Douglas Oliver’s books have been appearing since 1969. Slim volumes published in tiny editions by marginal presses, they have escaped all but the slightest measure of attention. This may be the usual story for poets, but Oliver – a former journalist who is now teaching in Paris – is developing an unusual poetic which deserves wider interest. His most abiding themes have an autobiographical dimension. Repeatedly, for example, he returns to a mongol son who died in infancy, just as – across another tormented distance – his writing also comes back to the fragmentary and unverifiable stories of Tupamaros guerrilla activity in Uruguay which Oliver used to receive when working on the night desk at a Paris press agency. Grounded in personal experience, the writing nevertheless has the literary capacity to transform everything it finds there. In some striking passages of The Diagram Poems (1979) the ‘stupidity’ of the lost infant can therefore become affirmative in a critical and always unresolved way: casting a searching and unpredictable light on the indistinct politics of revolutionary violence and its barbaric suppression.
While Oliver’s previous work has been assertively Modernist in form (back in 1973, with The Harmless Building, his seagulls were flying around squawking ‘Jacques Lacan, Jacques Lacan’), The Infant and the Pearl is a narrative poem written in an elaborate rhyming stanza borrowed from the Medieval poem Pearl. It tells of a dream in which Oliver’s restless and unsettling poetic is brought through this encounter with tradition to its first direct engagement with the political images which have prevailed over British public culture in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
Gathering the grey cloth of his father’s dressing-gown around himself, Oliver’s narrator falls into a dream in which two idealised feminine images are squared off against one another. First comes the fleeting vision of Rosine, seen slipping out of the dreamer’s room ‘while a dream passed out the night of my nation’. Rosine is Oliver’s pearl, his ‘Laura-like’ version of the blessed damozel. Ideal and perfect, Rosine is emblematic of virtues and potentials now threatened in the nation. She also has a political meaning, being valued far beyond ‘our suspect neopatriotism’ as ‘the mother of policy’ itself.
As the passionate Rosine flees in her lionlike robe, an opposed figure is brought into focus. This is Margaret, a phosphorescent product of the mass media whose ‘severed head’ (‘repeated, televised, pearlised’) parodies and usurps the presence of exiled Rosine. The conquest seems complete, for with the coming of Margaret ‘a great light’ dawns to reveal not Albion but a ‘hoar-frost land’ over which a grotesque parody of the ‘chivalric hierarchy’ holds sway: ‘the poor and the mighty again’, but ‘without even the golden chain’ of charity to join them. This is Hazard Country (Chance and the market are the sole authorities in Margaret’s kingdom), and its landscape – an intriguing and suitably doleful variation on heritage country – is scattered with disintegrating traces of the more mutual, ethically measured ways of life that dried up and died as Margaret’s regime arose ‘from the ruins of order’.
The trees are ‘environmentally ill’, the fountain is overgrown with weeds and the once pure stream merely stinks – failing even to meander properly through the putrid valley. ‘Self-love’ swarms over the body of society, while loathing and contempt fester between ‘Brother ploughman’ and the new millionaire. But as Oliver is careful to show, ‘near at hand’ disorders such as these remain unseen if the eye is kept firmly fastened on the ‘Churchillian’ (and also televisual) ‘ghosting of blue’ that graces ‘the hill’s far clothing’. The nation may have degenerated into a wretched ‘island of cares’, squalid in its human proximity and only ‘made solvent by oily seas’: but it can still appear as ‘little Britain’ to the triumphant advocates of ‘upland vision’ – Oliver’s name for a pie-eyed perspective in which blind faith in economic ‘Happenstance’ is combined with the cultural conviction that real clarity ‘depends on distance’.
Oliver’s dream proceeds by fits and zany starts. But while its surface is certainly unstable and liable to sudden transformation, there is also a steady undertow in which traditional continuities are used to define the poem’s progress as a journey or quest. As the dreamer stands there, apparently a ‘grey Friar’ in the ‘foetid expanse’ of Hazard Country, his vehicle materialises: a Bentley with a pennant indicating that Margaret herself may be on board. The Bentley glows ‘grainy blue-grey like television’, and the gloved hand of a chauffeur beckons from above sleek whitewalled tyres. Reluctant to betray his principles, the dreamer is nevertheless inveigled aboard with the promise of a ‘special personage waiting’. But inside he finds only sweet-smelling air, a confusion of disembodied voices and an electronic collage of badly managed appearance. Is this really Margaret? ‘She comes and goes like this,’ says the chauffeur, complaining that ‘video reception’ can be problematic even in a blue Bentley equipped with ‘adjustable futurity’.
With Thatcher flickering in the air as a ‘TV wraith’, Sir Keith is suddenly beamed in: himself nothing less than ‘the mechanical entrails of video-age Tory’. He turns into Adam Smith before stabilising as a stockbroker and declaiming that ‘where misery is’ it’s also incurable, counselling the dreamer to ‘look through the window at the world that has died under your sentimental socialism’. The dull, as this luminary of de-industrialisation puts it, ‘haunt our labour markets’. But ‘the Tories have the perfect pearl, our policy,’ and there it sits on the leather seat beside the dreamer – a shining television disappearance dot.
The Bentley sweeps through the desolate landscape of Hazard Country, passing not the Seven Deadly Sins but the five still thriving giants named by Beveridge – Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance and Disease – before drawing up at ‘a non-liberal city of stainless steel ... chaos’ capital’. Entering Steel City by giving up the false pearl (the TV disappearance dot), the dreamer goes on to discover the venality of ‘one-sided sex’, the false fame of the sensationalist press, and a metal cathedral which turns out, courtesy of an assertedly banal pun on the word ‘Canon’, to be a camera shaped like St Paul’s. The City congregation is gathered and the Bishop (from ‘the Diocese of Deference’), having already ‘been round with the wafer course’, is now proffering a chalice filled with the ‘sweet syrup’ of ‘class sentiment’ while conformity coos overhead.
Soon enough the dreamer finds himself in the House of Commons – a Left-Labour MP ‘of the lunched-at-Locketts, dined-at-Whites variety’, never without his ‘personal assistant’ and ‘proud that Parliament had seduced him’. There are some splendidly scathing passages on ‘the pure real politik of the day’s debate’, and no side of the House escapes contempt. The dreamer sees everything banked up as glassy reflection, the members are ‘like ourang-outans en masse’, and the rhetoric feeds only on its own manipulated distance from anything remotely principled or real. Without the vaguest idea what stage the motion is at and with even less understanding of what he’s talking about, the dreamer still does fine. He has read ‘Aaronovitch on the AES’ and can therefore bellow forth magnificently and regardless.
Quoted in its narrative, Oliver’s poem may sound like satire of a merely brittle kind – the sneer that withers everything in a display of its own superficial cleverness. But if a stylised avant-garde wit is evident in The Infant and the Pearl, the deeper and autobiographical thread of Oliver’s poetic is also at work. This gives a gathering, richly dimensioned texture to the images of the poem before rising to make its own political challenge in the concluding stanzas. While the dreamer-as-Left-Labour-MP rants on with ‘Bennite belligerence’, Rosine suddenly appears to the House. Decked out in Royal red, her presence momentarily re-infuses the grey domain with principle and life:
In medieval guise,
she’d denote Mercy, the divine donum;
secularised, she was Socialism, this wise
woman walking in the unworldly kingdom.
No friend to the Right, but far more withering on the ‘rent-a-marx’ left, Rosine addresses the House in the voice of the betrayed nation. She speaks for a ‘centre’ of her own definition: an extra-parliamentary quality of heart, a sense of social service, a realist understanding of economic possibility (Oliver writes that there can be ‘no true idea’ of political system). These are among the values of a proposed politics which is neither arrogantly detached nor reduced to the ‘hollow conformity’ of committee-fixing, dogma and cant.
The dreamer fears that everything is being lost to ‘a sip of the SDP’, but this is not a Parliamentary ‘centre’. Rosine advocates an apparently Blakean politics, demanding a radicalism which has more to do with wonder, with the ideal legacies of childhood, and, above all, with the enlivening ‘ignorance’ of the mongol child which is finally revealed as pearl above all. This is a radicalism adequate to ‘all that we are here for on earth’ and aware that ‘if a vote goes monetarist you must work for it.’ The ideal – and Rosine gets distinctly prim as she spells this out – cannot purge the land of Thatcherism: the answer to one ‘thaumaturge’ will never be another. Here, then, is Oliver’s poetic socialism, defined at the end of the neopatriotic nation but still full of history: alive with personal responsibility and yet also proposed in the claimed spirit of the welfare state:
that our soul and ourselves are unknown
yet unconsciously known in the union between people.
I find The Infant and the Pearl most interesting where it is also most openly problematic: namely, in its engagement with tradition and received symbolism. Oliver’s poem is pointedly ambivalent in this area. While it exploits traditional images and symbols for their apparently superior and essential meanings, it also catches them up in such an explicit display of trivialisation and artifice that their apparent ‘timelessness’, and indeed their very survival, is drawn into question. This tension between tradition and its modern parody or demolition does not just stand internal to the poem as a question of literary style. As Oliver knows, it is one of the central cultural tensions of our frantically over-ghosted time.
In this wider connection, the poem raises some unresolved questions. Thus, while Oliver’s soulful ‘socialism’ may be designed to find its integrity in areas of life which are normally left out of political consideration, the poem also shows the difficulty of defining a superior politics through displaced national culture and tradition without ending up rather too close to the Powellite nation, with its arcane and partly occult symbolism of threatened belonging (also unknown ‘yet unconsciously known’). Sure enough, that blue Bentley passes a crowd of ‘dusky moslems’ gathered, apparently under the sign of Idleness, outside the inner city Job Centre. And due to what cagey displacement on the part of Oliver’s dreamwork does it come to be a blonde member of ‘Fortune’s feminine staff’ who is turned into a serpent-haired Medusa via the attribution of Rasta dreadlocks? At points like this a broader question is raised by the poem: where is the appeal to tradition which doesn’t also underwrite the modern reinstatement of the past as an exclusive and already completed lineage to be invoked against diverse cultures and potentials?
The dreamer’s dead father puts in a brief appearance to testify that ‘the cemetery is certainly not a Tory stronghold.’ He’s probably right, but this still doesn’t make it a sufficient place to live – even in our age of gentrification. As for the Beveridgean welfare state, while this is precisely and systematically excluded from many images of the threatened nation, Oliver’s Rosine confidently claims it as part of the radiant inheritance. But there is another question that must be put to all such romanticisations of 1945 (and not just from Correlli Barnett’s souring perspective either): does the welfare state have sufficient identity to be claimable at all? Can one poeticise the welfare state as a moral initiative without leaving oneself culpably ignorant of its institutional impact and allegiances (Beveridge, after all, only thought he was William Blake)? Isn’t this just another version of the ‘clothe-what-you’d-hide-in-rhetoric’ that Oliver’s Rosine disdains in the Labour Left? Wouldn’t bureaucracy make an altogether more serious demon than poor Aaronovitch or Tony Benn?
Oliver seems to take his leave at about this point, pleading innocent of any reference to the real political world and claiming in a prefatory note that his poem speaks only of ‘the phantasmagoria that flit across the world of the media and float into our subconscious’. Suspicious of poet’s talk of this kind, I’m far from convinced. In my reading, such questions emerge to threaten severe judgment over the concluding sections of The Infant and the Pearl. At the same time, these questions are actively provoked by the poem, which also directs them at the wider national culture with which it is so energetically engaged. Sick with idealisation, clinging to exhausted precedent, revering old clichés as essential truth, the British regime falters along – torn between modernisation and feverish attempts to refurbish the derelict traditions of imperial identity, and scared stiff of the real history that keeps leaning in through the cracks in the mausoleum wall. The images have been on the move in recent years, as this poem shows so well, but images also have real consequences in the world where Oliver seems only to see a dream. It is with an eye to consequences of this sort that tradition needs to be disentangled from the prevailing ideology of the nation, just as it is in this real world that a future-orientated movement of history needs to be picked out against the abject and picturesque culture of national decline.
In its stylised engagement with tradition, Oliver’s poem is genuinely and critically a poem of its time. Full of warning, it calls us back to disregarded potentials. It confronts manipulated reason and false historical continuity with Blakean ‘ignorance’. It finds a remarkable political narrative in its skilfully contrived collision of autobiography and public symbolism. It confronts – even parallels – old myths with their electrified modern equivalents. It uses displaced literary culture to cast a scornful perspective back at the wretched (and, of course, black-and-white) television set. But bang away at it as I might, I can’t get the thing more than fitfully tuned to the very different future that needs to be made from here: all I get is crackling static, promising whispers that keep dying away into over-poetic silence, and a fascinating display of evanescent forms.
All routes forward seem barred, and history, lost for realisation, dies away as a dream. But even so, The Infant and the Pearl stands refreshingly distinct from the English coterie poetry of recent years. It knows how to entertain the critical questions that it provokes, and it certainly doesn’t model itself on one of those closed gardens still to be found in some Bloomsbury squares – a world-apart to which only a few keyholders (and perhaps the odd Martian) can gain admission. I’ll shelve it at some distance from T.S. Eliot. Indeed, my copy will end up nearer to Jürgen Habermas, who first diagnosed this modern crisis of tradition – that it should be made more and more vitally necessary by the very same developments that erode it – in the early Seventies. In Oliver’s world this leading paradox finds different expression. The red cuffs of that inherited dressing-gown are already dripping with blood, and there are only a few ‘Baldwin-era Hansard pages’ with which to stop the wound. Some hope. Fortunately other traditions are present in the land.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.