The name of John Rodker is hardly known today and until this book the work had virtually vanished from sight. This is rather surprising, for as the proprietor of the Ovid Press, he was the publisher of Eliot, collections of drawings by Wyndham Lewis and Gaudier-Brzeka, as well as the first publisher of Pound's Mauberley and Cantos 17-26. He was also the printer of Eliot's 'Bel Esprit' circular. And it worked both ways as his novella Adolphe 1920 was published by Pound in Exile, and earlier he had contributed to The New Age, The Egoist and Poetry. So it is obviously strange that it has taken so long for this minor modernist writer who was so deeply involved with the redefining of Literature between the wars, to be rediscovered.
Rodker was born in Manchester in 1894 and had little formal education, learning French and German at evening classes. He succeeded Pound as the editor of The Little Review and until his death in 1955 remained a publisher publishing work by Le Corbusier, Valéry, as well as his own verse Hymns and his translation of Lautréamont's The Lay of Maldoror.
Andrew Crozier's excellent Introduction shows what an odd character Rodker was — not only very definitely of the Modernist movement, but also because of his family, intimately connected with the East End Jewish world of Rosenberg, Mark Gertler and David Bomberg, the last designed the cover for his first book. Crozier has made a careful selection of the poems from published and manuscript sources, the text of the novella is that of The Aquila Press edition of 1920.
So what is all the fuss about? Are the poems any good? Well, yes some are, but others are wide of the mark and one can see the reason for his neglect. This from 'Dead Queens' is nothing more than a pastiche of various modernist poems.
Women of large hips, small breasts,
And high white shoulders,
Red hair plaited
And pale steadfast eyes,
You are the high romance —
Lilith, Iseult and Guinevere;
You were strong lovers,
Not caring to be loved,
Although Rodker gave up writing verse sometime during the twenties and turned to prose there are some extraordinary fine short poems particularly those that use the Modernist tone with a conventional metre and end rhyme such as 'Nude with Wrist- watch', 'Under the Trees VII', 'Words' or this from 'Lines to an Etruscan Tomb'.
But could not. Stone did. Here she lies
half leaning. I feel her hand. For the eyes
now wide on the dark I gave boys
girls boats and plunging porpoise.
For a while, stone. She flying, then Death
caught her, he was grimmer, beneath
the dense unyielding stone
shoved; in her rests with mine, bone on bone.
He also tackled the prose poem, something that rarely works in English but in Rodker's hands is interesting and may be shows how he moved away from verse to the curious novella Adolphe 1920. In its day this was considered to be the next step on from Ulysses and undoubtedly there are Joycean overtones. Pound thought it important and in a letter to his father says 'As to the Rodker: I think he gets more into the 90 pages (that makes the complete nouvelle) than most novelists get into 300.' The most obvious similarity being that the novella covers a single day in the protagonist's progress from 'What has slit up his sleep? His eyes opened but then closed again. Piercing sweet the dawn star pierced him, his bowels shivering...' through to the last paragraphs where once again sleep returns. 'He was falling asleep. There was a cave.'
Other prose pieces and sketches show how important the newly emerging world of psychoanalysis was to the contemporary writer struggling to fmd a new way of making identity itself part of the narrative process. There is a strange morbidity in much of the prose and occasionally in the poems. Such as this from 'War Museum — Royal College of Surgeons'.
And here is a stomach
with a large hole.
And another — very pale
which died of gas.
And many spinal cords clotted by fever.
Another — chest clean open
like a basket of fruit
rotting in verdigris;
speckled purple and umber.
He too is a number.
Rodker's work is too inconsistent to add much to the Modernist canon; but this book is valuable, as it shows that writers like Rodker indicated other avenues that Modernist literature could have travelled. Anyone interested in the period and perhaps wondered who the Rodker in Pound's letters was will find this book a necessary addition to their shelves.