Sunday, 19 June 2016

Review: Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas

Rather than immersing us in a recognisable scenario fleshed out by either a first- or third-person narrative voice, as in most realist novels, Enrique Vila-Matas immediately plays so many tricks with his readers’ expectations that we begin to wonder if this is a novel at all. For much of the book, the narrative is more like a personal memoir or autobiographical account in the way it evokes the author’s formative years living in Paris in the 1970s, yet his experiences are disclosed in such a tongue-in-cheek, non-linear manner - often highly implausible in the way they casually record encounters with cultural celebrities (Margarita Duras, Isabelle Adjani, Roland Barthes) - that it is almost a surprise when you turn to Wikipedia and discover that the story of Vila-Matas’ time in Paris is apparently true,  the hapless bumbler caught up in an absurdist comedy of his own making no more a fictional character than any of our remembered younger selves might seem.

   To further blur the division between fact and fiction, the novel frames the retrospective materials in the form of a three-day lecture on the theme of irony which Vila-Matas is delivering to a projected audience, again foregrounding his authorial presence by making us imagine the memories articulated in his own wry, ambivalent voice. The lecture in turn is prefigured by a comical opening scene in which the novelist enters an Ernest Hemingway lookalike competition in Key West wearing a false beard, only to be told he possesses “an absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway”.

    It was Hemingway’s memoir of his early days in Paris, A Moveable Feast, which first inspired the young Vila-Matas to undergo his writerly apprenticeship in that city, like so many other would-be artistic geniuses before him. In flagging up his lack of resemblance to the more straight-talking realist Hemingway, whose narrative romanticised the bohemian loucheness of 20’s Paris, Vila-Matas is again inferring how unreliable and slippery his own story will be, and indeed how unromantic; it will in fact debunk the nostalgic mythology of what living in Paris is like by showing how “very poor and very unhappy” he was there.

    As well as being a parody of A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris also plays with the conventions of the bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel typically depicting a callow protagonist maturing towards disabused understanding. Vila-Matas’ memoirs of Paris are a catalogue of false starts and self-thwartings in his struggle to become a writer: he manages to rent out a garret owned by Duras but cannot understand her “superior” French when she gives him advice; he steals the idea for his first novel from Nabokov’s Pale Fire; he self-consciously poses as a Sartrean intellectual by adopting a black polo-neck, glasses and a pipe, performing the role of ecrivain before he has any accomplished any writing.

   Ultimately, Never Any End to Paris is an ironic anti-novel about the novel: it begs reverberating questions about the form’s limitations in being able to capture the protean reality of memory and identity but also argues for its continuing pertinence (taking its cue from writers like Barthes, Perec and Queneau who appear in its pages) as a post-modern game of ideas, a thought-provoking and critical  jeu d’esprit. Equally, it throws into doubt the role of the novelist as an authentic, credible witness relating the true essence of experiences he’s lived through and casts himself instead as a self-declaring fabricator, a comic poseur who nevertheless manages to draw the reader in to follow his often hilarious misadventures.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Green City

  Llubljana is a city poised between its two forefathers, Plecnik and Preseren, whose respective principles of architecture and poetry define the character and dynamics of this beautifully understated version of the modern polis. Josef Plecnik(1872-1957), whose house in the Trnovo district I visited on a recent visit to Slovenia, redesigned the city from the 1920s in keeping with the principles of ancient Greek and Roman urban planning, with spaces for habitation, worship and commerce/social interaction (the agora) given balanced consideration. His curious marriage of neo-classical minimalism with odd anachronistic flourishes such as Egyptian pyramid motifs bespeak the near-autistic, monothematic vision of this pious and idiosyncratic solitary, as evidenced by his self-designed house and even his desk with its meticulously-arrayed clutter.
   Against this Apollonian paradigm, also writ large across the city is the more Dionysian image of the national poet France Preseren(1800-1849), a figure embodying the heady contraries of Romanticism: progressive and democratic politics matched with vatic individualism; a patriotic, Dantesque embracing of the vernacular tempered with an equally Dantesque idolatry of a younger muse whose unattainable form crosses into the symbolic and transcendental. His 'Wreath of Sonnets' - a sonnet redoublé of fifteen poems in which the last line of each becomes the first line of the next, the final sonnet being a recapitulation of these preceding fourteen repeated lines* - is a masterful suite of Orphic laments inwoven with allusions to myth and folklore, a poem circling endlessly around itself, as self-thwarting and incantatory as de Nerval's Les Chimeres.
     Yet visiting the restaurant Preseren was supposed to have frequented, Sestica on Ullica Slovenska, we found in place of bohemian artiness a very old-fashioned, brown-toned Slavic eaterie with a gruff waiter who seemed appalled that we didn't want to order meat (example from what seemed at times a surrealist menu: "foal goulash with dandelion pudding"). More Eastern Bloc than Alexander Blok.
    But as ever I'm intellectualising the appeal of what is simply one of the most charming, unspoilt and laid-back cities in Europe, drawing influence and savour from all its surrounding nations: Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia. It has come through state-Communism and the internecine dissolution of Yugoslavia (all notably recorded in the Museum of Contemporary History in Tivoli Park) and more recent economic hardship to being applauded this year as the European Green Capital 2016, a title the briefest walk or cycle-ride along the Llubijanica River through the pedestrianised city-centre and across its bridges will show to be amply justified. The puckishly surreal, oppositional spirit of Slovenia's two most feted contemporary voices - Slavoj Zizek and Tomaz Salamun - no doubt born of previous ideological turbulences, seems apt yet somehow distant.
* More recently George Szirtes has produced some marvellous sonnet redoublés and one wonders if Prešeren was his point of departure in this.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

'Infuriated Palimpsests': Guest Poet: Natalie Katsou

 There is a buzz about Greek poetry at the moment: quick on the heels of the impressive Penned in the Margins anthology Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis comes a Penguin compilation Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (ed. Karen Van Dyck). I haven't read it yet, but the review in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago implied the book captures an exciting resurgence precipitated by economic turmoil which rather than bemoan current social hardships does what “poetry does best: offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities”.
   I'm pleased to introduce a further Greek poet today, Natalie Katsou, a multi-talented and polymathic young writer, theatre-director and teacher I worked with until recently. I find her poetry ambitious and disarming, a collage of giddy imaginative jumps full of cathartic drama and dissonance. I reprint here a sequence from her third volume Nymphalidae (Kedros, 2015), followed by her brief bio:
                                          Cartes Postales

   a mouse jumps on the bench with the frozen shrimps its eyes widen become glass from its ear crops up a tail till it becomes the head of a cat

 the dreamy woman lies down on the bench with the dead shellfish she wags her tail shines her teeth with the tongue her black bitten tongue

 behind fear there is a smile

 when the painter wakes up he’ll seize the knife on the bench and stick it in her breast for spring to flow he will cut her into thin slices place her on lumps of salted rice and share her out among the orphans
  Left like a gabardine on the table of an entrance dripping a lake after the rain on the wooden floor as on the grass with the thistles and a bunch of poppies that will shed their petals before nightfall soaking the red linen on the sleeve and the last rays hitting the lining while a bag of fresh trout slips gently off the table onto the lake on the floor.  The impending moment of return to this spot stretches and hovers and gathers wind-like in corn till the lake dries up the trout falls among the thistles sweeping the linen to cover it with a red cast-off garment.

Left on an entrance hook she slides towards the lake till a red cast-off garment covers her. 

Left on the grass with the thistles she stretches and hovers and gathers.  Like the wind.
Arranging flowers and the weight of transparency while horseshoes in copper pots overflowing with boiled snow like a midnight kiss with a guitar’s empty belly for a pillow with a long exotic arm straining the cold in the hive exhaling between the chords as momentarily a swan.

Grief tears the lonely apart

thoughts rust in the isolation and smell a cage to protect them

wind Eumenides worms in windstorms
In the light’s parting the brain’s woolly parcel

bloats an octopus in the nest and climbs up while the eyes wriggle half-blind against the bats that swoop down with visions behind the fleshy

The earth is a square mat to sharpen the fingertips exorcizing the flapping of wings

The dream-haunted woman who dares not sleep appears ornamental

A head sleeps beside her swearing to the form of sleeplessness as a spot of an irrational ocean and giving it a comrade’s name

Dead beauty
observing a water lily caught in a white transparent ice cube

mouths crystallize or a long straight line with two human ends

disappearance within another – a future

sustained of exhaling

is the emptiness between the days that passed with nothing

silences in a cloud ostensibly heartless
Lying prostrate on the grass with yellow hair

bearing a quiver with a pomegranate in the pocket

barefooted and a deep cut full of dry blood

hiding blades and secrets under her breast.
She had the look of a dead fairy.

Or a blue entrapped dragonfly.  
Dripping a thick green the branches catch fire

with the rain

the earth jolts

short-lived psychopomps like seasons

dissolve before eyes spotted from the past

and closed
the butterflies flee in packs
homeless guards of those who don’t return

words flying with paper wings exchange

captive skies
 Dragging a parachute ripped round a branch

ready for a hideout.  A map made of pencil sharpening and

cotton bread.  The ticket is cut again and again

into smaller pieces.

Repatriation is a vanilla and salt ice cream in an ancient newspaper

next to the map with the ticket.  The teeth break with every attempt.  Buried there it never melts.  Without a kiss.
Wearing the parachute for a nightie.

Impersonating sleep. 
 A far-off scream in the sand dripping on and on and echoing the stars’ asphyxia for there they don’t know of the twin band binding us to chaos its yellow imprint runs among the bare trunks

as though pleading to be uprooted
infuriated palimpsests of inner flesh fissures of touches shrinking in a broken vase of sand I stand and sweep it up clean it tidy it and with my fingers I lay each grain on the tip of the tongue

the blood afire and instantly white mercury shoots me up to the clouds

I swear to be contained in this doom before the cut off word dawns on the forehead

electrifying the moment and casting it as thunder in the mind
 Hand and foot battle in a woven basket of moulded cherries.  Eyes gagged, sleeves pinned in a line, thoughts in chains.  A groan and a kick towards the exit.  Suction and dissolution.   Birth        


Ultimate performative act to bring about the raising of joy and catharsis

 Place Japan

Place imagined and necessary

Place everywhere

 Time excluded

Time the self
 The night collapses in this white corner with the split screen swallowing the teeth fingers and eyeballs of passersby.  A bottle of alcohol is rolling along the road’s curve.  The bottle falls in the river with a creased piece of paper against the current.

Save me.  Find me and pull me out by the hair.

Coexistence is a multi-unit enigma.

The total is revealed by fitting each loneliness

to the other’s outline.

It’s customary.  A lonely look at things – with the guilt of an animal that’s eating sweetmeat intended for bait.  At a certain moment it may be forgotten.  Once the sugar crystallizes on the palate.  The slaughter takes place between blindness and utter clarity.  Common denominator is the white, the world’s white corner that resembles death.

                                                                          Translated by Yiannis Goumas

   Natalie Katsou was born in Athens. She studied Law and Theatre Studies at the University of Athens and she had her Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing at East 15 Acting School, University of Essex under the Minotis Scholarship by the Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece. She lives and works as a theatre director and a drama lecturer in London; she is the Artistic Director of Operaview.Magodos” (Kastaniotis Publ. 2008- nominated for the DIAVAZO Literature Prize) , “Cochlea” (Kedros Publ. 2012- nominated for the ANAGNOSTIS Literature Prize) and “Nymfalidae” (Kedros Publ. 2015).Her poems have been translated in English by Yiannis Goumas,  in French by Michel Volkovitch and in Spanish by Mario Dominguez Parra. Her poetry features in magazines such as POIHSI,  and poihtiki and in various e-zines such as poeticanet.gr, e-poema, Mediterranean.nu, Quarterly Review and others.
  You can hear Natalie reading with two other Greek poets, Nikos Erinakis and Haris Psarras, in both Greek and English this Sunday 17th April at The Proud Archivist in Haggerston. More details here.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Celebrating CM

 The new edition of PN Review is a particularly enthralling one, containing as it does a festschrift of critical appreciations celebrating the life and work of Christopher Middleton, who sadly passed away at the end of last year. He was a poet of profound importance to me almost since I began to take an initial stumbling interest in literature. I remember first coming across him in the Penguin anthology British Poetry Since 1945 (ed. Edward Lucie-Smith) which was one of our set-texts for English A-Level and not making head nor tail of the poem 'Climbing a Pebble'; nor could my well-meaning teacher begin to elucidate its themes.               
  Equally I'm not sure if I've come fully to grips with that poem even now (is the Nares in "my Nares and Keats" really the obscure 18th century prosodist I came across in George Saintsbury? And what's the allusion to the Life and Letters of Joseph Severn about the lark-shooting cardinal with his glass tied to an owl doing at the end of the poem, although intriguingly leading back to Keats?) Such elusiveness is one of the many qualities one treasures in Middleton, the sense of an inexhaustible interplay of source-materials, ideas and connotative currents keeping the poem vibrant and inviting however many times we return to it, this well-tempered jouissance (meted out with sly Metaphysical wit) working in tandem with an almost tactile, exploratory yet always dexterous feel for language and form.
    As well as warm reminiscences from friends such as Michael Hersch and Marius Kociejowski  and a few very late Middleton poems, there are more measured perspectives on the work from Drew Milne and Tom Lowenstein but the piece I like most is John Clegg's comparison of CM's 'Coral Snake' with Lawrences' 'Snake', tracing where the two poems converge and diverge and bringing in a personal note at the end where he regrets not contacting Middleton and missing his chance "with one of the lords of life".
    I also have a piece in PNR 228, a review of The New Concrete:Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (ed. Chris McCabe and Victoria Bean), a beautiful thick art-book full of fascinating, eye-catching vis-po and really illuminating as to the possibilities of haptic text-images within the scattershot , "semantically-bleached" media-barrage of today. Christopher Middleton, who dabbled in concrete poetry himself (cf. Our Flowers and Nice Bones), would have approved.

Monday, 7 March 2016

BS Johnson Not As Poet

   A confluence in my reading - Jonathan Coe's biography Like a Fiery Elephant aligning with Penguin Modern Poets 25 which features BSJ alongside Gavin Ewart and Zulfikar Ghose - lead me to originally conceive of this post as a study of what I anticipated as the arresting, unconventional poetry of this arresting, unconventional novelist. I would call it 'BS Johnson As Poet' and I would perhaps be applauded (by whom I'm not sure) for resuscitating the seldom-read verses of a writer who apparently always thought of himself as primarily a poet, a "struggler in the desert" who consistently argued for principles of bold Modernist experiment in the teeth of tepid Little Englander middle-browism.
   However, I rapidly came up against a substantial obstacle: BS Johnson's poems are mostly not very good. Apart from a few notable successes like 'Cwm Pennant', they generally suffer from having the air of "occasional verse" not adequately committed to or followed through - some seem mere squibs or notebook-jottings that haven't yet undergone the necessary creative pressure that might convert them into genuine poems, as though their very brevity and shortness of line automatically endowed them with this status (DH Lawrence's Pansies display a similar kind of failing although clearly he didn't intend them as fully-formed poems, admitting in their Intro "they do not pretend to be half-baked lyrics"). 
   Unfortunately Johnson's opuscules have every pretension to be finely-baked lyrics: indeed, another of their problematics is the frequent air of pretentiousness they exude in tone and diction. The second poem in this selection 'Evening: Barents Sea' begins "the trawl of unquiet mind drops astern" and after a clunky attempt at an almost Pre-Raphaelite-ish descriptive metaphor ("bifurcated banners at a tourney") the stanza slumps to a bathetic truism lent spurious gravitas by an over-bunching of stressed syllables and adjectives: "now the short northern/autumn day closes quickly". 
   In this and other poems there seems to be a reaching towards the heavyweight, lugubrious profundity of European modernism - also flagged up thematically through an often overstated brooding on death and lost love - which doesn't quite come off, whether through a lack of genuine metaphysical insight or, in their consistently egocentric range, a failure to attain the distancing-effects of form and craft which most poets in this lineage work with. This self-preoccupation also gives vent to an array of unpalatable thought-patterns in Johnson which readers of Like a Fiery Elephant will be all too familiar with: a rancorous vein of misogyny, a schoolboy prurience about bodily functions and a tiresome Ee-Aw-ish grumpiness which is a million miles away from anything in Samuel Beckett's oeuvre.
    In each of his novels BS Johnson attempted a different angle of deconstruction in regard to its traditional realist counterparts, laying bare the house of fiction as a crumbling bourgeois facade and its omniscient narrator as a blown-up face on a wide-screen projection which, tugged aside, reveals only a little man at a desk in the corner, furiously reinventing a world he takes issue with. That the majority of his considerable energies went into his prose and that the poems were very much side-projects seems clear. Johnson's tragic downfall - movingly demonstrated in Coe's enthralling biography - was ironically precipitated by a misapprehension more commonly observed among poets than novelists: the notion that - to avoid the somehow inauthentic, fictive status of most writing - he should write about only what really happened to him. So, for example, he made a voyage on a trawler just so he could write about the experience of making a voyage on a trawler.
     There is something autophagous about this process, of course, and potentially damaging to one's sense of self-worth and integrity, as in Nietzsche's aphorism "Poets are shameless with their experiences: they exploit them". Again ironically, in fact, given Johnson's other ideas, it amounts to a romanticised, hypertrophied form of realism. As Coe points out, if you hold to this as a strict tenet you can only - as Johnson did - run out of meaningful experiences to write about and exhaust your own ability to ring the changes of formal variations and strategies in depicting them. Language in itself - let alone literary or poetic language - is a construct and all literary texts work on the creative tension between how they capture reality and how they imaginatively recompose it. Despite all his gifts, Johnson's curious inability to grasp this - as evinced in the short poem 'The Dishonesty of Metaphor' ("The sound of rain/is only like/the sound of rain") - lead him to believe his work had resulted in failure and (to simplify the actions of a complex man) to take the drastic, appalling step of suicide.
      BS Johnson was happiest during the year he spent teaching in Wales at Gregynog (1969-70). Geoffrey Hill memorialises this hiatus and the sad "self-wreck" of Johnson's life in Oraclau :
       Let this be, do not untie it:
           The snow birth-littered where
       The lambs have dropped, immanent atmosphere
       Of crystal haze, much like creation, pure
       As I imagined it to be these times
       Among the fresh erasure of old names
                                             ('At Gregynog')

Afterword: It has just occurred to me that Johnson's idea of the 'factional' novel about his own experiences is exactly what Karl Ove Knausgaard has employed in his phenomenally successful 'My Struggle' novel-cycle - I'm not saying Knausgaard took it from BSJ but that perhaps Johnson was just way ahead of his time in foreseeing the culture of today when - not just in literature but in all media - reality and fiction are bundled up and interfused and as Norman Mailer - another forerunner of 'faction' wrote - "Reality is no longer realistic". A culture in which a contemptible, cartoonish buffoon from The Apprentice who spouts racist absurdities is able to become a likely candidate for President of the United States.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Buy More Books!

MHB in happier days
   A little late for resolutions maybe but one of mine this year is to buy more books. Let me qualify this, although in fact I mean it quite literally: to actually go into bookshops, preferably independent ones when I can find them, and pay good money for a poetry-volume or novel which I've taken time to browse through and select and which I can hold in my hands.
   The reasons for this are palpable. We live in a world where this pleasurable, enriching, sensory experience is gradually disappearing from our grasp. Independent bookshops, formerly common, now number less than 1000 across the UK. They are harder to find on our high streets than libraries, which have of course suffered a parallel decline.The few that remain desperately need our custom - imagine the cultural loss entailed if we allow them to become extinct.
   Amazon may have agreed to pay back some of the vast amounts of tax they've evaded in  past years but we all know it's a tiny drop in the ocean of their profits. Many of us - most of us! - are still waiting for the financial upturn George Osborne keeps banging on about so the temptation is always there to One-Click your way to a cheap online bargain. E-books, with their minimal production costs, are part of this mechanism and can be cheaper still to purchase. But each time we do this we're actually undercutting the viability of bookshops to stay afloat and unfortunately we're at the stage now where all writers and book-lovers have to invest in the continuing future of this vital, dwindling resource.
   This was brought home to me the other day when I visited one of the best independents in North London, Muswell Hill Bookshop, only to find it had halved in size - they had lost the lease on the second section, I was told. While obviously having to reduce their selection of stock, staff have had to be creative in their use of space and shelving in order to fit more books into the smaller area. Nevertheless, amid the somewhat cloistered new layout, I chanced on Bottled Air by Caleb Klaces in its handsome Eyewear hardback, a volume I'd never seen in a bookshop before. Though no doubt I could have found it cheaper online than the £13 I paid, I felt happy to support not only this shrinking business that elects to stock such interesting, non-commercial titles but also the small independent publisher that brings out beautifully-presented books of quirky, intelligent poetry like Klaces'.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Dystopia in Toyland

  In one pixelated news-image of the aftermath of the recent Paris shootings, Bataclan concert-hall is shown as a charnel-house of bloody corpses wrapped in body-bags, a venue dedicated to the hedonistic enjoyment of music transformed into a nightmarish vision from Dante’s Inferno. While we all share a common revulsion at the perpetrators of this massacre (who apparently may have been less hardline religious fanatics than disaffected young chomeurs high on drugs), is there not a sense in which our culture has become increasingly habituated to such imagery and that in the 24/7 media-feed which saturates our imaginations horror and hedonism, bloodshed and consumerism are surreally interfused, as though they exist as two sides of the same greedily-grasped coin?
    Equally, fact and fiction have imploded and (as Norman Mailer wrote many years ago), “Reality is no longer realistic”. The scenes at Bataclan are the savage end-product of the gun-violence regularly celebrated in thrillers and action-movies but never shown in all its gory, unglamorous brutality. Turn on the Breakfast Show and our warped morality, all but numbed to genuine empathy, regards juxtaposed features on novelty Xmas jumpers and female genital mutilation with the same complacent engrossment.
   Garth Bowden’s new paintings address this conflicted visual-field by asking us to reassess our position as innocent or privileged bystanders, instead plunging us dizzily into the ethical dilemmas that surround us all today. While superficially referencing a mash-up of artistic sources – neo-Pop, the messy Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning and Pollock, even the visceral impact of early Francis Bacon – these large canvases immediately draw the eye in with their bright, hectic colour-patterns and apparently playful, half-comical imagery. However, this bricolage of cartoon whimsy belies a darker subtext, its characters compressed uncomfortably into each other so that they merge and mutate into distorted chimera. What’s more, red spatterings criss-cross the paintings and undercut the frivolity of the faces crowding in on us, as though the horror-mannequin Chucky has gone on a knife-spree through the cast of Fantasia.
   These bold and bizarre works, effectively capturing the paradoxes of a culture adrift between disneyfied banality and murderous dehumanisation, were created as a response to the Paris shootings by an artist with strong links both to the city and his adoptive homeland of France. If “artists are the antennae of their race” (as Ezra Pound suggested) they could be said to be both emotionally timely and – as a warning against perpetuating the cycle of violence through retaliatory bombings – politically resonant.  They build on themes and strategies that Bowden has obsessively returned to throughout his career and represent a new resolve to explore broader events through the lens of his ambitious personal vision.
  Exhibition Notes for The Silent Crowd, new paintings by Garth Bowden which were shown at Brick Lane Gallery in December 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Omeros: Drama and Form

 If we agree that both phonetic immediacy and formal cohesion are both key elements of the poem in how it strikes the listener when read aloud, should technical devices such as rhyme and metre be conspicuous to the ear and be active components in oral meaning? Or should they be implicit in the speech-act of the performance, "ghosts behind the arras" which register on a largely subconscious level? Perhaps many poems hover between these two "zones of proximal development"(Vygotsky) - especially if we already have knowledge of them on the page - and thrive both as static texts drawing attention to their own artifice through particular lineation and as mutable voicings following the momentum of speech-rhythms we hear around us all the time.
  What about the even more liminal form of poetic drama, with its added variables of character, stage-craft and fictive setting? Cleanth Brooks suggests that “all poetry, even short lyrics or descriptive pieces, involve a dramatic organization. This is clear when we reflect that every poem implies a speaker of the poem, either the poet writing in his own person or someone into whose mouth the poem is put, and that the poem represents the reaction of such a person to a situation, a scene, or an idea. In this sense every poem can be–and in fact must be–regarded as a little drama.”
   I went to see Derek Walcott's own dramatisation of his long poem Omeros at the Globe recently, having not previously read this book-length epic. My experience was that I was so drawn into the vivid spectacle of watching the two actors elaborate the coastal St Lucia of Walcott's beautifully evocative, sensuously alive poem and its mock-Homeric narrative-thread that I didn't take too much conscious account of its form. The actors wove between different characters and used the small, almost bare stage to remarkable imaginative effect, the "little drama" of Achille, Philoctete and Helen quite spellbinding in its potent universality.
     Yet when I opened the volume a few days later I was astonished to discover the whole 300-page work is composed in much the same tight metre and rhyme-scheme, a version of terza rima used probably in reference to the form of Dante's great epic but without the tripartite interlocking quality (itself a nested microcosm of the three-part structure of the Divina Commedia). Instead, like the all too human projects of its characters and in spite of the three-line stanzas which promise more, the lines of Omeros fall short into double-rhymes (usually ababcdcdefef etc), ultimately allowing a greater fluency and fidelity to speech-rhythms than terza rima and carrying forward the narrative with the propulsion of its rapid echoings, the oral resonance of its linked sound-patterns.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Yellow Studio

A Review of Stephen Romer: YELLOW STUDIO (Carcanet, 2008)

   In a Radio 3 interview with Clive Wilmer conducted 20 years ago, Stephen Romer (a long-term resident in France and professor of French literature) speaks of the engrained disparity between the “post-Mallarmean reflexiveness’’ of French poetic idioms and an English tradition benched in the quotidian world of people and things: he related how a French academic, on being presented with a Larkinesque poem of urban mundanity, found it so alien to his sensibilities that he declared ‘Ceci n’est pas une poeme’. (A hint of Magrittean surrealism enters the picture here.)
    A major element of Stephen Romer’s project over his five published volumes has been to work through a complex negotiation between these two apparently divergent poetries and the epistemologies that accompany them, an impressive attempt to marry the philosophical elegance and linguistic clarity of contemporary French styles with the more worldly, experiential, noun-cluttered demotic of their counterparts in English. His new collection Yellow Studio furthers this ongoing dialogue through its five sections, plotting a kind of ironic narrative from the opening’s ambivalent francophilia, through a satirical American divagation, back to the poet’s English roots in the beautiful cycle of uneffusive elegies for his father which close the book.
     It’s as though, from the perspective of rueful middle-age, Romer is dismantling the bookish pretensions towards high-flown theory and aestheticism he may have indulged in when younger (just as in one poem he dismantles his library) in favour of the looser, more provisional modes of understanding that broken love and grief force upon us. In a characteristic paradox, however, the  pastoral withdrawal of aging is also ironised, and in the title-poem Vuillard’s stylised ‘Yellow Studio’ comes to symbolise the “humane heaven” of art he now regards “with nostalgia, with homesickness” – is its “sweet, autarchic rest” really to be longed for, though, if it provides only a “lumpy mattress” to lie on ie. hidden imperfections would always trouble you, such as the social contexts of the artist’s studio evoked earlier in the poem? The unusual word “autarchic” is also troubling, alluding both to an anachronistic notion of absolute power (attainable only in the abstract world of art) and perhaps even to a condition of autism that implies exclusion from human discourse and reality.
    This is a telling example of how subtly Romer “loads every rift with ore”: the wry, sophisticated surface of each poem often gives way on closer inspection to an unstable inner pattern of evasions and problematics, frequently hinging on nuanced ambiguities or oblique references to other source-materials. In this way, the oppositions the book initially seems to set up – between art and life, France and England, exile and home, youth and age – are consistently skewed and disjointed into more intricate relations. Equally, the urbane, knowing narrative ‘I’ who bobs elusively in and out of the poems keeps adroitly pulling the rug from beneath his own feet (the “two-tone shoes” he mentions hint at his doubleness): one is reminded of what one critic said of Rilke, that “by most revealing, he was most concealing himself”. Implicitly fighting shy of the unitary confessional voice which is all too often the default-setting of contemporary English and American poetries, Romer hives himself off into different registers, slants and postures which enact multiple perspectives on recurrent situations and locales.
      A further way the poems attain this polyphony is through the use of translation and adaptation to create personae, in the Poundian sense: four haunting versions of Apollinaire’s war-poems modulate familiar motifs of lost youth and thwarted love through a newly modernist tonality lent by unpunctuated parataxis and “calligrammatic” lineation. ‘Yehuda Halevi to His Love’ seems to wryly ventriloquise the 11th Century Hebrew poet-philosopher, while the longer, obscurer piece ‘Jardin Anglais’ uses material from de Nerval’s Sylvie to set up a dialogue between conflicting historical voices, a ‘malentendu’.
     The book begins in a contemporary Paris kitsch with “sprinkle-glitter” and “seafood-platters”. Several of section one’s poems seem distant parodies of the bathetic amorous liaison typically encountered in Laforgue: the self-deprecating narrator struggling to seduce a markedly less literate (and in this case much younger) ingénue-figure. This ‘mid-life crisis’-type situation is mined for its comic potential, especially in ‘At the Procope’, when his young American dinner-date unexpectedly reveals hidden literary credentials in the form of

                                 “a snatch of Stevens- was it
        ‘The Idea of Order’? - indelibly tattooed
         On her back, just along the pantyline.”

 The lines ripple with wordplay: the double-entendre on the Americanism “snatch”; the adverb “indelibly”, seemingly tautologous until you consider that not all tattoos are permanent and indeed, in our throwaway culture, how few texts of any kind are indelible anymore – even those of Wallace Stevens, that lofty, metaphysical poet whose appearance along a girl’s pantyline seems surreally incongruous to say the least? What “idea of order” remains plausible in this kind of context?
      At the same time, as we read on through section one, a subtext develops implying recourse to frivolous sexual adventures is merely a diversion from the grievous breakdown of a more serious relationship (or marriage?) The mood rapidly darkens: the despondent parting in a Paris cafe sketched in ‘Recidivist’ hinges on two pregnant images. “The eternal Lipton’s teabag/laid genteelly on the saucer” works as an understated metaphor for something used-up or redundant, as well as carrying the cultural connotations of being the only brand of “English tea” available in France (and seemingly only ever drunk by the English abroad). Even more subtle is what the poem doesn’t say: that a Lipton’s tea-bag label is yellow, making it a tiny synecdoche of the ‘Yellow Studio’ that is an over-arching trope throughout the book.  The closing image - “The way your blue dress rises” - seems initially a straight visual-impression charged with misgiving, but it seems also to bear a buried memory of another wife poignantly mourned-for by an English poet, the “air-blue gown” of Hardy’s great ‘The Voice’: the rising-up is both the erotic uncovering of the narrator’s raw loss and his mediation of it through literary echoes and language.
     Section two steps back into the rural France of a middle-aged Horatian quietism not without its disquiets. Two exquisite landscape poems (‘A Small Field’ and ‘Loire, August’) and a concerted attempt to cultivate his own garden (‘pruned expectation’) give way to deflating incursions of loneliness and sexual frustration: he “check(s) the personals”, sees in a “full-bottomed urn” a former lover’s buttocks, sleeps guiltily with one of his young students (“the aging Don” is both university lecturer and ironic Don Juan). The Apollinaire versions shatter any further pretence at bucolic seclusion by bringing conflict and history back into the frame.
      This leads on to section three’s more measured and politicised slant on contemporary France, with side-sweeps at cloistered academia and its reductive over-analyses. The liberalism, both cultural and social (“the sensual life of art”), which France had represented to Romer as a young man is vividly mourned in ‘Farewell to an Idea’: he now feels “we are old, and exiled /into more frightening country”. Section four transposes this sense of political malaise to America in the context of 9/11: rather than simplistic condemnatory invective, however, Romer restores historical perspective to the “toxic darkness” he finds there, subtly alluding both to the pioneer-spirit of “the Founding Fathers” (ironically foisted into the setting of a Back-to-Nature weekend) and, via Coleridge’s “pantisocracy” and ‘The Tempest’, back to the United States’ conceptual origins in the French Enlightenment and Voltaire: this great intellectual tradition has disastrously terminated in the “autarchic” debasement of

                                    “a President
     sitting among children in a classroom
     with his reading-book upside-down.”

    Stylistically, Romer taps into the abundant resources of American poetry to work through his perennial French/English dichotomy: whereas Section One had included an unexpected reference to Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with you’ (‘Alas Without Constraints’) to signal its experiments with urban demotic, and the concluding lines of ‘Today I Must Teach Voltaire’ seem to borrow a tone and cadence of trans-political obloquy from George Oppen (‘He must explain to all of the children/this blazing love of death’), the excellent ‘Adirondacks’ takes a leaf out of Elizabeth Bishop’s magisterial later books, with its coolly defamiliarising outlook on a travelled-through landscape and its all-too-human inhabitants, obliquely summing-up a culture’s contradictions and discontents in a few off-hand, resonant images.
      What is so striking about ‘An Enthusiast’, the twenty four interlinking elegies for the poet’s father that conclude the book, is the way they explore intimately personal material in a manner quite new to Romer while at the same time drawing together and recapitulating many of the themes and images of the earlier sections. The tentative endeavour to posthumously settle differences becomes a continuous self-association with his father – whether in attachment to music, gardening (“my hedges gone haywire”), flirtatious encounters, religious belief, marriage – all these counterpointed by instances from preceding poems. Memory and imagination fuse as Romer reconstructs episodes in his father’s life from a “strictly private diary”, a writerly disclosure which once more unites them. Like Lowell’s ‘Life-studies’ (a memory-book ‘An Enthusiast’ has some formal kinship with, especially in its use of short-lined, irregularly-rhyming free-ish verse), there is also the attempt to read back current crises from family history: the repressed, privileged middle-class England Romer’s father was heir to perhaps lies behind the “silence, exile and cunning” of his son’s later defection to France and to poetry.
     In a final variation on the volume’s key-image, the ‘Yellow Studio’ of art becomes the “yellow attic room” of childhood, to be revisited in memory but not reclaimed, the poet reconciling himself to his father’s work of “clearance” out in the sunlit garden so that he can move forward and growth can begin again: the writing of these elegies has no doubt been a similarly cathartic labour for the son. Such subtlety and reluctance to polarise is typical of Romer’s art in this consistently-enthralling book – an object-lesson for less meticulous contemporaries in how to construct a complex, full-bodied book, not just a résumé of disparate pieces.
                                               (First published in The Wolf, 2008)

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Stupendous Cocky Turpitude: Prynne on Podcast

   Like many people, I don't find much time to read these days. I could bemoan the skittering atomistic banality-fest of post-historic consumerdom and our brains' doddering over-reliance on the mental prosthetics of cyber-gadgetry but then Horace was sighing alas that the fugacious years were slipping him by in 23BC. The amount of books on my 'Must Read' list (not to mention the perhaps even longer list of 'Must Re-Read'), however, seems to burgeon in exponential correlation to the dwindling of my reading-time - the resultant line-graph might bear some relation to the same chiasmus besetting contemporary poetry-volumes: never so many being published, never so few bought and read. We are stumbling towards a strange tipping-point in what passes for cultural production where almost everyone is "publishing" something - whether in the form of blog-posts, Instagram photo-feeds, self-published e-books, GarageBand "tracks" uploaded to SoundCloud - but no-one is paying much attention because they're too busy expressing the hell out of themselves. It's like a coked-up party where everyone is speaking at once, tipsily pleased with the sound of their own voice, and no-one is listening.
    Listening to podcasts on my smartphone  while driving is a makeshift expedient, if by no means an actual alternative to reading books. TLS Voices grabbed my attention the other day at the traffic-lights on Finchley Road with an unexpectedly apposite yoking of a non-mainstream poem with a contemporary news-story. Robert Potts' examination of Prynne's To Pollen in the light of the recent media furore over images of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi pointed up the continued incisiveness of the poem's invective, travestying from within a consciously doubling, slippery poetic discourse the linguistic duplicities and slippages that coverage of the two Gulf Wars was almost wholly composed of, laced with the kind of confused post-imperialist xenophobia which informs the rhetoric of many commentators on the recent migrant crisis .
    The silent redaction which transformed the word "immigrant" into "migrant" in permitted news-vocabulary pretty much overnight is a telling example of such semantic drift, although obviously in this case moving away from potentially negativising terminology. (The priggish undergraduate deconstructionist in me wants to signal the denied subjecthood hiding in the banned letters "im/I'm" and to bandy the phrase "interpellated by their elision" to denote the likes of Aylan Kurdi, immortalised now as a tiny dead body washed up on a beach.)