Saturday, 2 June 2012

Colossal Rearrangements: Katerina Brac by Christopher Reid

   A comment made by Todd Swift the other week at the end of a hyperbolic post about Jon Stone's new volume - "English poetry was perhaps last this differently, oddly smart with Christopher Reid's Katerina Brac" - sent me back to the book in question to check for myself if it was as seminal as Todd implies.
    To be honest, I've never given Reid's work much consideration. I confess to being guilty of lumping him glibly in with his fellow Martian, Craig Raine, whose characteristic early poetry seems to me now as much of an outdated 80's fad as the Sinclair C5 and the ZX Spectrum (no doubt some Hoxton retromaniac out there will tell me that these are now the height of cool...) Worse, its over-reliance on  flashy, gimmicky tropes at the expense of all other components of poetic meaning or emotional/intellectual/social resonance seems reflective both of the design-over-content ostentation prevalent during the decade and even of the deregulating,brashly acquisitive spirit of Thatcherism underscoring it. (Worse still, Raine continues to write in more or less the same, clever-tricksy manner today.)
    Although Reid's first two volumes seemed to be vying with Raine for who could come up with the silliest, most fanciful metaphor (a weightlifter compared to "a human telephone", indeed!), there were always more interesting undercurrents at work even in his most affectedly Martian display. Titles like 'Academy of the Aleatoric' and ' Holiday from Strict Reality' flag up the clear influence of Wallace Stevens, unusual enough for a young English poet of Reid's generation: viewed in the light of the "essential gaudiness" of Stevens' poetry, its linguistically playful dialogue between metaphysical speculation and "things as they are", we begin to discern a persistent philosophical vein in Reid that goes some way to justifying his ludic observational jugglings. It's in this, moreover, that he departs from Raine, whose poems are largely idea-averse, his similitudes amounting to visual puns serving an ultimately descriptive, realist purpose which on scrutiny unravels to a bland thinness of content (the self-defeating aporia of A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, for example, is that why should the recipient know what a mechanical bird or tracing paper is if he doesn't know what a book or mist are); whereas Reid in fact seems more concerned (like Stevens) with the epistemology of seeing or apprehending an ever-shifting reality, and how this is figured in poetic language.
    If the early Reid falls drastically short of the scope and depth (not to mention the formal mastery) of Stevens, he was at least mindful enough of the limitations of Martianism to attempt a more sophisticated mode of ostranenye in his third volume Katerina Brac (1983). While the sustained use of a hetronymic persona links Reid (via Hill's Sebastian Arruruz and Middleton's Herman Moon) back to the Pound of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Homage to Sextus Propertius, his complex elaboration of an East European poet writing during the time of Communism is refracted through several layers of equivocating distance even these distinguished forebears didn't employ, although the deliberate anachronisms and mistranslations of Propertius might have given Reid his starting-point. 
    The maladroit translationese of Katerina Brac fosters an off-kilter, wonky manner and rhythm that work in two ways: firstly, as a subtle parody of the often less than felicitous attempts to 'english' East European poets during what Ted Hughes called the "unique tidal wave of poetry translation that swept through English in the sixties and seventies". Few could doubt that this bringing-across of poets like Holub, Joszef, Popa, Celan, Herbert, Brodsky and Milosz (largely promulgated by Hughes and his friend Daniel Weissbort through Modern Poetry in Translation) amounted to an enormously important phenomenon; few also would dispute that a particular overfamilar style - often clunky and ungainly - grew out of the boom (it certainly fed into the purposefully "uglified" poetry of Crow). Secondly, Brac's wryly not-quite-correct-English, intensified by the inclusion (no doubt under the influence of the state censor) of fragments of ridiculous officialese, serves a defamiliarising function which subverts the totalitarian construct of reality she finds herself in. 
    These quirky, ironic observations on love, history and identity might bring to mind the whole tragic lineage of 20th Century poets who struggled to maintain their writing in the midst of brutal suppression and the obligation to conform to "social realist" tenets of literary value (not least Tsvetaeva, Ahkmatova and Ingeborg Bachmann), but also transcend their (imagined) moment by being rueful insights as resonant to a contemporary audience as to an earlier one. The task of confronting a received and politically-devious state-reality is a constant, Reid seems to imply; especially at the time of the volume's composition when Thatcherite policy was leaning towards a reassertion of top-down hegemony.
    With this task (gesturing back towards a Stevensian philosophy) goes the need to recreate a more open-ended and fluid sense of the real through the unpindownable, unlegistated ambivalences of poetic language, like the "pale-blue butterflies" of Katerina's first poem, suggesting "this would be the perfect time/to mend the whole of one's life"; or later in the poem the summer thunder that's like "colossal rearrangements/somewhere at the back of the mind".


  1. Yes, I remember the book now, - it was on my shelves in the days when I was almost new to modern poetry, and bought whatever was in front of me - but I had really not realized how deep those lines that you quoted had embedded themselves in my mind. Thanks to you and Todd for bringing it back to the surface of consciousness.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Michael. I neglected to mention that Reid's Selected Poems came out not so long ago, although I'm not so keen on the more recent work. Katerina Brac remains his major achievement, as far as I can see.