Seven years ago Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he suggested that Jeremy Prynne’s recently published chapbook To Pollen (Barque Press) was ‘directly concerned with the “war on terror” and its vicious circles’:
Afflicted purpose they hail we cut them they in
turn line the route denied, holding it most.
Rod Mengham’s recently published sequence of poems Paris by Helen (Oystercatcher) similarly has a lyric grace which is unafraid to gaze with unerring eye on warfare, lies and the Romance of twisted language which obscures human designs.
Language has an expiry date
with light foot, it is the tally-man ignorant of the branch-like
instructions for using your gun-rest. We shall not see its like
the load-bearing syntax of the river
settles everything. Once again
I have reached a dead wall.
When Rod Mengham’s poems were included in Iain Sinclair’s monumentally valuable anthology Conductors of Chaos (Picador 1996) they were introduced by John Wilkinson who noted how the language used ‘exacts the commitment of full attention at every instant’ before he went on to say that Mengham’s ‘mysterious lyricism…turns out to have been genuinely premonitory—it was exactly what the world was to be like, if from a particular perspective: for, after all, the people of Macedonia are best preserved from the knowledge that their nation’s new banknotes are given away as reader gifts by The Sunday Times.’
It was Thomas de Quincey who wrote in 1834 about Coleridge’s use of unacknowledged quotation:
Now, to take a phrase or an inspiriting line from the great fathers of poetry, even though no marks of quotation should be added, carries with it no charge of plagiarism. Milton is justly presumed to be as familiar to the ear as nature to the eye; and to steal from him as impossible as to appropriate, or sequester to a private use, some “bright particular star.” And there is a good reason for rejecting the typographical marks of quotation: they break the continuity of the passion, by reminding the reader of a printed book…
Language stands upon the shoulders of those who have previously used it and I found much of the lyric grace in these poems by Rod Mengham enhanced by the references, occasionally direct as with the echoing sound of Eliot’s The Wasteland in the poem ‘Through a Blow-Pipe’ in which the ‘drip drip drip’ leads to connecting ‘nothing with nothing’. Sometimes the references are more oblique echoes such as the opening image of Ulysses lashed ‘to the mist’ with its sly glance back at Prynne’s early poem ‘Lashed to the mast’. Perhaps most dominant for me is the eerie shadow of Dante cast across this doomed love affair between Paris and Helen. In the opening poem, ‘To Repeal the Spoils’ it is almost as if a Francesca is whirling through the air lamenting the cause for her being in the Second Circle:
That was your great discovery
an unreasonable desire for poetry while
swallowing blood. Now you find me shaking something
Penelope’s chervil glove, unharmed in the debris
on a worn-out carpet.
Just as the larks lose all sense of their bodies
so you are wearing your skirts much higher
every night in my bed. But my flight of bemusement
will not add up. The occasion demands flight
with its opposite number.
Mengham’s translations of the contemporary Polish poet, Sosnowski, are terrific. They provide that bridge which I referred to in last week’s blog on Anthony Barnett so that the reader who is unknowing of the original language can experience something of the taste of another man’s mind:
You raise your eyes, and the wind roars among the great bells.
Ian Brinton 26th July 2014