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Letters from the Underworld by Alan Baker (The Red Ceilings Press)

Letters from the Underworld by Alan Baker (The Red Ceilings Press)

One of the many striking points about the realism of Dante’s work made by Erich Auerbach in Mimesis concerns the way in which the Italian poet achieves such an intensity of dramatic presence. Auerbach refers to Dante’s journey as representing the only opportunity the souls of the dead have of expressing themselves: they have one moment in all eternity to speak to a hearer from among the living. Hegel suggested that into the changeless existence of eternal damnation Dante “plunges the living world of human action and endurance and more especially of individual deeds and destinies.” It is scarcely small wonder that Samuel Beckett admired Canto V of Inferno with such passion and took his admiration to the point of imitation in the 1962 drama Play.
The twenty prose-poem sections of Alan Baker’s Letters from the Underworld present us with a dystopian vision of the contemporary world and they are threaded with literary references which act as context for the eerie cries haunting this small but profound collection from The Red Ceilings Press. In the form of letters sent out from our “forests of the hinterland” we are presented with echoes of John Donne’s “year’s midnight” as we are informed of our “currency” being “worthless”:

“Th’hydroptic glass hath never sunk so low.”

However, as Donne’s ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ reminds us that the moments shift from the year’s midnight and this hour’s vigil is held with a sacred sense of particularity so do Baker’s epistles move forward with fractional exactness:

“You know me by now, after all this correspondence. I cannot rest from travel.”

The voice is that of Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem from 1833 in which the voyager who has spent so long searching for home is confined to Ithaca where “I mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race”. Tennyson’s dramatic recreation of the Greek hero is partly taken from Inferno Canto XXVI as the condemned soul tells us of his “inward hunger…To master earth’s experience” (Binyon). In Alan Baker’s conclusion to these remarkable epistles there is another voice from the mid-nineteenth century as we recognise that mournful cry of Matthew Arnold from the coast-line of Kent:

“This evening, all is calm, here, on this tideless coast. The deep moans round with many voices. The late sun slants into my open window and the lights begin to twinkle from the rocks.”

Arnold’s plea to his newly-wed wife in June 1851 is commanding in its seriousness:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Alan Baker’s twentieth letter tells us “My government has withdrawn funding from the rescue service and other member states argue amongst themselves while the hungry sea doesn’t rest unburnished, but shines in use.” Victims of political indifference we can only wonder “exactly what the future holds”. That future certainly seems here to be bleak as we confront the desperation of migrating people:

“One, who has a particularly plaintive lilt, said he paid $3000 in cash, but the boat was just a cheap inflatable. They wanted safety but the ferryman told them they were already dead; he looked in their mouths for a coin to pay for passage.”

This is a world composed of those “fleeing persecution…wide with wanderers displaced and dispossessed, seeking refuge and finding razor wire and shipwreck.” However, having acknowledged that we are also aware of why one would write letters at all:

“I sometimes feel, when I read your letters, that I could reach out and touch you; the words have your voice, the phrasing the contours of your tongue, the handwriting the morphology of your mental landscape whose valleys I’d like to wander in, perhaps to find a river by whose banks I could fall asleep and dream of the world as an emerald of unreachable beauty, a crystallographer’s dream; such a thing is possible, although, as we know, the possible as a dwelling, be it a garden or a sunlit garret, is as mortal as you or I.”

Language and thought merge together in these prose-poems and the concluding question is an assertion of the importance of the writing itself:

“It’s not too late to seek a newer world, is it?”

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

Ian Brinton, 25th October 2018.

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