No 1 - Spring 2001
Review of OTHER anthology
OTHER: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain, eds., Wesleyan University Press, 1999, 280 pp., ISBN: 0-8195-2241-4 Cloth $45.00, ISBN: 0-8195-2258-9 Paper $22.95)
A first read through of Caddel and Quartermain's introduction to Other raised some old, almost defunct, but still nagging questions. Other? What 'other'? Alternative, or alien, or what? A suppressed cutting edge of alsorans? You-think-you're-so-different? But equal? An amazing new strain that'll finally cure the common cold, or just something that sprang up in a petri dish left on a windowsill by some careless technician of the sacred in about 1963?
I remember a conversation with Fred D'Aguiar years ago where he said that one factor that made it difficult for young black writers to develop was that they were often so instantly over-praised and well-funded; that when Ken Edwards was being interviewed about the then almost-new The New British Poetry by Angela Rippon on Radio Two, the celebrated presenter compared the Black British poets to rap and was disappointed that Edwards failed to turn into Ice T (or Vanilla Ice) and perform one of their works. Years, careers later, D'Aguiar's "An English Sampler" ruminates on what it means to be a representative, but not, as he put it, "capitally British". The eyes of youth are upon you as you try to clamber onwards, after the initial leg-up, over "the anti-climb paint".
We can't climb those
walls, we won't be
try, not in the
such young people.
It's a good poem, honest – that offers the laurel of difficulty to those who might be tempted to come after.
Black writers seem to experience being 'othered' as simultaneous empowerment and infantilisation; benefits so fraught with paradox that they've sometimes been tempted to repudiate them altogether. I'm reminded of Amiri Baraka's thought that, historically, new black writers have had a sense of always being the first one, of having to make up writing from scratch; but if a classic like Wright's "Native Son" was about being 'othered' in the most drastic sense – complete expulsion from humanity – it was also a statement framed by Saturday Evening Post fears and by the conventions of crime fiction. It was a genre piece produced in a racist society.
Grace Nichols' poem "Black" seems willing to shrug off these symbolic burdens, or at least to wear them lightly, by being about the uses of a little black dress; but is unable to because of the continued existence of real racism, which here provides both a sting in the tail and poetic closure (the end of poetry? or the beginning?):
Stand around at a party
in black – you are your own artist,
your own sensual catalyst,
surprised to say the least
when black brings you
Those sudden inexplicable hostile glances.
Black poetry of this kind has been readily institutionalised as part of an official multi-culturalism; modernist-derived, or post-modernist poetries have long led a precarious life on the margins of universities, sometimes successfully spring-cleaned out of existence, sometimes clinging as stubborn lichen to ancient edifices or the failed utopian architecture of Other institutions. An outcome of this has been a poetry open to contemporary thought, a poetry that is at least seemingly more intellectual than that of the so-called Mainstream. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is nothing if not a poetry of what Edward Lucie-Smith once dubbed the Martians: "University Wits". Historically, and rhetorically, it has been a vehicle for intellectual outsiders or counter-academicians, but the old car of avant-gardism has now been driven by so many boot-hard-down PhD students that doubts have arisen as to the state of the gearbox. Why not though? Who, after all, would want to be a real outsider, a real cultural 'other'; reduced to moribundity, silence, death?
Probably the answers to these questions will depend on exactly where you were standing when the sun sank. Even at this date I've heard tenured individuals complain that they 'don't understand' poetry not written in traditional English metrics, or that the work of a particular young multicultural candidate is praiseworthy for the ingenious way it 'rhymes all the way through', or that all proponents and enthusiasts of post-Modernist poetries are just 'stuck in the sixties'. Perhaps they've got a point. Isn't it still largely a case of "more or less reluctant students" as Richard Aldington pointed out some time ago? And if any of them should start writing themselves (the slower ones, who like poetry) they can sometimes be embarrassingly better than famous 'New British Poets'.
It's a bit depressing to be caught between, on the one hand, poetries that can only be validated by academies, and, on the other, a homogenised, often anti-intellectual culture in its polite or populist variants: between the mob and the man in blue. The pity is that, in the case of a poet like Lee Harwood, to cite an early instance of what was (in his case, and a great many others) an English version of New York School and Black Mountain writing, a poetry once existed that was fresh, speech-like, and spoke of that portion of the world lying outside warring academic or poetic factions:
Trains rush through the night,
across country through suburbs past factories oil refineries dumps,
the lights from their windows quickly disturbing the dark fields and woods
or the railway clutter as they pass through town,
staring in at the bare rooms and kitchens
each lit with its own story that lasts for years and years.
A whole zig-zag path, and the words stumble and fidget
around what has happened.
This, from Harwood's "A poem for writers", has both a humanist politics of politics and a modest politics of writing (poetry is, finally, inadequate to or at least apart from the lived, historical complexities with which it must try and inevitably fail to grapple). His characteristic mode is a kind of fluttering, heart-in-the-mouth intensity: authenticity consists in circling, always; attempting to name what lies outside or beyond words: interpersonal moments, emotional realities that can only be pointed to, as it were, off-stage. How brilliant that someone believes in this. It's his main theme, along with one he inherits from John Ashbery, about the lack of fit between unfolding experience and the inherited stories through which we try to live.
Pointing off-stage is a political move, a rhetorical trick (though Harwood has an ability, again and again, to make it seem like it isn't, and thereby to make it work.) Double-dealing: it's almost a definition of politics. And anthologies are always political, always pointing off-stage or standing before a painted backdrop of armies. At the lowest level there are the inevitable 'scene' factors: who's in, who's out; reputations, personal contacts. There's even a politics of the editors' list of might-have-been-but weren'ts, as well as the familiar cussing out of poetic officialdom. Secondly, the editors' literary politics come into play; their generational prejudices and allegiances. Caddel and Quartermain apparently favour Objectivist-derived work, an old-fashioned socialist and 'localist' stance, with Robert Sheppard doing double duty as sex-and-history poet: that was the twentieth century that was: a buggy ride.
Of the selections from his Twentieth Century Blues included in Other, I liked especially "Empty Diary: 1990". Its portrait of a woman walking inthe city and mouthing 'service' phrases at work, could perhaps have come from any decade; but Sheppard's sense that she is a 'new agent' moving out beyond familiar representations of herself is a refreshing and attractive way of leaving something for the future:
These people too easily
file somebody else's history, their own shadows
jumping out across windscreens to greet them
And finally, after the trumpeted conceptions of what is being represented, the metaphysical swim-bladders, comes the show itself. Raymond Williams famously pointed out a cleavage in the word 'representation', meaning, in its political senses, both 'to make present' and 'to stand in the place of'. To replace. Such categories are from the ground-plans of a critical theory that, when it finally arose from the post-war rubble, suspiciously resembled a shopping precinct; but the literarycultural politics of Other still revolve around that good old shadowpuppeteering in the gap between the symbolic and the mandated actual. Really, it's just a matter of finding jobs for existing personnel; a politics of representations provides a clear-enough focus, appropriate to both soil and season. But hasn't all this 'othering' turned into rhetorical double-dealing?
In the imaginary res publica of Other, even chickens speak, as in Peter Finch's amusing "Scaring Hens". OK, so not the chickens themselves, but their more articulate herders. We should be grateful to him for so usefully preserving the argot of one of the world's unnecessary jobs. (Why bother chasing them around? Why not just let them sit there?) "Living in the world is a demanding and scrupulous business." An anthology is a complex organism, made out of so many choices and considerations, more than their sum, and forever cut across by decisions which are of the time of their making. By mistakes that will take on a life of their own. And it will all look different when you turn around at the corner, each of its small windows lit with its own story that goes on for years and years: a lot of lives you were holding in your hand. Cambridge poet John James has a strong claim to be the best English disciple of Frank O'Hara, particularly of what the New York poet-curator called his 'I do this, I do that' poems. O'Hara's work made its exquisite order out of the rapidly notated perceptions and sensations of a restless urban (gay) subjectivity; James's poems seem to be mainly about chasing women around the dreaming spires. "Shakin' All Over" gets it all in, a celebration of male heterosexuality from "dip your head in the basin & go" to "shoulderblade pressed into the mattress", a pile-up of the detritus of an accelerated consciousness (the Stickies = Official Sinn Fein, influential on Communist Party Irish policy in the 1970s) monitored by razor-sharp line-breaks that place and replace self on its journey through and amongst the features of a physical and human environment.
Frank O'Hara's celebration of the temporary usually had an undertow of pain; his repudiations of regret expressed it so well; he had an ability to turn on and mock his own babbling sensibility, ruefully, reflectively; and to move us with him from somewhere to somewhere else by the end of a poem. James similarly manages to 'get it all in', but doesn't often pull back from his own buccaneering persona. One result of this is that his work brims with a sense of possibility in the pursuit of women; a magic and promise is found in the objects that surround and appear to define them. (Aren't they just wonderful!) He holds back from a recognition of any delusoriness in all of this; but thereby avoids breast-beating or misogyny.
Denise Riley is a feminist equivalent of this branch of Cambridge poetry, so often preoccupied with the "silly fizz" of consciousness. She's more intellectual than James, or seems it, more swervingly ironic in her presentation of self; turns on a dime from effusion to self-analysis. Her much reprinted "A Misremembered Lyric" is again included in Other. It's a post-Berrigan sonnet charting the middle-aged reflections of a woman listening to the songs of her teenage years on the radio (to suggest an obvious situation of utterance) whose crux is not quite the usual feminist rejection of the teen love-and-angst lyrics of songs like The Cascades' "Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain", but a continued investment of adult emotion in them; the songs we listened to remain, willy-nilly, as emotional benchmarks. Riley's worry (the "fear thought" that "something hadn't gotten hold of your heart" after all: of not having had much of a heart in the first place) is that she has fallen short of their intensities.
But there's a self-acceptance in this. "Do shrimps make good mothers?" Well, maybe, maybe not: they just do it. Riley ridicules the moralizing absurdities that surround women-as-mothers (shrimps just spawn and swim away, I suppose) and the difficulties all of us face – reprise – in trying to make an intelligible, livable sense out of the self-conceptions we inherit. The rain lyrics remain usefully cathartic; ways of touching base with parts of ourselves that will always seem most 'true'. Readers are often in difficulty as to the ways in which this poetry is exactly formal; but the musicality and exactness of a poem like Geraldine Monk's "South Bound: Facing North" is hard to miss. It's a matter of atuning yourself to different ways of making word music, the traditional marshalling of vowel and consonantal sounds, and (trying to encapsulate Donald Davie's Articulate Energy in a sentence) of using line-breaks as an element in poetic syntax to create tensions against which the 'prose' syntax strains: of setting up deferred expectations of harmonic resolution, so that syntax becomes an element in music:
Such warmth is uncouth
Such warmth leads to
the thick hiss and prodding fingers
of sun and subway
Listen: on the downwind
fuff fuff fuff
crawl and cluck
from flat and misspelt eyes
Hens again. Always faffing about. Believing themselves to be dolphins, or sea-cows. I've always thought Monk the most genuinely musical woman poet in this area, her sonic elements so sensuous and foregrounded that it seems legitimate to describe her work as 'feminine writing' if the senses in which that term is commonly used are legitimate at all, if we are allowed to add nasty wit to them. She could even be accused of over-egging the pudding; the cake Denise Levertov sometimes left in the oven when she went out dancing in a pair of silver shoes. But none of this is to do justiceto Monk's achievements as a poet; the fiendish formal mirrorings of"Quaquaversals", the joky subversion of biker-myths in "Hallowe'en Bikers" and of female mystery-mongering in her early "Spreading the Cards". Tom Raworth's poetry has shown the greatest power of regeneration of any writer working in this area. I've heard his work objected to as flat or toneless, defended for its rapid shifts of tone and idiom. "Future Models May Have Infra-Red Sensors" – an early seventies poem – is miraculously buoyant in this respect; sounds like nothing you've read before or since. A crazily witty piece, it's a reflection on money and food, among other things. "He who will not work shall not eat," according to St Paul, the cornerstone of socialist morality some used to say. ("He who will work shall give birth to his own father," George Oppen added hopefully.) Raworth's flippant take is:
why don't you ever go
to work and earn money?
invest your money here
why don't you try it yourself
i'm on guard duty
with the armoured car
It's so light, so speedy, about disassociation, that all important evasion of the conditions of one's own existence ("money talks. i just don't understand"): preconditions, perhaps, for choosing to pursue an interest in something as valueless as poems. "Future Models" turns into an Emmet Miller-style dialogue with the police: in which, of course, the speaker is faux-naif, pretending not to understand the agendas of authority in order to evade them, to escape definition. Stupid? Or just acting dumb? "Future Models" is a comedy of investment, circulation that takes place in a kind of parodied 'multicultural' republic of stereotyped ethnicities and floating place relationships, a bunkered American cornucopia that contains everything, where the car journey from Hillcrest (The Next Village) could turn out to take longer than a normal lifespan. His title refers to the use of close formal models; a "future model" will be able to see what is underneath the poem, its hidden structure, the model or template it may be built over: another precondition, maybe, for being so fast and free, so buzzily preoccupied with surfaces.
"Dark Senses" takes us back into Raymond Williams country, still hand-weaving and unravelling a politics of representations, "a system of reflections ordering/the necessity of ornament", and is thoroughgoing negation of the literary politics of Other. For Raworth, it appears, he's just another white man speaking with forked tongue:
forgive me, it's a dream
standing alone, waving
in search of its lost era
not just geography
walking parallel streets
of tropical flames
with a political broom
ominous as a smoke signal
I find it a bit difficult to write about this poem, in part because it was me who followed "the trail of pearl lightbulb shards" to find a factory where a man in a tree had once lamented the theft of his mother's name:
it couldn't've been a more'n few hours later when i happened to be passing
by again – in the spot where the tree was, a lightbulb factory now stood –
"did there used to be a guy here in a tree?" i yelled up to one of the
windows – "are you looking for work?" was the reply … it was then when
i decided that marxism did not have all the answers
One of my favourite sections of Bob Dylan's "Tarantula" ('chug a lug – chug a lug/hear me holler hi dee ho') has found its way into "Dark Senses" along with what look like a number of other references to my stories, conversation. I seem to have become such a popular subject for poetry; I feel like one of the factory girls in Herman Melville's "The Paradise of Batchelors and the Tartarus of Maids", after she's had the roses squeezed out of her cheeks and onto paper.
But it's a brilliant poem (despite that!) and great on the ways in which the frame-locked morass of discourses that constitute literary studies have both invoked and excluded working-class people; who far from answering back to the police, are silently deferential, seemingly unwilling to contradict educated folk. Another witty piece, its humour is blacker than the whimsically parodied minstrelsy of "Future Models" – whose possibility of a cheekily evasive response has been supplanted by a gaudily attired, humanly denuded post-modern landscape, a sense of human encounter now reduced to a local post-marxist weather prophet's prediction of "striking spatial effects/if the mask is joyful" amongst his female students.
"Dark Senses" is haunted by lost possibilities that somehow manage to hang on, to recur as ironic, denied:
they did not break
under their own weight
the experience of generations
proved far more effective
a devil's dictionary reworking of Marx that holds out the reverse possibility of standing on your own feet, learning from the past. If you can. And you can. Because, fortunately, we aren't quite the "unthinking insects" that circumstance and poetry have made of us. A class 'other' is quite likely to be much spoken of, impersonated by someone with a funny accent, but silenced, erased – while culture theorists burrow away at their next publication, another "sublime gesture/opposed to voice or argument" in the wonderful world of the mirroring machines. Never mind. There's always the happy thought that the written word isn't fully binding on real human beings. Finally, thankfully, the whole despairing, millennial mess "washes away in close-up". Bill Griffiths is another counter-culture survivor, partaking of the ambience of the Moon Fair or, earlier, the biker squat; a literary anarchist whose work is characterised by, among other things, its frequent borrowings from various vernaculars, ancient and contemporary, real and invented, Romany and defunct biker talk woven together into an imagined or invented popular culture never has been, never will be. British popular culture reimagined by a foreigner, perhaps. His preoccupations are Black Mountain or Buntingesque, his main influences possibly Michael McClure and Eric Mottram. Geraldine Monk's "La Tormenta" bears the clear marks of his influence on this younger writer:
Cravedaze. Not half.
Half-not cut. Enough.
Rubbed crumpled eyelids
seez duty freez vanish.
Who put wild water in this roar?
Part of the interest of Griffiths' poetry – his recent long political poem about the Toxteth riots of 1981, "Mr Tapscott", for example – lies in its attempt to make every aspect of the work political: proceeds from this publication are donated to the campaign to free Ray Gilbert and John Kamara (the still unjustly imprisoned Toxteth Two); what might be seen as a failing is that such a politics can only be gestural, is unlikely to be appreciated by anyone who lives in the real world and is plainly not addressed to the present but to past senses of community. And, in this case, to the communities of others:
the ripe people of the Lord
of the pipe of the chosen knotted
heads of Jah, my daughter
will you ever now leave Babylon?
trying to break into paradise
the zig-zag breath
bringing the world more in
taking and tuning power
'n firing the most out – the body
The moment of riot celebrated here now two decades gone. Still, this sense of a lost community or communities remains very strong in his work, as does a child-like pleasure in everyday contacts and incidents; moments of communality to be clutched at as they pass, relived in memory:
little Jo wakes me up
with a kick a little poke a kid laugh
I go an' twist Alf's feet (a bit more malice)
later bang on Pete's window
an come an try an think up an excuse for me
(Fragment 4, from "Building: The New London Hospital")
The poet's whole being has been built around such shared moments, and without the tenderness of a community of friends they conjure into temporary/permanent existence, he is lost, inexcusable.
Griffiths has been 'done' now; essayed by a leading academic, introduced by Iain Sinclair. You might even suspect him of being a 'designer' working-class writer, be tempted to place him as a Levi-Strauss bricoleur, "C'llecting aly too, some little copper"; he seems always to have had half an eye on that, but it's yet another 'othering' move that makes a 'naive' artist out of someone who isn't; and his assemblages – whether lashups or acorns of light – contain meditated upon classics, rewrites of John Clare, philosophies gutted and reversed, just about anything else you might find in a pirate's sack: booty, all of it. Years ago, as a paperback blurb writer, I grasped the truth about poetic double-dealing. That you were always advertising something to somebody as something it wasn't: good, usually. Then there were the soon-familiar idioms of various genres; a certain glibness you had to acquire in manipulating them. All you could do was not try very hard. Even if you did, you became parsimonious with your attention, your energies. Just give them one word of your own. Throw in a few private jokes for the benefit of various lost acquaintances who might pick it up years later off a revolving rack in a holiday island's gift shop. Read About The Past Lives Of Your Favourite Eastenders. When you got it right the figures would jump up the screen and you could sit back, smiling, as somebody else – an editor, Brighton's star rep ("but John Ashbery is wearing flares!") – took the credit. It seems funny. Until "Medical Block: Buchenwald" arrives on your desk; and you realise you're not as clever as you thought.
The final tumbler clicked when Kelvin Corcoran's "Qiryat Sepher" dropped through the letterbox:
buried and shining in the streets
the articulate speech you taught me
my kind king, I send you a line
This doesn't quite seem enough anymore, it never was. Just brings together a few things: the Famous Williams Brothers, Walter Benjamin, a halfsubverted populist version of Adorno (don't ask me to explain that); residua of a seminar on the social implications of the sonnet, of Personism. Condensare. Being a miserable bastard it occurred to me that the reply was likely to turn out to be a message from a dead man. But it still has an amazing freshness and directness; a clarity. You just have to go on from it, perhaps, as Corcoran has in "Music of the Altai Mountains", in which his address has become an identically-speaking race in a parallel universe, so he said, though I can't seem to find "if you speak like us, say so" in this version; the "one question" has been deleted. Possibly because he knows, or fears, that there can be no answering voice, just
careering subjects released from rhetoric
smacked up against the white wall (?)
or because he answers the question himself later in the poem. For Corcoran there turns out to be no legitimate 'other'; not honestly; no truly different 'outside' of Western culture. The imagined aliens of his Brigadoon can only answer back "armed to the teeth/with the culture they despise" and he is returned to Cheltenham to contemplate the "real, unexceptional vehicles." My main criticism of this carefully raked Japanese sand garden of an anthology – and I like more of the poets than I've been able to write about – is that there are too few writers under forty in it. Fred D'Aguiar and Amryl Johnson (just), Rob MacKenzie and Catherine Walsh. Fine. But one reason that this poetry seems not to perpetuate itself – in the anthologies, anyway – is its relatively static personnel, compared to a mainstream that seems continually fed by fresh tributaries.
But there is a unique community of letters here; it's one that won't come again, and one that has clearly provided an intellectual context for many writers. I only hope it'll all go on. At present though it's a bedraggled, deleted community that has recently lost its vowel and its consonant: Douglas Oliver and Barry MacSweeney. The latter's Pearl is excerpted in Other; and I think it's amongst his best work.
MacSweeney was a great cracker out of lines, quite a phrasemaker, but not much of a politician. "The light of recovery is a format": no, sadly it really was recovery. And if you really got a free pet with every cage there'd be a considerable run on those little boxes made of ticky-tacky, by lonely, hopeful men. The notorious 'bad boy' poet certainly made his feelings about DIY well-known: perhaps somebody had once asked him to do some, or he was chagrined that they hadn't.
I would not let her in. I
discovered my ability as
snapped at the wrist.
I ate my fist.
The doubts are bicycles in the
We sucked the floor.
MacSweeney made a bee-line for sexual politics, permanently bugged by it all, deeply engaged by agendas that in his case seemed to be red rags to a raging, wounded bull. Stalking the feminism/misogyny-line with a drunk's surefootedness, he worked hard to make up for it all in Pearl: another attempt at giving voice to the inarticulate, this time an illiterate girl whom the poet is teaching to read and write. Another role for the imaginary father – to bring inchoate Pearl into the symbolic order of language – it's really heartfelt, touching.
Try to describe Pearl and she'll escape you: cleft palate, roofless mouth, caverns measureless to man. A wild-girl fantasy, cowshit on her legs and arson on her mind. Or just a typical adolescent girl. In her he has created a working-class character so bereft of voice that his poem can only be about his conceptions of her. "What is this silence –" Pierre Macherey asks, "an accidental hesitation or a statutory necessity?" Pearl's silence conceals that she herself is a disconcertingly bookish creation. But through her unteachability, her imagined relation to the natural world and what occurs when their eyes meet – stubborn refusal – he approaches those for whom written culture will always be a blank slate, blank slates themselves, on which 'culture' can make only the faintest of marks. Whether as teacher or lover-in-disguise he both cajoles her and pushes her further away; but what he writes on her is tactful and tender:
There is no adoration in my mute appeal.
My tongue a pad or cone for the trumpet's bell.
Tongue-tied, bereft of ABC, I lap
and soak my whistle at the law's rim.
In mood moments
I say smash down the chalkboard:
let it stay black.
Don't count on me for fun
among the towering cowslips,
but please don't crush my heart.
There's an excellent tape in the records cupboard at Essex University, of Barry MacSweeney in 1968, an arrogant visiting child-star of poetry reeling out verse after verse: here's a pop poem, it's crap, here's one about my boss, can't stand the bastard (I expect he was the blue-eyed boy, really), a page from a Kerouacian novel, a Poundian sex poem, a Chinese one, a this, a that; and the audience, and this listener years later, wanted it to go on and on. A real poet, a singing voice, and if you didn't know you'd want to know and want to be amazed by what had become of him. Douglas Oliver did more or less everything in poetry. I suppose from his strictures on Iain Sinclair in "White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings" his favourite philosopher might have been Iris Murdoch. In all his work – novels, love poetry, narrative political poems, formalist experiments, dialogues with the dead – there's such a dedication to her idea of the good; or perhaps just to a political idea of the good that includes inwardness, that he might be taken for a bit of a milksop, if you didn't know just how difficult it is to live in this world as a freelance humanist poet-politician.
I rode with him in a taxi once; at least walked part of the way back from an Indian Restaurant on St John's Street, Colchester. Said he reminded me of Auden, which pissed him off. I always seem to get it wrong. But it was the New York School connection, the fact that he was an English poet Ashbery and O'Hara liked – for the plain-man-speaks persona of things like '1st September 1939'; and also that Oliver too was a political poet with religious edges. It was mainly his late poems from "A Salvo for Africa" that reminded me of Auden; in which he was "a poet prosing alongside you,/a stranger, half-turning in his enthusiasms". And that difficulty about having an available position from which to speak; one that made sense to anyone else, as Auden's once had, confident that "Ironic points of light/Flash out wherever the Just/Exchange their messages." He wouldn't have it though. Auden was trash. So perhaps there wasn't that much to it after all. But he was an old-fashioned kind of public poet, which is where I think he had his greatest hits; and in his beautiful early love poetry.
The selections in Other could be taken as a kind of cruel synopsis of his career. Though I'm sure Caddel didn't mean it that way. There's the famous "Oracle of the Drowned", about seeing your own death prefigured in the first dead man you see; a word game; and two late poems relating to Paul Celan. "Walnut and Lily" is about choosing a jacket and tie, changing your mind; there's a dream of cracking open walnuts like the compound words in Celan's poems. Deciding to wear tweed in a refusal of 'Celanian black', Oliver unpicks the ill-chosen tie like a 'nutty' word-knot; and in that descent into mock-fastidiousness there's a saving self-deprecation: an admission that it's the little things that keep you going.
"A Little Night" is another poem about death, closer this time – a
dreamed of funeral that's attended by
delegates from the governments of poetry
and from their industries, who appear
only as reflections of shoulders.
Hostility of moths round the candles.
Hostility of mouths still saying "coffin."
True, if very sad. But Paul Celan was always, always a poet of death, looking in photographs like an early member of the magic circle: a conjuror's smile, too-beautiful eyes. His cards – aces and eights – were the most difficult to play of any twentieth century poet's. Terror of memory, impossibility of recovery. The guilt-loop: to represent is to profit, to forget is to betray. Doug Oliver would be better remembered as a life poet; always trying to find a way forward, half-turning in his enthusiasms: affirming flame. I'm starting to feel a bit like the litany-repeating addressee of Linton Kwesi Johnson's "Mi Revalueshanary Fren" ("Honicka/e ad to go/Chowchesku/e ad to go"); or the poet who replies to him:
wat a way di eart a run nowadays, man
it gettin aadah by di day
fi know whey yu stan
cauz wen yu tink yu deh pan salid dry lan
wen yu teck a stack yu fine yu ina quick-san
yu noh notice ow di lanscape a shiff
is like valcanoe andah it an notn cyaan stap it
cauz tings jusa bubble an a bwoil doun below
strata sepahrate an refole
an wen yu tink yu reach di mountin tap
is a bran-new platow yu goh buck-up
Quicksand, the folding and refolding of geological strata: is that a paraphrase of Marx? Shelley? I still haven't unpacked the books. Something like that, anyway. It reminds me of St Augustine's "I am scattered in times whose order I don't understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts … until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you." Except that, well, the world does make some sort of sense, doesn't it? And who couldn't like the thought of climbing higher and higher? Of having the energy? I'm sure Mr Johnson will be encouraged by the thought that, according to Alvin Tofler, each accelerated and therefore shorter interval of change is 'worth more' than the last.
He has written the most intelligent political poem in Other, in dialogue with himself , whom he has effectively othered. These frames are a tangled criss-crossing of "overlapping territories, intertwined histories" (Said): histories that have carved up the world; discourses that have failed, really, either to explain it or to justify it. Problems and torsions this well-made book stages but is unable to resolve; contradictions it can only put on display or hold in momentary equilibrium. And as a sympathetic reader I began to suspect myself of being the holder of a world view that doesn't quite make sense: rooted in forms of oppositional thinking that I find myself half in hock to, but of which I'm wholly sceptical: on a blind narrow ledge from which many of us would like to find a new route up and over the anti-climb paint.
I'm troubled though because St. Augustine seems to have had a pretty good understanding of his times. So does Linton Kwesi Johnson. He remains for me one of the most astute of Black British poets. However 'naturalised' and therefore convention-bound his idiom may have become, he is still able to defamiliarise the dialect of his poems, and milk a further concentration of attention from it. His concerns have remained the same since the beginning; but he mines them with an economy and a dry wit that ensure his work always stands out from its surroundings: true heir of Edward Kamau Brathwaite – and, like the other black poets, of modernist poetics: not other at all. "For how long a time did I fail to see," Augustine again, "that these syllables take twice the time of that single short syllable.
- 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, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- 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