22/06/2008

staggered repeats

Ciaran Carson – For All We Know

The bitterest love poetry you'll ever read - George Meredith's Modern Love – fairly rubbishes romantic passion as a snare of fools, or a wasting disease – a kind of phthisis of the soul. The toxicity of the poems is conveyed at the level of its gnarled syntax and the emotional colour of a Walter Sickert in its imagery. If Donne spoke of the 'spider love', Meredith replies with the 'scorpion love' of these sonnets. The marriage portrayed doesn't so much as merely break down - it undergoes time-lapse decay in the astringents of infidelity and mutual hatred; the least of it flawlessly masked by the bourgeois domestic proprieties of the day. The male speaker registers complex responses of disgust and slighted rectitude; looks on his wife as a beguilingly dangerous Lamia who nonetheless commands his abject devotion:
Yea! filithiness of body is most vile,
But faithlessness of heart I do hold worse.
The former, it were not so great a curse
To read on the steel-mirror of her smile.


“Shall I,” he asks, “unsustained,/Drag on Love's nerveless body thro' all time?” - Meredith juggles the emollient hypocrisy of polite society ('Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine.') and the cankered tissue of a marriage in extremis. The poems are teasingly crypto-autobiographical – Meredith's wife, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, cuckolded and left him for the artist Henry Wallis – and they work around the vexed problem of public self-exposure by a heavy reliance on figural language, rhetorical make-shift, and the feeling-tones of melodrama. (Its atmosphere anticipates the parched, airless recrimination of Ford's The Good Soldier.) The Meredithian sonnet – fifteen rather than the conventional fourteen lines – manages at once to be innovatory and classically sanctioned; yet seems unnervingly out of joint, with the addition of that single line (Tony Harrison adopted the stanza for his School of Eloquence.). Much like Tennyson's In Memoriam, Modern Love lies somewhere the contested territory between public utterance – decorous, seemly, graceful – and the need to articulate vortices of private anguish: “These two were rapid falcons in a snare,/Condemned to do the flitting of a bat.” Suppressed hints of sexual violence and (mutually administered) emotional cruelty curdle the poetry. What may or may not be a mariage blanc is a torture-chamber, with Bluebeard presiding over the banns. Conjugal union becomes as pleasurable and edifying as waterboarding to the parties involved. The essential modernity of this love, it seems, entails the discovery of the unbridgeable gulf between the visione amori and the shabby ordinariness, the grudging compromises of real life. But the disagreeable fact remains: there ain't no cure for love.

The zugzwang – in the exotic argot of the chess world – is a forced move, one the player is compelled to make, even though it might damage his position. Ciaran Carson, in For All We Know, understands this ambiguous tactic as the necessity for the mind to recuperate systematically the fading details of a love affair, lest they finally pale to illegibility and the circumstantial vividness of the experience – its meaning and significance - be lost. (The book's doubled end-pieces are titled 'Zugzwang': "...as the old chess master cannot say if ever he learned/the game, since each new game blossoms with new constellations...")

A sonnet sequence, For All We Know is composed of the voices of a man and a woman, Irish and French, who meet in the seventies at the onset of the Troubles: Gabriel and Nina. Essentially plotless, yet tightly bound together by a calculated recurrence of image, theme and phrase, the narrative prosecutes itself as a verbal ricercare, a highly patterned exposition of key 'topics': the lovers' first meeting, the twofold idea of the 'fetch' as doppleganger and behaviour of waves, language concealing identity, tolling bells, fairy tales, heirloom watches and Mont Blanc pens; cryptic misrememberings, renegotiated selves and exploratory rewritings of experience... The book's overall structure itself lends it coherence – indeed, its aesthetic effects depend more on these thematic intervals than what goes on inside each poem. Its two halves mirror each other – the titles of the poems in the first half are the same as those in the second. Intimate vignettes are replayed, differently weighted. The poems speak to one another, correcting themselves, glossing and revising. Memories are spontaneously reorganized in the telling. The epigraph by Glenn Gould – 'So You Want to Write a Fugue' – rather too obviously drops the hint as to the structural principles operating in the sequence: “Fugue must perform its frequently stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain, in the 'tune' sense, perpetually unfinished.” And 'continually shifting melodic fragments' are precisely what we get here. (In terms of emotional bias, some lines from T.S. Eliot's 'Marina' might have served as epigraph just as well: "What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands ... What images return...") The soft sift of decaying memories are startled into intelligible shapes at the touch of the poet's finger. Thus reconstituted, they cast another light on the fugitive moments of this petite histoire.

Carson's language is rigorously disciplined. He renders the flitting banalities of the daily course of a love affair with fine scruple; yet each iteration alters itself, often shifting with surreal suddenness into the mythic and heraldic:

You stepped out from the shadows wearing a linen jacket
I'd never seen you in before, buttoned on the wrong side.

A sere-cloth dipped in oak-gall ink with buttons of black jet.
A clasp of ebony in the open book in your hands.

Characters of archaic Hebrew Gothic dazzled the page,
black stars danced in the blank universe between the lines,

your mouth disgorging a stream of language not known to me
or any man, for all I knew of what had gone before.

('Before')


Sean O'Brien has called Carson a 'secular mystic', and written of the 'intense everyday aestheticism, a relish of the thing' in his poetry. True, the 'melodic fragments' of For All We Know are arranged with a combinatorial energy that summons up unimagined symbolic connections – to the point where the mundane exchanges between the lovers take on the fine luminous perfection of the diamond absolutes... Yet due honour is done to the limitless shiftingness, the Heraclitean unrecapturability of the instant: “...Everything was, as it were, provisional,//slipping from the unforeseeable into tomorrow/even as the jittery present became history.” The structural complexity of the book becomes itself a kind of forcing-house for unresolved mysteries, labyrinths of meaning:

...Fugue, my professor said, is a kind of trance

in which the victim disappears for years on end, until
he comes to himself in a strange town and quits the double

life he led unbeknownst to himself. In musical terms
the fugue must perform its often stealthy work with shifting

melodic fragments that remain perpetually in
abeyance, or unconsummated, so to speak, you said.

And I think of the blank darkness that descended on Bach
as the music which blazed in his head became forgotten.

('In the Dark')


The charge often laid on George Meredith's verse is that he was too indulgent in allowing the febrile chaotic emotional bass-note underlying it to issue in quite alarming – to his first readers – formal disfigurements. Literary decorum was violated; and the relative merit of the result is unsettled. The sonnets that comprise Modern Love strain and heave under the pressure of giving voice to feeling that might have done well never to have been brought to light – the poems are syntactically wrecked, broken-winded by their spiteful flawed candour. For All We Know, with its mirrorball sonnets, revolving and flinging off their tesserae of light, might similarly be criticised for its favouring of elaborate formal play over fidelity to emotional clarity and truth. It's not an easy book: the many thousands of casual poetry readers who snapped up Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture – hoping to find in it some clue to their own predicament, as in a piece of wisdom literature – would be roundly stumped by Carson's portrait of the triumph (in the old sense) of love. Carson owes something to the playful ingenuities of Paul Muldoon; and shares something of that poet's obscurity and tricksy verbal braiding. But its textured loveliness, its sensuous fire, will move anyone ready to take time over For All We Know. As, too, will its note of sweet, aching elegy:

I'm the lady propped up at the bar beside you, who puts
words into your mouth before you even know what they are.

I'm the lady who sleeps in you until death do you part.
I'm the lady you see in your dreams though she be long dead.

('Filling the Blanks')

16/06/2008

drum-song of murder

Ted Hughes – Collected Poems

Hughes's death in 1998 must have seemed - to a certain generation of readers – an impossibility and a perjury. The poet-elementalist, whose work was violently instinct with the life force itself, and in whom British poetry for the better part of forty years found its hetman, was simply, irrecoverably gone: “The day of his death was a dark, cold day...”

With the possible exception of Seamus Heaney, no other poet had established decisive authority as Hughes. In terms of sheer stature, he could plausibly be described as heir to T.S. Eliot – yet Eliot's public reputation evolved into that of a cultural magnate of the old kind, a discourser on matters wider in scope than literature, projecting schemes for the renewal of society itself. Eliot grew into a private asceticism coordinated with his political views; he embodies a manner and an attitude that, with the passage of years, becomes, to us, coldly estranging, if not downright problematic.

But Hughes was enormously respectful of Eliot – his centenary tribute, published as A Dancer to God and later collected in Winter Pollen, is a sinewy compte rendu of the sources of Eliot's gift, from one of poetry's Roundheads to its suavest Cavalier. As with a fair few of Hughes's prose ventures – nominally concerning themselves with a Shakespeare, a Coleridge or an Eliot – 'The Poetic Self' secretes hints of a poet's self-portrait, foreshadowing the fraught psychic parthenogenesis out of which Eliot's poetry ... one is tempted to say, slithered, in keeping with the conceptual tenor of Hughes's description. (Rewriting Eliot's corpus by his own lights.) Of the early image of St Sebastian that crops up in the juvenilia, Hughes asks “..What was it? Among other things....”

...it was proof, perhaps, that Eliot was able to contain within himself, more fully than any of his contemporaries, none of whom invented anything like it in inclusive complexity, depth and power, the spiritual tragedy of his epoch – of which this was an image, as it was in a more specific way of his own immediate psychological plight. Within this icon, that ascendant spirit of totalitarian, secular control – sceptical, scientific, steeled, flexible, rational, critical – displays its victim, the most profoundly aware and electrified plasm of the martyred psychosoma.


Eliot, by Hughes's estimate, was a poet 'of an utterly new species'. Others before him may have had vague intimations of – in E.M. Forster's phrase – the impact of the unseen on the seen: the mystical tradition in English verse reaches further back than Vaughan and Traherne, to be sure. Hughes picks up in even the earliest of the poetry traces of a vatic disposition, a mind that was fitted like no other to submerge itself in the amniotic fluid of the reptilian mind, as it were, granting Eliot access to altered states that fructified into poetry of such elegant mystery that oftentimes the critical sense is beggared. Hughes's criticism reads as much as a treatise on embryology, as anything else. He invites us to perceive in Eliot's work a form of natural supernaturalism for the age of the Treaty of Versailles, of bimetallism and of the spiritual vacancy entre deux guerres....

Hughes peels away the membrane of drawing-room civility and cosmopolitan savoir faire sheathing the great poet – T.S. Eliot the stockbroker-ish icon of literary London – seeking rather to show that, within the modern urban publisher and cultural panjandrum, a fragile tortured creature coils, bristling defensively. Eliot's wyrd is not that of the conventional Bloomsburyite; but something ancient, hunted and terrifying. He has courted, perilously, his 'true self', the avatar of Tiresias pathologically sensitive to the peculiar psychic violence broiling around and within us. In a certain respect Eliot is an unexpected object for Hughes's laudations. But some remarks of his on the work of the artist Leonard Baskin may have some bearing here. “New art awakens our resistance,” he observes:

...in so far as it proposes changes and inversions, some new order, liberates what has been repressed, lets in too early whiffs of an unwelcome future. But when this incidental novelty has been overtaken or canonized, some other unease remains... An immanence of something dreadful, almost (dare one say it) something unhuman. The balm of great art is desirable and might even be necessary, but it seems to be drawn from the depths of an elemental grisliness, a ground of echoless cosmic horror.


Hughes esteems Eliot as a 'pain-diviner' and 'pain-fathomer': that 'immanence of something dreadful' stirs constantly in its minatory way through even the satirical quatrain poems of the first books. Primitive religious vision curls vividly about the address of the poetry. As Hughes sought in his own work to unlock the sinister areté perhaps mercifully at bay in our daylight selves – the brutality and savage joy of the unhoused human subject – so he was the more disposed to divine it in the work of his great poets.

Scanning the pages of Hughes's Collected Poems, you immediately sense not the modest nudgings of a poetic sensibility toward a pleasant lyric truthfulness; but a semi-feral intellect moving ventre à terre through a dense boscage, scenting the air, ever alert to the subtlest hints signalling invisible threats in the undergrowth. The voice was almost fully achieved early on. Great baroque flourishes of slick blood-boltered verbiage. A world of raptor and prey. Myth not as adornment but as vital constituent. Festal dithyrambic energies given unchecked vent. Nature as a region of sudden violence and obscure undocumented ritual. The Hughes of The Hawk in the Rain, Wodwo and Lupercal is recognizably the same Hughes of Wolfwatching and Birthday Letters. Each book organically sets the conditions of the next – in few modern poets is there so consistently maintained a development, so traceable a physiological growth – the 'biological imprint', as Hughes has phrased it elsewhere. The verse pursues the jagged beeline of its own rhythm, incantatory and at moments unnervingly insinuating. 'Second Glance at a Jaguar', from Wodwo, dramatizes a kind of seductive nightmare of unblinking sight, scalpelling through the superficies of familiar response to an articulation of the mysterious 'unhuman' jaguarhood of the jaguar – Hughes enjoins the needful 'second glance':

Skinful of bowls he bowls them,
The hip going in and out of joint, dropping the spine
With the urgency of his hurry
Like a cat going along under thrown stones, under cover,
Glancing sideways, running
Under his spine. A terrible, stump-legged waddle
Like a thick Aztec disemboweller,
Club-swinging, trying to grind some square
Socket between his hind legs round,
Carrying his head like a brazier of spilling embers...
....
... A gorged look,
Gangster, club-tail lumped along behind gracelessly,
He's wearing himself a heavy ovals,
Muttering some mantra, some drum-song of murder
To keep his rage brightening, making his skin
Intolerable, spurred by the rosettes, the Cain-brands,
Wearing the spots off from the inside,
Rounding some revenge.


Forcefully Hughes alerts the reader to the dim obscenity of this creature. It shucks off the symbolic cope draped over Rilke's panther, an example of the 'concentrated excitement' he has written of, the purpose of which “..in this arena of apprehension and unforeseeable events, is to bring up some lovely solid thing, like living metal, from a world where nothing exists but those inevitable facts which raise life out of nothing and return it to nothing.” The 'selving' of the animal comes about from a long programme of the poet's discipling the senses. Hughes has talked of the 'poetry of positive violence, poetry about the working of divine law in created things', that shuns the 'stereotype, sentimental, weak, loose, media misreading of [the natural]'. Herein implied is the breaking of humanism, its belated forfeit, as, with greater urgency, we must acknowledge that we can no longer pretend to the seigneurial disdain we have, as a species, so long enjoyed. Hughes's work reminds us of our imperilled kinship with the divine law in created things. But – it bears restating – he is no mere anodyne 'eco-poet'. The goblin footfalls are ever-present.



Perhaps the oddest of all Hughes's productions is the Crow sequence. Much-controverted, it stands as an experiment in raw mythopoeia. Hughes allots it a place with Trickster literature, the skew-whiff songs of near-forgotten folkways, that “..draws its effects from the unkillable, biological optimism that supports a society or individual whose world is not yet fully created, and whose metaphysical beliefs are only just struggling out of the dream stage”; and in which “..optimism and creative joy are fundamental, and the attempts to live, and to enlarge and intensify life, however mismanaged, fill up at every point with self-sufficient meaning.” - the 'optimism of the sperm still battling zestfully along after 150 million years'. Casting an eye over these poems, you may find this description superficially unpersuasive. They require of the reader a kind of subtle inner readjustment to the symbolic melodies of what seem to be bleak tone-poems. Crow is demonically Chaplinesque, almost. A dark intensification and subversion of the Shakespearean Fool, or a blind courier from an unthought-of hell:

Crow was so much blacker
Than the moon's shadow
He had stars.

He was as much blacker
Than any negro
As a negro's eye-pupil.

Even, like the sun,
Blacker
Than any blindness.

('Crowcolour')


Poem as blood-blister... A fractured fairy tale, Crow lends a seething unstable form to the generative violence so prized by Hughes. Yet it takes no mean perversity to assign to it qualities of 'optimism and creative joy'... Crow himself, 'a bombcloud, lob-headed' is a dybukk and a gluttonous sprite, a tattered capering horror from a Jan Svankmajer film – yes, these poems are an account of his thrashing, convulsive attempt to live, to birth himself in the midst of a blasted world; but their ugliness and spastic eccentricity make them more fascinating than engaging. As a whole they resemble nothing so much as a shillelagh clagged with blood and hair. Hughes wanted to draft fresh mythic constellations: but Crow is a cosmogony of bitter pain, the sorrows of an abortive miscreant, for all his protestations to the contrary:

Once upon a time there was a person
Almost a person

Somehow he could not quite see
Somehow he could not quite hear
He could not quite think
Somehow his body, for instance,
Was intermittent
...
So he just went and ate what he could
And did what he could
And grabbed what he could
And saw what he could

Then sat down to write his autobiography

But somehow his arms were just bits of stick
Somehow his guts were an old watch-chain
Somehow his feet were two old postcards
Somehow his head was a broken windowpane

'I give up,' he said. He gave up.

Creation had failed again.

('A Bedtime Story')


Ted Hughes is perhaps popularly regarded most of all – apart from his relationship with Sylvia Plath, and the Laureateship – as a poet lodged deep in English natural history. The Collected Poems have the weight of the anvil behind them; but they are alive, too, to seasonal change and the small unregarded things around the agrarian enterprise. A sequence like Moortown Diary exhibits Hughes blissfully attentive, sunk in the living warp of days. Here is the poet-farmer, the practical man, sensitized to the rhythms of the natural world. Hughes acquits himself as a writer of considerable tact, authorized by the gift of deep seeing to picture the land and its occupants. “We have some beautiful beasts,” he wrote to Ruth Fainlight and Alan Sillitoe in January 1974. “I'm getting quite involved in them. Impossible not to. They're giving me more than I give them. I was quite intensely enmeshed in their world when I was an infant – but I felt I was losing it. Fishing isn't enough. But now this working on the land & these animals has given it all back double. I feel to be waking up for the first time in my life... Also, it's a revelation to watch at close quarters somebody like Carol's father [Jack Orchard] (he does all the real work) – from farmers in unbroken line as far back as they can trace. He's a mobile archive of know-how & understanding – and the perfect attunement.” Hughes's admiration for the unaffected Orchard way of life enlivens the poetry of Moortown Diary to a vivid enchanted tenderness. Antaeus-like, Hughes's father-in-law draws his strength from the earth:

...Now you have to push your face
So tool-worn, so land-weathered,
This patch of ancient, familiar locale,
Your careful little moustache,
Your gangly long broad Masai figure
Which you decked so dapperly to dances,
Your hawser and lever strength
Which you used, so recklessly,
Like a tractor, guaranteed unbreakable...

('Now you have to push')


The flurry of curiosity, baffled prurience and critical excitement over the publication of Birthday Letters has since subsided, and we're perhaps better placed to consider it on its merits. The Collected Poems reproduces for the first time a thematic companion-piece, Capriccio, memorializing Hughes's lover Assia Wevill in much the same style, with much the same imagistic palette, as the Plath ensemble. Here, the psychodramas are once again nakedly set forth, riddlingly elaborated. Intimate observation and the mythic impulse entwine hectically. The buried privacies of a relationship glitter through, but are fitful and bizarrely attired. As with Birthday Letters, there's somehow the feeling of an open-handed promise of candour, of the free settling of accounts; yet one so obscured by poetic busyness the reader may set these poems down none the wiser.

You had lifted off your future and laid it lightly
Before the door of Aphrodite's temple
As the drowned leave their clothes folded.

Exchanged your face for the mask of Aphrodite
Marriage for the manic depression
Of the ovaries, for the ocean's heave and spill.

Exchanged the plain security of your life-line
For those holy years: the blood-clepsydra
Limit of Aphrodite's epiphany.

'After forty I'll end it,' you laughed
(You were serious) as you folded your future
Into your empty clothes. Which Oxfam took.

('Fanaticism')


You're assaulted by a suspicion, reading these poems, of Hughes – whatever his conscious intention – seconding the personal anguish of Wevill and Plath to a compulsively overmastering poetic vision. And vision in its strongest sense. The sinisterly fatidic trumps the mildly personal, as in 'Dreamers' from Birthday Letters:

We didn't find her – she found us.
She sniffed us out. The Fate she carried
Sniffed us out.
And assembled us, inert ingredients
For its experiment. The Fable she carried
Requisitioned you and me and her,
Puppets for its performance.

Posthumous editions of a poet's work can be troublesome things, when all is said and done. (The stock of Edwin Muir will surely rise with the appearance of a radically pared-down Selected Poems from Faber.) They may ultimately only be of academic interest, however thrilling the completist might find them. Larkin's literary reputation was impaired somewhat by the first Collected Poems, which disregarded the careful selection and apposition Larkin employed in assembling his books. The temptation to pile Pelion on Ossa is a live concern for the doughtily loyal executor. And Hughes's Collected – good though it certainly is to have it – suffers from a kind of dropsy, a too-muchness: if Hughes's obsessions remained consistent throughout his life; and his style, hit upon at the very outset, with its thunderous consonantal hoof-beats and scarred ellipses, served him to the end; then, taken in the lump, experiencing this poetry can feel rather like something between a chastening and a bludgeoning. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Hughes made a bid, in a tireless, obsessive fury, to find the last nucleus of Shakespeare's creative vision. The labour, he was to claim, so weakened him that it enabled the cancer that killed him to take hold. That he identified the poetic endeavour with the vital economy of the body is one final clue to the heft and vigour of his poetry. Poetry as a resistless agon against the brute fact of matter.

26/05/2008

the last observatory

Milan Kundera – The Curtain

The Novel as foundational art form, as the moral engine that manufactured European culture and society: Milan Kundera's firmness on this point is definite. Modernity and the Novel are coevals – the latter stands as the most complete expression of the Enlightenment project that we can hope to have, secular, ironic, pluralist. Within its galleries homo faber and homo ludens finally merge, finding a medium at once gravely humorous and humorously grave.

If Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with the invention of the human – those shifting states of interiority and sceptical self-awareness – Kundera asserts the claim of the Novel in this regard. “Western society,” he writes in his earlier essay collection Testaments Betrayed, “habitually presents itself as a society of the rights of man; but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself as such and to be considered as such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly of the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own.”

The art of the novel is our most effective riposte to priestcraft... While the latter craves the formal fixity of ritual and dogma – including their political aspects - the novel flourishes in an atmosphere of doubt. While religion enshrines purity and spiritual vigour, the novel enjoys an ethical hygiene all its own. It recognizes the ill-wrought, lopsided brokenness of the average human being, even as religion chivvies us to attain a glassy perfection. It liberalizes discourse, as religion endeavours to purge and straiten it. And religion earns itself, too, the especially Kunderan anathema reserved for kitsch – what Nabokov once termed poshlost – as does totalitarianism as such, and the gaudy simplifications of socialist-realist art and police-state surveillance, etc. (Not to forget those for whom Rabelais coined the name 'agelasts' – joyless wraiths incapable of laughter...) The 'secular tyranny of kitsch', as Kundera has it, derives its sway over people from a cynical appeal to the desire for Komfortismus, easy consolation – making dupes of us all. On contrary, the novel of Kundera's great tradition shuns such cheapening, is constantly at sword's point against the hypocrisies of power. Kundera elaborates a theory in which history – as mobilized in nation states and war and the clash of ideologies – is set in opposition to the history of the novel, the radiant diachrony in which the art exists beyond the blind impersonal forces that buffet mankind. “Here I am making a declaration of involvement in the history of the novel,” he adds in Testaments Betrayed, “when all my novels breathe a hatred of history...”:
...of that hostile, inhuman force that – uninvited, unwanted – invades our lives from the outside and destroys them. Yet there is nothing inconsistent in this double attitude, because the history of humanity and the history of the novel are two very different things. The former is not man's to determine, it takes over like an alien force he cannot control, whereas the history of the novel (or of painting, of music) is born of man's freedom, of his wholly personal creations, of his own choices. The meaning of an art's history is opposed to the meaning of history itself. Because of its personal nature, the history of an art is a revenge by man against the impersonality of the history of humanity.

('L'histoire du roman en tant que vengeance sur l'histoire tout court.') Kundera's conception of the 'history of humanity' assonates with that given form in Tolstoy's War and Peace, for example. Throughout that great work (Tolstoy was loath to describe it as novel), History figures as the oceanic indestructible... In the epilogue Tolstoy subtly dramatizes the tragic opposition between the chronos of historical time and the kairos of fictive time – Pierre Bezukhov, having survived the battle of Borodino and capture by the French, now married to Natasha and installed as a respectable homme d'affaires, conceives a new enthusiasm for what will – beyond the limits of the book – become the Decembrist movement: we know, of course, that the leaders of the revolt were later executed as traitors; and have no reason to suppose that Pierre's fate will be any different. Tolstoy's epic rounds itself up – but history proceeds across the stormlit landscape, insensible of the lives swarming below, its dark thunderheads laden with lightning....

Kundera further deepens his thesis of the novelist's essential attitude to History-with-a-capital-H in his new suite of essays, The Curtain (La Rideau):

Because History, with its agitations, its wars, its revolutions and counter-revolutions, its national humiliations, does not interest the novelist for itself – as a subject to paint, to denounce, to interpret. The novelist is not a valet to historians; History may fascinate him, but because it is a kind of searchlight circling around human existence and throwing light onto it, onto its unexpected possibilities, which, in peaceable times, when History stands still, do not come to the fore but remain unseen and unknown.

The novel will defend its autonomy to the last. Kundera proposes that its essentialism – its sovereign right to scrutinize life in its very existential nakedness – must be the chief guarantee of its validity. The Curtain – like its predecessors, The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed – is arranged as a fascicle of brief ruminative excurses. Crisply tied together by a number of unifying themes, they orbit the central notion of the Novel as the premier means of making sense of, lending definition to the human condition. Kundera valorizes this most amenable form with great intensity. The concept of Weltliteratur comes quickly to the fore, and Kundera makes it clear that only the novel has license to be a supranational mode, uninterested in political or social imperatives, triumphantly decontextualized – only by considering itself against the tapestry of the history of its internal development, can a work properly call itself a novel. Moreover, for Kundera, it's the generous panopticism of the form that warrants its supremacy: Ernesto Sábato “...says explicitly that in the modern world, abandoned by philosophy and splintered by hundreds of scientific specialties, the novel remains to us as the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole.”

And the curtain itself? As per the fugue-like structure of his essays, Kundera recurs to the idea of the 'curtain of pre-interpretation' - “A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.” Here we have presented the elementary beginnings of the novel, its impulse towards demystification. It abolishes the sickly lyricism of the Romantic forms, the solipsism of lyric poetry, and turns its gaze on the world's festival: “If I imagine the genesis of a novelist in the form of an exemplary tale, a 'myth', that genesis looks to me like a conversion story: Saul becoming Paul; the novelist being born from the ruins of his lyrical world.” Tearing the curtain means, among other things, breaching the valances of self-deception, the political lie, delusions about our place in the scheme of things, false consciousness; it means minting afresh our perceptions, besoming clean the lumber-room of our premade assumptions... The novelist is the arch-individualist, the inheritor of a tradition that will not overwhelm and absorb him; a refuser of the obsolescence of the efforts of his forebears (there is much still to learn from the example of Rabelais), one who makes it his business to 'seek out the never-said', to bring to bear on human experience articulate energies wrought to a fine pitch; an ironist and humourist in the old style... Cleanly translated by Linda Asher, The Curtain sorts well with the arguments of Kundera's earlier essays – reads rather as a coda and reprise of them - and confirms him as still one of the most passionately convinced of the novel's practitioners.

17/05/2008

zizek and the eclipse of the world

Slavoj Žižek – In Defense of Lost Causes

"The time of big theories was the time of big results." - G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

Reading Žižek, this Barnum of the radical Left: how can you prepare, except by a regimen of intellectual calisthenics, or perhaps even a cross-country yomp – on a rain-flayed moor, in the depths of November - with the breeze-block of Lacan's Écrits in your backpack? His flashing eyes, his waving hair...

A certain Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Professor der Allerley-Wissenschaft of Weissnichtwo, sitting alone in the Grüne Gans in that venerably ancient university town:
..over his tumbler of Gukguk ... reading Journals; sometimes contemplatively looking at the clouds of his tobacco-pipe, without other visible employment: always, from his mild ways, an agreeable phenomenon there; more especially when he opened his lips for speech; on which occasions the whole Coffee-house would hush itself into silence, as if sure to hear something noteworthy. Nay, perhaps to hear a whole series and river of the most memorable utterances; such as, when once thawed, he would for hours indulge in, with fit audience: and the more memorable, as issuing from a head apparently not more interested in them, not more conscious of them, than is the sculptured stone head of some public fountain, which through its brass mouth-tube emits water to the worthy and the unworthy...

“A wild note pervades the whole utterance of the man,” Carlyle goes on, “like its keynote and regulator...”:

..now screwing itself aloft as into the Song of Spirits, or else the shrill mockery of Fiends; now sinking in cadences, not without melodious heartiness, though sometimes abrupt enough, into the common pitch, when we hear it only as a monotonous hum; of which hum the true character is extremely difficult to fix.

Thomas Carlyle, of course, was satirising the scholar-enthusiast - peculiarly European, peculiarly remote from the workaday world: Sartor Resartus is a batty exercise in almost Popean debunkery. The twentieth-century uneasily subverted the stereotype with figures from Sartre to Bernard Henri-Levy entering the public arena, styling themselves as political theorists, activists and commentators – but, on the whole, they betrayed themselves as ideological charismatics too readily seduced by fame.

Slavoj Žižek – tenured Professor of Things-in-General at the University of Ljubljana as Carlyle's Teufelsdrockh was at the University of Weissnichtwo – emerged in the Nineties as a tireless explicator of radical politics through the prism of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Forbiddingly prolific, he has written some thirty three books with such playfully riddling titles as Enjoy Your Symptom! and Everything You Wanted to Know About Lacan ... But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock. Doubtless he'll have written another by the time I reach the end of this paragraph...

Since the public intellectual is somewhat in bad odour these days, you might be inclined to regard Žižek as a sort of latterday Comus, Milton's seductive magus, tripping the light fantastic toe... Few thinkers so exult in the play of thought, so plausibly leaven their arguments with illustrations from Hollywood blockbusters – treating them with due seriousness, as Žižek does here in the case of 300, for example – even fewer still can set forth their arguments with such charm and humour. A book by Žižek is an expansive tour d'horizon, and Žižek himself is a Tiggerish guide. Yet, his customary brio and zing notwithstanding, Žižek's thought remains ineradicably pessimistic, acknowledging as it does the nameless obscenity at the core of the human subject. History, if we're to be less deceived, must be recognized as a charnel house; human nature as a corrupt enigma; and the two unassailably entwined. Among the lost causes in this book, a 'global emancipatory politics' might only be achieved if we come to terms with our species-being itself; and effect a renovatio on an unprecedented scale...




“Better a disaster of fidelity to the Event,” Žižek pronounces in the first pages of In Defense of Lost Causes, “than a non-being of indifference towards the Event. To paraphrase Beckett's memorable phrase ... after one fails, one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbecilic Being.” And what might this Event whereof he writes actually be? Žižek appropriates the concept from the Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou, who describes it in his study Ethics as one of the 'major dimensions of a truth-process', “...which brings to pass 'something other' than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges; the Event is a hazardous [hasardeux], unpredictable supplement, which vanishes as soon as it appears..” The term clarifies a little with examples, with the event “..compel[ling] us to decide a new way of being..”:

Such events are well and truly attested: the French Revolution of 1792, the meeting of Heloise and Abelard, Galileo's creation of physics, Haydn's invention of the classical musical scale... But also: the Cultural Revolution in China (1965-67), a personal amorous passion, the creation of Topos theory by the mathematician Grothendieck, the invention of the twelve-tone scale by Schoenberg... [Ethics, p. 41]

(A radical twist on the Black Swan meme, one might say: something that springs unbidden from the merely contingent, undetermined by it, which changes everything...) Žižek, taking his cue from Foucault, adds the Iranian Revolution to this list - “..a momentary opening that unleashed unprecedented forces of social transformation.” But Foucault was wrong, Žižek asserts. “How so?” you may find yourself asking. In celebrating the irruptive Event of the 'collective will' that pointed a way out of the 'deadlock' of European modernity and Western liberal democracy, Foucault 'blundered':

One can claim that he did the right thing for the wrong reason: the manner in which he theorized and justified his engagement is misleading. The framework within which Foucault operates in his analysis of the Iranian situation is the opposition between the revolutionary Event, the sublime enthusiasm of the united people where all internal differences are momentarily suspended, and the pragmatic domain of the politics of interests, strategic power calculations, and so forth – the opposition which, as we have already seen, directly evokes Kant's distinction between the noumenal (or, more precisely, the sublime which evokes the noumenal dimension) and the phenomenal.

Clear? Splendid. Žižek appears to concede that Foucault's error was in applying too inflexible a theoretical framework on a political moment that was complicated in excess of the abstract binarism he sought to bring to bear on it... In this regard, Žižek extenuates Foucault's failure by arguing that it wasn't fully grounded in his philosophy. (Indeed Foucault seems not to have understood what was happening at all – hence his 'blunder'.) Heidegger's flirtation with Nazism, on the other hand, Žižek puts down firmly to its consonance with the logical progression of his thought. He may have 'erred ontically'; but, ceteris paribus, was on the right track 'ontologically'. And Žižek wonders if perhaps Heidegger needed his suspect engagement with Nazism in order fully to grasp the implications of his ideas, to work them through to their fullest realisation... The 'technological nihilism' critiqued by Heidegger – the modern stain – could only have been effected from within it. So argues Žižek.

He cites these examples of woefully misplaced political faith, not because he simply wants to indemnify these great figures, but because in both we find a comparable gap between the rightness of the theory and the blind alley up which its misapplication led them. The pure virtuality of their philosophies was corrupted by those 'politics of interests, strategic power calculations, and so forth' – and it was their profound distrust of liberal democracy, and their ill-starred bid to locate an alternative, that brought them to the logical impasse of Nazism and Islamic theocracy. Theory and praxis were tragically ruptured. Žižek, however, must burrow deep into the Heideggerian corpus to turn up his mitigations. (There's more than a hint of special pleading to it.) Yet it is Žižek's purpose to persuade us that the sole rejoinder to the advance of what he calls biopolitics must be a determined recovery of the old 'grand narratives' – post-Marxist, Lacanian – and the “'Messianic' standpoint of the struggle for universal emancipation.”

Not so much lost causes as forms of radicalism seemingly rendered obsolete by the onward march of liberal democracy and the unassailable preponderance of capitalism:

Modern society is defined by the lack of an ultimate transcendental guarantee, or, in libidinal terms, of total jouissance. There are three main ways to cope with this negativity: utopian, democratic, and post-democratic. The first (totalitarianism, fundamentalism) tries to reoccupy the ground of absolute jouissance by attaining a utopian and harmonious society which eliminates negativity. The second, the democratic, enacts a political equivalent of “traversing the fantasy”: it institutionalizes the lack itself by creating a space for political antagonisms. The third, consumerist post-democracy, tries to neutralize negativity by transforming politics into apolitical administration: individuals pursue their consumerist fantasies in the space regulated by expert social administration.

The bloodless hollowed-out inauthenticity of such a society – with its managerialism and atomised self-involvement – must be countered; its prevailing doxa challenged. Žižek makes the rather unexpected claim that revolutionary movements such as the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks essentially grasped the problem of societal change – in spite of the sanguinary sequelae – and they oughtn't be so readily dismissed for how they conducted themselves subsequently... “Instead of withdrawing from political engagement,” Žižek writes, “one should remember the motto that, behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.” (Žižek urges the identification of a 'third term' between liberal democracy and Islamo-fascism.):

The ideological universe of movements such as Hezbollah is based on the blurring of distinctions between capitalist neo-imperialism and secular progressive emancipation: within the ideological space of Hezbollah, women's emancipation, gay rights, and so on, are nothing but the 'decadent' moral aspect of Western imperialism...

In Defense of Lost Causes is densely argued, wildly digressive (Žižek can't resist kicking an insight around, stress-testing it); and oftentimes jars with its outré formulations. Its waywardness has its charm – sometimes Žižek reads like a mild Chestertonian paradoxographer; sometimes his prose edges dangerously close to unreadability as such. A diffuse book, frustrating and exhilarating by turns; overillustrated, too much in hock to theoretical esoteria. But, taken all in all, the casual reader may well find the whiff of nostalgie de la boue about it – its demonstrative patience with revolutionary terror, its plea-making on behalf of unpleasant ideologies – a little too much to stomach.

06/05/2008

scar spirit

Les Murray – Fredy Neptune

Poetry – whatever else it might be – is a pledge of truth in concentrate. And modern poetry especially has thrown in its lot with precise statement, briefly set down: gnomic, imagistic, short. That a poem should prolong itself, spooling out its dazzlements to book-length, seems to us a kind of gaffe, as if it outstays its welcome by running to more than twenty lines. The long poem - unless explicitly parodic, like Clive James's Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage, say; or an adaptation like Derek Walcott's Omeros – has a hard time justifying itself to readers accustomed to pithy brevity. What can it offer, that prose fiction itself can't?

Literary historians hold that, at some point in the nineteenth century, the epic finally ceded to the novel. (György Lukács elaborates this view in Theory of the Novel.) Prose proved more serviceable to the temper of the times; it became almost a species of journalism. Poetry retreated into the Tennysonian mist of Idylls of the King; or, later, the tired pastoralism of the Georgians. The bulky straightforwardness of a realist novel was more open to the emergencies of modern urban society. In the poem, the literary voice was privatized. It turned to inwardness and an almost solipsistic indifference to the social world. The novel's promiscuity – its sheer busyness, its mimicry of the voices of the agora – forced poetry to withdraw into a place insulated by silence.

When Matthew Arnold complained to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough that the times were 'unpoetical', Clough sat himself down and wrote Amours de Voyage, one of the finest narrative poems of the Victorian era. Clough's trick was to ironize the high style, and give free rein to the prosiness of prose in his verse. It was a clever response – using classical hexameters to 'get down' the contemporary moment – in this case, the Revolutions of 1848. But Clough is largely forgotten today.

What can the verse novel achieve by its stubborn irredentism, its bid to reclaim lost ground from prose fiction? Didn't Pushkin pretty emphatically made any later efforts in the form de trop? Eugene Onegin settles the hash of any writer who wants to expand poetry's scope to take in character and plot... The application, by the novelist, of the sedimentary layers of detail, patiently hoarding up life's little tschotchkes – trifles making up the sum of novelistic life - is a process sharply at odds with the deep excavation of language the poet undertakes, the poet's job as verbal mosaicist. (Craig Raine, Martian and miniaturist, threw caution to the wind in his History: the Home Movie, cheekily ignoring the problem altogether and assembling his verse narrative of the Raine-Pasternak families in a chaptered sequence of triplets – successfully, I think, whatever its critics might say. Although the risk was considerable: that of the story grinding to a halt beneath the weight of poetic finickiness.)

The Australian poet Les Murray chews over all this in his note to the novel sequence The Boys Who Stole the Funeral: “I wanted to reclaim the narrative for poetry, to recapture ground which the senior literary form had begun losing to the novel as early as the end of the seventeenth century, and which it had decidedly lost to film and TV in the twentieth. But how to do it?..”

Murray discusses the technical problem of finding a formal template for his long poem. One able to manipulate language at the cellular level – as the lyric poet will do – yet able also to take the broad narrative sweep. As a poem tends to slow the reader down, each syllable potentially charged with meaning, each image soliciting our close attention; so story must barrel unstoppably along.. The stanza of Fredy Neptune – unruly, ill-crafted – discourages the reader from squinting too much at the prosody: Murray is being artfully artless.

Friedrich Boettcher (a.k.a. Fred Butcher, Fredy Neptune), merchant seaman and Australian of German extraction, on shore leave in the port of Trabzon, witnesses the death by fire of a group of Armenian women:
They were huddled, terrified, crying,
crossing themselves, in the middle of men all yelling.
Their big loose dresses were sopping. Kerosene, you could smell it.
The men were prancing, feeling them, poking at them to dance -
then pouf! they were alight, the women, dark wicks to great orange flames,
whopping and shrieking. If we'd had rifles there
we'd have massacred those bastards. We had only fists and boots.
One woman did cuddle a man: he went up screaming too.

Fredy is thus swept up, Zelig-like, in the vortex of history. The spectacle of the women has a physiological effect on him – he's left bodily numb (he attributes it, mistakenly, to psychosomatic leprosy), trapped in a Nothing, an asbestos shell. Fredy's gentleness and innate decency are stunned into this unresponsive blank. Transformed into a kind of Strine Golem, he must 'relearn human', as Murray put it in another context. How we're meant to understand this symbolically, isn't quite clear. Fredy remains inwardly the man he was – shell-shocked, he certainly isn't. “I just curled up in my hammock, like a burnt thing myself,/and turned my back...” Fredy must exert himself to conceal his condition from other folk; and moves through the world as a pariah, his body bearing the stain of what he saw, perhaps almost in reflexive disgust at our creaturely fragility. Indeed, in due course, he comes to realize that he's endowed with both enormous strength and physical invulnerability. Les Murray seems to be saying that – exposed to the nightmare of history – Fredy's mind and body have been traumatically dissevered, the latter brought up hard against the fact of its coarse materiality. Bodies break and burn and are otherwise wrecked. How can their complex of nerve, blood and bone really be us? To accept our physical limitations is necessarily to accept that we're bondslaves to matter. Murray, in his prose writings, makes the distinction between the 'wholespeak' of poetry and the 'narrowspeak' of .. everything else. Fredy succumbs to the narrowspeak of a body that is solely a machine. Wholespeak would encompass body and spirit in an unbroken circuit. (“Wholespeak is the soul's language, and it can only be spoken about effective in that integral language.”)

Fredy Neptune
froths and foams with plot and incident – one damn thing after another! Fredy finds himself an accidental tourist among the ruins of the twentieth century. He meets a stellar array of historical figures, from T.E. Lawrence to Banjo Paterson. Marlene Dietrich attempts, unsuccessfully, to woo him with a recital of Rilke. From the Ottoman Empire to Hollywood, via Shanghai, the Holy Land, Depression America, Berlin and the Outback – picaresque on the grand scale. Les Murray invents in this book a poetics of yarning. Fredy's tale swoops, yaws, stumbles, stravaigs this way and that; as does the teller. There are a fair few 'with one bound he was free!' moments. It does have the decided air of a shaggy dog story, with all the rambling inconsequentiality and fidgety aimlessness of that genre. Fredy's voice, however, is an extraordinary, sustained creation. Of unlettered bushman stock, he conjures from his life an idiom quite unheard of in the Western literary canon. (Fredy, in the Murray lexicon, is a 'groover'.) The tricks of singularity in this voice – its ornery pungency, its random brilliancies, its pathos – are quite, quite unique:

One time, it dreamed my body was made of fire,
not hurting me, but no flesh human could come near.
It was tough flowing orange, glaring hard gold
out through its buttonholes and gaps; the clothes weren't affected.
Another time, the Army handed it over to Pilate
but he knocked it straight back
because it didn't eat grass or divide the hoof.
In the fire dream, I could reach inside it, touch its innards

even trace inside the null bulbs it wasn't worthwhile playing
lonely-games with, awake. Even they were alive from inside,
only from inside. I got the weeks, that last war-year,
on work, branding, cutting, feeding, watering, training.
I wasn't heavy, but not weightless either, in the day.
I could hear my boots, stamp dust, see things resist and bend,
balance, and talk, and pass for white.
At night I was dark and fell with the dark through the world.

The book is riddled with Wordsworth's 'visionary dreariness'. What you might call a vernacular Sublime. Fredy responds to the deployment of the Atom Bomb - “..and then the screen bulged white/with scrolls spreading wide from the bottom as it hoisted/like as if a billion beings were charged outwards, and it/towering straight above them under the boiling top cloud..” - as to a belated revelation of human oneness: “I brooded on the white because I was a scar spirit.” And it's the lesson of Murray's poem, if I can put it this way, that humanity must salvage what it can from its wounded state, that war, political violence and the like only confirm, in the end, the indefeasibility of the human.

“If there was any sort of meta-artistic concern in the book,” Murray wrote about The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, “it is probably for the despised and relegated country poor, the people I come from and belong to, and to whom I dedicate everything I may achieve. And I guess that, here, I don't finally mean only Australian country people, but all who have to put up with this world's Pilates and Pharisees.” The enemy, in any of its multitudinous manifestations, is what Murray calls interest - “..narrowspeak risen socially, full of judgment and scorn, terrified of death..”:

It subordinates, and will not be subordinated. It seeks ravishment, but will resist fiercely even as it affects to surrender, and so knows nothing of attentive, truly receptive silence. The bearer of interest is typically a consumer, not celebrating objects and honouring their life, but absorbing them and discarding them, often only partly digested. Where poetry seeks fusion, interest avoids it and substitutes excitement for poetic experience. The linkage with dream is often absent, and where it is present we feel the underlying dream is not in harmony with the surface utterance. When interest turns away from something, it believes that thing has utterly vanished and no longer counts.

“Interest is a human mode which has no soul of its own. And thus perhaps no soul at all.” Murray obsesses, throughout his work, with the deficits of Enlightenment, on what was lost by the valorization of Reason. (In his more unbuttoned moments, he claims that we are inmates of an inner police state.) Fredy Neptune elaborates further, a poem against Interest; it is a Missa Solemnis, booming out against hatred, the bloodless utilitarianism that'd reduce us to mere automata, against tyranny and the Star Chambers of the world. In the end, Fredy himself takes his bow, hungrily alive to the going-on of things: “But there's too much in life: you can't describe it.”

28/04/2008

the kidnapped diamond

Cynthia Ozick – Dictation: A Quartet

In her Paris Review interview Cynthia Ozick – amusingly chippy towards her interrogator – talks of her gradual reversion to the short form:
It's not my 'ambition' that dictates the size of the enterprise. I am not interested in ego, if that's what this question is about. 'The Pagan Rabbi', for instance, a short story written so long ago, touches on a large theme: the aesthetic versus the moral commitment. Profound subject matter can be encompassed in small space – for proof, look at any sonnet by Shakespeare! Multum in parvo. I am not avoiding length these days – not consciously. But perhaps there's some truth in the speculation that I may be living my life backwards! Doing the short forms now, having begun with a 'Great Work', a long ambitious 'modernist' novel of the old swollen kind.

(The interview was conducted in a rather unusual way: Ozick responded to spoken questions by clacking out her answers on an electric typewriter - "Ozick is a rapid typist and the exchange flowed quickly.")

The temptation for the contemporary novelist, certainly, must be quite overwhelming: tourbillions of facts swirl around him, the world has become an all-too-accessible wiki database; the urgencies of the hour make their crowing demands. Fiction bloats as it strives to be equal to it all. In gloomier moments, a reader might reflect that only the hyperlexia of a David Foster Wallace could be adequate to the job of mapping modern reality. We're beset, not so much by Mandelstam's 'noise of time', as by the noise of now. Clamorous, importunate, it breaks over our heads in a toho bohu of factoid and op-ed: the War on Terror! Islamic fundamentalism! Third World poverty! Climate change! (The world is too much with us – poor unsuspecting Wordsworth...) Big themes, inundating the private, the modest, the unassuming. Suddenly we're all of us outside the whale, clinging to its flukes for dear life...

Refreshing, then, to find in Cynthia Ozick a literary practice altogether formally scaled back; and an unwillingness to be seduced by the grating presentness of things. A brilliant essayist, Ozick time and again avers her total commitment to the art of fiction. Her astringency and passion adhere to her every word. (A lesson for the drearily self-regarding Creative Writing wannabes who stuff our universities.) Her collection The Din in the Head is coloured by a sadness and defiance both. A valediction for a lost culture. Yet a full-throated rallying cry, too:

...the notion of desire, ambition's womb; desire applied to the kind of willed (or dreamed) achievement that outlasts personality; that is the opposite of taste, which is all personality. Or call it by the plain and ultimately discordant name that Henry James, remembering the expulsion from bright-leafed Eden, gave to his own desire: doubt. “We do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest,” he said, “is the madness of art.” What reader, coming upon these reverberating words, whether for the first or the tenth or the hundredth time, will not take them to heart?

James stands for Ozick as a pre-eminence. Her career has been shadowed – fruitfully shadowed – by his work and example. His absolutism – choosing perfection of the work over the life – and his monkish indifference to the world, the flesh and the devil, epitomise the hieratic aspect of literary art: James as Simeon Stylites, what Ozick terms 'the superannuated consciousness of anointment'. She kindled to “..the worldliness of his characters, the visual brilliance of his long scenes, the seductiveness of his betrayals, the veiled innocence of his young women, the subtlety of his moral conundrums, and not least his debt to human possibility, and also to human taint. His muse was tragic; and so was mine.” James 'seizes your life'... Or imperils your career. The current fashion for all things Jamesian is well-noted by David Lodge in The Year of Henry James, his painfully candid account of a publishing pile-up, the bookbiz as a Brian Rix farce; where he reflects that interest in the biographical novel “..could be taken as a symptom of a declining faith or loss of confidence in the power of purely fictional narrative, in a culture where we are bombarded from every direction with factual narrative in the form of 'news'...” (24-hour rolling news has colonised our sensibilities: we're quidnuncs now with a global reach.) And readers do tire of hearing about the latest enfant terrible, the latest Next Big Thing touted by the literary press. Perhaps the figure of Henry James, 'master of nuance and scruple' as Auden called him, portends a kind of cultural reculer pour mieux sauter...



“Literary grandeur is out of style,” Ozick laments – perhaps a trifle shortsightedly... (I guess that she means grandeur of theme and psychological presentment, rather than mere wordage.) But Ozick is on a run: Heir to the Glimmering World has been (comparatively speaking) a bestseller; and she has only just received both the PEN/Malamud Prize and the PEN/Nabokov Prize. Nor does her latest, Dictation: A Quartet, seem at all like a piece of idle book-making, a sop to her publisher, honouring a contract. The same ardour, the same shrewd felicity as we find in all her work, crackles through these stories – a novella and three tales. Multum in parvo, indeed.

The centrepiece 'Dictation' seems, at first blush, a jeu d'esprit: mischievously conceived, it makes mild mock of the pretensions to High Art of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. This 'blest nouvelle' draws into the limelight two women, the secretaries of the novelists; both so thoroughly forgotten that they go unrecorded even in Leon Edel's biography of James... With splendid economy Ozick draughts the relationship between the literary lions – their rivalry concealed by a frigid politesse – but it's they who are sidelined on this occasion. Theodora Bosanquet - “She was far from mad; she was consummately clever..” - and Lilian Hallowes, indispensable helpmates to our two novelists – not least because of their mastery of 'the Machine', an early model Remington typewriter. Theodora has a plan – she wants to take advantage of their privileged intimacy with the masters to put her stamp on literary history... Her “notion of everlastingness was more cunning than any such homage given to the longevity of a proper noun..”; it must be done by stealth, undetectably. Scholars would one day pore over the novels and tales of James and Conrad – and be none the wiser.

Lilian – a timid, bleached spinster who looks after her ailing mother; 'fearful dry celibate Lilian' – is at once smitten and repelled by Theodora, whose boldness and erotic zest come as an unwanted provocation. Yet Theodora's argument wins the day. She plays on Lilian's chaste infatuation with her employer and her jealousy of Conrad's wife, the woman's presumption: “'Because she sleeps in his bed. In his bed, in the oblivion of night! - when it is you who in the light of day drink in the minutest vibrations of his spirit. What will Mrs Conrad ever know of the kidnapped diamond. As long as you live, you will own this secret...'” Theodora is much given to musings on the matter of immortality. Her plot has almost the air of an imperceptible 'happening' – a subtly subversive démarche on literary greatness:

Plot? Should art be dismissed as conniving? The will to change nature's given is the font of all creation. Even God, faced with the tohu vavohu, welter and waste, formlessness and void, thought it suitable to introduce light and dark, day and night: the seamlessness of disparity. Or regard the mosaic maker, painstakingly choosing one tessera to set beside another, in a glorious pattern of heretofore unimagined juxtapositions – yet because the stones as they were found have been disarranged, shall he be despised as a violator?

Ozick has produced, in 'Dictation', a work so magisterial that it almost defies criticism – one, dare I say it, almost perfect... A meditation on literary fame and its precise opposite, the darkness visible of obscurity – the two women “..leaving behind an immutable mark – an everlasting sign that they lived, they felt, they acted!” - it has all the mysterious slantedness of James's short stories themselves. Ozick has earned the right to tease James and Conrad as she does: the great formalists, who lacerated themselves over the placement of every subclause and syllable, failing to notice the silent emendation made by their amanuenses..! Faultlessly judged, executed to a nicety. Ozick's well-tempered prose hovers close to James's own style without being so maladroit as to lapse into pastiche. It buzzes with observational acuity, it charms with its sly ironies; distinguishing itself by its absence of cruelty at anyone's expense.

The novella is supplemented and enhanced by three short stories, each a model of the art. 'Actors' handsomely repays its debt to Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example. And from 'At Fumicaro' - a tumid tale of mediterranean Catholicism, very Jamesian in its suggestion of Old European spiritual stagnancy - such nodes of fine writing as this:

...Frank Castle circled all around the medieval man of wood. Red paint, dry for centuries, spilled from the nail holes. Even the back of the figure had its precision: the draw of the muscles elongated in fatigue. The carver had not stinted anywhere. Yet the face was without a grain of devout inspiration. It was as if the carver had cared only for the carving itself, and not for its symbol. The man on the crossbar was having his live body imitated, and that was all. He was a copy of the carver's neighbour perhaps, or else a cousin. When the carving was finished, the neighbour or cousin stepped down, and together he and the carver hammered in the nails.

The nails. Were they for pity? They made him feel cruel. He reflected in their cruelty - piety with a human corpse at its center, what could that mean? The carver and his model, beating and beating the nails.

Ozick, after a half-century of travails and humiliations (about which she has preserved a battle-scarred good humour), deserves the acclaim she currently enjoys.

24/04/2008

monstres sacrés

Terry Eagleton – Holy Terror

Pointless, perhaps, any attempt to grasp the abysmal depths of hatred that prompts a young man – or even more incomprehensibly – woman to transform themselves into a bomb. What we blithely term the 'sympathetic imagination' balks at the vicious enormity of it. The left-liberal progressive view maintains that despair is at its root – dispossession and brutalisation at the hands of imperial overlords; the body as their only weapon. Other voices, less forgiving, hold that such people are the instruments of a quasi-fascistic ideology, dehumanised not by the repressive measures of an Israel but by the brainwashing of a mass cult. In any case, we are, when all is said and done, quite thoroughly at a loss...

Our writers – those who interpret the times, who might at least edge towards an answer - have been cagey on the subject, on the whole. John Updike, in his flawed novel Terrorist, lavishly outfits the inner life of a would-be suicide bomber, but it's a medley of false quantities. Too discursive, too knowing, too pat:

A certain simplicity does lay hold of Ahmad in the troughs between surges of terror and then of exaltation, collapsing back into an impatience to be done with it. To have it behind him, whatever 'him' will then be. He exists as a close neighbor to the unimaginable. The world in its sunstruck details, the minute scintillations of its interlocked workings, yawns all about him, a glistening bowl of busy emptiness, while within him a sodden black certainty weighs. He cannot forget the transformation awaiting him, behind, as it were, the snapped camera's shutter, even as his senses still receive their familiar bombardment of sights and sounds, scents and tastes. The luster of Paradise leaks backward into his daily life. Things will feel big there, on a cosmic scale; in his childhood, only a few years into this life, falling asleep, he would experience a sensation of hugeness, every cell a world, and this demonstrated to his childish mind religion's truth.

Too Updikean, in a word. (His protagonist evidently thinks in the same rhythms, enjoys the same sharp perceptions as his author: Ahmad is a kind of avatar of Updike's, imperfectly severed from his creator.) It might be that the novelist simply can't countenance an approach to what must lie at the heart of the matter – the willing abandonment to nothingness, the void's kernel in the bomber's very soul. Or a certain anxiety might constrain him, about giving offense or getting it wrong. Martin Amis essays a picture of the fastidious boredom and banal arrogance of the terrorist in his short story, 'The Last Days of Muhammed Atta'. Yet we're no closer to the truth, still.

Flotillas of books on the subject have been published since 9/11, laden with theses and prescriptions. The blogosphere has heaved with articles of political faith and recantations. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, in their study Occidentalism, note that the suicide bomber rejects 'the utilitarian calculus of human behaviour' – they argue that to cite, rather glibly, the perpetuation of aggressive colonialism is an irrelevance at best, at worst a grave error:

To blame the barbarism of non-Western dictators or the suicidal savagery of religious revolutions on American imperialism, global capitalism, or Israeli expansionism is not only to miss the point; it is precisely an Orientalist form of condescension, as though only Westerners are adult enough to be morally responsible for what they do.

“This book,” Terry Eagleton advises us in the preface to Holy Terror, “is not intended as an addition to the mounting pile of political studies of terrorism.” It has more a 'metaphysical or theological bent': the quality a great deal of Eagleton's recent work since Sweet Violence, his rehabilitation of Tragedy, has in plenty. Eagleton wants, indeed, to place before us the innermost psychic wounds that are inflamed under pressure from external political circumstance, quite reliably through history. He elaborates a mythoscopic account of terror and terrorism, one heavily inflected by psychoanalysis; and, to some extent, the terrorist becomes the analysand. “Politically speaking,” he writes in Sweet Violence, “a perverse joy in total wrecking is either the death cult of fascism, or the extreme brand of anarchism which marks Conrad's mad professor in The Secret Agent, who really wants to blow up time and matter themselves and start history again from scratch.” (The Professor has been invoked rather a lot in recent discussions of terrorism: he's like the standby chatshow guest perennially invited on to offer predictable pieties – he crops up in Holy Terror, too.) Much of the intellectual prima materia of Holy Terror Eagleton has worked through in earlier books. His willingness to accommodate the insights of Thomist theology (yoking them to a socialist politics); as well as his liberal borrowing from Lacan, Derrida, and cultural anthropology; render his recent thought a strange bristling synthesis – self-consistent, but perhaps too hobbyhorsical to be persuasive.



Case-hardened dialectician as he is, Eagleton finds an obscure affinity between terror and the sacred. The concept of the latter “..is ambiguous because the word sacer can mean either blessed or cursed, holy or reviled; and there are kinds of terror in ancient civilization which are both creative and destructive, life-giving and death-dealing.” Such doubling forms the central strut of Eagleton's argument. (The rapid flickering between the two is an attractive behaviour to him: its arresting either-or makes it an appealing corrective to the intellectual unwieldiness of fixed categories.) The 'monstrous ambivalence' of what has, variously, been called God, Freedom, the unconscious, the Sublime and the Real, is the galvanic principle at the heart of Holy Terror. Eagleton's argument flows from it. In some sense allomorphs of each other, God, Freedom, etc., are manifestations of the terrifying mise-en-abîme lurking within subjectivity itself...

Eagleton suggests that the mythical antecedent of the terrorist was the god Dionysus: the “patron saint of life-in-death, a connoisseur of the kind of energy we reap through reckless self-abandonment ... In his mysterious rites, self-affirmation and self-dissolution are interwoven.”

Dionysus's orgiastic hootenanny emblematises, for Eagleton, the ecstatic dismemberment that accompanies the final spasm of the relinquished self. It is a lurid rehearsal for death itself. As limbs entangle and bodily fluids are exchanged, the participants give themselves over to absolute negation. Whatever disclaimers he might make, Eagleton glories in this divine debauchee and the exploits of his followers (although he quotes extensively from Euripides's Bacchae, you do rather sense that the character of the god is one that he himself feels ought to have been his own invention – the locus of a key strand of Eagleton's current thinking, embodied and articulate). Dionysus wields awesome power, not simply as a figure of devouring chaos and delectable abandon, but because in order for the psyche to thrive and flourish and the polity finally to be safeguarded, he must be given his due, acknowledged and revered. The Judeo-Christian God performs, later, much the same function. The rapturous self-undoing promised by exposure to it precedes a necessary remaking. We must discard ourselves in order to discover ourselves again.

The sublime is any power which is perilous, shattering, ravishing, traumatic, excessive, exhilarating, dwarfing, astonishing, uncontainable, overwhelming, boundless, obscure, terrifying, enthralling, and uplifting. As such, like so many modern aesthetic concepts, it is among other things a secularized version of God.

And it bears within itself the 'shadowy presence of the death drive'. This is Eagleton's 'holy terror' – love and death in cold fusion. Both the terrorist and the saintly martyr commit themselves to the self's annihilation as an earnest of their soul-deep conviction that the material universe obstructs engagement with the purity of non-being. But, in the case of the former, it's from a sense of appalled disgust at its contamination that he wills himself and the rest out of existence.

As a bright counter to this debased figure, Eagleton instances the scapegoat or pharmakos. “Like all sacred things,” he asserts, “the scapegoat is both holy and cursed, since the more polluted it becomes by absorbing the city's impurities, the more redemption it brings to it. The redemptive victim is the one who takes a general hurt into its own body, and in doing so transforms it into something rich and rare.” It is precisely in the form of the scapegoat, feared and reviled in equal measure, that the collective are compelled to find reflected their own disfigurement. A stringent psychic purgative, the pharmakos is necessary to the commonweal of the State. (Obviously something of this ancient praxis is embedded in Christian myth.) When Dionysus confronts Pentheus in the Bacchae, it's with this gambit of traumatic self-recognition: the King refuses to acknowledge that he too is a compound of blood and anima, and disaster ensues.

If you want a book that might go some way to illuminating the peculiarly modern phenomenon of terrorism – and its most spectacularly baffling proponent, the suicide bomber – then, alas, you won't find it in Holy Terror. Challenging though many of Eagleton's insights might be, they are housed in a work that reeks too much of the lamp. Eagleton exultantly pursues the thread of an argument spun out of his reading, with too little interest in what documentary evidence we do have of what makes a terrorist tick. He shies from engaging with due scepticism from the utterances of Islamic teachers; indeed, Islam and Islamism themselves are scarcely mentioned. His thesis is a strange confection: an omnium gatherum of liberation theology, Lacanian psychoanalysis and structural anthropology; too facile, too breezily unconcerned with the political and cultural realities underlying modern terror. The prose does have an alluring slickness – a crackerjack energy and pliancy; but all too often recedes from evidence-based discussion into arabesques of fleet-footed rhetoric. Eagleton has said that he regards Holy Terror as an incitement to 'new styles of thought'. Adducing in the course of your argument some kind of moral equivalence between the ashen fruits of US foreign policy and Islamic jihad is hardly new, however. And it's sometimes difficult to see quite how far Eagleton would insist that his ideas, with their demons and scapegoats, intersects at any point with the current geopolitical situation. Does the doughty shahid really reflect on Kantian sublimity at any moment before he detonates his bomb-girdle? Does he feel it? Or is there something more banal, more abject at the root of his motives? Eagleton remains silent on the matter.

21/04/2008

the isomers of boredom

Sean O'Brien – The Drowned Book

O'Brien's poetry has always been gruffly political. Larkinesque in its images of a Britain weeded over by urban neglect, in a state of imperial decline, yet with an overt satirical bite that Larkin muted into sour disaffection. From the first O'Brien bore witness to a nation grimly beset by moral sclerosis, and to lives invisibly marginalised. The bleakness was relieved by a peppery humour. The poetry itself trimly well-crafted, its music an uncluttered flow. Less thrawn, less unkempt than Peter Reading's verse, say, it appealed to a readership that still sought formal smoothness, a line that sashays untroubled along.

O'Brien's signature is detectable in every poem: dreck and sonority - “Gore and shite, crap-nebulae/And greasy bubbles...”; deft enjambments, syntactic precision. A vers de société of used condoms like bloated tapeworms and crushed beer cans. In 'The Ideology' (from Down River) we have this typical cameo:
A gang of girls is out in this.
Beneath a streetlamp by the pub
They stand with folded arms, comparing clothes,
Shouting as if expecting an echo.

The poem ages them. They go indoors.
They marry or not and bear children
And die, and are found in mid-shriek
In a different poem, still there in the cold

Wearing hardly a stitch, being happy
The way those who live with industrial parks and asbestos
Are happy, because if they weren't they would die,
On the need-to-know basis of beauty and truth.

O'Brien has in mind here Larkin's lines in 'Afternoons' - “Their beauty has thickened./Something is pushing them/To the side of their own lives.” - but sets a kind of grizzled compassion against the neutral, faintly patronising distaste of Larkin. O'Brien's anger at social injustice tolls from this poetry; yet O'Brien remains responsive to the ironies of his stance. A poem like 'Nineties' (also from Down River) is almost anthemic in its fury:

Your hundred streets, your twenty names, all gone.
A stink of burning sofas in the rain,
Of pissed-on mattresses, and poverty's
Spilt milk, its tiny airless rooms designed
To illustrate the nature of subjection
To its subjects. They tell me politics
And history are done...

The Drowned Book, however, signals (ahem) a sea-change. O'Brien writes now in altered light: an undulant submarine shimmer. Images of water predominate. Water both in its pristine form, and as managed and trained by men (“Sites of municipal vaticination,/Vents for the stench of the Underworld..” - 'Drains'). The first sheaf of poems immerse themselves in the destructive element, a loose sequence exploring its symbolic value. O'Brien's habitual tart brusquerie gives way to waterlogged reverie, as it sinks full-fathom five. 'Eating the Salmon of Knowledge' expertly evokes a childhood into which the rumour of corruption seeps - “Crime, sex, the smell that wasn't fish”; it also captures the queasy sensuousness of our early untutored perceptions:

- But by the time the city had its way
The water, if you glimpsed it, looked as thick
As jelly from a tin of Sunday ham.
A brick would shake it slowly
While the shawl of sputum-algae
Gathered up its threads again
And went on rotting from within.

- But it was water so we fished.

“River-doors are not sea-doors... They are the isomers of boredom.” - O'Brien's meditation on rivers alludes quite openly to T.S. Eliot's 'The Dry Salvages', with its sludgy adagio - “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed, and intractable...” And more pointedly still: “It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,/The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar/And the gear of foreign dead men..” O'Brien offers a further modulation of the trope:

Barges, drowned dogs, drowned tramps, all are
Subdued to its element, worked
Into the khaki, with ropes and old staithes,

Estuarine polyps and leathery excrescences
No one has thought of a name for.
So much for childhood...

These damp clarted places afford one shelter from the peevish miseries of adulthood: “Fleeing through a river-door the adult world's critique...” O'Brien complicates the water-symbol. It's not the sea that he hymns, but the sinuous intrusion of water through the material solidity of the social world. It works also as a figure for imaginative autonomy, as in 'The Mere' – something subject to human encroachment, modest, ugly and seemingly not -to-any-purpose: “Its poplars and willows and sludge. Its gnat-clouds.... Its having been/Here all along. It is nowhere, serves nothing, lives/On your behalf when you are absent...” So apparently inutile, it nevertheless ought to be preserved as something in defiance of gratuitous 'redevelopment' - “..the aesthetics of crims from the deadlands/Whose task is to make good a landscape...” - sanctified by its obdurate refusal to be anything other than itself, and so it makes its silent, stale summoning:

...Anonymous, here with us now
In the order of things – this is what
You will find you have chosen,
If choice is the word, to defend.

As the volume progresses, O'Brien returns to his old political stomping grounds ('Song: Habeas Corpus', 'Proposal for a Monument to the Third International'). Yet The Drowned Book is distinguished also by a number of striking elegies on dead poets: Michael Donaghy, Ken Smith, Barry McSweeney, Thom Gunn. 'A Coffin-Boat' is a dark Acherontic fantasy, dourly animated by O'Brien's recent translation of Dante's Inferno: “Get used to the visible stink. It will cling/In a tissue of soot to your hair. Get used/To the silence that stares and says nothing.” The poem savours of a bitter grief. O'Brien's art has debouched into new territory. It can be by turns surreal and waspish. It glances, in the end, away from the moist fenlands of the earlier pieces, to an apocalyptic vision of a world annihilated by snow – O'Brien's account of anthropogenic climate change:

To put an end to all analogy, pure cold
That proves what it need never say,
It calls us home again, beneath a drift
In which the figure and the ground collapse -
No more redundancy, no more perhaps.

Meaning and the possibility of meaning erased, no more Arcadias.

16/04/2008

flowers in the particled light

Stephen Romer – Yellow Studio

Another poet, for reasons private and obscure, throwing over sprawl. Stephen Romer's fourth collection in twenty years shares the luminous compactness of its predecessors. The stanzas of his poems are lit as by a springtime sun. Deep philosophy lurks between the lines, and withering irony; but its presence comes in glints ingrained in the particular. A poetry of leaf-light and limpidity. A journal intime and a recurring meditation on love and loss. It courts the Absolute, yet gently, quietly. It cherishes its moment.

“You are my Prosperpine of summer,” Romer says in 'Mythologies', from Plato's Ladder; “knee-deep in the scabious and mallow//red-eyed from looking in the light,/as if there were grief or fever/in your exacting tribute/to momentary outcrops of yellow...” Art as risk, and the tautology latent in 'exacting tribute' – a 'tribute' is precisely an exaction – intimates a fraught balance between art and the world, a tight reciprocity that requires great resources to maintain.

Art cleansing the smudged pane of reality, revealing, stroke by stroke, the outlines of a vaster reality beyond. Each of Romer's poems is distinguished by the fineness of its making: lyric utterance incised on the page, cut by a laser.

A poem from the previous collection, Tribute, nicely epitomises the typical psychic attitude Romer adopts in his love poetry –
Miracle, we say, and destiny,
and joy and hope and repose,

when the one, necessary person
lends us fully to ourselves;

and when they've gone, the lengthening light
shows a vista of loss,

proving not that we were wrong -
only the recognition has ruined us.

A fair degree of obscurity, in this. The lines seem so fragile, yet surcharged with such a weight of significance – perhaps they ought to be read quickly, and the book set aside; left to do their work in our heads. Whatever the case, the verbal pointillism of much of his verse – abetted by images of light, as above, as if in this medium Romer finds the least coarsened of symbols – gives to it a corona of meaning. Romer's trademark duplets dimly shadow forth the relationship between the lovers: in the gaps between lines, in the vacancies and absences, the spiritual truth lives. “Emptiness glistens through contingency:/sunyatta is the word – it is strange comfort –/how the cherishing self might leak away/into the flinty soil...”



Yellow Studio develops Romer's interest in the Platonic idea of a hierarchy of realities, the topmost of which we're aware of yet barely capable of reaching: “..the idea of ascent,” as he puts it in an earlier poem, 'Plato's Ladder: A Dialogue', “a principle/of detachment from the local pain of love...” Yet time has darkened his perspectives a little, and Romer here is more prone to ironic self-mockery, and the poems gain a shade of wryness, of weathering. The first set of pieces are about the end of a love affair - “So this is how it ends:/at a corner table/in a stale cafe/on the boulevard of abulia..” - and the erotic ecstasies of the earlier work have given way to a bruised bewilderment - “the dreary ache/of the unrequited..” This poem is a palinode to 'Santa Maria della Vittoria', from Tribute:

Once it was the angel above Teresa
stabbing her into ecstasy

now it is the look of loving regret
as of someone who has tried hard

but must at last bring down the sword
as Caravaggio's David

brought down the sword
wistfully lopping the head

of his shaggy incorrigible
slavering devotee.

('Cut-off Point')

The memorial suite 'An Enthusiast' was written on the death of Romer's father - '..a soul uncynical/in the extreme..” - and is composed in part from extracts from his diaries – a touching selection of 'found poems'. In 'Today I must teach Voltaire' Romer records, on September 12th 2001, the mood of baffled shock and anguish, among the young, his students, after the Twin Towers attack:

Today I must teach Voltaire
to sorrowing sophomores,
I must teach the Enlightenment
in a toxic darkness

where yesterday the Infâme
flew sweet and level by Ellis Island
into Paradise...

(Voltaire's motto, of course, was 'ecrasez l'infâme'.) Elsewhere in Yellow Studio, Romer confesses his fascination with the fragility of literary reputation, its arbitrariness, and the ease with which it can be obliterated. Albert Mérat, he notes, was a member of the Vilains Bonshommes, a literary circle of angry young men to which Verlaine and Rimbaud belonged. Fantain-Latour painted a group portrait of these poetical franc-tireurs, 'Un Coin de Table'; but Mérat feared that his reputation would be tarnished by association, requesting that he be 'airbrushed' out, as it were:

Wit, wag, Zutiste à ses heures,
ladies man, gossip, poet, poseur.
Yet of Albert Mérat
who took fright
nothing is left
but a pot of flowers.

Nothing is left, not even a Wikipedia entry... Stephen Romer is a shamefully underrated poet. Contemporary of the likes of Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, his work is no less involving, no less vibrant. He has consistently pursued and developed his themes, doubling back after a period of years, reworking them, giving them an ironic spin. No other love poetry that I can think of – perhaps you have to go to the Metaphysicals for it – offers so intense a fusion of the erotic and the spiritual. There's a very French precision in his line, a definiteness that still admits of ambiguity and multivalence. Poetry at its nakedly brilliant finest.

in their deathtime

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