The sad news of American poet Tony Hoagland’s death yesterday (23.10.2018), prompts me to post this brief review of one of his more recent books, Application for Release from the Dream (Bloodaxe Books, 2015). My review was originally written to appear in Poetry London a couple of years ago. Hoagland’s work punctures personal, poetical and political pretensions and I would highly recommend it to anybody who has yet to discover its great pleasures and profundities. His most recent collection – likely to be his last – will appear in the UK next year and be called Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (Bloodaxe Books, 2019).
The metaphorical dream Tony Hoagland’s book titles is applying for release from is the alchemical one: the search for gold from lead. Though Hoagland’s world is definitely leaden, quotidian, often spoiled, there are compensatory moments when the disappointed prospective alchemist recalls “the lute hidden in his closet”. And though Hoagland is always keen to ask big questions (this collection opens with “What is a human being? What does it mean?” (‘The Edge of the Frame’)), his poems travel through thickets of irony because language interferes and shit happens and our harking after absurd, abstract, definitive answers is wholly mistaken.
Many of these poems are laugh-out-loud funny and there are occasions when Hoagland reminds me of the Ted Hughes of Crow with its gallows humour spliced with admiration for a sometimes thuggish survival against the odds: “Underneath the smile is bitterness, and underneath the bitterness is grief, / and underneath the grief the desire to survive” (‘Airport’).
But, Antaeus-like, Hoagland always keeps his feet firmly on the ground. His language is accordingly direct, chatty, engaging, man to man (not afraid to be masculine), eschewing the hyper-economy of certain poetries. His verse forms are very free. He’s good company (and will remind you of Billy Collins); he’s drawn to the common man (and will remind you of Philip Levine). In ‘The Hero’s Journey’ the sight of a marble floor in a hotel lobby impresses on him that “someone had waxed and polished it all”. This, he characteristically tells us, “tempered my enthusiasm for The Collected Letters of Henry James, Volume II”.
The fact is, Hoagland’s heroes are cleaners, bakers, prisoners and the nurse “wiping off the soft heroic buttocks of Odysseus”. His ‘Little Champion’ is a butterfly that lives on the urine of a particular animal, its lifetime spent in slavish pursuit of it. Likewise, “Human beings are tough” declares a poem set in a hospital, “with their obesity, their chemo and their scars” (‘December, with Antlers’).
Nevertheless, some uncertain light can be cast on the human condition by ‘The Neglected Art of Description’. A man descending into a man-hole can remind us of “the world // right underneath this one” though Hoagland treats this idea with three doses of ironic distancing. He’s even more confident that the pleasures of perceptual surprise can “help me on my way” (even this, an equivocal sort of progress and destination; no golden goal).
This book’s title poem is as definitive and epigrammatic as it gets: “If you aren’t learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed”. But the disturbing truth, according to ‘Crazy Motherfucker Weather’, is that our precious selves are no more than “a burning coal // one carries around in one’s mouth for sixty years, / for delivery / to whom, exactly; to where?” Another poem suggests there is a place balanced “between irony and hope” where we might live (‘Western’).
The humour of Hoagland’s poems punctures both personal and political pretension, targets the poet himself as much as others, makes for very enjoyable poems and ensures those few moments of pleasure or beauty that do emerge are all the more convincing. In ‘Because It Is Houston’, for example, there is no one “better qualified around”, so the narrator derives surprise and pleasure from the “little ivory trumpets” knocked from a honeysuckle bush by a brief shower of rain.
The gateway to Richard Scott’s carefully structured first book is one of the most conventional poems in it. It’s a carefully punctuated, unrhymed sonnet. It is carefully placed (Public Library) and dated (1998). It’s the kind of poem and confinement Scott has fought to escape from and perhaps records the moment when that escape began: “In the library [. . .] there is not one gay poem, / not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads”. The young Scott (I’ll come back to the biographical/authenticity question in a moment) takes an old copy of the Golden Treasury of Verse and writes COCK in the margin, then further obscene scrawls and doodles including, ironically a “biro-boy [who] rubs his hard-on against the body of a // sonnet”. Yet his literary vandalism leads to a new way of reading as – echoing the ideas of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – the narrator suddenly sees the “queer subtext” beneath many of the ‘straight’ poems till he is picking up a highlighter pen and “rimming each delicate / stanza in cerulean, illuminating the readers-to-come . . .”
It’s a moment of personal as well as lit/crit revelation, a funny poem and the flood-gates open in accordance with the Whitman epigraph to section 1 of the book: “loose the stop from your throat”. From here on, punctuation and capitalisation become rare breeds in Scott’s exploration of gay love, shame, trauma and history. It’s only 3 years since Andrew McMillan’s Physical graced the Felix Dennis shortlist but Scott’s parallel collection is far darker, more explicit and brutal (but not always at the same time) and with a fierce sense of obscured queer history and its literary canon.
It’s an exhilarating, uneasy, accessible, relentless read. Section 1 goes some way in the bildungsroman direction. ‘le jardin secret’ declares “boys were my saplings / my whiff of green my sprouts” while ‘Fishmonger’ perhaps is set even earlier as a young boy is taken into a man’s “capable arms” in the back of his Transit van. A more aggressive and unpleasant encounter is evoked in ‘Childhood’ in which a seedy children’s entertainer (in a “caterpillar-green silk jumpsuit”) half-bullies a young boy to take him home for sex. But the poem’s perspective also suggests the child is an agent, making the decision himself: “I nodded and gingerly led him home / by the path that winds through the cemetery”. This is difficult territory (“makes for uncomfortable reading” Scott disarmingly mimics in a later poem) but erotic desire is powerfully acknowledged and (with a more caring partner) is later more satisfyingly experienced and expressed in ‘plug’ which, tenderly and very explicitly, records the moment of the loss of virginity (in fact, to a dildo).
Interestingly, the child takes the clown “through the cemetery”. Scott won the 2017 Poetry London Competition with ‘crocodile’ which also elides, blurs, even equates sex and death. The extended simile of the crocodile dragging a young man to his death is really “that man / who held me from behind / when I didn’t know sex”. The violence and destructiveness in this case is very evident but so again is the young man’s desire: “I have these moments when I / know I wanted it asked for it”. It’s in this way such poems can make for uncomfortable reading. Scott does not simplify either the allure or the destructiveness of the erotic.
In two poems, Scott himself raises questions of authenticity. ‘Permissions’ reports, in choppy prose paragraphs, reports observations from a poetry audience, at first in admiration (“how daring how dark”), then more uneasily (“surely not this writer wasn’t”). This fragmentation evokes fleeting comments, half-finished thoughts but also an awkwardness because one of the burning questions seems to be “is the I you”. It’s as if the audience want to know if these are poems of witness, meaning of authentic biographical experience. Poems of witness also in the sense of the often traumatic nature of much of the material. ‘Admission’ is even more clear: “he asks if my poems are authentic [. . .] and by this he means have I been a victim”. In neither poem do we get a direct record of what the poet’s replies might have been and surely it hardly matters. One of the unassailable liberties of the poet is to make things up. But whether fiction or fact the resulting poem has to possess the feel of the truth and Scott’s work has this in spades.
As I’ve already implied, many of the truths these poems convey are dark and shameful ones. The third section of the book is titled ‘Shame’, again quoting Sedgwick: “Shame, too, makes identity”. Here are untitled poems which make the queer pastoral of ‘le jardin secret’ rather more complex; another boy’s look or look away prompts “the hot-face / trauma the instant rash-jam” of embarrassed blush, made even more painful by a father’s verbal abuse. Elsewhere the father says, “don’t tell anyone you’re my son” and the narrator himself bitterly opposes any easy sloganizing with “the opposite of shame is not pride”. There is some support to be found in reading books by “leo / paul / mark / jean / eve / michel” and source quotes and allusions are noted in Scott’s margins here.
It’s this very self-conscious sense of these poems appearing within a canon of queer literature and experience that jet-propels ‘Oh My Soho!’, the long concluding sequence to the book. Whitman again presides in the epigraph and in the free-wheeling, long-lined, detail-listing paean to the present, past and future of Soho itself. The narrative voice becomes a self-appointed “homo-historian” and Scott’s love of word play (which elsewhere can feel too self-conscious) here finds a suitable form and tone. The historical element takes in a discussion of the Warren Cup (in the British Museum) but is never far from subjective and exclamatory moments too. The vigorous, secretive, once-unlawful, now legal, still persecuted, lives of “homos” is noisily and slangily celebrated:
We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!
Too busy sending dick pics and I saw Saint Peter Tatchel shirtless [. . . ]
We are a long way from that library in 1998, but “normativity” remains the enemy against which Scott takes up weapons (one of which is his own body). ‘museum’ is a superbly sensual poem, expressive of a man’s desire for the damaged male body of a Classical statue. Here normativity re-appears in the “giggling pointing prodding” of a family also viewing the statue; their ridicule is self-transferred to the gay man who stands observing in silence. The persecutions pursued in the name of normativity are also disturbingly clear in ‘Reportage’, the reports being of the immolation of a gay man somewhere in Europe. And Scott’s own revolutionary and erotic zeal are unforgettably conveyed in the poem opening “even if you fuck me all vanilla”, going on with characteristically explicit descriptions of the ironically, self-consciously, unprovocatively, vanilla-ish act, he still declares at the climactic finish, “napalm revolution fuck- / ing anarchy we are still dangerous faggots”.
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here
Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)
In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.
Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.
Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:
He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing
another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables
inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press
into her –
For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.
Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as
a strand of black hair – unravelled
from the alphabet
on her cheek
Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.
Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).
What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.
Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).
But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:
more holy than holding
a man’s heartbeat between
your teeth, sharpened
with too much
The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out, this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:
I have not blogged regularly since April 2017 as, having managed to get both my parents settled into a Care Home in Wiltshire, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and died – fairly quickly and peacefully – on May 24th. Not wholly coincidentally, the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London published an essay I had written which starts and ends with some thoughts on my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. In the next two blogs, I re-produce this essay unchanged in the hope that it still says something of value about types of ‘confusion’ and in memory of a man who would have had little time for such (in his view morbid and abstruse) reflections. Thanks to Tim Dooley who commissioned the essay for Poetry London and published it under the original title: A Straining Eye Catches no Glimpse.
An old king leans over his daughter’s body seeking signs of life, yet he finds “Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing”. Given that I teach literature and this is one of Shakespeare’s more famous lines with its repetition and trochaic revision of the iambic pentameter, I’m not proud of mis-remembering this moment in King Lear (the repeated word is, of course, ‘Never’). Yet I know why I mistake it, this year, in these fretful months. Seeing Anthony Sher play the role recently – haranguing a foot-stool, giving toasted cheese to a non-existent mouse – put me in mind of my father, though he’s not quite so far gone. These days he has trouble recognising the house he’s lived in for 60 years; he will refer to his wife as a woman from the village who has come to look after him; he seeks news of his mother (she died in the 1970s). What can this feel like? Years of memories gone; a whirling fantasmagoria that evidently frightens him; a something becoming nothing he makes too little sense of.
So it’s not just that the idea of nothing is prominent from the very start of Shakespeare’s play. Cordelia fails to reply flatteringly to Lear’s question about which of his daughters loves him most. The gist of her brutal answer is “Nothing, my lord”. Lear warns her: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again”. But she sticks to what she sees as her truth (as against her elder sisters’ oleaginous falsehoods) and pays the consequences. But so does the King. Reduced eventually to a wholly unexpected state of wretched nothingness in the storm scenes and beyond, he learns much from this nothing in pointed contradiction of his earlier warning. It doesn’t stop there; once reunited with Cordelia and faced with the prospect of prison, possible execution, what is remarkable is the King’s acceptance of his fate. Confronting this further reductio, he declares he’ll go and finds a reason to be cheerful: “we will take upon’s the mystery of things”. I’ve always been struck by Shakespeare’s phrasing here. The mystery of things is imaged not as some modernly pedagogic check-list, tabulated and absorbed like a set of principles, rather it’s something to be folded about us – a garment, an investiture, a way of seeing, feeling, not quite of self, not quite other either – and Shakespeare’s point is that Lear’s encounter with nothingness in various guises is what has prepared him for such a re-vision of his place in the world.
I’m interested in the idea that such a nothing can be worth something. Of course, it’s not exactly nothing, a void, that Cordelia’s father encounters. It is a bewildering set of experiences of which he can make nothing. Lear – I don’t know how far this is like my father – suffers because his previous paradigms are failing: he is shocked into his encounter with the mystery of things or what Anne Carson calls the “dementia of the real”. When my father talks, he yearns for the ordinary reassuring certainties of his old life, as if they would close round him with the feel of a comfortable coat. Carson has explored this reliance we all have on the familiar in her 2013 Poetry Society lecture concerned with ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’.[i] She explores moments when language ceases to perform what we consider its primary function and we are confronted with nothingness in the form of silence. In the fifth book of The Odyssey when Hermes gives Odysseus the herb “MVLU”, Homer intends the name of the plant to be untranslatable since this sort of arcane knowledge belongs only to the gods. In a second example, under interrogation at her trial, Joan of Arc refuses to employ any of the conventional tropes, images or narratives to explain the source of her inspiration. Carson wants to praise Joan’s genius as a “rage against cliché”, the latter defined as our resort to something pre-resolved, pre-shaped, because, in the face of something so unfamiliar that it may seem more like nothing, “it’s easier than trying to make up something new”.
Carson associates this rage to ‘out’ the real with Lily Briscoe’s problems as an artist in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. She struggles to complete her painting, aware that the issue is to “get hold of something that evaded her”.[ii] She dimly senses “Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything”. Unlike Homer and Joan of Arc, the knowledge Lily seeks (undistracted by the divine) is not so much prohibited as, in a profound sense, beyond conception (it is a nothing before it has been made something). For Carson, we each dwell behind the “screens” of cliché for most of our lives, so when the artist pulls them aside the impact of the revelation may well have the force of violence. She suggests artistic freedom and practice lie in such a “gesture of rage”, the smashing of the pre-conceived to find the truth beyond it, her goal remaining the articulation of the nothing she insists is actually the “wide-open pointless meaningless directionless dementia of the real”.
This is the nothing I am interested in: it is no void or vacancy but, paradoxically, a wealth of experience, a “flux of phenomena” about which we cannot think in conventional ways. We cannot name the parts of it, so for convenience, maybe a bit defensively, we prefer to designate it nothing. The artist seeks to articulate such an “experience of what goes beyond words: call it the fleeting perception [. . . ] a state of indifferentiation”. [iii] This is one of the many formulations of the issue by the late Yves Bonnefoy who unrelentingly explored the limits of conceptual thinking in terms similar to Carson’s distrust of cliché: “It is not that I incriminate the concept – which is merely a tool we use to give form to a place where we can dwell. I am merely pointing out a bad tendency [ . . . ] of its discourse to close discussion down, to reduce to the schematic and to produce an ideology existing in negation of our full relation to what is and to whom we are”. He concludes it is a “temptation to stifle dissenting voices” – the kind of voices who see something in nothing. [iv]
The always evangelical Bonnefoy terms the mystery encountered in a “state of indifferentiation” as “Presence”. In 1991, Bonnefoy’s temporary residence in the snowy landscapes of Massachusetts gave him a new way of evoking these ideas. In The Beginning and the End of the Snow (1991) he reads a book only to find “Page after page, / Nothing but indecipherable signs, / [. . .] And beneath them the white of an abyss”[v]. Later, the abyss is more explicitly, if paradoxically, identified: “May the great snow be the whole, the nothingness”.[vi] These occasional moments when the screens of cliche and conceptual thought fall are moments of vision as sketched by Auden in his discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnets – they are given, not willed; are persuasively real, yet numinous; they demand a self-extinguishing attentiveness.[vii] The inadequate, provisional, always suspect nature of language to record such moments is clear in these lines from Bonnefoy’s poem ‘The Torches’:
. . . in spite of so much fever in speech,
And so much nostalgia in memory,
May our words no longer seek other words, but neighbour them,
Rather than the forced disjunctions and the quasi-dementia of Carson’s recommended methods, Bonnefoy is reluctant to abandon the lyric voice, though he still intends to acknowledge the provisional nature of language in relation to Presence. The “fever” and “nostalgia” we suffer is the retrogressive lure of conceptual simplification. Bonnefoy’s imagery suggests a more delicate, tentative relationship between words, a neighbouring, a brushing up against each other (like snowflakes), though even then, if they “unite” or manage to cast “light” on what is, this can only be brief, always subject to dissipation.
In the Recent Reading section of my website I observed that Choman Hardi’s “unsparing exploration of the plight and flight of the Iraqi-Kurdish people in the 1980s is poetry of witness of a high order. This is a body of work which is unique and deserves as much notice as we can give it”. I also blogged about her second collection, Considering the Women, where I drew comparisons between her poem ‘Gas Attack’ and Wilfred Owen’s well-known anti-war poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. My thoughts were in part a spin-off from a review I was asked to do of the book (alongside collections by Tony Hoagland and Jan Wagner). That review has been published in Poetry London. But Hardi’s book has just appeared on the Forward Prize Best Collection Shortlist and the post that now follows is the discussion of the whole book from my original review. The “delicate deliberations” alluded to in the opening line refer to Jan Wagner’s work – in which I discussed his explorations of the self, definitions and re-definitions of it, through our honest encounter with the world.
The kind of horrific experiences and seismic changes to human lives that Choman Hardi writes about make some of these more delicate deliberations seem inappropriate luxuries. Hardi does not write much about herself yet the locus of her life is critical to the work. Born in Sulaimani, she lived in Iraqi-Kurdistan and Iran before seeking asylum in the UK in 1993. She has since researched women survivors of Saddam’s chemical warfare against the Kurds in the late 1980s and has recently moved back to Sulaimani. Her first book (in English) Life for Us (Bloodaxe, 2004) was remarkable for its evocations of a childhood shattered by war, persecution and exile. Her new collection also contains timely poems about exile, warfare, ethnic cleansing, but goes on to reflect on the pull back to the homeland.
Hardi writes devastatingly about the Iraqi state’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds, drawing directly on her research in the central ‘Anfal’ sequence. ‘Gas Attack’ offers a mother’s account of “a chalky-yellow powder” settling on exposed skin, her own and her son’s. The boy dies, groaning “like a calf”, the mother still blinded, unable to see him or “say goodbye”. Hardi’s language is always sufficient to the task – plain, direct, rising to the occasional metaphor, natural enough to suggest a witnessing voice. In ‘Dibs Camp, the Women’s Prison’, another mother who has already lost husband and daughter, holds her son in her arms as he dies suckling on a green slipper because he has asked for a cucumber and “is beyond // knowing the difference”. ‘The Angry Survivor’ introduces a different perspective as yet another mother rails against the intrusion of journalists, officials, activists who want to probe her story, or as she puts it, “pick my wounds”.
The position of the researcher is a vexed one openly considered in this collection. The ‘Anfal’ sequence is begun by the researcher’s voice, earnest, naïve and well-meaning. It concludes with ‘Researcher’s Blues’ in which she is now haunted permanently by the women’s voices so that “all I can do is / pour with grief which has no beginning and no end”. Such hyperbolic language is carefully measured to the devastating subject but the impact of such traumatic events on a non-participant is perhaps better dealt with elsewhere in the collection in more autobiographical pieces. In ‘My English Years’ the narrator sketches the story of a mixed marriage in decline. One of the points of contention is her research which leaves her feeling “dispossessed”. The husband tires of what he sees as her obsession with “victimhood”, then he also grows “fed up with me” (‘Our Different Worlds’).
The irony of a poem like ‘Before You Leave’ – flinging out imperatives demanding that language, landscape, neighbours, parents must not be forgotten in exile – is that it is precisely these things that are never really abandoned. ‘Blackout’ records a more ordinary scene, a woman lying on a flat roof on a hot summer night. As the electricity is cut, her husband stumbles around in the dark below in yet another of those “ruptures” that seem to be the condition
[of] life going wrong –
a house disappearing after a bomb,
a loved one not waking up from sleep,
villages being erased from a map
That such occasionally generalized images stand for a universality validated by lived and carefully researched experience means Hardi’s readers may lower their critical defences. It’s brave and right of her to reflect her own life’s travails in these poems as it is always the individual’s experience that is trampled by state power and any re-statement of its importance is a political act.
Ian Duhig has recently written for Poetry London about the genre of ‘poetry of witness’ (Poetry London). In 2014, Carolyn Forche and Duncan Wu edited The Poetry of Witness: The English Tradition, 1500–2001 (Norton) and the genre was there described as a tradition that runs through English-language poetry: “composed at an extreme of human endurance – while their authors awaited execution, endured imprisonment, fought on the battlefield, or labored on the brink of breakdown or death”. Though Duhig’s discussion raises doubts about both the genre itself, this definition, and its ethical stance, the two poems I discuss here are surely examples of it.
I’ve recently been reading Choman Hardi’s new collection and the link with Owen’s very well-known (well-studied) poem is obvious. Choman Hardi’s poem ‘Gas Attack’ comes from the ‘Anfal’ sequence in her recent book, Considering the Women (Bloodaxe, 2015). The narrator is a woman whose community is bombed by the Iraqi state in the notorious attacks on the Kurdish people in 1988. Wilfred Owen’s famous poem (‘Dulce et Decorum Est’) draws on his experiences of trench warfare on the Western Front in World War One. Owen’s title is a reference to Horace’s Odes (III, ii l. 13), the full phrase translating as “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”. It is this sort of ardent, patriotic jingoism that Owen looks to counter in the poem as it is the world’s blindness to real events in Kurdish-Iraq that Hardi wishes to correct.
Structurally both poems are similar in that they open by setting a scene of relative calm even suggesting the ordinariness of what, to most readers, must seem extraordinary. It is into these already difficult situations that the gas attacks fall and both poems (Owen’s at greater length) detail the nature of the attack and some of its immediate effects. Both poems have a third and final part in which they focus on specific victims. In Hardi’s poem this is the son of the mother narrator; in Owen’s case it is one of the gas-affected soldiers, flung onto a “wagon”, and suffering the agonizing effects of the gas. So both poems open, in effect, making use of a wide-angled lens but proceed to focus on individuals and this reflects the shared intention of both authors to elicit understanding and sympathy from their readers. It is Owen who makes this purpose more explicit in the final, bitter address to “My friend” (possibly the jingoistic writer, Jessie Pope, the original dedicatee of the poem).
The scene set in ‘Gas Attack’ is of the routine persecution of the Kurdish people under Saddam Hussein. The deliberate plainness of the opening line (“Bombs could fall anywhere, any time of the day”) with its repetition around the caesura suggests this – as does the unruffled sense given by the line’s end-stopping. The statement that such events are to be regarded as a mere “nuisance” that can be “got used to” wrenches the reader away from the more usual evaluation of such events into a world where these things are everyday incidents. There is however something proleptic about the awkwardly enjambed breaking of line 2, the reference to “shelters” and the unease implied by words like “haunting” and “muffled”. This is confirmed (after 2 more run-on lines) by the deliberate puzzle that the explosions “deceived us”. The faint personification here and the idea that explosions (surely pretty straightforward things) might have the capacity for deception alerts the reader, creating tension: in what way are these explosions unlike other explosions?
Owen’s opening 8 lines are immediately more harsh and noisy though even here there is some sense of routine in that the retreating men “marched asleep” (from fatigue and perhaps on ‘automatic pilot’). The fact they are heading for “distant rest” invites the reader to some mistaken sense of ease (no doubt reflecting the feelings of the men themselves as they march away from the Front Line). But through figurative language and physical positioning, Owen’s men are more distressed than Hardi’s Kurdish woman: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge”. Like Hardi, Owen also uses the word “haunting” but here for distant flares falling and the brief, stumbling phrases of lines 5-8 reflect the men’s difficult progress. Such devices elevate the reader’s anticipation of drama to come though again, on the surface, the men have “outstripped” shells (Five-Nines) that are dropping “behind” them. Their deafness to the sound of these shells on one side suggests their (safe) distance from them, on the other, “deaf even” (my italics) implies potential danger to come from this source.
Owen’s lines on the attack itself are a nightmare of panic initiated by the exclamatory, capitalized shouts of the men: “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” This is an “ecstasy” in that their consciousness is so agitated and extra-ordinary that they feel to be watching themselves as in an out of body experience (ex-stasis). Their flurry to don gas masks is suggested by 6 present participle verbs in as many lines though most of these are equally descriptive of the poor individual who fails to get his mask on fast enough. Figurative language conveys his agonising plight as he is “like a man in fire or lime” and he moves “As under a green sea [. . . ] drowning”. By contrast, the impact of the attack in Hardi’s poem is at first a strange calm, once again related to the deceiving nature of these Iraqi bombs (thought to be conventional; in reality chemical weapons). Owen’s men are familiar with these chemical weapons; Hardi’s Kurdish community is not – yet.
There is still no shift to the level tone of Hardi’s poem, even as the mother narrator observes how “a chalky-yellow powder settled // on our skin”. These lines seem to extend time agonisingly for the reader who, aware of the topic from the plainly informative poem title, waits for the narrator to comprehend events. In contrast to Owen’s figurative language of pain by fire and water, Hardi’s narrator’s ignorance (and therefore her innocence) is caught in her image of the powder “smelling of sweet apples at first” and it “seemed safe”. It’s the caesura of line 8 that marks the transition from ignorance to knowledge as the impact of the gas is evoked (again through a series of active present participles (going, laughing, buckling, twisting running, bumping)). The people’s erratic, tortured behavior has a black comedic, or surreal, quality which probably suggests the few shreds of the observer’s naivety (something Owen’s more experienced narrator never expresses).
In a notable contrast between the two poems, lines 15/16 of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ break from the retrospective narrative into the present tense (“I saw him [. . .] He plunges”). The lines provide another image of sight, perhaps launched partially by the heightened visual quality of the glimpse of the man “through the misty panes” of the narrator’s own mask. But in these lines the “helpless sight” is one derived instead from dream-vision and memory. The fact that, at an undefined moment after these events, they still haunt the narrator gives additional weight to the horrors unfolding in the past tense narrative.
This is not something Hardi’s poem does and to this extent Owen’s narration is more complex, implying an attitude towards the events which emerges most obviously in the long single sentence of lines 17-25. The third section of Hardi’s poem continues with the level-toned witnessing: “Villages from the region came to our aid”. At first it seems curious that they are the ones to draw attention to the narrator’s son who “looked strange”. At this point it is almost as if the mother does not want to refer to her son’s injuries, a kind of denial, though eventually it emerges that it is her own blindness (as a result of the chemical weapon) that has actually prevented her even seeing its effects on her son. The boy’s strangeness is conveyed in the plain statement that “his face was blistered, blackened” but also through the strange phrase (difficult to visualize) that it was “as if his eye-colour had spilt // out”. This probably refers to the “blackened” image but also suggests the physically horrific melting of eye-balls not unlike Owen’s “white eyes writhing” and the dissolving of “froth-corrupted lungs”.
Hardi continues to hold back the fact of the mother’s blindness which accounts for the recourse to the aural image of the boy’s groan “like a calf faced with the knife”. This in turn conjures up Owen’s opening to ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” I don’t see influence here other than the fact that both writers are wanting to evoke sympathy by drawing attention to the dehumanising impact of warfare’s mass slaughter. Hardi’s narrator finally reveals her own injury (“I was still blind”) and after another run of destabilizing enjambment (ll. 11-14) the last line is more heavily punctuated, slowing and emphasizing and again keeping the tone level and factual: “he / died, [I] could not see him, did not say goodbye”. The mother’s passivity is very prominent; her hopelessness is what expresses her grief. It is as though the continual persecution and horror has left her drained even of the energy to mourn with passion.
This is obviously very different to the passionately angry conclusion of Owen’s poem. Owen’s focus on the dying soldier begins at line 17 but its vivid descriptions of the man’s death are already contained within a hypothetical syntax – a point is evidently being made with the surprising appearance for the first time of the second person pronoun (“you”). Far more assertively than Hardi’s poem, Owen demands his readers, those who knew too little of the realities of warfare in 1918, put themselves in a position of greater insight: “pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in, / And watch”. Likewise Owen does not pull punches in terms of the gruesome description of the soldier’s suffering with his “writhing” eyes, his “hanging” face (upside down, hanging off the wagon?), his “gargling” lungs. The two similes he introduces achieve the same levels of hyper-intensity with the suffering “as cancer” (obscurely or – in another draft – obscenely) and the blood in his throat like a “cud”, yet another livestock allusion to match Hardi’s doomed “calf”. The cud on this occasion is itself developed metaphorically into “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”, further emphasizing the appalling injustice of this slaughter.
It’s at line 25 that the “you” is addressed more directly with the ironically amicable “My friend”. The “zest” and “arden[cy]” of those eager for patriotic glory is mocked (“glory” rhyming with “mori”) but the potentially ‘hedging’ effect of these ironies is vigorously and fiercely pushed aside by the plainly monosyllabic description of the Horatian tag as “The old Lie”. Owen’s poem takes the reader into the trenches, to the post-traumatic world of nightmares, but also manages to encompass this declarative, even propagandist, point. Likewise, Hardi’s poem plunges us into the gas attack and its aftermath but never ventures into the same argumentative, passionate point-making. Her decision to allow the details of this poem to speak for itself is a brave one (of tone and manner) given the horrors of which it speaks and the author’s evident commitment to bringing them to notice.
Volker Braun’s Rubble Flora (tr. David Constantine and Karen Leeder (Seagull Books, 2014)) was one of the commended texts in this year’s Popescu Translation Prize. I was surprised it did not make it to the final shortlist. His passionate and abrasive voice (in these excellent translations) is certainly worth sampling as a model for poetry engaging with political change. Here he is writing from the GDR after the Berlin Wall has come down.
That’s me still here. My country’s going West.
WAR ON THE POOR GOD BLESS THE PALACES.
I helped it out the door with all the rest.
What paltry charms it has it gives away.
After winter comes the summer of excess.
And I can go to hell is what they say.
I don’t know the meaning of my text.
What I never owned, they’ve taken even this.
What I never lived, I know I’ll always miss.
It was hope that came before this fall.
My property, you flog from stall to stall.
When will I say mine again and mean of all.
(tr. Karen Leeder)
Braun was born in Dresden in 1939. His childhood was spent in the post-war ruins of that city which he describes as a locus of re-birth as much as devastation: “Fiery lupins and / Widows in the ruins set up house and home” (‘Rubble Flora’). His early work reflects the pioneering spirit of the foundation of the GDR, though a poem like ‘Demand’, with its vigour and idealism expressed through bold exclamatory phrases, already runs counter to the growing repressiveness of the state. Braun consistently relishes the provisional:
Don’t come to us with it all sewn up. We need work in progress.
Out with the venison roast – in with the knife and the forest.
Here experiment is king, not fixed routine.
His urge to move forward becomes an unhealed wound. ‘At Dawn’, in its entirety reads: “Every step I’ve still to take / tears me apart”.
There is also a strong streak of sensuality throughout Braun’s work and eros is celebrated in contrast to what ‘Afternoon’ terms “the pre-printed schedules / And fully synchronised reports” that constituted ‘really existing socialism’. Karen Leeder’s Introduction discusses Braun’s ability to “manoeuver within the [Communist} system” and, feeling the pressures of history unfolding, ‘Fief’ expresses something of a stoical attitude: “I’ll hold out here, find succour in the East”. By the 1980s, Braun’s hopes for a fitting fief were also taking the form of Rimbaudian flights of fancy as here in the landscape of ‘Innermost Africa’:
Under the soft tamarisks
Into the tropical rains that wash
The slogans off, the dry memoranda
Also around this time, Braun alludes to Goethe’s idyllic images of lemon trees in bloom from his 1795 lyric ‘Mignon’. Here they flash past in a fragmentary manner, alongside other literary references, prose passages, graffiti-like capitalised phrases and seeming non-sequiturs. Both Leeder and Constantine deal brilliantly with the challenge such a style presents to its translators. In this way, Braun’s work betrays the pressures of speaking in a repressive regime and so it is interesting that the more lucid lyrics of The Zig-Zag Bridge (1988) pre-empt the fall of the Berlin Wall and the possibility of speaking out.
But Braun’s visions of the fulfilled life were hardly advanced with the advent of capitalism. The changes of 1989 are repeatedly portrayed as a false dawn. The magnificent sequence, ‘West Shore’, roars with hopes and disappointments in the embrace of the new ideology:
the abrupt come-down
Of the roped-together
From the north face of the Eager
As above, ‘Property’ sees the old GDR “going West” yet the poet is bewildered even by his own “text” as everything gets “flog[ged] from stall to stall”. Braun pursues intertextual effects with Eliot-like allusions as in ‘O Chicago! O Contradiction’ where he draws on Brecht’s 1927 poem ‘Vom armen B.B.’ (see my earlier blog and translation of this poem) and Hamlet to evoke “the chilly byways / Of market economics”. But after 1989, such allusions are more frequently to brand names and consumer goods as here in the mock-jaunty optimism of “Socialism’s out the door, but here comes Johnnie Walker”.
Neither communism nor capitalism nurtures the life Braun seeks and he turns his vitriol on the new world where “King Customer” rules (‘Common Ownership’), where the “supercontinent [. . . ] COCA COLA” rises from the ocean (‘West Shore’) and fashion shows in ‘Lagerfeld’ show capitalism making people “more beautiful but not better”. It’s Helena Christensen who stalks the catwalks of this poem only to arrive at:
the throwaway society
The arena full of the last screams Ideas
Rome’s last era, unseriousness
Now watch the finale ME OR ME
If Braun still finds pleasure in the world it is despite political change not because of it. ‘Art’ asks torturedly, rhetorically, “How / Is it possible that things the way they are / Are dancing?” Rubble Flora concludes with work since 2005 and there is more Rilkean “praise [of] the world as it appears” (‘When He Could See Again’) and this affords some relief from the “stifling / Of [the] ability to be human” (‘Conversation About the Trees in Gezi Park’). One of the “things” still dancing for Braun is the erotic. The loss of desire is the sole subject of ‘My Fear’ and the hope that “some gentle breast might fasten for a while / And quicken my blood” (‘Findings’) offers some counterbalance to the almost deafening, continuing “twitter-storm” (‘Wilderness’) of injustice, greed, poverty and violence in the world generally, more specifically in his own “re-disunited Germany” (‘De Vita Beata’).
This review originally published in Poetry London (March 2015)