Hearing about Damnation

Donald Davie

  • Collected Poems by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 262 pp, £10.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 19 211941 9

This volume represents more than forty years work by one of the most earnestly devoted and intelligent of our poets. Accordingly it must be considered deliberately, and at some length.

Twenty-four years ago, reviewing Enright’s Bread Rather than Blossoms (for all practical purposes his second collection – leaving aside, that is, his 1948 Season Ticket, published in Alexandria), I exhorted him to remember ‘the deeper reaches (and so the deeper humanity) of the art he practises’. I wish I saw clearer evidence, now his Collected Poems is before us, that he noticed this exhortation, or thought it worth attending to. On the other hand, this observation is not so dismissive as it sounds. And in any case I was ungracious, back in 1957, in not acknowledging that Enright had already then showed that he could navigate those deeper waters if he wanted to. The proof was, and is, in the title-poem of his first collection, ‘The Laughing Hyena, by Hokusai’, which I must first have encountered, I now recognise, in G.S. Fraser’s anthology Poetry Now (1956). It appeared again that same year in Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines, and I fear I did not then recognise in it, as I do now, perhaps the finest poem in that volume, and certainly the most surprising. It is, I suppose and hope, well-known: but it isn’t famous – as it deserves to be. It can’t be quoted in full, for the simple technical reason that much of it is written in long looping lines that cannot be tucked inside the right-hand margin of even wide pages, let alone a newspaper column. These long lines were to become one of Enright’s hallmarks, but in later poems they are not often so splendidly justified as they are here. For here they generate looping and leaping rhythms which enact equivalent effects in the different medium of Hokusai, for whom, we are told, ‘everything was molten,’ whose kite ‘soars like sacrificial smoke’, with whom

All is flux: waters fall and leap, and bridges leap and fall.
Even his Tortoise undulates ...

Enright’s language leaps and falls and undulates in sympathy, with an energy that is, like Hokusai’s, ‘volcanic’:

And the Laughing Hyena, cavalier of evil, as volcanic as the rest:
Elegant in a flowered gown, a face like a bomb-burst,
Featured with fangs and built about a rigid laugh,
Ever moving, like a pond’s surface where a corpse has sunk.
Between the raised talons of the right hand rests an object –
At rest, like a pale island in a savage sea – a child’s head,
Immobile, authentic, torn and bloody –
The point of repose in the picture, the point of movement in us.

And with that line, of course, we come up against the moral crux.

The movement prompted in us by a child’s bloody head torn from its body is a movement of horror. Or rather that is what it prompts in us as soon as we take it out of Hokusai’s composition, where on the contrary it is ‘the point of repose’. Is this tolerable? Can we allow art thus to impose itself on us, so as to annul and even reverse the nausea and outrage which stir in us as soon as we step outside the aesthetic frame? This is the crux in poem after poem by Enright, and mostly he resolves it by saying in effect: ‘No, this is intolerable. I will not tolerate it, will not tolerate art on these terms.’ But in this early poem he solves the crux the other way:

Terrible enough, this demon. Yet it is present and perfect,
Firm as its horns, curling among its thick and handsome hair.
I find it an honest visitant, even consoling, after all
Those sententious phantoms, choked with rage and uncertainty,
Who grimace from contemporary pages. It, at least,
Knows exactly why it laughs.

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