Let matters become clear: I have an immense respect for the poetry and prose of Anthony Barnett and this must be evident to anyone who wishes to look up the review I did nearly four years ago for Poetry Review (Vol. 102: 3, Autumn 2012). My opening statement pulled no punches:
‘As poet and publisher for the past forty-five years Anthony Barnett has ploughed a solitary furrow, unerringly straight and hauntingly evocative, across the field of English poetry’.
As I read the recently published book of Antonyms, many of which have never been published before, my respect for the careful footfalls of this fine writer was only increased. I use the word ‘footfalls’ quite deliberately since it was in Samuel Beckett’s 1974 play of that name that May, perhaps named after the dramatist’s mother, ‘…must hear the feet, however faint they fall’; an echo perhaps of Beckett’s mother who had difficulty sleeping through the nights at home in Cooldrinagh and who had removed the carpets in some areas of the house so that her steps should sound her reality.
In Antonym xxxii, on George Oppen and J.H. Prynne, Barnett writes about a review he did on a critical appraisal of the American poet:
‘Here are some moderated bits from that review. If they appear impressionistic, a trait I am quick to criticize in others, it is because I do not know quite where to tread. “Think how careful George has been” I wrote in “A Note About George Oppen”, later allusively retitled “Note Through a Lens”, in which I related the reading, and the writing, of a poem with walking and wandering in the mountains. Of course, care is not enough. Without risk there is no meaningful, useful, process and progress.’
The reference to an appearance of impressionism is interesting because the accumulation of references, of focal points, throughout the thirty-eight short pieces of prose might indeed give the reader a sense that one was moving across a wide field of literature and music without ever settling long on any individual moment. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Each sentence has a clarity to it as if chipped from stone and the whole book has a sculpted quality to it which allows it to rest, still, on the page.
‘THE GRASS HAS BEEN MOWN on the path that winds alongside the brook. It makes it easier to walk and avoid the nettles on either side but somehow I wish they’d left it overgrown.’
Opening with this washed-clean writing in Antonym xxix Barnett moves forward, step by step, to glance at the difference between ‘three’ and ‘four’:
‘Three pigeons are drawing near to my feet. I’m sitting on a semi-circular wide-depth backless wooden plank bench. They are pecking at grass seed it seems, not particularly paying attention to anything or anyone else. A fourth pigeon has arrived and now they are moving away in concert, still pecking.’
That glance leads the writer to contemplate death:
‘Ever since I learnt that the figure four is inauspicious because in Japanese the kanji for four sounds exactly the same as the kanji for death—it’s like that in Chinese—I have, I have to admit, been superstitious…’
My reading has been taken from a landscape, slightly humanised by the mowing down of nettles, to the near-at-hand of the pigeons. The observation of one more bird arriving has prompted a reflection on the opposite of arrival, departure. The very human response to this accumulation of thoughts is to admit to an illogical sensation of superstition but watch how exactly this is arrived at as the repetition of the words ‘I have’ give us a stutter, a stumble forwards into acknowledgement. This is careful writing of the most serious kind. This language-sculptor’s care has affinities with the clarity of Samuel Beckett’s writing and it is a delight to read Antonym xxiv, ‘Beckett and Jazzality’ with its reference to Harold Bloom’s vivid account of the director Herbert Blau’s ‘apprehension before a performance [of Waiting for Godot] at San Quentin in 1957—the first play performed at the penitentiary since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913.’
One of the best recognitions of the individual quality of Barnett’s style of writing can be found in PN Review 212, from the summer of 2013, where Tim Harris opened his review of Barnett’s collected poems by referring not to impressionism but to Paul Klee whose ‘fine but strong lines…set out from some arbitrary point and sharply change direction’. Harris refers to ‘enigmatic structures that are at once sturdy and yet not quite stable’ which ‘seem to possess an infectious surprise at their own emergence from the fertile nothingness of the white paper.’
In a quiet tone of acknowledgement Barnett focuses upon losses and in Antonym xx a colourful beach bucket from childhood is washed out to sea:
‘I watched it sinking with the water spilling over its rim’.
In a quiet tone of enquiry in Antonym xxxiii he then focuses upon the act of reading:
‘I do wonder why I have a tendency to open a book or leaf through a magazine in the Chinese or Japanese or Hebrew or Arabic direction. Right handed. Holding it in the right hand and leafing with the left. I wondered whether this was a common phenomenon so I conducted a little survey. Not uncommon. Not so common. A vestige of the past.’
I recommend this book very strongly indeed: it is a treasure-trove, a trouvaille.
Ian Brinton 7th April 2016