John Wilkinson and Waqas Khwaja: A review

My Reef My Manifest Array, John Wilkinson, Carcanet, 2019, ISBN: 978 1 784106 91 1, £11.69

Hold Your Breath, Waqas Khwaja, Onslaught Press, ISBN: 978-1-912111-72-5, 2017, £10.00

John Wilkinson’s most recent book consists of five longish poem sequences or cycles plus a set of individual poems that we might call lyrics, for want of a better word, gathered together under the heading ‘Fugitive Sheets’. The publisher’s note on the back cover tells us that the poems are informed by a return to the Cornish landscape of Wilkinson’s youth in the wake of the death of his sister, and certainly themes of settlement and flux, the transitory and the fixed, run through the work.

The opening sequence, ‘’On the Destruction of Temples’ is built around fragments of disjunctive language, little tesserae that form a kind of abstract mimesis of destruction:

What of the silica cues

forwarding to their devices

fingers catch on winking stars –

what of graphite grass square

 

or storms of bells crossing slate

and clay tablets, aggressive

trees and virulent entabled

mosses?

Against the destruction we get glimpses of nature, invasive and quietly triumphant, the indestructible temple:

A yellow butterfly visits heavy blossom.

Bees rise and fall on airy

plummets. Tables of law flit cancelled.

The second cycle, ‘To Coralize’, takes its title and epigraph from Richard Crashaw’s ‘An Elegy upon the death of Mr Stanninow fellow of Queenes Colledge’:

What more than winter hath that dire art found,

These purple currents edg’d with violets round

To corralize, which softly wont to slide

In crimson wavelets, and in scarlet tide?

The Crashaw is apt, both because the poem referenced is an elegy, as befits the underlying tone of this book and because as you read on, it becomes increasingly apparent that Wilkinson’s method in here is essentially Metaphysical, a poetry of paradox, complex, subtle and ‘difficult’, but rewarding, exploring philosophical concerns through controlled Baroque language games, with elaborate simile to the fore.

Much as a limpet glued with single foot slyly hops

one to another square, stakes a claim on shiny clinker

taps too for energy, gone to ground they don and doff,

 

out of devilment…

 

…Now electronic

tags report a break in parole, gluing them by ankle.

These opening sequences read somewhat like a tentative prelude, and the book really comes into its own with the third cycle, ‘Chysauster in Mist’. Chysauster is the site of an Iron Age/Romano-British village in Cornwall, and, as such, a kind of substratum of the poet’s childhood home. The poem circles around the idea that, on the appropriate timescale, all human settlement is temporary, everything is flux and we are all, in the end, travellers. We live among past, present and future ruins, and nothing is really built to last.:

Somewhere between the ring-road and inner circle wrecked tenements fill with bobbing gulls and oystercatchers

 

Limpet-like amid the falling plaster, children practice hand-stands as security services talk you through the steps

The return of sorts to Cornwall continues through ‘Bodrugan’s Leap’. As the back cover again helpfully notes ‘[i]n 1487 Sir Henry Bodrugan, pursued for treason, leapt from a Cornish clifftop into a waiting boat and fled to France. Bodrugan’s Leap, as the clifftop has come to be known, lies close to John Wilkinson’s childhood home’; so the return is also a movement towards exile. The writing proceeds from a classic ‘linguistically innovative’ method of paradigmatic disruption (‘Green sticks to its functional, mindless sexual spur’) where articulation is implied but must be earned by the diligent reader towards a more tentatively conventional articulate sentence structure, under the pressure of emotion, as in these lines from a section called ‘Facing Chesil Beach’:

Wind heavies, waves lean into sloped

ledges, under-

tow of pebbles

growls shaking sprung bed and turf,

 

noisy shingle warps banks of filters,

bass-traps shape

barest meaning –

winds mantle dragged off the ocean.

The last cycle, ‘Birth Pangs’ continues in this more explicit vein, with a set of poems that drawn on flower and colour imagery, flowers that are colours, colours that are flowers, the lyric, speaking ‘I’ apparently as much the thing as the poet, in explorations of birth, death and the pain of self-discovery between those twin poles.

This is followed by ‘Fugitive Sheets’, a selection of individual poems that circle around much the same themes and approaches as the longer cycles.

When we shall be indigenous,

bitumen sanctioned, rhinoceros horn, horn of

stag beetle,

indigenous to an airport with

all resident arrivals

fanning out boarding cards with priority access

keeping our place

so we can state with assurance

This is our place. This is it.

Whatever wherever.

The idea of being indigenous to a state of being transitory, to something like an airport, is the fundamental paradox of Wilkinson’s Metaphysics in this book. The airport lounge is our Chysauster, only more so, as it is built, as is so much of our ‘modern’ world, on no longer being here. My Reef My Manifest Array makes no pretence at being an easy read, because the questions it wants to ask are not easy questions, but they are necessary ones.

One of the great pleasures of reviewing is that you get to encounter work that you might never have otherwise come across, as happened when Waqas Khwaja kindly sent me two of his books, the 2007 No One Waits for the Train (a bit too old to review) and Hold your Breath. The former is a very moving exploration of the enormous disruption caused by the 1947 Partition of India which resulted in the creation of Khwaja’s native Pakistan, a country he left to live and work in the USA. This great rift is, I think, at the root of much of the writing in the latter, too.

Which is to say that, like John Wilkinson, Khwaja is concerned with exile and displacement, though he writes within a very different set of conventions to those behind Wilkinson’s work. Chiefly, I think, these are the conventions of Urdu poetry (Urdu phrases run through many of the poems in both books), especially, to my untrained and uneducated mind, the Nazm, a genre of argument poems, and of Sufi mysticism, a practice of self-perfection that has produced much of the very finest Islamic poetry down the ages. There are poems that evoke the spirit and sound of classical Urdu singers and poets, poems of childhood memory, and one, ‘Kughu Kohrray’ (Clay Toys) ostensibly about the clay toys and utensils of the poet’s childhood that is really an ecological hymn to the idea that the earth provides what we need, if only we let it.

Khawaja’s religion is inclusive and aware of the world as it is, and many of the poems here embrace struggles for LGBT rights and women’s reproductive and other freedoms, and the fight against racism and political oppression. Both the book itself and the closing title poem ‘a breath, a word’ are dedicated to Eric Garner, and the interfolding of Garner’s last words (which the dedication describe as ‘the most potent metaphor for our age’) with Urdu phrases that echo them is typical of Khwaja’s way of looking at the world as continuous, not separate:

ek saans hae

ek lafz

aap kay saath baantnay kay liyay

 

I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe

 

ek lafz jo lay na saka

 

I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe

 

[the Urdu seems to translate as: ‘I can’t breathe/a word/to share with you’ and ‘a word that can’t be taken’]

Of course, working primarily in English and living in America, Khwaja’s poetry is also engaged with the western tradition. At times the writing has the copious bagginess of a Whitman, but with the American’s optimism flipped to a darker tone in the face of the realities of the world seen by an outsider:

I was born an enemy, but I did not know it then

The Sandman came and shut my eyes

The Clatterer lurked in dark corners waiting to pounce

And only a sacred verse kept it at bay

In the morning I was the sparrow and its mate

In the afternoon a dog looking for shade

Come evening, a woman whose glimpsed hair flashed in the sun’s dying light

As she flung it back bathing in a stall without a roof

At night a mouse pretending to be a lion’s companion

Sometimes a prince dispossessed of his State

[from ‘I Was Born an Enemy’]

At times the poems in this mode seem a bit too copious, a bit too wordy, but against that you have the mantra-like complex simplicity of ‘Primer’, in which sacred names from a range of religions are plaited into each other in a thin column down the middle of the page, or several pages, more accurately. The first few lines give some idea of the effect achieved:

N

am

mu

A

nu

Nin

mah

Brah

ma

Brah

man

Rah

man

Bra

ham

Ab

ra

ham

Bra

Heem

Even a secular reader cannot fail to be impressed by the way the language enacts the idea that all religions are fundamentally one religion, how the idea of the sacred is interwoven with the way language is used to express it, and with the poet’s determination to include, to give equal weight, to diversity, here as elsewhere. Crucially, the varying strands of the culture of the Indian subcontinent are brought together in the kind of imagined unity that has, unfortunately, proven more difficult in the real world. Khwaja’s central concern, it seems to me, is not just to give voice to the ‘Other’, but to de-other, to give quiet expression to the fundamental humanity of those who suffer in this most unequal of words. It’s an admirable project, admirably executed.

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Ravenna Diagram II by Henry Gould: A Review

Ravenna Diagram II, Henry Gould, Dos Madres Press, Nov 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1948017145, $25 (I think these details are correct, not yet listed on publisher’s website)

And so, it seems I was wrong. In my review of the first volume of Henry Gould’s long, and as it turns out, ongoing epic Ravenna Diagram I wrote that ‘[u]nlike the Cantos or Maximus, and like ‘A’, this is not an open-ended epic’, but the sense of resolution I found in that book was actually a transitory condition, and now Gould has produced another book-long episode. What’s more, as we will see, it’s not over yet.

Formally, Gould continues with his fluid ABBA quatrain, mainly in units of 14 verses, with seven and 14-verse variations. The same rich variation of metre and syntax allows for a surprisingly rich range of musical variation in this superficially restricted form, as it did in the first volume, so I will refrain from looking at that aspect of Gould’s achievement here.

Again, the individual poems in this volume are dated, and the book covers the period from late August 2016 to mid-November the following year, which results in it having something of the nature of a seasonal poem. It certainly opens with images of the season:

Autumn already in the air. The lace

net lifts slightly in the window

breeze. Down the road

a train thunders steadily across

 

the iron bridge.

As well as temporal, this placing is spatial. We are in Minneapolis, looking back to Providence, a reversal of the geographic axis of the first book.

New characters appear, or move more to the fore: JFK, MLK, Abe Lincoln, the Narragansett creator divinity Cautantowwit, Melville’s Queequeg (whose casket is a type of Dante’s ‘little boat’) and the figure of the Hobo Henry, a type of American Odysseus/Theseus who follows Ariadne’s thread, trailing after knowledge. Ariadne’s tread weaves into Gould’s balance of Apollonian and Dionysian forces throughout the two volumes, with Theseus, founder of a City on a Hill, representing the former, but remembering that Ariadne ended up marrying Dionysus in the end. Central to this is the idea that the original thread enabled the overthrow of a tyrant, and Gould increasingly rejects the Dionysian Pound because of his support of tyranny.

Polly

Pound says so, the mystical
Apologist of Tyranny; she’ll

sow you Uncle Ez’s grapes – see

 

how they make great yappy whine!

(& his chinoise Confusion

still bakes a mean Rune

Cake.)  He not the Way, sez Hen.

And yet, whenever Gould’s Semi-Secular Comedy hovers on the brink of the paradisiacal, it’s mediated through the Poundian image of the child in her basilica. And Pound, too, built his vision of the ideal political order on much the same aspects of American history and jurisprudence that Gould draws on.
Speaking of tyranny, the timespan of the book covers the period of the 2016 election and 2017 inauguration of Trump, which gives rise to one very rare moment of anger:

one footloose soul, one rambler

who would be gone from jail

before the frozen hail

of Hitler-Stalin-Xi-Putin (& gambler

 

Kim Jong-un) congeals into one

mammoth concrete hulk

of tearful despot-sulk –

one massive Man of Unknown

 

Snowjobs – Don the Golden Duck-

&-Coverling, the Beast

who gives offense the most

& smears the human face with muck.

Against the figure of Trump, Gould sets JFK and MLK, symbols of the new political promise of his young youth that has petered out in Mar-a-Lago, and, especially, the first Republican president, Lincoln, whose integrity is the measure of his party’s descent into Antenora in the Ninth Circle of Dante’s hell.
And hell is, in a sense, the Minotaur’s labyrinth, with Ariadne’s thread blending with Apollinaire’s one-stringed instrument:

An infinitely tiny bronze

french horn accompanies

trompette marine – Willie’s

gauzy smoke-signal de Paris

a reference to the French poet’s monostich from Alcools that repeats regularly through the book:

Chantre

Et l’unique cordeau des trompettes marines

[Bard/singer/cantor

And the single string of marine trumpets] (my translation)

Apollonian music from a single string that imitates the distinctly Dionysian tuba.

The burden of Gould’s song remains that the law, correctly understood, produces justice and that justice, tempered by love, is the real basis of providence (Providence), and that the achievement of this desirable state requires balance, the reintegration of Dionysian frenzy with Apollonian reason:

That legend of Thanksgiving Day

(tables for everyone,

Pilgrim & Indian)

echoes via dream-song roundelay –

 

Henry, Hobo – Hart, John Berryman –

Dante, at Ravenn –

Black Elk, Martin…

reeling in Psyche-Restoration;

 

bright Rhodos-Imogen of Liberty

harbored in moss-green

robes of copper sheen;

the rippling well of Lincoln penny

 

radiating hopeful trust (humility).

An arc out of river water

sparkles like dancing laughter –

morning dew splashing basilica (for free).

So that: yet again we reach a conclusion of sorts, with so much left out of this review that I could write a book: the importance of the early-flowering, virginal almond; Maximus the Confessor writing in his cage, imprisoned for defying what he considered to be an unjust law; The Tempest and Prospero’s cell; the relevance of Piers Plowman to all of this; Queequeg’s casket and the possibility of homecoming; Cautantowwit and the Native American culture of the area now known as Rhode Island.

And Cautantowwit, the Raven lord, brings us back full circle to Dante in Ravenna contemplating his creator god, as Gould collapses the world to a unifying vision:

For we are one.  A multitude,

personified.  Benevolent

Ancient of Days bent

each into the mirror’s flood,

 

together – riverflow of heart-

veins from the earth

welling to fiery hearth –

lenticular sunset, plangent cloud-art.

 

So spinning from primordial rose

the golden maize of Chartres

guides you to its Artist…

Daedalus, not Minotaur; Grace

 

Ravlin, not some puppet-master

in the Kremlin.  Shadow

of Mona Lisa grin… you

rise before the fall (Easter).

And Cautantowwit points us forward, to Ravenna Diagram III perhaps, a volume already taking form on Gould’s blog:

The Geneva Drive is in Ravenna.

Its clock ticks in a circle…

twin circles… minuscule

mosaic tesserae resolve into Divina

 

Paradiso.  So Jesus-Orpheus the shepherd

pipes Eurydice

free of that ceremony –

Flee, Morning Star, into thy molten Word!

 

So Raven-Cautantowwit mounts up

like chunk of cave-shade

out of Narragansett glade.

History will halt here (full-stop).

Gould’s exposition of love continues; the only thing I can say is that if you’re interested in the possibilities of poetry you really should read it.

 

Recent Reading April 2019

riverrun, Alan Baker, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019, £9.00

the loneliness of the sasquatch, Amanda Bell, Alba Publishing, Nov 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1912773060, £10

Table of Contents, Bruno Neiva, Timglaset, 2018, Out of stock, but cost €5

The Credit, Augustus Young, Menard/Duras, Oct 2018, €12, not listed on either publisher’s web sites, but Duras can be contacted here.

riverrunAlan Baker’s riverrun is an exploration/celebration of the river Trent in a series of 63 untitled sonnet-like 14 line poems that circle around a number of recurring themes: the borderland nature of rivers themselves; the poet’s own position as outsider, being an adoptive Trentsider; history and politics; the odd ecological niche of the urban river, where nature is brought in to the city, the city is pushed in to nature. Right from the beginning, the poet/speaker’s position and the paradox at the core of the book are made explicit: ‘lover of the liminal tinct of an unsurvivable element/we couldn’t survive without’. Each poem is then a snapshot, taken from a distinct angle, of this concern.

Many of these concerns come together in the 59th poem in the sequence:

beyond the cluster of bare trees

there are allotments, and beyond those

the winter sun lights a brick terrace

parallel to others, and I think that

tenacity is what’s required, or fatalism

in the face of business parks and

the global knowledge economy

while the river reminds us

that it’s a city of reflections

that the engine of our day is idling

the water of our wetlands

is increasingly saline, and a memory leak

is fuelling the currents and undertows

that drag us to unmentionable places

That the river is seen as not being a ‘useful’ economic element; that the knowledge economy knows so little worth knowing and erases so much that is; that our modern parks are places of labour, not leisure; that we are wheeling ourselves to hell in a virtual handcart: these are the facts that Baker invites us to contemplate, and then to act on. The Joycean nod in the book’s title remind us that rivers, like history, run in cycles that our great disruptors risk rupturing for the sake of a quick buck.

These poems have, as I mentioned, the qualities of the snapshot, quick, fresh, and sometimes a bit technically imperfect; for example, the ‘and I think that’ in the poem quotes is a bit like the edge of a thumb intruding on the frame. However, they also contain flashes of compositional brilliance. For instance, the 16th poem contains the line

nothing is easier than erosion or division

This is one of the most perfectly balanced instances of verbal music I’ve come across in ages, from the initial and final ‘n’s via the visual assonance of the two initial ‘e’s to the pattern of short and long vowels in the four stressed syllables

No-thing is EA-sier than er-O-sion or div-I-sion

(short – long – long – short)

Here is the poet’s ear in operation, an (almost) instinctual command of the sound language makes as it traces thought in the air. There is much to be admired in this book, this music more than anything.

sasquatchAmanda Bell’s the loneliness of the sasquatch is, apparently, a ‘transcreation’ of a work in Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock, but as I am unfamiliar with the original, I read the book as if it were an original piece. The cover helpfully informs the reader that the two most significant variations from Rosenstock are that Bell makes the sasquatch female and to remove the individual titles that are present in the original, thus presenting the work as a continuous series of short sections.

The sasquatch, or Bigfoot, is a specific instance the ‘wild man’ of a phenomenon that can be traced back to the earliest literature in the figure of Enkidu, the hairy man in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The ‘wild man’ figure can also be detected behind the idea of ‘the noble savage’, and hence as a form of pastoral innocence, a state of prelapsarian grace. By regendering the sasquatch, Bell reminds us, among other things, that even the noblest savage requires sexual reproduction if it is to exist, and by extension brings home the point that solitude is relative and depends on the presence of others of our kind from whom we can be isolated. She also challenges the idea of the sasquatch as a figure of fear; hers is a thinking, feeling, almost human Bigfoot. And in turn, the sources of her fear take on a new layer of meaning by virtue of her gender; it’s impossible not to read the dangers of encounters with wolves and bears without thinking of contemporary human parallels.

In her loneliness, she remembers a mother and father, and imagines a ‘you’ with whom an almost romantic relationship seems to be at least latent:

the first flower she plucked

she held out like a gift –

but for whom?

and six pages later:

more flowers for me!

but from whom? from whom?

no answer from the silent mountain

It’s easy to see from the writing here that both Bell and Rosenstock are seasoned writers of haiku, with that form’s emphasis on flashes of insight into and through the natural world, but the sasquatch as presented here takes it a step deeper than that, she is both in and of the natural world in a way that the alienated human isn’t. She partakes in non-human nature as a participant:

lean on me

she whispers to a tree

sensing

it’s about to fall –

lean on me

not that she lacks self-awareness, far from it, but her awareness is of herself as part of the weave of her world:

looking into the eyes of a deer –

you pause to consider me

without asking what I am

 

when you do not flee

our gazes meld

 

now I have a greater sense of what I am

The text of an e-mail interview between the two transcreators included in the back of the book opens up another layer of outsiderness that permeates the sequence, the position of a minority language speaker in an environment that is either hostile or indifferent to their language, specifically of an Irish speaker in predominantly Anglophone Ireland in the 21st century. If we accept that the language one speaks at least colours the way in which you perceive the world then it’s easy to see the sasquatch’s world view as reflecting that kind of difference. The poem includes a kind of reconfiguring of the Early Irish ‘Song of Amergin’, a poem of interconnectedness between the human and natural worlds. As translated by Bell, Rosenstock’s reworking ends with the lines ‘the silence without/the silence within’, which strikes me as being a decent summary of what this book is trying to evoke.

Bell is one of our most interesting younger exponents of the short poem in English, and. I have a sense that this book represents an opening up of new possibilities for her; one way or another, it’s a fine book in and of itself.

TOCBruno Neiva’s Table of Contents is an entirely different kind of beast, being the putative table of contents for an imagined academic work on gender (so maybe not that entirely different). It’s presented by Swedish small press Timglaset as a kind of university handout, stapled sheets in a light card folder and stamped DUBBLETT on the first page (helpfully parsed on the Timglaset web site as the Swedish for ‘duplicate’). Neiva is not primarily concerned with the gender concept but focuses on language categories and their academic appropriation, so that we have chapter headings that draw on cook books (Gender au gratin), software development (Gender unicode), popular culture (Gender cred), MBA textbooks (Value-add gender), lit crit (Iambic gender), political thought (Gender derive) and so on.

The effect is both humorous and serious at the same time, and an added dimension is added by the page numbering for each chapter or section, which leads the reader to reflect on the question of academic prioritisation of one topic over another, why one chapter merits a single page while others are significantly longer. It also makes for a wonderfully disjunctive litany when read aloud. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of so-called ‘conceptual’ poetry, but Neiva’s work, here and elsewhere, is a lot more pleasurable and thought provoking that that of many more notorious exponents of the genre.

Finally, it’s good to see Augustus Young’s The Credit back in print and finally gathered into a single volume. I have little to add to my comments about this work included in an earlier review of his m.emoire:

‘Young’s next two books pointed in a somewhat different direction, however. The first, Dánta Grádha. Love Poems from the Irish (AD 1350-1750) saw him become more engaged with syllabic verse structures, while Rosemaries. A Verse Sequence, published by Coffey’s Advent Books, combined autobiographical themes with an increasing facility for rhyme. These strands came together in The Credit. A Comedy of Empeiria, published in 1980, a fictional bildungsroman in syllabic ottava rima.

‘When The Credit. Book Two / Book Three appeared six years later it consisted of a mix of that same verse structure and a type of rhymed open field composition in the form of a kind of Brechtian epic drama. It was now clear that Young was doubly outside, associated with the Irish avant garde but unwilling to conform to narrow notions of the experimental. Young is very much a one-off writer and The Credit remains an unrecognised landmark text.’

If you don’t know Young’s work, you really should, if you’ve never read The Credit get a copy and read it. There’s nothing else quite like it in the entire corpus of Irish poetry.

The Grail Roads by Rob Hindle: A Review

grail-roads-coverThe Grail Roads, Rob Hindle, Longbarrow Press, 2018, £12.99.

‘This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt & was part of.’

So begins the preface to David Jones’ WW1 masterpiece, In Parenthesis, a book-length poem that recounts Jones’ experiences in the trenches as refracted through a prism of the Matter of Britain, mainly via the writings of the 15th century British author Thomas Malory, and the text of the early Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin. The book is a document of experience transformed by the power of imagination, ‘the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception’, to quote Coleridge, a poet Jones admired greatly. The Arthurian materials connect the poet’s experiences to a reality outside of time, the perpetual human project of rendering the unimaginable understandable. It’s not that his infantry are identified with Arthurian knights so much as that they are seen to inhabit the same psychic territory.

In his most recent book, The Grail Roads, Rob Hindle has mapped a similar trajectory but his writing is documentary in a different sense, drawing as it does on the words of soldiers who fought in the same, or similar, trenches as those Jones served in. The book is both a tribute to and an act of recovery of Hindle’s great-grandfather Albert Brown, who died in the north of France in February 1917. Hindle draws on Mallory in quite a different way, explicitly identifying the main figures that move through his book with named Grail questors, Launcelot, Gawain, Bors and Galahad. In some instances, phrases from Malory are folded in to more matter-of-fact passages, as in these stanzas from ‘The Heroism of Galahad’:

Single-handedly seyth the tale

he stormed a machine-gun post

and rescued Percivale

bringing him back to the lines

under constant fire

 

And he dud many journeyes

and founde many adventures

which he brought all to an ende

It’s interesting to compare a passage from Hindle with one from Jones where the direct subject matter, the infantryman’s relationship with his rifle, overlaps closely:

Hindle:

This is your life you cling to, its oak breech

warmer than any bit of your body.

You hold it two-handed as the soldiery

 

at Agincourt their swords; and if you fall

you’ll hold still to this familiar

lie a baby gripping the thumb of his mother

Jones:

It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It’s the thunder-besom for us
it’s the bright bough borne

it’s the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it’s that county-mob
back to back

Both poets evoke a tradition of soldier/weapon dependency, but Jones opens out to the wider world of myth, the rifle is both beloved and dangerous, it is the golden bough that marks its bearer out as a target, it is to be abandoned when necessary, respectfully abandoned, but dumped nonetheless.

Despite his acknowledged debt to Jones, Hindle is technically if not temperamentally closer to another poet he cites, Edward Thomas. A couple of the pieces in the book are essentially rewrites of Thomas poems; these both nod to the poet’s importance to Hindle and criticise his individualistic, romanticised view of the war.

Compare Thomas’ poem Rain with Hindle’s reworking:

Rain

 

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain

On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me

Remembering again that I shall die

And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks

For washing me cleaner than I have been

Since I was born into solitude.

Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:

But here I pray that none whom once I loved

Is dying tonight or lying still awake

Solitary, listening to the rain,

Either in pain or thus in sympathy

Helpless among the living and the dead,

Like a cold water among broken reeds,

Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,

Like me who have no love which this wild rain

Has not dissolved except the love of death,

If love it be towards what is perfect and

Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

and:

Rain

after Edward Thomas

 

The poet writes about rain

how it falls upon the dead

and cleans them.

 

He should have said

it seeps into their skin

and slowly rots them instead.

Hindles’ rejection of the older poet’s fetishization of death via saturation in the pathetic fallacy is of a piece with his similar avoidance of the more exuberantly Arthurian aspects of In Parenthesis and is of a piece with his documentary approach.

Which leaves us with a question; if the lanes and trenches of Northern France are grail roads, what is the grail they lead to? What could it be, given the contrast between trench warfare and the world of Arthurian chivalry?

There is no single answer to this: for some of Hindle’s questors, it seems that the goal is to survive, for others to die a ‘good’ death, still others seem to be in quest of self-knowledge. Towards the end of the book, we discover that Percival is dead, Galahad disappeared, Launcelot retired injured and Bors is back on the front, a landscape transfigured, its wasting needing time to heal:

Ypres again

according to the ma

but on the road in

no town – no ruins even:

just a carcass, collapsed,

picked clean and abandoned

on its fallow plain

to frost and sun.

Hindle’s own grail is, I think, an understanding of history, of a shared past, through the facts of his own family history. On one level, this understanding is the realisation that there is no grail, that the warrior’s role is not to heal the waste land but to lay it to waste in the first instance. In the end, it is the farmer who still now ploughs up an ‘iron harvest’ of WWI detritus every year who has to guide the land back to fertility after the literal and figurative waste of war.

 

 

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.