Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Indecipherable Ghost of Love – Gherasim Luca’s The Passive Vampire

The Passive Vampire, Gherasim Luca, translated and with an introduction by Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2008. ISBN 978-80-86264-31-8

Published in 1945, Gherasim Luca’s The Passive Vampire is a provocative and erotically charged love letter to the French surrealist group. A french letter one might say, given that the Rumanian Luca (real name Salman Locker) wrote not in his native tongue but that of André Breton and the surrealists he had recently met in Paris; it is a prophylactic act of love disseminating and inseminating the ‘red threat of Reality’ - a singular erotic gesture in a time of darkness and absence.

The book is divided into two distinct sections. The first in a remarkable account of a surrealist ‘game’, the Objectively Offered Object (OOO), not unlike Dali’s ‘Symbolically Functioning Object’ whereby everyday objects are transformed in some kind of manic/erotic state before being ‘offered’ to another and subjected to radical psychoanalytical analysis. The aim of this ‘game’, Luca states, is nothing less than ‘to discover a new object of knowledge [...] a new objective possibility of resolving dialectically the conflict between interior and exterior worlds...’ This echoes one of the central tenets of the Rumanian Surrealists’ manifesto, Dialectics of the Dialectic written by Luca and Dolfi Trost in 1945, that surrealists, in their adherence to dialectical materialism, must continue ‘to envisage the possibility of these permanent confrontations between interior reality and exterior reality’.

Through the OOO game we see the development of a distinct methodology of dialectical investigation through the operation of desire and objective chance, prising apart the binary configurations of bourgeois ‘reality’: inner/outer, self/other, chance/necessity, man/woman, day/night, dream/reality, death and its negation. The transformed objects are themselves quite startling. The Letter L, for instance, offered to André Breton, is an old wooden doll covered in riddles taken from the pages of an almanac with the head of another doll attached to its groin which itself is covered in razor blades with one – à la Un Chien Andalou – sliced into an eye. But what is more remarkable than even the Nadja-like photographic evidence of these objects, is Luca’s honest and lucid analysis of their making. Through the offered object, a lover’s triangle is formed through an association with Breton’s Nadja, Luca’s wife and Luca’s desire to form a rapport with Breton, replete with infidelities and jealousies.

I could satisfy my desire towards B. while avoiding painful consequences and at the same time have the means to take revenge on the double infidelity committed by my wife and B. I mutilated the head (the sex) using several razor blades and, as a supreme ejaculation, with the last one I sliced the doll’s eye. This convulsive-sadistic action thus took on a concrete, bewitching value. (pp 47-8)

This ‘supreme ejaculation’ reminds me very much of the delirious erotic language used by Georges Bataille (e.g. Histoire de l’oeil, Ma Mère, La Morte) denoting an ‘inner experience’ which forces or exceeds a given limit within being. The pitch of Luca’s prose is often at a similar frequency. For example, attaching a spoon to a starfish on another object is an ‘all-too directly pederastic operation’; he sees in objects the revelation of his ‘bisexual tendencies’ which are ‘permanently indissoluble’. The object objectively offered and subjected to rigorous documentation and analysis, thus become a hugely erotic and talismanic portal (like a dream) into the very nature of intersubjectivity This subject, however, is not whole or, indeed, wholesome but radically and erotically divided in itself, one might even say ‘schizoid’ (pre-figuring the academic post-modern concern for the ‘divided self’). But this delirious schizophrenia is not abandoned to sheer lunacy. What we also see in the game are also the mechanics and machinations of objective chance which, according to Luca and Trost: 'constitutes for us the most awesome means to locate the relative-absolute aspects of reality... Objective chance leads us to see in love the general revolutionary method that is unsullied by idealistic remnants'.

What objective chance reveals between subject and object is a third, ‘phantom’ object. We might this ‘love’ but, like all phantoms, it eludes true definition. Certainly the final pages of part two’s include a paean to an elusive lover, Déline, and an extended meditation on the concept and nature of love.

...there also emerged LOVE, mad and lucid, real and virtual, living and dead like Déline’s hair. As Déline, the indecipherable ghost of love, fell asleep on my shoulder she darkened the darkness. (p. 134)

Neither object nor subject this amour fou is a ghost which functions, at a textual level, not unlike Roland Barthes’ ‘third meaning’ (i.e. a signifier without a signified’) becoming a field of operation whereby the traditional binary opposites subject/object, exterior/interior dissolve deliriously in a poetic prose of constant metaphorical exchange, verbal collage and assemblage (or de-assemblage).

I close my eyes, as active as a vampire, I open them within myself, as passive as a vampire, and between the blood that arrives, the blood that leaves, and the blood already inside me there occurs an exchange of images like an engagement of daggers. Now I could eat a piano, shoot a table, inhale a staircase. (p. 83)

The book’s second half, The Passive Vampire is thus more lyrical and linguistically searching. Luca plays with various registers from straight biography, hysterical Post-Romantic poetical flourishes and satanic litanies to pseudo-scientific formulae; its vocabulary includes the language of psychoanalysis, the language of flowers, even the signification of individual letters (L, D, X, OOO, R). What Luca objectively offers the reader is the constant transformation - or ghost - of an indecipherable discourse (is this book, for instance: poetry/prose/novel/psychological case study/documentary/grimoire...? (again, one is put in mind of the genre-defying Bataille as described in Barthes’ essay ‘From Work to Text’)). The Passive Vampire, in other words, is itself an Objectively Offered Object in the form of an extended love letter in which the text, with the complicity of the reader, is the object undergoing an exhilarating erotic revolution. It is the gift of poetry as a dark, waking dream-state, one of those ‘fortuitous encounters’ leading to a knowledge and transformation of relationships between individuals that ‘becomes the somnambulistic manifestation of the collective unconsciousness in its waking state, thus consummating its nocturnal dream form.’

The Passive Vampire is excellently translated and introduced by Krzysztof Fijalkowski and is what the broadsheets would call ‘essential reading’. It is undoubtedly a ‘classic’ of the surrealist tradition while at the same time the kind of text that puts into question the very notions of classic and tradition. Offer yourself to it.

A version of this review was first published in Phosphor.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Lovely Chaos – Neptune Blue by Simon Barraclough

Title: Neptune Blue
Author: Simon Barraclough
Paperback: 63 pages
Publisher: Salt Publishing, (15 July 2011)
ISBN-10: 184471764X
ISBN-13: 978-1844717644

Simon Barraclough’s debut poetry collection, Los Alamos Mon Amour, was published in 2008 to great critical acclaim, including being shortlisted for a Forward Prize. 2011 saw the publication of the proverbial ‘difficult second album’ (if we consider 2010’s Bonjour Tetris an EP or boxed-set of singles) and the good news is that Neptune Blue is as good, if not better, than its predecessor.

Neptune Blue is a more coherent and mature book filled—quite literally—with heart. Yes, there are still those playful and allusive references to cultural artefacts we have come to expect. Nevertheless, it is underscored with a tenderness and generosity of spirit that some may have felt lacking in Los Alamos. The collection is held together by two sequences that form, in Barraclough’s own words, ‘a kind of helix, or ‘twin backbone.’’ These sequences consist of nine planet poems and eleven ‘heart’ poems. These form the double helix DNA of the collection and adequately demonstrate everything that makes Barraclough worth reading: intelligent, playful, colloquial, humorous, cheeky, allusive, and truly heartfelt. Here is ‘Neptune’:

You’re so                                                  blue
you probably think that Jarman’s Blue
is about you.

You’re the source of all blue,
of Edwin Morgan’s ‘Little Blue Blue’,

bluemungous, ur-blue.
Earth blue held up to you
is muck ball brown and grass stain green,

our oceans but a drop,
a dust of moth,
a mote of you.

Neptune, god of the blue sea via Carly Simon, Derek Jarman, Edwin Morgan a ‘mucky’ earth and back again. It is a strange celebratory poem, linguistically playful (‘inexhaustiblue’ ‘bluemungous’) yet equally valedictory and sad, a distant blue planet that gives you the blues. It is expressed in the inherent gap of the you/blue rhyme, the allusion to Jarman’s last film before succumbing to AIDS-related complications, and our own ‘blue planet’ rendered ‘muck ball brown’ and moth eaten. That phrase ‘muck ball brown’ harks to the poet’s northern roots and signifies for me one of Barraclough’s great strengths, his ability to speak of the allusive, the elusive and the astronomical without resorting to exorbitant language; it’s the modulation between the poetic and quotidian that brings the ethereal back down to earth.

One of the great tensions in this collection is that between the postmodern and the romantic. Barraclough’s is a world made up of cliché and the Hollywoodised simulacrum of experience but he does not give in to the irremediably ironic or amorally relativistic. He demonstrates a humanistic point of view in a world that can all-too-easily seem manipulated, manufactured and alienating. In fact, it is this tension that animates Barraclough’s distinctive voice and creates on the page poetry that is ultimately winningly joyful; a lovely chaos of tensions that makes us, as he says in the title of one poem—echoing MacNiece—‘Incorrigibly Plural’.

This exploration of the world by exposing the gaps between illusion and reality elicit what, in my mind, are two of the finest poems in the collection: ‘We’ll Always Have CGI Paris’ and ‘Zabriskie Point’. Both take films and film-making as their subject (an important touchstone throughout Barraclough’s oeuvre) and become the vehicles to investigate the nature of art, love, sincerity and critical reception.

‘We’ll Always Have CGI Paris’ is almost an exposé of the way Barraclough’s own poetry works. It zooms in from a distant viewpoint (‘dolly zoom / through Doppler shifting stars’) to two lovers ‘kissing in the festive, fireworky air’. But, as we often find in Barraclough’s work ‘love’ is a complicated presence and absence:

But we were never there. My sitcom kept me
in LA, your slasher movie debut
saw you junketing in hotel rooms out east.
We shot green screen on different days…

What the viewer will ultimately see, then, is an illusion of lovers (and love), manipulated by technology and the scraps (quotations) from other films (‘our foggy breath was lifted from Titanic’). It reminds us of Barthes’ notion of literature in ‘Death of the Author’ as an endless tissue of quotations where even the phrase ‘I love you’ is merely a cliché lifted from the storehouse of language. Yet despite the fact that we are exposed to the artistic ‘lie’ or Baudrillard-like simulacrum of reality (Paris waited / to be pixellated, cut and pasted) Barraclough shifts the tenor of the poem’s ending to a kind of mock-gothic romanticism inhabited by the ghostly shadow of love:

But we’ll always have Paris,
although our eye lines never matched
and everything we tried to hold onto
our phantom fingers passed clean through.

The world may well be insubstantial but it is in our nature to hold onto something even if that something cannot be truly grasped.

‘Zabriskie Point’ is based on the Italian director, Antonioni’s great US-made box-office flop. It concerns the reception of the two amateur, non-actor, leads:

The couple, beautiful and blank, will sweat beneath the TV lights;
piñatas for the practiced brickbats of syndicated chat
and sniffy critics damning them for not convincing as themselves.

Through critical eyes, it is as if art demands that one cannot simply ‘be oneself’; that we can only be convincing by acting to be oneself. It is a paradox, then, that reality is only convincing or authentic through pretence. Again, we are faced with that Baudrillardian ‘hyperreality’ in which the simulacrum is no mere copy but reality itself. But Barraclough doesn’t let it hang there, the negative critical reception of the film and the actors in particular may have had a more ‘real’, lasting effect on its all-too-human protagonists. In particular the troubled Mark Frechette who died under suspicious circumstances at the age of 27:

And even after forty years the online commentators sneer and revel
in the early death of Mark Frechette who walked off set to meet
the double of his unknown self and stepped into its silhouette.

And here is the heart of the matter—representative of the collection as a whole—that however much we theorize about the allusive postmodern condition and the ‘reality of reality’ or the difficulties of the quantum state of nature and the vastness of the universe, at the centre of it all stands the fragile, inquisitive, playful, loving, corporeal human being. Neptune Blue is a dazzlingly inventive collection and a worthy successor to Barraclough’s critically acclaimed first collection. It is a book with a tongue in its cheek, its head way above the clouds and its feet firmly on that ‘blue-green baubled gobsmacker’ we call earth.

© Andy Boobier 2011

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Title: The Migraine Hotel
Author: Luke Kennard
Paperback: 84 pages
Publisher: Salt Publishing (2009)
ISBN-10: 1844715558
ISBN-13: 978-1844715558

Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.
- William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned

Luke Kennard is a prodigious talent. He was awarded a Gregory for his first collection, The Solex Brothers, and, at just 26, was the youngest ever nominee for the Forward Poetry Prize in 2007 for The Harbour Beyond the Movie. Now comes his third prose/poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel from Salt Publishing.

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that The Migraine Hotel carries on very much in the vein of The Harbour Beyond the Movie; Wolf makes a reappearance and there is the same absurdist/surrealist take on life, sparkling with the usual insight, erudite wit and linguistic cunning. The bad news is that it carries on very much in the vein of The Harbour Beyond the Movie... same absurdist/surrealist take on life... usual insight, wit... etc, etc. Although the marketing blurb declares this collection to be ‘very much a sequel’ to Harbour, it is less sequel than simply a 'continuation’ (digression: in the same way Radiohead’s Amnesiac can be seen as the gatefold companion to Kid A - maybe not a better album but containing some better songs, in this reviewer’s opinion anyway) . Glue the two covers of Harbour and Migraine together and you get one single volume, not even a game of two halves. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing as the bar raised by Kennard remains high throughout and he is a witty and astute observer of human foibles and often 'laugh out loud' funny. Kennard’s Wolf alter-ego is a fine comic creation in the manner of Hughes’ Crow or Berryman’s Huffy Henry/Mr Bones. In ‘Wolf On The Couch’ he’s ‘completed a correspondence course in psychoanalysis’. It may be an obvious line of attack for one so deeply read in post-grad literary theory but generally Kennard pulls off the parodies and sideways digs with aplomb. I like the way the ‘alter-superego’ owl is described succinctly as ‘squat, tawny, beakish’; and the poetry workshop parody ‘Sharking for Snow’ in part IV is both telling and very amusing. Other highlights in the collection for me include ‘Wolf Nationalist’, ‘Pleasure Beach’ (Ours is the only coastal town/ To feature an exact copy of our coastal town/ In bronze, actual size, two miles down the road. ); ‘The Forms of Despair’; ‘A Terrorist, Maybe, With His Children’ (‘The most miserable crustacean is the crab...’); and ‘Letter from Snow’ part of ‘Five Poems For A New Shopping Centre’, where Kennard’s absurdism, poetic vision and humour are perfectly balanced:
Dear shopping centre,

I don’t usually write to anything, but feel that you are making a horrible mistake: Can you hear the starling crackle as if charged by the electric high-wire it perches on? As the dove betokens peace, so the starling municipality. I digress, which is something you just don’t do, hence my concern.

Yours sincerely

Kennard is an entertainer; that’s not to damn with faint praise, it’s rare to find a poet with such wit and intelligence that’s also such a genuine pleasure to read. The issue with The Migraine Hotel, however, is that the originality and novelty that one found in Harbour begins to wear a little thin here and we begin to echo in our minds Kennard’s own refrain ‘What am I to make of all the repetition?’ – and not in a good way.

The trouble is this: however high an author sets the bar a reader’s expectation will always nudge it that bit higher. With The Migraine Hotel Kennard has reached a kind of plateau that, as David Bowden puts it, ‘already feels self-parodic, and the intellectual in-jokes genuinely start to grate.’ And it should be noted that over half the pieces in this collection do include some kind of literary reference, poetical self-deprecation or academic in-joke. Wolf’s parody of a lit-crit seminar/poetry workshop treads a fine line and for me manages not to fall off into the void of self-parody. Others, I’m afraid others don’t fare so well. ‘A Sure-Fire Sign’ with its ‘funeral for irony’ is far too self-indulgent, with humour that simply misfires: ‘Just bad jokes about films-within-fucking-films that don’t exist.’ The references here, as in other pieces, are a little too calculated, too self-aware of its own delightful riffs of literary deprecation. ‘Army’ is another good example. It begins with an appropriately surrealistic and perturbing image:
Dear mum and dad, I expect,
With all the paint falling out of the sky,
You thought I’d forgotten you.
Wrong! I detect your presence
In the exuberance and wit of deciduous trees!
The second stanza is an absurdist story about flinging a ‘wall over a wall’ that one might find in Beckett; a suitably clever exercise concerning the ridiculousness of military exercises. Yet the third stanza’s self-consciously literary ‘humour’ unpicks all the good work that has gone before it.
...I have no great facility with language –
My eloquence marred, perhaps,
By my curtailed education.
Thank you for Seven Types of Ambiguity
And the box of brandy snaps;

I’m afraid I don’t understand either of them.
Clearly the writer of ‘the exuberance and wit of deciduous trees’ does have a facility with language which is indeed ‘eloquent’; one simply doesn’t believe that either William Empson’s critical masterpiece or sweet tubular brittle biscuits are too perplexing for the author of the poem – and if he’s simply being ‘ironic’ then this reviewer fails to see the point. The intrusion of self-aware academic and literary criticism via Empson (how many people outside the Academy will have ever heard of him?) breaks the spell of the ‘reality effect’ of the poem that doesn’t merely undermine the reader’s expectations as we might ‘expect’ post-modernist writing to do but actually breaks the bond of trust between the reader and the work. The result is more a feeling of deflation, of being excluded or let down; either because a joke is being made which the reader is not party to or that the reader cannot be trusted to make his/her own critical judgement about the poem. This needn’t be so. Kennard’s facility is to connect best with his reader through humour; it can heighten the poetical drama as well as undermine, as we see at the end of another military poem ‘The Forms Of Despair’:

We described the funny pages to Simon – who had lost both his eyes
But the jokes didn’t work so well in description.

Here the joke (about jokes) has the effect of both heightening the personal tragedy and providing the reader a suitably uncomfortable critical distance to review the subject(s) of the poem.

The preponderance of ‘literary humour’ throughout the collection, as I’ve said earlier, can become tiresome. It also begs the question of whether the interminable critical gainsaying is, as Kennard’s friend Rupert Loydell has suggested: ‘a kind of defensiveness, something to shield the author from the world whilst also abusing it.’ For all his prodigious talent and intellect one can’t help feeling Kennard is still wearing his post-modernist critical heart far too vainly on his sleeve. And I don’t really buy into Loydell’s counter-argument that Kennard may be ‘deconstructing the idea of deconstruction’. (Derrida was doing this much more effectively over 30 years ago, though many of his academic acolytes still fail to see the ‘irony’ of their institutionalising his unique and visionary discipline – but that’s another story...) I also think this way of using humour as a critical tool is misplaced for two reasons.

Firstly, as I’ve already said, however much fun it is for the author to deconstruct his own narrative or the reader’s expectations, such literary ‘in-jokes’ can easily excludes the reader. Moreover, the actual joy of reading – that Barthesian plaisir du texte – becomes wearisome and limp, like making love to someone who is constantly commenting on their own sexual technique. Reading through The Migraine Hotel I kept thinking of Michael Donaghy who quite aptly, considering Kennard has recently completed a PhD and now teaches Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham, once said: ‘I started a PhD in English at the University of Chicago because I loved poetry – which I now realise is like saying I studied vivisection because I loved dogs.’

The second reason I think Kennard’s particular use of literary humour is misguided is because of something he once said in an interview. When asked, ‘What makes you write now?’ Kennard replied: ‘Anger. And wanting to make that anger into something funny.’ Anger as a motive force in poetry is not necessarily a bad thing, and one can indeed sense a certain anger buried deep beneath the humour in Kennard’s work which he himself has described as ‘absurdist and satirical.’ He also claims to ‘use a fairytale-like structure to comment on society.’ That fairytale quality is what makes Kennard’s work so uniquely distinctive. It has an otherwordly ‘Mittel Europa’ feel about it that reminds one of Borges, Ionesco, Calvino and Zbigniew Herbert. However, unlike Herbert for instance, Kennard’s social critiques fail to bite in the same way, and the anger – which could be used to such devastating effect - just gets lost in all the literary self-consciousness and pastiche. Kennard is such a talented writer one must feel that he is capable of more than just describing ‘the ridiculous pastimes of your weak and fallible race in order to mock and to make strong contrast with my presence within the work...’ as Loydell playfully ventriloquises through the mouth of Kennard’s own Wolf character. I don’t mean that Kennard should necessarily be more ‘Political’ which could easily turn into absurdist posturing if not truly felt, but I would like to see where the darker side of his imagination might lead him, something that is not cut short by a dandy quip or smacked round the chops by an academic uppercut. As David Bowden has observed, there are a number of poets writing today who ‘hide behind gags’, Kennard is smarter than your average poet and the sooner he lets go of the in-jokes and literary jibes the more he will realise his potential as a genuinely great artist. Personally, I think Kennard’s future will be secured in longer narratives where character and situation can develop beyond self-conscious parody than the strictures of both the prose poem as well as the author currently allow.

For the purposes of recommendation it wouldn’t be controversial to say that if you loved The Harbour Behind The Movie you’ll like The Migraine Hotel; Kennard has such innate and exuberant talent that it’s well worth the entrance fee despite the caveats.

Buy The Migraine Hotel from Salt Publishing.


David Bowden, 'Getting The Joke', Culture Wars 2009
Rupert Loydell, 'Danse avec Le Loupe (or Howling in the Dark)', Stride Magazine 2009

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Time and Materials by Robert Hass

Title: Time and Materials: Poems 1997 - 2005
Author: Robert Hass

Paperback: 96 pages

Publisher: Ecco Press

ISBN-10: 0061350281
ISBN-13: 978-0061350283

Is Robert Hass the Great American Poet?

Multi-award winner, critic, Professor of English at Berkeley, translator of Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz and himself US Poet Laureate between 1995-97, Robert Hass is one of the most lauded of contemporary American poets. And yet he seems to be little known in the UK. As far as I understand, unlike, say, John Ashbery, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, August Kleinzahler and Mary Oliver among others, Hass has never had a UK publisher (unless you count his contribution to
Five American Poets from Carcanet in 1979). This is somewhat remiss, to say the least, as Rober Hass is quite simply one of the best poets writing in English today and his work demands to be better known this side of the pond. (Digression: interestingly, Robert Hass is almost the opposite to American poet Frederick Seidel published by Faber who is better known here than in his own back yard, or perhaps more it is more apposite to say ‘roof terrace’. The contrasts poetically between Hass and 'laureate of the louche' Seidel are, however, truly Atlantic!)

Born in San Francisco in 1941, Hass's poetry career began in 1973 when he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award with
Field Guide. Drawing for inspiration on the Californian countryside and his background in Eastern European studies, it established his reputation immediately. This was enhanced further in his next collection, Praise, which won the William Carlos Willians award in 1979 and, according to Robert Miklitsch, marked "the emergence of a major American poet".

In 1984 Hass published,
Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, a collection of essays and reviews exploring American stallwarts such as Robert Lowell, Robert Creeley and James Wright as well as European and Japanese poets (including Milosz, Transtromer and Rilke). The collection won him a National Book Critics Circle award though it incurred the wrath of Helen Vendler who, in an article for The New York Review of Books, found its social, informal and seductive style ('Californian manner') so stylised as to be 'unsettling' and Hass's criticism 'interesting, learned, and deft' while at the same time 'sentimental'. (Digression: Vendler asks some pretty fundamental questions in this article about the nature of criticism, the 'subject' of poetry and the uncertainty of audience which is still pertinent today. See, for instance, Magma Poetry online's discussion about the purpose of poetry reviews and blogs such as this one. )

Hass's third collection of poetry,
Human Wishes, came out in 1990 again to critical acclaim. Japanese poetry had always been an important influence and in 1995 he published The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. His translations pays tribute to a linguistic clarity and an 'aesthetic ideal' that informs Hass' own poetry:
in which one could use language as a clear mirror of the seeing of the world, which of course only happens through work. You don't get to see that way if your head is full of brainless chatter... At some level the common world has to be earned over and over again.
Another collection of poetry, Sun under Wood, appeared in 1996 to relatively mixed reviews but nevertheless garnered Hass another National Book Critics Circle award.

Hass's latest collection,
Time and Materials: Poems 1997 - 2005, and his first for 11 years was published in 2007 by Ecco Press (and available in UK bookshops). It won Hass further critical acclaim as well as another clutch of prizes including the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It is a virtuoso performance and covers typical Hassian themes: the nature of art, the natural world and what humans are doing to it, the nature of desire and the erotic, the violence of history and histories of violence. There are the familiar North Californian landscapes as well as visits to and visions of Berlin, the DMZ between the Koreas, Mexico and Paris. Tributes are paid to poets and painters: Gerhard Richter, Vermeer, Milosz, Transtromer, Horace, Whitman, Stevens, Nietszche, Trakl, Goethe and Lucretius. Stylistically, the collection ranges from the short haiku-like clarity of 'Three Dawn Songs in Summer':
The first long shadows in the fields
Are like mortal difficulty.
The first birdsong is not like that at all.
to longer blank verse narratives, from the intimate exchanges of lovers in 'Then Time' and the long Lucretius-inspired eco-poem 'State of the Planet' to the violence and dignified, almost detached, rage of 'A Poem' and 'Bush's War':
The young arab depiliated himself as an act
Of purification before he drove the plane
Into the office building. It's not just
The violence, it's a taste for power
That amounts to contempt for the body.
Although not the best poem in the collection, it nevertheless demonstrates clarity and formal skill: how Hass' very matter-of-fact statements turn around carefully worked enjambements so that the final stress of the sound works the eye as well as the sound so that abstract nouns and concepts are infused with the personal and concrete : act/plane, power/body. These are very public poems imbued with a subtle moral force and touched with tenderness and clarity that is almost the opposite of the grave bombastic persona of one of Hass's great influences: Robert Lowell.

In his earlier essay 'Lowell's Graveyard' Hass makes the distinction between history and nostalgia:
Nostalgia locates desire in the past where it suffers no active conflict and can be yearned toward pleasantly. History is the antidote to this.
Nostalgia is lost in its own hermetically-sealed past, history (in poetry at least) should be open, dialectical, dialogic, it should induce a gap between the actual and the possible, providing a 'vision of an alternative world'. This vision is the product of the poetic imagination; and it was Hass' great revelation through reading Lowell's 'The Quaker Graveyard In Nantucket' poem that history was not so much a place in time 'but a place in imagination' (my emphasis). This Romantic-Modernist faith in imagination is central to Hass' poetic and political creed (note: his well-known mantra is 'capitalism makes networks, imagination makes communities') and as the 'Time' part of the collection's title suggests, it is one of the main threads weaving its way through this latest collection.

In the
New York Times Sunday Book Review, Stephen Burt has said:
Hass's title doubles as a warning about his own book: poets who become public figures may lose both the hours (time) in which to write their poems and the introspective energies (materials) that inspire them.
This is only partially true and it doesn't really do the collection justice. Yes, there are themes of thwarted hopes and outbursts of frustration but all this is part of Hass's exploration into the limits (or at least his limits) of effective artistic utterance. Time and Materials is an enquiry into the meaning of time in poetry - both personal and historical - as well as the limits of the poetical material to hand i.e. language on the page. Gerhard Richter becomes an analagous and exemplary figure here as a painter who has veered from photorealism to severe abstraction.
The object of this poem is not to annihila

To not annih

The object of this poem is to report a theft,
In progress, of everything
That is not these words,
And their disposition on the page.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and Hass's 'post-modernist' - and often humorous - self-reflexive interpolation is one particularly effective weapon in his rhetorical arsenal. In light vein, 'After The Winds' begins:
My friend's older sister's third husband's daughter -
That's about as long as a line of verse should get -
Karmic debris? A field anthropologist's kinship map?
Just sailed by me on the Berkeley street
This interpolative strategy is especially effective in 'I Am Your Waiter Tonight And My Name Is Dimitri'. Inspired by a poem by John Ashbery, Hass inhabits Ashbery's conceit and makes the poem a family saga of immigrant America via Dostoyevsky and US intervention in war. It sounds clever-clever, high-minded and potentially boorish. It's certainly clever, high-minded with a certain demotic imperative, but it is never dull or pretentious and Hass is a master of concision and narrative drive.
Grushenka got two boys out of her body,
One was born in 1894, the other in 1896,
The elder having dies in the mud at the Battle of the Somme
From a piece of shrapnel manufactured by Alfred Nobel.
Metal traveling at that speed works amazing transformations
On the tissues of the human intestine; the other son worked construction
The year his mother died.
A few lines later we get an extraordinary 14 line paraphrase of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment after which we find this:
I frankly admit the syntax
of that sentence, like the intestines slithering from the hands
of the startled boys clutching their belly wounds
at the Somme, has escaped my grip. I step over it
gingerly. Where were we?
This is, of course, Hass playing Eliot but his 'periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion' functions here, as in other places in this collection, to break up - syntactically - the poetic 'enchantment' of the musical line; it's a way to alienate a nostalgic reading of the poem so that it snaps the reader back into an ironising present thereby giving the reader some kind of critical distance. It's that 'making strange' advocated by the Russian Formalists and exemplified in Brecht. Hass himself has said, in relation to the Formalist critic Eichenbaum:
the function of art is to make the grass grass and the stone stone by freeing us from the automatism of human perception
Hass's interpolations and digressions work as a delimiter to the power of poetic expression while the crafty humour at the same time undercuts and heightens the horrors of a potentially overbearing historical reality (e.g. comparing sloppy syntax to 'slithering' intestines - and let's not forget the allusion to Yossarian's recurrent dream in Heller's Catch 22 thrown in for good measure); all this has the effect of acting as a counterweight to the gravitational pull of, what Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney calls, 'the actual'. Invoking Heaney here seems to me both appropriate and elucidating. Much of what Hass has says about facing history through the poetic imagination echoes Heaney's own preoccupations since The Government of the Tongue and is demonstrated with greatest force in his inaugural Oxford lecture, The Redress of Poetry, where, invoking, among others, Sir Philip Sidney, Wallace Stevens and Simone Weil Heaney stresses poetry's need to redress the balance against our own hostile and violent times, as he puts it: 'the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.'

In the same lecture Heaney (in an acute balancing act of his own) also says that poetry 'cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language...' And there is plenty of 'self-delighting inventiveness' in
Time and Materials. In 'A Swarm of Dawns, A Flock of Restless Noons' there is an almost Muldoonian playfulness in the shifting of meanings of words through etymology and excrutiating puns:
Is the Old English word for
strike. You strike down

Grass, I guess, when it is moan. Mown.
The upshot of Heaney's and Hass's position is that, yes poetry has its limits but one still has to go on redressing the balance as a moral imperative. Hass is best at is precisely pointing out those limits and yet still affirming the joy of the free lyric voice. In 'The Problem of Describing Trees' he writes:
The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will

Mountains, sky,
The aspen doing something in the wind.
Hass has an unswerving faith in the imagination and his is a poetry that praises the world yet has that 'immense ballast' he admired so much in his friend Milsoz. He is a Romantic-Modernist with a weather-eye on post-modern scepticism. For post-modernists he may knit together far more than he unpicks but his is a balancing act that will suit many adroit readers. I will end with one of the finest poems in the collection, 'Envy of Other People's Poems':
In one version of the legend the sirens couldn't sing.
It was only a sailor's story that they could.
So, Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn't hear - plungings of sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds -
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
The awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn't sing.
Well almost the end.

Is Robert Hass the Great American Poet?
Daft question really. Yes he is, along with Ashbery and Gluck and Pinsky and Doty and Baraka and [enter name in here]. There are many Americas and a poet to fit each one. Hass does embrace the Whitmanesque multitudes however: a West Coast poet who looks beyond the New England shores of Stevens and Lowell to the Eastern Europe of Brodsky, Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert; who looks toward the 'other' America of Neruda and East to the Kyoto of Basho. All this informs his attitude to and perception of his homeland and its landscape and people and history. The shame is why we can't have more of him over here.

Other works cited in this article:

Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, Faber, 1996
Helen Vendler, The Music of What Happens, Harvard University Press, 1988
Robert Hass, 20th Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, Ecco Press, 1984
Stephen Burt, 'The Limits of Influence', New York Times, October 7, 2007
Robert Hass & Grace Cavalieri, 'Robert Hass: An interview by Grace Cavalieri', The American Poetry Review, Mar/Apr 1997

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Recital: an almanac, by John Siddique

Title: Recital: an alamanac
Author: John Siddique

Paperback: 80 pages

Publisher: Salt Publishing (31 Mar 2009)

ISBN-10: 1844715140

ISBN-13: 978-1844715145

Hebden Bridge could be a dangerous place to live if you're a poet. The presiding spirits of Hughes and Plath still inhabit the air like glaciers carving out the sheer valley sides; over the moors in Haworth (my own birthplace) the Bronte sisters are still packing them in to the Parsonage and the tea shops of Main Street; and to the south, across the M62, is Marsden and the Colne Valley, home of Simon Armitage. It's fair to say, then, that this part of West Yorkshire has its share of representative bards.

John Siddique is what we locals would call an 'offcumden', a stranger, who came to Hebden Bridge 20 years ago, fell in love with the place and chose to live there. The fact that he is not native to this place perhaps gives him a sense of perspective that distances him from the usual sub-Hughesian poets that seem to congregate around these parts. So there are no drystone walls, menacing hawks or sheep with muddy backsides, thankfully, in his latest collection from Salt Publishing. Recital: an almanac is a fresh and individual collection, and Siddique is a highly empathetic poet with both a local and international perspective taking in his family, neighbours, even the missing teenager Lindsay Rimer on one hand and New York, the 7/7 bombings and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on the other. Siddique is not an urban poet though he is certainly urbane. He also knows a thing or two about the landscape and has learned just enough from Hughes (and Robert Graves) about the importance of nature and myth.

As the title suggests, Recital: an almanac is the journal (and journey) of a poet over the space of a year, it deals with the cycles of nature, the 'big themes' - loss and longing, sex, death, politics and religion - as well as the mundane and the quotidian; it is inflected with clear-eyed intelligence and self-depecating humour. Overall, though, Siddique's is a poetry of affirmation in an ever-changing, uncertain and possibly unknowable universe.

The collection begins, quite literally at the beginning:
and so this a beginning (I seem
to know no other way, except the again and again)
racked up on top of every other beginning
all the way back to conception.

The again and again, a movement away
from confidence in the certainties,
to a confidence in beginning again
in the unknowing fog of the day which presents
itself, racking itself on top of every other day.
I use my fingertips feeling into it,
I have done this before and am confident
that the only thing I know
is that is as different as the last.

- 'Begin' (p.3)
and so this is a beginning... (cf. Pound's 'And then went down to the ship' in 'Canto 1') - we are thrown in media res into the world of contingencies, uncertainties, and eternal recurrence (the word 'beginning' appears 3 times just in this short poem). This instability, however, is mitigated by the poet's own understanding and acceptance of a world of flux. There's no use fighting the fluidity of time: where there are beginnings there are ends, but every end is a point, or at least the possibility, of renewal and change. Everything flows, Heraclitus says, go with the flow Siddique seems to affirm. In many a poet's hands a sentiment like this could seem trite, but Siddique does not go through the world with an uncritical or unreflective eye and, in particular, his experience of loss shows that to accept life's vissicitudes is a hard fought battle.

This desire for constant renewal lies in childhood and a deep sense of loss. Siddique was born into a tense Catholic-Islamic household that ended in separation. This tension is excellently brought to life in 'Unintended Loyalty': 'They sleep with the bodily intention / of keeping distance...' The reference to his father's 'penis limp on his thigh' and his mother's 'openness pulled / between her legs' is unflinching and brave, pointing not only to the emotional and erotic gap in his parent's relationship but also how that very configuration informs Siddique's own identity: his being-in-the-world at, what is in fact, a point of rupture. This sense of loss, particularly with respect to his father, is explored in a number of poems with great candour:
His large presence when I am a small boy.
The man of now wanting his father's love.
The gaps between his returns, when I am full
of other stories so that I don't need him.

- Red Line (He Loves Me) (p.18)
This is raw and powerful stuff and informs Siddique's
raison d'etre as a writer. Poetry, storytelling and myth is the only way to fill in the gaps, make the absent present, turn void into plenitude, make an end into a new beginning. This is poetry as medicine, the healer's art, a noble and ancient tradition, though I do think this impulse strains at times and the rhetorical will-to-affirm sometimes overwhelms the music of the poetry. I find this strain most visible in the final poem 'The Death of Death', an acknowledgement of art's limits to fully heal the emotional rift. Siddique is wise enough to know that this is a necessary limit, for if it did succeed it would mean the end of memory and desire and thus end of language itself: 'If the moment could / be written down, it would mean the end / of books'. The poem - like much of the collection - is a replay of Freud's fort/da game whereby the actual physical absence of the mother (or father) becomes symbolically managed by the child through the virtual presence of symbols (i.e. language). Siddique certainly acknowledges the eternal struggle of art's presence/absence, 'This is* what I ask of each book, / it is why each writer fails. We can but try.' So it is the 'trying' (i.e. unfulfilled and unquenchable desire) that is the impulse which keeps us going. But this conclusion is somewhat mitigated in the next line: 'One day, one of us will find a way... we will become immortal as libraries of true moments, / then both god and death will be conquered.' Although I can see the irony here that 'true moment' will only emerge after our own demise, I find the conquering of 'death' and 'god' somewhat willful; the need for resolution is just too strong here. Siddique's best poems are the ones that either leave the struggle open or transmutes desire into a faith into something outside oneself, something more permanent: 'The earth / won't forget or let me sleep until I give her my weight.' This is the strength of myth and where the strongest influence of someone like Robert Grave (e.g. White Goddess) or even shades of Peter Redgrove can be be felt. It manifests in, what I believe to be Siddique's strongest poems and which constitutes the collection's backbone: 13 moon poems which concatenate the lunar (and female) cycles with the arboreal, from birch to yew, ash to elder. This series, sprinkled liberally throughout the book ideally reflect Siddique's preoccupations with time, death and renewal, beginnings and endings. This is pitch perfect is a poem like 'Yew Moon' with its image of Russian dolls:
The first life passed like a dream and then smoke.
The second life was all about you.
The third life begins, we are Russian dolls
to ourselves, sloughing off our larger versions,
becoming more contained, and capable
of containing less.

- Yew Moon (p.53)

As you may gather, Siddique's poetry is clear, concise and has an immediacy that will appeal to many. I do feel that sometimes the anecdotal tone can appear a little flat on the page and long for a little more linguistic adventurousness (but I put this down to my own poetic peccadilloes - so sue me!). Still, there are some terrific, memorable lines. Take these from 'Birch Moon':
Something names itself and gives meaning
under the duvet of last year's expectation.
Fifteen togs of keeping your eye on the ball.
Gas fires of ideas writing themselves.

- Birch Moon (p. 5)
Recital is a thoughtful and often thought-provoking collection, intelligent, clear, inquiring, humorous, some will say inspirational and - dare I say it? - 'life-affirming' (there, I said it!). It's a work that demands to be read as a whole - please don't take my word for it, go out and buy it.

Hebden Bridge and the surrounding area may be a place littered with mills of cliché and the curlew cry of dead metaphors but it is also where John Siddique lives and is a more refreshed and refreshing place for that.

> Buy Recital: an almanac from Salt Publishing

*note to Salt editor: there is a typo here!