August is the cruellest month, breeding tailbacks on the Dover Road and logjams in every departure lounge. Travel reverts to travail, stirring dull roots in trepalium – that classical ‘instrument or engine of torture’ now known as the ‘chartered jet’ or ‘transcontinental sleeper’. Driven by some collective urge, we flock abroad and return two weeks later exhausted and ready for a holiday. Why post-industrial man should display such ritualised migratory behaviour already seems mysterious. And future archaeologists will find our tourist networks as baffling as the Songlines which stretch across aboriginal Australia. At which point, they should turn to the poets. For just as the Songlines are, to use Bruce Chatwin’s image, ‘a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every “episode” [is] readable’, so the quick and shallow tracks of tourism retrace our oldest myths, revisiting ancient holy sites, seeking out a palm-fringed paradise, ploughing in hydrofoils across the wine-dark Aegean.
One of the strengths of Amy Clampitt’s new book is its awareness of this field of force, this imaginative map ingrained with irony. Starting from a description of a Greek statue in Berlin, it moves towards the
middle of the earth, yearned-
for stepmotherland of Hölderlin and Goethe
that is Hellas, and remains, even through a sequence of undistinguished poems on George Eliot and Dorothy Wordsworth, haunted by the genius loci. There are poems about Venice and London. New Providence claims attention. But Greece exerts the strongest pull, a centripetal appeal. Olympia, Thermopylae, Dodona, Hippocrene: there’s a roll and thunder of big names, offset by Clampitt’s darting, oboe-like tones – often wittily nuanced, sometimes reductive and trivializing – as the splendour of the past is contrasted with the tackiness of tourism. Archaic Figure can collapse into the language of a brochure, painting
of unquarried marble
and ‘plane-tree-dimmed. ... hill villages’. But Clampitt’s dry self-mockery usually manages to disinfect illusion. And in ‘Babel aboard the Hellas International Express’ she catches rather nicely the sprawling placelessness of travel, a fallen cosmopolitan gabble along the Songlines, as she rattles from Salonika
all the way to Munich,
aboard a filthy train that’s four hours late!
People, however, interest Clampitt less than she thinks. Noticed as features of Greek landscape, the locals function in Archaic Figure like the swains of 18th-century topographical poetry. The harsher side of rustic life is mediated to Clampitt by such dog-eared guides as J.T. Bent’s The Cyclades (1885) – which matters somewhat, given that inhabitants, if not the meaning of a place, tell us what places mean. Once, in ‘Ano Prinios’, Clampitt confronts the gulf between a tourist’s secure transience and harsher local realities. She remembers an impromptu meal with peasants, the invitation to stay as paying guests (‘A disappointed avarice’, in her unlovely phrase), followed by a redemptive gesture, after coffee, before the travellers move on. Yet even this attractively vulnerable poem confuses virtue with coyness, and claims credit for doing so:
A scruple over how to deal with matters so
fundamental, and so unhandsome, restrained me,
for two years and more, from writing
of what happened.
And its resolving gesture proves troublesomely literary, as a fruit-laden bough is translated (from one side of the situation) into cultural Urtalk:
Turning to the woman, I asked what
they were called in Greek. She answered,
‘Damaskeno.’ Damson, damask, damascene:
the word hung, still hangs there,
glistening among its cognates.
Clampitt seems happiest with Greece as literary phenomenon, a set of figures and clichés. That ‘Hölderlin and Goethe’ never saw their ‘stepmotherland’, while paying it eloquent homage, is part of her book’s unstable knowingness. In Archaic Figure, Romantic Hellenism rebukes the traveller, yet itself becomes absurd once a modern idyll like picnicking is imposed on its antique ideal:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts
this sodden loess of picnics,
sardine-tin litter dripped on
by unmythic fig and laurel –
what latterday pursuits,
to escape the tourist traps.
Who would have thought charmlessness could prove so heavily charming. Clampitt locks herself too readily into games of deprecation, making it appear naive or super-sophisticated to look for legends in landscape. Underlying her charm (the same poem shows) is a derivative literariness that projects its own tittering onto the subject:
the giggling, gray-green
roar that fills a gorge
(sweet Thames! run softly)
old books refer to as the
vale of Tempe ...
Eliotic echoes of that calibre belong (sec above) to journalism. For all her reputation as a poet, Clampitt frequently seems ripe for the travel pages of Vogue.
Carcanet has published a series of books by young poets gravitating towards the idea of travel. Of those under review, Grevel Lindop’s Tourists is the most transparently accomplished. Lucid of contour, with a syntax almost too elegiacally attuned to form, his work displays, even when not concerned with journeying, the kind of internal ‘itinerary’ which (in Mandelstam’s image) is the mark of achieved poetry. Like Clampitt, he draws inspiration from 18th-century and Romantic writers: a verse recipe in the manner of William King, 21 ‘Vignettes’ based on engravings by Thomas Bewick, and some distinctly Wordsworthian landscape poems feature in his collection. But where Clampitt hops about dottily – despite the decorous appearance of her stanzas – snatching at bits of Keats and Hopkins, Lindop writes out of a deep engagement with the way great poetry has declared itself. Verse so ponderably grounded carries a high risk of academicism, and Lindop often succumbs. Yet his talent is sufficiently lithe and inventive, especially in lyric structures, to leave its own signs on traditional terrain.
Lindop honourably complicates prejudice by accepting the stigma Tourists. The stock distinctions are familiar. A traveller wants to know about places, the tourist how to spend his money. Travel is shaped by geography, tourism (‘it’s Tuesday, this must be Vienna’) by time. Travellers want to lose themselves, tourists – cocooned in Holiday Inns never really leave home. Travel outstrips reading, the guidebook, common language; tourism moves in an envelope of familiarity, experiencing the already advertised. Lindop can register the appeal of the former, notably in his ‘Traveller at Yazd’:
The signs ahead are scarlet Arabic:
a manic exuberant scrawl
like a line of flame on the horizon
He shoulders his pack. His footsoles
tug into the ground. The street glitters with twilight.
Nobody knows him. This is what he came for.
But he is too honest to ignore that close-weaving of the world by road and rail and air-routes which has blurred travel into tourism, and he isn’t ashamed to acknowledge the resilient Western mind-set which makes exotic locations so assimilable, as with ‘The Chinese Temple in Hollywood Road, Hong Kong’. Above all, his long poem ‘Tourists’ – though drifting and unfocused at times – conveys the shock of finding yourself at the edge of safety, where taken-for-granted solutions (penicillin to cure a fever) are suddenly remote.
Perhaps its sensitivity is hyper-. ‘We’re / Turist,’ Lindop reflects at one point,
a word the same in every language,
Therefore unreal, out beyond a gap
No one can cross, figures inside a mirror.
Charles Boyle – a stouter Carcanet poet – would sooner lose his touring bike, his rucksack, all his travellers cheques, than admit such diminution. Ranging between London and North Africa, Israel and somewhere (close to Jamestown?) called Merriland, his new book is pitched at street-level. It asks to be called vivid, and often is – though, profligate of detail, Boyle can overplay the enchantment of objects:
Volvos imported by flying carpet
seethe between mountains of garlic, okra, dwarf onions,
explosive tomatoes and Siamese carrots ...
An unbelievably busy market. Yet just across the road, and page, in ‘Ibrahim’s Café’, Boyle contrives a totally convincing surrealist interior, accurate and obscure, under the flickering eye of a TV screen. Sleeping rough is always evocative when dealing with closed spaces marked by human activity. William Morris’s decayed house in Hammersmith, tomb-lined catacombs,
door hanging open, blood on the plastic seats.
Claustrophobia impels travel.
And reading is the venture. Boyle invokes the idea – familiar at least since Drayton’s Polyolbion – of poetry book as atlas, as chorography, to underwrite his enterprise His opening piece, ‘Slim Volume’, ostensibly about the collection itself, becomes the description of a guidebook, and ends with both arguments converging on the poet, awkwardly stuck with his mission:
And one day me ...
setting out across the bridge, unable
to told the map back properly.
Logically, this makes Boyle as much a travel writer in ‘Hammersmith’ or ‘Knightsbridge, Summer Evening’ as in his Arab poems or ‘The Holiday Album’, and an equalising globalism does lend his work sceptical clarity, as though up-to-date concreteness had been grafted into Enlightenment travelogue. Yet there are losses in any poetry which tries to fold and unfold life like a crinkled map. Generalising space takes from time – the ultimate axis of experience, if only one of several made available by verse. To set Sleeping rough beside Peter Robinson’s latest recension, This Other Life, is to recover a sense of the depths which belong to places which exist then as well as there.
Robinson’s fidelity to life’s temporal infrastructure, its recessive inward distancings, is apparent in the form of his book. While Sleeping rough divides between poems of here and elsewhere (a pattern which has become familiar since Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel), This Other Life is in five parts, with One, Three, and Five set in Britain and Two and Four in Italy. Within this oscillating progression, journeys abroad may involve returns (hence the first Italian poem is ‘There Again’), while thought is a continuous questing. Time modulates into spatial images that tangle and knot. Of his mother’s later life Robinson writes:
Childless, as if you were once more.
days extending before you
waste the past years
of bearing and rearing us,
which is both stranger and less so than it seems. A strong ethical impulse enforces this complexity: all is felt to be answerable, including the unlived ‘life’ to which the one pursued is ‘other’. Conscience strains syntax, as discrepant tenses pull the verse in incompatible directions:
Restive in the faith that has sustained you,
I hesitated down the high, narrow vestibule –
her threshold, at which I was to kiss
your mother’s loose-skinned face,
its poor textures; but the cheekbone’s hard
curve was there, enduring years too ill-defined
to recover, quite plainly, for not a soul
emerges out of inner darkness
This can barely calibrate the relations implied between Christian belief, a point of hesitation, ageing, the soul. Such scant articulation is cultivated, though, by a poet refusing to diminish life’s inwovenness.
A geography of decline provides the setting for Part One. Buckled asphalt along neglected roads, rank verges, dispersed light industry, dilapidated churches, docks: Robinson evokes the urban decay overlaid with gestures of improvement, time-warped, which is Merseyside. His palette may be sombre, his manner austere. Beside a poet like Iain Sinclair – whose imploded epic Lud Heat offers the most magniloquent city poetry since Eliot – he is a Provincial watercolourist fading into grey. Yet the vistas of This Other Life, reaching (more than once) to a ‘depleted horizon’, are emotionally detailed. There is no clutter in space for its own sake. Robinson’s co-ordinates have their own logic, not quite that of topography, traced across several kinds of ground – Liverpool, Aberystwyth, Cambridge – into the set of love poems which make up the conclusion of his book. Seemingly the last written, and concerned to come to terms both with their lateness as poems and with their being subsequent to certain choices and irruptions, these display to full advantage Robinson’s tactful complexity.
Take the final stanzas of ‘What the matter could be’:
– It’s you leaving these environs
stand in for, still composed
of things that cast a shadow
on me watching you go:
our life to be continued.
Splayed, fine branches
push from the limes’ stumps.
Responsive, I have grafted
what was missed on past work
cut back, lacking you.
The noises of a sentence
faltering ... this pretext
presses down poised hands,
then rummages my head for
what I am saying now.
The text of things, as it rolls through Robinson’s typewriter, is a web of ‘matter’ unresolved and intimated, not complete but grafted or cut back, verse sunk in densities of suggestion. It is also traumatic. Time most afflicts those for whom a past looms ahead, unforgettably, and the returns and divagations of This Other Life are inseparable from such a distress. ‘What the matter could be’ fuses creative ‘matter’ with the ‘matter’ of upset, and hints an answer to its tacit question, perhaps, in those pollarded limes. Certainly central to the volume is a sexual assault upon the ‘you’ of this poem, by an Italian, which precipitates metaphors of lopping and truncation, linguistic incapacity:
When she re-entered from mutilation, rape
– unspeaking in a painted Roman landscape,
I couldn’t rid my own mind of those shapes.
The rape poems, direct or, as in ‘For Lavinia’, oblique, are a formidable achievement: humane and therapeutic, nurturing fresh shoots. Beside much that is now written about sexual violence, they are a miracle of balance.
An example of what can go wrong is provided by Alan Jenkins. His ‘Politics’, no doubt written with the best intentions, has turned out addled, corrupt. One thing, apparently, leads to another, seduction to sadism, improper hints in the office to this:
It ends in a room with a single naked bulb,
your naked body they will stretch
On it they will etch
a map of desire.
And will you be the more betrayed
by whimpers, shouts, the steady trick-
ling of yourself onto the floor,
or – when one of them, sucking ostentatiously
on the remains of a joint and extinguishing the rest
just below your left breast,
slams back the bolt
of a hand-gun he has slid,
cold inch by inch, half way inside –
by your involuntary spasm of diarrhoea?
Trying to warn, Jenkins trips into the pitfall of parodying what is clichéd through and through, only capable of replication: porn. Nothing but its title protects ‘Politics’ from being that, and the queasy effect is worsened by the text’s self-celebratory reflexes. A line-break like ‘trick-/ling’ is neither reticent nor quite trick/y enough to allay or trump its message. Jenkins, the less deceived, becomes ‘the more betrayed’.
Eroticism is so much the poet’s obsession that he never seems to travel off the margin of a ‘map of desire’. Paris, New York, Sète, Tunis: all are in the sexual hot-house. Yet Jenkins is far from monotonous. Uneven in quality – bright passages alongside dross – his work also makes various its lived-in, unzipped world. Whether quoofed and dapper, wirily lyrical, or discursive, it ranges across a broad repertoire of forms: prose-poetry, free verse, rhyme, narrative sprawl. As a début, In the Hot-House could not be more obviously promising – which perhaps locates the pith of it somewhere near self-display. Undoubtedly, compared with Lachlan Mackinnon’s pleasing and consistent Monterey Cypress, Jenkins’s volume over-indulges in faux-mock glances towards narcissism. Mackinnon’s weakness is for loco-descriptive inertia, getting locked into some vista or other of Paris. But his family poems convincingly notice the transience home has picked up from there being so much travel:
Last thing, after the doors, the windows
and the light in the hall, I come up
and for the fear the cat might stifle the baby
I put the suitcase across the stairs.
We are walled in by dreams of travel ...
And the modesty of his enterprise, its accuracy, gives it a reticent charm beside the self-observant adventures of Jenkins:
I watched the black points of Khedidja’s breasts
jiggling inside her shirt, and flushed with apéros
and vin rosé, I wanted to still them, so thought I’d try
to sit her on my lap like a powdered fop from Paris
in Le déjeuner d ‘huîtres by Jean François de Troy.
Chatto is prepared for 1992, what with Alan Jenkins full of le vin and les huîtres and Mackinnon – his verse just as divided between England and the EC – already the author of a critical book on symbolisme and its heirs. Harder to categorise is Selima Hill, another poet of Motion, who seems to go everywhere without arriving. Sardonic, hallucinatory, she is the sort of person who thinks the desert traversed by ships that can run for days without water, and (given the camel) is right. Add a fondness for dogs, monkeys and sick parrots (‘They pile at my feet like dying socks’) to her affection for ships-of-the-desert, and you have some idea of Hill’s preferred mode of transport. The world is her menagerie, Pegasus simply a dream-ticket. She doesn’t so much travel as trip:
I am lying by an upstairs window
like a horse.
My mane is beautiful.
I am a huge balloon.
My legs are swelling
till they push me to my feet.
Now I can trot to the window.
Not all her trips are good. Like someone suddenly finding the big dipper too much, she will cry:
I don’t want to be me passenger.
Please can we stop at the Trout Lakes,
But this overlooks what may turn up at the fishery. As in the poetry of Stevie Smith, there is usually something nastier round the corner.
With her penchant for juggling hawks and handsaws, while insisting on their difference, Hill appears rational in proportion to our bafflement. Juxtaposition is her strong suit, hinged sentences persuasive in their economy, sometimes stretched to breaking-point:
The world’s so soft
the pebbles on the beach
are like warm uteri.
Extended structures, consequently, fall apart in her hands. The one achieved long poem in My Darling Camel is a verse letter made up of false starts and inset quotes (from learned works on zoology), with a whiff of the lamp and the madhouse. When it comes to sex – a speciality – Hill is, unlike Jenkins, droll, sharp-edged, no aesthete. Some big point about gender and écriture could doubtless be inserted here, but Hill’s anti-didactic gusto forbids the critical gesture. Her journeys trope and trudge, in any case, across the same field of sensibility, at once robust and feminine:
Three days journey into Kashmir,
and you were still curled up
like a baby, refusing to look.
The drivers drove like maniacs
round and round the mountains ...
and what you wanted was pure air.
But if the ‘pure air’ of imaginative altitude is ‘wanted’, My Darling Camel should give way to a striking new book from Bloodaxe. Set in a mythic South American state, loosely based on Colombia, and concerned with a tribe that lives by artful air-digging, The Air Mines of Mistila confirms the primacy of the ludicrous in good travel-writing. At least since the 15th century, when Sir John Mandeville collated his vegetable lambs and anthropophagi, travelogues have profited from being written out of speculation, preferably in a well-endowed library. Philip Gross and Sylvia Kantaris combine their considerable gifts to create a colourful peopled world, lit up by ‘magic realism’. Intoxicated by the topography they have invented, they nevertheless satirise the notions imposed upon the exotic by anthropologists, geologists, poets. Mistilan voices become infected by cultural colonialism, even in the language of observation –
All these tourist brochures,
they’re affecting his style –
since seeing the Third World through European eyes is not just a Western problem. Much recent Caribbean writing is concerned to deconstruct the Calibanised matrix through which East and South see themselves. A strong but representative book like David Dabyeen’s Coolie Odysseywill go back to The Tempest, Blake and, most evidently, Homer in an effort to come to terms with colonialism. And Derek Walcott has for some years now read ‘Iliads and Odysseys’ (Chatwin’s phrase), Clampitt’s ‘middle of the earth ... stepmotherland’, into his chorography of islands:
That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean
for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean ...
Even though The Arkansas Testament tries to clear away Classical paradigms (‘This is not the grape-purple Aegean,’ Walcott reminds himself at one point) it nevertheless ends up bound there, attached to an emotional geography which leaves the poet 7#x2013; as his ‘Homecoming’ once put it – an ‘Afro-Greek’, a ‘tourist’ in his own territory.
Edward Kamau Brathwaite would translate the Odyssean myth into a quest back to Africa, lost along the slave routes. For him, ‘Homecoming’ is a state that starts from being languageless –
we have no name
to call us home –
and it is the poet’s job to find words that move, figures of return. After contriving rites of passage modelled on the ceremonies of Arnold Van Gennep in his first trilogy The Arrivants, Brathwaite has set out, in his second – beginning with Mother Poem (1977) and Sun Poem (1982) – to demonstrate the ubiquitousness of empire, and to bring out the neglected role of blacks in governing as well as serving it. Thus ‘X/Self’, the culmination of his new sequence, starts with Severus, African-born Roman Emperor, while numerous other blacks and supposed maroons (such as Cosimo dei Medici) haunt its passages in a rite of recovery which seeks to push through Poundian detritus back to a state in which unknotted speech may responsibly become possible for poets like Derek Walcott – ambiguously regarded by Brathwaite. ‘Now dying at aachen,’ he writes (in Carolingian vein),
i prophesy the downfall of the empire
virgil and the pauline virtues
the dialect of the tribes will come beating up against the crack
foundation stones of latin like the salt whip speechless lips
of water eating the soft tones of venice
sparing us back to the purest parthenon
to simple anglo saxon chronicle
to ga to gar to derek walcotts pitcher of clear metaphor ...
Feelings are mixed on Walcott’s side too. For the African Odyssey he has expressed some scorn: ‘West Indians are always being seduced by opportunities to be re-imperialised. And unless we recognise this very clearly we will always be putting ourselves under another yoke ... there is the same seduction in saying that I really am African and should be in Africa, or that my whole experience is African. This can simply be another longing, even a slave longing, for another master.’ Yet his own dilemma, as a poet formed by the Caribbean, is that emulating European strengths can seem a celebration of bondage. Some of the best pieces in The Arkansas Testament address this problem, building on the ‘crack / foundation stones of latin’ – with ‘crack’ as both excellence and its flaw. ‘Roman Peace’, for instance, deals with the old age of Augustus, losing his grip on Germania, while ‘A Propertius Quartet’, more intimately and a bit floridly, shows the ‘foundation’ being undermined by ease and the erotic:
I grew idle as Antony unbuckling the leonine light
from one shoulder. I wanted no empire, laurel, no palm,
The poet’s defiantly Afro opponents are un likely to be placated, since The Arkansas Testament continues to accommodate the view of those who follow Brodsky in judging Walcott the final fruit of Europe, a burnished Augustan who makes up for our decline, Ovid in exile, estranged but imperial, representative of a centre that has lost itself. ‘If ... we must register this experience as West Indian and call this realm the West Indies,’ Brodsky has written in the New York Review, ‘let’s do so, but let’s also clarify that we have in mind the place discovered by Columbus’ – pity about the Indians already there – ‘colonised by the British and immortalised by Walcott.’
Critical rhetoric is so riddled with the language of power that even a politically sophisticated friend like Heaney can be found praising Walcott’s ‘imperious linguistic gilts’. Those interested in the relationship between the author and dedicatee of The Arkansas Testament should treat with scepticism the overblown pages on Walcott in Heaney’s Government of the Tongue and relish, instead, the liberation into craftsmanship through the Irish voice which characterises, for example, ‘Culde Sac Valley’:
If my craft is blest;
if this hand is as
accurate, as honest
as their carpenter’s
every frame, intent
on its angles, would
echo this settlement
of unpainted wood ...
It’s true that Walcott, always highly susceptible to influence, can lapse into prefabrication of the kind that refuses to resonate –
In the rivulet’s gravel
light gutterals begin ...
but the stubborn modesty of Heancy’s idiom better suits his stance than the patrician grandeur of the earlier books pastiched from Lowell.
The most far-reaching debt may be recorded, though, in the book’s allusive division between poems of ‘Here’ and ‘Elsewhere’. Walcott seems to have found in Bishop not only licence for his habit of topographical reverie, but a means of thinking about peopled places which acknowledges yet looks beyond colonialism. Where a poet like Boyle distinguishes an imperial centre, London, from its travelled margins by dividing his book, Walcott taps Bishop’s sense that ‘Here’ involves alienation, is a place where one is partly a tourist (she writes, of course, from Brazil), to clarify his relationship with a St Lucia which has become for him an island haven, a sun spot, away from that pivotal ‘Elsewhere’, the USA. Intensely aware of the residue of colonialism, not only in the Caribbean but in Wales, the American South, Johannesburg, Walcott uses his being a writer on the move to equalise the cultural map. What can be overlooked in The Arkansas Testament is the radical tendency of such a poem as ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow’ when written by someone from the islands:
I remember the cities I have never seen
exactly. Silver-veined Venice, Leningrad
with its toffee-twisted minarets. Paris. Soon
the impressionists will be making sunshine out of shade.
Oh! and the uncoiling cobra alleys of Hyderabad.
To have loved one horizon is insularity;
it blindfolds vision.
Commonplace, its being so has implications. Walcott flaunts the familiar traits of tourism-time replacing space, sights known before they’re seen, cities remembered as images to be visited – and, as he waits for his taxi, slaps down the islandism which (in his and other parts of the world) carries a political charge. The colonised are not supposed to be tourists. Rendering Lindop’s ‘We’re / Turist, a word the same in every language’ precious in a good sense, Walcott helps identify democratic virtue in our rites of passage, however they’re still tarnished by ideas of territory and Empire, from Gatwick or through Dover, up and down the Songlines.