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A Journal of Enlightened Panic by Alan Baker (Shoestring Press)

A Journal of Enlightened Panic by Alan Baker (Shoestring Press)

Good poetry often creates a sense of release, of being returned to a point of wonder and attention. Alan Baker’s latest chapbook, A Journal of Enlightened Panic, has that quality. There’s an integrity about the writing which is enlivening.

The metaphor of life as voyage, journey, or walk dominates the volume. The longest poem, ‘Voyager,’ has perhaps the most complex use of these tropes. The poem is dedicated to Baker’s mother, who died in 2015. The text mixes information concerning the Voyager space probe, and material about life on a container ship, with the night-time wanderings of ‘Alan’, a cleverly objectified version of the poet himself.

The probe in outer space, the ship often travelling for days without seeing another vessel, have a resonance with Alan’s nocturnal perambulations, walks which have ‘the quality of dream’ but are also punctured by the unwelcome intrusions of time and unease.

Alan would like to inform us that he was tired
and became irritated
when Time appeared in the form of a bird
Uncertainty, in the form of the rising wind

The refusal of the bird to ‘accept itself as an illusion’ prompts a question:

…whether the double night of dark
and the dark of dreams
invests us with a kind of wisdom,
or whether in fact, the night is peopled by lights
and reflections from which
there is no escape.

Later in the poem a night-time journey by car is a voyage into a wordless and indifferent universe accessible only through dream. A river ‘bears him off his feet’, carrying him back to childhood memories of a coal fire, Dr Who and ‘Geordie gabble’ like the ‘residual sound/ of the creation of the universe.’ The poem ends:

…but here he is, not having expected
to lose the path, or care too much about the old guard
when they’d gone, but he does, surprisingly much.

Another fine example of Baker’s ability to articulate the conflicting tensions of life, and the possible consolation of imaginative attention, is the opening poem in the collection, ‘When a man goes out’. Here it’s an awareness of a worsening ecological crisis and the poet’s contribution to this in the acts of daily living, such as using a fridge, which preoccupy Baker. This is the ‘enlightened panic’ from which the chapbook takes its name. In such a context is it ‘decadent’, he asks, to be absorbed with questions about art?
The poet’s answer is that he does not ‘trust the voices that separate/ the inner from the outer, that sit at the threshold and ask for ID.’ Through attention to the present moment, the poem suggests, ‘a man may be transformed each morning, / like the day’s colours mirrored in the windows of a sleeping house.’

Other poems in this collection are tributes to fellow writers with whom Baker shares an aesthetic affinity – Geraldine Monk, Peter Hughes, Lee Harwood, Peter Gizzi. There are also two poems written in collaboration with Robert Sheppard and previously published in Sheppard’s EUOIA anthology. Baker shows himself equally at home in short-form poems as in the longer discursive texts. A number of the poems make use of embedded quotations– I noted Donne, Shakespeare and Joyce.

In ‘The Right’, Baker speaks of the ‘physicality/ to some texts’, which can ‘create an inner sound/ that takes on a life of its own/ aside from literal meaning’. He speculates that this might be something at one with ‘laugher or weeping,/ or wordless expressions of love.’ Or like the effect of someone making small talk before asking ‘an awkward question’, a question we do not have to answer because as guests we have ‘a right to silence.’

Can ‘a sound that transforms/ and continues the world…illuminate malignancies,/ soothe them with a process/ incompletely understood’ he asks in ‘Hematopoiesis’. Many of the poems in this volume offer precisely this kind of sustaining possibility.

Simon Collings 22nd September 2020

Remains To Be Seen by David Rushmer (Shearsman Books)

Remains To Be Seen by David Rushmer (Shearsman Books)

Writing about the importance of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice Maurice Blanchot suggested that the musician and distraught lover who has lost sight of his beloved did so “because he desires her beyond the measured limits of the song”. Thinking of how art can only recall the lost world, a recovery of something from darkness, he suggested that “art is the power by which night opens”: it is the art of the musician or poet that allows the mind to penetrate the darkness and “His work is to bring it back to the light of day and to give it form, shape, and reality in the day”. This art of “eternal inertia” prompts me to think of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ where the vase is associated with “silence”, “quietness” and “slow time”. The “Cold pastoral” which is wreathed about the shape of the urn is the distillation of the Orphic journey the quality of which is what one is left with as one winds the way upwards from the darkness beneath. Orpheus’s error “is to want to exhaust the infinite, to put a term to the interminable” and he suffers from failing to realise that in order to master absence one must make it of another time, “measured otherwise”. In a way poetry is like a Möbius loop in which the movement forward twists round on itself, curling back on its own progress: lost time is transfixed in stillness.
David Rushmer’s powerfully evocative poetry explores precisely this type of movement:

“you fall into
the space of me

body caressed
by a graveyard of sky

filled the air
with your bones”

As Orpheus returns from the world of the Dead he approaches the sky which rounds the cave’s mouth and this is the moment he turns with a failure of nerve. The body of the dead can only be “caressed”, felt and cared for, in the light of a sky which is itself the graveyard of what can never be brought back in its lost form. The poem is the distillation of the self’s understanding of what can never be recovered. The body’s bones “filled the air” like George Herbert’s contemplation of the dead as “shells of fledge souls left behind”. Rushmer presents us with

“mouth drawn open
in the rain”

and the poet’s inbreathing of imaginative experience

“inhaled you
like sunshine”

This is remarkable poetry: intense and compacted, “Remains to Be Seen”. Quoting again from Blanchot’s ‘The Gaze of Orpheus’ Rushmer heads one of his poems with an epigraph: “one can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through the space opened up by the movement of writing”. Here is a darkness which “opens its wings to us” and “the instant / of flame” is “held in your hand”. Art’s magical stilling of the moment appears as

“you look at me
the earth disappears

a movement of birds
contains us

where the night
speaks our skin”

Peter Gizzi writes on the back of this disturbingly evocative poetry that within the pages of Remains To Be Seen we “find a carefully crafted rendering of a voice in the world, each syllable of this drama earned.” Peter Hughes adds that the poetry “can come as a shock” with its “primitive, elemental feel”. This is haunting poetry which leaves its effects upon the reader far beyond the time when one has put the book down.

Ian Brinton, 13th May 2018

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