Travellers

John Kerrigan

  • Archaic Figure by Amy Clampitt
    Faber, 113 pp, £4.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 571 15043 8
  • Tourists by Grevel Lindop
    Carcanet, 95 pp, £6.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 85635 697 2
  • Sleeping rough by Charles Boyle
    Carcanet, 64 pp, £5.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 85635 731 6
  • This Other Life by Peter Robinson
    Carcanet, 96 pp, £5.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 85635 737 5
  • In the Hot-House by Alan Jenkins
    Chatto, 60 pp, £4.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3312 0
  • Monterey Cypress by Lachlan Mackinnon
    Chatto, 62 pp, £4.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3264 7
  • My Darling Camel by Selima Hill
    Chatto, 64 pp, £4.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3286 8
  • The Air Mines of Mistila by Philip Gross and Sylvia Kantaris
    Bloodaxe, 80 pp, £4.95, June 1988, ISBN 1 85224 055 5
  • X/Self by Edward Kamau Brathwaite
    Oxford, 131 pp, £6.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 19 281987 9
  • The Arkansas Testament by Derek Walcott
    Faber, 117 pp, £3.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 571 14909 X

August is the cruellest month, breeding tailbacks on the Dover Road and logjams in every departure lounge. Travel reverts to travail, stirring dull roots in trepalium – that classical ‘instrument or engine of torture’ now known as the ‘chartered jet’ or ‘transcontinental sleeper’. Driven by some collective urge, we flock abroad and return two weeks later exhausted and ready for a holiday. Why post-industrial man should display such ritualised migratory behaviour already seems mysterious. And future archaeologists will find our tourist networks as baffling as the Songlines which stretch across aboriginal Australia. At which point, they should turn to the poets. For just as the Songlines are, to use Bruce Chatwin’s image, ‘a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every “episode” [is] readable’, so the quick and shallow tracks of tourism retrace our oldest myths, revisiting ancient holy sites, seeking out a palm-fringed paradise, ploughing in hydrofoils across the wine-dark Aegean.

One of the strengths of Amy Clampitt’s new book is its awareness of this field of force, this imaginative map ingrained with irony. Starting from a description of a Greek statue in Berlin, it moves towards the

              middle of the earth, yearned-
for stepmotherland of Hölderlin and Goethe

that is Hellas, and remains, even through a sequence of undistinguished poems on George Eliot and Dorothy Wordsworth, haunted by the genius loci. There are poems about Venice and London. New Providence claims attention. But Greece exerts the strongest pull, a centripetal appeal. Olympia, Thermopylae, Dodona, Hippocrene: there’s a roll and thunder of big names, offset by Clampitt’s darting, oboe-like tones – often wittily nuanced, sometimes reductive and trivializing – as the splendour of the past is contrasted with the tackiness of tourism. Archaic Figure can collapse into the language of a brochure, painting

         dazzlements
of unquarried marble

and ‘plane-tree-dimmed. ... hill villages’. But Clampitt’s dry self-mockery usually manages to disinfect illusion. And in ‘Babel aboard the Hellas International Express’ she catches rather nicely the sprawling placelessness of travel, a fallen cosmopolitan gabble along the Songlines, as she rattles from Salonika

                     all the way to Munich,
aboard a filthy train that’s four hours late!

People, however, interest Clampitt less than she thinks. Noticed as features of Greek landscape, the locals function in Archaic Figure like the swains of 18th-century topographical poetry. The harsher side of rustic life is mediated to Clampitt by such dog-eared guides as J.T. Bent’s The Cyclades (1885) – which matters somewhat, given that inhabitants, if not the meaning of a place, tell us what places mean. Once, in ‘Ano Prinios’, Clampitt confronts the gulf between a tourist’s secure transience and harsher local realities. She remembers an impromptu meal with peasants, the invitation to stay as paying guests (‘A disappointed avarice’, in her unlovely phrase), followed by a redemptive gesture, after coffee, before the travellers move on. Yet even this attractively vulnerable poem confuses virtue with coyness, and claims credit for doing so:

A scruple over how to deal with matters so
fundamental, and so unhandsome, restrained me,
for two years and more, from writing
of what happened.

And its resolving gesture proves troublesomely literary, as a fruit-laden bough is translated (from one side of the situation) into cultural Urtalk:

Turning to the woman, I asked what
they were called in Greek. She answered,
‘Damaskeno.’ Damson, damask, damascene:
the word hung, still hangs there,
glistening among its cognates.

Clampitt seems happiest with Greece as literary phenomenon, a set of figures and clichés. That ‘Hölderlin and Goethe’ never saw their ‘stepmotherland’, while paying it eloquent homage, is part of her book’s unstable knowingness. In Archaic Figure, Romantic Hellenism rebukes the traveller, yet itself becomes absurd once a modern idyll like picnicking is imposed on its antique ideal:

What leaf-fringed legend haunts
this sodden loess of picnics,
sardine-tin litter dripped on
by unmythic fig and laurel –
what latterday pursuits,
 what struggle

to escape the tourist traps.

Who would have thought charmlessness could prove so heavily charming. Clampitt locks herself too readily into games of deprecation, making it appear naive or super-sophisticated to look for legends in landscape. Underlying her charm (the same poem shows) is a derivative literariness that projects its own tittering onto the subject:

the giggling, gray-green
roar that fills a gorge
(sweet Thames! run softly)
old books refer to as the
  vale of Tempe ...

Eliotic echoes of that calibre belong (sec above) to journalism. For all her reputation as a poet, Clampitt frequently seems ripe for the travel pages of Vogue.

Carcanet has published a series of books by young poets gravitating towards the idea of travel. Of those under review, Grevel Lindop’s Tourists is the most transparently accomplished. Lucid of contour, with a syntax almost too elegiacally attuned to form, his work displays, even when not concerned with journeying, the kind of internal ‘itinerary’ which (in Mandelstam’s image) is the mark of achieved poetry. Like Clampitt, he draws inspiration from 18th-century and Romantic writers: a verse recipe in the manner of William King, 21 ‘Vignettes’ based on engravings by Thomas Bewick, and some distinctly Wordsworthian landscape poems feature in his collection. But where Clampitt hops about dottily – despite the decorous appearance of her stanzas – snatching at bits of Keats and Hopkins, Lindop writes out of a deep engagement with the way great poetry has declared itself. Verse so ponderably grounded carries a high risk of academicism, and Lindop often succumbs. Yet his talent is sufficiently lithe and inventive, especially in lyric structures, to leave its own signs on traditional terrain.

Lindop honourably complicates prejudice by accepting the stigma Tourists. The stock distinctions are familiar. A traveller wants to know about places, the tourist how to spend his money. Travel is shaped by geography, tourism (‘it’s Tuesday, this must be Vienna’) by time. Travellers want to lose themselves, tourists – cocooned in Holiday Inns never really leave home. Travel outstrips reading, the guidebook, common language; tourism moves in an envelope of familiarity, experiencing the already advertised. Lindop can register the appeal of the former, notably in his ‘Traveller at Yazd’:

The signs ahead are scarlet Arabic:
a manic exuberant scrawl
like a line of flame on the horizon

He shoulders his pack. His footsoles
tug into the ground. The street glitters with twilight.
Nobody knows him. This is what he came for.

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[*] published by Hansib/Dangaroo at £3.95.