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Jackson’s ‘Opus’.

A FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW.

Opus 3
by W. D. Jackson
Shoestring Press  2018| 494 pp | £15.00 $16.66

By PETER McCAREY.

W. D. JACKSON has striven for decades to relate the individual in his moral frailty to society and its mutations in history. The field he has chosen, or in which he finds himself, is neither philosophy nor historiography, but poetry, and he looks to other poets to help him on his way. Given that most of his working life has been spent in Italy and Germany, he has imported a lot of classic and some contemporary Italian and German writing into this work. Perhaps it is because translation has become a deliberate way of reading for him that he finds himself also translating Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Byron into his own lilt – not to perfect but to assimilate them. And perhaps because he has married into post-war German culture, he has tackled Adorno’s big poetry question head-on.

‘[Opus 3] isn’t a pigeoned monument; indeed it’s not so much a book as a bookshelf, and some of the slim tomes you could pick out of it are delightful in themselves.’

But don’t let that put you off. This isn’t a pigeoned monument; indeed it’s not so much a book as a bookshelf, and some of the slim tomes you could pick out of it are delightful in themselves. (We are reviewing Opus 3, but that title does rather assume awareness of 1 and 2Then and Now: Words in the Dark [2002] and From Now to Then [2005]). I want to consider a few examples in some detail before looking at part of the wider structure.

There is a ballad of “Maggie Mae” (From Now to Then, pp. 184-96) that ought to figure in any anthology of Liverpool poetry. Dated 1991, it starts with father-and-son problems:

And should I fail to mention here
Any paternal greeting,
That may be because he said
Nothing much worth repeating:

The arrogance which we post-war kids
Imbibed with our free education
Reduced his ignorant, virile heart
To silent accusation.

And so the telly served instead
Of filial communication;
Helped soothe the disappointment caused
By my evident lack of vocation –

Which brings to mind Tom Leonard, “The Dropout”:

well jiss take a lookit yirsell
naithur wurk nur wahnt
aw aye

yir clivir
damm clivir
but yi huvny a clue whutyir dayn

(Intimate Voices, p.51)

And also Paul Muldoon having Christmas dinner with his widowed father:

At three o’clock in the afternoon
we watch the Queen’s
message to the Commonwealth
with the sound turned off.

(‘The Wishbone’, from Meeting The British)

The quotation from Jackson gives a first glimpse of something which might as well be stated here: Jackson’s own verse can be rough. Opus 3 is passionate, sophisticated and ambitious; the care Jackson takes with the translation and context of other poets is exemplary; but his original verse can be, as someone quipped of Byron, dreadful in small doses. On the other hand, in only twelve pages the “Maggie Mae” ballad produces a clear, bleak vision of a stricken city whose wealth had been built on slavery, and he does this without losing plot or momentum. So the verse is masonry not scrimshaw; it is concise and its narrative line is strong. The work of Heine courses through Jackson’s three volumes, a constant guide to the uses and abuses of politics and religion in society. Indeed, another of the volumes that the interested reader could piece together here, would be a “selected Heine” with an astute commentary in the labyrinthine footnotes.

And a selected Rilke. As with the Heine, a lot of these translations don’t make it into the main text of Jackson’s Opus. The footnote to Rilke’s “The Unicorn” on page 119 of Opus 3, for instance, contains the translation of “Seven Poems” from 1915. They begin:

The girl who gathers roses suddenly
Grasps the full bud of his life-giving limb
And, shocked by the difference of him/her, her/him
Her (fragrant) gardens shrink, or try to flee”

As in The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, the phallic theme in this gets over-embroidered. Perhaps that is why they got relegated to the notes.

Another value of Jackson’s work is the way he assesses the poet he is translating (rather in the way that Middleton did with Celan). On the theme of David and Abishag, I quote from Jackson’s footnote to After Heine: ‘King David’:

One of Heine’s most powerful personas (in Romanzero) is that of the diseased beggar Lazarus, lying at the gate of the wealthy Dives … Rilke, on the other hand, preferred the company of well-off patrons and (especially) patronesses, and imagined himself in royal, aristocratic, heroic or vatic roles. … All of which constitutes … sufficient reason why the poems in this section ‘progress’ from Rilke to Heine, and not vice versa.”

He returns to that theme in the footnote to p.371, concluding: “… it would, of course, be wonderful if his (Rilke’s) poetry had been as capable of ethical as of emotional and spiritual acumen. But we had better be grateful for the superlative poetry he wrote …” This concern with the translation and reception of poetry is brought to life in “Epilogue: Report from Munich – The Erlking’s Daughter” (pp 106-133 plus footnotes of the 2005 volume). The footnote tells us, “’Report from Munich’ is a partly fictionalized and conflated account of two readings, which took place in October 1993 and February 1995.”

The narrator-as-salaryman emerges from some office crisis and makes his way across Munich to a reading by the poet Sarah Kirsch. Immediately, there are two voices in action: that of the reading poet, and that of the listening narrator. And while Jackson the translator has clearly taken great pains in translating Kirsch’s work, the narrator has his problems with her poetry. Part of that is what anyone who attends a poetry reading will recognise: fluctuating connection with the work being read out, because of fatigue, distraction or irritation. There is also a touch of scepticism at the romanticism implicit in Kirsch’s role as a poet who, coming from former East Germany, felt little need to bring politics into her work, since its very existence was a political statement of sorts.

I had thought to continue with a quick review of Jackson’s Shakespearean sonnets (which brought to mind Edwin Morgan’s “Instructions to an Actor”) and one or two of the many long and intertwined narrative poems – I was particularly taken by “Pontius Pilate’s Wife, Procula, Addresses a Group of Christians: Rome, AD 39” – again, recalling Edwin Morgan, his “Pilate at Fortingale” from the Sonnets from Scotland. But at this stage, having given some idea of the wealth and variety of Jackson’s work (a huge amount will go unmentioned in this brief review), it is time to consider what might hold the work together.

One theme that draws on every level of his poetry is the aftermath of World War II in continental Europe.

Those levels are: personal experience; traditional narrative – here we will be mentioning only the German folk tales, and excluding the (related) Boccaccio-Chaucer-Shakespeare nexus that bulks so large in his work – historical narrative, and witness statements.

The “personal experience” element is important, because Opus 3 and its predecessors are nothing if not an attempt to find a meaningful place for the individual in history. Jackson might have taken a cipher such as the Good Soldier Svejk and put him through the thick of it; or subject another citizen K to the strictures of modern life, but those strategies were from earlier in that century, and they concluded in the negative (the Good Soldier Svejk survived, but only because that was what he was designed to do; he would happily enough have become the Secret Policeman Svejk if the narrative had veered in that direction). Jackson wanted to establish an individual with a plausible history – what he refers to in the notes as a “persona” other than himself. The awkward point is that the persona in question shares a lot of his CV with the author; still, it’s probably fair to assume that the misanthropic loser we are presented with is deliberately shorn of the author’s saving graces, to see whether that sort of a man could come through personal and internecine trauma to any survival, to any kind of grace at all.

At various stages in the three volumes we are treated to biographical portraits of this persona – from family and school, through class warfare at Oxford, to wage slavery, adultery, and marital reconciliation. There is altogether too much information, though it does give a muffled contemporary resonance to the tales in verse, and it allows Jackson to show how Eva Braun, for example, and Adolf Hitler, might have flitted, in their self-reflections, from a man and a woman, to some kind of narcissistic archetypes: Hitler did, at times, assume the surname “Wolf”, and his Prussian headquarters was known as “The Wolf’s Lair”.

Thus, in a sequence entitled “Gretl Braun Remembers her Sister Eva”, Jackson alternates the Braun family’s account of Hitler and the war, with stories their grandfather told them. The respective beginnings:

1. We Had No Garden and No Rose-trees

Mother called us her rose-buds – Snow-white
and Rose-red. Father was often AWOL.
We punched him with our little fists
when he came home. But he just bared
his teeth and laughed. Our eldest sister
soon left, and kept her distance. We
took care of Mother and she us.
We had no garden and no rose-trees.

2. The Grandfather’s Tale (I): The Child in White

A widow lived in a lonely cottage
beside a Märchen-wood.
Her daughters grew like two young rose-trees,
one white, one red, both good.

They shared the housework. In the summer
picked flowers, then gathered fruit
And shared it. Safe by their fire in the winter,
spun wool. No man or brute

Troubled their dreams …

After that sequence, the “persona” returns, in more biography, and a section on “working for the enemy” – the enemy not being the Nazis but big business. Jackson does make the connection (one of increasing relevance today) between interstate war and the campaigns of industry and finance: similar imperial ambitions, and actual historical alliances – the big brands of today that colluded with or controlled parts of the Nazi war machine. And he draws a parallel between the persona’s capitulation and the collaboration of entire populations. It’s a point.

Then we move on to the part entitled “Case Studies, 1941-1945”, which collects some of the vilest stories from the Third Reich, many of them versified from accounts in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. At one point, Jackson writes “I could go on. But turn that into four stanzas of poetry, if you will”. The section of case studies is immediately followed by an idyllic scene in postwar Germany, with a middle-aged couple emerging from a tryst in the woods. The contrast is a bit much. Is poetry possible after Auschwitz?

“Instead of working for the enemy
And justifying our lives as going to show
How little choice we have, the mind is free

To choose or not to choose – no matter what.” (p.203)

Such is the conclusion of the persona who has grown through the poems to realise that his choices have been his own, and that others are not to blame for them. This is good, and the lyric pages that follow are among Jackson’s best, but they showed this reader that some kinds of poetry are indeed impossible after Auschwitz. There is no consolation.

When it comes to that genocide, I think it better not to read Jackson’s case studies but to watch Claude Lanzmann’s film, from which most of them were drawn. Read Primo Levi and (if you must) Curzio Malaparte. Confront the recorded witnesses yourself, without a further intermediary. And as regards the Allied bombing campaigns, I would recommend a different poem, John Shreffler’s “Wings of the Bomber”, which follows aviation from its invention until the fire-bombing of Tokyo.

The winning side set up the modern god of war – one who repays injury a hundred or a thousand-fold, remotely. It regards one-on-one cruelty as a sign of weakness. Its own weakness is growing. Individual enlightenment won’t take it down.

But these are the cavils of one reader, and they are set down as one of the myriad possible responses to this Opus as a whole, and to parts of it. This is a brave, committed and – most of the time also – a very enjoyable work, of rare scope.


Peter McCarey lives in Geneva, where he directs The Syllabary. He worked as a linguist in Geneva where, among other things, he ran the language service of the World Health Organization for 15 years. The struggle to manipulate or in part survive variously defective systems informs his work. McCarey is a founding member of Poésies en Mouvement (Geneva), panjandrum of Molecular Press and partner in various audio and mechanical installations on tour in Europe and the Americas. His early collected poetry, Collected Contraptions, was published by Carcanet in 2011. The rest is to be found on The Syllabary. His books include Hugh MacDiarmid and the Russians (Scottish Academic Press, 1987), Find an Angel and Pick a Fight (Molecular Press, 2013) and De l’Oubli (L’Ours Blanc, in press). In 2016 he convened and chaired an important meeting of experts on an impossible pandemic. The proceedings were published under the title Petrushka in 2017; a Russian translation is imminent.

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