Accessibility

Derek Mahon

  • Carminalenia by Christopher Middleton
    Carcanet, 120 pp, £3.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 85635 284 5
  • The Strange Museum by Tom Paulin
    Faber, 51 pp, £3.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 571 11511 X
  • The Psalms with their Spoils by Jon Silkin
    Routledge, 74 pp, £2.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0497 4
  • The Equal Skies by Norman MacCaig
    Chatto, 64 pp, £3.75, March 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2491 1
  • Sibyls and Others by Ruth Fainlight
    Hutchinson, 141 pp, £5.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 09 141030 4

It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I have taken the full measure, or anything like it, of Middleton’s Carminalenia, an intensely difficult collection about as far removed from ‘mainstream’ English poetry as it’s possible to be and yet remain, in part at least, accessible. I say ‘in part at least’, but the fact is that Middleton, to me at any rate, is more often inaccessible than not. There are notes, but the help they offer is slight. He has, of course, always been an ‘experimental’ poet, in that he has eschewed predictable patterns of thought and structure. He offers the reader little technical consolation – almost, it seems, as a matter of policy; and no doubt there is much to be said for this. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude, as philistine critics used to do of ‘modern’ art, that he doesn’t produce well-made poems because he can’t. On the contrary, one has the distinct sense that here is a poet who has chosen to write in his own peculiar, even rebarbative way because an inner poetic logic demands that he do so. It goes without saying that his oblique and perhaps innovative purposes are to be taken entirely seriously – though I’m happy to report that a flickering and elusive sense of fun, as of a preoccupied man suppressing manic laughter, makes an occasional and intriguing appearance.

Douglas Dunn once remarked to me that it was a pity there was no serious avant-garde in English poetry. Perhaps we had neither of us looked hard enough for it. In any case, the fact remains that there is, if one is prepared to take the trouble to seek it out; and Middleton is undoubtedly part of it. His unconventional approach to word and object, if we didn’t already know of his interest in European (especially German) poetry, would be enough to alert us to his importance in this respect. But there are other influences at work, or rather poets working along similar lines. Significantly, I find myself thinking, not of other English poets, but of American, Irish and French ones: of the later Merwin, of the later Kinsella, of Michel Deguy – for whom, as for Middleton, the act of poetry embodies its own critique. A procedure that lends itself to intellectual solipsism, perhaps, but certainly an unusual feature of English poetic practice, in which subject and object are generally taken for granted. Also, like them, he is devoted to ellipsis, and is not afraid of being a bore should occasion demand it. I wouldn’t recommend him as a ‘good read’, but there is real mystery there at times:

looks like them elementals just poured
      a glass of blue champagne
           and you look up
            – silver fizz –
          because your body
                  is
            the stem.

I’m very sorry to have to say so, but Northern Ireland has produced, in Tom Paulin, yet another fine poet. (I’m taking it for granted that most people have a high opinion of Heaney, Longley, Muldoon etc.) Poetry-watchers will already be familiar with Paulin’s first collection, A State of Justice (1977). The Strange Museum marks, as they say, an interesting development. The poems here are less self-contained, more resonant and suggestive, than those earlier ones. Paulin, moreover, now speaks with a distinct personal voice and, like Muldoon, though more sombrely, can lead the mind into strange corners, many of them unswept for years – as in the title poem, where, in an upstairs room of his childhood home, he finds ‘the polite dust of bibles’. Paulin now lives in Nottingham and would probably resist the designation ‘Ulster Poet’, as most of us do: yet, again as with so many who have moved away, distance seems to lend a weird enchantment to the view. One remembers the nice things: the seascapes, holiday bungalows, even certain aspects of what used to be Belfast itself. All these things find their way into Paulin’s work, largely overlaid with nostalgia and the unspoken thought, ‘I might have spent my life there!’ Well, why not? The world is everything that is the case.

I lay claim to those marshes,
The Lagan, the shipyards,
The Ormeau Road in winter,

he says; and ‘Going in the Rain’ begins:

An Adam house among tall trees
Whose glaucous shadows make the lawn
A still pool; bracken on the screes
Wedged above a lichened bawn;
A rectory on a broken coast...

We are left in no doubt as to where we are; and yet, for all his drawing upon a particular landscape (seen, as it were, through the wrong end of a telescope), his imagination moves constantly outwards to embrace a larger world – not only the Larkinesque aperçus of quotidian life in Nottingham (‘Without Knowledge’ and ‘Pot Burial’ fall into this category), but farther still: and with increasing frequency, he is drawn to – wait for it! – the life and times of Trotsky. He’s obsessed with Trotsky, in fact; the old boy shows up in poem after poem. Paulin, I surmise, is a bourgeois with a bad conscience. A poem in his first book described a congregation emerging from a church on the Antrim coast to confront the sea and (I’m quoting from memory) ‘a silent space beyond society’: but he seems to have resisted the temptations of historically hyperborean quietism, and to have developed an interest in the historical process itself, merging it tentatively with his own experience, with glimpses or imagined glimpses of men ‘talking politics in a back room’. The figure of Trotsky, like that of Lenin at the Finland Station, is both symbolically quasi-human and flickeringly active, as in a newsreel of the period.

Like Middleton, Jon Silkin is very much his own man. An active propagandist for poetry, he nevertheless belongs to no ‘school’, although I would guess that somewhere along the line he absorbed the influence, for example, of the Minnesota poets, Robert Bly and James Wright. He has the same candour and simplicity, and, like them, sometimes lays himself open to a charge of naivety – technical as much as emotional, if we can distinguish between the two. But his naivety, if such it is, differs from, say, Bly’s in that it is real, not assumed – in other words, it is felt, whereas Bly’s has an air of calculation. It may seem strange these days to commend a poet for ‘sincerity’, but at least it’s good to know that he means what he says. Silkin speaks as directly as he can about complex states of mind, in this resembling Lawrence and the best of the First World War poets, about whom he wrote so well in Out of Buttle. Isaac Rosenberg, as readers of that book will know, is one of Silkin’s heroes; he appears here twice. So, too, does Brecht, and we are reminded of Silkin’s explicit political stance: not for him the urbane evasions of the politically disengaged. There is a short poem here that, together with my recollections of his earlier work (children and natural objects), brings that dubious simplicity-sincerity thought to mind:

I write to you, standing
at a square foot, or so, of oak. It is enough;
and in any case, no more is here.

My letter to you
is well-made, and speaks of love.

This poem isn’t, of course, really ‘simple’ at all in the sense I indicated above. There’s a ferocious irony at work there, in fact – an irony which derives from an ancient and well-worked tradition, of which the most graphic exemplar is probably the story of Goethe coolly tapping out hexameters on the heaving shoulders of his bed-partner. Silkin’s letter speaks of love: but it is, in the first instance, well-made. Love is merely the subject-matter. So it would be quite wrong to allow the suggestion to pass that he is, as a poet, a good-natured simpleton.

Norman MacCaig’s The Equal Skies opens with a sequence of 12 poems on the death of a friend, Angus McLeod. How to measure such things? Here, too, we are faced with a question of ‘sincerity’ (those dreadful inverted commas!). We have no doubt that the poet is deeply moved: but does he succeed in moving us? My own harsh view is that MacCaig was still too close to his friend’s death to write about it. One of the poems is entitled ‘A Month After His Death’, and I would guess that the sequence was completed within twice that time. If so (although creative metabolisms vary widely) I would suggest that the elegist was rather quick off his mark, no doubt from the best of motives. In any case, I don’t think these poems work, either as a sequence or individually – not enough distance between the man who suffers and the artist who creates. But the rest of the book is very much better. Indeed, there is another, brief elegy, ‘Sea Change’, for a drowned man, which is worth the whole Angus sequence put together. The drowned man was clearly not as close to the poet as Angus, but ‘Sea Change’ is sharper and more memorable than any of the Angus poems – such are the poignant ironies of the craft. MacCaig, in ‘Sea Change’, recalls the ‘elegant’, ‘languorous’ and ‘baroque’ death of Milton’s Lycidas, and contrasts it fiercely with an imagined re-creation of an actual drowning:

And I think of Roddy drowned
off Stoer Point, gulping
fistfuls of salt, eyes bursting, limbs thrashing
the ponderous green. No elegance here,
nor in the silent welcome
of conger and dogfish and crab.

This is only one of several fine poems in the collection. Others include a comic account (‘Report to the Clan’) of simian terror at the first sight of Darwin; an equally inventive ‘Fresco in My Mind’, with water-walking angels fighting their way ashore in their ‘silly nightgowns’ (an echo of MacDiarmid here?) as the killer whales move in; and the beautiful ‘Genealogy’, in which the poet compares himself to an acorn.

Sybils and Others is a formidable collection of 130-odd pages and, like MacCaig’s, it begins with a sequence – in this case, a sequence about sybils, Cumaean, Hebrew, Delphic, Persian, Libyan, Phrygian, Shinto and so on. You will remember from The Waste Land, if not indeed from the Satyricon, that when the boys asked the Cumaean sybil what she wanted she replied: ‘I want to die!’ Not so Ruth Fainlight’s sybils: they want to live, difficult and perplexing though their lives are. But then the Cumaean sybil was held captive, whereas Fainlight’s speak and behave with the authority of Gravesian goddesses. ‘The Hebrew Sybil’, in fact, is remarkably Gravesian, and carries, to my ears at least, echoes of Graves’s ‘The Fallen Tower of Siloam’. Here, too, a tower crumbles, ‘knowledge is lost and men no longer understand each other.’ Now the sybil, who had been thought mad, comes into her own: ‘No one will call me insane.’ If there is a suggestion of feminist defiance here, so much the better; at least Fainlight isn’t strident. With so much talent and confidence, she doesn’t need to be. But the feminism is only one aspect of the whole, and not even an especially prominent one. The sybils are women, yes, but they are poets first and foremost, as ‘The Persian Sybil’, one of the best, makes clear:

The Persian sybil should be approached at dusk.
Revelation does not prosper in clear light.
She turns her hook and face away to the shadows.
Retreats into the core of the cloud of unknowing...

‘Introspection of a Sybil’ pursues this theme at greater length, and, losing sight (almost) of femininity, constitutes in effect a general ars poetica. Nor does the rest of the collection fall short of the high standards of eloquence and vitality established in the opening section.