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.