[This review first appeared in PN Review.]
Lawrence Sail, The Key to Clover and other essays (Shoestring Press)
Peter Hughes, Allotment Architecture (Reality Street)
J.O. Morgan, At Maldon (CB editions)
Brendan Kennelly, Guff (Bloodaxe)
Running through Lawrence Sail’s The Key to Clover and other essays is a division of the world into that which can be captured in language and that which cannot. When he writes, of the gardens at Giverny (in which Monet painted his waterlilies), “Of course it is possible to give an accurate description of the scene in terms of its creation and history”, he implies a confidence in historical objectivity which is perhaps out of step with contemporary academic fashion, but also suggests there is something – more resident in sensory experience – which it is not possible to get accurately into language. He goes on to say that, as “lists of plant names devolve into pallor”, “there are some experiences […] which artists can hope only to approach rather than master”.
This alignment of accuracy with mastery raises a question which comes, with increasing urgency, to face contemporary poetry. That is, to what extent is it possible, or even desirable, for a poet to maintain mastery over language, let alone the material ostensibly conjured by the language? Following this, then, we have to wonder – as our lists of plant names begin to pall and to dissolve – how we think about our approach to the gardens and streets of the world; how to draw attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the expressive tools with which we come at the things we want to evoke and describe. Recent books by Brendan Kennelly, Peter Hughes and JO Morgan represent three various poetic responses to this question.
Peter Hughes takes his cues from a transatlantic variety of poets who walked the line of mid-century experimentalism – Bunting, Crozier, and Snyder come to mind – and although the poetry isn’t so radical as to feel adventurous in 2014, he retains an idiomatic peculiarity which sets the instability of his poems’ narrative to work. The book’s five sequences largely dispense with punctuation, and with the resultant loss of demarcation between clauses his lines waver intriguingly between appearing as synthetically yoked-together fragments of text and a more stable and stately lyric progression.
When Hughes writes “I woke up this morning & it was still / the night before I tried to go to bed”, we can just as easily read of an awakening into a still world (followed by a description of the attempt to fall asleep the previous night) as we can read the piece of temporal absurdity which would come of taking the two lines as one sentence – although a recurrent theme of the ability of strong emotion to distort the comforting steadiness of time and space renders this a viable reading also. The effect of being exposed to this constant possibility of double- or triple-readings is that of being gently summoned to the question of whether building an unsteadying (dissolving?) linear narrative mode into the act of description itself can come to be a more valid exploration of the subject at hand. Hughes won’t be found listing the flowers at Giverny or any such scene; he’ll be describing the approach-and-retreat movement of the human mind as it circles, happily unmasterful, the road-trips, relationships, music and memory of his Allotment Architecture.
The technique is most pronounced in ‘Behoven’, constantly liable to skip from, say, “I didn’t even know we had a / trampoline” to “is it worse to be nationalistic / in the bass / between the moments / when the French invade” within a line or two. The space opened up by these disjunctions allows an enormous area for the poems to move in, and there’s frequently an involving sense of the possible connections between the lines moving in to and out of focus. An unexpected callback to an earlier poem, or a sudden conceptually interesting image – “a new jetty stood beside / the old beyond repair / time mends an idea” – summons the feeling that this all coheres, that we may be in charge of the world moving past us. But the poems’ emotional effect is made up as much of the ongoing worrying of this underlying cohesion as it is from the tentative suggestion of its concealed but reassuring presence.
There’s a danger, though, of certain of the poems exaggerating this effect to the extent that we’re left merely with scraps of language set side by side for the effect of juxtaposition (and like any poetic device explicable enough to have a name, juxtaposition should always be a means to an end). This is most apparent when Hughes is engaged in what the back cover calls “swatting with his trusty sword the hornets of commercialism and politics”; reading “shopping results for the tibetan book of the dead / your cart is currently empty”, or “screw up page & wipe stars”, we’re returned to the 1950s or 60s a little too forcefully. Like Andrew Crozier, in fact, it frequently feels as if Hughes’ sallies into more exaggeratedly experimental work are important primarily in terms of what he can find there, and bring back to the straighter-edged pieces. The containment of the style in the loosely rhyming sonnets of ‘Lynn Deeps’ makes much better use of the approach, and held-in further by the gradually emerging characters, relationships and places of the piece.
The book’s final sequence is a biography in 72 poems of the French composer Hector Berlioz. Narrative poems are rarely satisfying, with the feeling that any music or complexity of language is kind of fudged in afterwards, as an ad-hoc attempt to graft poetic goals onto narrative ones. But Hughes’ ‘Berlioz’ is entirely different; it feels here as if the story is enabled by the poetry, and it makes for a strong and unusual close to a strong and unusual book.
J.O. Morgan, in rewriting an Anglo-Saxon epic recording a Viking raid in ad 991, is similarly interested in examining the poetic potential of eschewing mastery over subject material, and the examination begins from the off. At the same time as he lays claim to a cache of historical poetic authority by opening At Maldon with an argument, he immediately undercuts that authority in ending his argument by stating a desire to “cast the real events in an unreal mould, and in so doing hope perhaps for accidental truth.” There is truth being aimed for here, but it is triply compromised as accidental, merely hoped-for, and unguaranteed by that ‘perhaps’. The set up then, engages with the age-long decline of poetry as an art form which lays claim to objective truth-telling, be that historical, agricultural or moral: it is in the very evocation of poetry’s now-lost position among the most legitimate forms of historical documentation that Morgan finds the possibility of a newer – or, thinking of Greece, older – type of truth.
The attempt to marshal and take some kind of charge over the facts concerning the battle of Maldon will, Morgan recognises, quickly dissolve into Lawrence Sail’s pallor, or into what Morgan calls its “indisputably dreary facts” – that is, the facts’ endless disputability is one of the things which renders their dreariness indisputable. Much more fun is so to see what can be made of rumours and glimpses; to forgo the onerous responsibilities of mastery and find the life amid the common ranks of fleeting impressions. And this indeed is where the strengths of At Maldon lie.
In describing the way in which the Viking forces keep coming despite individuals within their number being felled, Morgan seems to pause to try out three separate similes. At first the army is a tanker piling forward, and then a fluid which, with the implacable law of physics, “fills the space it is assigned”; every time a man falls, we see “a new man welling smooth into the gap”. Thirdly, we read
As a busy kitchen table, topped
with half-licked spoons,
with crusted mixing bowls;
regardless of how often it is cleared and scrubbed,
so soon, unnoticed, unseen,
it becomes unaccountably cluttered once more.
Morgan here is both disrupting a traditional narrative form – it reads as if he’s ‘trying out’ several similes to find which will work best – but he’s also drawing on experience which cannot belong to the soldiers of the time. While the tanker and the liquid similes are tenuously cognate with the seafaring of the Vikings, this is much too prosaic an image to be representative of the soldier’s impressions. Rather, the poetry seems be tinkering around, briefly more concerned with creating interesting parallels than in recording the battle at Maldon. And it is interesting; we’re given to consider the kind of struggle provided us by our own banal lives in the light of English life 1023 years ago. And although this trick can go wrong – a maddened swordsmen as “a grey whirr of blades like a blender on full” – in general Morgan has created book full of argument as to what poetry can offer us in the face of its declining role as objectively or masterfully authoritative utterance.
When a book consists of two hundred poems, and when those poems are jammed into 159 pages, and when those pages of poems are described in the blurb as ‘knockabout’, and when that book is called Guff – how are we to begin our search for what the cover also calls a ‘powerfully expressive hymn to life’? We’re liable to expect that powerful expressivity requires concentration or novelty; what can we expect this book to offer in the way of constructing a new kind of attention?
As if we hadn’t already been presented with enough obstacles to engagement, the early pages of the book present another. The first woman mentioned in Guff is briefly evaluated for the beauty of her “post-Christmas cough” before taking action of her own: “She yawned, considered. / Took her clothes off.” Her consideration seems considerably less important than her rapidly unveiled body. The next woman we come across manages, at least, to speak. Sadly, what Kennelly gives her to say is “Kiss my clit”. Soon after that, a poem called ‘Knowledge’ begins “Her buttocks know they’re being evaluated.” This goes on. It’s difficult to imagine how a poet writing now could justify the demotion of womankind to serried ranks of sexual characteristics, but I suspect Kennelly’s defence would be to hide behind his satirical and eponymous anti-hero, Guff.
The device of having a character called Guff – who in the grand old tradition is both a self-satirical Kennelly but also, elsewhere, demonstrably not – holds the function of allowing Kennelly to write almost anything without needing to throw the weight of sincerity behind it. The hope seems to be that if we dislike a sentiment, a line, a moment of awkward scansion, then we can read it as satire on the hopeless world of poetry as embodied by Guff; if, meanwhile, we find a thought profound or a line artfully turned, then we admiringly attribute it to Kennelly. Lines like “These words have the smell of truth” express a typical non-committal attitude towards the work. The problem, of course, is the consequent lack of investment in either the satire or that “powerfully expressive hymn”. Kennelly doesn’t need to be sure which is satire and which is hymn – he’s safe either way. When Frederick Seidel writes “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare”, part of his game is in a critical attitude towards to culture he comes to emblematise; the narrating Seidel is nowise safe, because it is through our disgust at him – and it is him – that we reach the political attitude he wants to sustain. He is a master at implicating his readers, along with himself, in the rotten system he holds up for examination; Kennelly, on the other hand, needs Guff to take the flak for his own literary looseness.
The strangest thing is that there are good poems here, occasionally. When he isn’t lulled into wordplay and flip rhyme, Kennelly has an ear for cadence, and can put pressure on his language. But a hundred pages of light-verse – “Here skip the starving Tiger Cubs / scrunching munching this and that / and her and him and it and them, / Chloe, Jack, Diana, Pat.” – could be culled from this book, and it would be considerably the better for it. That is, it could be mediocre, as opposed to frequently dull, sometimes crass, and occasionally offensive.
If Lawrence Sail’s essays alight illuminatingly on the question of what aspects of our language we can and cannot get at with language, one perversity of The Key to Clover is that his strongest moments are in the discussion of literature, and the ways in which it is capable of expanding precisely that field of what’s amenable to linguistic demonstration. His analyses of Kafka and Molière are inventive and incisive, and remind us of what Sail does best: he can hold an idea and a text simultaneously in mind – Molière’s Le Misanthrope and the concept of self-revelation, say – and bring them into a reciprocal relationship such that each illuminates the other. Even though many of the essays collected in this volume seem to take their lead from, and rely a little heavily upon, personal anecdote, there are frequent enough moments of literary insight to make this a lively and effective – if not masterful – collection of essays.