An Interview with Hilary Davies

In January this year, I posted a review of Hilary Davies’ powerful new collection, Exile and the Kingdom. In what follows, she has been kind enough to answer a few questions which presented themselves as I read the book. In her replies, Davies ranges across poetic influence, the importance to her work of a European perspective, the question of structuring a poetry collection, the relation between the spiritual and the everyday, and the difficulty of writing about grief and loss.

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MC: Could you say a little about the significance of the title of the book, Exile and the Kingdom?

HD: Exile and the Kingdom treats of preoccupations that have been with me all my life.  The collection consists of five distinct but interrelated sequences which all have to do with pilgrimage in some way. Our pilgrimage through life is in a very real sense an exile but how we approach it, are changed by it and by those we meet and love is also how we may approach the kingdom.

MC: The book’s five parts have a clear structure and I found myself wondering how that architectural ordering of poems came about and how it related to the chronological sequence of their being written.

HD: Since my first book of poems, The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop, back in 1991, I have written in all my collections in sequences. This is because I found that discrete lyrics, unconnected to any wider context, were no longer sufficient by themselves to allow me to address the themes I wanted to address. I began to think in terms of a broader architectonic for the poems I wanted to write: each time I have embarked on new subject matter, I have sought a scaffolding, a framework, to give my work the reach I felt my chosen topic needed. Sometimes these have been quite simple, sometimes very complex, requiring a great deal of research in a dizzying variety of areas. This research has been an integral part of the poetic voyage and creative process for me over the years, and I find it exciting and exhilarating.

Exile and the Kingdom is no exception. The eponymous section comes last. It was, however, actually the first to be written.  Finding this particular theme took a long time, over a year; the title, much longer. There were several false starts and considerable frustration. This was in part the normal consequence of having just published my third collection, Imperium. At such moments, there is always a period, first, of satisfaction and repletion, then an insidious feeling of lack of purpose, then increasing anxiety that you may never be able to do it again.

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MC: The use of the liturgical ‘hours’ as the structuring device in the concluding ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ sequence is very powerful. Is this something that formed part of your original thinking about the sequence or a later ‘addition’ that seemed right?

HD: I knew I wanted to write something about the stages in my spiritual life up till then, including my conversion to Catholicism, but couldn’t see how to do it. Slowly, I discovered a structure: the liturgical hours or divine office.  These are amongst the very oldest of Christian prayers, dating back to the time of the apostles and influenced by Jewish practice. They were incorporated, in altered form, into Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and are consequently familiar to Anglicans the world over, in, for example, evensong; they are still observed in monastic communities and in both the Eastern and Catholic churches. What was especially interesting to me was their symbolism, which is a dual one. They mark out the day and the night, and are thus associated with different states of the soul, different spiritual aspirations, different signposts on the journey of life. Traditionally, they have also been attached to different texts in the New Testament, something of which I was not aware initially and which became part of the quest, to see how these passages related to events in my own life. They did, of course, as all great religious texts do, because part of their aim is to explain ourselves and the forces that we encounter to us.

MC: The closeness of the spiritual to the everyday seems to be one of the points of the book’s second sequence, ‘Songs from the Lea Valley’ which strikes a very different note, more personal, urban and multicultural.

HD: My home for the last 25 years has been the Lea valley, on the eastern edge of London. It is of huge importance to the history of the city, and yet remains unknown to many inhabitants in spite of being chosen for the site of the Olympic park in 2012.  In order to celebrate it, I began writing occasional lyrics over a period of years, evoking the river, marshlands, the city, those who have lived here and given it its character way back even into the Stone Age.  It is a hugely cosmopolitan place – more languages are spoken in my constituency than anywhere else in Europe – and that spirit of ‘live and let live’, the melting pot of cultures and the vibrant atmosphere it creates, is what I wanted to convey in the poem ‘In Abney Park’. This is a 19th century cemetery in Stoke Newington, now a nature reserve beloved of walkers and mothers with babies. It is peopled with mourning angels, as was the custom of the time, but lies only yards from the bustle of Ermine Street, the great Roman road north to York, along which the trade and armies of empire have been travelling for two millennia.

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Abney Park, Stoke Newington, north London

MC: Throughout the book you make use of two quite distinctive poetic styles. One is a more discursive, even philosophical, free style of unrhymed verse; the other is more formal and lyrical. Are they contrasting or complementary?

HD: The question of styles emerged really from the differing subject matters. The personal poems naturally spoke in a lyric voice, the longer sequences do mirror the fact I am trying to reflect on larger historical and philosophical themes

MC: In that variety of poetic voice, I seem to hear the influence of writers like T.S. Eliot, David Jones, even George Herbert. Which predecessors do you look to when you write, or perhaps which predecessors do you try to circumvent?

HD: I don’t consciously look to any poets when I am writing, which of course is not to say I am not influenced by certain writers, as we all are. But these influences hopefully have become fully digested in a mature style.  I have been influenced by and admire the poetry of Jones, Herbert, Eliot, Donne, Traherne, Vaughan, Yeats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Patrick Kavanaugh, W.S. Graham, David Gascoyne, George Barker.  But also Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Rilke, Jean Follain, Hofmannsthal, Goethe, Lorca. And others no doubt that temporarily escape my mind.  These are for wildly different reasons and sometimes as much for subject matter as prosody.

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MC: Your love of the landscape and culture of France and Germany comes through powerfully in the book. Do you see yourself as an British poet who travels, or a European poet who lives in the UK?

HD: I first crossed the Channel at the age of fifteen, at a time when Britain was negotiating its entry into the Common Market. In those less blasé times, the land on the other side seemed unimaginably exotic and profoundly exciting. Two years later I went to Germany, West Germany as it then was – a tiny difference in nomenclature that encapsulated the catastrophe of the 20th century.  These visits changed the course of my life: I went on to read French and German at university, and to earn my living teaching these languages and cultures for over thirty years while pursuing my writing as a poet.

This means I am a committed European. I have lived in Paris and spent over 20 summers in France. I have written poems about the 12th century lovers and thinkers, Abelard and Héloïse, and poems set in the great Paleolithic landscapes of the Dordogne and the Vézère: I have charted the spiritual pilgrimage that began for me in Poitiers and the Marais in Paris.

MC: So that sense of connectedness to the European mainland and its cultures has been important to you for a very long time?

HD:  The theme of interconnectedness, of the richness that the admixture of peoples brings, was the major inspiration behind the fourth section of the collection, ‘Rhine Fugue’.  This was an ambitious project which required a great deal of research over 5 years. France and Germany are part of my psyche and part of my heritage as a European.  They have also, as we notoriously know, been for many centuries alternately brothers and enemies, and the Rhine is the great watercourse that both unites and divides them.

The notion of fugue was suggested to me by the fact that Beethoven was born on the banks of the river in Bonn; the contrapuntal nature of this musical form exactly fits the interweaving, recapitulations and reversals of the history of the Rhine.  I wrote the poem in seven overlapping and yet distinctive sections, drawing on my own experiences with the kindness of strangers as a teenager; the Prussian general Blücher’s crossing of the Rhine in the cold dead of night to go and help Wellington at Waterloo; evocations of the benign influence of the river in different French and German locations; the rich Jewish Ashkenazim tradition during the Middle Ages in Worms; William Tyndale’s publication of his world-changing English translation of the New Testament while in exile, also in Worms; Beethoven as a exemplar of man’s attempts to reach the spiritual world through music and, finally, a return to the Rhine as a symbol of the need for cohesion and friendship in Europe, and what happens when we don’t have that.

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Blucher crossing the Rhine

When I began this poem, it seemed like a rather private concern of mine that might have little resonance with my readership; in 2017, it has all the urgency of a warning against a not so benign return to the nationalisms and wars of the past,

MC:  This is where we wish poetry had a wider and more powerful reach! You catch that admonitory sense so well in the lines: “O the melancholy of broken-backed bridges! / For razed cities never gave garlands.”  

HD:  At the height of the Second World War, two men from Rhenish backgrounds, Robert Schuman, a Frenchman of German and Luxemburg origin, and Konrad Adenauer, former mayor of Cologne, were both in hiding from the Nazis. Independently, and later together, influenced by the Christian democratic thinking of Jacques Maritain, they conceived of a post-war Europe transformed and redeemed by reconciliation and co-operation. Their vision underlies the European project and the peace that has obtained in Europe for the last 70 years. It is the Europe that I grew up in and which has sustained me poetically and professionally all my life.

MC: Despite a number of ‘in memoriam’ poems, it struck me that this was a book as much about love as grief. Did the book grew organically in that direction or was there something more willed about it?

HD: Yes, the poems were about grief, its extreme and shocking impact, but also about how in the end love overcomes this. But ‘overcomes’ makes it sound trite. It is a much more subtle, protracted and painful process than this in reality, and actually one that goes on for the rest of your life. I know this now because in the summer of 2013, my husband, the poet and editor Sebastian Barker, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given three months to live.

In fact, he lived another seven; he also lived to see his last and best collection, The Land of Gold (Enitharmon, 2014), reach publication. It contains his farewell to life, to love, his family, to the landscapes he loved in France and Greece. It contains his last and most profound statement about hope and faith, from which he gave a reading in Cambridge two days before he died.  This journey is one he had begun many years earlier but one which I had gone with him, in marriage, poetically and spiritually. His death provoked profound grief and a sudden and violent realignment of everything in my life that had seemed so certain. I have described it as ‘severe growth’: growth that was not sought for nor wanted, but which came upon me just the same.  I am still discovering what this means.  The central sequence of the book is about the loss, confusion, terror and celebration that the death of one we love occasions.  ‘Lympne Hill’ is a memory of looking out over the huge panorama at Lympne on the south coast towards Romney Marsh and the sea, where my husband seemed to touch, just for a moment, heaven. It is my thanksgiving to him.

 

You turn towards me, burning and happy,

That boy running the clouds over and over

Pell-mell into the hollows, this man

In his years reaching with all his might

Far out on life’s cantilever to touch his soul’s blue.

 

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Whitesands Bay, near St Davids

MC: The final poem of the collection is set at St Davids in Wales. You seem to be responding partly to the bleakness of the landscape. What streams of thought and experience seem to be coalescing there?

HD: That poem came out of a visit I made there at Christmas 2007, not the first by any means, as I am half Welsh. By chance we met a friend there who was visiting her very devout, sweet and Catholic mother, sitting in her ‘ragged kitchen’, and the friend then took us to St. Non’s Chapel, which is right out on a promontory exposed to the sea. Its situation struck me very much. The dusk came down in a very clear sky, with that indigo you get in winter twilight. And I was very conscious of the geology of that part of the world. Some of the oldest rocks in the world are exposed near St. David’s. Pre-Cambrian, pre-life on land, 620 million years old estimated. Hence the reference to the ‘oldlands’ where the human presence is compared to a baby in its mother’s arms.  At Whitesands Bay, near St. David’s, the shales are Cambrian and the rounded domes you see at the top are characteristic of those very old rocks.

I also remember I had Stanley Spencer’s painting of ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ in mind in writing the line ‘The saints lean from her windows against the night’. And the final line – the concluding line of the whole collection – is from the liturgy of Compline: ‘God grant us a quiet night and a perfect end’. But the whole poem is shot through with liturgical references as is, of course, the whole sequence.

 

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Stanley Spencer, ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’

 

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What Have I Been Reading: April – June 2015

Up-dated June 2015

I’ve taken a while getting through the almost 500 pages of Ian Bostridge’s fascinating musical, artistic, poetical, historical, political discussion of Schubert’s Winter Journey.Taking Wilhelm Muller’s poem sequence Die Winterreise, Schubert re-organised it (otherwise changing little) to produce his own Winterreise and, discussing this process and his own performances of the piece over many years, Bostridge touches on Kant, Goethe, Darwin, Friedrich, Alfred Hitchcock, and Aristotle’sMeteorology among others. The Muller text would make an interesting translation project.

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An earlier post about the abecedary form lead several people to ask me whether I’d read Inger Christensen’s 1981 sequence alphabet. Well I have now and it is just stunning. Based on the Fibonacci sequence and moving from A to N in alphabetical sequence too, Christensen writes fluid, Whitmanesque passages, laying aside ‘either/or’ for ‘and’, page after page of which reminds me of Rilke at his most passionate. This is a brilliant translation too by Susanna Nied. Christensen is a writer I need to explore more.

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A few weeks ago I blogged on Lee Harwood’s work which I was also discovering for the first time. Since then I have read Selected Poems published by Shearsman; and I have the Collected Poems waiting for the summer holidays too.

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Sue Boyle is a poet I have followed since working with her as a tutor for the Poetry School. She has now published, Safe Passage, a first collection with Oversteps Books and I recommend it (though I confess to also being one of the blurbists on the back cover, where I quote one of her most interesting lines: “in seizing the unexpected lies the art”).

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Updated May 2015

I’m still working through Robert Crawford’s magnificent biography of young Eliot up to The Waste Land. An almost day by day account of his youth, school and college days, Paris, Laforgue, Pound and Vivien Haigh-Wood. Particularly good on Eliot’s philosophical reading and development which I’m loving.

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Mimi Khalvati’s The Weather Wheel consists wholly of 16-line poems – stretched sonnets or irregular ghazals – which seem able to encompass almost any mood, topic or subject matter. Particularly impressive is her desire to draw from the most ordinary of events lines which often soar to the complexly emotional and the (frankly) spiritual.

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I’m also back re-reading Hughes because it looks like we’ll be teaching this from September onwards – surprisingly not something I have done (except one or two isolated poems). I first read many of these poems at Lancaster University in the late 1970s and nowadays many of these early poems read like objects of nature themselves: fixed as in granite, awe-inspiring, part of the mental landscape I have lived in for years.

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As my most recent blog recounts, I have been also re-reading Transtromer’s work.

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Up-dated April 2015

I’ve been reading two impressive contributions to the growing field of eco-poetics. Frances Presley’s halse for hazel is a visually pleasing book from Shearsman (illustrations by Irma Irsara) and the poems encompass geographical, linguistic, political and environmental issues without strain.

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Jacqueline Gabbitas’ Small Grass gives grass a voice and runs with the idea with charm, cleverness and power: “From where I lie, I see man walking, / his legs sheathed in green, // I strop my edges. Soon, they’ll cut through / fabric, the tissue beneath”.

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I’ve not always been an enthusiastic reader of John Fuller’s work but the recent The Dice Cup is a book of prose poem sequences full of his characteristic erudition, wit and observation.

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Lee Harwood is a poet who I’ve known of for years without really having read him much. I’d had him down as an English Ashbery/O’Hara and maybe I thought I ought to just go straight to the source. But Enitharmon’s The Orchid Boat is wonderful; full of fluid, sensuous, intelligent poems that twist and turn and take the reader by surprise. Not as flip as O’Hara, not as self-regarding as Ashbery.

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I confess to having a contribution in it but, apart from that, Tony Fraser’s new issue of Shearsman (103/4) is full of delightful things from the likes of Zoe Skoulding , James Byrne, Rupert Loydell and Kate Miller, plus translations of Virgil, Ponge and Jansma.

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Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Of Poor B.B.’

I have taken too little heed of BB, the poet. The chances are that you have too. This would certainly have been the case in 1976 when John Willett and Ralph Mannheim published Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 (Eyre Methuen) with its stellar cast of translators. The Introduction to that selection pointed out that, until well after his death in 1956, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking” under world literature. It’s our desperate bad luck that most of us have only ever been encouraged to approach Brecht through his dramatic theories, then his plays, “only coming to the poems as a by-product of his theatre work”.

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Things may have changed more quickly on mainland Europe, but only 10 years ago Michael Hofmann could still argue that the “prevailing British view of [Brecht was] as an arid theorist of drama [. . .] and  the author of a few baffling but conniving plays” (Introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems). In fact, Hofmann thinks of Brecht as the writer who took “poetry into the twentieth century”, its single most crucial figure. Against the claims of Eliot, Valery or Lorca this may seem a bold statement but Hofmann is thinking of poetry as “a living counter-force in socio-political reality [. . .] poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure”, an art that is “heartening and inspiring”. There is some risk of this drifting back towards BB the purveyor of proletarian political messages, but Hofmann’s contrast of Brecht with “his great counter-pole” in German poetry, Gottfried Benn, a poet of more familiar “private griefs and musics, of monologue, of fascination”, makes Brecht’s distinctive contribution clearer.

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In beginning to explore Brecht’s poetry I’ve been looking at poems from 1925-1928 and, like plenty before me, I’ve become intrigued by ‘Of Poor B.B.’ (German original and Michael Hamburger’s translation here; Hofman’s translation read here). Apparently the poem derives from lines jotted down on a speeding express train at 9.30pm in April 1922, when Brecht was travelling home to Augsburg after spending a difficult first winter in Berlin. The impact of the Great War is still visible here but Brecht is also very interested in exploring the impact of big city life. ‘A Reader for Those who Live in Cities’ was the title of a projected group of poems from around 1926.

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From the notes in Poems 1913-1956 it’s possible to reconstruct Brecht’s early draft which, compared to the final published version, demarcates town and countryside more simplictically: “I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.” Paradoxically, the use of his own initials in the title and the bold use of his full name in the opening line, actually distances the poem from the straightforwardly autobiographical. BB is a representative figure and his move from countryside to town (is this the Industrial Revolution?) was wholly passive, beyond his control, as he moved while still in his pregnant mother’s body. In fact Brecht’s mother had died before he began visiting Munich and Berlin and the poem claims that the “coldness” of the forests remains inside BB and will do so till his “dying day”. Quatrains 3, 4 and half of 5 of this ballad-like ABCB poem-draft also characterize the cold, unrestful, uncomfortable woods, even to the extent that the pine trees “piss” with rain and the birds are “vermin”.

The early draft’s modernist anti-pastoral seems to be confirmed by the opening of the second quatrain: “In the asphalt city I’m at home” and quatrain 5 follows the noise of the bird-vermin in the trees with the seemingly-content city-dwelling BB: “At that hour in the city I drain my glass”. But there is clearly trouble in the urban paradise. Quatrain 2 portrays BB at ease (with a dig at religion in describing newspapers, tobacco and brandy as ‘sacraments’) yet there is something unsettling in the three adjectives that follow: BB is mistrustful, lazy content. Having drained his glass and stubbed his cigar he “worriedly” goes to sleep. In quatrain 6 of the draft the reasons for this worry are clarified (one of the changes in the final version is to remove some of these more logical connections) as BB plays a guitar to an uncomprehending audience and has “difficulty understanding” himself as the city dwellers seem “different animals”. Quatrain 7 wonders whether this is because he has been “carried off to paper and women” (which I take to mean the ‘pleasures’ of the city) from the black forests which still thrive “in me” along with the “roar of pines”. So the early draft suggests BB’s displacement to the city has not achieved an escape from the darkness and coldness of the black forests of his birth and he seems therefore ill-equipped to live truly contentedly in the modern city.

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Michael Hofmann

Brecht’s revisions of the poem between 1924 and 1925 make it both more modern and more mysterious. Hofmann has described the result as “strange and pitiless”. The most clear change is in the final version’s quatrain 3 where BB makes efforts to fit into city life (being friendly, polite, wearing a hat), finding other inhabitants “animals with a quite peculiar smell” (I’m now quoting Michael Hamburger’s rhymed translation). But then BB admits “does it matter? I am too”. The draft’s more ‘easy’ theme of the outsider is being dismissed. Two new stanzas follow in which BB seems ever-more at home in the city, with both its women and men. With the former he is “untroubled”, boastfully suggesting he is “someone on whom you can’t rely”. With the men he heartily hails them, feet up on a table as they say “things will get better for us” but he knows not to “ask when”. BB is now wholly complicit in the urban insincerities, the lies and pretence that make life bearable.

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Michael Hamburger

So the changes show neither city nor the black forest offers any real contentment or fulfillment and it’s this profound sense of alienation that Hofmann links to the Modernist pessimism of an Eliot: “nature and culture, friendship and love, are all travestied and diminished”. This is why BB still falls asleep “worriedly”. In the new stanzas (7, 8 and 9) this pessimism becomes positively apocalyptic as the poem becomes about a cultural moment, a whole culture. Quatrain 7 uses the first person plural significantly; we are “an easy generation” (Hamburger) or “a whimsical tribe” (Hofmann) living in great cities that we hubristically believe are “indestructible” (Brecht refers to Manhattan here, a place he had yet to visit in 1924). In reality, of our cities only the “wind” will survive and we are (in our hearts and as we fall asleep perhaps) dimly aware that “we’re only tenants, provisional ones / And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about”.

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Had the poem ended here the comparison with Eliot’s 1922 wasteland pessimism would be more apt but, in the apocalyptic “earthquakes to come”, BB hopes to keep his Virginia cigar alight and whether we read this as a perky priapic image, a gesture of New World hope, or insouciant resilience to prevailing socio-political conditions, it’s here that we find something heartening and inspiring, even if the tone is mostly pyrrhic. The concluding balladic repetition (“I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities”) now reads like a more determined declaration of identity, a will to life, to a better world. This is despite the whole poem’s extraordinarily thoroughgoing portrait of alienation and cultural decadence. There’s life in poor BB yet.

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Forward First Collections Reviewed – #2 Karen McCarthy Woolf

This is the second in a series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

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Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet/Oxford Poets): Woolf’s website.

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Carcanet’s colourful cover image of fluttering songbirds belies the terrific freight of grief that this book carries. The poems are presented as highly autobiographical and there are actually three deaths involved: that of a friend from cancer, a mother-in-law, and the central focus is the stillbirth of the author’s son in August 2009. The very personal nature of the materials makes critical discussion difficult but, in reading the poems, I found myself thinking of T S Eliot’s observations about what he regarded as the failure of Hamlet. This is the 1919 essay in which Eliot proposes his idea of the objective correlative, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion”. The emotion is re-evoked in the reader when the objective correlative is supplied by the writer. But Eliot argues Shakespeare could never quite unearth or disentangle the true emotions which he hoped would empower the play’s chain of events of a father’s untimely death and a mother’s remarriage.

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McCarthy Woolf’s book suggests something quite the opposite in that the specific emotions and key events of the child’s death always form the underlying premise on which every single one of these poems runs. This is both a strength and a weakness. The problem can be seen in ‘The Sooty Shearwaters’ which plainly describes the birds heading out to sea to feed. Their return at night time is aided by the switching off of TVs and streetlamps so the birds can “navigate by starlight / to find their young”. The birds’ cry is unique we are told; DJs come to sample it. But what the poem gives us is a chain of events, an objective correlative, which fails to evoke a strong response unless and until the reader brings to the poem the prior knowledge of the stillborn child’s loss. Only when plugged into that does the shearwaters’ determined, instinctive return to their young (and the island population’s touching assistance to that end), really gain force.

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Also, as an exploration of the experience of grief, the book faces inevitable limitations because of the nature of the loss. There are several poems set in the acute moments surrounding the stillbirth and immediately afterwards but the majority are set sometime later (the book was six years in the making). Poems are arranged in a broadly chronological fashion and in an interesting reflection of the way a reader must keep in mind the premise of the original loss, many of the poems record the mother’s inability to move on from that same loss so that she, and the world around her, is repeatedly haunted by it. There are powerful moments here to be sure but no broadening religious dimension (Tennyson’s In Memoriam), no political thread (Tony Harrison’s The School of Eloquence), nor can there be any development (other than speculatively) about the nature of the lost one as in Hardy’s 1912 poems, Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, Anne Carson’s Nox, or Rilke’s Requiem for a Friend. The utterly tragic nature of the child’s loss in still birth imposes its own limits on the artistic response.

Nevertheless, An Aviary of Small Birds is admirably experimental in formal terms, some successful, others reading (surprisingly) like exercises carried out. For example, ‘The Museum of Best Laid Plans’ is a prose listing of the items on a bedside shelving unit, ending with a lock of infant hair. In contrast, ‘Morbleu’ takes us into the panic-stricken, semi-chaos of the delivery room, which is frighteningly conveyed through typographical layout and spacing: “ – we haven’t got – / a heart beat”. These are examples of the poems that stand up well independently, communicating fully to any reader whether in the context of this intensely-focused collection or not. Some of the best and most moving of other pieces take a markedly tangential approach to the tragic circumstances (perhaps the only way to approach such a grief). So ‘The Paperwork’ focuses on filling in a post-mortem form and makes powerful use of the tone and language of formality and administration so that one of the last options to be considered acquires, by contrast, even greater emotional weight: “Eyes not to be touched. / The doctor bites her lip, writes it in the box”. ‘The Registrar’s Office’ also manages to contain and convey its grief through indirectness as the bereaved mother, in a lightly punctuated flow and flurry of words, unburdens herself to the Registrar, but ends being more concerned about the windowless room in which the woman works. This illogical transference of the mother’s grief to a separate object is clear and credible and powerfully communicated to the reader.

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What the book does not offer in a sustained fashion is a more forensic analysis of grief, its impact and evolution; it says mainly that grief does not go away. ‘Where Steel Clatters’ is a strong poem describing a threatening-seeming landscape of whining saws, bullet holes, “a burnt-out Renault” – but the bereaved mother is unmoved by it, having learned that “the worst things happen in brash, / fluorescent rooms where steel clatters / and silence is the total absence of movement”. ‘Starlight’ is a curbed, curtailed, halting poem – as if it were weighed down by grief – expressing more directly the desire to be “away / from the gurney // and the empty metal cot”. It is perhaps through experiences with the natural world that some sort of consolation begins to be felt. ‘The Calf’ is set off the Canary Islands and makes untypical but important use of the islanders mythic belief that “the animal you need // always comes to you”. What the bereaved mother wants is to swim with a pilot whale calf, though this is “against the law”. There is a sighting from a boat: “then he’s gone // down into the dark. / Something is better than nothing.” In fact, the poem, which has surely ended here, goes on for another four lines (over a page break) and there are a few other moments where a final edit might have been considered.

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McCarthy Woolf has great empathy with the many animals in her poems and not only concerning the bird motif that runs through the collection. A dead hawk lying in a stream provides some “comfort” in a godless and faithless age; the “return to water, to the stream, to the earth” suggests some sort of cycle of life thing. And this is one of the most moving aspects of these poems of contemporary grief – the signal lack of outlets or rituals that might serve as ways of dealing with the loss. Latterly, rivers are imagined as speaking of the need to “endure” and the title poem itself redeploys the image of the lost child as a small bird in an aviary. The instinct of the natural creature, its need to be let go, is what teaches right action to the atomised, isolated, faithless individual of the mother in this book: though there is precious little evidence of moving on to be found in the collection, there is a realisation that it will be achieved only when the mother learns “to leave the door ajar”.

So: critical comment feels inappropriate at times with this book but it is presented to the reader as a poetry collection not a memoir. There is, throughout, a reaching for poetic variety not wholly matched by a variety of perspectives on the fundamental grief portrayed. There are several very powerful poems which I admire as technical achievements (given the powerful emotions from which they are derived, I don’t mean that as faint praise). But there are also a few make-weight pieces. McCarthy Woolf, whose book runs to only 63 pages, might, even so, have learned from the ultra-brevity and resultingly intense focus and consistency of a book like Colette Bryce’s The Whole and Rain-domed Universe (Picador), which weighed in last year at just 49 pages.

A Holocaust poem – my Dad’s desert war and one of the Magi

Last week, the 27 January 2015 marked the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. I have only once tried to address the subject – in a poem dedicated to my father who served in WW2 in the RAF, mostly in the deserts of Egypt (he was with 80 Squadron: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._80_Squadron_RAF).

He was an engineer by trade and – as far as I know – saw no hand to hand combat. His brief was to maintain the Hawker Hurricanes that were a major component of Allied air power in North Africa. The poem records his only war injury: badly burned legs from jumping too quickly onto the nose of an aircraft after it had landed, straddling its still blisteringly hot twin exhausts. In the 1960s, he’d tell us about this while we sat at the dining table gluing together Airfix models of Hurries (as he calls them), Spits and Lancs.

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The poem was finally published in 1994 in On Whistler Mountain (see https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/on-whistler-mountain/) It opens with a less than complimentary picture of my father’s unreconstructed political and racial views which I wanted to link to the birth of Christ and the Holocaust. Ironically, given his attitude to people of colour, my father dreams in the poem that he is one of the Magi, Caspar, often depicted as a King from the Indian sub-continent. The poem’s narrative folds over to encompass both the first stirrings of Caspar’s dream about the birth of Christ as well as his last days which I imagine him spending in northern Europe.

Being a King of sorts, my-father-as-Caspar imagines the birth of a conventional king, one of conventional powers, but the child’s family turns out to be of no “consequence”. The child he finds in Bethlehem (I was thinking of course of T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’) seems little more than a “futile gesture”. More dreams – which the poem takes as shorthand/short-cuts to the life of the imagination – then drive Caspar north to settle in northern Europe, himself facing racist attitudes among the native peoples there.

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My father’s imagined bafflement before this strange dream in which he plays the role of a non-white king is – I’m sure now – partly his son’s liberal conscience obliquely criticizing his politics. My poem leaves Caspar to die in the northern forests, himself bewildered by what his own dreams have driven him to. The Christ child he dismissed years earlier, continues to visit him in dreams where he goes weeping over that “precise, god-forsaken ground”. The visionary child sees into the future, is a prescient witness to his own Jewish people rounded up by the Nazis’ similarly repellent attitudes to power and racial difference, finally entering “incinerators smoking in the German forest”. Of course, Auschwitz itself and many other camps were not built on German soil, but it was important to use the ‘G’ word at the end of the poem. In the strict pursuit of truth, I was imagining Caspar’s long-house on German soil in the locality of Dachau or Buchenwald, the name of the latter translating as ‘beech forest’.

A Long-House in the Forest

for my father

1.

His war happened in the blazing Middle East.

When he was young, far from the mud of Europe

and the wired camps, his thighs were burned

by too much bravado, sitting astride

the exhausts of a Hurricane that hadn’t cooled.

He picked up the language. Never liked Arabs.

Any dark skin’s still a nigger to this day.

So he votes for the Right, though he’s careless

of politics and takes it as read: we all

long for power and we all need to be led.

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2.

In his dream, he is Caspar. He has chosen

to wait in the draughty long-house, watching

the yard collect its ragged slush of leaves.

He knows the corn-bins are flooded and rotten.

He knows this month is the anniversary

of nights when Caspar rolled in distress, youth,

dream illumination – an excited showing

of power’s open hearth, its air-gulping fire –

his sleep filled with the birth of a king

whose strong arm would invigorate the world.

At once, Caspar instructed a journey. His gift

for this new king, of course, was gold.

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3.

A wretched child asleep on that year’s straw.

Neither mother nor father people of consequence,

but simple Jews – trouble-making, deluded.

This was nothing worth his understanding.

(He knows Caspar is a man of wisdom and books).

What could be the need for this powerless figure?

Why this pot-bellied brat? This futile gesture?

Shepherds stood with doting faces for the boy.

He turned his back, dropped the derisory gift.

4.

Without wishing, Caspar gleaned what became

of the lad from travellers’ unlikely tales.

How he saw no reason to cloak humility.

Nor saw the need to make a show of strength.

No surprise the authorities destroyed him.

And on that day, Caspar, his dream-self,

was driven by dreams again, north this time,

to the Black Sea, fighting the Danube inland,

to this blond-haired, beer-drunk, long-limbed place,

whose people mistake him for a piece of Hell

with his blackened face and barbarian tongue.

5.

Sitting by the squadron’s crest, a photograph

of the kids, he sees no reason to dream himself

black and ignorant, plagued by dreams. But he is

Caspar, has chosen the long-house and struggles

at night – not with dreams of the hot south,

of home, courtyards, frescoes and fountains-

but with a dream that has no place yet, though

he searches for it, now that same, futile boy

in the straw has grown his only dream-guide

and weeps over this precise, god-forsaken ground.

He finds it ruled by those whose failure is to see

no need for an icon of the weak, the needful.

Here, the boy’s deluded people prove no trouble at all,

filing from wooden huts ranged like inland galleys,

to incinerators smoking in the German forest.

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W. H. Auden, West and Wannabes

In The Dyer’s Hand (1962), W H Auden throws off one of his critical Interludes on the subject of Nathanael West’s fiction from the 1930s. With the passage of time and the continuing prominence of Simon Cowell, his observations only become more relevant. I currently have classes in process of preparing OCR A2 Coursework on West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and T S Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and I’m finding that Auden’s piece, while difficult, provides a framework of terms and ideas which relate all three texts.

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Auden denies West’s status as a novelist first, then as a satirist. The first point is because of West’s lack of interest in the accurate representation of either the “social scene” or “subjective life”. Auden’s definition, I guess, demands forms of realism, while West delivers forms of caricature. As for satire, Auden also holds a conventional position on it, demanding not merely a critique of American society and its behaviours but also positive elements, a way out, a solution however faintly sketched. West does not provide the latter (though I disagree that this disbars him as a satirical writer) and I wonder if later work might have developed a more positive message. West’s death, at the age of 37 in a car accident in Southern California in 1940, was one of the greatest losses suffered by US literature in the 20th century.

Auden argues West fictions are “Cautionary Tales” from an infernal land ruled by the “King of Wishes”. All his main characters suffer from what Auden christens “West’s Disease” in which the sufferer is incapable of converting wishes into desires. A wish here is a fantasy, a refusal of reality, particularly self-directed so that it proclaims “I refuse to be what I am”. Momentary, innocent, frivolous wishing is a form of play; if allowed to predominate in one’s psychic life, a wish becomes a form of self-hatred, leading to guilt and despair. In contrast, a desire (Auden is less clear on this) is an ambition, an intention which acknowledges the conditional nature of reality and the self, accepts the present state of both but seeks a pragmatic course to pursue the desire. Wishes begin as whimsy and grow poisonous; desire is the fuel that drives us out into the world.

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West’s characters know only wishes. They are doomed because they cannot truly desire anything since wishers deny themselves; they can believe nothing because wishers are always drawn to the next novelty. Faye Greener (from Locust) amuses herself by running through fantasies, stories she plays in her head, like “a pack of cards”. She loves to slip into a dream, she says, because “any dream was better than none”. But Faye is young and her wishes have some vitality. She may be convincing herself that they may sometime become desires. The strange case of Homer Simpson (yes, West got there long before Matt Groening) is of an older man who has ceased to entertain wishes at all. His is a passive sort of despair: “It took him a long time to get all his clothing on. He stopped to rest after each garment with a desperation far out of proportion to the effort involved”.

Both characters demonstrate the utter self-centred nature of wishers. Auden argues that, for such people, others exist only as images of what s/he is or is not, all feelings are mere projections of what is felt about the self. As perceived from the outside, all behavior therefore appears fraudulent, erratic, incoherent. Born of frustration and anger, the final stages of West’s Disease is a craving for violence, symbolically reflected in Locust in the stomach-churningly sanguinary cock fight of Chapter 21 and then literally in the film premiere riot of the final pages.

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In 1962, Auden speculated that the promises of democracy and modern living only served to exacerbate this Disease, encouraging hopes of personal achievement beyond the bounds of reality and supplying apparent means of satisfying wishes through technological advances: “In societies with fewer opportunities for amusement, it was easier to tell a mere wish from a real desire”. We have probably only progressed in precisely the wrong direction on these issues. The instantaneous satisfaction of our wants blurs the wish/desire distinction Auden wants to make and we now have a slangy, slurred word for Faye Greener. Wannabe is a noun formed from a complex verb combination and is defined as someone who wishes for something but fails to have the drive, ambition or talent to make the journey in reality; a poser, a follower, a charlatan of sorts whose grip on reality is tenuous even when Simon Cowell tells them they are talentless.

More troublingly, it strikes me West’s Disease is an essential component of extremist, fundamentalist views – both political and religious – which achieve their existence and persistence only through the wisher’s denial of the indubitably various nature of reality. Faye Greener’s innocent deck of Hollywood dreams disturbingly travels, via West’s scenes of riot and sexual abuse, into the mouths of fanatics, to the deserts of Syria where real crimes are being committed because other human beings have become no more than mere projections of what is felt about the self.

Marxian glory days

The number of Marxian ideas and expressions I have forgotten since reading him at university is perhaps something not decently, publicly admissible. But one idea has stayed with me, become something of a talisman of a personal rather than political kind. In The German Ideology (1845) he declares that in the well-governed society, in a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. 

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The well-governed life continues to prove as elusive as the well-governed society, of course, but a day of real/metaphorical hunting, fishing, rearing and criticising has remained an ideal of contentment. It was Henry de Montherlant (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_de_Montherlant) whose aphorism suggested that ‘happiness writes white (“Le bonheur écrit à l’encre blanche sur des pages blanches.” (Don Juan II, IV, 1048)) but in recording something like the perfect day I am running the greater risk of the plush, crushed raspberry colourings of complacency and self-satisfaction. But perhaps describing one’s own pleasure can be a political act.

My daughter has to be dropped off at 7am at school. Elevated to the dizzying heights of Year 7 prefect she is off to Wiltshire to accompany the ‘new kids’ on some bonding, outward-bound sessions. This leaves me near Hampstead Heath and time to jog/walk my way round it in the early morning with just dog-walkers and others getting the sluggish blood moving. Back at home with that serotonin high, paradoxically both both pumped-up and emptied-ready-to-be-filled, I work through some drafts of my current project, a version of  Daodejing. As a writer, I came to the Daodejing after translating the German poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Perhaps more importantly, it was as a long-standing teacher that I read Laozi’s 81 ‘chapters’. There are colourful myths about their origins, but they were probably a series of orally transmitted seed verses compiled as far back as the 7th century BCE by many Chinese hands, an aide memoire, certainly an aid to teaching.

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The Dao or Way is not an individual entity, still less anything divine. It is a mode of being, all encompassing, a phenomenal, existential primacy, perhaps akin to the Western idea of original chaos. The text emphasises its feminine characteristics. It can be viewed from spiritual, epistemological, educational, political or environmental perspectives, though none of these exhausts its true nature. The poems enthusiastically accept that their profound and urgent messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in language, hence demanding a variety of technical manoeuvres – they stay light on their feet.

Into college for the afternoon, interviewing students, mostly about mistakes, choices, salvage operations possible for them after GCSE, AS or A2 exams. But also some preparation for the new course we have devised for A2 Coursework combining Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, T S Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. W H Auden’s brief discussion of West in The Dyer’s Hand is interesting, suggesting he portrays a Kingdom of Hell, ruled by the Father of Wishes. I read it, knowing I’m having a good day, some wishes coming true in contrast to West’s visions of West Coast apocalypse. Right here, right now, a brief, various-faceted jewel in the setting of others of more usual monotony. (More of West in another blog perhaps).

Driving home – the rolling dice of Henley’s Corner – I listen to the opening bars of tonight’s Prom: Brahm’s Third Symphony. By 9.30pm I’m walking into the Albert Hall myself for the late-night show: Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Didn’t I promise a good day? It’s John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04f8vlq). Gardiner says in a brief introductory interview that Beethoven’s unconventional Mass often skims more traditional moments of the text but is ‘marvellous’ on the ineffability of the Godhead, the humbleness of mankind and I’m in the mood to hear it…

Driving back up the Edgware Road, the sky is big as it seldom seems in London. The lights are bright in the Lebanese restaurants, my eyesight – usually close to blurry – seeming sharp tonight, hyperreal, resonant, woven still with the threads of earlier hours. Tomorrow, will be a thinner diet, more monotone, less good.