Don and Dusted
Poems 2006-2009, Christopher Middleton (181pp, £12.95, Shearsman)
Partly in Riga and Other Poems, Ian Davidson (106pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
As the years roll by I'm beginning, perhaps overly-cynically (or perhaps not), to come to the firm conclusion that, increasingly, the best chance anyone has of getting their poetry into glossy paperbacks is for them to seclude themselves in an ivory tower in the distant land of Academia. It's maybe just coincidence, but both Christopher Middleton and Ian Davidson are yet another two examples of exactly this, the former having Oxford, Zurich, London and Austen, Texas, to his name, and the latter having Bangor in North Wales to his.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with this, per se. After all, these guys have got to be seen to be being published more than any of us, if they're to keep their day jobs. But, if it actually is a developing trend, it's surely eventually going to knock the excitement, if not the innovation, out of published poetry till we're left only with the glum, institutionalised, seriousness of competitive intellectualism. I just hope I'm dead before then.
However, to the job in hand - two books, both full of words. Lots of words. The first of these, Christopher Middleton's Poems 2006-2009, comes as three complete collections in one and is weighty. Not so much weighty physically, but weighty intellectually. Nearly every poem is peppered with classical, painterly or literary references which provide it with an authoritative tone. Pages of notes are also provided, lest we have foolishly let any of the references go over our heads whilst reading. Between these references are the briefest of glimpses of the poet; his travels, environments and feelings. The 'real happenings' Middleton alludes to when he asks, 'What good can it be to pronounce on things / With no measure for the unsteady / Heartbeat that still drives real happenings?' are, no doubt, to be found in these short glimpses of the man, himself. In a way it's as though the heavily peppered intellectualism is there to act as camouflage, a smokescreen, purposely shrouding, rather than driving, Middleton's 'real happenings' to the point, therefore, that the value of his own pronouncing on things loses something of its authority by virtue of him effectively hiding a large part of his true and full emotionalism from the reader.
Actually, this quote, above, brings me onto another matter: that of the use of questions in poetry. Many of my own past students will recognise this as a pet-hate of mine, but I've always maintained that it's the job of the poet to ask questions of him/herself and then write down the answers, rather than to ask questions of the reader. Yes, by all means, make readers work, but, at the end of the day, they're paying to know what you think, not for you to ask them what they think. So, for me, Middleton's work makes me cringe, repeatedly, as questions are asked to which, even more frustratingly, I then failed to find recognisable answers in their afterbirth...
Are you or are you not,
Gentle reader, reminded
Of twentieth century despots
Who considered freedom of speech
A bad thing for the nation?
[from 'An Exercise in Direct Discourse']
On what plain old beach
was it found, this wonder?
[from 'A Spider's Web Caught in Amber']
What is hereafter? What is to become of us?
[from 'On Ceasing to Perceive']
How should the portrait of a rat
Be wholesome if the rat is not?
[from 'A Stuffed Shirt']
Was interfusion once the word
For sedimentation in the galleries
Of consciousness? A trickling
[from 'The Four Curios']
Would fiends, even then, being cognitively
Gingered, find refreshed their muscle
Gladly to make do with mere humanity?
[from 'The Murmur of Erasmus']
What if no monk had been walking by
As the boy Goya with a stick of charcoal
Portrayed a pig on a wall in Fuendetodos?
In a way, there's something in this asking of questions which I find, not only cringe-inducing, but formalistically archaic - strange in itself, and somewhat anachronistic, given Middleton's otherwise innovative modernist approach. Though, equally, there's often something romantically poetic in the syntax he employs that makes me wonder, with all due respect, how a poet in his eighties appears to have been immune to the linguistic evolutionary leap that was taking place during his formative years in the nineteen-forties and fifties. Or is this just yet another symptom of the ivory-tower syndrome? Here are just a few, by way of example...
lonesome the loon calls back birds of Ur,
birds of Babylon,
for brilliant breeds have perished probably...
[from 'Some Birds']
Why now ladybird scuttle on past,
If out on an elbow I make to lean?
[from 'Vestigios de Espana']
Eyes glued to the guide book
I wanted I know not what.
Eyes glued to the guide book
I trod across a few fond beliefs.
[from 'A Dainty Shopper']
And every day still they happen,
Simple things: a bee...
[from 'The Night']
There by the riverside, making my way back
To the old pecan trees, I was admiring
Her free and easy walk, fine rustic features,
When from the far side of a stream in shadow
Came through trees two sharp voices calling.
[from 'In the American Park']
However, with all that off my chest, it has to be said that Christopher Middleton's Poems 2006-2009, covers all the bases in terms of its stylistic range, as well as providing the reader with a compendium of meticulously crafted poems that take those willing along on the most remarkable, if not intellectually challenging, of journeys. Yet, as with any such travelling, space and time need to be taken between each expedition to allow for reflection and cogitation, and the journeys taken through this collection are no different. Thus, were I to come to it afresh, I'd be prone to treat it as a dipping book of the highest order. To make it cover-to-cover reading only makes for the road to perdition. I know - I've just been there!
But, I've not been to Riga. Ian Davidson, on the other hand, has, and all thanks to the Sealines Writers' Exchange Residency project organised by Literature Across Frontiers with support from the Culture Programme of the European Union. The result was one of the five sections in his collection Partly in Rega and Other Poems. The other sections cover: the birth of his third son and 'the worlds he produced on his arrival'; journeys of place and time; the 'moments of compassion, however fleeting' found via contemporary politics; and, to round it off, poems that 'try to be about people and the complexities of their histories, an inter-related present and possible futures'.
So, how did all of this pan out? Well, for me, it got off to a bit of a shaky start. Within the space of ten poems I was left with the impression that the three most notable cultural conclusions that should be drawn from this Euro-funded residency were that pouring liquid cement down people's throats, mass graves and prostitution were common-place in Latvia. If not, then why, in such a small collection, have they been allowed to become recurring allusions? It's like you've moved house and the same gatecrashers are at your door. Of course, it could so easily be explained away by suggesting these images incurred the greatest trauma on Davidson so as to make him feel the need to re-use them. But, I think not. To be frank, it raised all manner of suspicions in my mind. Surely there must be more to the Latvians than this? Was he simply being careless? Was he stuck in a rut whilst under pressure to produce to satisfy the funders? Or are Regans really such two-dimensional people with so restricted a menu on offer at their restaurant of human endeavour? Best just to leave it and move on.
And, in doing just that, my sentimentality was to be stretched as I found myself required to muster as much parental empathy as I could to take me through the next section of poems about the arrival of his third son. Yes, they brought a warm glow, a pleasurably warm glow, a warmly pleasurable glow, but that's only because I've already got the tee-shirt and can empathise. What of readers who can only imagine? Would the poems still bring a warm glow? And, if not, then what?
Heart rate climbs and falls and his materiality becoming heavy slow
and heavy as these things a test of nerve your resonance and foetal
world of feet arranging
Oil and vinegar his hand to mouth takes hold of one foot and beyond
control the pelvis still untested through whatever singing means I
came and went
[from 'The fuzzy world of felt']
But wait! Onto section three and the world was illuminated. Whether the initial prose poems or the poems following, what sprang from page after page was an absolutely stonking inventiveness in language usage and stream of consciousness that brought the book instantly to life. I was suddenly lovin' it!
From profiteering principles
Turn to dust
Drifting like dandruff
Against slate mountains
Or across teaching methods a will
To learn the ways of
There is only so much experience
The rest needs to be made up
[from 'Chalk Dust']
The ways around the Llyn can
Lead to Hell's Mouth from easy
Pasture to open moorland,
Gazing down at Llyn heavens
Open. The arch bridges of Llyn.
The way to hell is neither
Broad nor straight but winds around
Its stops, pick up points,
Chances to change direction
Or disembark, holding up
Pale hands, signalling, gestures.
[from 'Ways around the Llyn']
This fractured, staccato style certainly keeps the mind alert, deviating from standard syntax as it does, and helps to condense Davidson's ideas and imagery into a wasteless, flowing whole that works wonderfully, both in the shorter pieces and the longer. Things were looking up.
So, onto his 'Poems through the politics of familiarity and poverty' in the fourth section which starts with a wordy tirade against contemporary politics and the arrogant ignorance of the arrivistes it has produced.
That bunch of middle class kids called new labour are little threat
To the established order or the self interest of the self interested.
[from 'No Go Areas']
But, with that out of the way, this wordiness then dissolves again into the fractured style of the previous section as Davidson gets to grips with his subject proper, including a poem written from the point of view of a cinema projectionist who comes to realise he's in control of the light - and, if that's not some kind of metaphor, then I'll eat my hat - before coming to the politics of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent slaughter of innocent civilians, all in the name of maintaining control over the supply of oil. (What, no WMD?)
Frozen in neutral under a hail of
Bullets. Flee and face certain death
Or remain and take your chances
With the blackwater firing squad
Holding the line of security up the
Muddy street the shooting
Lasting ten minutes maybe
Fifteen and Ali dead, a son, cousin
Unable to duck and his father
To take protective action.
And onto the final section of the book which, as you'll remember, was of poems that 'try to be about people and the complexities of their histories, an inter-related present and possible futures'. And they are. But more observational than in earlier sections. Observations in railway stations, hospitals and pubs of others in love, or not, of washing cars, or simply seeking food in unaccustomed, unlikely surroundings. There's even the observation of a non-event, but an event worthy of mention if only for the tension it creates and the relationships it exposes. And, again, Davidson's style condensing so much into even the shortest of spaces.
Cleaning the far end of the platform
Beyond where the people went
Grimacing to himself
His foot extended like a dancer
In a perfect point
Rubbing at the ground in front of him
Arms out like a cormorant drying on a rock
['On a station']
So, redemption after a shaky start. But redemption nonetheless. So much so that, with another twelve collections preceding this one, I'd certainly be interested enough in Davidson's work, on the basis of what I've read in Partly in Rega and Other Poems to want to try to unearth the others. I strongly suggest you do the same.
© John Mingay 2011