Neil Corcoran confronts the new recklessness

Neil Corcoran

  • Manila Envelope by James Fenton
    28 Kayumanggi St, West Triangle Homes, Quezon City, Phillipines, 48 pp, £12.00, May 1989, ISBN 971 8647 01 5
  • New Selected Poems by Richard Murphy
    Faber, 190 pp, £10.99, May 1989, ISBN 0 571 15482 4
  • The Mirror Wall by Richard Murphy
    Bloodaxe, 61 pp, £10.95, May 1989, ISBN 1 85224 092 X
  • Selected Poems by Eavan Boland
    Carcanet, 96 pp, £5.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 85635 741 3
  • The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness by Selima Hill
    Chatto, 47 pp, £5.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3455 0

For a writer who several years ago published a ‘Manifesto Against Manifestoes’, James Fenton has published his fair share of manifestoes, including a disguised one for a ‘Martian school’ to which he did not belong. The latest, ‘Manila Manifesto’, comes as part of a package with his new book Manila Envelope. To acquire the book, you must write to Manila, and it will be posted to you in a manila envelope stamped ‘Contents: Poetry’; the manifesto itself is printed on manila paper. This visual and verbal punning puts me in mind of Frank O’Connor’s account of a picture he saw in Joyce’s Paris flat: the city of Cork in a cork frame. An instance, no doubt, of Joyce’s compulsive punning, the picture can also be viewed as the manifestation of an ambiguous attitude. The visual pun depreciates the city of Joyce’s forebears, suggesting the voluntary exile’s self-justifying, cosmopolitan hauteur: but it also cherishes the place. James Fenton’s joky, vaguely self-indulgent punning on place, paper and title also indicates a more than merely joky intent. A manila envelope made in and posted from a Manila recently under the control of Marcos may contain an explosive device, particularly if the cover of the book it ostensibly contains has a savage Nicholas Garland illustration of a wild horseman wielding a bloody scimitar, surrounded by the decapitated victims of his havoc.

If the poems of Manila Envelope are explosive, the manifesto makes its plea for them obliquely. Pawky, wry, epigrammatic and axe-grinding, it denigrates various kinds of perceived constriction, orthodoxy and censoriousness, impartially including ‘Madame Vendler’s Chamber of Horrors’, French theory, and ‘the deformed, uncandid class-consciousness of our domestic criticism’. It opposes them, much less specifically, with what would appear a libertarian, childlike, very late Romantic poetry of ‘the body’, ‘the voice’ and ‘the new recklessness’. The ideals are fearlessness, insouciance and a deep suspicion of critical prescription and (probably consequent) authorial repetition. One of the few constants in Fenton’s protean work to date has been its refusal of easy categorisation, its profound sense of how boring it would be to repeat its own successes: and Manila Envelope does push back even further the bounds of what his manifesto calls ‘cautious perfection’ and ‘bloodless circumspection’. The main agents of this assault are nonsense and ‘light verse’. Fenton has dabbled in nonsense previously: in, for example, the baroque exuberance of the ‘Empire of the Senseless’ sequence in The Memory of War and in the sometimes, I thought, jejune poems of his collaboration with John Fuller, Partingtime Hall. The novelty in Manila Envelope is that nonsense and ‘light verse’ are yoked to the most harrowing material, and more rigorously than in Auden’s ‘Miss Gee’, for instance, which might otherwise seem a model, because the material is that of public and political, as well as private, catastrophe.

One of Fenton’s central subjects is war and so it is here – religious war, in particular. ‘Jerusalem’ evokes Arab-Israeli hatred as a driven, ferocious, panic-stricken dialogue; ‘The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah’ presents recent Iranian history in the guise of ‘an old Persian legend’; ‘The Ballad of the Shrieking Man’ offers a less specific European setting in which, after a carnage of severed heads and limbs, a maddened cadenza spits itself out at ‘The horror God turning out the light’. That cadenza, italicised and rhythmically emphatic, is one instance of the way much of the extraordinary energy and tension of these strange poems derives from their use of such quasi-oral forms as variant ballad metres, refrain, chorus, litany and heavy masculine rhyme; some of them almost demand to be set to music and sung, or at least declaimed by a chorus. Their effects vary widely, but something of their potential for odd juxtaposition, echo and nagging memorability can be derived from ‘Jerusalem’:

  Who packed your bag?
  I packed my bag.
Where was your uncle’s mother’s sister born?
  Have you ever met an Arab?
  Yes I am a scarab.
I am a worm. I am a thing of scorn.
  I cry Impure from street to street
And see my degradation in the eyes I meet.

Part catechism, part interrogation, both religious inquisition and customs-post inquiry, this derives its momentum from both the mimicry of its speaking voices and from the depth-charges of its cultural and literary allusiveness. The panicked voice, ready to confess anything under this pressure, admits to being a ‘scarab’ only because of a kind of Chinese-whisper error in picking up the question: but his subsequent confession is an echo of Psalm 22 (‘But I am a worm and no man ... All they that see me laugh me to scorn’), and therefore draws one of the sacred texts into the field of implicit condemnation. The penultimate line echoes Blake on the ‘harlot’s curse’ (this is not the only Blakean moment in the book), and therefore perhaps fleetingly adduces an alternative tradition of literary ‘song’ and ‘recklessness’, even of ‘prophetic’ political sentiment, as an ultimate counter to current sophisticated caution.

This probably rather pedantic annotation is one response to these poems, in which orts and fragments of a religious and literary tradition drift helplessly across a chaos of human confusion, turpitude and desire. The apparent ill-matching of subject and form is the most profound indication of what might be James Fenton’s crucial theme: nothing ever fits, ‘the possibility recedes,’ ‘your life goes in reverse,’ ‘Listen to what they did./Don’t listen to what they said,’ ‘It’s the same Old Nick for to sup with/With a long spoon/To the wrong tune,’ and, of course, ‘There’s a glib gammaglob in your backside.’ The recklessness of James Fenton lies not only in his pushing a poetic to the extremes of inventiveness and display apparent in Manila Envelope, but in the slow accumulation, just under the surface, of a register of unease, exhaustion and, occasionally, something close to a despairing terror. His poems sometimes seem to have surprised themselves by having accumulated some acidic matter in their mouths which they can neither expel nor quite bring themselves to swallow. Vulnerable and exacerbated, they can give the sense of having to work very hard indeed to save themselves from self-pity, and they pull back most frequently by voicing not exactly pity but me most intimately engaged responsiveness to the sufferings of others. This is nowhere clearer in this compelling book than in the minatory, desolate and utterly simple ‘Song’ which may be read as a return to the Vietnamese or Cambodian theme of some of Fenton’s finest earlier work:

Far from the wisdom of the heart
I saw a child being torn apart.
   Is this you?
   Is this me?
The fields are mined and the night is long;
Stick with me when the shooting starts.

Richard Murphy is not a reckless poet. Those who rate him surely rate him much too highly. Ted Hughes compliments him with the anti-reckless word ‘classical’ and with ‘the gift of epic objectivity’, and Seamus Heaney praises his ‘poised and appeased self-knowledge’. I am timid about disagreeing with such powerful recommenders, but I disagree almost entirely. An ‘epic objectivity’ may be present in what is far and away Murphy’s best poem, the long ‘Battle of Aughrim’ of 1968. Here Murphy has a real subject, what he himself calls ‘the last decisive battle in Irish history’, and one that offered him such pregnant Irish possibilities as sectarian violence, Franco-Irish relations, the heroic figure of Patrick Sarsfield, and an act of treachery which would almost have satisfied Joyce. If the subject itself did some of the work for him, however, this is not to depreciate his acumen in discovering it or the delicacy of his manipulation of it into a poem-sequence of authoritative understatement. But it seemed to herald an engagement with Irish history, and particularly with his own Anglo-Irish heritage, which has in fact been disappointingly fitful ever since. Never again does he seem so ‘classically’ attuned to his theme; elsewhere, real subject-matter seems to disappear into a rather willed and programmatic engagement with the ‘elemental’ – sea-voyages and disasters, islands, rock, marine biology.

I wonder, too, if one critic’s ‘appeased self-knowledge’ might not be another’s ‘complacency’. In The Price of Stone (1985), for instance, given in its entirety in New Selected Poems, Murphy has several poems about the building of houses for himself. This is not, frankly, a very stimulating topic and Murphy’s shuffling semi-apologias are hard to take. ‘Stone Mania’ claims to apologise to the friends who have been ignored during his obsessively protracted building of a place grand enough to entertain them adequately: but the apology, dignified and ceremonious, has more than a hint of quasi-Yeatsian self-justification. And in the ‘Price of Stone’ sequence itself (a series of 50 Shakespearean sonnets spoken in the personae of various buildings), ‘Roof-Tree’ apparently condemns its poet’s treatment of his new wife and child:

To renovate my structure, which survives
You flawed the tenderest movement of three lives.

The problem with this is that, if the judgment is true, it testifies to a much more disturbed, and disturbing, psychology than these no doubt ‘classical’ sonnets ever adequately admit. ‘Roof-Tree’ seems all too easily ‘appeased’, its self-knowledge paying not all that high a price.

‘The Price of Stone’, in its choice of sonnet form, also nakedly exposes those limiting elements of Murphy’s classicism which are less visibly persistent throughout this volume: inversion, strained rhyming, and a diction which seems virtually unaccountable. One or two of these sonnets could almost be responses to a New Statesman competition: ‘Write a Shakesperean sonnet in the persona of a public lavatory – call it “Convenience” – which includes the words ‘omphalos’, “epicentred” and “primal”. Other poems are deformed by words and phrases which I can imagine working in some less restrained modern poetic structures, such as those of MacDiarmid or Auden or David Jones, but not in Shakespearean sonnets: ‘unvermiculated’, ‘penetralian’, ‘exuriate’, ‘cineritious’, ‘intercrural’, ‘rupetral concentricity’, ‘cerebellic souterrain’. ‘The Price of Stone’ reeks of the oil-lamp.

Murphy’s more successful poems are much more modest: an elegy for Mary Ure which pellucidly celebrates a vanished presence; a short poem on Amsterdam which, with a quite unstrained ease, rubs together two moments in the history of the Dutch capital so that they flare into ironic revelation. The new book, The Mirror Wall, is a relatively unassuming sequence which re-creates a number of Sinhalese poems of the eighth to tenth centuries. Murphy’s father was the last British mayor of Colombo, where Murphy spent his childhood, so the sequence has a kind of affectionate fidelity to origin: but beyond this his own attitude to these vestiges of the alien and antique is scarcely apparent. Without that, such work can seem not significantly different from tourist souvenirs, charming and nicely packaged.

Eavan Boland’s Selected Poems is one of those carefully pruned volumes in which a poet of quiet, meticulous, patient craft stands revealed as something more interesting and integrated than her individual books had led one to anticipate. She is, like Richard Murphy, an Irish poet, and her feminism, radical but undoctrinaire, takes its particular edge from its political refusals: ‘Mise Eire’ opens ‘I won’t go back to it – /my nation displaced/into old dactyls,’ and offers an adversarial role as self-definition:

I am the woman –
a sloven’s mix
of silk at the wrists,
a sort of dove-strut
in the precincts of the garrison ...

     who neither
knows nor cares that
a new language
is a kind of scar
and heals after a while
into a passable imitation of what went before.

So much for ‘the language question’ and its nationalist context, as far as Eavan Boland is concerned, even if the matter of Irish history sounds at the edge of earshot throughout this collection. Secular, convinced, sceptical, haughty, the lines are very much inscribed with her signature, as is the sudden aggressive humour of the historical identification.

Sylvia Plath is clearly the major presence behind Boland’s evolution from an early rather inert anecdotal and emblematic manner, but the influence never swamps her. She has, throughout, her own individual fix on certain central preoccupations and motifs. There are many assured, flexible and provocative readings of male painters’ readings of women, with especially fine poems on Degas and Ingres; and there are numerous suburban interiors of her own. If they lack the fraught mythologising of Plath, Boland’s interiors nevertheless have their terrors of confinement, the ‘lethal/rapine of routine’; and her work painfully recounts some of the most intimate womanly experiences. The ‘radical but undoctrinaire feminism’ I have referred to is not merely a matter of disconcerting material, however, but an ingenious, cunning fictionalising, particularly in some of the poems towards the close of this volume. ‘The Journey’, for instance, is a poem written because there are no poems in praise of the antibiotic. It takes its epigraph from Aeneid VI, on the dead infants at the entrance to Hades, and opens up into a dream-vision journey through the underworld in which the poet is accompanied by Sappho. I don’t know whether this is written in any direct response to Seamus Heaney’s Station Island, but its final depiction of the fading Sappho’s poetic laying-on of hands may be read as an oblique riposte to that poem’s all-male cast. ‘The Journey’ and the book’s final poem, ‘The Glass King’, in which the mad Charles VI of France and his wife Isabella of Bavaria become emblems of Boland’s sense of the place of lyric poetry in domestic life, are complex, self-reflexive and sharply affecting; they indicate a fine poet moving onto a new plateau of achievement.

Selima Hill’s previous two books have revealed an individual and distinct talent: sad, sharp, elegant, riddling and memorably cadenced. In The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness she attempts a long poem or poem-sequence charting the mental breakdown of a young woman. Although the poem powerfully re-creates sexual and religious turmoil and a sense of bewildered hopelessness and panic, I cannot see what kind of significant analysis or solicitation of our understanding is being made. There is, of course, the sucessful solicitation of our sympathy, but that is not hard with such a subject; and the poem’s thumping iambics must be there according to some principle of formal irony I have not yet managed to put my finger on.