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Will Harris: “Rendang”

Will Harris gives no explanation of the title at the outset of his book, but in the first poem, which is part introduction, part dedication, he embarks on etymology:

"In West Sumatra they call rendang
      randang. Neither shares a root

with rending..."

This is disconcerting on two levels. First, because if the reader is understandably ignorant of Indonesian cuisine they have no idea at this stage what rendang is. Secondly, why should any one think that there would be any linguistic root linking a West Sumatran word to an English one?

It is of course easy to discover what rendang is. (Google tells me that it is a spicy meat dish from West Sumatra. Recipes indicate that it needs to be cooked slowly.) But the second disconcerting aspect is more interesting. Obviously there is no reason why there should be any link. But that’s the point. The explanation is addressed to an English speaker by one familiar with Indonesian. The fact that some may see a non-existent link means that there is a link of some sort – it’s all in the perception.

The book’s title may derive from that of the final poem in it. But just as rendang recipes involve a variety of ingredients that are slowly simmered together over time, Will Harris’s book brings together a wide variety of elements – often only arbitrarily linked – that are cooked together into a surprising collection. There are consistent leitmotifs, three of which occur in the second poem, Holy Man. This consists of five stanza-paragraphs of twelve lines each, and describes an encounter that the poet has with a self-proclaimed “holy man” in London’s Jermyn Street. The holy man asks the poet to name a colour, which leads to a sequence of images in the poet’s mind, all linked to green: these include geographical places, a Howard Hodgkin painting, Power Rangers, and Gawain and the Green Knight.

The leitmotifs are: first, the encounter of the poet with another person, and the use of direct speech in narrating the interaction between the two; secondly, the introduction of a wide range of cultural references, including both high and low culture and art; and finally a particular form that breaks with all normal expectations of linebreaks and stanza structures.

In his article The Ethics of Perspective, printed in Poetry London, Will Harris wrote: “…The imagination, so far from being opposed to identity, is the sum of our experiences, recollected and rendered in legible form – it is identity…/I had this realisation three or four years ago. I’d spent most of my conscious life trying to avoid my reflection in the mirror. From a young age I wanted to write. Writing, like reading, was a form of escape. It let me occupy a place outside of myself which, though brittle, was less exposed. It kept me from myself.” Later, after discovering how his mother and her family had been caught up in the chaotic politics of Indonesia in 1965, he realises why his mother, now established in England, had been so worried about his education. “Education was a way out of the swirl of terror that had engulfed her early life. It was no coincidence, I realised, that in my early twenties I wanted to disappear, to have no reflection: it was how I’d been taught to survive”.

In this collection, Will Harris the individual tends to disappear behind other people: the holy man in Jermyn Street, a drunk Welshman in a bar, a friend met in a pizza restaurant or calling round to the poet’s flat. This is in marked – and agreeable – contrast to the solipsistic trend of many other poets. The reader has the impression of someone caught up in a relentless flow of events, in which there is a merging of the internal and the external, past and present. In Another Life, for example, the poet is waiting in a theatre green room to go on stage for a reading. On the television monitor he sees the poets preceding him: “A short white man described his burning hayrick/in a dream”. The prompt of the hayrick leads the waiting poet into a daydream where the background noises of people in bars and restaurants beside the Thames blend with the image of his Indonesian mother meeting his English father in 1980, on a dance floor in Leicester Square.

The second leitmotif is the cultural reference. From the other side of Shooter’s Hill focuses on silent movies; Break refers to the Book of Job, Sharon Olds and John Coltrane; The White Jumper to the videogame Sonic the Hedgehog, Darth Vader, Caspar David Friedrich, Coleridge, Théophile Gautier and Friedrich Nietzsche. In his interview with Alexandra Harris for the Forward Arts Foundation, Will Harris talks of ekphrasis in the context of John Ashbery’s poem Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, and explains how for him ekphrasis is absorbency, cultural experiences bleeding into each other. “Poetry is open to everything.”

In the poem Half Got Out, the poet encounters a friend who has been reading a book by W. S. Merwin, which prompted me to look up the poem referred to. I learnt, incidentally, that when Merwin’s Selected Translations gained an award in 2014, the judge said “To translate is to inhabit another voice, which in turn enlarges one’s horizons as a writer; and Merwin’s huge Selected Translations represents a lifetime doing just that: feeding his own art with other voices”. It struck me that this is what Will Harris is doing, and that, curiously, it is an extension of his own self-effacement.

The third leitmotif is a choice of particular form that breaks with all normal expectations of linebreaks and stanza structures. In Holy Man this is what I call a “stanza-paragraph” – namely a series of blocks of text with an unjustified right margin, forming a ragged rectangle. This form reappears in My Name is Dai, Break and Say. In Pathetic Earthlings and From the other side of Shooter’s Hill there is a solid block of text without breaks. Elsewhere the poem will take the form of a narrow column, set against the lefthand margin. In The White Jumper, which is a sequence of vignettes, there is a variety of forms, some indented, some traditional. In this case the form-changes operate as dividing devices.

Will Harris himself refers to the first poem in the book as “concrete” and I have seen other references to his poems as being “concrete poems”. I am used to this term being used to describe a poem that forms a shape on the page that mirrors the content, and don’t find it particularly helpful in this context. I was however interested to hear Will Harris read the poem Rendang, which is in nine numbered sections, again varying in form. The fourth section begins:

"Yathu talks about his mum
and I talk about mine, neither
of whom were born in this
country. I mention the bedsit
in Cricklewood where my parents 
lived, how my mum squeezed 
all her belongings into its one
wardrobe, stuffing the rest
under the bed..."

When I read this I was puzzled by the line-breaks, at least half of which seemed to serve no purpose. When Will Harris read it, I noticed that he made no pauses at all at the end of any line, as if it were a continuous piece of prose. I decided I had to abandon all ideas I had about line-breaks in the case of this poet, and consider the layout of the text on the page – did it help or hinder? in the case of this particular section it could be argued that the shape helps the idea of squeezed space in the first stanza and the description of life as a thread in the third. It’s fair to say that there was no poem where I felt the form hindered the poem, and concluded that the impression given – however much art was given to its shaping – was part of the arbitrary, disconcerting effect that is the essence of Will Harris.

In addition to the three leitmotifs I have identified in Holy Man, there are three others that the reader will encounter. First, references to the poet’s parents and grandparents – the English father and Indonesian mother. Typically, and in marked contrast to a poet such as Seamus Heaney, for example, the references are usually in passing, rather than forming the main content of a poem. Indeed, sometimes it is not clear whether the reference is to a relative or someone else – in The White Rabbit there is a section in which the poet asks his grandmother about Sumatra and the coup. This is followed by a slightly different layout:

"In the last weeks,
bedbound, her hair
grew out, black
strands white at 
the roots..."

Is this the grandmother, or not? Does it matter? Probably not.

Then there is London. In terms of location, we are usually in London, Chicago or – occasionally – Indonesia. London geographical references are frequent – Jermyn Street, Charing Cross Road, Baker Street, the Hayward Gallery; branching out to Goldhawk Road in the west, Stamford Hill in the northeast, Shooter’s Hill in the southeast. Will Harris is an urban, metropolitan poet.

And finally there is the dream. As we know, dreams have become fashionable. (Arguably, John Berryman has much to answer for.) Creative writing courses encourage dreams as part of a programme of tapping the subconscious and making random connections for poetic effect. But a dream is not guaranteed to have any emotional or other significance. It all depends on the context.

Dreams occur regularly in Rendang. Indeed, one poem, The Seven Dreams of Richard Spencer, is nothing other than what it says. (Richard Spencer’s identity was unclear to me – Googling indicated that he was either a journalist or a white supremacist, neither of which was helpful.) It is fair to say that they occur most in the first part of the book, but I regret they left me for the most part unmoved. On the other hand, in the context of Will Harris’ stream of consciousness writing I can see they have their part to play.

If I have focussed on leitmotifs it is because the texture of this book is too dense to do much else in the space. It has greatly rewarded rereading. I remain disconcerted, but happily so. I am happy to have met Will Harris on both page and screen. I agree entirely with what he says in the beautiful poem Say: “Whether you speak up or scarcely whisper,//you speak with all you are.” That is what he has done.

“Rendang” is published by Granta, and is one of the ten collections shortlisted for the 2020 T.S. Eliot Prize.

Lawrence Illsley – Nature and Bereavement

Lawrence Illsley’s “A Brief History of Trees” was one of the three winners of Live Canon’s 2020 Collection Competition, judged by Glyn Maxwell. It would be wrong to describe Lawrence’s book as a “collection” in the usual sense, since it has an overall unity/narrative untypical of the conventional collection. In eight carefully-crafted sections it describes the impact on the poet of his mother’s sudden death, weaving a narrative that is straightforwardly chronological, from the evening in August when he was staying with her in Cornwall, to the day in February when he returns:

"letting myself in
to the empty house

removing the condolence cards
from the windowsill..."          

Each of the eight sections also focusses on a tree, encountered by the poet in the course of his journey – from a mother beech in the first, to a rowan in the last. The particular characteristics of each species acts as a loose metaphor for what is happening:

                                                         "...Togetherness and
                    connection seem important to beech trees.
                               Their supple branches graft to a neighbour's,

forming a chorus line on the hedgerow.
          Whilst underground, their network gets complex.
                    A forest talking in slow electric
                               pulses. Root to root. Sharing nutrients

through a wood-wide-web of mycelium
          strands. Mycorrhiza fungus down in the
                    rhizosphere connects kin so that mother
                               beech can feed their progeny..."

So far, so straightforward. What makes this book so moving, however – and I have now read it with pleasure three times – is a combination of factors. First, there is the resonance of the emotional journey. The narrator is due to go to a graduation ceremony in Brighton, so leaves his mother, who is waiting for a scan. While he is in Brighton, his mother dies, having apparently fallen down the stairs in her house, and his sister Rachael is the first to receive the news:

          "Rachael found out first. The police came round
to her flat. Sat her down. I'd turned my phone
           off. I honestly don't know why I did that.
                           Usually I just turned down the sound.

But it was my friend Xim's drum performance 
           and I didn't want my thigh vibrating.
                           No-one important would ring. Later, rain
                                        teeming down pathetically, I switched

my phone back on and saw the words. Ten missed
           calls. "
 

There is an unflinching honesty in the emotional narrative that gives it the all-important quality of resonance. Particularly moving is the account, some months later, of the narrator’s breakdown:

                   "....I wanted to disappear.
                                   I wanted to drink. To drown."

Then there are the trees. Poets have various stock ways of dealing with nature and bereavement: the permanence may console for what is transient; the movement of seasons may distract. Lawrence tackles the question differently. The key to his approach can be found, I think, in the reference to mycelium in the beech-tree passage quoted above. To quote a BBC article: “While mushrooms might be the most familiar part of a fungus, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. We now know that these threads act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants…The more we learn about these underground networks, the more our ideas about plants have to change. They aren’t just sitting there quietly growing. By linking to the fungal network they can help out their neighbours by sharing nutrients and information – or sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals through the network.”

In other words, everything in our world is linked. A tree becomes more than a metaphor – it can be an example, in its conduct, for how we should behave. In the second section, the elm is described as having been infected by a fungus (causing so-called “Dutch Elm Disease”):

                                                      "In defence, our elms formed

tyloses which blocked their xylem. Stopping
     water from reaching their leaves. Millions
          died. Many were razed."

But:

"...elms are tenacious. They clone and sucker.
    Replicating from a root once the trunk
          has been cut down..."

At this point the narrator is in Brighton. The diversion on elms is a result of his hunting out a Cornish Elm in Preston Park. He has not yet heard of his mother’s death. But the description of the elm anticipates both the way in which his mother’s body resists disease, without success, and the way in which the narrator survives.

Similarly, when the narrator is disintegrating as a result of his loss, he goes for a walk in Brentford, where the Grand Union Canal joins the river Brent. There are willows on the bank:

          "The branch,  twig, bough, wing, wood, sprig, prong, splits.
Floats
     down the river. Roots. Sprouts. Shoots. Clones itself.
Propagates. Replicates in another

          location."

Emotional resonance; the communication of trees, as part of a universe in which man and nature are indissolubly linked.

Then there is the question of poetic form. You will already have seen, from passages quoted, that the verse stretches across the page, starting in the first section with four-line stanzas with step-like indentations that give the verse an onward movement. Line-breaks are aggressive:

"Hazel underbrush covered the ground. Beech
      shoots popped up and waited. A beech is used
            to waiting. Born into shade in beech woods
they wait for light. In stealth they grow. Reaching

      slowly for the sky. "

As the work progresses, the verse-forms – and indeed the syntax – become more fractured, reflecting the narrator’s disintegration:

"I had an 
                urge in me to. To
                                disappear. I ordered another pint.
Then went                                                        outside."

There is a remarkable confidence in Lawrence’s use of form, so that it achieves its effect almost without the reader noticing.

I found this book astonishing, and thoroughly recommend it.

Lawrence Illsley’s “A Brief History of Trees” is published by Live Canon and can be purchased from Live Canon’s website. The collaborative system of a mycelial web achieved wide currency with the forester Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees”, published in 2015.

Rachel Long – more than enchanting

Blurb-writers have much to answer for. On the back of Rachel Long’s collection My Darling from the Lions, there is first a mention that it has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, then a quote from Bernardine Evaristo (“An enchanting and heartwarming new voice in poetry”) and then the blurb begins: “Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems…announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.”

We don’t need the cover – a black girl seen from the back, with her arms folded behind her – to know that we are in BAME territory. The Evaristo quote seems patronising – one established and high-profile black writer welcomes another onto the stage, but “enchanting” strikes the note of the clever schoolgirl being praised for singing in tune. Then the dread cliché of “much-anticipated debut collection”.

So this reader started off with slight foreboding. Was this going to be another case of Picador trying to be woke? I emptied my mind and turned to the beginning.

*

After two readings of this collection, I came to the conclusion that Bernardine Evaristo has not done Rachel Long the service one might think. Although there is slight unevenness in quality, most of the poems have far more substance than is implied by the words “enchanting and heartwarming”. I’m not sure I find much that is heartwarming about:

"We discuss kids. Maybe it's the wine,
or because my belly is beginning to push
against the bones of my dress. You say,
I don't think I'll identify with a brown son."

or:

"Before we go any further, we'll need a urine sample.
Glass of water, Madam? You'll be pleased to know
your parents have been fully vetted..."

That said, the poems that resonate most for me are the vignettes of a mixed-race family in south London. A white father comes to collect his daughter from school (“See him, how trim, he runs every day,/even Christmas Day, yeah, come to pick me up,/his real, brown daughter”) and the other children don’t believe it’s her father; her friend Danielle’s dad produces gold coins from his pocket as if by magic, to treat the children, who don’t pause to wonder where the money comes from; at the local evangelical church there is a whiff of child abuse (“…he had blown candles for hands,/with which he led me down an incensed corridor,//and I followed”). The poet has a great gift for capturing idiomatic speech: in Helena a night-club hostess describes to her spellbound friends how the club’s bouncer lured her back to his apartment and tried to rape her, in a way that has the other girls hysterical with laughter:

                                                             "....Helena laughs herself down
and off the sofa, blonde hair dragging across the black pleather.
  She saunters to the bathroom. Before slamming the door, shouts
over her shoulder, I promise I won't stay in it forever."

Helena struck me as one of the poems that showed Rachel Long at her best and weakest – or perhaps I should say most perplexing. Best in the sense that the language is deceptive: at the risk of reading too much into a title, the central character, with echoes of the Trojan War, is a female archetype who causes chaos at the same time as she becomes a victim. The combination of violence and humour gives an edge. The language conveys the scene perfectly (“Ali, mate, I’m not being funny, I’m tired. I wanna go home./He’s like, babe, I know, I hear you…”). But the form is strange, with alternate lines indented by two spaces. Line-breaks seem entirely arbitrary, so we are in a strange half-prose flow without stanza breaks, just a bit of white space on either side. I’m not sure I get the point of this, to the point where I found the form distracting from, rather than reinforcing, the content. It’s at moments like this that I would like to have a chat with the poet and understand her intention better.

Some of the shorter poems didn’t work for me. In Car Sweetness the speaker’s parents are in the front of a car:

"...Mum would lay her hand
over Dad's on the gearstick,
their wedding-rings glinting
like mouths not used to smiling."

I get the drift – a gesture of attachment in a life where emotion is rarely shown. But I’m not persuaded that the glint of a ring can be like a mouth not used to smiling. Again, the image becomes a distraction rather than a building-block.

Such reservations as I had in the course of a first reading were considerably reduced when I went through it again more methodically.  The vividness of the portraits carries the reader on, and I very much like the wide range of this poet’s lens – from the portrayal of children in a playhouse exploring each other’s private parts, or a schoolgirl stuffing a sandwich down her bra as more convincing than a sock, to Victoria Beckham talking about her handbag or the poet’s mother successfully defeating the magic of an aunt trying to transfer her cancer. There is a wide-ranging humanity and sense of humour that achieves, with deceptive skill, the life-enhancing effect that poetry can bring at its best.

*

In one of his essays Glyn Maxwell writes: “I had absolutely nothing to say till I was about thirty-four. I’d have been a disappointing messiah. But what I did for about twenty years from my mid-teens was play with words, so that by the time I had some things to say I had a pretty good idea how to.” 

I was surprised that Maxwell had nothing to say until he was thirty-four. By this time, surely, he would have fallen in love at least once, finished his education, started a career and experienced the world of work? The implication is that the young poet needs to spend twenty years learning the craft before they can tackle real content.

That said, much of the poetry world is comprised of men and women at or past middle age, whose preoccupations will not be the same as those of a younger generation. There are understandable tendencies either to belittle younger poets – they’ll mature into something interesting – or, conversely, to welcome them with hype like “thrilling new presence”. Both do the debut poet a disservice.

Rachel Long was born in 1988, so is close to the Maxwell threshold. But she has an impeccable poetic pedigree, having been awarded an Arvon mentorship in 2015 and been tutoring on the Barbican Young Poets scheme since that year, together with Jacob Sam-La Rose. She is the founder of Octavia, a poetry collective for Womxn of Colour. She has an attractive, outgoing personality and reads beautifully – which is a surprisingly rare gift among poets. You can watch an excellent interview of her by Kim Moore for the Forward Arts Foundation here. She strikes me as having a lot to say. At the same time, it is going to be interesting to see how she moves on from the material of her childhood into the swirling currents of adult life: I have every confidence that it will be with the same mixture of energy and humour that characterises this first collection.

Rachel Long’s “My Darling from the Lions” is published by Picador. The quote from Glyn Maxwell is taken from his essay “Form” which appears in “On Poetry”, published by Oberon Masters.

Lockdown pleasures – Evan Jones’ “Later Emperors”

Those of us living beyond an easy commute to the capital can sometimes feel like Romans banished to the outer wastes of the Empire – a simile appropriate enough in the present case. Attending launches of poetry publications becomes a major logistical exercise, involving the parking of dogs and finding a bed for the night.

Lockdown brought the benefit of launches via Zoom, which enabled me to discover the poetry of Evan Jones on the occasion of the launch of Later Emperors by Carcanet. Jones explained in the course of his reading that the book arises from his reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The world his book creates, in its four distinct sections, is reminiscient of Alice Oswald’s Memorial, in that it shines brief spotlights on a variety of historical figures who are otherwise little heard of. But in the place of Oswald’s heavily-imaged writing we have quiet understatement. And in the place of a continuous piece of writing we have brief stand-alone poems.

Towards the end of the book, Jones writes, in the voice of Plutarch:

I have always lived in the past, an insult
I once thought, where I sought the benefit
of going over what others would ignore...

Jones wears his learning lightly: the Plutarch poem, called Plutarch to his Wife is intertextual in that it arises from an actual letter written by Plutarch to his wife following the death of their daughter. You can find the text of the original, translated, via Google. But whereas the original is a staid admonition to be stoical in grief, Jones’ poem riffs on Plutarch’s situation travelling on official duties with his amanuensis, Petrus.

The people here are nice, what is more
they seem to recognise in me someone
who will welcome the hours stolen away
through their efforts, because I am trying,

trying to see through this.

Plutarch becomes a living, breathing figure. As do the others spoken of. In the first section, 23 brief poems cover 23 named people. The verse is simple, with few adjectives, giving a limpid effect, but nonetheless conveying the almost casual brutality of the age. Take Carus, Struck by Lightning AD 283:

Aged, feeble Carus during
the furious night called for his mother,
droned, reeled, balked, barked
at the tent poles and servants.
Feverish now, when young he was a tent
pole, a severe and simple man,
as Gibbon wrote, a soldier,
satisfied with stale bacon
and stone-hard peas. He passed.
We set the imperial pavilion
on fire, suggested it was lightning,
an act of god. Wrong,
I know, though not exactly wrong.

In the second and third sections of the book, Jones writes about Michael Psellos and Anna Komnene. Psellos was an eleventh century monk who became political adviser (in modern jargon, a SPAD) to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos. Komnene was an eleventh/twelfth century Byzantine princess, renowned for her scholarship. Both sections are stylistically distinctive – in the Psellos part the poems follow a form which, Jones explained at the launch, was Byzantine in origin, with long lines split by a caesura, rather like Anglo-Saxon verse; while the Komnene poems are seven lines long, the fourth line split. Take On Being Understood:

But what was my art? I practised in childhood the measure
of the stars, hell-bent as they were on misleading the lot
of our lives. Like this: in the sign of Taurus, a bronze statue
of the Emperor Constantine
fell from its plinth, the wind
southwesterly. I knew what to do, then as now. Coming
back to earth, I raised my hand and lowered it sharply
as if first tearing through a spider's web, then through air.

These are quiet poems that manage, with remarkable and deceptive simplicity, to get under the skin. I am delighted that lockdown made me acquainted with them.

Later Emperors by Evan Jones is published by Carcanet

Very Clever, Mr Muldoon

One of my warmest poetic memories is the reading given by Paul Muldoon a few years ago at the Charleston Festival. The great man’s gentle voice and self-deprecating approach combined to make it a very special occasion. The hour-long session was over all too soon.

So I come to his poetry with a double bias, since not only do I keep this memory but also he comes trailing behind him the glories of Northern Irish poetry, in the form of the godlike trio Heaney, Mahon and Longley. Not that “trailing” is appropriate for someone who has blazed his own path and developed his own distinctive style.

The early Muldoon poems are in the shadow of Heaney, speaking of incidents in rural Ireland with oblique references to the Troubles. But he soon moved away from his home turf, both physically and in literary terms – first to England and the University of East Anglia, and then to Princeton, where he has taught on the creative writing programme since 1987.

Frolic and Detour is his thirteenth collection. His eminence can be seen from the fact that four of the poems in it were commissioned by bodies varying from the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast to the New York Times. It is not a book to be read in a hurry. Part of the reason for this is the way in which the poet darts round the world and backwards and forwards in time, in the space of a few lines. Take the first six couplets of Wave, written in memory of C.K. Williams:

I happened to be putzing around in the Gellert Spa in Budapest
while you did your very best

to hold on to the world-brim.
Saint Gellert taking a last look over the rim

of his nail-studded barrel. I was stretched in a thermal bath
even as Syrian refugees struggled to find a path

across the border at Zakay. Two of the many top-of-the-line
treatments on offer featured red wine
 
and chocolate. It was in Peru, Vermont,
in the late 80s I first heard you vaunt

Vallejo and Neruda. You were so tall I could no more reach you
for a farewell hug than scale the Heights of Machu Picchu.

Here we have references to one of Budapest’s most renowned hotels, the eleventh century martyrdom of Saint Gerard, Syrian refugees, Vermont, Vallejo and Neruda and Machu Picchu, combined with a series of playful rhymes bordering on music-hall. I have two difficulties with it – and they are difficulties rather than problems. One is that I feel I need to have Google on constant alert so that I understand the allusions. The second is that I don’t understand why he is including some of the references. In the present case I am not sure what the relevance of the Syrian refugees is, other than to point up a contrast to the poet reclining in the spa. The reference to Machu Picchu is, I suspect, merely a way of getting a wry smile by way of the rhyme with “reach you”.

A more serious objection arises with the reference to Saint Gellert in his nail-studded barrel. This may chime with the idea of the poet in a hot tub and with the related image of Williams taking a last look over the brim of the world, but this version of Saint Gellert’s martyrdom appears to be apocryphal.

Leaving quibbles of this kind aside, one cannot but be impressed by Muldoon’s mastery of form. 1916: The Eoghan Rua Variations consists of nine stanzas, each of fourteen lines – yes, reader, these could be described as sonnets, though they are only loosely so. The last four lines in each stanza are different translations of lines attributed to the Irish language poet referred to in the title, as set out in an epigraph. Each stanza follows a rhyme scheme of aabbcdcdcdefef, which is a reorganisation of the normal sonnet scheme, so that the sestina is in the middle. Not for nothing has one reviewer referred to Muldoon’s “linguistic bravura”.

This fondness for combining a strict-ish form with rambling content reaches its logical conclusion with the title poem Frolic and Detour, which consists of three sections, each with fifteen loosely-rhyming quatrains. The title operates on two levels: the speaker is depicted as driving on an errand for various household items – goat’s cheese, ibuprofen, a sander belt, pesticide – though apparently diverting from an intended route; and at the same time the places he passes encourage a stream-of-consciousness musing on topics ranging from the mystic Thomas Merton to Jimi Hendrix’ performance at Woodstock and the ancient Greek lyric poet Stesichorus.

It’s enjoyable stuff, even if one gets a bit tired of Googling. It would be logical to anticipate that a poet quite so flaunting of facts would be short on emotion. However, Muldoon is perfectly able to rise to this, as to any other, occasion. His best and his worst aspects are for me encapsulated in the poem With Eilmer of Malmesbury, written after news reaches Muldoon of the death – it appears, the suicide – of the sixteen-year-old Jack Eustis, son of friends. The poem begins movingly:

In Paddington a man allows his upright bass
to rest its head on his shoulder -
the awkward embrace
of a father and teenage son...

The speaker is travelling to Swindon by train and then on by cab to Malmesbury.

…I take the train
to Swindon, from there a cab to the Old Bell Hotel,
the oldest in England. Since the unusually large brain
of an Apache war chief will swell

even more when boiled, an army surgeon saws
through Mangas’s brain stem, tipping it into a vermeil
basin for further study.

“Mangas”, we know from another poem in the collection, is a reference to the Apache chief Mangas Coloradas. It is by no means clear what the reference is doing here.

We move on to the tale of Eilmer of Malmesbury, whose attempt at flight, by putting on wings and launching himself off a tower, ended in his breaking both legs and being lame for the rest of his life. This is contrasted with the sad fate of the sixteen-year-old:

My friends’ beloved son also fell hard
from a rafter
but stopped short
of the floor.

A few lines later:

We don’t know if Eilmer flew with the aid of leathers
or a contraption of linen and silk. The belt
worn by a Benedictine was made of leather

but a Franciscan’s  cincture was rope. The gaudy sleeve
I once put on is fraying by the hour.
At a distance of three thousand miles I grieve
with my friends.

This is moving, but the effect is then spoiled by :

…An E minor on a bass sours
even as it soars through the skull of Mangas Coloradas.  

(Note the implied wordplay of “soars” and “saws”.)

The minimalist maxim of “Less is more” comes to mind. As indeed does the comment I heard many years ago, in the course of an international legal conference that I attended. The chairman was a very brilliant French lawyer, who struck me as having an astonishing ability to link widely different aspects of almost any area of the law. When I remarked on this to one of the other French lawyers present he commented drily: Oui, mais c’est creux – yes, but it’s hollow. In other words, it was flashy but without substance.

That is not a charge I lay against Muldoon, who is capable of both the deep and the shallow. Nor would I wish him to lose his playfulness and sense of humour. But there are times when I would like him to rein himself in. Buy the book yourself and see what you think.

Paul Muldoon: Frolic and Detour. 2019 Faber and Faber.

The Quiet Tenderness of Mary Jean Chan

I have been struggling for some time to summarise my thoughts on Mary Jean Chan’s “Flèche”. The first time I read it I was impressed by the effortless experimentation with form, but – dare I confess? – found the underlying narratives of (a) coming out and (b) Chinese-person-encountering –Western-society a little too wellworn to give a real whiff of originality.

The second time I read it I realised I had been unfair (which just shows how poetry merits being read several times before one judges). The underlying narratives may have been treated before, but not often combined. And they have the common thread – not, as in some gay writers, a quest for a beloved or indeed the celebration of gay culture or difference – of the poet’s isolation.

Take the Chinese aspect first. Chan’s mother is presented as an ex-bourgeois, whose parents were victims of Mao’s cultural revolution and sentenced to hard labour. Chan herself was born and raised in Hong Kong. However, scarred by the experience of deprivation and hunger she experienced as a girl, the mother expects her daughter to follow a conventional path of marriage and child-bearing. The daughter is the sole focus of the mother’s attention – there is no mention of the father or of siblings. As such, the daughter is faced with a terrible inner conflict as she discovers her sexual orientation: how to be herself while at the same time retaining her mother’s love. Some of the most (there are many) moving poems in “Flèche” are those in which the mother meets her daughter’s Western female partner, and struggles to rise to the occasion.

Western civilisation is seen from the start as a refuge for the poet – “My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze” and “Surreptitiously reading Shakespeare (the scene where Cesario woos Olivia”).  Indeed, refuges become a leitmotif of the collection – in a scattered sequence headed “Safe Space” a rectangle of centred text describes a place to which the speaker is able to escape, where she feels safe.

The Western lover is, variously, a source of wonder and surprise as well as of gentle conflict (“How have I hurt you? Such asking becomes routine”; “Why didn’t you warn me about cultural differences?”) and later reconciliations (“we laughed and left the sachets unopened”).

These themes of conflict and self-discovery come together in the fencing poems. The book is divided into three sections: Parry, Riposte and Corps-à-corps, which all refer to fencing moves, as does the book’s title. The punning “Flèche” is an aggressive extension in fencing, so brings together the ideas of self-assertion and underlying sensuality.  I personally found the division into sections somewhat artificial, though not bothersome.

I am conscious that I have given all this background without giving a feel of Chan’s use of language. It is deceptively simple. Unlike those poets who embark on dramatic images, Chan remains consistently gentle: “I learnt to withhold my body/the way a dog lifts its sore paw/in mid-air/touching nothing” and in the same poem “for too long I have had to do these things/as when a great wind/pushed a small boat out to sea/before it is ready”. There is a self-effacing modesty about her poetry, which contrasts remarkably with the importance of the themes and makes her treatment of them all the stronger.

Finally, a word about form. As one would expect from a lecturer in creative writing, there is considerable experimentation, from prose poems through couplets and quatrains to semi-concrete poems with justified text. Some of the more successful, for me, were the poems that appear like centred pillars of text with short unrhyming lines – not qite syllabic poetry but with abrupt line-ends characteristic of syllabic verse: “I cannot stand the/faces of beautiful/ women I feel a deep/need to protect…”.

My first reading left me slightly unmoved. It is a pleasure to confess my sin and repent. This is beautiful stuff.  

Parataxis and Beyond in Hannah Sullivan

Reading some of the more eyecatching poetry collections recently, I’ve been struck by the change of consciousness resulting from the internet age. Zapping, surfing, Googling: these have brought us a world of instant stimulus and variety, arguably combined with a lowering of our attention span.

I used to think that the result was a surge of parataxis – the use of phrases and clauses placed one after another independently, without being co-ordinated or subordinated with conjunctions. In the opening of Bleak House, Dickens uses parataxis when he describes some bad weather:

“Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better – splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foothold at street corners…” 

The jagged phrases and the absence of verbs crowd the concepts together, giving an effect of density and crowds.

Google teaches me that there is a difference between the rhetorical devices of parataxis and asyndeton. The latter is the intentional elimination of conjunctions between phrases, whether used within a sentence or independently.  Asyndeton can be seen as a subdivision of parataxis. Take this extract from the first of Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems:

“He thinks of going abroad as an attempt to live deliberately,
Imagining the well-stacked fires in iron-fenced Victorians,
The senior partner’s grace under pressure, his Emersonian
Turn of phrase, the summers spent sailing, the long reaches
Of sand loosely threaded with grass on Cape Cod beaches.”

The crowding of phrases after “Imagining” may be an example of asyndeton, but what is startling here in the flow of images is their variety. Dickens flicked from dogs to horses to foot passengers, but kept us in the same physical frame. Hannah Sullivan, on the other hand, starts with domestic fireplaces, then moves to the oldfashioned mannerisms of the senior partner, then to a period of time on a sailboat and finally the visual picture of sand on Cape Cod. Instead of portraying an external scene, Sullivan depicts the almost random movements of the mind. A lot of the resulting pleasure derives from the juxtaposition of contrasting images and shifts of perspective – from the portrait of the senior partner gracefully smiling to, finally, the broad sweep of the beaches combined with the detail of “sand loosely threaded with grass”.

It is precisely these contrasts and shifts that gives the poem its interest. A few lines above the ones quoted are the following:

“The senior partner calls from Newark, ‘Thanks, team,’ (his thin
Voice purrs, he is sipping something, ‘let’s make it a win-win,’
But in the morning, brushing his new teeth, looking out into the snow’s
Huge act of world-effacement, its lethargy, he knows:
Things are illiquid, freezing up. Light is abortive
On the greyscale Park. It’s time to short the fucking market.
In Chennai, meanwhile, a man is waiting for your analysis,
Eating his breakfast of microwaved dal and mini-idlis…”

This goes beyond rhetorical devices in that the sentence structure is conventional. But we move from hearing the senior partner’s call to the office to being inside his head as he brushes “his new teeth” – a nice touch, conveying the concept of financial success as well as pride in appearance – then to the man in India eating his breakfast.

The result is a rapid sequence of images and thoughts involving different people in radically different places, all in the space of a few lines. This time we’re not in a single person’s mind. Just like zapping, in that the zapper will flick through different channels, picking up snatches of different programmes, Hannah Sullivan flicks us across scenarios and continents as she conveys the restless activity and environment of her central character, addressed throughout as “you”.

One further point: the zapping succession of images is achieved within a sequence of loosely-rhyming couplets, each line a little longer than the classic pentameter.   

It’s clever, isn’t it? I may object that it’s too long a poem for its underlying content, but the virtuosity is undeniable. I challenge anyone to dislike a poem that ends with the following:

                                                “….and the sky over the Park
Whitens in a punched-out square, as one unlit cab follows
Another down Fifth and, through tears, you are laughing.”

Right brain, left brain

My time in the legal profession was valuable in numerous ways, but there is little doubt in my mind that the development of a fine analytical sense does not necessarily help when it comes to writing poetry. I used to think that this was simply a case  of the left side of the brain being dominant, as a result of constant use, and the right side suffering as a result. But while there’s some truth in this simple explanation, it doesn’t go far enough.

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