The mixing of the language


Obsequy for Lost Things,
Martin Anderson (88pp, Shearsman)
Collected Poems, John Berger (146pp, 8.95, Smokestack)


The prefacing quotation to this excellent collection sets the scene - 'It is only delusion, and not knowledge, that bestows happiness.' (Stefan Zweig). Anderson's book is split into three sections, comprising 'The Lower Reaches', 'In the Year of Expeditions' and 'Obsequy for Lost Things'. His subject is centrally the history of colonialism as a major force in the world and its effects on both colonisers and its victims. His is not exactly a didactic form of poetry though his writing combines critique with an astonishingly succinct and piercing lyricism and reminds me, in different ways, of the writings of Kelvin Corcoran and Robert Hampson.

We are reminded throughout of the narrator in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and also of the Roman occupation and of the war in Vietnam and also of more recent events. On page one we get this:

   After the pitched whine of bellicosity: 'We'll bomb you back
   to the stone age' the remote is pressed. Crackle of distressed air.
   Warm, incendiary smell. All colour implodes to a white mote.
   Silence. The crevasse opens.
        ( from 'The Lower Reaches I')

Descriptions of warfare and colonial oppression are juxtaposed with commentaries on the banking system and although each section is made up of short, fragmented prose poems, there is a sense of connections being made which probe both the psychology and the politics of a system of production and commerce which is global and ideological. We are referred back, by implication, to the opening quotation - 'It is only delusion, and not knowledge, that bestows happiness.' - and also to the fragment from Jean Rhys which prefaces 'The Lower Reaches' - 'This is England, and I'm in a nice, clean English / room with all the dirt swept under the bed.'

   'Big swinging dicks' amid the rigging. All hands below aloft
   chipping ice off a top heavy vessel. The ice-master frantic. All
   LIBOR rates 'fixed'. 'A ... culture rotten with cynicism and
   greed..' From the Hill of the Hawks, what eye looks down?

The mixing of the language of the stock exchange and that of the maritime world is appropriate and telling. This is poetry which is unsettling and disturbing and that is certainly part of its intention though I'm also constantly in awe of Anderson's ability to mesh his critique within such a tight yet lyrical focus. As a reader you're permanently up against the tension between the aesthetic qualities of this writing and the nature of its subject matter. In this sense perhaps poetry is the ideal vehicle for Anderson's kind of exploration because he forces the attentive reader to look hard at what is going on under the surface while also being appreciative of the quietly musical qualities. You can savour this writing 'as writing' but never at the expense of what it is 'saying' and what it is saying is complex and important.

   No journey's end. No end to looking. But under the moon we
   raised up a giant gallows. Harvested pain. We sharpened our
   blades upon them.
          ( from 'In the Year of Expeditions')

In the final section - 'Obsequy of Lost Things' - there are references to 'exile' and to 'the departed', terms which can relate to both the colonisers and those colonised. We are in a world without mapped geography or where the designations have become blurred:

   All the borders are closed. Or dissolved. No more promiscuously
   trafficking across them. And all the signposts are buried, or are
   pointing the wrong way.

   Sound of the tongue on these crisp, ice fringed margins. The
   rustling of the page is not as loud as the silence of the departed.

   Only later did they realise they had been walking backwards and
   forwards across the border without knowing it was there.

  
Everyone is walking, in worn out boots, back to a country they do not
   remember but which they have been exiled from.
          (extracts from 'Obsequy of Lost Things')

Anderson merges historical events, fragments of exile and appropriation, with the here and now in an impressively quiet post-modern lyricism which is as sharp as it is moving. There is a sense of dislocated beauty within the writing and within the events suggested and hinted at here, allusion and reference are allied to lyric precision and to an overwhelming feeling of loss and deep alienation. A profound historical survey of warfare and greed is located within the present tense and there is a powerful feeling of matters coming to a head, of things falling apart and of the absence of the human subject, alluded to in an array of 'things left behind'. This isn't quite apocalypse but we live in interesting times. Powerful and disturbing.


John Berger is best known for his writings on art and politics yet as well as being a novelist he has produced a fair amount of poetry over the years, work which has often been 'smuggled' into his other books. It turns out that there was no need to be 'coy' about his poetry as this considerable body of work includes some real gems and most of the poetry included here is at least stimulating. As you might expect his interest in the relation between art and society and his documentation of human displacement and enforced exile are also themes which appear in his poetry, and there remains at times a tension between 'realism' and 'innovation', issues of form and content which have always been evident in his other writings. Take this extract from 'Amsterdam', which appears at the beginning of the section entitled 'Places':

          high up
              close to the bed of the sky
          flounders are making
               ash fall like snow

          gulls wheeling in
               smaller
                    and smaller
                                    circles
          lower their feet in flight
               to walk upon the flakes

          in the paintings of Malevich
          white is space made substantial

          at each crossing the traffic lights
          change from white
               to white

          the giant flakes dissolve
                on the brown arms of the canal
                     raised imperceptibly higher
          ice contracts                   the cold huddle together

The opening stanza presents as a possible description of a painting, not, I would suggest, one by Malevich, but we are immediately presented with a powerful and puzzling image which is both surreal and metaphorical. The 'jumps' in consequent stanzas combine a realist with a more abstract approach yet the whole poem holds together satisfyingly as a construct and displays an aesthetic, playful element. As with all of Berger's work, however, there is a cerebral, probing quality which keeps you, as reader, on your toes and is one of the things which I so admire about his writing. You have to think when you're reading Berger and while I don't always follow his train of thought, I usually find the necessary effort stimulating.

In 'Orlando Letelier 1932-1976', from the section 'History', Berger has produced a quiet homage to one of the key figures in the Chilean revolution, murdered in the aftermath of the right-wing coup. What I most like about this piece is its understatement as most 'obituary notices' of this kind are written in high passionate mode (the poem was written in 1976, the year of Letelier's death) and although heartfelt are often also overtly polemical. Berger's poem loses nothing by being quiet and largely 'plain-spoken' yet his reverence and admiration for Letelier are still apparent as are his sentiments:

   He has come
   as the season turns
   at the moment of the blood red rowanberry
   he endured the time without seasons
   which belongs to the torturers
   he will be here too
   in the spring
   every spring
   until the seasons returning
  explode
   in Santiago.
        (from 'Orlando Letelier 1932-1976')

In 'Viva Voce' from the section entitled 'Words' we get the following - 'One who dreams deeply / of mountains / speaks next day / with the voice of a bureaucrat' -
and it's a puzzling poem which seems to combine a surreal dialectic with a probing 'underground' lingo which questions the disorder of language as utilised by those in power. It's almost Orwellian, in fact, with the added ingredient of a surreal critique - ' A third to overcome insomnia / imagines himself a beaver / and barks at meetings / in the name of necessity.' Elsewhere, as in 'Story Tellers', for example, the language appears more transparent.

Berger's poems, in fact, usually say much more than any apparent 'message' may suggest. In 'Troy', despite an implied clue in the title, the dialectic is between the beauty and the mystery of the universe - Berger often appears like a child, lost in wonder at what he is seeing and thinking about - and an almost Kafkaesque sense of , if not quite paranoia, then apprehension in the face of authoritarian government. His imagery is often strange, straightforward yet suggestive and appears quite singular -
'When a prisoner is shot / the sparrow flies / out of his eyes.' There is an almost fable-like quality to his storytelling, which can appear quite archaic yet strangely compelling. Unsurprisingly, for a writer who is also a visual artist, the imagery is often striking yet there is also a very cerebral quality to Berger's poetry, allied to compassion and a probing intelligence. Once again, this isn't the kind of poetry I'm most interested in these days but Berger is an intriguing polymath in our intellectual firmament and it's good to see his poetry collected in one volume.

     Steve Spence 2015