The title poem of St Kilda’s Parliament is about a local institution ‘quite unlike Westminster’, a gathering ‘by interested parties to discuss the day’s work and any other issues that needed to be talked over’:
On either side of a rock-paved lane,
Two files of men are standing barefooted,
Bearded, waistcoated, each with a tam-o’-shanter
On his head, and most with a set half-smile
That comes from their companionship with rock,
With soft mists, with rain, with roaring gales,
And from a diet of solan goose and eggs,
A diet of dulse and sloke and sea-tangle,
And ignorance of what a pig, a bee, a rat,
Or rabbit look like, although they remember
The three apples brought here by a traveller
Five years ago, and have discussed them since.
This opening passage shows some of the volume’s strengths, and a weakness. It is vividly observant, rich with a sense of place, but the note of dignified and loving meditation is corrupted a little by patronising folksiness, as in those last few lines, or a similar passage about a woman ‘who might not believe it’ if informed of ‘the populous mainland’. Such passages suggest a tourist-brochure writer’s idea of some Hardy of the Western Isles.
The speaker is not the poet or anyone witnessing the scene directly, but a photographer imagined as looking at a photograph he has taken a hundred years ago. The full title is ‘St Kilda’s Parliament: 1879-1979. The photographer revisits his picture’, and Dunn’s Poetry Book Society note tells us that he’s never been there and first saw the photograph in Theodora Fitzgibbon’s A Taste of Scotland – evidently a regional cook-book with touristic overtones. But the whimsy about not believing in the mainland is an invented one, virtually signposted as such, and sounds as though it emanates from the poet rather than the photographer – a poet coyly aware of playing with tourist clichés, who knows how to convert them into a tender eloquence:
Traveller, tourist with your mind set on
Romantic Staffas and materials for
Winter conversations, if you should go there,
Landing at sunrise on its difficult shores,
On St Kilda you will surely hear Gaelic
Spoken softly like a poetry of ghosts
By those who never were contorted by
Hierarchies of cuisine and literacy.
The photograph-poem has become an important sub-genre. Larkin, Hughes, Porter and others have practised it. There’s a sense in which the photograph does part of the poet’s work for him, freezing a charged but vanishing moment so that nuances of mood or relationship, by definition volatile, become permanently fixed for the poet to work on at leisure. Perhaps this lies behind David Sweetman’s recent remark about photography as an art that helps people to ‘see what they had previously merely looked at’: a role Romantic theorists sometimes reserved for poetry itself.
Viewed thus, the photograph, itself a work of art, performs in a new way art’s ancient task of giving permanent form to transient things. The memorial is no longer a monument, frankly ennobling the object as monuments once did, nor the ‘powerful rhyme’ which set out to outlive even these. The photograph’s boast is its exact veracity to the surface. It cannot, like other art-forms, find its essential value except through this veracity, however transfigured or transcended: hence its availability to the poet as a visual aidemémoire as well as matter for multiple and mutually complicating perspectives. It extends a process which was already visible in Keats’s Grecian urn, which not only replaces ‘monuments’ by humbler memorials but also fixes with a pictorial finality moments in a process, provisional in themselves, like an uncompleted kiss, a particular look.
Dunn’s earlier volume, Barbarians (1979), contains a photograph-poem, ‘Portrait Photograph, 1915’, but an even more interesting example is provided by a poem in the same collection, about ‘An artist waiting in a country house’. The artist waits to see the lady, who had asked to see the man who painted the pictures. But he is kept waiting, as ‘minutes passed, unlived ... cinematic’, glimpsing the lady’s husband kissing her cheek outside the house. The lady evidently forgets the appointment, signifying the artist’s social exclusion. The glimpsed conjugal scene is fixed in his mind, a mental snapshot self-consciously cherished, and his own exclusion spliced into the picture by a kind of internal photomontage:
He would be there, sitting waiting, always,
The woman always kissed upon her cheek,
Her husband turning, moving to his stables
Or wherever ...
Here the memorable experience is itself half-imagined as a photographic still, a reality arrested, so to speak, within the ‘cinematic’ minutes. The photograph is an implied metaphor, more or less instinctively arrived at and perhaps only half-aware of itself. In St Kilda’s Parliament, half-awareness is replaced, perhaps by over-awareness. Dunn’s photographer looks at the men in his photograph who
must always look at me
Looking through my apparatus at them
And it follows that the poet looking at the photograph, and the reader looking at him looking, add two more stages to this reflexive series (cf. the earlier poem on what it’s like ‘To watch your own eyes watching you’). The work of art within the work of art becomes a compounder of self-consciousness, paradoxically distancing the poet from the primary experience through a whole coil of secondary ones.
Distancing of one kind or another is constantly in evidence in this volume, especially in the poems on Scottish themes or scenes. Dunn said at the time of his first book, Terry Street (1969), that ‘Scotland is what I most want to write about and what I am least able to.’ So Terry Street is set in Hull, and Dunn’s early poems are in a style of flat disenchanted reportage reminiscent of Swift’s city georgics (the resemblance is general and not especially allusive, but was he motioning towards Swift when he said the ‘poems are not slum-pastorals’?). They have something, too, of Mac-Neice’s sketches of limply raffish lives soured and wearied by time. This idiom is self-conscious, if at all, only in a ‘deep’ and unproclaimed way, as a choice of style suited to the less intimate levels of experience. Some of the Scottish poems in a later volume, Love or Nothing (1974), resemble Terry Street. Clyde-side is viewed through Humberside spectacles, or, rather, in an idiom Dunn had first perfected for poems set in an English city.
In Barbarians and St Kilda’s Parliament, the flat, witty harshness of the earlier volumes has given way to a more fondly nurtured and also more fanciful mode of feeling. The personal barriers to writing about Scotland seem to survive in a different form. The Scottish poems in Barbarians tend to have a ‘period’ flavour, as in ‘The Student of Renfrewshire, 1820’, or in several poems in which a death triggers elegiac evocations of a less distant past. Nostalgia and whimsy are easily allowed to colour the angry note of ‘social realism’, as in ‘Red Buses’ and ‘Ballad of the Two Left Hands’. The new volume has poems avowedly in the manner of ‘my previous book’, many of them viewing Scotland through the eyes of, or in the light of episodes concerning, Scottish writers, mostly of the 18th century: Tannahill, John Wilson of Greenock – and, in ‘Green Breeks’, a famous anecdote of Scott’s boyhood is subjected to an extremely deft and somewhat mean-spirited reversal. The volume as a whole gives a sense of substantial and sensitive gifts embarrassed by a strange sporadic uneasiness.
Charles Tomlinson and Octavio Paz collaborated in producing ‘the first Western renga’, a Japanese name for a poem by several poets writing alternating parts. That first experiment was quadrilingual, and Airborn is a bilingual variant ‘in slow motion’: alternating sections of sonnets were passed to and fro by correspondence. There were two linked sequences of four sonnets each, on the theme of ‘House’ and of ‘Day’, translated where appropriate, so that the end-product exists entire in both Spanish and English. The passages originally written in Spanish are given in italics in both versions, those in English in roman.
‘House’ is a characteristic Tomlinson theme. He inaugurates the whole operation by contributing the first stanza of ‘House’, and closes it by writing the entire last sonnet of ‘Day’, itself composed around the idea of the house, his house. There is an easy sense of rootedness, contrasting oddly at times with Paz’s contribution, which constantly tugs towards a greater abstraction, a separation of thought from thing. ‘We are born in houses we did not make,’ says Paz, forcing Tomlinson back in the next poem to insist afresh on primary solidities of belonging:
house, you began in milk, in warmth, in eating:
words must re-tongue your first solidities
and thought keep fresh your fragrance of bread baking
or drown in the stagnation of its memories.
‘Thought’ is a reifying, not a rarefying, process. ‘Letters are stones that fly,’ he says in the first poem of ‘Day’, ‘to settle in a wall.’ Words, poems, are used for establishing or recovering contact, rather than defining a distance. Where visual definition is involved, there is a painterly, not a photographer’s perspective, a stress on remaking rather than on viewing, posing, arranging; or on recapturing essential lines rather than reproducing the visible surface.
This is everywhere evident in his latest book, Flood, from the opening poem, ‘Snow Signs’, onwards. It shows itself even in ‘On a Pig’s Head’, a festive grotesquerie in which the very hacking and gore of the butcher’s knife are submitted to the studious artist’s sense of line and angle:
transforming the thing
to a still life, hacked
and halved, cross-cutting it
into angles with ears.
The transformation ‘to a still life’ is no aestheticising reduction. It shows the poet responding to the thrust of lines and angles, not watching them, as Richard Eberhart watched the bones of his Groundhog, ‘like a geometer’, but catching essential shape even as it resides in driving energy. Tomlinson’s poem recalls Eberhart’s, and also Ted Hughes’s ‘View of a Pig’, where the ‘view’ is neither the geometer’s nor the painter’s. This cut-up pig is not lines and angles but all energy and no ‘shape’, a bravura of disfigurement: ‘The gash in its throat was shocking.’ The cooking of the pig, in Hughes, is a large amorphous cleansing, a scalding and a scouring, while Tomlinson’s pig will be confected with peppercorns, cloves of garlic, bay-leaves and wine, and kept down in boiling water by a great red rock from Macuilxochitl, an orderly event, disciplined, decorative and fraught with pleasurable solidities at once domestic and exotic. Flood is an attractive volume, with some good new poems in the vein of American Scenes, sharply observant, wry, affectionately ironic, and some characteristically delicate meditations on Italian themes and landscapes.
David Sweetman is also a painterly poet. He is in particular much possessed by the painterly element in holocausts. He was trained as a painter, calls bombings ‘creative acts’, and writes of ‘the cloud over Hiroshima’ as ‘beautiful’. Mailer once said he disapproved of people who ‘derive aesthetic satisfaction from the fact that an Ethiopian village looks like a red rose at the moment that the bombs are exploding’, but added immediately that ‘it would be odd if all that sudden destruction did not liberate some beauty,’ and that ‘any liberal who decries bombing is totalitarian if he doesn’t admit as well that the bombs were indeed beautiful.’ Sweetman’s poem notes that, just before the beautiful mushroom flowered,
the deadly dust
consumed itself like old men’s lips.
But this is a sharply captured glimpse of the horror, not a Mailerian mishmash vacuously proclaiming its openness to all varieties of emotion. The heady paradox over which Mailer preens and postures is for Sweetman a very specifically rendered matter of pain undercut by beauty, beauty turned mysterious and sick by pain. The same controlled wonder is registered in the poem about the Japanese potter caught at his work in 1945 as a light breaks ‘brighter than the city’s million filaments’, or in the B52s of ‘Love in Asia’. The starkness of Paul Celan, his sense of rock-bottom desolation, are absent, but Looking into the Deep End is a modest success in the painterly exploration of suffering. There is everywhere in the volume a vivid and disciplined visual exactitude, ‘vision in the factual non-mystical sense’, which also comes over strongly in non-holocaust poems, mildy and ironically exoticising, like ‘Saidi’s Wife’ or ‘That Old Levantine Bordello’.
Andrew Motion’s latest poem in an Indian setting, ‘Resident at the Club’, was recently published in this paper. Independence, a longer and more elaborate work, is a dramatic monologue, tending, like some of his other poems, to the short story. A man remembers, in his father-in-law’s house by the sea in England, his courtship and marriage in India, in the year of Independence – a period evidently enjoying a vogue in recent English letters. The riots, the slogans, the free ‘replacement maps’ with Pakistan on them, Ghandi’s death provide the historical setting for a tender study in nostalgia and bereavement.
The hero works in the carpet business and marries the boss’s daughter in Independence week. The idyll of their courtship and life together until her death of a miscarriage are the central matter of reminiscence. Their first assignation occurs when she is recovering from appendicitis. He climbs over the wall to her, a nurse interrupts them, and he hides, dragging ‘the heavy tallboy door shut behind me’. Eventually, the coupling is completed with post-surgical awkwardness, the stitched lady riding her lover in a rhythmic posture carefully adapted to minimise pain, while the removed appendix looks on from a jar on the window-sill. The bizarrerie is rendered with a quiet unfussy humour, not the genial blowsiness with which a more ordinary poet might have invested it. In the poem’s prevailing atmosphere of tenderness and loss, it is remarkable to find such an episode executed without a discordant or unbalancing note, and perhaps even more remarkable that it should have been risked at all.
Andrew Motion is very strong at rendering the particularities of grief – the objects, for example, which survive a bereavement and bring home its poignancy. The gift was vividly present in ‘Anne Frank Huis’: the pathos of the girl’s possessions, the pictures of her family mingling with cuttings of famous actors and ‘fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth’, will seem extraordinarily accurately captured to anyone who has visited the house in Amsterdam, but also have a deep imaginative rightness which is again achieved in the strongest parts of Independence. But in the latter, such things are sometimes allowed to become automatic:
Can I help you sahib?
Then evenings drunk alone –
the bedroom shutters drawn
and my shadow reeling to
and fro across their slats
folding dresses into tea-chests,
scooping up the baby-things,
your belts, a lacy petticoat,
shoes, blouses from the cupboard.
Here perhaps the verse tends towards a slightly falsifying emotional telegraphese, a suggestion of experiences uniformly intensified. The verse-medium imposes in such places a heightening which is not always earned, and which blurs the individuality of some remembered scenes. One sometimes longs for an unfussy prose, which would give the true texture of ordinariness where that is due. But the lapses are rare, and the poem is a bold as well as a delicately orchestrated success.
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