On Classification


on the governing of empires, Alasdair Paterson (80pp, 8.95, Shearsman)


Alasdair Paterson is a relatively new name to me though he seems to have something of an impressive back-catalogue, which could surely do with being re-promoted! A job for an enterprising publisher, one would have thought. This new collection, his first for some twenty years, is loosely themed around the notion of 'empire', as the title would suggest, but is as much to do with the way 'we' utilise language in order to empower, control, rationalise and mediate the world and the mess this often leads to.

I was immediately struck by the cover design, purely typographic but neatly balanced in terms of type-size and colour, slightly discordant, with the word 'empires' filled in with a pattern which is part-Pollack, part Schwitters and part composed of 'the blood dripping from the palace walls'.

If the 'empire' of the title is at once the empire of the self and the individual attempt at self-regulation, as well as being Empire with a capital E, suggesting the long history of human invasion and rule - with all the implications of colonialism (benign or otherwise!)  this suggests, then Paterson's somewhat gloomy prognosis is also one filled with fun, witty invention and a delight in language that simply can't be controlled, even where the author is clearly battling to retain some sort of order amid chaos.

As a librarian by profession, Paterson is clearly interested in notions of classification and of giving definitions, which both limit and clarify, by such definition, yet he's also a great fan of Luis Borges, which suggests a creatively anarchic response to the whole business. In on nomenclature, for example, we get this:

     what I've learned I think is
     how everything under language
     slips and slides and bites
     and how in the end
     language makes its excuses
     and leaves for the beach
     where every wave is new and gone

It's pointless trying to paraphrase such metaphors and any attempt to replicate the 'meaning' is reductive and likely to be less lively than 'the original' but we get the gist, all the same, which is surely one of the functions of language! The last two lines,  however, are elegant and richly suggestive.

Some of the shorter poems provide such brilliant encapsulations of a 'world view' that it's almost easier to quote in full to give the prospective reader a flavour of the whole:

     following inundation infestation invasion
     measure countermeasure and scorched earth
     crops officially pitiful and stores covertly emptied
     here is an announcement from the ministry
     let them eat roots
     thank you

     here is an announcement from the military
     I wouldn't dig
     just there
     if I were you

             (
on civil war)

Leaving aside the possible allusion to Mary Antoinette, the absurd precision of this poem is wonderful, combining the minimalist news-report approach that Adrian Mitchell could be so good at, with a more humorous yet oh-so-devastating wit.

on taxonomy continues to mock our attempts at regulation and control by giving a poetical list of the contents of a feast - 'remember/let the dishes come/in their proper order' - revelling in the displacement of 'fish, flesh, fowl and vegetable' and the rituals involved in their preparation as food, hinting at the accumulated wealth implied by such preparation and the grandeur and spectacle of the feast. This is a ravishing sight, filled with hierarchy and 'controlled excess' yet the final lines undermine the whole caboodle in fine comic turn: 'now/unleash the forked animal.'

Some of the poems appear to have been written with performance in mind and have a slightly manic quality to them, such as
on the library, where we get a series of improvised similes:

     it shone like the wicked queen's smile
     it shone like the necklace left in the laurel
     it shone like the ring spilled in the reeds
     it shone like a god's pursuit sandals
     it shone like an autumn arboretum

     it shone like a pirate's night sweats

was one I particularly relished. I really enjoy this mad-escapade-type-of-poem and only wish they would become madder, something I think I may have said about Jeremy Over's work a while ago. Nevertheless, I loved this one.
on verbs employs a similar sort of process in its early stage - 'we strung up the gaolers/but we hung onto the keys', for example - but slips into something more grammatically complex and suggestively ominous before the conclusion:

     we have not learned their language yet
     we are learning their language now
                       
     our spies are almost fluent now
     they have been writing almost secret reports

     they report that we have changed the world

     they beg to inform us that we are changing with the world.

This reminds me of the exploratory nature of Giles Goodland's poetry, where the reader is forever being pushed to challenge him/herself in following the line between abstraction and 'realism', where the play between language and world is forever stimulating and rewarding, even irritating, at times, but in a very positive way, in the sense perhaps that the grain of sand is what forces the oyster to produce the pearl. How's that for a glorious cliche of a metaphor, grounded in 'reality'. I loved this book and look forward to reading more of Paterson's work when a Collected or substantial Selected comes out!

         Steve Spence 2010