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