Love's Bonfire – Tom Paulin
Tom Paulin's last collection, The Road to Inver (2004), showed a kind of thrawn fidelity to its source material, its Lowellian appropriations. The signature prickliness was there, as was the crackling boogaloo lexis. And, where Lowell's seigneurial grip on his material betrayed something violent, overinsistent – the poet as imperator – Paulin's repurposing of the poetry of Baudelaire, Montale, Simon Dach, all the rest, had more of a creative bienséance to it, as though Paulin found in these poems something out of which he might profitably invest his own restive energies (“You find the poem's title/but not the poem..” - 'Une Rue Solitaire'.)
Among the roster of better-known foreign poets (and how many more 'versions' of Montale's 'L'Anguilla' do we need at this late hour of the world?), one had been quietly installed, one seldom translated in the West and still less read: the Palestinian poet Walid Khazendar is represented in The Road to Inver by three poems
..I could hear you trapped in your own voice
as we made sleaked talk – worse and worse
by a well that since we were kids
no one'd drawn a bucket from ever...
('A Single Weather')
..and twelve more stand as the copestone and centre of Love's Bonfire, Paulin's new volume. It's harder to judge how burked by his own voice are these mintings of Khazendar's poetry: you'll seek in vain for English language translations. But they have a shorn, denuded unfussiness that's characteristic of all these new poems; the same unemphatic plain style that Paulin has settled into in the past eight years. A further access of language dismantled, after the (by his standards) flamboyant point-devices of a book like The Wind Dog, for example, with its allusive gusto, its use of the cento. More enterprise in going naked?
The same fixation on the grungy, the soiled, the disreputable – but palled by a kind of ashen weariness, these new poems. The old combativeness, too, seems to have retired to a wan thought-taking, as Paulin's language has lost its mica glitter. The political covenant is still detectable; but less aggressively, with less of its former urgency. And still the patented Paulin voice – the 'derisive caw' (as Larkin described Bob Dylan's vocal delivery), the pawky Ulster vernacular in tension with literary inkhornisms. But Love's Bonfire doesn't represent an equivalent to Seamus Heaney's late clean-edged classicism. What Paulin has elsewhere termed 'political anxiety' has dulled to something dimly plaintive, if not baffled. A poetry harder to lay hands on. Paulin's earlier work intimated that it could be sensible of its own procedures – Paulin the critic was at the shoulder of Paulin the poet, assaying a poem's techne even as it flowed from his pen – a sort of live auto-criticism. In 'A Noticed Thing', Paulin returns to a favourite image of his, the windsock:
I happen on it this hot humid Friday
like the way you find a symbol
in a poem or novel
– something that's over- or predetermined
– something like that
let me remind you
I was your image at one time
for the whole world
plus the wind rushing through it
or gulshing through it if you like
but perhaps you've moved on?
It recognises, now, its own provisionality. Paulin won't second-guess himself now. And, indeed, he is no longer quite the ambitious bricoleur he once was in Walking a Line, say, or, triumphantly, in The Invasion Handbook. Nor is his poetry the glorious noisy thunderbox it once had been – imagery and allusion and verbal promiscuity have been reined in; the vaunting historical ironies have gone, and the politics has lost its vinegar; and there isn't that nimbling spastic intelligence to it now. The bare lyricism still stirs in this collection – those jerky phrasings threaded by rhyme – but Paulin's short line feels less apt to spin off in unexpected directions, less aleatory music than a pared-down recitative, smaller, quieter, uncertain of itself. 'And Be No More Seen' packs in an entire aesthetic, ending with the poet's off-hand correction of a kind of ontic disfigurement:
The oilcloth on the kitchen table
an olive green thing – retro surface
japped with little bits of water
or if you like like with bits 'v watter
and so throughother – itchy uncomfortable
is what you call this kind of mess
the ever so slight chaos of matter
where what you want is tightness order
- though having just said this
it's like I've wiped the oilcloth clean
The occasions of this poetry – Montale's 'Le occasioni' – remained personal, sometimes wholly obscured, making them an altogether trickier proposition to interpret.