From the Heroic Life of Bohemia
Bourbon Street Coolerita in a white halation playing back its chains: Alar, by Kevin Nolan (21 pp., £2, Equipage, 1997)
Time has not been kind to the Cambridge Leisure Centre; after the Marxist and Counter-Cultural tide turned in the late seventies, some responded to the ebbing of solemn hopes by an implosion of language, scaly and snarled, some learnt the genre of silence, some decided that the path out of misunderstanding was to write the same poems at one fifth the speed, some wrote a poem endless on the inside and with no visible outside at all, some withdrew into monomania or alcoholism. But the Peckinpah-style ensemble-demise of the central and admired figures made way, surprisingly, for the rise of figures little regarded in the seventies and left out of the key anthologies such as the new british poetry and A Various Art; publications by names like Roger Langley, Ralph Hawkins, Grace Lake, Michael Haslam, Tony Lopez, and now Kevin Nolan, have given the intelligent reader something to live for; while being recognizably part of the overall pattern manifested in Ferry Press and Grosseteste Review, and originating in the speculations of a group of friends, based in Cambridge, around 1966.
I first heard of the man from Nola around 1977, when a fellow student, rather harrassed by the C*b*ge English Faculty environment, described him as a kind and sympathetic tutor. For years after that, there were occasional sightings of KN as an on-scene poeticus, an expert on the New York School and on US popular culture who knew everybody and was well-known for never finishing anything, even years after a deadline. Moreover, he was suspected of encouraging John Wilkinson to write in a wilkinsonian way. But now we come to Alar, which is extraordinary; a radical glimpse, like an album of 1973 which had never been released. I never expected to see this.
She's been away: a wall does not paint itself,
you know? Her edge long gone, scratched on a
vein bluer than the north star, she scores
light with a mind of sacrifice enough for one
damn day, cruising from law to safety, black in the rain,
huddled at a corner where the cafe marks an inter-
change of smoking tinfoil and speed. In her
own static she is not smoke or dream, her coat
is heavy with the water the lakeshore burns by. She needs
all of it; the deepest draught now star-tongues of
separation in fifty degrees of frost. What is this
clarity where spaces are born and live and come to take
you, kind one, into the evening? Come at you
with whispered relevance as you knead your
hat and think that money and change are crystals
in a spectrum of days between stations?
Knowing and learning: ice pools in a Spanish neighbourhood.
("Learning from Las Hurdes")
Defying chronological probability, this is both a direct response to The White Stones, and what may be the most brilliant debut of the decade. Perhaps in the seventies and eighties he was wandering through the cultural beach party wearing sunglasses so cool he couldn't see what was going on. This is such a different proposition from the hard dry droppings of academic recyclists, plundering artefacts whose uses they do not understand; the Darling, you're wearing that dress upside-down school.
Several passages see Nolan in blackface; already Karl Marx had compared the Catholic Irish to the Negroes (within the terms of nineteenth-century colonialism, of course). The protagonist accepts pop culture with a certain fastidious wood-kern cimarron swagger, is possibly the owner of a bar in the wharfside area:
He goes down to the dock. Honky business,
the hours of daylight strike him; the pleasures of the harbour
fall coin after coin, little crotales of white joy
tiled in crab-joint. He takes up the shoreline,
Esquerita humming in the juke slot: the
ferry comes in daylight, midwise invisible,
in a white halation playing back its chains
as yokelore, living memory,
chuckle-headed phantom of a ship becoming ashes.
Esquerita? the major influence on Little Richard. I heard one of his records on the radio about ten years ago, and the notes my chief of staff made at the time state "screaming queen plus hormonally imbalanced New Orleans piano". Eat not of the fruit of men whose names end in ita. Even writer. The essential adaptation made by Richard Minor was to sing in tune. Crotale is a rattlesnake. Nolan meanwhile occasionally sounds like a lyric by Sly and the Family Stone that got away into the backstreets: "What it is is swamp music, the left hand/ defrayed seriatim, and the dentist who loaned the money/ paying for the hat acts to speak on time./ Not a church anyplace you could rest knee-high to a jerk." Storming in dressed as an intellectual with cool, he does not tolerate a moment which lacks those qualities: sharp as The Cutting Crew, bright as fire. A recent brilliant cover version by Duran Duran has brought "I wanna take you higher" back to our attention: the original came out at much the same time as The White Stones; while Sly got into cocaine, Prynne got into Maoism. (The dentist put up the capital for Stax records, but we know little about his choice of stupefiants.) Perhaps there is a connection between the pop obsession of Cambridge poetry, as it was developed in the 1960s, and the concern with philosophy; the imperatives of immediacy and rapid change demanding as speaker a mind whose contents are essentially unstable, therefore moving in the zone of errors and paradoxes surrounding Western thought, which is also where new ideas and awareness come from. The academic poem of the 1950s dealt with the intellectual life by presenting Shared Truths, the fixed ground of the syllabus; signalling class status, but excluding the intellect, which is only switched on by new things: the most exciting poetry of the sixties was academic, but permitted thinking, and so pursued paradox and the momentarily shifting elements of awareness rather than the torpid, constant ones.
The painting named in "Broca's Fold" as "A View of College Green with a meeting of the volunteers to commemorate the Birthday of King William on the Fourth of November 1779" depicts an episode when large Catholic militias paraded under arms in Irish cities, (College Green is in Dublin) using the war emergency as an excuse for arraying and drilling in public. The real significance of the Volunteers to themselves cannot be defined at this stage; the meaning was undefined, because the regime they lived under was tyrannous to Catholics, frank speech was treason, and so the raw physical and symbolic power of the mass wapontakes could be signified privately by everyone taking part. Probably, the demonstration of the martial virtues of loyal Catholic soldiers, to a decent government, was there along with a demonstration of the capacity of the Irish to follow the lead of the treasonous Americans if need be. The idea of Ireland as a frontier society ruled by the gun is tempting in some ways.
The longest poem is "Seven Last Words of Roy Cohn", an elegy to the much hated figure of Joseph McCarthy's young special assistant in prosecuting Unamerican Activities; later a friend of Hoover. McCarthy's roughneck flair revealed the pyschotic at the basis of politics, just as rock and roll swept away the base of the stately and professional American entertainment industry. Cohn died recently of AIDS; Nolan's tribute is allusive but allows no hiding place:
Dealing green bills into black robes, (she sue the judge, Roy sue the furrier, then the ermine all dine with Roy) some other big chiffre a late hit as the ex-future Mrs Roy in a blanquette of arum, as the stars align the principles of man—if you're indicted, you're invited to sip Old Fashioneds in Dubrovnik '62 with Cal who looks neat in cerise frock, sequinned shadow and liner. Cabochard is it drifting up from his knuckles? Givenchy? ("Cal you old biohazard!") organdy memory and void the papers around him—is he safe?
Roy Cohn and Esquerita (and J.J. Hunsecker) add up to a special theory of the 1950s: a Greil Marcus-style secret history which doesn't exactly cut to a Wranglers ad; maybe one day we will interpret the nineties in terms of Kevin Nolan and Karlien van den Beukel. We got out of a world where the people were misled by evil silver-tongued corporate lawyers like Cohn to enter a bright new world owned by evil silver-tongued corporate lawyers. The fifties was a time of repression and bad consciences, and so is ours. Any poetry magazine which does not favour drugs, communism, homosexuality, dole scroungers, and free jazz may as well give up and become PN Review. Equally part of the 1950s was Cleanth Brooks' theory (in The Well-Wrought Urn) that paradox was the natural condition of poetry; a design precept which, when taken to the max by Cambridge academics in the sixties, produced the engulfing psychedelic shimmer of The White Stones. Every straight line is given a spin, every object is swept away by a ceaseless flux; defying the deadness of what is fixed in writing. There is a kind of aura surrounding any significant work of art, a neurological jitter as we perceive the outline of the complexity of form which is ipso facto too much for us to make out in the onset; the precondition for total attention is a rapid bulk impression of incomprehension, the eluding of attention. Engineering appliances are described in terms of their capacities, that is their limits, or, more precisely, the boundary lines where their behaviour becomes unpredictable and complex. Introspection necessarily plunges to the system limits of the mind: where it is inconsistent, paradoxical, arbitrary. What happens to the rotatory energy of a drill-bit when the shank of the drill snaps?
Brooks, in one of the foundations of the new profession of Lit Crit, held that stable, classical judgment was based on the poetic unstable series of transient unique states, but early graduates of the new faculty found that this was itself a paradox, and that what passes through serial unstable states is itself unstable. Elsewhere in the cultural mix, Marxist theorists were claiming that, if you took the individual, with a set of preferences on which purchase decisions are based, as unstable and historically conditioned, the whole fabric of normality and rationality was revealed as unstable and paradoxical: the glimpse of a shift of sensibility generating a myriad of new meanings opened a new world for poetry. The uncovering of the arbitrary, complicit, and paradoxical bases of consciousness, the formation of new and unstable associational patterns, mysteriously resembled the effects of LSD. I couldn't, and could, and can't, tell the difference.
A few notes on words. Alar is mysterious (allegedly a medicine Nolan took for a back problem); the word lauzetas (larks) makes us think of the line by Bernard de Ventadour, in perhaps the most famous of all Proven‡al poems: can vei la lauzeta mover/ de joi ses alas contral rai; but we are still one letter out; the dictionary gives it as an obscure English word, meaning "of wings", as in alar bones. Ich ("your ich-crystal finish") joins Robert Smith's This ich, this body-breath as a pioneering introduction of the German word for I into English. German selves are more orthogonal and sober. An abhainn dubh is Irish for "the black river", presumably that Blackwater which appears on the same page.
"Broca's Fold" recalls the nineteenth century French physiologist Philippe De Broca, (the fold divides the left and right halves of the brain), whose studies of aphasia following brain damage showed the localisation of the language capacity within the brain, specifically in De Broca's area, although today we know that damage in different areas causes distinct kinds of aphasia. The localisation of function refutes behaviourism, since there are preset paths along which "learning" can take place: if all human beings use the same part of their brains to learn language with, there is indeed a preset topology of the tissues, and this must be genetic, and is perhaps a topology of the intellect as well. The epigraph tells us that "to locate the damage which destroys speech, and to locate speech, are two different things"; this pinpoints the difference between the anatomy of cadavers, and the knowledge of unique serial moments of action-cognition, which concerns living creatures and is therefore true biology: speech resides in the universe of short timespans, both as a phonological and as an intellectual object being produced and perceived; the detection of a unity behind this rapid flow is an act of fiction. The point being made that becoming is also ceasing directs us to the hegelian background of Cambridge poetry of the period, the root of its preoccupation with speed and with the transient effects of speech, and the brain, as opposed to the timeless or conservative ones, detectible by torpid instruments of coarse resolution. The whole line along which incomprehension is reached is of the highest phenomenological importance, the numerical limits of reason defining its nature. The world of brain neurology and biochemistry is invisible to cadaver autonomy or the draughtsman's eye, its topology is at the molecular scale in space and the millisecond scale in time; and is the true basis of speech, poetic rhythm, and therefore of literary science. The impact of Alar, and of certain other masterpieces of the Cambridge Sound, is like the emergence of complexity theory by gazing at areas of the physical world which had previously been written off as too perplexing or fine to measure: the arrival of a new instrument capable of fixing much finer time-intervals opens up an entire new world of phenomena, for which no words exist in our inherited language.
Arriving just a couple of weeks after Prynne's sensational return to form in For the Monogram, Alar offers us the vivid image of Counter-Cultural transcendence:
My almond and my stranger—
since there is no shade where we end, even broad daylight
asks a whiteness to burn by its steady archive: I heard you
once speak the green months, in joy to the immanence
each wild psalm failed, whose will was light and one
with the terminal exstase of the counterlife, and
never paled or trimmed but signed at the very lip
I hear now, bloodline
of the phoenix flamed,
the entire bit-thing,
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The