No 61 - Autumn 2008
Philip Gross values poetry that leaves the reader space to think
Clarity or Death!
There’s often an artifice about a group review, like the carefully casual seating arrangement for a dinner party. But all three of these poets – confident writers with long careers – gesture outwards in some way, towards wider reading or engagements, so connections should come naturally. Of the three, Jeffrey Wainwright in Clarity or Death! is least extravert. He offers us the most white space around the words – a tactic that demands close attention. Why, it asks implicitly, do these few words, chosen and exposed, matter so much? In the sequence ironically called ‘Mere Bagatelle’, slim, often short, sections eschew as much punctuation as they can without loss of (that key term) clarity. Not starting with a capital and not ending with a full stop gives the effect of notes, almost of work-in-progress. But the end of the process is that any reader who responds to such a challenge helps complete the process by joining in to think.
The challenge is a real one, given the defiantly abstract nature of the ideas on offer: the pure geometry of forms, particle physics and philosophy. Even the world of history, so present in Wainwright’s early work, barely figures among these absolute concerns. Wittgenstein and Whitehead, Penrose and Feynman are there in the text (but so are Homer Simpson and Mr Cooksey the Technical Drawing teacher). Wainwright’s concern is to hold the worlds of ideas, of observation and of emotions together. Quite how interwoven they are does not become apparent till the final pages of
Wainwright’s work has always attracted praise such as ‘chaste and scrupulous’ (from Sean O’Brien). He has been in no hurry to publish. It is nine years since his last collection and even this present one was written between 2001 and 2005. You can almost feel the paring back of language in poems which show a constant self-examination: ‘Why did I choose almonds as an image / in this advocacy?’. The opening poem seems to tear itself away by force from an affectionate detail:
but what I am saying is not
to do with longing…
but with whatever is like and like
within blotch dab patch
and is necessary to think of
and beautiful and
like the loveliness of conjunctions
The suspicion of a haughty dryness in all this comes partly from the presence in the corner of our eye of Geoffrey Hill, on whom Wainwright has written in depth. Again and again, I’m ready to catch something like Hill’s lip-curling superiority at the expense of everyday speech:
So, to refer to recent cases, let us simplify
and say that therefore you can step into the same fox twice,
whether it be that one this morning fleeing from the bins,
this one in the knitting pattern or even that Basil Brush,
although he pretends to a name all his own.
The difference, I think, is that similar moments in Hill only pretend to humour at his own expense; Wainwright can do wry self-mockery without arrogance or anguish. There is a grounded humanity about the way he brings the pure idea into life. In the Technical Drawing class:
places that have no parts or magnitude –
that do not exist –
will arrive at your desk here on the top corridor
as squares, triangles, parallelograms,
and, between these non-existent points,
we get a table lamp we can take home.
Even the final short sequence, starts with a joke:
call death an observation,
a supplied fact, ever more precisely noted,
(though mistakes have been made, ask any Goth)
You do not need to have read the interview in PN Review that reveals the death observed here to have been the author’s mother’s to sense that this is personal and real. Against this, the fastidious abstraction (where precisely is the point that life ends?) and even that curious joke become moving. The human urge to flinch away and the dedication to attention hold each other in tension. All the other lines and points in the earlier poems suddenly refer to that point, as does the question of the ‘point’ of anything, in the epigraph to ‘Mere Bagatelle’ (from Jerry Fodor): ‘A world that isn’t for anything, a world that is just there’.
In Clarity or Death!, almost every poem is prompted by a reading of somebody else’s writing. This isn’t a weakness but a method, announced by the use of quotations both for an epigraph and for a title. It is a conversation and the reader is invited to take part. The sense of a writer who is also a reader runs through Carol Rumens’s collection Blind Spots also. It comes to us as the book opens with a substantial section called ‘Thinking About Montale by the River Hull’. The poems of this sequence are ‘not, to any degree, translations’; rather they are variations on, and improvisations round, lines or images from the original. More than that, they respond to Montale’s work and personality. Nor is this heroworship; in one poem Montale’s human muse gets her chance (quite tartly) to reply. Rumens knows the value of an enduring relationship with another writer’s work. Her path has crossed with Philip Larkin’s both in Hull and Belfast and he reappears in the Montale sequence with ‘large, desolate footprints’ – this on the facing page to ‘you, of the calm, precise mind’ who ‘jump / out of the undergrowth, pursued by muses – / on fawn’s hooves, wearing nothing but your heart’. (Imagine what Larkin would have thought of that image.) While Montale and Larkin share a sense of disillusion, they are at opposite
poles of emotional intensity. To relate to both, dismissing neither, is an achievement and a clue to Rumens’s own poetic personality.
The rest of the book displays Rumens as a poet moving fluidly between styles and forms as well as subjects. A round of sonnets serves to argue out her hindsight on the course of feminism in her lifetime. These sonnets – addressed to named recipients, again one side of a conversation – use a heightened speaking voice:
Others still fiercer in their sisterhood
Felt the fire-belt weave inside them where
The crying had begun. They slipped it on…
But only a few pages away are tart rhymed squibs, or prose poems, or restrained uneasy half-rhymed couplets, or (a recurrent interest of hers) villanelles. The sense of experiment, of ringing the changes (one poem pioneering a verse form based on a bell-ringing pattern), of presenting exercises in form, runs through the collection. People scornful of the teaching of Creative Writing will nod wryly at the fact that Carol Rumens is a professor of the subject. Others will see these shifts and refashionings, and the teaching too, as other kinds of conversation. Every bit as much as Wainwright’s, these poems encourage the reader to encounter other voices – not just Montale and Larkin but Jean Rhys, Pushkin, and prose poet Anatoly Kudryavitsky. Rumens’s own presence is resilient enough to share the space.
Amongst the varied forms and changes is a strand of lucid free verse: often used in poems of memory or remembrance, about her parents or other loved ones. In ‘Suite Minus Ten’, she is working from first-hand experience. This sequence, about a diagnosis of the optical degeneration that lends Blind Spots its title, performs one of the basic jobs of poetry: to respond to unsought and unwanted circumstance, first containing it, with all one’s protest and resistance – the hospital waiting room is ‘the club for those who’ve lived too long, / who are dying first from their eyes’ – then opening it out from the simply personal into matters of common concern. The spots of blindness that are also light might eventually be figured as unknowable stars in space, and in another poem come to echo the holes caused by terrorist bombs. In this honest sequence, however, none of the personal struggle has been dodged on the way.
If the strength of the voice, its assertive distinctiveness, is your measure of a poet, then Minhinnick is your man. The blurb of his previous collection, After the Hurricane, declares ‘He refuses himself… the luxury of reticence’. His stanzas gain their force from a tidal surge of detail, metaphor and sound play. There is something imposing in the way he makes his chosen locale, the strand at Porthcawl, feel like the edge of the world, on which wash up echoes of world politics and broad sweeps of history. (The question of Iraq is sometimes directly addressed, but echoes of it float in, or are smuggled in, throughout King Driftwood.) That beach and its fairground have been reference points in his work before, but here they become emblematic, reaching (sometimes straining) for the quality of myth.
The scene is populated by local characters, stylized to representative names like those in Under Milk Wood.
It’s Mrs Dawes-Llewellyn,
to the manner born
and more roughly rouged than a cock pheasant.
Her grandfather was a sea captain...
And it is not only the names that bring this echo. After the Hurricane had expansive set pieces in which incantatory rhythms and chorus-like rhyme were used to theatrical effect. Poem after poem in King Driftwood pursues this direction, and it comes as no surprise to see that several of them have in fact been staged. Whether these musical effects function in the same way on the page, with repetitions and the persuasive power of sheer accumulation, might depend on the reader. If you like being an audience, you will enjoy the invitation to pin back your ears. If you like a conversation, maybe not.
New and striking in Minhinnick’s chosen tone are riffs of manic alliteration:
He’s the servant of Sker, he’s scalded by it,
its sketcher, its sculptor
this scout, this scion, its cuttlemongrel
and counterfeiter of the driftwood gospel,
scat singing to the tide’s scansion,
seaweed widower, the scarred,
the scarifier, the master of all salt ceremonies
and scrutiniser of its schools of sacrifice,
this savant who scoffs at me daily, scolding me…
Sometimes these passages can seem like the poet’s process of composition – all the sound associations that the unconscious tries on for size on the way to a line. Where the process leads is sometimes to delicate incisive moments:
the sunlight leaning like timber in a joiner’s yard,
scattered on the air.
Almost in the same breath, it can turn to grandiosity:
But already I am leaving,
I who planned the node and name for anemone and nematode,
already I have started to disappear.
The grand sweep of it seems to invite rhetorical gestures and questions:
How far, I asked of sand,
How far? As far as
the Sahara’s final finial.
This is a different ‘I’ from Minhinnick the observant travel writer. This ‘I’ is from a Welsh bardic tradition of which Dai’s boast in David Jones’s In Parenthesis is the most famous modern (English language) example. (The extravagant sound play too might be recalling effects that, in the intricate patterning of Welsh cynghanedd, are an art form of their own, one famously hard to reproduce in English.)
But Dai’s boast is balanced by ironies, and by the realities of the First World War. The same voice in the mouth of a persona like Minhinnick’s ‘Saint of Tusker Rock’ risks portentousness: ‘I served the surf. / I suffered it.’ It is a relief when a good poem like ‘The Weighbridge’ moves quickly to balance this tone (‘And on this day that is no day / I wave to myself, the child I was…’) with the quiet reality of a personal memory:
the evening blue as oxyacetylene,
me shutting the books,
last cargo of the day a transit limping in.
When the wildly ambitious elements keep a tightrope balance, as in ‘The Fox in the National Museum of Wales’, you have a tour de force worked round a strong simple image that has the quality of being found, not manufactured. But the loners on this beach don’t keep their balance. That’s the point of them; they are presented, often in religious imagery, as wild-eyed visionaries. Their drunkenness, their craziness, is romanticised as revelation:
Beware the delirious, my darling,
Who can distinguish the dreams from the dust.
Compared with some of Minhinnick’s earlier poems, which bring a balanced sensitivity to bear on mental illness, these seem to equate eccentricity with authenticity (rather than, as more often in life, with a stuck quality verging on self-caricature). A dodgy move not just in psychiatric but artistic terms. For all the brilliances and thumping energy of Minhinnick’s book, I find myself stepping back after every few pages, craving a little space and, Wainwright’s word, clarity.
Philip Gross’s latest collection is The Egg of Zero (Bloodaxe, 2006). A new collection, The Water Table, from Bloodaxe, and I Spy Pinhole Eye, a collaboration with photographer Simon Denison, from Cinnamon Press, are both due next year.
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