Seeing yourself dead

Nicolas Tredell

  • Love in a Life by Andrew Motion
    Faber, 62 pp, £11.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 571 16101 4
  • Three Variations on the Theme of Harm: Selected Poetry and Prose by Douglas Oliver
    Paladin, 255 pp, £6.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 586 08962 4
  • Spoils of War by John Eppel
    Carrefour Press, 48 pp, August 1989, ISBN 0 620 13315 5
  • Music for Brass by Brian Waltham
    Peterloo, 64 pp, £5.95, November 1990, ISBN 1 871471 20 6
  • Lapidary by Rosamund Stanhope
    Peterloo, 64 pp, £5.95, November 1990, ISBN 1 871471 19 2

Marriage, mortality, memory, the onset of middle age and the pressure of children criss-cross Andrew Motion’s latest collection. Should we treat the vivid images and incidents that comprise this volume as fragments to be fused into a unity? We might try to construct a single protagonist: a man entering mid-life, married, a father, aware of his own mortality and that of others, slipping at moments through the doors of memory into his childhood, into his adolescence, into an earlier, failed relationship. We could take up the hint of the title and propose a thematic unity, the workings of love in one life – or more precisely, if we recall the Browning poem from which the title comes, the pursuit of a love which is always elusive: ‘Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.’ Or we might follow the prompting of the blurb, which proffers ‘marriage’ as the governing formal idea. But it is questionable how far we should see these poems as the limbs of Osiris, to be gathered into the unity of one self, story or structure. That was once the favoured approach to Modernist poetry; but Motion’s poetry is, in some ways at least, Post-Modernist. It gestures towards a coherence that is not achieved, that breaks down in blankness, disconnection and inconsequence. Love in a Life offers anecdotes in search of a narrative.

Death, as Walter Benjamin implied, gives life to stories, and intimations of mortality recur in Motion’s anecdotes. The opening poem evokes, with hallucinatory vividness, a dream-vision of ‘last century’s man ... / (spats and port waistcoat / in clackety half-light)’ on a train to St Pancras to deliver, to his sovereign, the unique bloom of a lily, enclosed in a glass bubble. The man is a harbinger of death, showing

how the bloom
in its misty bubble
is dead as a stone,
how the beat of my heart
in time with his journey
is steadily slower.

Other poems recall the mother in a hospital bed, fed with oxygen through a tube in the throat, or with head battered and shaved – a painful, poignant image that also figures in Motion’s earlier work. ‘One Who Disappeared’ juxtaposes the tale of a woman whose only son was blown from a cliff edge, to fall ‘a hundred feet / on sheets of black rock’, with the illness of the speaker’s son, and implies the fear of losing him. Death by water, that immemorial topos which offers such rich potential for the sea-changes that poetry can effect, wells up several times – in ‘Run’, for instance, where the lines move, in a manner characteristic of Motion, from the casually colloquial, through the consciously poetical, to the forceful but semantically oblique assertion:

But take Ruth
who drowned last week.

I used to fancy her –
now all I think
is what water can do,
easing off shoes,
making light
of the dense net of her tights.
To hell with out of place!
That’s the fucking Thames dribbling down your face!

But the deaths of others, while they may act as a memento mori and be the occasion for anguished, horrified, or partly erotic contemplation, cannot, however nearly experienced, be the same as one’s own. Death is common to all and unique to each. One can try to imagine one’s demise, but this is a doubtful prophylactic. In ‘Judgment’, the speaker’s joy-annulling apprehension of mortality as a universal condition of animate beings – ‘I had thought of death / and of everything that sails above the earth / brought low’ – moves into a Gothic image of interment ‘underground: at dead of night’, then into a vision of calling his wife for:

a drink of water;
a drink of water

to taste and be sure
I am dying at home.

The repetition of ‘a drink of water’ recalls the reiterated stress on water and its absence in Part Five of The Waste Land. Here Eliot’s desert is transferred to a domestic deathbed. This vision of dying brings to mind Motion’s moving elegy for Philip Larkin, in his previous collection Natural Causes (1987), which evokes Larkin facing death, not at home, but in a ‘nursing home’, and records his remark on the uselessness of poetic rehearsals of one’s end:

The trouble is, I’ve written
scenes like this so many times
there’s nothing to surprise me.
But that doesn’t help one bit.
It just appals me.

The poems in Love in a Life sometimes convey a feeling like that expressed by Keats in a late letter, of ‘leading a posthumous existence’. That feeling, marking the closeness of mortality in Keats, comes to symbolise in Motion’s work a profound (if at times somewhat posed) isolation and alienation, while also perhaps figuring a desire for some form of post-mortem consciousness. In ‘One Who Disappeared’, the speaker, anxious for his sick son, lies beside his sleeping wife, asks:

Why do I feel that I’ve died
and am lingering here to haunt you?

In ‘Close’, he meets his own death by water, but undergoes no rich sea-change, returning at once to familiar, familial routines:

The afternoon I was killed
I strolled up the beach from the sea.

As he rejoins his wife and children, he meets the man who isn’t there: himself.

Nobody spoke about me
or how I was no longer there.

In contrast to Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, a failure to recognise and acknowledge distress is imaged by being ‘not too far out – too close’:

when I had drowned I was only
a matter of yards out to sea.

It is, of course, one of the most familiar moves of 20th-century poetry to place the romantic under the sign of irony, and a wryly distanced romanticism is an important aspect of Love in a Life: a sense of unassuageable yearning is both acknowledged and carefully placed. ‘Last century’s man’ in the opening poem, with his glass-bubbled, unique lily, might, after all, be taken as an image of the poet as spiritual quester, a fusion of the Browning of Childe Roland and Mallarmé, possessed of a bloom absent from all bouquets, the meaning of which is death. Later in the same poem, the ironically inflected romanticism of Mallarmé’s ‘Brise Marine’ is echoed in the speaker’s vision of ‘a dainty Victorian ship / sailing up to an island’; the heroic tropes of maritime adventure and discovery, fraught with metaphysical cargoes, are qualified by adjectives which connote delicacy, preciosity, bourgeois stability (a ship in a genre painting, or in a bottle, like the unique lily). The voyager crouched in the prow of the ship, like Larkin’s swaggering, stereotyped rebel crouched ‘in the fo’c’sle’, hopes to find on the island a flower comprised of romantic clichés (of a ‘scent to steal your heart’, etc). But he finds ‘nothing / but glittering flakes of rock’ – not only is Mallarmé’s flower absent, but Mr Ramsay’s lighthouse, proud pillar of Victorian patriarchy, has shivered into fragments. In ‘Hull’, at the moment when a relationship has finally foundered after a futile grapple on a sofa of ‘bristling cloth / like tonsured hair which cannot grow back’, the speaker looks out on ‘the park where Larkin lived’, to see:

a man in a belted mac returning from work
– a respectable man: brown glasses and trilby hat –
stop under one of the cavernous chestnuts,
   fling

his briefcase heavily into the branches,
crouch in a hail of conkers, chase them
hither and yon in the cobwebby shade,
  pocket them,

then disappear in the gloaming ...

This man’s likeness to Larkin need hardly be stressed, and the vision of exuberant release within an ordered life – chucking up one’s briefcase momentarily instead of chucking up everything and clearing off – calls to mind those moments of release within repression in Larkin’s poems (‘Oh, play that thing!’). Motion’s inventory of the denizens of this part of Hull ‘home-going clerks, litter-bin lunatics, drunks’, recalls the cast-lists of ‘Toads’ and ‘Toads Revisited’. It might well be that Motion, Larkin’s friend, elegist and now biographer, experiences some anxiety of influence in relation to the poet whose presence in post-war English literature was so distinctive, and it is interesting to note how ‘Hull’ both invokes Larkin and measures its distance from him, in style and attitude.

Whereas Larkin woke alone to the poignant sense of lost youth (in ‘Sad Steps’) and to the dread glare of death (in ‘Auhade’), the protagonist of these poems awakes from bad dreams to his wife’s succour, hopes she may ease his thirst as he lies dying at home. He is, in other words, a married man. Marriage is undoubtedly important in this volume: but I questioned earlier whether it has quite the formal or thematic centrality which the blurb suggests, and we may now ask precisely what idea of marriage this collection conveys. Returning again to the Browning poem which gives Motion his title and epigraph, we can note the original ‘Love in a Life’ is about a man isolated in marriage – it is love enclosed in a life, rather than shared between two lives. This also seems to be the case in Motion’s poems. The ‘I’ who speaks in them does not appear to find communion in marriage, and in ‘Run’, his children’s importunings make him uneasy and guilty. The wives of what seem to be the two marriages in the book only occasionally speak, and their inner lives are hardly considered. They are points of reference for the protagonist’s largely internal orientations, shadows on the walls in a fragmented solipsist drama.

‘Cleaned Out’ starts with quick, jaunty, edged colloquialism, its crowding of ‘k’ and ‘x’ sounds suggesting the crammed clutter that is to be evacuated, while its allusion, through ‘pix’, to Mallarmé’s absent ptyx in ‘Ses purs ongles ...’, adumbrates another mood:

He was out for the day when a vanload of pricks
arrived at my father’s house to steal his life:
the tables and chairs, the knick-knacks and pix,
the grandmother clock, all the family things.

The dispossession of the father releases the speaker from patriarchal authority, from the familiar parameters of identity, and the ‘I’ proceeds by a via negativa, a kenosis or emptyingout, to an elemental, archetypal identification. This culminates in a superb bardic flourish that is both neoclassical, partly in a Swinburnian mode, and Whitmanesque:

Best of all is my voice from the springing south:
brilliant, particular leaves come rioting out of my mouth.

It is the terrain of (on the safer side) Kathleen Raine and (on the dangerous edge) of Sylvia Plath. But to stay there too long risks stasis or psychosis. And the archetypal identification may bring communion, not so much with self-transcending propulsions and patterns, as with monstrous self-projections that close the circle of the self more surely. So Motion’s poems return to the moments of the isolated empirical ‘I’, each in his prison.

Plugging into history may be another way to break from and reunify the fragmented self. Motion tries this in the middle section of Love in a Life, which seeks to offer some kind of poetic response to the great revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989. This is an enormously difficult task for any Western European writer – some imaginative response seems demanded, but these were not, after all, our revolutions – and Motion’s success in finding a proper manner and fitting metaphors is open to question. ‘The Prague Milk Bottle’, dated Spring 1989, seeks to suggest the lack of humane nurture, the inefficiency, the sense of desperation, of life under the old regime, while ‘The Bone People’ constructs a complex of anecdotes and allegories that culminate, in the most effective part of the poem, in a euphoric but somewhat suspect sense of liberation:

there’s someone else rising
on everyone’s shoulders,
hugging the sky
which roars his name
close to his chest,

then spreading his arms
above Wenceslas Square
like a fisherman showing
the largest fish
his heart could desire.

The other public domain with which Motion seeks to engage – much closer to home, but no less resistant for that, perhaps more so – is Northern Ireland, especially that Belfast flown to by Craig Raine, and left by Motion in his first collection. The title of the poem in this volume eliminates movement from or towards – it is called, simply, ‘Belfast’, though that name now of course bears a huge semantic load. But the terrain is swiftly traversed. The attempt to find some Heaneyesque anthropomorphic archetype is thwarted:

I’ve been over to root up my man
but the ground is hard as a stone.

There is a strong sense of imminent departure. A local taxi-driver remarks: ‘The past is one flat field of shit.’ The nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus, like Karl Marx, tried to awake has turned anal: history is a featureless faecal plain. It allows, as in Eastern Europe in 1989, only brief, doubtful moments of triumph and widespread public participation.

The levelling of the past, the loss of a sense of history, has been seen as one of the defining features of ‘the post-modern condition’, and other characteristics of that condition – the breakdown of grands récits, the focus on the fragmentary, local and anecdotal, the disintegration of the coherent self – are evident in Motion’s poetry and would, to some extent, justify its classification as ‘Post-Modernist’. Head injuries – from that primal, terrible pulping of the mother’s head to the slapping of the wife’s face by a gang of kids on the Metro – are a recurrent motif in this volume, and could he seen to figure the post-modern breakdown of the capacity to make connections, to achieve a global cognitive mapping. In the poem called ‘A Blow to the Head’, the effect of a slap received as a child provides a striking image of the post-modern ‘self’, split into tenuously linked fragments, condemned to repetition and to the pursuit of an unattainable self-identity, unified only by the death which annuls it:

When I was a kid
a man called Morris
slapped my face
so crazily hard
it opened a room
inside my head
where plates of light
skittered and slid
and wouldn’t quite
fit, as they were
meant to, together.

It felt like the way,
when you stand between mirrors,
the slab of your face
shoots backwards and forwards
for ever and ever
with tiny delays,
so if you could only
keep everything still
and look to the end
of the sad succession,
time would run out
and you’d see yourself dead.

These lines also offer an image of Motion’s own poetry in this volume. With its arresting images, its idiosyncratic incidents, its accelerating rhythms, its jolting juxtapositions, it administers, as it were, a series of slaps to the reader, constantly jerking him into new perspectives, stopping him settling for too long in one place. And the slaps can sometimes be slapdash. But Motion’s still remains a very British Post-Modernism. For all the shocks, he still hangs onto those old Movement guardrails, the empirical ‘I’, the routines of everyday life, and he continues to give at least a muted sense of relating to, and emerging from, an English poetic lineage.

Love in a Life is Motion’s sixth collection, and it implicitly poses the question of his future development. It sometimes seems to show a desire to prove that, despite impending middle age, he can still be an enfant terrible; there is a part of him – only a part – that looks as though it might exemplify Cyril Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence. It is not that one wishes him to sink into a ponderous Leavisian ‘maturity’, but rather that his technical facility, his capacity to shock and surprise, his idiosyncracies, should enrich, and be enriched by, the potentially powerful positive and negative apprehensions that are starting to gather strength in this collection. Perhaps the working-through of adolescence and early manhood he is now undertaking in his fiction will help him here. But the question of his future development also feeds into a wider cultural question, of the possible modes of our emergence from a Post-Modernism which, its insights and innovations achieved, may now entrap and enervate us.

A sense of the limits of Post-Modernism and a desire for an underlying unity of self and history are also evident in Douglas Oliver’s Three Variations on the Theme of Harm. This collection incorporates the long poem ‘The Infant and the Pearl’; ‘An Island that is all the World’, a series of interesting though uneven autobiographical recollections and reflections; and ‘The Harmless Building’, a short novel – mixing self-reflexive, surrealist, symbolic and metaphysical modes – which does not have quite enough local density to make up for its lack of narrative drive. ‘The Infant and the Pearl’ is the achievement of the volume: it draws on the rhythmic and allegorical resources of Medieval poetry to present a poetic critique of the Thatcher era, of a country ‘where Margaret / ruled without Rosine, true mercy’. It works poetically because it mobilises rhythm and metaphor to conjure up those collective fantasies and desire whose importance in our political practices has been highlighted by Post-Modernism. Thatcher’s Britain is seen to exemplify the society of the simulacrum.

‘You mean my imagination
is persuaded,’ I said, ‘that our premier’s now
just a grainy blue-grey like television?’

The image of Sir Geoffrey Howe providing ‘some solid weight’ has a nice irony today. But Oliver is not content, à la Baudrillard, to stay at the simulated surface: he seeks to retain the distinction between true and false pearls, to expose the falsity of Thatcherism (and some socialist alternatives) while still trying to retain an authentic socialist vision. The poetic effectiveness of ‘The Infant and the Pearl’ can he recognised even by those averse to its political perspectives.

The effectiveness of John Eppel’s poems can also be recognised by readers who may feel uneasy about their political implications. They are very much engaged with history – the protracted death of white Rhodesia:

A boozy hand
of rebels, we fought the world and lost.

Eppel does not present the Rhodesians as particularly admirable – ‘Our wallets were fat, our bellies fatter’ – but he, after all, was a Rhodesian himself, and he renders their anger, grief and bewilderment with clarity and compassion. In the title poem, a Rhodesian soldier comes upon the guerrillas he has killed:

         Sarge tells me to save my tears
for the civilians these gooks have slaughtered.
But I am not thinking of them, and I
cannot explain that I am being purged
of my Rhodesianism. That ugly
word with its jagged edge is opening
me. Through a haze of baked beans in chili
sauce I move to the past tense.

The coherence of Brian Waltham’s Music for Brass comes from a mood which might be seen as a gentler version of Larkin’s regret for time torn off unused. The reiterated ‘never’ of Larkin’s ‘I remember, I remember’ becomes ‘almost’ in Waltham’s poem of that title:

I was almost there, almost lived it,
That childhood under the elms echoing
With laughter ...

Rosamund Stanhope enjoys piling up terms from scientific lexicons, such as those of botany and astronomy, and summoning up recondite or archaic words like alkahest, padusoy and whigmaleerie. This sometimes recalls the arcane accumulations at the start of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘On a Raised Beach’, but in contrast to MacDiarmid’s tense, rigorous rhythms, Stanhope’s capacious sentences gather up words in a comparatively relaxed way, her line-breaks and uneven line-lengths serving sometimes to surprise and foreground but also to offer respite. While taking pleasure in the relative autonomy of language, Stanhope sees it neither as a prison-house nor as a Post-Modernist playground from which all referents are banned. Her interest in language is part of her interest in the universe. Her poetry searches long perspectives, far beyond those of a single life – extending through evolutionary time and into outer space – with a sense of mystery, and of the convergence and divergence of scientific and more traditionally ‘poetic’ modes of apprehension: the receding galaxies, for example, are seen as

hidden gods retreating
before the probes of intellect
leaving behind them only
the black shoals of night.

But she also homes in on the human: on the lives of Welsh folk, or on moments of deep personal feeling, as in ‘A Letter for my Parents’ Grave’.