A senior lecturer in English and American studies at one of our livelier universities, himself a fine poet, was talking to me on the telephone. A student had decided to write something about London poetry – was there any? He’d toyed with David Gascoyne’s A Vagrant (‘They’re much the same in most ways, these great cities’), but decided that Paris was the principal focus there. He couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for the post-Olsonian outpourings of the Seventies, most notably Allen Fisher’s Place, Place was set largely south of the river, a nowhere defined by unnecessary particulars. Now Roy Fisher, he could do something with him – but the man had the poor taste to base his mythology on Birmingham.
My problem was the contrary one: I couldn’t imagine a poetic that was not centred on, and earthed in, London. There was no single poet I could recommend without going on for ever – backwards or forwards from The Waste Land, from Chaucer to Spenser and Shakespeare and Donne, through Milton and Blake and Keats, to David Jones, Gascoyne, Dylan Thomas, Nicholas Moore, to Lee Harwood’s Cable Street, Bill Griffiths’s Whitechapel and Brian Catling’s The Stumbling Block. London infected its interpreters, soliciting contributions to an open-ended project. The names of the poets were the stanzas of a continuous book.
Aidan Dun’s Vale Royal, an epic based on the mysteries of Kings Cross, fits seamlessly into the continuum. I hope it is giving this elegantly produced book its due if I call it anonymous: egoic interference is minimal, the poet wills himself to disappear into his text. The fate of this degraded, fought-over, misrepresented landscape, between the nexus of railway stations and the loop of the canal, is what concerns the poet; publication, achieved after twenty years of struggle, he saw as merely inevitable. The book had to succeed. It wasn’t his work, it was the present articulation of an ineradicable benediction: an incarnation of the numinous on the ground of the city. Late-century Romanticism, which some commentators pronounce as the new ‘mainstream’, was back with a vengeance. Dun, recognising that Blake’s prophecy – Kings Cross as the temple of the New Jerusalem – was imminent, felt the ‘ineluctable urge to get down on my knees, take off my clothes and give thanks’.
London is a transitional concept: it achieves an envelope of identity by being constantly rewritten and redefined. Vale Royal remains close in spirit to other difficult to categorise, difficult to explicate, poems: Charles Williams’s The Region of the Summer Stars and David Jones’s The Anathemata. Dun’s expository notes form an independent unit, a parallel text. His theme, a contemporary reworking of the Matter of Britain, is an active project, rather than an antiquarian exercise. It is an attempt, no less, to realign the spiritual energies of the metropolis. Kings Cross, or, more specifically, St Pancras Old Church, must be fitted to accept the apocalyptic destiny proposed by William Blake.
The fields from Islington to Marybone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.
Dun’s argument, like the one Charles Williams sketches in the preface to The Region of the Summer Stars, is based on ‘the expectation of the return of Our Lord by means of the Grail and of the establishment of the kingdom of Logres’ – though Vale Royal is not a work of Christian mysticism, and Christian symbols are only one element in its helical structure. Dun’s expectation is that the arrangement of words on the page, the long gestation and final coming-into-being of the poem, will signal a dramatic revival in the city’s energy field. The miracle of seeing the poem through to its conclusion, up from the streets, has to be reflected by a quantum leap, a shiver in the fabric of the culture. Dun, it should be noted, is one of the few people delighted by the construction of the new British Library in Kings Cross: the move, he believes, signals the migration of power from its dark Bloomsbury stronghold – from the shadows of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s misaligned church, St George, to the benevolent nimbus cast by the child-martyr, St Pancras.
Kings Cross, as a subject, was up for grabs, and Aidan (‘a man of remarkable gentleness, for God; but not fully according to knowledge’ – as Bede wrote of Dun’s Lindisfarne name sake) was elected. He had named himself for his task – in the liturgy and discipline of the Celtic church. His emblem was the stag: the stag trapped in a thicket of facts, a forest of contradictory promptings. He was persuaded to abdicate from the tyranny of ‘transience’ and to make a measured survey of Old St Pancras’s alternate history. From the very beginning, he was inspired by a sense of recognition: what was happening had happened before. He would transcribe the unwritten and write over whatever was incomplete. Modernist notions of ‘originality’ or language games – synthesis, speed, dazzling metaphors – he spurned. Alone, late at night, reading in his Charrington Street squat, he convinced himself that the prose-poem ‘Promontoire’, one of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, was a ‘metaphoric description’ of the part of London in which he lived. He knew from Enid Starkie’s biography that Rimbaud and Verlaine had shared a room in Royal College Street, a short walk from St Pancras Churchyard. He pored over those incantatory formulae, sympathetic as they were to the derangement of the moment (fractured reality, the trembling of the veil, mild hunger pangs, life on the third floor). The pages became sheets of coloured glass, an interface between the shrouded buildings and Rimbaud’s once-and-for-ever translation of them. ‘Et leurs railways, flanquent, creusent, surplombent les dispositions de cet hôtel’; the septic folly of St Pancras Station as a hotel of dreams. Dun’s hallucinatory triads lift from this vision, the spikes and turrets of that promontory standing on the southern horizon. His task was revealed: to read and research, set out on foot to make his ‘wide arcs of wandering’, to snuff ego’s candle and ‘to throw light on the great secret of London’.
Vale Royal is unspectacularly traditional in form, regular three-line, unrhymed units of bardic verse. Worked at, revised, from its conception in 1973, it became a spiritual autobiography (a homage to earlier avatars) and a mythopoeic colonisation of a forgotten patch of ground. The poem is composed in two unequal cycles, double-spirals, rhapsodic narratives that turn on themselves, invoking the same figures: the sacrificial child (Blake or Chatterton or Pancras), the old man or Archflamen (William Stukeley) questing among the willows – a karma of battles lost, nobles assassinated, mind control, psychic theft, alchemy, numerology, dragon lines, Arthurian mysticism. Certain colours recur: gold, red, blue, black and, above all, silver (‘access’, ‘rays’, ‘metals’, the ‘image’, ‘precipice’, ‘edge’, ‘blade’). Place is emblematic. Silver-town is not its downriver self, the boarded-up ribbon of dust between the City Airport and the Tate – Lyle sugar factory, but ‘a silent quay ... a bale of cinnamon ... in the night air’. ‘An Aquarian moon rises over Limehouse.’ The psychogeography of London is affected by the special pleading of the poem.
Dun, a ‘lucid dreamer’, has no contract with fashion. He is resolutely unpromotable, refusing to work in convenient lyric bites. He’s happy to play with a marked deck, to take on an abandoned hand. The discoveries he makes are confirmations of previous knowledge: the church on the mound, enclosed by water, circled by hills. He affirms what has always been known. A poet of the reforgotten, his homages are frequently unconscious. ‘Night fishing for ribcages and skulls’ might invoke W.S. Graham, but that doesn’t mean that Dun has studied the relevant publication, or is constructing a Modernist grid of reference. ‘The sun born at midnight’ summons David Gascoyne, without any awareness on the part of the Vale Royal poet of Gascoyne’s The Sun at Midnight (Notes on the Story of Civilisation as the History of the Great Experimental Work of the Supreme Scientist). It’s hard to believe, reading Gascoyne’s book in conjunction with Vale Royal, that the spirit of the original hasn’t entered the new composition by stealth, by morphic resonance. Its illustrations – the ‘Hermetic Androgyne’ and ‘Nature as Woman and Tree’ – read like missing pages from Dun’s text; they are the emblems that would bring these columns of words into focus. Gascoyne, the most courteous of speed-freaks, the most informed of London’s night-walkers, confesses that his addictive use of amphetamine compounds ‘seemed to make me more actively intelligent and interested in everything, by counteracting my seriously depressed normal mental state of lassitude and above all of dispiritedness’.
Like Gascoyne, Dun stands apart from the schools and schisms of the moment, his ‘spiral train of thought turns backwards’. The pace with which the poem’s narrative unfolds is disorientating: it seems to have been furiously composed and then played back in slow-motion. Drug-dealers and station-haunting low-lifers are noticed but seen as archetypal forms. The away-day tart becomes a ‘Magdalen from the red doorways of Holborn’. The poet identifies himself with these outsiders. He is an elective alien, drawn back to the ancient church, time and again, ‘by the magnet of shadows’.
In the prefatory poem to The Sun at Midnight Gascoyne writes of ‘grass, grasses, fields, the field, “la terre”, our home’. Dun mourns the ‘lost world of meadows gone to seed’. A wilderness in the place of enchantment. Fallow ground on which too many layers of the dead have been impacted, like the grey fins of the gravestones stacked against Thomas Hardy’s tree. Schizophrenic voices have to be obeyed: ‘infernal, dynamic anxiety accompanied by auditory hallucinations and delusions of persecution’. In his entry for ‘May 1969’, Gascoyne snatches at themes that might become fully-developed poems; that might – through some form of transference – become part of Vale Royal.
1. A voice from childhood. Buttercups. Butterflies. Gold: the Psyche. Royalty incognito and children. A bee?
2. The cloudscape – grisaille de Seghers – ruins and desolation. The Sunset ... Vision of nocturnal London ... Evil and civilisation.
3. Birds. Pelican in the wilderness. London birds at dusk. Their revelry among the cornices above the neon ...
Two other possible poems:
– Jerusalem (and Athens?)
Cities of our civilisation now.
– Glass ...
Vale Royal, a notable attempt to live up to the challenge sketched in fits and starts and visionary fragments by David Gascoyne – to articulate the anguish of the city, to uncover its secret mineral heart, and to survive that operation – is perhaps weakened by its decency, its sanity. Is it mad enough? The argument, persuasive as it proves, is too evenly distributed. The poem had been hurt by the safety of its status as an unpublished work-in-progress, a position now fatally challenged. The words are public, and the hermeticism exposed to anyone who can raise the price of purchase. The poet, the romantic outsider, disengaged, offers himself in opposition to the perceived masonic conspiracies of the state. His language is smooth and unstressed, it flows effortlessly like a clear stream. He reports on vision, rather than suffering it. We want more rage in our illuminati, we want to see them sacrificed, cut down. The flaw is our own. We have been too deeply corrupted to accept, without flinching, this celestial heritage park, where ‘lambs roll in the warm grass.’
The poet has a dual responsibility to give himself up entirely to his work and to stage-manage a career. It’s a sickness vocation with no sabbaticals, no time off for good behaviour. Aidan Dun will now have to face that. He has joined the company. His project is a significant one, so modest and subtle that it almost eludes fate by delivering itself as a poem without an author. It could be discovered, scratched on parchment, in the tower of Old St Pancras Church. And it would not be out of place: that is a measure of its generosity and achievement.