Excellent Enigmas

Christopher Reid

  • Lies and Secrets by John Fuller
    Secker, 70 pp, £3.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 436 16753 0
  • Crossing by John Matthias
    Anvil, 125 pp, £3.25, October 1980, ISBN 0 85646 035 4
  • Growing Up by Michael Horovitz
    Allison and Busby, 96 pp, £4.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 85031 232 9
  • Report to the Working Party. Asylum. Otiose [preceded by] After by Anthony Barnett
    Nothing Doing, 121 pp, £4.80, August 1980, ISBN 0 901494 17 8

Doubts, prevarications, velleities, different kinds of inability to act: these are the overt themes of many of the poems in John Fuller’s inventive new volume. The title, Lies and Secrets, does not belong to any one poem, but is a warning that no statement found in the book should be relied on either for straightforwardness or for a disclosure of the whole truth. Stories are narrated by characters who may be cagey, volatile, fanciful, captious, even self-deceiving. In the past, John Fuller has been a cunning contriver of riddles on a small scale, but here the design is grander. The verse is protean and the reader, like Neoptolemos, must grapple with fickle forms until the plain truth stands revealed.

We already know how skilfully John Fuller can use pastiche, particularly where satire is concerned. It would seem a natural progression – a step away from satire towards something also ambiguous, but more complex – to take up the poetic monologue as Browning used it in Men and Women and Dramatis Personae. Not that ‘Spirals’ or ‘The Most Difficult Position’ is doggedly imitative. For one thing, Browning was a more scrupulous, and so perhaps knottier, prosodist than John Fuller cares to be. The latter treats his pentameters with studied nonchalance, so that, for instance, one particular line in ‘Spirals’ has three naturally-spoken stresses, four if you give the ultimate word, ‘orators’, a double thump, but hardly five. Consequently, the metre and manner both seem relaxed, inviting our intimate attention. We are not listening here to Browning’s high-flown, thoroughly practised hypocrites and blusterers, but to something closer to home.

As if to demonstrate the monologue’s ability to put us in medias res, to the extent of inverting our perceptions, the first poem in the book, ‘Annie Upside Down’, gives us the complaint of an old countrywoman, snagged and turned topsy-turvy by a wire fence (‘that’s got me as it pinches wool’) and helpless to free herself. The sensation is described in a vivid pouring-out of similes and metaphors:

It’s the whole earth turned inside out like a sock
 And me just hanging on.
It’s no more than a sixpenny magnet: give me a knock
 And I’d be gone.

The mishap prompts Annie to look back on her life. Metaphors throughout the poem tell us of her past flightiness and the frailty of her present predicament. Remembering the suitors she has jilted, the neighbours who have snubbed her, she reconsiders the dissatisfaction with worldly things that has kept her on the look-out for a sublime happiness, never likely to be achieved, unless, as the poem suggests, it is connected with death. The end leaves her still with expectations –

Such a secret would be worth the wait
  As birdsong after a night
Of horrors

– but, by dint of the basic metaphor, doomed to indefinite suspense.

The recognisable human poignancy we find here is replaced by something colder and a good deal more rococo in ‘The Duke’s Pagoda’. This monologue also concerns the anxieties of a thwarted idealist – this time a French Duke, whose ambition to build a perfect edifice must always suffer procrastination. ‘Tomorrow I will order stones’ is both the first and the last line of the poem. ‘The Duke’s Pagoda’ might be read as a companion-piece, or counterstatement, to Stevens’s ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, where the firmly accomplished placing of a simple artefact in the middle of a sprawling landscape has the power to fix an order upon it. The Duke’s vision is fancier:

       And there
In tiers of rose and grey will rise
A wedding of Greece and China
From which the landscape seems to fall
As stair by stair turns round …

But even the conscious muddle of tenses cannot disguise the inevitable futureness of the project. The transcendent work of art must remain a chimera, an impossible Sino-Hellenic hybrid. As in ‘Annie’, the hint is that the sublime can never be palpably experienced, although our dreams will continue to encourage futile longings.

‘In the Corridor’ is not a dramatic monologue in quite the same way as the previous two poems, but it has much in it that relates it to that form. The speaker is John Fuller himself, and here he addresses a dead friend, whom he believes he has seen in a hotel corridor: ‘Francis, it was you yesterday, though I knew you were dead.’ The experience is offered both as an event that really happened, and as a dream occurring in the midst of

       that brief deep
And self-satisfied sleep
Which is our charmed life

– a metaphor that reverses the relationship of life and death as we might conventionally figure it. The poet represents himself as ‘eager and simple for a startling truth’, and, according to the terms of the poem, we have to believe that there is such a truth – the dead man’s secret, several times adumbrated, Indeed, the poet claims it as his own fault that, through the ‘craven breaking’ of the spell whereby he might have stepped out of life, to meet his friend on common ground, he has forfeited the secret for ever. Clearly, we as readers have no way of assessing or verifying what happened in the corridor, any more than the patient listener to the old naturalist’s monologue in ‘Spirals’ can propose a rational reply. And yet …

‘Spirals’ is John Fuller’s most Browning-esque poem. In 179–, an old naturalist is visited by a friend with whom he once shared a fervour for radical politics. The old man addresses him:

You found me dozing with my feet in mustard.
Fingers a-twitch upon this folio
That has not left my knee in all this time,
Open at Exodus, a coffin’s size.
You did not think I dined on Holy Writ,
Yet pastry crumbs have lodged between these pages,
A serviceable table for your kindness,
With gravy on these very words of God
That I was reading when you first came in:
‘My face shall not be seen.’ A daunting text!

The friend has come to ask for political support, but the old naturalist refuses. By way of abstaining, he tells how his scientific study of the oblique, or spiralling, movement of certain animals has led him to form a metaphysical theory, which explains the similar course of man’s destiny. And then, as if to clinch the matter, he recounts a visionary experience that occurred after a shipwreck, when he and his sailing companions were marooned on an exotic island:

And there it happened. Do not ask me what.
I cannot say what it was. Each footstep stirred
A melancholy shriek from vines that trailed
Up a cathedral’s height to the green mist,
And drifting down were scattered veils of light.
I do not doubt the benevolence of that
Untrodden place. We lived. And were five years
Upon the island, where every shape betrayed
The trailing hem of nature. Nothing was asked,
Nothing vouchsafed which I could learn or teach
In the ways of men. You were not there, my Friend,
And well may smile and shake your threatened head.

The friend’s head is threatened in two ways. First, his own, presumably rational objections (not voiced here) will be thoroughly undermined by the naturalist’s other-worldly confidence in his rightness. Second, the refusal to help is a kind of betrayal, which will leave him all the more vulnerable to his political persecutors. The phrase encapsulates an ethical problem. The movement of the poem, from precisely embodied and located actuality, to the vagueness of the island vision, is deliberate, and may be meant to suggest an inconclusive spiral. But can the old man’s mysterious, and essentially secretive, response excuse him from a political summons? The poem ends in aposiopesis, leaving us to decide.

At the heart of each of these poems is a mystery that cannot be grasped, but whose authenticity the poet is careful to emphasise. Awareness that the sublime is beyond our scope leads to, or accompanies, various kinds of refusal, or inability, to act. The last and longest poem in Lies and Secrets is also the most complex working-out of this theme. ‘The Most Difficult Position’ dramatises a real event – or non-event – of the mid-19th century, when two great chess-players, who had long been expected to meet in a battle for the world championship, failed to do so. The monologue form is expanded to accommodate both protagonists, each with his own characteristic kind of verse: Howard Staunton, the British champion and a Shakespearian scholar, speaking in witty, allusive pentameters; Richard Morphy, his young American challenger, with a suitably wilder six-stress line, barely controlled by a caesura in the middle. Staunton addresses his wife, while Morphy writes to his mother, and both women, though silent, are felt as strong dramatic presences. The epigraph, a quatrain from Goethe, would seem to be posing a psychological riddle, but a reading of this many-layered text merely serves to deepen the enigma.

If that is all I can say about this excellent poem, it is to urge readers to seek it out for themselves. Then are, of course, many more poems in the book than have been discussed here, but these five in themselves make it essential reading. Borges’s reported judgment that Browning was as fine a storyteller as Henry James is not so odd. We should thank John Fuller, when he follows both these difficult masters, for reminding us what the literrary imagination can do in confronting the ineffable.

Some of the poems in Lies and Secrets are long and even garrulous, but in a way that is dramatically appropriate. John Matthias’s Crossing also contains extensive pieces, notably two sequences, ‘The Stefan Batory Poems’ and ‘The Mihail Lermontov Poems’. It is hard not to be beguiled by the verbal slapstick with which the latter opens:

Once I had a Polish friend, Zamierski.
He changed his name to Zane.
Dane Zane he became. (It’s Zane Grey I blame.)

Hard, too, not to tire of the randomly associative way these poems seem to grow. Wit, a charming manner, elegant turns of phrase, a wide bookish learning – all are dissipated by the flabbiness of the forms. I wanted to like what I found here, but was constantly disappointed by casual pay-offs and unsurprising resolutions.

Equally garrulous, but without the charm, Michael Horovitz’s Growing Up gives us his ‘Selected Poems and Pictures 1951 – 79’. The jacket of the book is crammed with testimonials, the way a Steinberg document carries paragraphs of flamboyant, but meaningless, calligraphy. Ginsberg, Beckett and Kathleen Raine, inter alios, seem to admire the man, but I found him a lazy word-spinner, unclear, hectically rhetorical, and too often mawkish or twee. The drawings are very much School of Stevie Smith, but even worse than hers, and the lay-out of the book brings to mind those reactionary underground magazines of the Sixties, where clutter and muddle were the major aesthetic aims.

The title, Report to the Working Party. Asylum. Otiose [preceded by] After, is the most verbose part of Anthony Barnett’s latest book. No logorrhoea here: this writer specialises in costive miniatures, hard little pellets of incommunicativeness, that flummoxed me. In a previous volume, Anthony Barnett showed himself to be a bit of a pioneer with a poem that had a title, ‘To Reassure, to’, but no text. In Report …, there is a piece called ‘Fragment III’, again with no text, but with a dash to indicate its absence. It may be an achievement, in those poems that do accommodate words, to have reduced opaqueness and inconsequentiality to the bijou scale that characterises, for example, ‘Cadence’, the whole of which is printed below:

I cannot describe the colour
of the flowers I give you
except to say that I think they are appropriate.

If you like this sort of thing – Rod McKuen, with a slight Paul Celan mordancy – then this is the book for you.