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)