A FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW.
by Giorgio de Chirico; introduction by John Ashbery (1992 edition)
Tales I Told My Mother
by Robert Nye
by Nick Ascroft
by C. Perricone
Apropos Jimmy Inkling
by Brian Marley
by Ken Edwards
GrandIOTA, UK, 2019| 246pp | $7.30 £5.69
Sarong Party Girls
by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
IT’S FOREVER ENIGMATIC, the attempt to differentiate between prose and poetry, especially in an age when prose poetry is as common as it is today. And then there’s the prose of a previous century, such as that of Walter Pater, rhapsodising about the Madonna of the Rocks in prose which might as well be verse. A difference I often find myself considering is that between reading and reading again. Perhaps it’s best to abandon attempts to differentiate between the aforementioned, these two traditional ‘genres’; but we might consider that there is writing that can simply be read, and writing that requires that it be read more than once. A good thriller can usually be assimilated in a single reading, indeed, once you know who did it, and, unless it’s Raymond Chandler, there is no reason to re-read; the writing is designed to be read fast. This is the sort of book that ‘cannot be put down’. However, an intense poem, by William Empson, for instance, may require reading again, and then again. This is also the case with a prose text by Gilles Deleuze, such as Difference and Repetition — while most of the poems in Charles Bukowski’s The Last Night of the Earth can be ‘got’ in a single reading. Let’s agree that here there is no hard and fast rule. You can speed read Deleuze and you can return to Bukowski. It’s partly a question of the author’s intent, partly a question of the thorniness of the issue in which the author is immersed.
Another difference which affects both prose and poetry is that of containedness – as opposed to spillage. There’s the courtly sonnet of Petrarch, a perfectly tied-up little package, a gem, if you like, and then there’s Rabelais: immaculate get-up versus loosened stays or breeches. The notion of waywardness, digression and delay as a literary tradition is well expressed by Ross Chambers in his book Loiterature. You could think of this style as ‘free-wheeling’. In Tristram Shandy, Sterne is a free-wheeler, so is Pound in the Pisan Cantos. But aristocratic lacing reasserts itself in the books of Raymond Roussel, where the sentence beginning any one chapter will rhyme from capital letter to full-stop with every syllable of that chapter’s concluding sentence. I lean towards containment and like to think of my books of fictive prose as jig-saw puzzles, which may seemingly begin as a pile of dislocated fragments, but, eventually, the last piece fits exactly into place. What I don’t feel is the need to read only such books as I might have been pleased to have written. F.T Prince had difficulty explaining to his West Indian students that just because he happened to be a Roman Catholic, he was not obliged to stick to a diet of religious literature. For him, literature emancipated him from his own preoccupations.
But now, though, I’m obliged to admit that this is likely to be a freewheeling article, reviewing books written ages ago and works which have recently come out, and delving into poetry as well as prose, prose by poets, fiction as well as autobiography, and considering publishing houses as well as their books. You could think of it as a compendium of ‘summer reading’ – except that it has taken me so long to read all the books to be discussed the summer is almost over. I’ll begin by considering where I first became acquainted with freewheeling literature, and I think it was when John Ashbery introduced me to Hebdomeros – a surreal novel by Giorgio de Chirico, founder of the metaphysical art movement and an artist who fell out with Andre Breton. This novel is a dream-like book of situations and landscapes, said to be reminiscent of his paintings. In his introduction to the 1992 edition published by Exact Change, Ashbery calls the book ‘the finest work of Surrealist fiction’, noting that de Chirico ‘invented for the occasion a new style and a new kind of novel . . . his long run-on sentences, stitched together with semi-colons, allow a cinematic freedom of narration . . . his language, like his painting, is invisible: a transparent but dense medium containing objects that are more real than reality.’ Personally, I find de Chirico’s paintings very distinct – with each object clearly differentiated from another and from its background. In the novel, however, events get mixed up, and one adventure merges with another. His book wanders more than his paintings tend to do, yet as I reader I found myself enthralled, and happy to wander from dream to dream. In this edition, Hebdomeros is accompanied by an appendix of previously untranslated or uncollected writings, including M. Dudron’s Adventure, a second, fragmentary novel, here translated by Ashbery.
My next encounter with this open-ended way of writing was in Tales I told my Mother by Robert Nye (Calder and Boyars, 1969 – republished by Marion Boyars in paperback in 1992). The book is a collection of nine tales which contradict the notion that a tale will come up with an ending that terminates it with some absolute finality. This work is a neglected classic. It owes something to Isak Dinesen – but it’s as if she were having an affair with Leonora Carrington. As a critic for the Financial Times put it: ‘The nine stories …twist and coil in and out of one another (with) constant promise of images that are hard and bright.’ By turns fantastic, grotesque, hilarious and terrifying, the stories, each entire on their own, fit into each other like a jigsaw. Characters from one story may reappear in another. Also, fiction gets mixed up with dissertation: a love letter from Mary Murder, a heroine of one tale, exhorts her beloved to write her a love-poem — but then gets side-tracked into becoming a treatise on the difference between Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets, meanwhile a sea captain comes out in bruises whenever he listens to Schubert. Re-opening this book, after many years, I am honoured to see that one of the stories is entitled ‘Howell’.
I confess that Robert Nye was one of my champions, recommending my first book of poems to a publisher back in the sixties. This would be a digression perfectly in keeping with my topic, open-ended as it is; but still, I’ll press on and introduce a small press which has come to my attention: Boatwhistle Books. At 11×18 cm, the two books I’ll discuss are compact and very neatly designed, each with a cover by a twentieth century artist. They are both books of poetry.
Nick Ascroft’s Dandy Bogan contains poems selected from three of the poet’s previous New Zealand collections as well as some more recent poems. The poems mediate between an inclination to meander and a sense of the need for some well-wrought finish. The work is only suggestively narrative without being out-and-out abstract — a fashionable place to be these days. Ascroft is a would-be freewheeler, but cannot let go of his fine ear and accomplished technique. He is also ambivalent, it seems, about metaphor, and therefore he uses simile to generate imagery, which is also a trend, but sometimes I fail to detect the similarity in the dissimilar things compared. He might retort that that is the point. Nevertheless, his poems often reward a re-reading, particularly those which purport to be telling a story which eventually proves elusive, or a story which uses uplift to let you down, as in the poem called ‘Misprescription’. He uses syntax and cadence with rare expertise. The reader is led on, but somehow the goal to which one is being led contrives to evaporate. I realise that in this paragraph, I seem to be saying things twice, but in different ways. I have caught the habit from Ascroft, I feel. He is creative with verbs, as in where on the forehead to fawn/the back of my hand. In addition, there’s an underlying menace, as in the poem where children are offered a ride on a horse with no legs. It’s a disquiet which makes the cover picture by Philip Guston, of a Ku Klux Klan member painting a self-portrait, entirely appropriate. Here is ‘It’s a Sad Place, the Country’:
The eldest son riding on the back
of his father’s ute says to himself, that magpie
will guard my soul.
It’s a sad place, the country. Earlier
this morning his father had a word with
the bathroom mirror, here we go.
The burden of the farm will rest
on this child’s little shoulders one day
but his thoughts are somewhere else.
He’d like to hug himself around one of those sheep,
squeeze it like a beach ball.
The three of them are headed out
to a paddock somewhere, where willows bank
a dry creek, resigned.
His younger brother yells over the noise,
in a fight, who would win over who,
A toi-toi or a flax bush.
Hugo Williams puts it this way, on the back cover: ‘I know what he’s talking about – the inexpressible stuff which fills your head with horror and joy, and doesn’t usually get talked about because it is dangerous. It lures you on like the promise of a better understanding if only you could find the words. Nick Ascroft finds the words.’
The second Boatwhistle book is Footnotes by C. Perricone, also published in 2018. Here digression is secured by the armature of the title. We loiter over footnotes. In verse which just manages to distinguish itself from cut-up prose, each poem either references a footnote or makes its own observation about some aspect of a book concerning ancient Rome. It might be an appreciation of the contents pages, how well-ordered these are; or an interpretation of some interpretation expressed in an aside, a comment on a blurb or a cover illustration, or an explanation of a common abbreviation such as op. cit.. Richard Scott observes that ‘Footnotes fizzes with nerdish beauty and is, at heart, a love letter to close reading.’ ‘Nerdish’ is appropriate; for this undertaking bears comparison with Alexander Lenard’s translation of Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Many of these ‘footnotes’ constitute springboards for personal experiences, others are remorselessly erudite. Perricone’s little book is a study in style, and is in general entertaining. Here is a comparatively simple example – a comment on a poem by Martial:
Martial tells us that
The Porticus Vipsania,
In the field of Mars,
Perhaps due to
Wear and tear,
Its slippery stone
Perpetually wet. . .
He tells us of
To enter under
Its dewy roof,
The moss and stain,
How he looked up,
Just at the right time
And just in the right place.
How an icicle
Weary of winter’s ice
Fell down and pierced
And then how
The delicate dagger
In the heat of his wound,
As it were
A crucial instantiation
Of the indiscernibility
Of water and blood.
The last lines, 7 and 8,
Of this epigram,
I.e. Liber 4,18
And that’s how it should be
In this epigrammatic world
Where it is impossible
To figure . . .
What Fortune’s up to,
How water at once
So soft and fluid
In which to swim and sail upon
Can also slit your throat.
I went to Loeb, Epigrams I – and I found the poem in Book 4. The prose translation of the entire little poem is adequate enough, and I am not sure how much Perricone has managed to add to it. Admittedly, the author encourages such niggles, and so, even more nerdishly perhaps, I’ll assert that I am unsure about this line in Footnote 3: Jupiter claimed that women come higher than men.
Higher than what? Higher in the estimation of colleagues? Or…? The poem refers to an incident described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, and it concerns Tiresias and his judgement in favour of Jupiter over Juno – which caused Juno to render Tiresias blind. Hot on the scent now, I scuttle off for my Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology and Geography by Sir William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D. (revised throughout and in part rewritten by G. E. Marinden, M.A., formerly fellow of King’s College, Cambridge) – you see, we can all play this game – and it is as I thought: Tiresias is blinded because he agrees with Jupiter that women get more out of sex than men do, the implication being that Juno cannot give Jupiter as much pleasure as Jupiter gives her, which, naturally, she takes as an insult. Now, for me, ‘women come higher than men’ doesn’t quite deliver this sense because it suggests a comparative phrase, and this confers an almost feminist ambiguity which obscures the particular sense. ‘Women come harder than men’ might have worked, I suppose; and perhaps ‘higher’ has some accuracy in terms of actual translation, but if it’s the female orgasm that is being referred to, ‘higher’ doesn’t do it for me.
AND NOW TO a new press which has just brought out its first two books, their production made possible with the help of individuals and organisations who subscribed in advance (of which I confess I was one). The press is GrandIOTA, and the books are identical in size, and designed with a cool minimalism while typeset in a very readable font. Both the books are prose, one fiction and one non-fiction, or perhaps apocryphal. The fiction is entitled Apropos Jimmy Inkling. Its author is Brian Marley. It is fiction which is happy to free-wheel, to swerve from this lane to that, get side-tracked, suddenly switch to the fast-lane, reverse and/or discover a circuitous route back to its starting point. The narrative is unapologetically self-indulgent, but again, this nevertheless requires an armature. Jimmy Inkling is some kind of shady character who is perhaps implicated in the neutering of a well-endowed but unsuitable suitor for some influential character’s daughter. In an Alice-like world, a café transforms itself into a court-room and a customer becomes the jury as a bevy of witnesses are assembled and interrogated as to the true nature of Inkling, who only got his name because he was a foundling and his finder hadn’t an inkling about from whence he hailed. I sense my own syntax turning arch here, in keeping with the mannered tone of this picaresque account. The book comes highly recommended by dead authors (Ballard, Spark and Burgess).
Marley’s maverick novel reminds me of Tales I Told My Mother. Its plot delights in tying itself in knots which it eventually unravels, only to finish in a bow (which can be said both ways). This prompts a reminder of an observation of my own – start with the knot: don’t allow yourself to hesitate until you have found some resolution. If you pause long enough to solve an enigma you may never engage in the writing itself. And again, in my days as a performance artist, I used to sermonise thus: don’t wriggle out of an impasse. After all, as Samuel Beckett understood, the impasse is the drama. This was a rule I once chose not to follow – and got roundly reprimanded by a student of mine at the time.
The apocryphal non-fiction is Wild Metrics by Ken Edwards.During the late ‘sixties and the ‘seventies, Edwards asserts that he kept a diary, while being heavily engaged at the time in the desire to free English writing from a dull insistence on the ‘communication’ that was promoted by Ian Hamilton and the Movement. This was an established bevy of poets endorsed by the establishment, whose verse harked back ‘to the Georgians, or the Edwardians or whatever, back to an imagined Golden Age of English Letters….’ Edwards derides ‘their fear of innovation and foreignness, and their ever so politely framed derision directed towards the different.’
Edwards was a friend of others who wished to break free, such as Eric Mottram, Cris Cheek and the concrete poet Bob Cobbing. This diary now provides the matter for the first sections of the book, and since life itself is largely a matter of freewheeling (after all it has no plot and we can’t control its cliff-hangers), the writing meanders through housing projects in Notting Hill Gate and community living on the margins of South West London with an interlude in US hotels, accompanying a rock star whose daughter needs tutoring while the star takes his family with him on his tour.
Edwards distrusts metaphor:
I think I made a wrong move two paragraphs back: I compared my wife’s held flute note to an icicle forming from a gutter. I don’t know what came over me; I disapprove in principle of similitudes, I mean I disapprove of them as a tired poetic device. The poetry I hate (much of Official British Verse, let’s say) uses them all the time, as its primary trope, often smarming and posturing the while – whoring, you might say, if you were being especially rude. Obviously, it could be useful, if the police were to question you, to make a rough comparison: the man you observed looked “a little like Nigel Farage”, or the vehicle involved in the incident was cherry-red in colour. But I wouldn’t use “cherry-red” without irony in a poem.
To make his point, a page later, he rightly suggests that there is a welter of ‘deracinated’ similes in a lot of what is offered today as verse, and then gives us a passage which exemplifies the problem:
An ironing board is like the bored teenagers on the promenade. The bored teenagers on the promenade are like hurdlers. Hurdlers are like weightlifters. Weightlifters are like gilded gravel in the bowl. Gilded gravel in the bowl is like an orchestra like a loose dressing-gown cord like sutlers. Sutlers are like guests like merchants under parasols…”
And so on. It’s for this reason that the main body of Wild Metrics – which are based on the diary entries — describe the daily vicissitudes of life lived in bohemian London back then in a simple, unadorned way which I find immensely readable and at the same time evocative. I don’t need similitude. The names of the streets create their own images for me. The incidents, the nouns – paraffin heater, offset litho, giro – the old vocabulary renews the memories. And then there are mattresses on the floor and bookcases put together out of planks and house-bricks, manic friends, the stapled-together pages of poetry magazines and Compendium and Bernard Stone’s Turret bookshop.
Edwards avers that his characters are fictional avatars of themselves, but throughout the book, names drop like windfalls (I use the similitude without compunction). I found these earlier, diaristic sections fascinating, but felt myself to be wandering through the pages like some sad ghost whose fate is to be invisible – for I was there, living in bedsit in Westbourne Park Road, scoring dope, pouring wine out for visitors at Bernard’s bookshop in Kensington Church Walk (I was lousy at wrapping the international parcels which had to be open at both ends so that customs could ensure that they did indeed contain printed matter). I was there in the offices of the Transatlantic Review, working for Jo McKrindle, alongside Heathcote Williams. I guess I was one of the voices Edwards overheard engaged in gay banter downstairs in those basement offices as he rearranged books on shelves on the first floor. I didn’t happen to be gay, but I was very beautiful, and I knew the gay world well from my days in the Royal Ballet, and so I was a species of honorary gay (cooking for Jo and his guests – using skills I had picked up from artist friends in France while training in Cannes at the Centre pour la Danse Classique). Edwards mentions most if not all of the players in the alternative poetry scene back then, but avers that the crowd divided poets into those that were “interesting” and those who were “not interesting” – and perhaps I was grouped among the latter. But there is little clarification as to why this poet was interesting and that one not. While deploring the clique that Faber represented, each little crowd formed its own coterie, and thus it was then much as it is today.
I do get a mention, towards the end of the book, together with Fiona Templeton in reference to performance art and The Theatre of Mistakes, so I have no right to complain. And I’m not complaining. This book certainly took me back into the dingy magic of those days when the dole was our benefactor. And the section concerning the popstar and his daughter Buttercup is hilarious, in a bleak sort of way. Warmly recommended. (Full disclosure: I am also listed in the back of the book, along with many others, as a prepublication subscriber.)
Edwards, as I’ve pointed out, kept the diary, while being heavily engaged in the desire to free English writing from ‘the tyranny of Official British Verse, as typified by the poets of the Movement with their fetish of plain speech’, and Edwards is right to have questioned their dogged cult of ‘communication’. It is convenient for the Establishment to consider that art need amount to no more than craven illustration of whatever belief system happens to be in place at the time – a glorious evocation of the charge of the Light Brigade, a gilding of the message promoted by war propaganda that it is noble to die for one’s country – in the days when our empire was in its last throes – which has morphed, today, into an endorsement of esoteric LGBT rights and acceptance of the most marginal preferences of minorities in the name of democratic tolerance – all receiving the blessing of dinner table literature in Kentish Town this evening.
For a poem to communicate it must mean something, and that meaning is predicated on significance. Its matter must be worth saying – thus clinging to a Leavisite insistence on the moral worth of what the poem is seeking to get across. For unlike Wittgenstein, for whom ‘ethics is aesthetics’, this crew, which has dominated English Literature for most of my lifetime, sees these two principles as separate entities. In order to communicate a work of literature must mean something ethically significant. But Edwards and his experimental friends were right to question ‘the meaning of meaning’. Party Going by Henry Greene is a masterpiece of literature that eschews significance in favour of a glittering superficiality, a musical superficiality. Art need not concern deeply meaningful subjects. Ashbery and Schuyler follow up on Greene with A Nest of Ninnies – a novel of quips and gossip, largely drawn from dinner-table chat in the Hamptons.
So another aspect of the release of effort exemplified by freewheeling is to let go of significance: as important an aspect of modernism as any enquiry into abstraction. It’s what makes Italo Svevo just as important an innovator as Joyce in the annals of modernism (in The Confessions of Zeno, for instance, Svevo’s novel about giving up smoking, if it’s actually “about” anything other than the superficialities of daily existence). And so it is very good to find Allen and Unwin bringing out Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. The discipline, which is adhered to here, in keeping the tone resolutely superficial, is remarkable, and initially it makes for a puzzling read, can this book really be about nothing but clubbing?
Written in an accessible patois called Singlish, the book transports us into the life of Jazzy, a twenty-and-a-bit-more-than-something hottie on a mission in Singapore. Her aim is to secure for herself a Western husband, and she and her closest friends have sworn allegiance to the success of this mission, in each of their cases, and a consequent uptown ex-pat life of their own, a life of two-car leisure and Chanel babies in Baltimore or wherever, anywhere, out of Singapore. To this end, her leggy clique haunts the bars and clubs of the city, careful to befriend powerful allies who can get them past the VIP bouncer and supply free Chivas and Cliquot through the evening as they decorate the table and project allure at each and every Brit or American. As fierce as the rivalry between London gangs in different postal districts or estates is that between the Singapore girls and the Chinese, Korean or Japanese harpies invading their patch. A girl in their clique who marries a local lad and secures a flat in which to set up home is roundly denounced as a traitor.
Soon we become immersed in Jazzy’s utterly shallow mode, which is brilliantly brought to life by the author, and nothing in particular seems to happen to lift the book into anything beyond the meaninglessness of this commercialised Orient, with its neon and its glitz, and how this contrasts to the drab existences that are actually in the background in the homes of parents or aunties. But life moves on; every day Jazzy gets older, and the stakes get higher – you’re definitely on the shelf by thirty – and meanwhile, beneath the glam world offered to their blooming youth, a world of designer labels and shopping malls that constitute Meccas for these girls, and exclusive bars with their racy chat opening the hotel door to intermittent fucking that might actually lead to a carat wedding-ring, beneath it all there’s a professional world, of lap-dancing and KTV lounges where the hostesses get paid to do whatever they are told to do with their clients.
Walking through the grey concrete void deck underneath my apartment block, past the wrinkled uncles playing Chinese checkers, past the aunties burning joss paper offerings in the giant red communal barrels by the dustbins, I began to wonder what the scene would be like at a KTV lounge. If going to Lunar and seeing those shameless China girls was already so terrible, leaving us all feeling so bad, then wouldn’t a KTV lounge be worse?
But Jazzy, I thought, you cannot be so scared. Must “yong gan de zhou.” Bravely walk.
Could Jazzy fall into this darker level of the Singapore nightlife’s various layers, as her search for her western sugar daddy grows more desperate? By now, I am two thirds of my way through an enthralling account, and I realise that its free-wheeling is only how it seems. This is a well-constructed paradigm of the dilemma that is Singapore. I think back to an earlier London, so well described by Ken Edwards. How New York was Mecca for an epoch that turned us from mods into hippies, and finally, in some search for our roots, into punks. I’m reminded how corporate globalisation has swallowed Covent Garden as well as Boat Quay in Singapore.
All this is done in a scintillating Singlish one soon falls into and enjoys, and the author’s eye for detail and sense of the swing of levity in a conversation is a genuine delight. I loved reading this book, and I shall read it again.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).