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TEXT OF SHELLEY'S DEATH by Alan Halsey
I found this a totally enchanting book: it feels lovely between the fingers. Lovely off-white creamy paper of a decent weight adds an air of gravitas. It even smells good.
air give somewhat the feeling of someone's papers being put in order after their death. And yet there is, one feels, an admission that no final ordering will be possible in a story which in a sense has ripped through the fabric of reality and no longer can be accessed by mere fact. It belongs in a wider framework involving Shelley's transcendence and his story/myth becoming of a piece with his work. Halsey calls upon both the historical record (so-called) and Shelley's writings to produce this piece, picking up on the endless bifurcation and re-bifurcation of every name and event surrounding Shelley's final voyage He skilfully agglomerates all these sources until 'I half-remembered my forgotten dream', and as mantra-like repetitions embed in contradictory reports we get a feeling of the tractability of the record and the otherness or alienating nature of the past – that the past is no more real than the story we have to hand and that Shelley's poems and fictions can in turn embed into the historical record and become no less real than the truth which here (and thus we suspect everywhere) slips away from us all a fractal jazz of tiny discordant details.
That the sinking of the 'Ariel' may have been accidental or intended is here all of a piece with the manner of telling. Byron, flitting in and out of the story like a malign spirit and undergoing his own name-change, manages to miss the burning of Shelley's body on the beach pyre, and further plangency is added. Halsey serves it all up in an extraordinarily heady manner ('two bodies [var. a body] had been washed up by the sea on 16th [var. 17th July'(p 42)) which we have become used to in the text-wrap generation, and yet somehow reinforces the feeling that we are reading by 'the light of other days'.
'Reversions on the Text', Halsey's coda on his source materials is enlightening albeit idiosyncratic. As opposed to its condensing operation on the 'text', Halsey's poetic sensibility here seems to reduce the value of the writing. It feels as if 'The Text of Shelley's Death' has leaked through into it and one finds oneself wishing for some more austerely academic appendix giving chapter and verse to his appropriations. But no doubt that would have been a different book and it would be churlish to think it Halsey's job to produce it. As it Is we have a list of sources and a fabulous blind index (the entries are here but the page numbers are not) which although it inevitably calls to mind Perec's index to 'Life A User's Manual', yet manages to manifest itself heroically as a free-standing work of art.
Having a copy of Shelley's collected works to hand would add to the pleasures of this wonderful book which serves to remind us that the past is as provisional as the future.
THINKING TRACTS OR NATIONS. Kelvin Corcoran & Alan Halsey
I tried to pick up elements from the images which were used as references in the poems, assuming that this was one of the book's intentions. Trying to tie together image and poem is ok when a two page spread contains both. This is not always the case, some poems being too long for such a format, and much page-turning ensued as I tried to be quite sure that picture related to poem.
As the obvious connecting thread in the book is in the references to the images I found myself relating to the poems mainly on that banal level. These attempts sometimes assumed an unwelcome forensic quality. the book as a whole simply lacks that inexorable internal logic which gives 'The Text of Shelley's Death' its alluring quality.
pictures (as reproduced in the spidery lines of black and white plates)
are flattened, at times hieroglyphic, surface-patterned, cartographic,
Basquiat-like, medieval, reminiscent of post-marks idly graffiti-scribbled
over, scratching on blotters, scribbling on schoolbooks. Certainly
they are images which are easy enough to plunder, all aspire to the
condition of text – indeed all contain text; each one can be reasonably
quickly broken down to constituent parts which can turn back into
And although there are some charming discoveries to be made (such as the 'mouthless singer' image and text) in the main we seem to be listening in on a private exposition from Corcoran to Halsey perhaps more than on a dialogue between images and text. As the pictures were all handed over at once, so there are no graphic responses from Halsey to Corcoran.
The poems seem at once secretive and pedagogic; and at first reading left me feeling blocked out - this man doesn't wear his learning lightly. However further reading began to reveal threads running through a broad sweep of global history, from which I picked up only an occasional reference (that might be an appropriate and intentional metaphor for engaging with the pictures?). Shelley and the 'Ariel' pop up again, heroic travel and journeys seem to feature heavily.
Introducing these, however, Corcoran adopts too often the pastiche rhetorical stance of a William Blake cloaked in the prosaic rhythm of a registry office official. Notwithstanding this, his writing throws up individually fascinating moments: 'will you open a window in my grave? / so we can talk again' (Picture 9) too frequently to dismiss the need for re-reading.
In the end the formal qualities of the poems are (for me) overtake by constant reference to pictures which on this showing don't merit such attention, and as he continues, addressing Halsey by name, Corcoran may feel constrained to reveal 'Actually I'm scratching away at this and feeling fairly fucked by it all' (Picture 13) but I really don't want to know that. By the time I've discovered that 'In the frozen fields of the world / poets die of frostbite or anger / like any other body.' (Picture 11) I've switched off.
© Robert Joyce 2001