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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

The Making Of A Story by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

The Making Of A Story by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

One of the things which I have admired about the poetry of Anthony Barnett, and this has been true now for many years, is his ability to adopt different perspectives. We are presented time and again with a quality of diffracted light as words bend around the corners of a subject or aperture. A typical example for me occurs on page 197 of the collected poems which appeared in 2012, Poems & (Tears in the Fence in association with Allardyce Book ABP):

“I turn away from you
whom I no longer know.

I turn towards you
whom I do not know.

We were gentle.

You were one and the same.”

The present and the past, the self and the other, are caught as in a painting by Duchamp. This new publication consists of prose fragments and poems arising from the search for an unknown woman who appears in a video clip. It has an air of mystery such as that which haunts Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and it
recalls the words of Ortega y Gasset in his 1984 book Historical Reason:

“At another time we shall see that, while astronomy for example is not a part of the stellar bodies it researches and discovers, the peculiar vital wisdom we call life experience is an essential part of life itself, constituting one of its principal components or factors. It is this wisdom that makes a second love necessarily different from a first one, because the first love is already there and one carries it rolled up within. So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be traveled and traveled again …we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already traveled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to the end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.”

The first of three epigraphs which front this new volume from Anthony Barnett’s highly professional and invariably attractive small Press, Allardyce Book, is a quotation from Isak Dinesen which offers an intriguing stance from which to contemplate the nature of story-telling:

“The happy man comforted me and begged me not to take a story too much to heart.”

Barnett’s narrator is not a “happy man” but he is one who seeks, one whose restless mind plays backwards and forwards over past and present images and whose opening statement emphasizes this spirit of enquiry:

“IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT THE ONE WHO LOVES YOU IS NOT THE one who sees you every day but the one who looks for you every day. I wonder if you agree. It is possible to see and to look at the same time.”

The Making of a Story is of course about story-telling and as the pages unroll it is one which one wishes very much to take to heart whether or not this excludes one from being classified as “happy”! When I read it I was immediately put in mind of a little piece by John Berger published over thirty years ago in Granta. Berger was contemplating the portrait of Aesop painted by Velásquez and this led him to reflect upon the importance of story-telling:

“Indirectly, Aesop’s eyes tell a lot about story-telling. Their expression is reflective. Everything he has seen contributes to his sense of the enigma of life: for this enigma he finds partial answers – each story he tells is one – yet each answer, each story, uncovers another question, and so he is continually failing and this failure maintains his curiosity. Without mystery, without curiosity and without the form imposed by a partial answer, there can be no stories – only confessions, communiqués, memories and fragments of autobiographical fantasy which for the moment pass as novels.”

Anthony Barnett’s work keeps asking questions, keeps peering at different perspectives, and this lends to it a deeply moving restlessness which one can go back to time and time again. The narrator may express “anxiety for what is gone” but he moves forward “to make poetry out of the world”.

This is a deeply serious book which needs to be read by anyone who wishes to come to an understanding of who they are in relation to the world around them.

Ian Brinton, 30th July 2018

http://www.abar.net

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

This is a compelling collection of essays focussing upon a wide range of artists and led by the pied piper of the Arts, Barry Schwabsky. We can engage with Jack Spicer and John Ashbery, Samuel Beckett and Italo Calvino, Peter Manson and Denise Riley…Paul Celan and more…and more.
A taster: the review of Rasula and Conley’s anthology Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (Action Books, 2012) opens with an uncompromisingly clear tone:

“There’s nothing like an ambitious anthology for redistricting your inner map of poetic possibility.”

There is a clean sense in Schwabsky’s use of the word “redistricting” which locates us firmly in the urban world that Blake might have recognised in his use of the word “charter’d” in ‘London’. Ambitious anthologies might include Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), Crozier and Longville’s A Various Art (1987) and Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos (1996); they certainly include the one mentioned by Schwabsky, Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium. The time-frame of Burning City is approximately 1910-39 and “Jed Rasula and Tom Conley have given us a historical anthology with clear implications for our present sense of what literary modernity might be and of how we could still be implicated in it”. As the editors assert “We still inhabit metropolitan configurations pioneered under the auspices of Modernism” and therefore, implicitly, our writing is still conditioned by such habitation. It was Ben Jonson who wrote that “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee” following that dramatic statement with the assertion that language “springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the Parent of it, the mind”. Barry Schwabsky’s review of this anthology reflects his own sense of mind: a fairness concerning the enormous amount of work done by the editors spending “untold hours leafing through half- or entirely forgotten magazines in seemingly every European language (there are a few Asian writers included as well)”. It comes of course as no surprise that Schwabsky should also pick up on what he sees as something rather surprising, that this complex piece of publishing “has been undertaken by a small press like Action Books:

“One would have thought this kind of project to be the preserve of the university presses…but these days, apparently, such things depend less on institutions than on the heroic efforts of a few individuals. Action Books had long since won my admiration for its publications by contemporaries like Glenum, Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon, but Burning City puts the press on another level altogether”.

Towards the end of this essay on the Poetry of the Modernist City Barry Schwabsky points us to a central aspect of the urban when he says that the city “seems to be constantly in the process of destroying itself but – through (or as) that very destruction – it persists”. In my mind this seems to point back to Paul Auster’s terrifying picture of the future of urban living in his 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things:

“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.”

In the opening words to this remarkable collection of essays Barry Schwabsky tells us that to use language is always, in some degree, to disturb it, “to trouble the solidity of the identification through which it is structured – to induce a mutation, momentary or momentous as it may be.” My response is YES! And that is what makes reading so engaging and so important.

http://www.blacksquareeditions.org

Ian Brinton, 1st March 2018.

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Some difficulties with visual particularism haunt the phantasmagoric world of Lewis Carroll and a moment from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There anticipates the nightmare world of Kafka whilst also casting a glance back over the shoulder at the world of Todgers’s Guest House in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of 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. “Things flow about so here!” she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.” [1872, Chap. V]

“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 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 round about, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall…” [1844, Chap. IX]

It was in a comment on the back cover of Ian Seed’s 2011 collection Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books) that we are referred to the fragmented yet rich lyricism of the writing which “crosses borders between lost and rediscovered identity”: the poet’s “navigation of different realities” is expressed through his willingness to contemplate “new spaces through language.” This powerful focus upon shifting realities keeps the reader’s eye firmly on the pages of New York Hotel as we are confronted with what “felt familiar and yet like another world” (‘Baptism’). These short prose poems are haunting; they are compelling to read and John Ashbery’s comment upon Seed’s work is absolutely on the nail:

“The mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street, trains travelling through a landscape of snow become magical in Ian Seed’s poems.”

I reviewed Ian Seed’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan (The Thief of Talant) about one year ago and was struck then by the ability of both poets to render Orphic vision palpable. Both poets are struck by the sense that as they turn their heads to stare at the past “something flees much faster than us.” In that world of shifting realities (“Things flow about so here”) Reverdy sees how “Further off a forest merged with the city” and it was Philippe Jaccottet who recognised how Reverdy’s words focus upon “la fuite nes nuées, les lueurs des vitres” (the evaporation of dark clouds, glimmers of light through the shutters). Jaccottet’s words are absolutely right also for Ian Seed’s powerful understanding of how we live isolated lives haunted by the flickering images of a past that informs a present.
Perhaps it is because I spent so many years school-teaching that when I read something that holds my attention as firmly as does New York Hotel I am aware of looking around for what I want to read next, return to, advise my pupils to look at. One of the voices that came to mind as I read ‘Orphanage’ was that of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy:

“It was my responsibility to accompany the boy in a taxi to an orphanage on the other side of the city. When we arrived, I was surprised to see what a rundown area it was in. I wondered if we had come to the right place. Although I was worried about the expense, I told the driver to wait while I took the boy and went to find out.”

As readers we are held immediately by that opening word “responsibility” and its association with what we need to take charge of in relation to vulnerability. Rather like the Ancient Mariner Ian Seed has caught us with his version of “There was a ship…” and we cannot choose but hear what happens next. A rundown area, doubts about it being the correct destination, anxiety over cost, reliance upon the escape route. I shan’t tell you any more! Buy a copy of New York Hotel and read it for yourselves. In Auster’s City of Glass the shifting figure of Stillman, a man who imprisoned his son in an apartment with covered up windows for nine years, traces out the letters of TOWER OF BABEL on the “labyrinth of endless steps” that constitute New York watched by a private detective called Paul Auster who also uses the name of Quinn. In Ian Seed’s world of the phantasmagoric we are presented with a ‘Generation Gap’:

“My maternal grandfather turned up at my council flat with his father, who was a tiny bearded man in an ancient wheelchair. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. without saying hello, my great grandfather raised a fist in the air and began to berate me for being nearly sixty and still without a proper home or job. Even when my grandfather lifted him out of the chair, carried him to the toilet and put him down on the seat, he continued to scold me. The whole flat soon started to stink, but I said nothing through fear of offending them.”

When I return to the classroom for a term in September this year I shall present some of these wonderful fictions to my Year 10. After all it is now some fifty-five years since I first came to recognise the palpability of loss: before that there was the magic of the now.

Ian Brinton February 5th 2018.

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012 Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012  Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

Part I: CONTEXT

Simon Smith’s poetry is always on the move and Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press 2001) is no exception. Although published at the opening of the new century the individual ‘exits’ are all dated in the closing years of the previous one. The place of first publication and the names of the travelling companions are also included. The volume’s opening poem, ‘The Nature of Things’, is dedicated to J.D. Taylor, carries an epigraph from Stephen Rodefer and begins in a slightly old-fashioned epistolary fashion suggestive of being on the cusp of change:

Dear John, my friend
can I call you that?
No news, but poetry.

First published in West Coast Line in the Fall of 1995 the poem was originally titled ‘Didactic Ode’ but with the new century a re-reading of Lucretius impelled ‘These coarsened times’ to ‘swallow the Works of the Ancients too’.
Reviewing Smith’s 2010 Salt collection, London Bridge, Ben Hickman had referred to the poems as ‘fast’ or, as if just to check that distance between perceiver and perceived, ‘rather, the world they intermediate in is’:

The achievement of the poems is to hang on to this world while remaining faithful to the fact that, in the twenty-first century, this is not easy. Smith, in a sense, has it both ways, reflecting the fragmentation of experience but also often enough able to grab it, celebrate it, mourn it or present its beauty.

Hickman’s use of the word ‘fragmentation’ here inevitably conjures up the world of early Modernism, particularly T.S. Eliot whose ‘fragments’ were ‘stored against’ his ruin in The Wasteland. London Bridge is peopled with literary ghosts, from the opening poem’s weaving of John Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ into Second World War air-raids over London to Chaucer, Keats, Baudelaire, Rilke, Kafka, Apollinaire, Pound and Saussure.

Smith’s concern with poetic voices had been announced earlier with the title of his 2003 volume for Salt, Reverdy Road. A reference to the French poet, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, points us to the end of one of Frank O’Hara’s most well-known pieces, ‘A Step Away From Them’ which itself concluded with his heart in his pocket, ‘it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.’ This link to O’Hara is central to Simon Smith’s poetry: poems which appear to present a quality of the random are in fact highly-wrought and careful vignettes of modern urban and suburban life. As a practitioner Smith is also concerned with the line as well as the music of verse and it is fitting that the short poem ‘Olson’ from Reverdy Road should focus not only on the geography of Fort Square but also on the emphatic Olsonian concern for the poetic line:

Looking off the watch-house quay into fog.

Olson scrawling walls and every surface.

Hi, gran pops! Information log-jammed.

Everyday is small. A few drops

The other way look the other way there

It goes the World harder than love. The line.

In 2011 Veer Books published Smith’s sequence of poems, Gravesend, reflections of a train journey between Charing Cross and Chatham. The volume opens with a desire for permanence within a shifting landscape, a narrative that contains ‘whatever occurred at that particular moment at the carriage window, or on the train.’ However, the hunger for permanence and some sense of stability in a fast-moving world is undermined by the subject material of potential catastrophe. Within these poems we will be confronted by the ghosts of Conrad and Dickens, Walter Benjamin and Paul Weller (Jam to Style Council), Juvenal, Claudius, Caesar, Vespasian, Neil Young and Browning, Spenser and Catullus. This wide frame of reference offers a living background to the ‘now’ and it is worth looking at Smith’s 2005 review of Josephine Balmer’s new translation of Catullus published by Bloodaxe (Poetry Review, Vol. 95, No. 1). In a scathing reference to the former Education Minister Charles Clarke’s pronouncement that educational subjects worthy of study ‘need a relationship with the workplace’ Simon Smith pointed out that if you want to become a politician perhaps you should read Cicero, Plato or Aristotle before going on to pose the question ‘where else is the foundation of Western democracy other than in the Ancient worlds of Greece and Rome?’
In contrast to this sense of continuity, however, one pervasive tone threading its way through the Gravesend sequence is that of impermanence and perhaps another shadow behind the literary urban scene is Paul Auster whose novel In the Country of Last Things (1987) drowned the reader in instability:

When you live in a 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.

A child’s recognition of vertigo and terror finds one its most moving manifestations in the opening pages of Dickens’s Great Expectations where the young Pip is surrounded by the graves of his family as he stands on the marshland of North Kent one Christmas-eve. The presence of this little seed in the opening poem of Smith’s journey sets the scene for the injustice of life and the oppressive political insensitivity of the adult world masquerading as the language of ‘Progressive education’ and ‘liberal democracy’

Where ‘life’ became a history to cry out
About grey and brown flatlands tilted
Over the edge dangling Pip.

As the train approaches Bluewater shopping-city, itself an Auster or Ballard world, ‘Assessment elides policing’ and the prevailing sense of educational policy which would have doubtless found favour with that now historical Minister, Clarke, prompts the poet to mis-read a sign on a grey bin labelled ‘not working’ as ‘networking’! This is a world of captions and key-words which present themselves as mirrors of everyday narrowness.
Gravesend, republished in 2014 by Shearsman as the second section of 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard, is not a disconnected set of fragments shored against this poet’s ruin but is a collage where ‘Opposite Burger King’ there will be the outline of a Roman temple and where ‘Ghost landscapes slip the train window.’ As the reader arrives finally at Chatham, the ‘End of the line’, the journey has been a narrative in the sense used by Ortega y Gasset in Historical Reason, (published in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike and Big Brother):

So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be travelled and travelled again—hence the expression “the course of life, curriculum vitae, decide on a career”—we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already travelled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to an end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.

Or as Simon Smith, sardonic, shrewd and humane poet, concludes:

Me in pin-sharp form,
The ring-pull moment of chance,
Reality a line right through.

In his most recent poems, written in 2014 whilst on the West Coast of America doing research work for his forthcoming Paul Blackburn Reader, Smith pursues his concern with speed and place

father farther out with each act
of memory whilst I’m here
locked between the non-stop grind of trucks west
and endless gridlock east
trying to learn Italian
from reading Franco Beltrametti’s Face to Face
each neighbourhood a tight packet of stuff

Beltrametti’s book was published in 1973 by Grosseteste Press and Smith’s awareness of the Italian poet is not only a sly reference to John James’s sequence of poems published by Equipage in 2014 (Songs in Midwinter for Franco) but also to the poet whose merging of the immediate and the far produced embers which became fire and in whose own work ‘introspection creaks like stretched / leather, gaudy and plain, at half past / midnight 50 km out of town’.

Eating tangerines.
Missing people—lots.

Ian Brinton 17th April 2017

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

The Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton proposed the term dianoiology for that portion of logic which deals with dianoetic processes of the mind: the thinking through of ideas. For a writer this may well involve what Michael Heller refers to as the ‘breaking apart’ of ‘clods of what was named’ because after all language is the ‘hardest / of earths, each word narrowing…’. So many of these poems in Dianoia deal with stasis and movement and they are deeply moving testimony to an artist who has spent a lifetime trying to let stillness convey fluidity.
In ‘Visiting Brigflatts with Ric’, written in memory of Ric Caddel, the opening lines plunge the reader into a memory:

‘Your car chugging up the pass
into snow’s unseasonal bursts,
all the while sun shining overhead,
then a plunge down to Bunting’s grave,
stone of Quaker plainness…’

The movement of that opening line followed by the unusual nature of the weather hardens out into ‘stone’ which in turn will become ‘austerity of row upon row.’ The picture we are given of Ric Caddel is of ‘an elm’s rooted trunk / or northern stone pillar’ but the metamorphosis of this poem’s language, the stasis of what is memorialised, is given fresh movement in the last line with ‘currents animating earth’. And there we have it! The poet at work!
In ‘Lecture’, we move between an account of the German artist Max Beckmann’s painting ‘Tot’ and the Number 30 London bus being blown up in July 2005. We move between the Japanese poet Bashō who ‘travels along paths and byways’ producing ‘spontaneous evocations in poetic form, haiku, linked haiku’ and the American poet George Oppen who writes of a highway accident with ‘The wheels of the overturned wreck / Still spinning – ’. As Heller looks closely at the photographs of both the London bombing and of a bus blown up is Israel he notes

‘No need here to go into “visual” languages, semiotics, etc. We’re talking about what gets communicated across the special loneliness between you and me and I and it.’

Referring again to Bashō and his journal writings in Narrow Road to the North Heller gives us one aspect of the artist caught in a moment: ‘that impression of spontaneity is part of the art of it’. He quotes the short piece of Bashō which evokes the memory of the heroic death of Lord Sanemori, an ageing warrior who dyed his hair to disguise his age, and whose helmet was carried to the shrine that the Japanese poet has just passed:

‘I am awestruck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet.’

The living quality of stillness is central to Michael Heller’s art and in the opening page of ‘Lecture’ he focuses upon his own walking in which he is accompanied by all that makes him who he is. He walks with Bashō, ‘stopping at a shrine, experiencing awe and reverence, the surround of mountain peak and foliage, the pines he likened to solitary figures’. The image from the Japanese is part of who he is as he moves through a living world of gone things. Focusing on the July bombings in London he writes of the world of the here-and-now and how it impinges upon who we are:

The self. That’s what got me going here, the self alone against murderousness, the sudden “nearness” (I don’t know how else to put it) to random murder perpetrated by others against innocents.’

The Number 30 is the bus that often carried the poet from Islington to Bloomsbury, to the British Museum. ‘Had we arrived a day earlier…’. The sense of how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us is central to the vision:

‘…My sense that A can morph into B,
tenuous nets of companionship, that we ride
like they ride who elsewhere are killed.’

Heller writes that ‘We are exposed / to the possibility of unplanned ruin’ and he seems partly to echo Paul Auster’s comment at the opening of In the Country of Last Things:

‘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.’

The bitterness of the narrator in this apocalyptic novel from 1987 is, however, far different from Michael Heller’s determination to make the moment live, to give stasis currency and it seems appropriate to conclude not only with that image of ‘currents animating earth’ but also with the short poem Ric Caddel wrote for John Riley, the Leeds poet who was murdered in 1978:

‘What in the world we see
is what’s important. There
the days seemed shorter and our hearts
spun with the compass under

trees, magnificent pointers
out of galaxies. Continental drift,
an appointment we were late for,
an old friend missed.’

My review of The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, ed. Curley & Kimmelman, has just appeared in the current issue of PN Review.

Ian Brinton 7th May

Country Life by Ken Edwards (Unthank Books)

Country Life by Ken Edwards (Unthank Books)

This is a strange journey into a twilight world of sea and land and ‘We may observe two figures moving in this landscape of cold, dark matter’. The friendship between two young men, based upon mutual dependence and then betrayal, placed against a socio-political background of unrest, dominates Flaubert’s great novel L’Éducation Sentimental. Having found its first contemporary counterpart in Julian Barnes’s Metroland it now finds its second in Ken Edwards’ humorous and moving account of youthful idealism in Country Life. The geographical landscape shifts between a coastal country which has echoes of Dungeness and city life, as Flaubert’s contrasted the world of the upper Seine and the Paris of the 1848 revolution.
In Ken Edwards’ narrative one dominant image is that of the nuclear power station:

‘South of the glory that is the illuminated nuclear power station, lies the Peninsula, a tiny settlement beginning to glow in the shadow of a Sunday evening, under the cold, dark mass of the sea.’

That little word ‘glow’ is mischievously uncomfortable as the world of nuclear power is juxtaposed with the homing sense of lighted rooms with their illusive hint of safety. As the two figures, Dennis and Tarquin, move towards the aptly-named pub ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ they discuss relative positions:

‘The question is, says the big lad with the spiky hair and glittering glasses, where are you in the human food chain? It’s that savage.
He has been talking non-stop since they came out to walk on the strand, here at the end of the world. The talk has been of human handwidth, negative space, power structures.’

Tarquin, the non-stop talker, gives the younger Dennis (a budding musician who is working on World Music Parts 1-25, ‘based on rhythmic patterns’ given off by the surroundings) a lesson in political hierarchies. After all, Tarquin has just finished a 550-page book on Neo-Marxist Aesthetics and the Marketing of the Moment:

‘Like, in the human food chain you might say, the fucking bosses, captains of industry as they used to call them—these days, CEOs of mega-corporations, or chairmen or persons or big-shot shareholders or hedge fund investors, you know what I mean, the Great White Sharks…’.

At the bottom of the food chain, according to the political wisdom of Tarquin, are the tiny ones which are eaten by everything else: krill.

‘Yeah, that’s right, krill. Food for everything else. you understand what I’m saying? that’s the kind of capitalist society we have. At the bottom of the food chain.
Right, says Dennis.
At the bottom. Then you’re fucking krill, man!’

This is an eerie world where the style of Paul Auster meets that of Douglas Woolf: the landscape, brutality and barely submerged violence conjures up the world of Auster’s The Country of Last Things while the quiet but determined humour of domestic engagement brings to mind Doug Woolf’s Ya! in which a father finds his daughter and they both roll out into the darkness. As his daughter, Joan, says “This is wild”, Al replies with a clear sense of what is important, “Yes, it is”. In Country Life an elderly woman clutching a plastic supermarket bag carrying the hopeful logo SAVERS PARADISE weeps quietly because she doesn’t know where she is. When asked by Tarquin and Dennis if she is from round here she nods “Yes, I…don’t know where. I am.” That full-stop after ‘where’ is something to hang on to. She thinks that she lives on the mainland, on an estate, and she thinks that she went to a hospital last week to see her dying husband who has ‘been resting in his grave all these years, the poor dear’. With that glimmer of recognition known only perhaps to the lost she says of her ‘home’ “I’ll know it when I see it…I came out too far.”
This is a world turned upside down with an amphibious life drifting along, a world in which the nuclear reactor ‘will produce enough controlled energy to satisfy the electricity needs of the entire region’:

‘Large magnetised rotors turn inside thick copper coils to generate the electricity that is fed to the grid. Turning each rotor is a large turbine. High pressure steam drives its blades and the rotor revolves inside the copper coils to produce the electricity. Each morning, central heating system boilers will be triggered by time-switches, kettles will be plugged in, radios and TVs will be switched on. The people will wake from their individual dreams, and re-enter a collective dream.’

Country Life has echoes of J.H. Prynne’s Kitchen Poems in which ‘we all share the same head, our shoulders / are denied by the nuptial joys of television, so that what I am is a special case of / what we want, the twist point missed exactly / at the nation’s scrawny neck’. And it draws to a close with a poetry reading given by Tom Raworth in a venue that one could be forgiven for thinking resembles the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit.

This novel is wonderfully funny in places and it allows the reader to produce his or her own key to characters that play out their roles on a stage of such poignant shifting moments.

Ian Brinton 16th February 2016

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