Midamble, Peter Jaeger, if p then q, 2018, 420 pp, £12.00, ISBN: 978-1999954703
Peter Jaeger’s Midamble is a big book in every sense, although constructed from small units, a mosaic of phrases and sentences, each one functioning like the famous first step in the journey of thousand Li, a proverb that, as it happens, is referenced in the book.
It consists of two bodies of text, ‘Variations for Walkers and Pilgrims’ and ‘Relics’, presented in parallel, eleven lines of text top and bottom of a commodious page, with a broad white band between them. ‘Variations’ is built around a simple sentence pattern, a present participle clause (in one instance, a past participle clause), followed by a main clause in the past tense with ‘we’ as subject. ‘Relics’ reads like, and may well be, the index to a vast survey of world religions, presented as continuous unpunctuated prose. The music, rich music, of the book derives from variation and repetition within the pattern.
The title sets out in a single word the parameters of the book. On one level, it is what it says, moments caught mid-walk and apparently noted down. Then you’re reminded of ‘preamble’ and see that each sentence of the ‘Variations’ text is action without introduction while ‘Relics’ is backmatter without a book. After a time, it occurs to the reading mind that the white band runs through the book like an old straight track, a walk between the ambles above and below. One thread that runs through the ‘Variations’ text is the derivation of the word saunter from the French sans terre (without land) and à la sainte terre (to the sacred place); the emphasis being on slow, aimless walking, the proper mode for pilgrimage.
And then there’s a whole other meaning in the domain of computer networking. To quote Wikipedia: ‘In computer networks, a syncword, sync character, sync sequence or preamble is used to synchronize a data transmission by indicating the end of header information and the start of data. The syncword is a known sequence of data used to identify the start of a frame, and is also called reference signal or midamble in wireless communications.’ It could be argued that each new sentence in ‘Variations’ (the text that most of this review focuses on) is a metaphorical midamble in this sense.
The sentences in ‘Variations’ are discrete moments in a narrative, sometimes more or less linked to those around them, but more often not, with a good deal of repetition of half or whole sentences in new configurations at a distance from each other, and extended ‘chains’ binding together long stretches of text. For example, across several hundred pages the main clause takes the form ‘we (all) became Christians/Buddhists/Hebrews/Sufis/Taoists/Romantic/Etc.’ These repetitions are, as I already suggested, part of the music of the work, but they also mirror the iterative nature of walking, one step the same as and different to every other step, along with the frequent sense that you’ve walked past that same tree, house or rock already and may be going around in circles.
Equally, the structure of and relationships between the clauses is used to provide variety. Sometimes both clauses are simple and short, sometimes one or both are long and complex, with commas or em dashes used to pile up subclauses, especially in the first half of the sentence. Sometimes the semantic relationship between he clauses is straightforward, more often it’s oblique and elusive. Another source of variation lies in the formal register of the sentence structure, which is occasionally ruptured by the introduction of demotic vocabulary.
The concerns addressed are those you might expect from pilgrims, including, but not limited to: food, drink and shelter; the weather; walking gear and equipment; people encountered along the way; people missed; minor injuries; and getting lost. There’s a good deal of choral and ‘call and response’ singing of one sort or another, a lot of writing things down, and occasional moments of transcendence:
Learning that walking brought us to a moment of ultimate presence, especially in the cool breeze and shade of the afternoon, we could not even speak.
Reading the text, you become aware immediately of the way Jaeger incorporates quotes and references to poetry and song, usually walking-related, into his work. The first page, for example, evokes Dante, Frost and Wordsworth:
Finding ourselves in a dark wood where the straight road no longer lay, we were often simple. Walking in order to research where we were in relation to our desire, we remembered surface. Coming across two roads that diverged in a wood, we stepped into the wood. Beginning nowhere, going, nowhere and arriving nowhere, we deepened the level. Wandering lonely as a cloud, we thought ourselves mannered.
(As an aside, this passage shows some of the variations outlined above.)
While the last page, the third from last sentence in ‘Variations’, gives us two TS Eliot near-endings:
Arriving at where we had started once again but knowing that place for the first time, we heard the mermaids sing.
The poet most often referenced is Eliot, especially ‘Prufrock’, but Frost makes several appearances, along with Coleridge, Basho, Yeats, The Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Sandy Denny, Tennyson, Dylan Thomas and others. The cumulative effect is to add a dimension (of time or depth, perhaps) to the idea of pilgrimage beyond the experience of the immediate subject ‘we’, a sense underlined by the constant ground bass of the ‘Relics’ text.
plagues of frogs and lice plans for a pilgrimage to jerusalem plato and the buddha on death meditations playing truant from the posture to reveal the spontaneous asana to your constitution please call me by my true name pleasure and happiness pleasure plough pose ploughing plum blossoms plumbing the source poem before words
To quote a passage at random.
This is further emphasised by the fact that the narrator is walking variously through Spain, India, China, Japan, Australia and England, not a single pilgrimage, but Pilgrimage. The England sections contain frequent references to Alfred Watkins and the idea of leys, which connects the work to artists like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton:
Following a shortcut which ran straight for miles and miles across the moor and which was lined with pre-historic barrows, we marked them with an X.
Again, the white space running through the book seems to be implicated here.
The land art connection is highlighted in Jaeger’s performance in a rural setting which is available on video.
Interestingly the performance is from the ‘Variations’ text alone, which we can see here presented as a continuous prose piece, underlining my sense that ‘Relics’ is essentially intended to be seen and not read, or at most dipped in to. One interesting aspect of Jaeger’s reading is the definite pauses between sentences, which went counter to my own more ‘hurried’ reading. Jaeger’s practice highlights the discrete nature of each captured moment, and this in turn caused me to reflect on a mention of the Mu koan in ‘Variations’. If Mu is the gateway to perception, then perhaps Jaeger wants his readers/listeners to consider each sentence in the ‘Variations’ text as a gateway into the book as a whole, as each new step on the amble is a new beginning, and a new vantage point. If so, it seems almost foolish to read the book as a narrative with an end point, yet images of arrival permeate the closing pages, specifically arrival at the traditional destination of the Camino, Santiago de Compostela. And then, there’s the final sentence, a deliberate flatness so soon after the heightened expectations set up by the Eliot references quoted above:
Reaching the plaza at last, we thought, well, whatever.
On one level, this can be read as the sense of disappointment that accompanies the end of any journey where the getting there was more important than the arrival. But it can also be read as a very 21st century translation of that traditional end word, Amen.
Which thought leads me, finally, to reflect for a moment with one thing which I, as a reader without religion, struggled with at first when reading a text so redolent with religious ideas and images. In the end, it seems to me that Jaeger is positing the notion, strongly reinforced by ‘Relics’, that all religions are equally valid, and, by the same token, equally meaningless. In the end, religion is less important to the book that its prevalence would lead you to think; Midamble is an exploration of universals through the mediums of walking and linguistic minimalism, and as such it’s a book of huge interest and importance. Go read it.