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Monthly Archives: September 2018

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

Over the next few weeks I shall be teaching some aspects of literary dystopia to sixth-formers at a school in Kent and it has prompted me to re-read Paul Auster’s terrifying vision from 1987, In the Country of Last Things. This itself acts as a prompting background to a review I am starting to put together for Lou Rowan’s wonderful magazine from Seattle, Golden Handcuffs Review. The review is of Leslie Kaplan’s book-length poem L’excès-l’usine (Hachette 1982) which has been recently translated for Commune Editions by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap under the title Excess – The Factory.
The word dystopia is derived from the Greek for bad (δυσ) and (τόπος) place and deals with a community or society that is undesirable or frightening and is, of course, a direct opposite of the world conceived of by Thomas More in the early sixteenth-century book Utopia. The opening paragraphs of Auster’s novel take us immediately into a world of the unsafe:

“These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

Leslie Kaplan’s poem is divided into nine circles and the echo of a medieval Florentine legacy cannot be ignored. In this world “You move between formless walls” and become aware that as there is no beginning and no end “Things exist together, all at once”. One of the immediately frightening introductory statements to the First Circle is quite simple:

“Inside the factory, you are endlessly doing.

You are inside, in the factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.”

There are some interesting literary forbears to this dystopian world of Paul Auster and one is prompted to return to the world of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844, where he describes a hidden neighbourhood in London called Todgers:

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably be called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and roundabout, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall or was stopped by an iron railing, and felt that the means of escape might possibly present themselves in their own good time, but that to anticipate them was hopeless.”

Or one might accompany Alice into her Looking-Glass World of the 1870s:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.”

Alice’s response is one of astonishment at this surreal world and she exclaims “Things flow about so here”! Anna, the narrator of Auster’s novel, responds more bleakly and with a sense of quickly-learned experience:

“The streets of the city are everywhere, and no two streets are the same. I put one foot in front of the other, and then the other foot in front of the first, and then hope I can do it again. Nothing more than that. You must understand how it is with me now. I move. I breathe what air is given me. I eat as little as I can. No matter what anyone says, the only thing that counts is staying on your feet.”

The translators of Leslie Kaplan’s poem added a shrewd and highly perceptive conclusion to their work:

“In writing L’excès-l’usine, Kaplan was wary of using an overproduced or too-familiar language to convey the workers’ experience of capitalist production. The usual discursive practices would only pervert, not reveal, her subject. A stripped-down language was needed, freed from the forms and expectations of discourse. Rather than being descriptive or explanatory, the poem’s language would be suspended, with objects and events seemingly let loose from their context.”

I now look forward this autumn to writing a full review of Kaplan’s poem for Golden Handcuffs Review. Thank you Lou, and I look forward to meeting you at this coming weekend’s Tears in the Fence Festival!

Ian Brinton, 9th September 2018

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Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose, creative non-fiction and prose poetry from Ian Seed, Simon Collings, Melisande Fitzsimons, Anna Backman Rogers, Beth Davyson, Robert Sheppard, David Miller, Peter Hughes, Tracey Iceton, Jill Eulalie Dawson, Kate Noakes, Taró Naka Trans. Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei, Aidan Semmens, Mark Goodwin, Barbara Bridger, Alexandra Strnad, Daragh Breen, Andrew Darlington, Caroline Heaton, Peter J. King, Amelia Forman, Clive Gresswell, Steve Spence, Rebecca Oet, Sue Burge, Chloe Marie, Lucy Sheerman, Peter Robinson, Michael Henry, Wendy Brandmark, Abeer Ameer, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Sarah Cave, Angela Howarth, Norman Jope, John Freeman, Eoghan Walls, Jennie Byrne, Marcel Labine Trans. John Gilmore and Peter Larkin.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s editorial, Andrew Duncan on Sean Bonney, Mark Byers on Jasper Bernes and Sean Bonney, Nancy Gaffield on Zoë Skoulding, Frances Spurrier – Poetry, resilience and the power of hope, Simon Collings on Ian Seed, Peter Larkin, Clark Allison on John Hall, Astra Papachristodoulou on Nic Stringer, Greg Bright – What Is Poetry?, Mandy Pannett on Seán Street, David Pollard on Norman Jope, Louise Buchler on New Voices in South African Poetry, Anthony Mellors on Gavin Selerie, Linda Black on Anna Reckin, Jonathan Catherall on Nicki Heinen, Richard Foreman on M. John Harrison, Morag Kiziewicz’s column Electric Blue 4, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

The Lonely Funeral by Maarten Inghels & F. Starik (Arc Publications)

The Lonely Funeral by Maarten Inghels & F. Starik (Arc Publications)

It was in June 1750 that Thomas Gray completed his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ before sending it to Horace Walpole:

“I have been here at Stoke a few days (where I shall continue good part of the summer); and having put an end to a thing, whose beginning you have seen long ago, I immediately send it to you.”

The poem became of course one of the most anthologized pieces throughout the past two-hundred and sixty-eight years and Arc’s new publication of The Lonely Funeral is firmly in that tradition of immensely powerful and haunting records of the deaths of those flowers “born to blush unseen”.
Starik’s Foreword to the volume places the scene:

“In Amsterdam there are approximately fifteen lonely funerals each year: lifelong junkies, solitary seniors, the occasional suicide. Undocumented migrants, drug mules, vagrants, victims of a questionable crime, professional drunkards who toppled into a canal weeks earlier. Most are discovered in their own home, after complaints by neighbours about the stench in the stairwell.”

And a ‘lonely funeral’ is one at which no one is present except pallbearers, one or two civil servants, the cemetery director and the funeral officiant. However, since November 2002 a project has got under way in which poets volunteer to attend these funerals of the unknown and forgotten so that they can read some words that place on record a shared sense of the common bond of humanity. The immense importance of this venture is of course for the living, as is true of all funerals. As Starik puts it “We pity no one. For us, all that counts is respect for a person’s life…the poet speaks in the darkness…We have no grief of our own”.
The first poem pays respect to an anonymous dead man who was found in an apartment in the Bijlmer, a social-housing district on the outskirts of Amesterdam. Starik suggests that he was probably from Ghana or Ivory Coast; nameless because without papers, without officially recognized identity. A migrating figure from The Dark Continent.

“Goodbye, nameless man, I salute you as you pass
into the last of lands where all are welcome,
where no one needs to know a thing about you.
Goodbye, man with no papers, no identity.

What brought you here? Who looks out through an empty window
now for you, nameless man, who’s waiting as I speak,
as I repeat my empty words in an almost empty room?
I came too late. I never knew you.”

When Gray sat in the churchyard at Stoke Poges in the mid-eighteenth century he gazed upon the stones which recorded humble lives. Buried there may be have been “Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast / The little tyrant of his fields withstood” or some “mute inglorious Milton” who kept the “noiseless tenor” of his way. Gray names none of those whose resting-place is a “narrow cell” but what he does do is evoke a picture representing the “short and simple annals of the poor”. The breath of the poetry allows the reader to stand on the verge of individual clarity: we can almost see the picture of the living person who has been one of those flowers “born to blush unseen” where the use of the word “blush” conjures a hint of awareness, of social interaction.
Each poem is preceded by a short account of the known details concerning the body which is to be buried or cremated but the poems themselves speak in that darkness which constitutes our common bond. Number 40 is Mr. M.B. who died at the age of eighty-three:

“Just as the silence at his funeral was deafening, during his life Mr. M.B. also had no one to talk to. Andy had visited his place of residence in Antwerp-South, and had spoken to a neighbour. She did not know Mr. M.B. – yes, they had exchanged a word or two in the corridor once, when there was something wrong with his television, and he asked if she could help. But it never went as far as sitting down together in front of their favourite soap”.

The poem opens

“the things a person touches
carry their imprint for a while
an existence leaves a trail
that slowly fades away”

This is an immensely important book and I should like to see every school in this country acquire a couple of copies for their Libraries. It is a book which should be available within Secondary School English Departments where it could sit side by side with the powerful reconstructions from Chaucerian tale-telling, Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus for Comma Press in 2016. Gray’s elegiac meditations in a churchyard brought us to an awareness of “Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” and less that fifty years later William Blake concluded his ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ with the simplicity of an inclusive awareness of that common bond which keeps us pale: “Every thing that lives is Holy”. And what would a review of mine be without a passing reference to the poetry of J.H. Prynne whose introductory comment to the 1968 Ferry Press publication of Aristeas was from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:

“As to the destitute man who has no family, he takes his meals in the huts of his congeners; he enters a hut, takes –by right, not for charity – his seat by the fire, and shares the meal which always is scrupulously divided into equal parts; he sleeps where he has taken his evening meal.”

Ian Brinton, 1st September 2018

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