Reports from the Not Too Distant Canon
- The Invasion Handbook by Tom Paulin
Faber, 201 pp, £12.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 571 20915 7
This book is a sequence or collection of poems and other things concerning events in Europe in the period between the Treaty of Versailles and, broadly speaking, the Battle of Britain. Some of the events and personalities, like the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno, are considerately annotated, but others, some of them much more obscure than these, are not. Consequently the reader’s share, as Henry James called it, is quite half; or, to put it another way, unless you are a polymathic historian with some knowledge of literature you will need to do quite a lot of research to figure out what Paulin is doing.
This is not a complaint; we are dealing with a modern poet and would hardly expect a linked and lacquered historical account of the between-war years, with one thing giving rise inevitably, tragically, to another, although there is some of that in the pages on Versailles, which inescapably had more than economic consequences. Certain aspects have attracted the poet’s attention; he confers it, sensing no obligation to say why he wrote about one thing rather than another. There are passages of prose: some by the author, some transcriptions from his sources, some a mixture of both; some in the body of the text and some in the margins. It isn’t always easy to say who is doing the talking. The reader must decide whether he or she is up to sorting everything out and making some kind of whole of it.
The prevailing or default mode of the book is verse in short rather rackety and sometimes rickety lines. Frequently it is merely chopped prose. In a vignette of Walter Benjamin we find this: ‘after he fled Berlin/the Bibliothèque Nationale/was the only place/he allowed himself to feel at home in./It couldn’t be a sanctuary/for it gave him only/a brief passing illusion/of safety that ended/with the German occupation.’ This passage appears as nine lines of verse, divided as above, but without punctuation. I see the point of getting ‘safety’ and ‘ended’ into the same short line, but any other advantages over setting it out as prose are hard to descry, except that in general terms it is an advantage to have a routine baseline verse movement to work from. Presumably the line divisions in the following passage have a point, but it escapes me:
the free world’ll punish and blame
– no, not Trudj-
man and the others
As his admirers would expect, Paulin’s language within these mostly rough-hewn lines is also, as ever, rough, demotic (Northern Ireland slang or dialect) and exotic (lots of German words, passages in French). At a guess, I would say that in developing this style he has been affected by Miroslav Holub, whom he greatly admires, and who can sound like this in English:
Inside there may be growing
An abandoned room,
Bare walls, pale squares where pictures hung,
a disconnected phone,
feathers settling on the floor
the encyclopedists have moved out and
Dostoevsky never found the place
Lost in a landscape
Where only surgeons
– a passage Paulin has singled out in his praise of Holub, ‘the anti-poet’ who ‘has lived in the truth and spoken it wryly and firmly’. One gets a fair idea of Paulin’s method in this book from some of the Holub lines he quoted in Minotaur:
Pasteur died of ictus,
Ten years later.
The janitor Meister
Fifty-five years later
When the Germans occupied
His Pasteur Institute
With all those poor dogs
Vol. 24 No. 11 · 6 June 2002
I think I can help Frank Kermode with Tom Paulin’s use of ‘boortree’ in The Invasion Handbook (LRB, 23 May). It is a Scottish word. The spelling in the Concise Scottish Dictionary is ‘bourtree’, and the definition given there is ‘the elder tree’. There is a place in Aberdeenshire called Bourtree Bush (I think that’s how the locals spell it).
Frank Kermode notes in passing that Tom Paulin was probably remembering Auden in his reference to the ‘pluck’ of the tide. Auden himself owed this and several other striking images to Anthony Collett’s The Changing Face of England (1926, reissued 1932), in whose opening paragraph he read that ‘cliffs fall, capes push seaward, or drift at the tide’s pluck like the shadow on a dial.’ He acknowledged his debt to Collett by citing him at length in his commonplace book, A Certain World.
Vol. 24 No. 12 · 27 June 2002
In his review of Tom Paulin’s The Invasion Handbook (LRB, 23 May), Frank Kermode mentions several words unknown to him and to the OED. One of them, ‘cuas’, is defined in Terence Patrick Dolan’s A Dictionary of Hiberno-English (1998) as ‘a space between rocks; a cavity, a recess; a hollow’. Dolan’s example from the Irish is: ‘He hid it in the cuas next to the tree.’ The implied scale is rather less grand than Paulin’s ‘abyss/a cuas between plump stately mountains’. Paulin’s own foreword to the Dictionary draws particular attention to ‘cuas’ as a word that takes us into a specific landscape. Dolan also helps with Paulin’s ‘the little kinnet’. He defines ‘canatt’ (in its various spellings) as a sly rascal: ‘What a mean little kinnatt he is!’ In such instances, Dolan is used by Paulin much as Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language was used by Hugh MacDiarmid – whom Paulin acknowledges by allusion.
As for ‘The Invasion Handbook’ itself: that may be Audenesque but it is no invention. Informationsheft GB (Berlin, 1939 or 1940) was a manual on British geography, customs and administration. The Gestapo list of 2820 British subjects and European exiles to be taken into custody was a separate volume, Sonderfahndungsliste GB (1940). Between Abercrombie and Zweig (Paulin’s A-Z), it honoured not only the likes of ‘Steffan Spender’ but also Dr Liepmann, a refugee from Heidelberg and a student of Karl Jaspers who ended up teaching German at my school.
‘Pochles’ is used to describe a person who is physically inept and indecisive in his actions. It is analogous to ‘havering’, which describes a similar mental state. When we were young ‘footering’ was also a common term to describe apparently aimless activity, although normally someone who ‘footered’ was involved in something less sustained than someone who ‘pochled’. I hope that this clears up any confusion.
Portstewart, Co. Derry
Vol. 24 No. 13 · 11 July 2002
The word ‘pochle’, used by Tom Paulin in The Invasion Handbook, is used on Clydeside as a verb to indicate that something has been achieved by dishonest means, as in ‘you pochled those figures’ (Letters, 27 June). People who used such means were even referred to as ‘pochlers’. Given the strong relationship between the Clydeside and Northern Ireland, I don’t doubt that the word is in common use in both places (see the Glasgow Patter website).
Incidentally, there is no entity called the State University of North Carolina but there is a North Carolina State University at Raleigh as well as North Carolina University up the road at Chapel Hill. They are referred to there as ‘NC State’ and ‘NCU’. Their alumni have been known to say unkind things about each other. When I lived in North Carolina the levels of academic achievement among some students on sports scholarships at NC State had become scandalously low and faculties were asked to come up with suitable courses for them. ‘Rocks for Jocks’ was the Geology Department’s suggestion.