Reports from the Not Too Distant Canon

Frank Kermode

  • 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
Write poems

– 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
Committed suicide
When the Germans occupied
His Pasteur Institute
With all those poor dogs

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