Escaped from the Lab

Robert Crawford

  • BuyA Lucid Dreamer: The Life of Peter Redgrove by Neil Roberts
    Cape, 341 pp, £30.00, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 09029 2
  • BuyCollected Poems by Peter Redgrove, edited by Neil Roberts
    Cape, 496 pp, £25.00, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 09027 8

Peter Redgrove had a secret. It was called ‘the Game’. Sexual in nature, this obsessive ritual ignited some of his most arresting poetry, and was vital to his personal mythology for sixty years. Known only to his lovers and a few in his inner circle, the Game has now been made public in Neil Roberts’s remarkable biography of the poet, published almost a decade after Redgrove’s death, along with a new Collected Poems. The revelations in Roberts’s book have an undeniably voyeuristic fascination but they also help readers find a shape in Redgrove’s body of work, one so huge and astonishing that it was often difficult for audiences to come to terms with.

‘Sex,’ Redgrove exclaimed in a late poem, was ‘solid prayers/full of stars!’ That use of the exclamation mark is uncharacteristic of his poetry. Yet there is a sense in which all his writing is a sustained exclamation at the sensuous marvellousness of being. Reading his work, Kathleen Raine wrote, is ‘like standing under a waterfall in full spate’. Like Blake or Stanley Spencer, Redgrove was a great English visionary eccentric whose way of seeing mixed sexuality with a powerful sense of ritual. Born in Kingston upon Thames in 1932, he spent most of his boyhood in a newly built detached suburban house. Its post-Edenic name, Orchard End, would resonate in his work, and its garden, sometimes his secret refuge, features in several poems. His mother and father had a passionate, difficult relationship, and any vestiges of paradise faded quickly. Photographed nude by her young husband in ‘“artistic” poses’, Peter’s mother, Nan, was a midwife’s daughter who later told Peter that her father had raped her mother ‘at knifepoint on their wedding night because she was menstruating and reluctant to make love’. Peter was in receipt of such disturbing confidences from about the age of ten. His mother told him about her affairs, her abortions and her sufferings during her periods. Sometimes weeping, sometimes crying out ‘Hells Bells and Buckets of Blood’, she recruited the little boy to her side as she warred periodically against Peter’s father, Jim. He had been an amateur boxer, had a taste for verse, loved card tricks (Peter thought him a magician), and had a successful career in advertising. Jim loved Peter, but Peter came to find this hard to accept. Eventually, Jim became president of the Old Tauntonians, having sent Peter to be educated privately at Taunton School, where ‘pupils were forbidden even to speak to girls.’ Peter’s father’s world was one of sports prizes, Freemasonry and managerial acumen; his ‘poetic’ mother, wanted to ‘run wild in nature’. ‘I Mummy’s Peter,’ the little boy told his father. Jim wrote this down and kept it.

Peter and Nan were excitedly close. There is extant film of him in the sea with her, laughing as his infant head goes under the waves. Roberts cites evidence that Redgrove’s ‘“cuddly” sessions with Nan were more than usually erotic’. He loved being wrapped in her skirts, and would be haunted by her sexual confessions and accounts of her menstrual tribulations. As he got older, Redgrove, conscious of Oedipal narratives, came to mythologise all this. He recalled his mother at a Masons’ ‘ladies night’ demanding orange ice cream which she ‘proceeded to throw … at the stiff, sheerwhite shirtfronts of the men’. This image of sploshy, deliberate soiling seems to connect with Redgrove’s childhood liking for slithering into wet caves or rolling in mud. By the time he was 12, Redgrove suffered from ‘what he called “robot obsessional automatisms”, mainly to do with washing’. In his teens Redgrove began to associate mud with eroticism. His poetry returns again and again to moments connected with the sort of experience detailed in his unpublished memoir ‘Innocent Street’, where, using language familiar to readers of his poetry, he describes being ‘raped by thunder’ in the garden at Orchard End:

Once, the rain came thundering and clothed me with its electrical silk and made my school-clothes shine with its magic. I rolled on the garden soil among the flowers in my electrocution as the rain turned the earth into high-potency mud, paradise disguised as mud, the mud smelling of stars. Did next-door take any spy-notice? It were best for them not to tell or reveal that they had seen the virgin consummating in his bridebed.

The teenage Redgrove loved nothing better than putting on a clean white shirt and secretly creeping out at night to the muddy stream that lay at the bottom of the garden at Orchard End, then rolling in the wet mud and masturbating. On at least one occasion he examined his own spunk under the microscope his parents had given him for Christmas and came rushing into their bedroom, exclaiming: ‘It’s immature semen.’

By this time the schoolboy was leading something of a double life. Encouraged by Nan and Jim, he had set up a laboratory in the house where, filmed by his proud father, he played the part of a scientist, surrounded by jars and pouring fluid from a test tube into a flask. Yet he also experimented with ether, inhaling it till he saw visions of streaming colours; he studied poisons and chewed laburnum pods from the garden to deregulate his senses; he fantasised about wallowing fully clothed in mud, then killing himself by taking cyanide. As his fantasies grew wilder he grew increasingly secretive and troubled, and his powerful urges were ritualised in the Game.

As Roberts, drawing on published and unpublished material as well as on interviews, summarises it, the Game was a ‘fetishistic ritual’ in which Redgrove ‘would deliberately soil his clothes with mud, food or even shaving foam, then bathe in them. As an adult he often wanted to play the Game when he was made to feel “too like a man”, adopting a masculine social role.’ His journals contain many pictures of women and men coated in mud. Later in life, for all that it was autoerotic in origin, Redgrove sought to involve his heterosexual partners in aspects of the Game. With his first wife, the art student Barbara Sherlock, to whom he got engaged when he was a 19-year-old virgin and she was 21, it turned out to be almost impossible to do this satisfyingly. With his second wife, Penelope Shuttle, he still felt some shame over his need for the Game, though she was much more sympathetic.

A troubled, talented and vulnerable teenager, Redgrove had won a scholarship to Cambridge to study biochemistry, but had a breakdown before he got there. Diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia in obsessional personality’ as he embarked on National Service, he was subjected to ‘insulin shock therapy’: a potentially life-threatening coma was induced, then patients were brought out of it by being given glucose intravenously or through a nasal tube. Convulsions could ensue, and this form of treatment was abandoned not long afterwards. Redgrove’s doctor regarded him as ‘still only a boy’. He feared her, and regarded the treatment as ‘barbarous violence’.

Discharged from hospital in October 1950, and still intending to go to Cambridge the next year, he got a job as a lab assistant at a pharmaceutical company. He also fell in love with the strong-minded Barbara, and made love to her in his parents’ bed at Orchard End: an experience he regarded as his initiation into poetry. When he went to Queens’ College, Cambridge, in October 1951, the couple were engaged, though university regulations did not permit them to live together. Redgrove as a first-year student was already turning away from science towards literature.

‘Eliot,’ he recalled later, ‘was the first poet who made me feel I might write something like poetry.’ The pained, anxious sexuality of The Waste Land underpins ‘Phlebas the Phoenician’, the early poem that opens the new Collected Poems. In Redgrove’s poem the sea, in its ‘icy motherhood’, is an erotic female presence that is daunting for men, with its ‘small-voiced currents that would rinse/Your dead mouth and nostrils clean of any human conversations/Should you fail to please’. Eliot mattered to Redgrove and could be acknowledged as an inspiration; defensively denounced, but perhaps more important, was Dylan Thomas. Thomas may have looked like an ‘ugly puffy fatso’ when he visited Cambridge during Redgrove’s student days, but he ‘kept visionary poetry alive for me and kept me alive too’. Redgrove’s finest early collection of poems, The Force (1966), has a title surely designed to evoke Thomas’s ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’.

In Redgrove’s work, as in Thomas’s, sexual energy and the force of the natural world are conjoined. The Force is, among other things, a celebration of Redgrove’s first marriage and family, but it’s filled with wildly energetic dark spatterings, slime-slides, sprays and haemorrhages. At Cambridge he began to publish his poems, but broke down again and failed to get a degree. Student friends, who included Philip Hobsbaum and Ted Hughes, registered that Redgrove was impressively unusual. Hobsbaum thought he bore ‘a resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster, only better dressed’. Harry Guest recalls him carrying ‘a swordstick with him’ – like a Mr Hyde escaped from Dr Jekyll’s lab. Peter Porter, who admired Redgrove’s talent hugely and came to know him through the poets in Hobsbaum’s Group in 1950s London, told anecdotes of him mixing Merrydown and Benzedrine. Redgrove resorted to this supercharged cocktail when working, like his father but with less success, in advertising.

Unhappy, sometimes pushy and unstable, the fledgling poet concealed from his friends what he later felt had been severe mental suffering, not least when his brother David fell to his death from a hotel window at the age of 19; most of all, he concealed the Game, and had a lifelong terror of people finding out about it. He admired Rimbaud and drank heavily; Barbara tried to coax him away from the bottle. He went off to Spain alone for several months, leaving her to cope with their financial problems. Her common sense kept the family afloat and, though the Game caused trouble between them, she gave birth to their first child not long before the appearance of Redgrove’s first collection of poems in 1960.

Redgrove’s early collections can sound mannered. A characteristic sound patterning repeats words or rhymes within lines, rather than using end-rhymes, as in a line from ‘Against Death’: ‘Sealed off from rooms by white ceiling’. The move in this poem from the word ‘white’ to the dirty compound adjective ‘soot-and-suet’ is also revealing of Redgrove’s imagination, which just loves muck and spiders: their ‘black-and-suet bodies’ are shuddered at in another early poem. Redgrove maintained a lifelong fondness for unusual compounds – from ‘ogre-fumes’ and ‘bloodscheme’ to ‘apple-college’ and ‘water-electricity’ – as well as a resolutely nourished arachnophilia. Covert versions of the Game soon begin to sneak into the poems. At first these are scarcely perceptible, but they result in poems which sizzle with a transgressive sexuality. A poem in Redgrove’s second collection, The Nature of Cold Weather (1961), takes a speaker whose ‘trouser legs’ are ‘pied with water-drops’ from ‘waste-ground’ to ‘the carpets of my home’. Pieings and peeings, spatterings and messings acquire a weird power. In ‘The Secretary’, the speaker, ‘Pantless, under a slim formal skirt’, tells how ‘beard-rash twinkles on my thighs’ and watches a man’s teeth, their defiled whiteness ‘stained tawny with tobacco’, his breath ‘rank and vicious, like menstrual blood’. The highlight of this book is the astonishing prose poem ‘Mr Waterman’, in which the speaker tells a doctor of his fears that his garden pond is going to commit adultery with his wife:

I invited it in as a lodger, bedding it up in the old bathroom. At first I thought I would have to run canvas troughs up the stairs so it could get to its room without soaking the carpet, and I removed the flap from the letter-box so it would be free to come and go, but it soon learned to keep its form quite well, and get about in macintosh and goloshes [sic], opening doors with gloved fingers.

Increasingly agitated, the speaker dreads a time ‘when I shall arrive home unexpectedly early, and hear a sudden scuffle-away in the waste-pipes, and find my wife (“just out of the shower, dear”) with that moist look in her eyes, drying her hair’. When, in the old age of Lord Reith, this piece was televised as a sort of interrupted monologue on Monitor in 1961, an excited reviewer in the Listener praised its ‘television freshness’ and urged that it be repeated for a wider audience. It was not.

The Force marks a full release of poetic energy which is also bound up with the energy of Redgrove’s Game. Bedwetting, pouring ink and haemorrhaging mess up the page, but the poems combine the taboo with the tight-lipped. ‘The Artist to His Blind Love’ begins:

Slut, her muddy fingers leave a track
She buckles to her waist.
She stoops. She feels
With fingers in the turf.

The short sentences enact a formal control and patterned repetitions govern the weirdness of the material: ‘Foodspots patter down her front. I haven’t the heart … I haven’t the heart. Foodspots patter down her front.’ The intensely sexual is fused with the familial and domestic, as in some of Stanley Spencer’s best work. In ‘Sweat’, the speaker tells us: ‘She loves me and she loves our children too.’ Redgrove names himself in the verse, but, more strangely and powerfully, he inscribes aspects of his secrets: in ‘The Absolute Ghost’, he writes about ‘this slime-slide opening under her heel’; in ‘The Sermon’ a minister preaches about ‘the juices of the laid grasses’ and a ‘wallow of decrepitude’ that leads you to ‘wet your pants’; in ‘The Widower’, with its ‘spray of water’ and ‘filthy tattered weather’, we hear of those ‘Who walk like a shivering laundry of shifted humanity/And who stink’.

After Redgrove accepted a Gregory Fellowship at Leeds University and began an affair with Dilly Creffield, his marriage became tempestuous and sometimes violent. ‘Don’t go in there,’ one visitor warned another, ‘Peter is kicking his wife and calling her a bitch.’ Hailed by Al Alvarez as ‘the Bard of the Nasty’, Redgrove wrote a narrative poem about a man who entombs his wife by pouring concrete down the chimney. Barbara managed to correspond on friendly terms with Dilly (described by another female friend as having ‘a touch of Cider with Rosie’ about her), while Peter wrote his poem of wetness and ‘Wallow’ entitled ‘Water-Witch, Wood-Witch, Wine-Witch’, annotating it with a manuscript that makes clear it was about Dilly. Redgrove took up a teaching post at the School of Art in Falmouth in 1966; he and Barbara were still together and he continued his affairs with Dilly and with booze. When Barbara went into labour in 1968, ‘Peter was too drunk to drive her to the hospital and she had to drive herself.’ Suffering from depression, he was analysed by the perceptive but corrupt psychotherapist John Layard, who went to bed with him; his father paid for the analysis, and Layard, when Redgrove explained the Game to him, said simply: ‘That’s your mother.’

With its epitaph from Baudelaire – ‘C’est elle! Noire et pourtant lumineuse’ – Redgrove’s poem ‘The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach’ is dedicated to Layard. The title alludes to Wallace Stevens, but as the poem rejoices in enveloping a woman in ‘fat, juicy, incredibly tart muck’, never has Stevens been led in such a strange direction.

Slowly she slipped into the muck.
It was a white dress, she said, and that was not right.
Leathery polished mud, that stank as it split.
It is a smooth white body, she said, and that is not right,
Not quite right; I’ll have a smoother,
Slicker body, and my golden hair
Will sprinkle rich goodness everywhere.
So slowly she backed into the mud.

This is some distance from Robert Graves’s White Goddess: Redgrove’s poem celebrates a ‘black Venus’ who may owe something to Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne Duval, but who has stepped straight out of the Game and who will walk into the purging, laundering sea, creating a ‘slithering passage’ where ‘The shrugged-up riches of deep darkness sang.’ Published in 1972, the poem belongs to the same period as Seamus Heaney’s celebrated ‘bog poems’ and some of Ted Hughes’s explorations of the stickily chthonic. In English-language poetry it was an era of vintage mud; but where Heaney and Hughes had some Gravesian pedigree, Redgrove ploughed his own, stranger furrow.

Encountering Layard led Redgrove to be bolder in the way he used the Game in his life and in his verse. Sometimes this could be frightening, and he knew it. When, after a session in the pub, he took a group of students mud-bathing (fully clothed) in a creek near Falmouth at night, then drove them home in the family car, its interior ‘lagged with mud’, things could have gone horribly wrong. He dedicated his 1969 collection, Work in Progress, to Barbara; it contains the poem ‘Quasimodo’s Many Beds’, whose speaker, ‘enthroned in mud’, capers over ‘sodden sheets’ and tells his lover: ‘I want you to wear grey and ashes.’ That was disturbing enough, but when Redgrove added another poem, ‘Quasimodo’s Many Beds II’, in which a woman has a knife and says, ‘I love to be dressed in living red,’ Barbara read it as a sign that her husband wanted to kill her. Sometimes she could laugh him off, saying of the Game simply, ‘You are a funny boy,’ but she associated Redgrove’s depression, drinking and adultery with his secret sexual compulsions. He sought outlets in crazy binges: with one male friend, Roberts recounts,

their lives exploded in days of almost unbelievable excess, when they would begin drinking as soon as the pubs opened in the morning, carry on all day, take a bottle of whisky and a bottle of vodka with them into a late-night movie, and continue through the night drinking home brew at Peter’s house. During these two-man carnivals they would go into a hotel, plug all the baths and leave the taps running, wreck gardens while declaiming poetry, or enter unlocked houses and suddenly appear like ‘two demons’, causing uproar in the owners’ sitting rooms. Once Peter defecated on the sunroof of a parked car.

Somehow Redgrove managed to hold down his academic post in Falmouth. He found it annoying that Barbara looked old: by her late thirties her hair was white. Living with several young children and a binge-drinker who dreamed of killing a baby by taking an axe to its head can’t have been easy. Among her other difficulties were money (Jim helped by paying bills) and Dilly, who left her own family and children, turning up in Falmouth to ask Barbara to let Peter go. Soon afterwards Dilly became seriously deranged and was taken away in a straitjacket by paramedics. As Roberts points out, the words ‘I loved Ophelia!’ which Redgrove had added as an epigraph to his Dilly-related poem ‘Young Women with the Hair of Witches and No Modesty’ had ‘proved horribly prophetic’.

It was around this time that Redgrove met the 22-year-old poet and novelist Penelope Shuttle, who had heard on the radio his poem ‘The Case’, about a ‘mother-world wet with perfume’. She soon invited him to stay with her. Shuttle was, as Roberts points out, ‘very young and sexually inexperienced, socially phobic with an eating disorder and menstrual problems: a vulnerable person to be drawing into his personal and marital maelstrom’. Things got worse. As their 11-year-old son listened in distress, a drunken Peter hit Barbara after she accused him of sexual inadequacy. She left the house with a black eye; he maintained that his domestic violence ‘was an act of love’. The marriage was over.

Few would have predicted that Redgrove’s relationship with Shuttle would work out: both suffered from depression as well as physical ailments; both had writerly compulsions which could be particularly demanding to live with. Yet, oddly, each healed the other. Together over several years they wrote The Wise Wound, a study of the menstrual cycle that drew on Shuttle’s dreams as well as her menstrual history and Redgrove’s analysis of these experiences. If Shuttle sometimes felt ‘experimented on’, she came to accept her period as embodying ‘a transgressive sense of the feminine’ that was matched, in some ways, by the transgressive messiness of Redgrove’s Game. More readily than Barbara, Penelope was willing to participate in the Game, and these two poets’ willingness to share their strangest and most intimate fears, desires and bodily characteristics as well as their dedication to each other and to crafted language resulted in remarkable literary achievements. Eventually published in 1978, The Wise Wound was praised by reviewers as different as Marina Warner and Les Murray; insightful and often freewheelingly speculative, it ranges from menstruation and witchcraft to capitalist patriarchy and vampirism. It was recognised from the start as revolutionary and taboo-breaking.

In the years leading up to the publication of The Wise Wound Redgrove’s poetry grew more and more erotically explicit. If it risks reducing women to little more than sources of sex, it seems endless in its articulation of ecstasy, and Shuttle was happy to join him in this project. In ‘Six Odes’ from The Hermaphrodite Album (1973), a book they wrote together, a sceptic might remark that the poem ‘Learning-Lady’ (which begins ‘I sprained my wrist taking her skirt off’) shows little interest in female intellectualism except for the purpose of an erotic joke; yet few could deny the alertly orgasmic profusion of ‘Coming-Lady’, which begins:

She comes like a seashell without a skin,
She comes like warm mud that moves in sections.
She comes with long legs like a tree-frog clambering
Towards some great fruit, niddip, niddip.
A small acrobat lives inside her flower;
The canopy blooms.

Shortly before the publication of The Wise Wound, Redgrove published one of his most explicit reimaginings of the Game, an extended prose ‘Scenario for a Masque’ called ‘Dance the Putrefact’, which was included in his 1977 collection, From Every Chink of the Ark. The speaker, drawn to ‘tidal mud-flats’, draws a large female body on quaking, soft mud and dances not just on it but in it.

I pull her flesh off her in handfuls and cover my skin in hers. I prance, cool and nightladen with exterior cunt. The black bed before me is rucked. The black woman-outline has risen from it and I dance within her skin. I am the black woman. I am petal-soft, and my surfaces are rounded and shining. The bosom of my shirt is heavy with mud.

While we can see now that this clearly relates to the Game, it also marries the Game to the matter of The Wise Wound in a way that can sound sniggeringly bathetic in short quotations but which in the extended piece has a cumulative and undeniable power: ‘Soon her ladyhood will pour like black blood through the drains of his bathroom.’

Eruptions, echoes and after-echoes of the Game can be traced throughout the rest of Redgrove’s poetry, from 1970s poems such as ‘Among the Whips and the Mud Baths’ through 1980s work in The Mudlark Poems to such later poems of the 1990s as ‘Under the Reservoir’, where ‘The reservoirs in their unending battle to flow/Turned into steely strain like hammered pewter/Endure their thousand tons of mud.’ So arresting is some of the material made public in Roberts’s biography that anyone who reads it alongside Redgrove’s verse may be tempted to read the poetry solely in the light of these revelations. In the short term, this may be inevitable; and even, perhaps, just. It may serve as something of a corrective to some of Roberts’s own earlier work on Redgrove, which intelligently but sometimes too forcedly relates his poetry to the writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.

In the longer term, after these revelations have been absorbed, a greater sense of the coherence of Redgrove’s work will emerge. I hope there will also be more attention paid to the connections between his work and that of Shuttle. Their joint collection, The Hermaphrodite Album, in which it is still unclear who wrote what, is in its way as arresting as The Wise Wound. In general it doesn’t work out when poets marry one another. Yet the marriage of Redgrove and Shuttle may stand as the most remarkable lasting poetic union since that of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning more than a century earlier.

Roberts’s biography, for all its readiness to read Redgrove’s life in terms of the Oedipus complex, does allow its subject a nuanced complexity. It is shrewd, well researched and impressively fair. If the Redgrove who catches the imagination most is the Mud Man, then the poetry – which has overwhelmed many readers, but has seemed to others at times as clear as mud – is an object lesson in how to draw on one’s own psychological and erotic characteristics while also maintaining a fidelity to the measure of writing. Redgrove’s most powerful poems are not just those in which the Game is directly present, but those in which his compulsions are rerouted to make the ordinary sing. Stanley Spencer could experience and capture a visionary and erotic experience which derived from scrubbing between two baths; Redgrove did something similar for a water filtration plant. His 1990s poem ‘Staines Waterworks’ may have had a punning title which privately excited him; but what is stunning for the reader is the pinpoint abundance of this poet’s imagination:

Riverwater gross as gravy is filtered from
Its coarse detritus at the intake and piped
To the sedimentation plant like an Egyptian nightmare,
For it is a hall of twenty pyramids upside-downBalanced on their points each holding two hundred and fifty
Thousand gallons making thus the alchemical sign
For water and the female triangle.

The very titles of Redgrove’s poems speak of his imaginative originality: ‘My Father’s Trapdoors’, ‘Pigmy Thunder’, ‘Pneumonia Blouses’. The poems gestated in notebooks, on occasion for decades. Some went through prose drafts as well as verse ones. He knew his ‘vocation was alchemist not chemist’ and was lucky that his own editing of the alchemy was supplemented by the attentive eye and ear of Shuttle as well as the long-term guidance of the poet and publisher Robin Robertson. Redgrove wrote so much that few readers could keep up with his poetry, his substantial output of fiction, his plays, essays and non-fiction. He returned (sometimes too often) to his most secret compulsions. He shaped them and moved beyond them, then returned again.