1n his 1981 book The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act Frederic Jameson argued that reality presents itself to the human mind primarily in the form of narrative. Two years later in Waterland, one of the most moving examinations of the interwoven sense of History and Fiction, Graham Swift put the following words into the mouth of a South London teacher of History who is facing redundancy. Addressing his last Sixth-form he preaches:
“Children, who will inherit the world. Children to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives…”
In Kelvin Corcoran’s recent chapbook of poems, so exquisitely produced by Longbarrow Press, we are also presented with the weaving fabric of history and fiction as the signing of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, enacted by the Treaty of Lisbon on 1st December 2009, set in motion that procedure for a member state to withdraw from the European Union. In the satirical portraits of some of the main characters promoting the cutting adrift of this sceptered isle one can almost hear the cracking open of champagne bottles on the side of a craft as it slips down the beach. In the sequence of three poems titled ‘Biographies of the Brexiteers’, with its little echo of that famous gallery of miscreants portrayed in The Complete Newgate Calendar, we read of ‘The Quiet Man’ (Ian Guido Smith), ‘Boris Johnson and Seventy Two Virgins’ and ‘Twisting Michael of the Gove’. The tone of Corcoran’s writing is unmistakable as we are presented with vignettes of these three political figures. ‘The Quiet Man’ looks over the Channel:
“As the girl Europa struggled all at sea, Guido looked on dreaming,
arranged the limbs of the drowned to spell Breakthrough Britain;
and gathered the spoils to build a new nation for old time’s sake.”
And there’s the rub! The launching of the Brexit boat for nostalgic reasons, the leading backwards “into an England of last resort”.
What is most valuable about this new collection of poems is the ability and determination of the poet not to rest contented in a satirical mode however successful that may be. Kelvin Corcoran moves the reader forward with a tone of anger and anguish, a tone which requires us to take account of what is truly meant by loss both personal and social. The third poem in the volume is titled ‘Radio Logos’ and it conjures up a portrait of a thinker who sits on a cliff-top watching the inexorable movement of the Brexit vessel:
“I sit here on the edge of time gazing out to sea;
if history is an account of semantic drift
it can be read backwards to the well of speaking.
That was lesson 4 – were you even listening?
Were you just smiling at the pretty dial-light?
So here it is again – call it Terms of Resistance.
Lesson 4: you must trust the people, their erudition
from unlikely sources, from the stream of first meaning
from the mouths of all the people under the ringing sky.
As surprising as the beauty of recalled trade routes
the acquisition of obsidian, highland cedar and coral,
the expansion of ritual activity, the invention of sailing.
As surprising as the small pool of cool water
found high in the mountains, that bright ellipse
keeping a cold eye on the arching blue.”
I can almost hear the urgency of Tom Crick, history-teacher in Greenwich, whose subject is being shut down despite his Headmaster’s assurance that “I’m not dropping History. It’s an unavoidable reduction. There’ll be no new Head of History. History will merge with General Studies.” And I wonder if that fictional Headmaster ever read that fictional account of a fictional future in 1984: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
The overarching sense of loss in these poems is placed with quiet and humbling reflection as, in the nine poems that make up ‘A Footnote to the Above’, we encounter the shades of Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher and Tom Raworth. In this Dante-like underworld they appear held exact in a moment of time:
“Roy read as he wrote with no show, no pomp;
in Newcastle-under-Lyme twenty years ago
standing with Carl Rakosi and Gael Turnbull:
come up, come up my thinking shades”
The past merges with the present as the poet thought he saw “Robert Sheppard in the market / Place Dumon, Brussels, bright for business / wearing a leather Fedora and a fine jacket” and Corcoran makes the past “most alive living nowhere now”. It takes us back to the interview he gave with Andrew Duncan (Don’t Start Me Talking, Salt, 2006):
“Imagine that the classical edifice of mythology is no such thing but an overlaying and retelling of competing localised myths and songs, arising out of a sort of civic pride, giving back meaning to the specific group. The ancient landscape overlays the modern and I see the mythology as local and useful and not detached from the everyday. I think it’s also a sort of code which tells us exactly what is happening in the present Oil Wars for instance, it is a type of ignorance to behave as though such things have not happened before and it’s only in the interests of the perpetrators to act as if such things have not happened before.”
This beautifully produced little book should be read by anyone who values lyric poetry and by all those who can still call to mind the closing lines of Shelley’s poem written just over two-hundred years ago:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”
Ian Brinton, 26th March 2018