Midamble by Peter Jaeger: A Review

Midamble, Peter Jaeger, if p then q, 2018, 420 pp, £12.00, ISBN: 978-1999954703

MidamblePeter 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.

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The last recent reading of 2018

logbook, Hiromi Suzuki, Hesterglock, £10.00

some time we are heroes, Reuben Woolley, Corrupt Press, €15, ISBN 979-10-90394-58-2

A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions, Tom Jenks, if p then q, £8.00, ISBN: 978-1999954710

The Balthus Poems, William Minor, Coracle Press, €10.

Hiromi Suzuki is a Japanese visual poet/collage artist who is associated with the VOU logbookgroup of Japanese poets founded by the surrealist Kitasone Katue and whose work I first came across in the excellent Empty Mirror. The work collected in this enterprising volume from Hesterglock consists for the most part of collages using scraps of images and text from magazines, newspapers and other ephemera in a style that is highly reminiscent of certain Dada artists, including Kurt Schwitters. Interspersed between these are a number of prose statements that act as commentary on both the work assembled and Suzuki’s methods.

Interestingly, she appears to reverse the Surrealist cliché by working at night before going to sleep, and seeking not to record the content of the dreams she has had but to influence the content of dreams to be had, both her own and those of her reader/viewers. the resulting work comprises fragments of the everyday made over, with apparently random associations of objects acquiring a new logic by dint of simply being laid beside each other. The fact that Suzuki labels these works ‘logbook’ is, I think, telling; they are both a record of a journey as it happens and notes for a potentially expanded later recounting. She favours neutral, sepia-like tones, where the occasional splash of bright colour is rendered all the more vivid by contract to its setting. But it’s almost impossible to do this work justice in words, so here’s a picture to look at, from a series called Seasons:

the_seasons_hiromisuzuki_01The source material behind Reuben Woolley’s some time we are heroes is the Ladybird stwahseries of John and Mary early readers, and again these ‘ordinary’ materials are made over by the poet. Woolley is concerned with what happens to the dull, conventional middle-class respectability of the 1950s-style Ladybird universe when it encounters harsh reality. The result is a study of the tensions that underlie the dilapidated circus that is Brexit Britain.

The poems are a kind of muted call-and-response between the central figures, with images of violence and dislocation surfacing regularly:

mary’s here

& sleepless.she makes

the stories

the dancing

lines

that john will speak & night

never comes

without a grin

a grimace

we write with knives

gouge words on skin

There are occasional flickering glimpses of redeeming beauty:

i hold light

like sand

trickling

a galaxy

unstable

but the overall tone is of quiet despair, of people surviving in a cheap dystopia gone to seed. As befits poetry, the hope, such as it is, resides in the quality of language, the sound of the poet’s art on the page. Woolley’s characteristic music is a kind of spiky percussiveness, and it is evident here in moments of crisis:

a certain state

of sanity / a wholly health

is not

 

these hollows

no hallowed hides.are

louder now.they speak us dry

It is, I think, impossible not to see the poet’s name and identity behind the wordplay of these lines, a nod to the fact that the question of identity is central to our resistance to the everyday oppression that is the subject/object of this collection. The idea of the actor is a recurring theme, with both Mary and John slipping in and out of roles, costumes and masks not as alternative selves, but as disguises; john considers/who he’s wearing/today. They have grown up and away from the simplicities of the easy reader into the more complex, difficult and rewarding realm of poetry, thanks to Woolley’s art.

Tom Jenks is another writer whose focus is on the mundane, and like Suzuki, he views it jenksaskance via a kind of surrealist lens. And like Woolley, there’s an element of call and response across the four sets of prose-poems that make up A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions (note that the title also implies the importance of dreams here). So that on page 16 we read:

Up early picking plums, I spotted the mermaid perched on the edge of the pond. She slipped into the water as I approached, disappearing among the knotted weeds, leaving only a thin string of bubbles.

and then on page 63:

I waited ten years to be objectified and now it’s boring, like poetry is boring. This is just to say I have written a note about writing a note about eating the plums in the fridge, in that Tupperware box, There’s no point in saying things like that, says Topaz. People just don’t get the reference, like calling your imaginary horse Ceefax.

With these two brief extracts, we get a fairly comprehensive idea of Jenks’ concerns. The intrusion of the fabulous into the everyday; the references to technology from one imagines, across the poet’s life (Tupperware and Ceefax echo reference Instagram, Google and the near forgotten image of TV sets that have to warm up that are found across the book); the insistence, repeated elsewhere, that poetry is boring (which raises a number of questions, including but not limited to ‘is this poetry? ‘is this boring?’ ‘is Jenks attempting to transcend or subvert poetry/boredom?’); following on from this, the telescoping of time into a continuous present; the difficulty of communicating anything in a world where shared points of reference cannot be assumed; an interest in mass media and entertainment that cumulates in ‘’strikes’, a logbook of every instance of someone smoking in season 2 of Mad Men.

Like Woolley, Jenks adapts texts intended for children to new ends; in this case the Strawberry Moshi stories become a set of poems in which language is stripped of all literary connotations and becomes all the more odd and oddly menacing for it:

Always

I am always asleep. I am always cleaning. I am always crying, I am always flying. I am always studying. I am always hiding. We are always carrying something. We are always playing an instrument. We watch over the couples. I am always upside down.

(As an aside, I wonder if Jenks has read Maurice Scully’s work.)

The cumulative effect of the book is to remind us that we live in a world that is constantly in flux, yet constantly static. Everything changes, and nothing does.

Balthus-PoemsWilliam Minor’s work is new to me, I have to confess, The Balthus Poems being the first of his work that I’ve read. This little book from Coracle slips neatly into your pocket, which is apt given that the writing is epigrammatic and fragmentary, texts of one to five lines with, even in this format, loads of white space around them. The poems, if such they are, are reflections on the work and attitude of the titular painter, ranging in general from the mundane to the banal:

In Balthus, one can sense an action taken.

Or

Balthus saw

a lot of people

going in and out

of buildings.

and occasional flashes of insight:

What could education and society bury in Balthus

that he couldn’t resurrect with absurdity and dream.

But there is a disturbing silence, an absence, at the heart of this little book, that is perhaps barely hinted at in one of the poems:

In painting a woman as a woman

Balthus must have foreseen the results.

For the reality is that Balthus’ ‘women’ were all too often prepubescent girls painted in highly sexualised poses. The Balthus Poems might have been a far more interesting book if Morris had confronted this uncomfortable, unsupportable reality.

Keith Waldrop and Sarah Cave: A review

Of And, Keith Waldrop, Guillemot Press, 2018, £6.00

like fragile clay, Sarah Cave, Guillemot Press, 2018, £9.00

Of and.jpgThe arc of Keith Waldrop’s poetic career is a movement from verbosity to minimalism, a paring away of the extraneous. His early work tends to follow the logic of prose, of sentence and paragraph, but his mature poetry removes this scaffolding to let the silence out. However, while the method has evolved, many of Waldrop’s central concerns have remained constant, especially how ‘the spaces between things/all but make up for the intervening/entities (The Space of Half an Hour, 1983).

In that same book, Waldrop wrote

Many years ago

I wanted to write about

prayer, but was hindered by centuries of

 

practice – also my religion

got in the way. Am I finally ready?

And now, 35 years later, it seems he is, as prayer is at the core of this tiny recent book from Guillemot. These prayers are offered to ‘gods one need not/believe in’, an idea that, to me at least, summons up that New England Transcendentalist tradition with which Waldrop seems to have so much in common, as when Emerson wrote ‘We have no experience of a creator, and therefore we know of none’.

A little later, Waldrop writes

those who believe in God have

 

no reason to pray

And so these poems are prayers to an unacknowledged god who has no need of them, an exercise in perception with the inward looking eye of the ‘god in ruins’. What Waldrop seems most to believe in is the act of writing, the word isolated for emphasis:

I decline my soul in

writing

old eyes now in my

 

cold age

just where lights are

 

going out

thinking

of going

The word ‘decline’ here acts, I think, as fulcrum for multiple puns around ideas of refusing, leaning in (as opposed to ‘incline’) and conjugating, as one would a verb. Of And has the feeling of something ending, of being both coda and codicil. If so, it is a fittingly quite, voluminously quiet, closure to a remarkable poetic career.

fragile clayReligion is also in the mix in Sarah Cave’s like fragile clay, with the title apparently deriving from a letter of St Paul in which the human body is described as a fragile clay vessel containing the divine light or grace, and Job’s ‘What then of those who live in houses of clay, who are founded on dust? They are crushed as easily as the moth’.

Cave’s exploration of our fragile clay is constructed in a framework of Tove Jannson’s Moominvalley stores, a body of work that I am almost entirely ignorant of. This is, I think something of a disadvantage when reading the book, as the distraction of working out who’s who served as a distraction from Cave’s undoubted qualities as a writer. There are four main figures at play, a family consisting of Moominpapa and Moominmamma and their son Moomin along with Snorkmaiden, Moominpapa’s lover.

The poems circle around this affair and the sense of grief and loss it brings to the protagonists. At the core of the book, Snorkmaiden is conflated with the Virgin Mother of the Christian mythos in a poem called ‘Moominvalley Annunciation’, presumably an offshoot of the Annunciation poems she worked on with Rupert Loydell:

Heavily pregnant, Snorkmaiden

fills her basket with the tide’s

clutter. She sees the world

endlessly rocking through

the keyhole of a pebble

or transparent sea glass.

Elsewhere in the book, Cave uses typography and the full resources of the page to create interesting tensions, but the Moomis keep getting in the way, and the most successful poem in the book, for me, is ‘Moomin visits the Rauschenberg Exhibition at the Tate Modern’, where they appear only in the title and where Cave’s ekphrastic are allowed free rein in a set of chant-like theme and variations:

found

 

in a painted

wooden post-box

dirt and mould

dirt and mould, thorns,

thorns and snail shells

imprints

transfers

 

in a wood box

It’s worth reading like fragile clay for this poem alone.