for the reader’s intervention (an Anglo-American avant-garde superstition) but for the proposed distances to be felt.

A multiple presence underlies our acts, which the poems identify in moments of realisation, sexual, political, and literary, in places and in people, in which the self is (however silently and momentarily) felt to become someone else and which poetical translation and heteronomy reveal.

A lot of the writing might seem “Modernist” but if that implies an oppositional stance it is beside the point. He defines Rimbaud as a poet at war  — his “Je est un autre” makes everyone into an enemy, and the (adolescent) self defies the totality (so “Maybe that’s why it wasn’t strange for Rimbaud to become an arms dealer and slaver?”). The conclusion of a later poem is at first glance the same proposition but in fact contrary: “We are all someone else”. We are then talking about common experience, and not any kind of divisive self election. A multiple presence underlies our acts, which the poems identify in moments of realisation, sexual, political, and literary, in places and in people, in which the self is (however silently and momentarily) felt to become someone else and which poetical translation and heteronomy reveal. It is the domain not of Rimbaud, but of Pessoa, “that proliferating ghost”.

Mateer is thus able to use his culturally and linguistically multiple experience as a white South African without claiming any special dispensation. His eye is always on the horizon. The section “Os Elifantes Brancos” consists of two narrative poems spoken to and by two such “white elephants” (which also seems to be the name of a bar or brothel) and it is here that the fullest exposition is to be found of the pasts that linger beneath us.

This awareness is both a loss and a gain, and encounters with it are realisations at the same time as glimpses of a kind of worrying depth under our senses, or of cosmic spaces into which our memories disappear. At times it is as if they pursue him. He cannot cross Galata Bridge in Istanbul without meeting the Slovenian translator of Chaucer and Milton. They greet each other, “As if on the snowy peak of Mount Sumeru, we’re the axis of memories whirling away.” Mount Sumero is the central world-mountain of Buddhist cosmology.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that this book is a collection of instances illustrating a thesis. It is a collection of experiences expertly crafted into poems of various kinds and dimensions (from one-word to six pages), poems which echo and abrade each other, mutually confirming or questioning. The reach of the poems is broad but quite distinct from the encyclopaedic impulse, while benefitting from the poet’s wide knowledge of cultural history, especially of the near-eastern border lands where most of the trouble is. But trouble is not necessary for his purposes and neither are claims of enhanced vision. In the poem “Ode” the image is of a tallness which sees further — a palm-tree in the desert over a gated community, but this image is eroded as the poem passes it through the minaret calling to prayer, the “mobile phone tower” and any such claim is finally a mingled broadcasting of “falsity and truth / new tower / of Babel.”

The events of these fascinating poems normally occur in a calmer tone and the seriousness has to share its bed with verbal congeniality.  The multiplication of self involved is clearly and unemphatically shown in the ending of his poem on a visit to the house of Camilo Pessanha, a Portuguese “symbolist” poet who influenced Pessoa, again a much voyaged and a multilingual figure who spent most of his life in Macau, where he died in 1926. After the house the poem returns to a bar where his friend Carlos is waiting; he has been listing all the cities of Africa and Asia with which he is familiar. Mateer’s response is immediately cosmic and casual:

Carlos may be
right: there are the starry conurbations
of the departing world, and then,
always, the kindly void of the Mother.
Like this bar, that, he says, he’s
frequented over the decades,
each time under a different name.               (p.69)

This is the second time recently (see my previous column in The Fortnightly Review on Martin Harrison) that I have been able to turn to an Australian (etcetera) poet who offers some kind of alternative to the deep divisions and resultingly aggressive writing (so expertly and aspiringly performed but under constant threat of narrowness) of the English poetry scene.  I think he is a real discovery and it would be interesting to know how his poetry developed to where it is, but an earlier selection, Elsewhere (Salt Publishing 2007?) seems to have disappeared without trace. His Australian publisher is Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

protest of the physical, by Andrew McMillanBut you don’t have to go to the antipodes. Andrew McMillan gave a reading locally not long ago and I was interested enough to get what appeared to be his one booklet (actually his fifth). There is a tendency to assume that what we have before us is an “aspiring young poet”. I don’t think there are any of them around any more. At the age of 25, McMillan is well advanced in his career, teaching creative writing at a college (ça va sans dire these days) constantly in demand for appearances and residencies, has been invited to read at the prestigious Aldburgh Poetry Festival and was commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad 2012 and broadcast on Radio 4.  Makes me feel like an aspiring old poet.

This is all entirely beside the point, of course. protest of the physical is one poem, a lively, even perky, version of the solo self in the city, except that the city is a town and he described the work as “like Howl set in Barnsley” which is a former coal-mining town in Yorkshire. 11 I think what attracted me to it, and was confirmed on reading, is that you think you know exactly where you are — a lively chatty self-presentation, a vaunting of youthful zest  — but in fact there’s a lot more going on. It’s a broken monologue which progresses steadily without a lot of worries about relevance, picking things up as it passes by, constantly leaping to new and unexpected matter — apostrophes to the town, personal declarations concerning homosexual encounters (some not too happy), lists of pub names, you name it…  But it never becomes facile or obvious, it always avoids clichéd perception, and nothing is done for mere effect. The town is taken seriously in the imagery of bodily failure (“town that sunk from its centre / like a man winded by a punch / town that bent double   carried // young men and women and younger men and women / as long as it could but spine broken / had to let them go…”) and never runs out of energy, each question immediately passing to the next as the verse gallops on. Some sections enter into quite opaque matter of personal desire, then suddenly words copied from walls — “pits close / we still sink / into them”  which links back two pages to “people were shoulder to shoulder / as in a cage waiting to descend” which is part of the section on the broken-down town. Here as elsewhere the poem repeats images or structures from time to time as a felt gesture to coherence, and references to coalmining are unselfconsciously run into the discourse, as the personal and the civic struggle to keep apart.

About half way through the poet Thom Gunn 12 appears and is addressed in such a way as to suggest the poet and he were lovers, but what he is doing is quoting small phrases from Gunn’s diaries and letters which he researched at Berkeley University. The intensity here blurs the generational distance, and in the middle of this comes the list of Barnsley pub names, which suspiciously includes “The Closed Since Smoking Ban”, “The Soviet”, “The Keep Drinking” and “The We’re Still Here.”  This joke section is actually, I think, a representation of northern working-class persistence and resilience. And then on into further explorations with a certain mounting intensity towards the end as the personal narrative goes through a crisis. There is always a pressing-forward movement, not so much that the eye is kept steady for a goal in sight, but more that the movement and variety of the text are valued as such, as cohering and challenging things which must not be let go of.

town as a face with one eye closed
twn as a mspelt txt  town without its eyes
contraction

theory   there is beauty in the ordinary
the row of shops on Shambles Street
the day chasing its own shadow

behind twentythousand windows   threethousand
sexual advances   not all pleasant    not all denied
silent christenings  renaming of each other

What he is doing is playing personal and impersonal sexual experience and its failure against the dereliction of the town, but also attaching senses of earthly distance and temporal urgency into a kind of dispersed plea on behalf of both self and place.  It isn’t very like Howl because it hasn’t the rhetoric of public address, and I find the title reductive, but it’s a fine performance.


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 Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

NOTES

 

  1. Sherod Santos, Greek Lyric Poetry, New York 2005. See especially the Introduction and the notes on Archilochus.
  2. The author’s website at www.simonperril.com  contains collages associated with the poems of Nitrate, and a 20-minute audio-visual “trailer” for the book.
  3. Probably the best book in this field, Late Modernist Poetics, from Pound to Prynne, 2005. Paperback edition 2011. This is not available to me at present but as I remember it is quite severe on Prynne’s later work which abandons articulation itself. In The Lewknor Turn Mellors inserts a footnote denying that Prynne is in any way difficult, but quotes only from the very early work, which is more-or-less where he sites himself as a poet.
  4. I was about to indicate one such problem with the lines I have just quoted, which was that stridenti, which is the Italian for “strident” in the plural, seems to gain nothing over the English word but constitutes only an unnecessary jolt. However, a note reveals that the word is nothing of the sort, but a Latin coinage derived from Virgil via Milton, meaning a rural reed flute (Milton’s “scrannel”). Well and good, though a problem requiring such far-travelled solutions might be said to persist. At least we can be grateful that there is no reference to Stridentism (Estridentismo), a Mexican artistic movement of the 1920s. There are plenty of other problems in these four lines, if needed.
  5. Due to the generosity of the poet Kelvin Corcoran and his partner in allowing people to use a small house they have in this area, I have now read three or four poetical accounts of this trip, and written one myself, and am convinced that when it comes to the cave we were all in completely different places.
  6. It’s an American coffee chain. I find it difficult sometimes to summon the energy to consult Google ten times in every poem.
  7. Stamping with the feet is the first thing you think of, but “clumping” in the less common sense of amassing together could relate to the neighbouring mention of “gated community”, except that the clumping is said to be a “state of exception” which can’t be kept out of the enclosure. Perhaps, then, the feet of the revolting masses, but in cases such as this it becomes impossible to know if a term is negatively or positively loaded.
  8. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Echolalias: on the forgetting of language (New York 2005) p.193.
  9. The Unbelievers p.161, summarising from Maria Rosa Menocal, Shards of Love: exile and the origins of the lyric, Duke University Press 1993.
  10. The addressee here is surely António Damásio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California and author of Descartes’ Error and Looking for Spinoza. His theories about the biological and interactive origin of thought would seem to fit with Mateer’s (or any modern poet’s) work.
  11. Barnsley has never been a very happy place. It was known in the nineteenth century for the miserable pay and living conditions of the miners, things which Orwell found unchanged when he stayed there for a few days for the writing of The Road to Wigan Pier in the 1920s. It’s name is now something which would fetch a mild laugh if a stage comedian merely spoke it. I think it’s to Andrew McMillan’s credit that he doesn’t take advantage of this mock-northern snobbery; his humour about Barnsley, when it occurs, is situated and gritty.
  12. I don’t know whether Thom Gunn (1929-2004) needs a footnote these days. An English poet whose repute was at one time equal to that of Ted Hughes, who moved to the States and there embraced extremes of style, from “Movement” thinness to “Beat” freedom. For present purposes the point is that he was openly gay, and declared himself as such in his poetry.

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