A Fortnightly Review.
The Ghost Net
by Alan Jenkins
New Walk Editions | £18.33 paper
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
They are the poems of a naval college drop-out brought up in a sea-faring context and obsessed with things nautical, but ultimately a spirit committed to poetry – one who became a land-lubber and joined the editorial department of the Times Literary Supplement, until he resigned (since when that publication is riddled with typos and manifestations of slack grammar). I reviewed his earlier work favourably in the PN Review many years ago, in a piece which also dealt with the work of Hugo Williams. My publishing venture, Grey Suit Editions, has published chap-books by both poets. However, they hail from the opposite side of a political and poetic divide that distances me from several of their aesthetic and political stances.
What does that matter? I keep telling myself. Though they adhere to the uptight notions of Ian Hamilton and his clique, which is anti-abstract and committed to narrative coherence and economic form, both Jenkins and Williams are exceptional writers, their poems often sardonic and always memorable. John Ashbery could appreciate Larkin (for poems you couldn’t easily pull apart) even if he himself freed poetry from the remorseless necessity of having a significance. I have long championed a view of writing that accommodates the polarities of this dialectic – thus alienating myself from both camps!
The qualities that distinguish Jenkins’s writing are evident in ‘Spray’:
Now I had almost forgotten the view
From behind, that half-dried seaweed smell,
Smell of something that died long ago in its shell,
They meant nothing to me, they could not hurt
Any more than commonplace memories do:
Of her in that flimsy summer skirt,
Of sitting with her to a plate that was all shells
And rubber, that we both struggled with,
Of the maitre d’ who laughed like Neptune in a myth,
Of our running through a downpour on the prom
To shelter in a café that could only serve us tea,
Of her padding down the beach to the sea
In a black one-piece, my hand inside it, her aplomb. . .
She would not be waiting by the bandstand,
Hair streaming and eyes bright, saying, ‘Loser!
I bet you’re wondering if I can still be had
For the price of a double at the Grand?
Are you sick or mad? Don’t you understand
How much I wanted you, how I prayed you’d die
Calling out for me. . .?’ Instead it was my gull-accuser
That swooped to the cast-iron railing with its beak
Wide open, fixed on me an unblinking eye
And regurgitated this: So you haven’t slept!
There’s never been a bunk you haven’t crept
Or crawled away from, looking foolish, weak,
Your nights are all bad dreams soaked in remorse,
Your days all lost in longing for what’s past
And past repair, for the unknown, uncharted course
In your head. Jesus, could you even raise a mast?
How frail it is, your little craft of . . Now the shore
Was washed away, was a white ghost net
Of spray — I ploughed on, hunched in a hood
That hid my face like the one I wore
The night we walked out here, a night to forget,
The night I waved goodbye to her for good.
You could lose yourself in that, and drown
Where neither shout nor blurted prayer unlocks
Help from cannonades of air. Go down,
Everything’s awash, go down to the rocks.
The rhyming is satisfying and inventive — prom/aplomb, loser/accuser — Jenkins is one of the masters of rhyme in current literature. And there’s a soaked melancholy of tone which is haunting. There seems to be a vocabulary specific to the book, nautical terms, often used metaphorically (could you even raise a mast?) and what might be called ‘British drab’ — B & Bs, stained collars, greasy ties, the Old Kent Road, crab-paste sandwiches for tea — a vocabulary reminiscient of Larkin’s. Most of the poems are organised in stanzas, yet, as mentioned, it all lurches dangerously, the stanzas spilling into further stanzas as if they were sets of billowing waves.
This collection reminds me of W.G. Shepherd’s ‘alcoholic’ poems. Confessional and passionate, but at the same time cynical and down-to-earth, and often politically “incorrect”. I am also reminded of the 12th and 13th century tradition of the Goliardic poets, who wrote scurrilous and carnal poems in Latin for the delectation of the sleazy abbots of the Middle Ages. And it’s as if the dull comforts of England were at risk of being drowned by the sea that lays siege to its shores. Sharks nose their way through London pubs and clubs, killer whales bask in Mayfair.
But hell, this is not all plain sailing, at least for the likes of me. The biggest whale in the book is Marie Colvin. There is a dedication to her, and one of Jenkins’ strongest poems is ‘A Night Sail’ — an elegy for her. As many will be aware, Colvin was a larger-than-life journalist for the The Sunday Times – and she also reported for the BBC, Channel 4, CNN, etc. She liked to emphasise that she was only interested in the experiences of ordinary people. She was drawn to atrocities and genocide. Colvin was showered with awards by the West for her work. Having slipped into Syria without permission from the Syrian government, she reported from a field hospital in Baba Amr, a neighbourhood in Homs occupied by the Western-supported ‘rebels’ at the most savage time in that conflict. She maintained in her reports and articles that this bombarded district was mainly occupied by civilians and her graphic description of suffering children and terrified mothers drastically increased Western hostility to President Assad. This resulted in the West supplying more arms to the rebels which inevitably found their way into the hands of terrorists and prolonged the conflict. There’s a telling photo of her photographer turned obit-man, Paul Conroy, in manly embrace with what look like his heavily armed Takfiri brothers. A photo no one gets to see much.
On her second surreptitious visit to Baba Amr via a drainage culvert, now without even the knowledge of her editor at the Sunday Times, Marie Colvin got blown to bits.
Here is a section of ‘A Night Sail’:
You were still snoring. I saw a faded, flapping rust-red sail
and under it, your head propped on sacks of rice
in the bows of a caique. . . Here I draw a veil,
a veil of tears and old malt over thinking twice
before coming with you across the wine-dark sea to Zuwara,
for I had drunk the milk of paradise,
I did not keep that appointment in Samarra,
I could only lie awake and listen for your whimpers to subside
to snores or read to you from John Grisham, John O’Hara
or John Donne; I did not see the sewer where they died,
the bloated corpses floating downriver, villages laid waste,
the heaps of blackened limbs on each roadside;
how the lives of others were degraded and debased
in camps and market squares, in bare-bulbed basement rooms
at police headquarters, how the nameless and effaced
lingered on the air in airless catacombs;
how the first bones to surface from mass graves
were children’s bones, how gas from punctured wombs
alerted those who clawed at rubble, or how a man behaves
who finds his wife and daughter, headless, in the street,
how a man sinks to his knees and moans and raves. . .
The persona of himself that is projected in this elegy implies that Jenkins knew Colvin well. They both worked for Times newspapers, and they seemed to have shared a love of boating. The phrase ‘You were still snoring’ suggests that he had once been her lover. And he seems to have been somewhat in awe of her, identifying a yellow streak in himself in comparison to her thirst for sensational danger. To me she sounds an overweening figure. A fellow journalist described how in Syria, she placed her stuff on a chair and Colvin threw it off – because it was her chair. “You want to leave now the Eurotrash are here?” she asked her sidekick Conroy. What was going on in Homs was her scoop, and she didn’t want anyone muscling in on it.
Jenkins is a poet liberated (or sozzled) enough to allow the poem to follow its own music and conjure together phrases which project their melancholy magic. Sozzled on verse at least. However, if you choose to derive your inspiration from your experience of a figure as public as Marie Colvin — noted for her piratical eye-patch after being wounded by shrapnel in one conflict zone — you need to accept that some readers may not see your ‘muse’ in quite the same light as you do yourself.
Sceptical about any reporting so thoroughly endorsed and promoted by Western media, I watched Under the Wire, the documentary about Colvin made in 2018, directed by Chris Martin with much commentary from Paul Conroy and positive comment by editors of the news programmes and papers she worked for. I was struck by the glossy drama, the stagey integrity of it all, the sharply contrasted collage of buildings being destroyed, the portraiture of a surgeon in the field hospital. It felt highly constructed. Vividness had been injected into it. When a documentary has so much investment attached, my trust in its content evaporates. It becomes a mockumentary.
Hollywood has also made a film about Colvin’s life, and here I’m reminded that a film on the White Helmets, an Al Quaeda-run ‘rescue’ organisation, actually won an Oscar. I’m also irritated by the BBC’s insistence on the pejorative ‘regime’ every time the elected Syrian Government is alluded to. At least there’s an online magazine called Global Research which has published their side of the story in a 2019 article by Rick Sterling.
But here I am, reading this elegy in its day. And the poetry is stunning, no doubt about that. It prompts images, juggles allusions, cracks sour jokes, and scatters a Fauve Parisian flavour, to leaven the account of atrocities witnessed and bluff bravado. Can one admire the elegy but not the one to whom it is dedicated? Can one admire the making of a poem but not the person who inspired it? I try to think up examples. Could a Roundhead admire a Royalist poet? I hardly think so. I think of Richard Lovelace. A colonel in the King’s army in his teens, who, after the civil war, was obliged to eat his own boots in order not to starve.
A master of the oxymoron, Richard Lovelace is one of our greatest lyric poets. But he didn’t survive his King by many years, so his poetry didn’t get him far in Puritan England. But this is not about the man. Following that route, we fall into the current trap of representationalism — as if who we are matters, not the art. Bullshit. The question is, Can we admire the work of someone whose ideals differ from our own?
For me, this is at the very kernel of the issue of appreciation. Allow me to bring forth an old nugget. F.T. Prince, on retirement, went to teach in the West Indies where many people are religious still, and he himself was a Roman Catholic. He was teaching literature, and some of his students asked him why he included Dostoyevsky and Orwell on his course, and why did he not simply promote Catholic literature and his own belief. Prince replied, ‘I read to emancipate myself from myself’.
The Futurists were Fascists. I admire the energy in their art which inspired Vorticism here. In my teens I apprenticed myself in poetic spirit to Ezra Pound — but that was for his resolute modernism, not for his political views. The searing issues wear off in time. My feeling is that time may well deal with the cavils I have about Marie Colvin, and that the elegy could survive its subject. Suffice it here to say that while I have a lot of time for Jenkins’ poetry, I have little time for his muse.
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 Editions, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Consciousness (with Multilation), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).