UNTITLED & OTHER POEMS 1975-2002, Geoffrey Squires
210pp, Û16/ $16/£10 RRP
Wild Honey Press, 16a Ballyman Road, Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland; ISBN 1-903090-54-8.


 

After long residences abroad, Geoffrey Squires is presently Reader in Education at the University of Hull's Institute for Learning and leads its Educational Development Team. His earlier academic publications focused on curriculum (1987-90), but since 1999 they have dealt mainly with the theorizing of teaching and other professions. This will help explain the hiatus between the appearance of his first three poetry chapbooks between 1975-80 and the next in 1996. To add to the complication, those booklets and the extracts from his long sequences published in magazines have been divided between Ireland and England. Admirers of his individual writing will therefore welcome the publication of what is in effect a selected poems, particularly as it brings together substantial extracts from the three sections of his long and intricate 'Untitled'. This is a big book in a generous type size and still allows lots of space about the poems.

Squires' poetry limits itself to the perception of landscape. It cannot be described as nature poetry since one is always aware of the human element, of the interdependence of seer and seen. Indeed, the American critic Robert Archambeau has described it as 'a poetry of immediate consciousness'. Later on Squires became interested in Merleau-Ponty's theory of perception. This argues, among other things, that since it is through the body that we have access to the world, perception involves the perceiving subject, physically and culturally, as s/he makes what is perceived intelligible. A study of the nature of that perception therefore reveals the perceiver too. In Squires' latest work, however, he seems to be striking out on his own again. The operation of the senses brings him no certainty of an inviolable receiver of their messages. Strong sunlight, heat haze and darkness rub away the outlines of what he sees and become the metaphor of the seer's diminution. In his most recent writing he seems to be approaching the radical scepticism of William Bronk:

     How little we speak in the dark
     almost as if we were afraid
     or that it meant too much    was too significant
     or that someone was listening
     as if we could be heard
          ('Untitled III', p.203)

Most of Squires' books have been extended sequences, several of them written as if for alternating voices: the original script for three voices broadcast by the BBC in 1971 from which 'Drowned Stones' was selected, for example; 'Poem for Two Voices', broadcast on Radio Anna Livia in 1998; 'Untitled II', for which the present selection provides performance notes for three voices. It is not SquiresÕ intention that his writing should be in any way autobiographical. We are directed to significant particulars from a succession of viewpoints -

     local people do not see
     what we see, landscape
     is already something
     you are outside of
          ('Drowned Stones', p.15)

whereas figures in a landscape eschew 'the big picture' in inhabiting it. But while this is so, at the time his first three collections appeared there was little to indicate in which direction Squires' poetry might move. The geopoetics of Kenneth White, the social engagement of Jeremy Hilton, the contemplative quietism of Colin Oliver (or myself, for that matter), were other available models that made use of landscape particulars to create a sense of the moment, of observer and observed creating their context as an organic whole. All might then have subscribed to Merleau-Ponty's proposition, later used by Squires as an epigraph: le monde est autour de moi, non devant moi - the world does not confront but surrounds me.

What is particular to Squires is the sense of completeness given by his poems in which just enough is said to impart the essential features and state of mind evoked without need of further elaboration. The things he describes have power over the writer. Rather than being exploited by him, it is as if they force him into utterance. So strange is the satisfaction brought by these brief relations that one has to read each over again to see how they were achieved. The significance of these scenes and moments is divined but not explored, perhaps because he feels he cannot go further and is marooned on the outside of things.

This impression is strengthened by his similes, which are notable for comparing function rather than visual likeness. Fuchsia's

     millions of tiny bells
     tinkling against
     the dry-stone walls
     the sound passed on
     from rock to rock
     like a rejoicing
          ('Drowned Stones', p.15)

or 'clouds stacked up like a great speech' (p.37) are effects that can be observed but which function independent of the observer. The observer's previous experience provides the cultural context and is his mode of making what is happening intelligible to himself; but at the same time he is shut out from the occasions and energies he interprets. His is not the elation signalled by the bells, for all he may share it; though he is part of the audience, the eloquence of the clouds is not addressed to him. One almost feels that what is happening here is the landscape expressing itself through the poet, rather than the poet using the landscape as a means for self-expression.

'Poem in Three Sections' originally appeared in the Irish University Review in 1983 and was republished as a chapbook by a London Press in 1997 on the heels of Landscapes & Silences (Dublin, 1996). I imagine it was these two books that brought Squires to the attention of a generation more sympathetic to the new poetics and which associated him with the group of younger Irish innovative writers who were just gaining recognition at the time. In these works he has moved further towards giving the impression of breaking in upon his own thought processes at the moment they rise to a climax of observation. Each of the three sections of the earlier poem has a single subject: trees in a wood; rocks down a hillside; the play of light over city buildings. Not only does this allow the poet a whole series of fresh takes but the variations and half repetitions he employs give the impression of the mind reaching for more precise definition. In the third section one of the pieces ends on

     the play of shadow on stone, the lengthening ridges
     with their right angles and sudden drops
     like the line of an argument

This is then elaborated in the following piece:

     Each cut of stone, each placing
     in the right place, angles and cornices
     gables and long high ridges
     the slope of roofs away from the sun
     patterns of brick and stone, angular or square
     with the occasional curve between
     or deliberate hiatus
     like a form of thought set down
     in the buildings and the spaces between buildings
           (pp.96-7)

By the time we come to Landscapes & Silences the focus has shifted considerably. What is observed is now made the occasion for following the play of the mind upon it and then passing beyond:

     nothing moves because nothing can

     except for the mind which moves over things
     passing over them like a light shadow
     which darkens them for a moment only a moment

     and hardly at all
          (p.121)

The things he observes are as resistant as ever; in response the poet has moved from studying them to the study of perception for answers. In fact, applying himself to what was, in the light of the scientific advances that followed it, a decidedly outmoded philosophy, eventually proved a bit of a red herring and had an unfortunate effect upon his work. To my eyes 'Poem for Two Voices' (published in The Journal
, Dublin, 1998) is inert and unoriginal and reads more like a text designed to illustrate Merleau-Ponty's thesis. As with Wordsworth and Coleridge before him, philosophy takes over from the poetics. It is not so much that Squires is throwing the baby out with the bath water as drowning the poor little thing, diluting away the tang of the spirit in too much chaser.

'Untitled' sees Squires returning to his previous luminous observations, worrying as always at the problem of perception and its expression. Consideration of the means of expression, avoided in his early work, is given greater prominence as Squires experiments with hiatus, repetition, variation and lay-out. The constellation of phrases that makes up the section from 'Untitled II'
in the book, packed every which way on the page in 10-point type, appears amateurish to me. It doesn't even give a very clear idea of the effect Squires is aiming for, despite his stage directions. Fortunately Shearsman used an extended and far more accessible selection from this poem, which can be read at http://www.shearsman.com/pages/magazine/back_issues/shearsman50/page5.html

Wild Honey Press also has a site which provides the selection it uses from - http://www.wildhoneypress.com/geoff/untitled3.htm . Stylistically it moves further towards lyrical hesitancy and dislocation, but is interspersed with astonishingly perceptive illustrations:

     There are small places
     not worthy of a name

     some outcrop or hillock
     the gap between two fields

     and no one has thought to name them
     give them some name
     which we could know them as
     remember them by
          (p.189)

However, in privileging the mental phenomenon over the sensual, Squires seems to have lost contact with Merleau-Ponty's statement that 'the body is our anchorage in the world'. Such preoccupations may have their place in 'Untitled' as the subject specially to be explored there. But if this represents a new tendency and is followed much further, it threatens his work with an etiolation bordering on anorexia.

          © Yann Lovelock 2004