A Journey through Ruins

Patrick Wright

  • The Infant and the Pearl by Douglas Oliver
    Ferry Press, 28 pp, £2.00, December 1985

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’.

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