The eight titles of Douglas Oliver’s works included by Ian Brinton are supported with a preface by Joe Luna and introduction by the editor along with eight pages of notes at the end of this 180 page book. The inclusions by Joe Luna and Ian Brinton make clear Douglas Oliver’s stance towards poetry as indeed does reading his poems.
The poet’s inward conversations held within poems being the very thing with which he wants to confront possible readers: the immediacy of language acting in the moment of experience and in the reported experience, each being reliant on the other. Clear indication of this evident in:
‘Oh you are born already!’ cries the English mother
in pained surprise to her hanging baby,
as though the finished phrase
has slipped, unfinished, out of anguish
still continuing, into its adventures.
‘Beyond active and passive’
and strongly so, in:
… The moment we will speak has
already happened: it waits
in the silence of the subterranean hall
as meaning stumbles downstairs to articulation.
‘The earthen stairs’
There is no escaping the disruptive syntax, especially in poems from ‘Oppo Hectic’ and ‘The Diagram Poems’ but then poetic articulation has its tradition in ‘strange and wonderful language’ (Aristotle), in order to estrange itself from normalcy. The core concern of defamiliarisation as outlined in Viktor Shklovsky’s essay, ‘Art as Technique’, is that language should be non-normative
so that the author creates a vision from de-automized perceptions.
Certainly Douglas Oliver’s earlier poems invite such a step into them, not to understand, but to believe them. Once done the presumptions of comprehension give way to other experiences.
Kindness acts idly or unnaturally,
leads you into fear. Act in kind.
Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.
Don’t be afraid of the darkness of kind;
for it’s the birth of darkness, vertical twist
of opening lips in the night:
However not all the poems are difficult but most are arresting:
…on their marital bed she, the Haitian
changed his skin sympathies, unshackled his stiff pelvis
by mounting him, squirting black womanly sperm into him,
remaking his mind and his tongue while he was still
asleep, new conceptions warm and liquid in his pelvis.
The opening of eyes, changing of person, exchange of sexes,
Black for White, We for They, Woman on Top, all this is
That book ‘Penniless Politics’ advanced the notion of a people’s political party in the multicultural Lower East Side of New York and, as with the sweep of his writing, politics and social comment was its fuel – that and the manner in which it was sourced from his personal life.
… for my father
now spoke, in death still a typical Scot:
‘Please yourself with all this palaver
about Socialism; the cemetery is certainly not
a Tory stronghold. The truth is, I’d rather
your Socialism shone with your past; you’re not shot
of that fatherly honesty, walk humbly but
remember your innocent days; who refuses
his childhood’s a booby – and I haven’t forgot
your politics, with its blindness and pearly roses.’
‘The Infant and the Pearl’
There is a quantity of information regarding Douglas Oliver and that’s good – it is very good and purposeful. What I hope to have achieved in this review is to set out the push in the publication of Islands of Voices.
Ian Brinton has selected poems by Douglas Oliver that he considers should be read. There is no getting away from this. His selection is generous and scopes the poet’s life, to wit (and it’s quoted in Ian Brinton’s introduction) Douglas Oliver said, ‘A poet’s full performance is the whole life’s work; …’
Some of it is here and Ian Brinton instigates a reading of it all. Yes.
Ric Hool 29th May 2021