One of the things which I have admired about the poetry of Anthony Barnett, and this has been true now for many years, is his ability to adopt different perspectives. We are presented time and again with a quality of diffracted light as words bend around the corners of a subject or aperture. A typical example for me occurs on page 197 of the collected poems which appeared in 2012, Poems & (Tears in the Fence in association with Allardyce Book ABP):
“I turn away from you
whom I no longer know.
I turn towards you
whom I do not know.
We were gentle.
You were one and the same.”
The present and the past, the self and the other, are caught as in a painting by Duchamp. This new publication consists of prose fragments and poems arising from the search for an unknown woman who appears in a video clip. It has an air of mystery such as that which haunts Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and it
recalls the words of Ortega y Gasset in his 1984 book Historical Reason:
“At another time we shall see that, while astronomy for example is not a part of the stellar bodies it researches and discovers, the peculiar vital wisdom we call life experience is an essential part of life itself, constituting one of its principal components or factors. It is this wisdom that makes a second love necessarily different from a first one, because the first love is already there and one carries it rolled up within. So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be traveled and traveled again …we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already traveled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to the end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.”
The first of three epigraphs which front this new volume from Anthony Barnett’s highly professional and invariably attractive small Press, Allardyce Book, is a quotation from Isak Dinesen which offers an intriguing stance from which to contemplate the nature of story-telling:
“The happy man comforted me and begged me not to take a story too much to heart.”
Barnett’s narrator is not a “happy man” but he is one who seeks, one whose restless mind plays backwards and forwards over past and present images and whose opening statement emphasizes this spirit of enquiry:
“IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT THE ONE WHO LOVES YOU IS NOT THE one who sees you every day but the one who looks for you every day. I wonder if you agree. It is possible to see and to look at the same time.”
The Making of a Story is of course about story-telling and as the pages unroll it is one which one wishes very much to take to heart whether or not this excludes one from being classified as “happy”! When I read it I was immediately put in mind of a little piece by John Berger published over thirty years ago in Granta. Berger was contemplating the portrait of Aesop painted by Velásquez and this led him to reflect upon the importance of story-telling:
“Indirectly, Aesop’s eyes tell a lot about story-telling. Their expression is reflective. Everything he has seen contributes to his sense of the enigma of life: for this enigma he finds partial answers – each story he tells is one – yet each answer, each story, uncovers another question, and so he is continually failing and this failure maintains his curiosity. Without mystery, without curiosity and without the form imposed by a partial answer, there can be no stories – only confessions, communiqués, memories and fragments of autobiographical fantasy which for the moment pass as novels.”
Anthony Barnett’s work keeps asking questions, keeps peering at different perspectives, and this lends to it a deeply moving restlessness which one can go back to time and time again. The narrator may express “anxiety for what is gone” but he moves forward “to make poetry out of the world”.
This is a deeply serious book which needs to be read by anyone who wishes to come to an understanding of who they are in relation to the world around them.
Ian Brinton, 30th July 2018