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Tuesday, 20 August 2019

A Word Extending Itself

  "And you can glance out the window for a moment, distracted by the sound of small kids playing a made-up game in a neighbor’s yard, some kind of kickball maybe, and they speak in your voice, or piggyback races on the weedy lawn, and it’s your voice you hear, essentially, under the glimmerglass sky, and you look at the things in the room, offscreen, unwebbed, the tissued grain of the deskwood alive in light, the thick lived tenor of things, the argument of things to be seen and eaten, the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray, and the dense measures of experience in a random glance, the monk’s candle reflected in the slope of the phone, hours marked in Roman numerals, and the glaze of the wax, and the curl of the braided wick, and the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils, skewed all crazy, and the plied lives of the simplest surface, the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun, and the yellow of the yellow of the pencils, and you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word that carries the sunlit ardor of an object deep in drenching noon, the argument of binding touch, but it’s only a sequence of pulses on a dullish screen and all it can do is make you pensive—a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills."
                                                                                         
                                                                                              from Underworld by Don DeLillo, 1997

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Parenthood

Having becoming a father again in April (which explains the lack of activity on this blog in the last 3 months), I thought I would post this marvellous poem by the Australian poet Geoffrey Lehmann, a beautifully balanced tribute to the joys and frustrations of parenthood (love the wry twist on the opening line of Howl at the beginning). This is for all the mothers and fathers of young children out there, as a comical celebration of the enormously demanding yet immensely rewarding work we all do:
PARENTHOOD
I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation
Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small
Warm urine splatter on the asphalt – impatient to rejoin
An almond torta and a cappuccino at a formica table.
I have been a single parent with three children at a Chinese restaurant
The eldest five years old and each in turn demanding
My company as they fussed in toilets and my pork saté went cold.
They rarely went all at once; each child required an individual
Moment of inspiration – and when their toilet pilgrimage was ended
I have tried to eat the remnants of my meal with twisting children
Beneath the table, screaming and grabbing in a scrimmage.
I have been wiping clean the fold between young buttocks as a pizza
I hoped to finish was cleared from a red and white checked table cloth.
I have been pouring wine for women I was hoping to impress
When a daughter ran for help through guests urgently holding out
Her gift, a potty, which I took with the same courtesy
As she gave it, grateful to dispose of its contents so simply
In a flurry of water released by the pushing of a button.
I have been butted by heads which have told me to go away and I have done so,
My mouth has been wrenched by small hands wanting to reach down to my tonsils
As I lay in bed on Sunday mornings and the sun shone through the slats
Of dusty blinds. I have helpfully carried dilly-dalliers up steps
Who indignantly ran straight down and walked up by themselves.
My arms have become exhausted, bouncing young animals until they fell asleep
In my lap listening to Buxtehude. ‘Too cold,’ I have been told,
As I handed a piece of fruit from the refrigerator, and for weeks had to warm
Refrigerated apples in the microwave so milk teeth cutting green
Carbohydrate did not chill. I have pleasurably smacked small bottoms
Which have climbed up and arched themselves on my lap wanting the report
And tingle of my palm. I have known large round heads that bumped
And rubbed themselves against my forehead, and affectionate noses
That loved to displace inconvenient snot from themselves onto me.
The demands of their bodies have taken me to unfamiliar geographies.
I have explored the white tiles and stainless steel benches of restaurants kitchens
And guided short legs across rinsed floors smelling of detergent
Past men in white with heads lowered and cleavers dissecting and assembling
Mounds of sparkling pink flesh – and located the remote dark shrine
Of a toilet behind boxes of coarse green vegetables and long white radishes.
I have badgered half-asleep children along backstreets at night, carrying
Whom I could to my van. I have stumbled with them sleeping in my arms
Up concrete steps on winter nights after eating in Greek restaurants,
Counting each body, then slamming the door of my van and taking
My own body, the last of my tasks, to a cold bed free of arguments.
I have lived in the extreme latitudes of child rearing, the blizzard
Of the temper tantrum and my own not always wise or honourable response,
The midnight sun of the child calling for attention late at night,
And have longed for the white courtyards and mediterranean calm of middle age.
Now these small bodies are becoming civilised people claiming they are not
Ashamed of a parent’s overgrown garden and unpainted ceilings
Which a new arrival, with an infant’s forthrightness, complains are ‘old’.
And the father of this tribe sleeps in a bed which is warm with arguments.
Their bones elongate and put on weight and they draw away into space.
Their faces lengthen with responsibility and their own concerns.
I could clutch as they recede and fret for the push of miniature persons.
And claim them as children of my flesh – but my own body is where I must live.












Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Guest Poet: Robert Taylor

   I'm pleased to post a recent prose-poem by Brighton poet Robert Taylor this morning. I was very taken by the way it wedges strands of interior monologue and glimpses of lyric accord against caustic observational shards blurring into political invective, the tenuous voice of individual consciousness increasingly marginalised by anomie, austerity and media-logorrhea. Timely to note a whole new wave of poetry responding to the unprecedentedly intolerable state of disrepair the government has left our infrastructure and welfare state in, too preoccupied with the ongoing catastrophe of Brexit to lift a finger of assistance or even acknowledge the levels of personal disaffection and privation their policies are causing.

                                                  Annual Leave

1st winter plumage of gulls and waders
Your eyes have gathered up 
off the rippled sunlit mud 
of the tidal river for your occipital lobe to lovingly arrange in beautiful plates and the wash of skies and tops of buildings also being registered from smut-spatter window race and swish of forward motion somewhere under you. 

Not a ringtone doesn’t grate like blackboard scrape today, but if the voice behind you answers this with ‘yeah, I’m on the train’ you might snap the ear-wincing drink holder/tray from off the seat in front. 
So much for all of that: so what. 

Later on. Back indoors again, the resumed frenzies of adjacent refurbishing machinery; power tools your mind can’t differentiate. For a minute they/it grinds, teasing, to abrupt silence only to resume in full redoubling tumult - incessant as the self-excoriations, ensconced, ruptured shut, scotched after the petty agon of return; the endless tiny collisions to get home 

 - you can’t remember at what point each encounter with the street came to seem continuous onrush of hostility, of rancour, or the pre-emptive strikes of swiftly shot glares. That which is perceived. And every twenty, thirty yards another shelterless encampment: an utterness of abandonment. The motherless pietàs. You are not a violent person but on the Tory Party you wish some form of actual collective death. 

But hey, somehow, you made your way from station to fumbling the sticking lock with vague anticipation’s crouching dread of franked, brown-enveloped hate mail waiting for you on the hallway floor. You the working poor. Marked 2nd class. 

Then, in your flat with curtains drawn: a circumventing further inference from passage of daylight hints of the galloping cavalcade of watched and watching clocks and watches. Hurtle of money the permanent hurt.

The pitched, mechanical screaming, when did it replace, as the accompaniment to sparse codings in your axons, the summer sound of distant engine burring warm through the gentle blue, the dying fall, of light aircraft’s slow receding, inflections lapsing in air like they were gearshifts in the cochlea itself; the kindlier sense of solitude what’s past confers to equivocate perceptions of the seemingly identical phenomena?

The din through the wall at length shuts down and soon, you’re aware, abiding constancy of tinnitus resumes its level squealing pitch - it’s every bit as violent if you let yourself tune in. Try to ‘refocus’, ‘find your centre’ ..you hear generic Facebook advice: ‘avoid negative people. They hold you back’ You concentrate diligently on avoiding yourself...

What can you do? Try to be kinder. To yourself. To others. Forgive and ‘be in the now’ (as though there were alternatives). 

Great Wall of China winding in a hazed and endless distance, the ridged spinal taper of any infinite monitor lizard. The fluttered stand  of pale green rushes skirting the marsh, the floppy fringes that run the length of a huge pale green iguana’s back like an old biker’s jacket sleeve. This was your meditation. So what: so much for that. 

There is no such thing as the present. You are bitched and entailed to the lizard stump, guttering in the adrenal sump, cortisone lapping at the base of your beating throat. The present is merely this panicky surge between 
what just happened and 
what will happen next 

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Tranquil Labyrinth


 In a world which seems to be spinning further off its axis every time you turn on the news and the fabric of our society feels like its coming apart at the seams, with many high streets degenerating into rows of charity shops, thrift stores and boarded-up facades (to the colossal indifference of our equally derelict MPs), one takes refuge in simple, tactile pleasures. 
    What a relief, for example, to come across an independent bookshop on a high-street in Hertfordshire which not only has new, discounted and secondhand books but also an adjoining record shop on one side and its own separate coffee shop on the other side: the amazing David's in Letchworth Garden City. I had been there twice before and had been impressed enough without realising that there's also an upstairs to the bookshop, a tranquil labyrinth of well-stocked secondhand shelves that could restore the sanity of the most Brexit-fatigued, world-weary soul.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Neo-Nietzschean Clatter 1: The Neophyte as the Letter N

  The best projects find us, rather than we finding them. I've always believed in that Ballard line "Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences". I spent much of last year engaged in writing a book on Nietzsche, a journey of rediscovery which turned into the opening of a whole new area of interest and fascination.
  Nietzsche has been a key member of my personal pantheon for as long as I remember and perhaps for nearly as long as I began discovering books for myself around the age of 16, encouraged by a particularly imaginative teacher and the creative exploration of poems on my A-Level English syllabus she initiated.  It may have been the mention of "übermensch" in the opening chapter of Ulysses, or the strange phrase "neo-Nietzschean clatter" in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley which sent me to the library (unbelievably there were no one-click Google searches in those days) to research this often-invoked forerunner of many of the Modernist writers I was voraciously absorbing at the time. Equally, to unearth the fact in the briefest of biographical accounts that Nietzsche had "gone mad" at the height of his writing career and never recovered seemed to align him with the lineage of doomed 19th century Romantics and bohemians I was also obsessively drawn to, the sicker, more unhinged and more thwarted in their personal life the better.
   The first book of Nietzsche's I chanced across in the secondhand bookshop where I acquired almost all of my reading matter was Ecce Homo. This bizarre experiment in tangential autobiography (written, as I now know, on the brink of mental collapse and scattered with sentences betraying delusion, megalomania and a generally shaky grasp of reality) cemented the overlap between N's life and his philosophy in my callow mind, a blurring which in spite of my later immersion in critical theory and the Intentionalist Fallacy, has always seemed to me inescapable. 
    Most philosophers, as Nietzsche spent a good deal of time wittily expounding, are dry academics so deluded by systems of baseless abstractions and the "will to truth" that they take whole books proving - through the counter-intuitive circumlocutions of reductive logic and the lumbering shire-horse of methodical prose - that they themselves exist, a ludicrously muddle-headed example of the "falsification of the evidence of one's own senses". By aligning themselves with mathematicians, believing they were delineating objective truths through the factual, transparent medium of language, these metaphysicians merely compounded their own errors. Apart from Plato - wise enough to use the dramatic framework of Socratic dialogue to problematise any simplistic interpretations of his wisdom - Nietzsche was the first philosopher to grasp that philosophy is writing, first and foremost, and that the form and style of its language are what constitute its claim to the truth, no longer by the 19th century a monolithic, God-bestowed tablet of laws and more a writhing, many-headed Hydra. 
    Trained as an academic philologist in the analysis of words and steeped from an early age in music and poetry, Nietzsche saw all too clearly the need to develop a new way of writing philosophy that - like poetry - prized concision, ambivalence and multi-sidedness rather than the long-winded, dogmatic expositions of the German idealist tradition he was heir to. Equally, as part of this rejection of academic philosophy, he replaced the serious, supercilious tone of Hegelian sturm und drang with a playful, self-mocking spezzatura, embracing the sense of cosmic irony Kierkegaard (in 1841) had identified as "the absolute infinite negativity". If the initial part of Nietzsche's project is deconstructive, "philosophy with a hammer", acerbically debunking the entire history of western metaphysics, Christianity and nearly all of western culture along the way (particularly German culture, in fact), the second, complementary aspect is a "revaluation of all values", a dauntingly ambitious endeavour to single-handedly replace this toppling tradition with his own ecstatically affirmative vision of human potential, summed up in the figure of the übermensch and the driving force he called "will to power".
    Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the book in which Nietzsche most cogently embodied these central concepts of his mature philosophy, both his Sermon on the Mount and an allegorical gospel dramatising his struggle to communicate his message to a largely unlistening world.
To go back to my own engagement with N.'s work, Zarathustra did turn into a kind of Bible for me when - as an almost Aspergically bookish and insular 23-year old -  I read into its rhapsodic pseudo-poetry the key to my own "self-overcoming", the highly-changed narrative of how I too could come out of my solitary cave and through sheer will and determination turn myself into a positive, empowered new version of myself, if not quite a Superman then perhaps at least the successful writer I knew I had it within me to become. 
   A dog-eared Penguin edition of Zarathustra was lodged into my small, Army Surplus rucksack that summer (almost entirely crammed with books and notebooks rather than spare clothes) when I went off travelling across France with my brother Laurence, starting off in Paris (busking on the Metro, staying in a squat, scribbling some half-baked translations of Baudelaire and Rimbaud) and then hitching down to the south to do grape-picking. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the porch of the church at Libourne, near Bordeaux, where I think we ended up sleeping that night. It was the end of the summer and the sky was the most incredibly intense, deep, vertiginous blue. We were drinking cheap red wine from the bottle and smoking horrible throat-grating Gitane Jaunes (horrible to me even at the time but all part of the bohemian "deregulation of all the senses" I was bent on). Caught up in the moment we began taking it in turns to recite passages from the book, joining in to intone the phrase "Thus spoke Zarathustra" after each paragraph as though we were members of a religious order conducting a strange, illicit ceremony. 
    You could attribute this to the naive follies of youth and I would be the first to agree, but at the time it felt enormously inspiring and almost revelatory to do so, as though the words of the book perfectly embodied the sense of exploratory liberation our travels in France had emboldened us with, as though somehow Nietzsche's writing and our experiences had fused in what felt like a transformative new synthesis.
   Who the Hell is Friedrich Nietzsche? is available here.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Stays Against Bloviation: Ian Hamilton and Minimalism in Poetry

In revisiting Ian Hamilton's work in the form of the Faber Collected Poems (2009), I find I'm pulled in several directions. Such a sense of critical torque can be more propulsive than mere liking, though liking certainly comes into it. Hamilton's poems are 'famous for being small in size and few in number': Alan Jenkins has added only eighteen 'unpublished and uncollected' pieces to the Sixty Poems this edition replaces so that with an introduction, notes and appendices this must still be the slimmest Collected - and with the lowest word-count - of any English poet who lived into old age.
   Which is a virtue, above all, it must be said. At a time when we can all post as many of what we deem to be poems worthy of reading on the internet as we like, and the graduate Creative Writing industry sends forth a fresh battalion of would-be poets each year to chance their tyro-manuscripts in an increasingly over-subscribed market, a lifetime's gathering of brief poems that's only slightly longer than most single volumes is surely something to treasure. Amid the deluge of largely otiose verbiage we are now unremittingly swamped with, the millions of words per second that are dashed off unthinkingly on social media in a way that can only result in semantic devaluation, the concerted brevity of poems makes them (to paraphrase Frost) one of our few momentary stays against bloviation, the stock jibber-jabber of a mechanised consumer-algorithm talking to itself about nothing.
    It's almost as though Hamilton has pre-empted our short attention-spans and done the work of reducing his work to the thumbnails which a web-editor might be tempted to do, except that there are no more expansive or lucid ur-texts to refer back to. That its brevity, in terms both of number of poems and concision of form, should dominate critical responses towards Hamilton's work draws up issues around readerly expectation and publishing practices which are finally questions of historical context out of which telling corollaries reverberate through to us now.
   One way to look at it is through the lens of minimalism. It's an overused term, of course, with disciplines such as music, art, architecture and design each having their own conceptualisation and with a more recent colloquial usage to denote a life-style choice, an austerity-driven attempt to convince us that we don't really need the things we can no longer afford and doesn't it feel spiritually uplifting to do without them. Fine, as long as those things aren't food, or our homes.
    Locating a theoretical context for minimalism within poetry is more tricky - its most recent specific application seems to have been to the 70's concrete/visual poetry of Aram Saroyan, Robert Grenier and others, whose single word and even single letter poems, while passingly interesting, you might call (excuse the pun) limited. My use of the term here is admittedly laxer and more impressionistic, meaning any strain of poetry which employs extreme condenseness as a conscious aesthetic strategy, a consistent restriction of formal means. Where this is problematic is in deciding where the marker for what constitutes a minimalist poem should be, since brevity is a defining characteristic of most poetry, at least of the "lyric" type which most of us read and compose on the model of. Ten lines? Four? Perhaps it boils down to "consistent": plenty of poets throw in a very short poem from time to time but not many make this their main method of working, endemic to their engagement with language and with form.
    According to Pound in The ABC of Reading, it was Basil Bunting who came across the definition "dichtung (ie.poetry) = condensare" while flicking through a German-Italian dictionary. I note (although I know nothing about German etymology) that the word for condensation used by Freud is Verdichtung. Freud, of course, posited that condensation was one of the formative principles of the "dreamwork" conducted by the unconscious, a way of collapsing several images, references or even time-frames (whose hidden interrelatedness might only become apparent in later analysis) down into one. The comparison is in fact explicitly drawn in Chapter 6 of The Interpretation of Dreams: the primary process, "working as a poet does", "aims at reducing the separate dream-thoughts to the most economical and unified expression possible in the dream." On the same page, Freud suggests that words themselves can undergo the same condensation: "the entire field of verbal punning is available for the dreamwork to use...the word, being the point of convergence for many kinds of ideas, is predestined for ambiguity". 
    This, of course, became the germinal inspiration for Joyce's portmanteau-ing of words into the pluralised night-language of Finnegans Wake, which despite its apparent maximalism could be read as a work of condensation hypertrophied and run amok, since it attempts to telescope as many languages and as much of history and literature as it can into its macaronic "collideorscape", to the point of an omnivalent semi-opacity, almost as though Joyce were some Despicable Me-like megalomaniac (or rather, bibliomaniac) using the giant shrink-ray of his genius to reduce the whole world down to fit between the covers of a book.
    It might seem something of a quantum leap to take us from Freud, Finnegans Wake (and Despicable Me) back to the terse, tight-lipped lyrics of Ian Hamilton but bear with me. In the impetus behind minimalism in poetry can perhaps be seen a similar desire to "extend the chain of associations" as Freud located in dream-condensation, to excise causal and contextual materials unnecessary to a polysemous hub otherwise irreducible to consecutive, rational language. If, in the field of dreams, a further motive for this compression was the ego's scrambling of hermeneutic codes in the interests of repression, ie. messages that get past or outwit what Ted Hughes called "the writer's own inner police system", this might make us think of kinds of 20th century minimalist poetry in the Modernist tradition where giving very little away, or concealing what one has to say even in the act of disclosing it, are key attributes.
   I'm thinking of the early, pre-Pound Imagism of HD, whose fragments of adaptation from the Greek Anthology cut across the rhetorical impedimenta of male-dominated Edwardian/Georgian effusion; of the Hermeticism of Ungaretti, Montale and Quasimodo - at least in the 1930's a deliberately clipped and codified response to the heavy-handed state censorship of Fascism -; of Paul Celan's clastic imploding of German language-elements the Holocaust had rendered barbaric, and of the slightly later American-Jewish Objectivists like George Oppen, whose leftist political affiliations in the climate of McCarthyism lead him in the direction of long self-suppression and a trickle of beautiful, pared-to-the bone lyrics which make a virtue and theme of formal/spiritual economy. 
   If we could see Hamilton's brief poems within this context, as self-checking avoidances of any kind of facile expressiveness (examples of which, in his other work as a famously exacting critic and editor, must have been all too apparent to him) we can also read into them a very British response to some of the same impulses behind minimalism: a holding back and disinclination to commit, combined with a faintly post-Romantic aspiration not to leave out (or, to go back to Freud, repress) the difficult emotional materials from which lasting poems arise - as the Movement poets had sought to do, to their cost. 
     What this leads to in the best of Hamilton's poems - 'The Storm', say, or 'Metaphor' - is a moving and recognisable sense of not knowing how to articulate or deal with powerful emotions, a reticence about bringing them into focus and thereby - as we say - opening the floodgates of suffering or worse at a time when the narrator needs to remain strong because he is addressing a "you" figure who is in need of his support. Inference and displacement become strategies of keeping precarious control over the situation. The "holding back" of minimalism, then, can also be a holding it all together. As Coleridge had characterised poetry itself (in a formula which Alavarez quoted approvingly in his Intro to The New Poetry) "a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order".

Monday, 15 October 2018

Scottish Roses

  On a visit to Glasgow at the end of the summer I chanced across the Scottish Poetry Rose Garden in Queens Park, just up the road from where we were staying. Walking around the pathways inlaid with the names and dates of Scottish poets from Henryson and Dunbar to Edwin Morgan and Carol Anne Duffy (as well as some lesser-known figures like Violet Jacob (1863-1946)), some of the stones decorated with fallen rose-petals, I was reminded of the astounding richness of this tradition and the vital contribution and influence it has exerted on the history of poetry in English, even as (like Scotland itself) it's had to continually fight for recognition of its distinctive voice and linguistic vigour. 

   It seemed fitting to find this craggy monument to Hugh MacDiarmid at the head of the garden, that dogged proponent of Scottish nationalism who argued for poetry as an ambitious, polymathic tool for change, very much with a modernist, internationalist agenda at its heart. The poem inscribed on the stone is a brief but resonant quatrain:

"The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart."

   MacDiarmid's white rose has become a symbol of Scottish independence, in fact, since SNP MPs took to wearing the flowers to parliament for the Queens Speech in 2015. As Scotland is dragged towards the fiasco of Brexit, an impending calamity which the majority of its citizens never voted for, it will be intriguing to see if they're given another opportunity to make a choice about their own independence and whether they will use it to finally break away from our increasingly disunited kingdom in order to remain a part of Europe.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Review: Cenotaph South by Chris McCabe (Penned in the Margins 2016/17)

   The notion of poetry’s immortality is one of its most abiding and validating tropes, originating in its earliest manifestations both as sacred utterance offered up to the gods and as a repository of oral myth and tribal history. In both cases it was the musical, formal qualities of poetry which endowed it with the memorable (and indeed memorisable) property of transcending the flux of everyday speech and living on into subsequent generations. With the advent of printed books in the 15th Century, the poet was able to construct him or herself even more concretely as a kind of vatic time-traveller projecting their works forward into a posterity that would outlive their own precarious moment of acclaim. This aspiration became a rhetorical device itself, employed most famously in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and made the motivating theme of Edwardian poet James Elroy Flecker’s ‘To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence’:


O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

    But what of today’s far faster-scrolling cultural landscape, where we barely find time to read a poem before the next newly discovered, media-hyped prize-winner demands our skittish attention and where – with libraries and bookshops rapidly disappearing - half the poetry we encounter doesn’t even exist as print upon a page but is floating in a cloud somewhere on the vast hypothetical repository of the internet? Our sense of history and time has blurred, hardly helped by ominous global events that seem to undermine any concept of a secure futurity. Within such a flickering maelstrom of fake news and the otiose verbiage of social media, what body of poetry can stake its claim to survival into the next generation, let alone what used to be known as “immortality”?

  Such anxieties seem to haunt the margins of Chris McCabe’s ongoing project to investigate the obscure poets buried in London’s Victorian cemeteries, hoping to uncover a “mute, inglorious Milton” who has somehow (in Pound’s phrase) “’scaped immortality”. The opening instalment, In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery (Penned in the Margins, 2014), initiated an alluring prose-hybrid form that collaged documentary, literary criticism and autobiography in a multifaceted narrative which owed something to later works by Iain Sinclair (eg. London Orbital and Edge of the Orison), tracing intersections in time and location that eventually forge a deep-rooted, almost occult coherence.

    What gave this launch of the project a further edge and scope was McCabe’s collaboration with visual artists who were creating a “site-specific art-trail” within West Norwood Cemetery during 2013, so that the book and its dead poets could be experienced in a concrete, physical dimension. Interested readers could visit the cemetery (as I did that summer) and follow the trail with McCabe: he also deposited small oval stones printed with words from each of the poet’s writings at the sites of their burial (some now overgrown or displaced) and there was also a limited edition anthology of the poets placed in the columbarium. The leaving of poem-stones seemed a gesture in keeping with the overall project of seeking a perpetuity for poets’ words: one wonders how many of the stones are still there in West Norwood Cemetery today?

    Cenotaph South is a more personally-invested book, interspersed throughout by McCabe’s diaristic notations of his mother’s cancer-scare and memories of his dead father, lending the sense of a poignant self-pilgrimage to McCabe’s investigations, albeit often counterbalanced by the redeeming innocence of playful interactions with his son Pavel. There is also a more writerly level whereby McCabe strives to validate his place within the historical continuity of poets by constantly scanning  his surroundings for links with his antecedents, eventually elaborating a “coffin-shaped” path on the map of Nunhead, Dulwich and Peckham Rye which demarcates the area of his dogged psychogeographic research.

    The network of associations he traces is remarkably rich and diverse: he initiates his enquiries by trying to locate the tree on Peckham Rye in which Blake had a vision of angels as a boy, then visits Dulwich College, where Barry McSweeney did his last poetry reading in 2000, before visiting the house where Robert Browning lived on Telegraph Hill and the site of a pub in Dulwich Village where BS Johnson used to attend poetry events in the 1960s. He also comes across the grave of Henry Mew, brother of the poet Charlotte, who wrote a vivid monologue addressed to her brother called  ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’.

    By invoking such outsider-poets as Blake, Mew and McSweeney (significantly it’s the proto-Modernist Browning of the experimental Sordello he’s drawn to rather than the later renowned man of letters) McCabe seems to be attempting to delineate his own alternative poetic history, an idiosyncratic “historical grammar of poetic myth” perhaps modelled on one of the many books he cites, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. This is underlined in the chapter ‘At Home with the BBC: Reconsidering the Canon’, where his reflections on a BBC documentary suggest how the poetry establishment typified by TS Eliot and Faber worked with the BBC to endorse a particular narrow canon of mostly white male mainstream poets.

   As for Nunhead Cemetery itself, the buried poets McCabe identifies (with the help of historian Tim Stevenson) are a motley selection: mostly Victorians, like the once widely-anthologised ‘Laureate of the Babies’ William Cox Bennet, their often staid, sentimental verses hardly stand the test of time, although McCabe is a generous and knowledgeable enough reader to find at least something positive in all of the poets, especially George Thornbury whose documentary prose about London seems a precursor of McCabe’s own.

   Despite its potentially dark subject-matter, Cenotaph South culminates on a positive note, with news that McCabe’s mother is in recovery from her chemotherapy and that a new poetry-scene seems to be flourishing in the gentrified environs of Peckham and Nunhead, reminding us that “this is how the dead poets still speak – through the living”. An undiscovered poet of genius is yet to be unearthed from the tangled undergrowth of Nunhead Cemetery and therefore McCabe’s quest must continue to another of London’s Victorian cemeteries, leading the way for the next instalment of what is becoming a compelling and highly original sequence.