Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Edge of the Orison
If London Orbital was Iain Sinclair's first foray outside the urban centre he has obsessively explored and excavated in previous books - albeit in this case a lengthy circumambulation which was in fact a strategy for adducing the city's secrets from its margins, from everything it had pushed outwards - Edge of the Orison tracks a journey out of London (re-enacting John Clare's exodus from a mad-house in Epping Forest back to his home in Helpston, Northamptonshire) which keeps doubling back on itself and inevitably concerning itself with the inner workings of the metropolis.
The trackings Sinclair encompasses, furthermore, forge deeper than he has done before into a complex layering of thematic materials, richly offsetting and rebounding against each other, triangulating personal,historical and spatial nodes. Research into John Clare and his Northamptonshire lineaments leads Sinclair and his rogue-ish set of sidekicks (Renshie Bickshall, Brian Catling, Alan Moore etc) in two main directions: firstly, into Sinclair's own family history and autobiography, since his wife Anna's forebears were also from the Northampton region (could there even be an overlapping with Clare's somewhat murky family-tree?); secondly, into an extended meditation on English Romanticism and the seemingly self-defeating arc of its visionary proponents - not just "mad Clare" but also Shelley, Blake and Byron - within the social context of an England already in the early 19th C. swallowed up by the Industrial Revolution, agricultural Enclosure and voracious mercantilism. While Shelley and Byron turned into deracinated exiles, Clare was caught between the equally disillusioning poles of his rapidly-changing rural origins - the defunct idyll of his childhood - and a London which beckoned him with largely-spurious promises of literary success and esteem:
"He had to learn the difficult thing, in different places we are different people. We live in one envelope with a multitude of voices, lulling them by regular habits, of rising, labouring, eating, taking pleasure and exercise: other selves, in suspension, slumber but remain wakeful. Waking confirms identity. We are never more than an extension of the ground on which we live...Poetry is a form of going away. Of holding landscape, and its overwhelming particulars, in the float of memory."
(Interesting to note here an echo of Robert Creeley's famous assertion that "Form is never more than an extension of content", quoted also by Olson in his 'Projective Verse' essay, an important influence on Sinclair's 'open-field' approach.)
One further 20th C narrative is set up in parallel to Clare and the Romantics: focussing on the fact that James Joyce's daughter Lucia, also diagnosed as insane, lived much of her later life in an asylum in Northampton, Sinclair pieces together a further subplot featuring both the novelist (another exile) and his sometime amanuensis and lover of Lucia, Samuel Beckett. An example of how subtle the interweavings of imagery are is that Sinclair returns to memories of first meeting his wife as students in Dublin within the context of discussing the two Irish masters.
To my mind Edge of the Orison is Sinclair's masterpiece, at once his most personal book and the most fascinatingly rich and probing in its investigations of memory, history and identity. It also invents its own protean form, switching fluidly between factual accounts of walks and visits, historical research, lyrical insights, autobiographical remembrance and often hilarious satirical and comical descriptions, all delivered in Sinclair's most pointedly vivid prose.