Bizarre Crimes of the Future
Nine fine flyaway goose truths: Bernache nonnette, by Grace Lake (Equipage, 1995, 15pp, £2)
Let's start with the title, of the pamphlet and the first poem. Bernache is a barnacle goose, so called because its young were supposed to grow out of barnacles which then became eels (in a variant, the barnacles grew on trees). Nonnette is also a kind of goose- actually, the same kind of goose- called "little nun" because its nests were nowhere to be found in northwest Europe, being safe in Greenland, and consequently its sex life was a mystery to Europeans. Tales about gooseberry bushes probably have the same folk-myth source. The theme is sexuality, coming into season, bearing, breeding, dreaming about the child's growth and birth, but only by periphrasis, substitution, fantasy, and camouflage. I think the phrase 'jars of tadpoles for aversion therapy' is a reference to the male essence. Grace wrote to me that "'Bernache Nonnette' is a concept that has found a name- Barnacle Goose, St. Bernach was an Irish monk who tried to settle a fight in the South of Wales. Nonnette is also gingerbread, & 9 of anything." Berdacus came to Wales and then I think Cornwall, and is mentioned in Gods with Stainless Ears, by Lynette Roberts), floating around the same legendary Atlantic shores in his coracle. It was the unfindableness of barnacle goose nests which led to the saw about a wild goose chase, and indirection, elusiveness, looping around, wild flights, resolutions withdrawn by subterfuge at the last minute, are structural rules in this book. The mystery nesting sites full of fluffy barnacle goslings are a figure both of some Mother Goose fairytale land and of a terrain of poetic fantasy, perhaps the society where we want to live. The goose story is in Pliny's Natural History and this reminds me of Maggie O'Sullivan's An un-natural history in 3 incomplete parts, also (I think) an attempt to challenge organised knowledge with personal experience. Fairy tales about female sexuality and reproduction, a kind of Mother Goose Gorgon; on waters where the wild tales spawn. Human sex life is a mystery too.
'Collegiate cooling her heels flapped by a stream of torrid bananas, motorized
Adjacent gazette, gassy, classey & yet, determined to leave with a spic if
Where is my piano the gangway awaits the conflict's secure it's pouring
Champagne's on the brain her name is charmaine she wears pink pyjamas She's going insane and when she arrives she'll catch fish alive and checkout again,
& again those maniacal, driven or not, unite to declare that red must rot.'
This is a dazzling rendition of the high life in six lines, a kind of hot jazz, but I think what the poet is thinking, much more darkly, about this dashing fashionable socialite-suffragette undergraduate type, as a threat, because of her superficiality, effortless (sexually mediated) social power, her selfishness; a danger to a middle-aged woman for all sorts of reasons, but among other things as a figure projected onto, a never-lived youth relived, a fable of lightness and gleam; while Lake renders this dazzling lam‚ folderol out of Flying Down to Rio to maximum effect, different emotional currents are under the surface, and in fact give it its shimmering quality. But almost immediately we move on to the next thing. The scene with the dressing-gown (AE Twelve and 'he found her in a dressing-gown, red, velvet, sitting in a kitchen knitting him/ Not breakfasting no not her, but complaint walked in with a tumblerful of peruvian gin') is played for laughs, but again I suspect there is a much darker emotional layer beneath, perhaps a relationship ending, perhaps a moment of extreme frustration with this man, the realisation that a whole life has to be given up and left. Aboutness is not one of BN's main qualities. It's hard for me to talk about it, knocking nails in with my head, without crumpling its lighter than air swing.
"'She Walked' is me, frogmarched off the Essex campus in 1970 by a fellow poet who didn't want me to be either single, younger than him or a Writer (...) I had been handed over-in the middle of a vast lyrical metropolitan exequy's composition (incepted by me & in the process of being incised upon paper) by a group who were writing for Tariq Ali's 'Black Dwarf' who wanted Politics not Poetry- to a strange flat in Stamford Hill where I was seized by a group armed with stolen chequebooks & weapons."
At one level, BN, and I think the whole of Lake's poetic work, is a critique of the determinism of left-wing discourse around 1970 and ever after, including official feminism, how it creates a new imaginary State which imagines the population in the bureaucratic terms of the old one, how it skimps the impossibility of imagining 58 million people as human agents by imagining them as quantities, like money, which can be housed and planned for. This is not an opposition of true-untrue or good-bad, but one of levels of porosity and granularity. Lake is a social poet, writing against something always being said. A lot of people, in the sixties, found the style of Marx and Freud about as credible as a speech by Harold Wilson; most of the poets who began in that decade, you could say, were attacking official knowledge. The problem was then to create a poetry which was simultaneous and constantly shifting and irrational but never falsifiable, seductively fluent, never slipping back into informativeness to explain what was going on, and, if Lake has found the perfect answer, it shouldn't be too hard for us to remember the question.
Prussian myzi, if only I could wait for your magnesium blue to hover
stone by stone over the shark finned ground, resonations floor me
I am told that I have reinvented my history, these fakes that have
Drifted by desire rather than by noble patriotic inclination, to be told this
Frozen kiss is a parasite berry that grows and governs our merriment
That we fall to habitude unaged & are given brown cloaks for mourning
To circle the lotus that catches the tip of the dragonfly's wing
And burning it into fruition find an exhaust pipe carved in braille
The war continues to charr the air with shot speech,
These are buried or placed on parole for comparing the language of war & /of peace
There is a large unknown Lake œuvre- stocked, allegedly, in eight bin-liners in Kevin Nolan's garage- which Karlien and Lucy, impetuous impresarie of Empress, are, somebody told me, looking at with the idea of publishing it. There have been previous sorties: a series of home-made, distributed hand to hand, photographed-manuscript feuilles volantes, of which our typographer, Ewan, has some; about ten pages, in 1986, in Nigel Wheale's magazine constant red/mingled damask; and a 1994 Equipage pamphlet, Viola tricolor. The biography in cr/md relates "One volume of poetry 1967-70 disappeared prior to publication. (...) Poetry published by Sheffield Free Press. A volume withdrawn from Common Ground Printing Co-operative following disputation over the licence of printers to censor." The question of Lake's unpublished work is probably the grandest issue of literary heritage now facing the officers of letters; but a 100% political person in a time of political whirlwind and speculation, in Stamford Hill or other geologically exposed points, may not have produced a heritage, "vast lyrical metropolitan exequies", on paper. It is the intact hopes carried as a burden by a generation of unrenegade idealists which will, I hope, govern the rest of our lives.
Reading this work aloud is like drinking melted Swiss chocolate. The last time I read it was at about 3am in a squat in King's Cross, to a room full mainly of film technicians. Everybody had a good time. There isn't ever a second where you drop off because it repeats itself or gives its hand away or lectures or does anything but startle and entrance.
BN was typeset in the next street by my neighbour, Ulli Freer, on a Mac which Sue brought home from work. Ulli is one of my heroes. However the lettering in BN is too small to read. Grace's ultra-long lines (so like Denise Riley's and Colin Simms', and are we seeing a trend here) persuaded him to hit the A5 format by going down to about 22 cpi, and it wasn't a good idea. Normally I would strip out the personal, household level, details, but in this review I think it's best to leave them in, since Lake is saying that objectivity is self-referential. The poet constantly raises punishments and accusations only to ridicule them. We see an administration falling apart, its fictions sent up and set as skits, with no trace of a new one coming down the road.
eyelash once eleven jonquil cibachromed en route
washington vacuous quay point sizzling palermo
messages visited square bank ochre charged by bolt
magnet, curtsey, falling out, back room rat:
white sliced delivery, spanish cake shop windows,
tiled frames fused infantry, grille, behind a face
a ransacked library, daubings, bricked out.
descriptive psychology dents & is reinforced
Concilia, the ultimate authority on goodness and holiness enacted by bishops and recorded in Latin in millstone leather folios, edited by Mansi, are by now re-adapted to cilia, eyelashes; a kind of froncer les Conciles, or fluttering your workers' and peasants' soviets.
Lake, who comes from Stockport in Cheshire, was out of doors during some rather febrile years, and her life was probably damaged a lot by trying to make life better; but history doesn't jump to anyone's beck and call, and when they're all in their forties I've no doubt we will be referring to people who graduated in the Eighties as sad victims of a fashion for being a semi-Nazi and reducing ideas to investments in self-esteem. Actually, what strikes me about Lake's earlier work is the switching between passages mocking rationality and earnestness, and passages in which pathos and earnestness were mixed in a didactic way, slowing things up seriously. In BN the formula has changed to eliminate the latter style- but the tragic and grandiose events are still present, to my ear, but now as merely one theme in a satisfyingly polyphonic whole.
Grace still has family in Russia and was probably more aware, even in 1968, of the facts of Left history than the would-be Cruel Father Eagles and cocorico coxcomb cadres of one of our own baby revolutions. Someone remarked- unfortunately I can't now remember who it was- on Khodasevich's sulky, rather negligent, nursery style, and I think that was an inspired remark. Kh. would be more popular with our Left if he had been a communist and written fo-fum Cum On Feel The Noiz poems about killing lots of people. Kh. wasn't an Acmeist, but a Moscow writer (and subsequently Paris, where he watched the ice form on the inside of his windows, o beneficent West), but I also think this applies to the Acmeists; they didn't want to write about great themes, but to write poetry continuous with childhood. There is that amazing effect in Mandelshtam's poem about the kulaks: Paykovye knigi chitayu,/ Pen'kovye rechi lovlyu,/ Groznoe bayushki-bayu/ Kulatskomu payu poyu.; out in the countryside, in the pure fields and the dreaming forests, six million people are dying, but he doesn't write a Grand Ode, but writes, listening to frothy speeches on the radio, a parodic lullaby with pa-pa and bay-bay sounds. Go bye-byes, good kulak. All fall down down. The greatest achievement of this line, however, is Tsvetayeva's The Rat-catcher (i.e. the Pied Piper of Hamelin) (Krysolov, 1926), and it is this which Bernache nonnette reminds me of most. It is written in an almost nursery diction, using devices (parallelism, one-word sentences) from riddles and fairy-tales, in fact set as a series of questions and answers (Whose Greta, actually?/ You're kidding!/ Whose Greta, did you think, did he pipe up-but the burgomaster's!), but with an irregular beat and phonetic echoing which are Futurist: Ospa v ospinu/ Chutka v chutochku/ Ch'yu zhe, sobstvenno/ Gretu? Shutite!. The rat-catcher, so seductive, so willingly followed, is Lenin. What Tsvetayeva and Mandelshtam- both victims of Leninism, although the death was imposed in different ways- were doing by writing as if the reader were three feet away, and part of their family, was saying that public life was so corrupt that the truth couldn't possibly be known about anything as far away as across the street. We live, not feeling any country beneath us, Our words not audible ten paces away. Who except for Lenin's catspaws has written a Grand Ode about anything since Lenin?
Well, poetry doesn't have to disintegrate just because the Grand Manner has fallen in with the Ministry of Famines. So language has retreated into the home. Grace constantly writes as if she were talking to children, a Mother Bernache Goose; I find this incredibly comforting. Julian Symons, one of the bity-whiny little communist geeks who hung around in the late Thirties (or was it the Seventies?) sneered at Cyril Connolly for printing "odd fag-ends of the Twenties bound together by no organised view of Life and Society, no stronger thread than his own erratic intelligence". The poetic history of the past 60 years has, it may be, been the exchange between the endeavour to make life monotonous, artificial, and governable and the passive task of writing poetry which is irrational, shimmering, and realistic. The cosmos is illogical when viewed on a small scale. So its large-scale logic is a failure of definition, an optical smear. 'Organisation' here means making your inner life artificially monotonous, and repressing deviance.
The other poet Lake reminds me of is Mayröcker; Mayröcker no.4, or whatever the count is, the one who writes in amazingly long lines that keep you constantly off balance, who plays up to the stereotype of being dotty and endearing (that collected volume is called the obsessed age), never makes a rational utterance, and never allows you to say "aha, I know what this situation is and can therefore make decisions". It's also like the dialogue written for the title role of La folle de Chaillot.
Then madam Mopstick came upon her merry bones. This line, in Smollett's novel Humphry Clinker, is spoken by a servant. Actually, it's rather a naughty remark, the kind you can imagine a rather old-fashioned kind of gay making after Someone has left the room. Another poetic Kapazität whom I occasionally babysit for always says, when someone talks about their domestic help, that she comes from the servant class, and I suspect that Grace feels the same way, especially when faced with people who have serious collegiate-bishopric jobs: on a hidden signal the music will stop and the head of household will firmly push her out of the back door and into the scullery. Although mixed with precise notes for paintings and passages of Bunyan and opera, this is a poetry of ragots d'office, a kind of sarky backstairs gossip, its brilliance of imitation has to do with needing to guess and fear someone's moods. A sociologist would probably say that women are the servant class. The snatches of French belong to the lexical field of couture and cuisine rather than grandes ecoles. I was entranced by that line in Smollett, and said that no writer could make up lines like that, but really Grace can and does. Tsvetayeva's book-length poem is composed entirely of lines like this. The marxist programme-claim that everything was connected filled the universe with a surplus of causal links which, once the programme was dissolved and forgotten, provided a splendid psychic model of excess where coherence never needed to be demonstrated, filling the room with a low-energy fluctuation like insect pheromones; this poetry is written to a mosaic vision of infinite fragments containing every possible order and fluctuating in a kind of tango of gematria.
- 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