Robert Kaplan published his ‘Natural History of Zero’, The Nothing That Is, in 1999 and it opens with the intriguing assertion that ‘If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world’. Nature often supplies us with circular hollows: from an open mouth to the faintly outlined dark of the moon; from craters to wounds. Nabokov wrote ‘Skulls and seeds and all good things are round’. Zero, a nought, allows us to contemplate the very large by building up towards it in stages. Place a row of noughts after a figure of 1 and ‘rather than letting our thoughts diffuse in the face of immensity’ we can watch the world expanding. It is significant that the epigraph to that building up of a large picture in Charles Olson’s Maximus begins with the Black Mountain cook, Cornelia Williams, exclaiming ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many’. Her statement overheard by the poet complements that of A.N. Whitehead in Process and Reality: ‘…the term many presupposes the term one, and the term one presupposes the term many.’ In John McCullough’s poem ‘O’, in the second section of his forthcoming collection of poems from the enterprising publishing house of Tom Chivers, this letter, itself an echo of nothing, ‘is not the simplest letter, not always / a lucid stroke’:
‘….In my book of scripts
O sloughs its symmetry, tilts toward discord,
its wall subsiding, air charging out
as the winds inside gnash and ravel,
upgrade to howl. I lay my finger
on the page and trace each flourish.
I conjure up your lips saying
the letter, forming the shape but stopped
mid-word. I read it over and over,
I who know too well these days
how a single sound can hold a city.
When Gloucester met Lear on the sands and shoals of the blind and the mad he addressed his monarch with the words ‘O let me kisse that hand’ and Lear’s response was immediate: ‘Here wipe it first, it smels of mortalitie’. In shocked dismay the loyal earl cries out ‘O ruind peece of Nature, this great world should so weare out to naught, do you know me?’ In the Warton Lecture on English Poetry given by J.H. Prynne in 1988 he commented upon this passage:
‘There are deeply buried puns here, beyond the comprehensions of either speaker yet ensconced within their predicament of speaking about utter perdition: the round O of loyal plea turned into horror and outcry at ruined nature, broken and unpeaceful, is the self-same figure as the great world itself and the cypher it has come to, the naught.’
Mathematics and literature, figures and emotions, overlap and John McCullough’s time-machine can bring back before our eyes a Lee Harwood whose death in 2015 does not remain a nought: ‘There it was again // the softness / of your voice // the cushioned spaces / of its hesitance // that constant search / for the right way // to question yourself.’ By giving the poem the title ‘Rooms’ McCullough brings to mind the absence of the word ‘White’ and the statement in ‘When The Geography Was Fixed’ that ‘The colours are here / inside us, I suppose’. In McCullough’s airy drawing the figure of Lee Harwood comes before us, glimpsed, before a disappearance that leaves him with only ‘the silence of clouds’, ‘shuffled pebbles’ and the respect and affection that prompts him towards ‘the gaps I listen for // inside the rain’.
Another poet who died last year was Charles Tomlinson and I make no apology for repeating a quotation I have used many times before. It comes from a poem written some sixty years ago, ‘Aesthetic’:
‘Reality is to be sought, not in concrete,
But in space made articulate’.
It seems to be an appropriate statement for John McCullough’s new volume as I read with delight one of the concluding poems about living in a basement, making a space articulate:
‘A fine pleasure, to live beside the uncertainties
of a basement garden, to sit curled
near the hydrangea’s unfolding, a pipistrelle’s
click-click-click. Earlier I ran inside
and watched a squall assault the ground,
drops pummelling the glass of tea I left
on chipped slate. They made liquid coronets
in the air above it, the dark drink rising quickly,
spilling over—soon running wholly clear.
Spacecraft will be published on May 1st this year and for further information about it contact James Trevelyan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian Brinton 24th March 2016