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.

14/04/2008

logos spermatikoi

Harry Mulisch – The Discovery of Heaven

Extraordinary, vital, a marvel: Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven flaunts its Goethean scope wonderfully. How to describe it? A post-Christian epic? A European political frieze? Theodicy or love story? A kind of postmodern Bildungsroman? Metaphysical treatise? All of them apply, but none quite fit.

It places itself in the tradition of the great intellectual toys of the Enlightenment – 'toys' in Gabriel Josipovici's sense – Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau, for example, Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet, or, latterly, the work of Thomas Mann. Literature of this sort abolishes the strict barriers between lived experience and abstract intellection - life and the mind's life are indissociable.

Characters in such fiction tend to be big, cerebrotonic talkers; magpies of the mind; visionary Bedlamites energetically in quest of the Truth. Invariably it takes them on the most roundabout of routes to find it. They encounter many reversals. They are often pummeled on the anvil of history. Yet the works in which these characters figure comprehend the widest ambit of human endeavour: science, art, politics, theology: 'getting it all in'. Unembarrassed by their ambition, books of this type hum with intellectual ardour. “..[W]hat do such loose baggy monsters,” a mystified Henry James asks in the Preface to The Tragic Muse, “with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?” (James was a master whittler of form, a superliterary scrimshanker, yet had the magnanimity to recognise the value of work he couldn't quite understand.)

Well, what does The Discovery of Heaven 'artistically mean'?

In the first instance the novel is concerned with the friendship and varying fortunes of two men, Max Delius and Onno Quist. Max, an astronomer, whose mother perished at Auschwitz and whose father was a Nazi collaborator; Onno, the scion of a family of Dutch political grandees. (In the first instance, also, The Discovery of Heaven appears to behave like a realist novel.) Both men feel bound together by a shared destiny. Into their providential twinning comes a third element: Ada Brons, a professional cellist, first Max's lover, then Onno's. She will bear a child, to be named Quinten; will die in a car accident, leaving the infant motherless; and Max and her mother Sophia will enter an odd liaison, part formal, part erotic, raising Quinten in the absence of Onno his father, too absorbed in his political career to take the responsibility. Max establishes a radio observatory on the site of a former Nazi transit camp in Westerbork. Onno, a gifted philologist before politics waylaid him, obsesses over the conundrum of the Phaistos Disc. People argue, fall in love, die.

Thus far, from a certain angle, The Discovery of Heaven conforms to the narrative, stylistic expectations of a typical mainstream novel. Its surfaces, finely rendered and exquisitely chased, are those of literary realism. All the makings of a slightly off-centre comedy of manners. It gives itself over to the occasional thoughtful digression:

In a world full of war, famine, oppression, deceit, monotony, what – apart from the eternal innocence of animals – offers an image of hope? A mother with a newborn child in her arms? The child may end up as a murderer, or a murder victim, so that the hopeful image is a prefiguration of a pietà: a mother with a newly dead child on her lap. No, the image of hope is someone passing with a musical instrument in a case. It is not contributing to oppression, or to liberation either, but to something that continues below the surface: a boy on his bike, with a guitar in a faded mock-leather cover on his back; a girl with a dented violin case waiting for the tram...


Yet Mulisch has other designs. The novel's prologue presents a conversation between a pair of angelic beings. They discourse on the DNA helix, the 'Hermetic caduceus' which deep codes us; and the manner of the insertion of a 'Spark' – soul – into each of them. Mankind has “uncovered our profoundest concept – namely, that life is ultimately reading. They themselves are the Book of Books ... We made them much too clever, using the same code..” The angels confess that they have intervened in human history. Their purpose? To actuate one especial Spark, the Spark of Sparks - the logos spermatikoi - ensuring that it finds the right host. They engineered the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in April 1914 – blindly entailing the subsequent massacres – merely in order to bring together, in the course of events, the grandparents of Max Delius... The boy Quinten, conceived on a political junket to Cuba in 1967, is to receive the Spark, his destiny to be a divine envoy, the vessel of the 'Boss's' last-ditch attempt to reestablish dominion on earth, before abandoning it altogether.



The realist 'casing' of the novel suddenly becomes unstable, volatile. Coincidences must now be read not as authorial slips or plot flaws but as the invisible nudges of supernal powers. “It seems so easy to influence the normal course of events,” one of the angels says, “but reality is just like water; it's liquid and mobile, but it can only be compressed a little by using a great deal of force. When someone falls onto it from a great height, it's as hard as the rock from which Moses struck water.”

Some of the novel's most touching, delicately realised sequences are those of Quinten's childhood in the castle of Groot Rechteren, its converted apartments occupied by assorted scholars. One of whom, Mr Themaat, teaches the boy about the history of architecture – deliberately chosen by Quinten, because of a dream in which he finds himself in what he calls 'the Citadel', a vast Piranesian construct:

...the universe had been transformed into a single architectural complex, without beginning or end. Nowhere is there a living being to be seen. Completely alone, but without a feeling of loneliness, he wanders around through a limitless series of rooms, colonnades, staircases, galleries, alcoves, pillars, footbridges, doorways, vaults, which extend in all directions ... all that material built, joined together, piled on top of itself, spreads out and envelops and encloses him like a bath filled with warm honey...


(Quinten tries to find some approximation of his oneiric cityscape, some clue to its source: the closest he comes is in the 'megalomaniacal fantasies of Boullee', reifying death..) Mulisch splendidly conjures the boy's sense of being in the midst of lowering secrets, his obscure significance, his goodness unmarred by cynicism and hurt. 'Beautiful', with eerily brilliant sapphire-blue eyes, Quinten is drawn as a gentle changeling, groping slowly towards unlocking his destiny.

The Discovery of Heaven teems with ideas, yet evokes the mysterium of the human situation with tenderness and delight. Astrophysics and palaeography, Dutch politics and music – Mulisch intently lards his novel with so dizzying an array of topics, never losing sight, however, of psychological truths: the novel's personnel aren't lecturers or blusterers, talk though they might on an encyclopaedic range; they embody, to an exciting degree, James Wood's 'lifeness'. This, in spite of the stellar grandeur of its themes. Mulisch dramatises our fretful bid as a species to locate ourselves in the cosmic void. (Max convinces himself that a pulsar MQ 3412 conceals the origin of the universe, a celestial doorway to Heaven.) It edges at times into territory covered by Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, with a quest to recover the tablets of the Decalogue: Candide crossed with The Da Vinci Code.



“The removal of gods from the world,” writes Milan Kundera in Testaments Betrayed, “is one of the phenomena that characterize the Modern Era.” The advent of the novel as a distinct literary genre is, for Kundera, another such phenomenon – the novel as a vehicle for free sceptical inquiry, unconstrained by precept and moral injunction; an art form that pits itself against religious dogma, against the inflexibilities of church and sect - against, in a phrase, the Literal Mind. Taking flight on its emancipatory energies, the novel arrived at the moment of the breach with God's covenant. It declared itself the bright book of Life.

True, Kundera is himself something of an evangelist on this score. His impassioned advocacy of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses seems to me honourable and right. If the novel is a 'carnival of relativity' – and Kundera echoes Lionel Trilling's notion of the novel's responsiveness to 'good-and-evil' rather than good and evil – then, by logical extension, it ought to be fitted to weave into its fabric human knowledge and experience in the round. Considered in terms of form alone, it is endlessly manipulable. Of all literary modes it is principally a shapeshifter, readjusting and reconfiguring itself to the external pressures of the time. It exists as a rebuke to fixed convention, aesthetic and moral. It freely absorbs and modifies other forms. (The bourgeois entrepreneurial mercantilist form par excellence, the Marxist critic might say, out of breath...) The novel's absolute antithesis, then, is the index expurgatorius.

The trappings of theology put to artistic ends: this isn't a novel written by a believer in any conventional sense, and its narrative apparatus – the messianic child, God's displeasure at mankind throwing in its lot with Aristotelian and Baconian science – deploys religion as a literary conceit. As in Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts, the Spirits perform a technical, philosophical function. Revisiting the old discredited trope of the omniscient author, Mulisch mischieviously ironises it - one of his angels narrates the novel, complaining that still the puppets wriggle free of his will:

We underestimated human potential, both the strength of man's intellect and the weakness of his flesh, and therefore his receptivity to satanic inspiration - but ultimately he is our creature, and so what we've really underestimated is our own creativity. So ultimately in our failure there is a compliment to us: our creativity is greater than ourselves!


Mulisch examines not only the illimitable complexity of human destinies – how impossible it is to disentangle them finally from each other, and to isolate their ultimate origin – but also the strange persistence of love on our blighted planet. A fine, wise book, indeed.

05/04/2008

the wordless sonnet that still rhymes

Anthony Burgess – ABBA ABBA

F.X. Enderby
, poet laureate of the privy, squats on the jakes as he furiously scribbles his unreadable Modernist anti-poetry. Swapping the heights of Parnassus for the Cloaca Maxima, a great reckoning in a little room. A poem as a hard bolus of matter to be shat out... It's Burgess's joke, it course; but Pope and Swift, in the eighteenth century, were much obsessed with the excremental quality of literary creation, acutely sensible of the affinity between both kinds of evacuation. “Congratulations, Mr Enderby ...”

If you awaken now with one of the duodenal or pyloric twinges which are, to us, as gruesome a literature-lesson spicer as Johnson's scrofula, Swift's scatophobia, or Keats's gallop of death-warrant blood, do not fancy it is ghosts you hear sibilant and crepitant about the bed. To be a ghost one has first to die or, at least, be born... Perrrrp.


Anthony Burgess's novels have routinely dramatised the unwinnable struggle between carnality and spirit, prick and paraclete. Earthly Powers, his runaway magnum opus, portrays a Maughamesque popular novelist snagged between his cradle-Catholic conditioning and his sexual instincts – the more perilously for his homosexuality. Kenneth Toomey is creatively prolific, but, in the eyes of the Church, venally sterile. Body and soul are in bitter contention. Dying on the Spanish Steps, John Keats – tubercular, fading fast – execrates the frail uselessness of his body, as Burgess describes the scene in his novella ABBA ABBA:

I will lie here and see my body as nothing of mine. This hand I try to lift, see how cunningly fashioned, and it ploughdrove a pen once that scrawled bad hymns to beauty. But it is something now impertinently fastened to me and no longer anything of mine. I am something altogether apart from this machine ... For what you call my soul is the sparking of this machine. The brain too is the body. It is a fine and cunning trelliswork, but we may eat brain as we eat feet and flanks. But there is one thing that is not to be eaten and that is the little fire saying I am I am I am...


Burgess serves Keats's thwarted sensualism well. ABBA ABBA is textured magnificently, drawing on the wayward energies of early nineteenth century English as it threw off the prescriptivism of Augustan neo-classicism and rediscovered an Elizabethan verbal anarchy, its bawdry and voluptuous materiality.

Keats died at twenty-six in 1821. “'Tis strange the mind that very fiery particle,” Byron wrote in Don Juan anent the savaging Keats received from William Gifford in the Quarterly Review, “Should let itself be snuff'd out by an article..” Byron's sneer misses how gravely seized by the illness the young poet really was. Keats, at the recommendation of his physician, retired from the chill of London to Rome, the better to assist his recovery. Accompanied by his friend Joseph Severn, he rented an apartment on the Spanish Steps; and, in the Burgess version, made the acquaintance both of the Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli and of the vigorous vulgarity of the local dialect.

The Keats of ABBA ABBA insulates himself from death – fleetingly, imperfectly – with a raucous defiance, expressed in great flights of wordplay and reflections on the salvatory properties of poetry. His despair at its deepest provokes in him his most extraordinary verbal pyrotechnics, as when he rails against Nobodaddy or Death or the Enemy:

He is all against life, meaning the thud of the heart in venery, the savour of claret, the clamorous morsels of spring in the nest you by chance uncover, hawthorn and goldenrod, good witty lechery in the company of men, the green waving tree, tough-boled, of the body. It is not enough for him to suck blood only at once to spew it forth, he must also poison the very wells of blood. His name may be Wells for all we know, or Flibbertigibbet or Cacasona, it matters not. He is cacodemon of decay, and it is not the decay of the grass-dropped apple in autumn. For the apple dies in sweetness but I do not.


The 'chomp and honey-drop of language, made of sense and bound to sense as it is' – this is good as an epitome of Keatsian vitalism as any, poetry a ripened tongue, eroticised by want, a kind of soulful ivresse... One citron Roman evening Keats happens upon Napoleon's sister, Pauline the Princess Borghese, and he bashfully tries to charm her in stilted French; whereupon she asks in parting, “Voulez-vous profiter de mon carrosse, monsieur?” - “What was that word? Did it mean caress?” Later, Keats fantasises deliriously about fucking this apparition, the more heated his imagination, the more brilliantly inventive his language: “She instructed me in all of the modes of physical possession out of her deep learning. Marry, I cannot remember the names of them all, but there was certes the pavonian touch, the Ledan straddle too, the chthonian ditch, the I think it was termed Ceutan flight and eke the Madrilenan inter-uberal... All this I tell you is true, Severn, in poetic truth it is all true.”

Burgess gets down the feverish thrashings of a high-blooded young man, facing death, yet grasping at the fugitive moment, still planning epic poems that never will be written, still hag-ridden by sex. “But I, Severn, have had a whole manhood of fleshly longing crammed into a boy's years, and Alma Venus or Queen Mab or l'ultima principessa could give in no wise to my fancy what she she she denied to my body..” Yet Burgess's Keats is also a cormorant of words, a dictionary glutton; and this, too, Burgess conveys well – for it is Burgess himself ghosting the pages of this short book, and, at times, Keats sounds more like Burgess than the ardent letter-writer, in whose scribblings we have a near-perfect archival after-print of the young poet.



ABBA ABBA celebrates the down-and-dirty sonneteering of Belli, the uncompromising realism of his Roman dialect verse: and of this, Burgess certainly approves. Where Keats was fey, fantastical and Romantic, Belli was brawny, scatological, streetwise. But uniting the two very different men, an almost mystical accord. “'I have a clear enough image of God,'” Belli informs a scandalised prelate, “'but it is my own and perhaps heretical, perhaps too paganly platonic to be acceptable to my spiritual betters.'”:

The sonnet form must have existed in potentia from the beginning, but it was made flesh with such as Petrarch. Behind the thousands of sonnets in the world, in Tuscan, Roman, French, German, even English, shines the one ultimate perfect sonnet. It has fourteen lines that divide into an octave of a rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA and a sestet CDC DCD, really two tercets. One may vary the rhymes a little but the essential shape will remain. The wordless sonnet that still rhymes, that says nothing, having no words, but yet speaks. It says: I am this, but I am also this. In my eight lines X, in my six lines Y, but in my total fourteen ever the unity, the ultimate statement whose meaning is itself ... I talk of an ultimate reality. And through the glimmering of it I have given you, a soul may speak to a soul. A Roman writes a sonnet on the divine beauty, and an Englishman writes a sonnet on an old tomcat; and neither understands the other's language, but in the recognition of the common form they meet.


Keats, too, is possessed by this insight: “Christ pendebat from his cross and cried ABBA ABBA. Now John knew that this was the Aramaic for father father, but he knew better that it was the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet octave. It came to him that the sonnet form might subsist above language...” His doctrine of 'negative capability', entailing the erasure of self and a blending with the things of the world, in blissful self-oblivion, clearly derived on some level from a desire to be free of the broken machinery of the body. And the pure poem adumbrated by Burgess's Keats finds its sublime figuration in the 'Ode to a Nightingale'; where, again, poetry exists somewhere in a domain beyond the diseased rancour of human life, and the shadow of death and decay... Of course, such platonising is the natural psychic defence of anyone terminally ill. Keats's sickness seems absolutely bound up with his aesthetics. One so death-haunted will inevitably seek – in the absence of the solace of formal religion – whatever narrative of mortal flight he can.

As Clive James reminds us, “The dark knowledge behind his light moments was once the background radiation behind all creative life.” The collapse of Keats's bodily integrity brought his imaginative instincts to a greater pitch of intensity. He was writing against extinction.

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is -
I hold it towards you.

Extraordinary, that Keats here shouldn't merely address the reader, but should attempt to establish a physical connection that is somehow obscurely restorative: momentary resurrection by a touch. Anthony Burgess achieves, in ABBA ABBA, a like feat of necromantic recovery - not alone and palely loitering, his Keats bravely beards death, puns and daydreams, blasphemes and makes the English language symphonic and sensual. Thomas De Quincey, another literary Mancunian, once remarked of Keats, in an uncharacteristic fit of cruelty, “As a man ... Keats was nothing... Had there been no such thing as literature, Keats would have dwindled into a cipher.” Burgess plainly begged to differ, and restored to the young doomed poet a mournful dignity. Pathos without patronage, compassion without condescension.

Burgess throve on the challenges of literary ventriloquism. His Shakespeare novel, Nothing like the Sun, stands even now as the best introduction to the life and work of the premier dramatist: the undergrad fresher ought first to turn to Burgess, if she knows what's good for her. He tackled Marlowe in A Deadman in Deptford, and, in the short story '1889 and the Devil's Mode', Robert Browning. Burgess was professorial but not pedantic, gleefully vulgar but not coarsened. Read him, read him again.

02/04/2008

prizes for losers

Michael Hofmann – Selected Poems

A poet's parsimony usually sparks one of two responses: either his heart was never in it, and the creative dribble may as well dry up altogether; or we applaud his towering self-command, the ringing proof that the poet in question has earned his stripes, with an infinite capacity for taking pains.

Poets, then, fall into two corresponding camps – the stingy and the bountiful, misers and spendthrifts. (Scholarly meddling can turn one into the other: there is Larkin's published verse, carefully disbursed in five slim volumes; and the Collected Poems, in which his output fattened alarmingly under the husbandry of Anthony Thwaite...)

Glancing over Ian Hamilton's (spare, economical) Fifty Poems, Michael Hofmann knows exactly which of the two types merits our admiration: “Each individual poem is pruned back to an austere and beautiful knot of pain. Poetry, by his practice of it, is not craftsmanship or profession, but catastrophe. I can't, in general terms, think of any better way for a poem to be. Most poems have a hard time answering the question: 'Is this really necessary?' Not his.”

Poetry as catastrophe: a poem as a nauseous compound of despair, insight, language and hope; but, most of all, a necessary reflex. As Douglas Dunn put it, “No one can explain/Melodic mysteries written down but wrung/First from the dishrag of a poet's pain/Before a word of it gets thought or sung.”



Hofmann shows himself to be particularly interested in those poets for whom the creative drive was compromised or crippled. He writes with awed dismay of John Berryman's working life – the sheer sweated labour of grinding out the poems, the crazily dauntless way Berryman lined up project after impossible project – the edition of Lear, for instance – while beleaguered by a slew of life-problems. Berryman's life seems to have been a succession of calamities, made the more so by his intellectual restlessness, and a Promethean energy and wilfulness. Hofmann would probably insist that the Dream Songs were well worth it all.

Hoffman's Selected gathers samples from his four collections – Nights at the Iron Hotel, Acrimony, Corona, Corona, and Approximately Nowhere – Lenten fare, perhaps. But each poem earns its keep, each counts, and there's none of what Coleridge called 'by-writing', dispensable poetic padding. Hofmann's imaginative banlieue is easily identifiable – it's so recognizably his - its inner weather, its atmosphere of post-industrial entropy, the American vulgarity, the bedsit squalor, the suburban bathos, the bad sex and worse politics - Hofmann could patent it, by Joseph Brodsky out of Frank O'Hara. An ironic, hungover squint at the by-blows of Thatcher's Britain, the early poetry is coloured also by the melancholia of the Old Europe, which deepened as Hofmann's career progressed. The tone is Bluesy and pungent, and there's something of the quality you find in the early Wim Wenders – American pop culture superimposed upon a post-war European wasteland, plaster statues of Elvis Presley erected on the Potsdamerplatz.



“My own poems,” Hofmann sighed in his review of Hamilton, “go like sequences of television quiz show prizes, prizes for losers, just one darn thing after another! Even with his example before me, how materialistic I have become, even in my own brand of negative materialism! How crass and compendious!” And to be sure, Hofmann's poetry is a Wunderkammer of disposable trash. One of his prime themes is the debility of modern consumption:

The branch line is under the axe, but it still runs,
rattling and screeching, between the hospital
lit like a toy, and the castellated factory -
a folie de grandeur of late capitalism.


He can be Hopperish and deflationary, as in the vaguely Bleaneyesque:

But being a salesman was dispiriting work. I ran myself
like an organisation, held out the prospect of bonuses,
wondered which of the tiny, sad, colourful bottles
in my freezing minibar I would crack next.


But the most thrilling poems, by a country mile, are those devoted to his father, the novelist Gert Hofmann. Anger and tendresse, confessions of inadequacy and fear, Hofmann's bitter struggle to define himself as a free distinct individual – and, by Approximately Nowhere, the unasked role of his father's elegist. He lapses into a note that seems uncomfortably crude and cruel; but it's the grievance of exasperated love:

Once I thought of you virtually as a savage,
atavistic, well-aligned, without frailties.
A man of strong appetites, governed by instinct.
...
You have gone to seed like Third World dictators,
fat heads of state suffering horribly
from Western diseases whose name is Legion...

If Hofmann can sound a little too hangdog at times, and if the busy too-muchness of his poetry becomes a touch indigestible, he can more often than not redeem himself with a bright lyric blazon, minimalist and modest, such as this – 'Megrim' – quoted entire:


Corners of the linden yellow like grapes...
back in July leaves blew. Rain wounds the window,
preoccupies the drainpipes, nourishes -
after a seemly interval – the mould spots
in the cornices. Stray nooses of wisteria
toss purposefully, aimlessly, who can say.


Exhaustion, a kind of anomie observant in spite of itself... There may be a clue to the frustrating sparsity of Hofmann's work in recent years – his poetic work; he translates at an amazing clip – in the preface to his translation of Durs Grunbein's Ashes for Breakfast: “There is a formidableness, a dauntingness about Grunbein that I don't have, perhaps can't do, and find it difficult even to respond to... there is a frontality and an abundance in him – massive poems, great sequences of numbered parts – that I can only wonder at.” Grunbein is Hofmann's secret sharer – as the translator suggests – but simultaneously an inhibitor; as Hofmann's father was before him, and, to a lesser extent, Joseph Brodsky. It's rather a pity that this fine poet – and fine reader of poetry, too, as his collection of literary journalism, Behind the Lines, attests – should discover that McNeice's “World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural” was a stern caveat to the poet whose ambition was to nail it in print. And discover also that, in this late hour of the world, the big, superconfident talent of a Durs Grunbein is the one only fitted to match it.

in their deathtime

Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts - Deaths of the Poets What - for the poet, whose work is validated by the vital intricacies o...