Imagining the Suburbs

Stan Smith

  • Common Knowledge by John Burnside
    Secker, 62 pp, £6.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 436 20037 6
  • The Son of the Duke of Nowhere by Philip Gross
    Faber, 57 pp, £4.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 571 16140 5
  • Bridge Passages by George Szirtes
    Oxford, 63 pp, £5.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 19 282821 5
  • Time Zones by Fleur Adcock
    Oxford, 54 pp, £5.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 19 282831 2
  • Selected Poems by Fleur Adcock
    Oxford, 125 pp, £6.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 19 558100 8
  • Spilt Milk by Sarah Maguire
    Secker, 50 pp, £6.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 436 27095 1
  • The Sirocco Room by Jamie McKendrick
    Oxford, 56 pp, £5.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 19 282820 7
  • Householder by Gerard Woodward
    Chatto, 80 pp, £5.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3758 4

Whole systems of thought have been founded on the French language’s inability to distinguish differing from deferring. Perhaps Napoleon is to blame (‘Not tonight, Josephine’). In Britain, we do things differently. Whereas Baudelaire’s vrai voyageur preferred travelling joyfully to the letdowns of arrival – in modern terms, couldn’t stop playing with his signifier – Forster’s Mrs Moore remains convinced that there is a real India to make her passage to, Conrad’s Marlow knows there’s a heart of darkness worth all the tourist’s little tribulations. From Wordsworth’s daffodils to Hughes’s brutal snowdrops, objects may flash upon the inward eye of English verse, but they are also carried alive into the heart by passion. Even that vice Anglais, nostalgia, Tennyson’s passion of the past, reinstates the metaphysics of presence, dealing not in absences but in the felt presence of loss: the souvenir snapshots are the real thing. At the end of the longest journey, where Angles do not fear to tread, waits a room with a view, and it’s usually a room of one’s own not far from Howards End. The Englishman’s referent is his castle.

In this tradition, contemporary English poetry seems to have set itself a Herculean task: one named by the Scot John Burnside in ‘Source Code’ – to ‘imagine the suburbs’, in a déjà vu in which, repeatedly, ‘the same life happens again.’ As the poem’s title suggests, the task requires the encoding of difference, of imaginary origins and ends, rather than untrammelled access to the body of the real.

Burnside occupies, as the blurb says, a ‘no-man’s-land of threshold and margin’, but is ‘interested in all that we call home’. His ‘home’, however, is ‘a series of lucid echoes’ shot through with the ‘annunciations’ in a slyly intense ‘spiritual history of the suburbs’ which posits, of mundane Mary and the otherworldly angel, that ‘the closer the two figures appear to be, the more the mystery between them deepens.’

For the suburbs too are haunted, by ‘scavenger angels’, their genius loci a child always ‘out to play’ and

at night ... an emptiness takes form and approaches from the centre of the lawn, a white devil, smiling out of the dark, and the realisation dawns that I live in an invented place whose only purpose is avoidance, and what I would avoid I carry with me, always.

Burnside gets his title from an aphorism of Marx’s: ‘It is common knowledge that the forest echoes back what you shout into it.’ But it’s also a very homely homily, our own Mrs Moore said much the same. Really, finally, one has relations everywhere.

Confronting the exotic and alien, the English impulse is to naturalise it, domesticate it, make it one’s own – a strategy evolved over three centuries of Empire. Import a wandering Pole and manufacture a seafaring English gent; tame the vastness of India by exporting an elderly English widow as a minor Hindu deity. Of the poets here, Philip Gross and George Szirtes follow Conrad’s route. Fleur Adcock, re-importing a wicked Englishness from the Antipodes, favours Mrs Moore. The others work variations on Forster, with the occasional Conradian divertissement.

The son of ‘a Displaced Person from Estonia’, the Gross child came to himself in the annulment of place, as

                  the world
became less than it was ...
when one more country became nowhere
on the map.

The ‘Nowhere’ to which he’s heir is a tangible realm, lost estates which the child, engrossed, engrosses as the father enlarges on them. In the title poem it’s an expanding territory mapped out between ‘here’ and ‘there’, as the child refines its sense of distance. The poem starts with the proposition that ‘Nowhere was home’; by the end, a grown-up scepticism has turned the concept into a referentless signifier: ‘Home ... as if any such place ... existed, over the horizon, anywhere’. From ‘nowhere’ to ‘anywhere’ is not a great step. This is a poetry full of such indeterminate adverbs of place. In ‘Lahti’, England is, negatively, a place where ‘the wolves are gone,’ limping off over the snow ‘so far from anywhere’. The pathos of being somewhere that could be anywhere is figured in ‘A Summit in Slovenia’ by a column of ants which, having pointlessly climbed a stick in the forest, pointlessly descend it. The Duke of Nowhere is also the grand old Duke of York.

This motif is repeated on a human scale in the inconsequential narrative of ‘The End of the Line’ (the ‘line’ being both railway and story), where a nameless woman speculates about the only other passenger on the train to the beach, a punk girl whose ‘eyes give nothing, no sooner there than somewhere else’. Traces of other displaced persons litter Gross’s world; personless pronouns are as prevalent as the placeless adverbs: ‘Everybody knows,’ ‘somebody’s fortune’. Intimidated by ‘everyone who’s anyone’ (‘Frost Fair’), the dispossessed subject finds himself confronting bodiless pronouns that name nobody, for whom he might easily stand in. ‘Incident on the Line’ notes, of a woman on a train:

At no one I can see,
she almost smiles.

Such Post-Modern ‘lines’ debunk all the grand narratives, re-scaling their various incidents as cameos of inconsequence. In ‘Beach Days with Bunker’ a boy who might have been the poet pales before an imaginary companion. When Bunker calls, ‘no one looks up,’ but

when Bunker cries
someone will suffer for it.
You know who.

The poet nominates himself to fill these empty grammatic vacancies with his own displaced person.

George Szirtes, the child of Hungarian émigrés, found in his first ‘English Words’ a place where

      somehow it was possible to know
the otherness of people and not be afraid.

But he also learnt to

say a word until it loses meaning
and taste the foreignness of languages,
your own included.

He ‘cannot trust words now ... Their emptiness appals one’, and in this doubletake his poetry finds its own disturbing distances, estranged from the ‘quaint occasions’ language affords. In ‘Seaside Postcard’ he confides that his most authentic reactions (for example, how to run from a mad dog) were learnt from childhood comics. He remarks self-deprecatingly in ‘Street Entertainment’:

I’m merely a reporter whose truth lies
in diction clear as water.

Such clarity may be as suspect, the pun on ‘lies’ suggests, as the Stalinist mud satirised in his translations from Otto Orban, for whom

        history is exhausted
and bored of the bloodbath at Vendée and Katyn Forest;
it longs for a bit of home-cooking and TV in front of the fire ...

Szirtes’s title indicates a fine balance between connection and disconnection, a ubiquitous history and the trivia of everyday life. A poem in his last book, Metro, was called ‘The Love of Windows’. The new volume remains faithful to this first love, exploring the defamiliarising intimacy of the voyeur. Returning to the forfeit homeland in 1989, Szirtes finds himself watching its momentous transformations from a room with a privileged view. ‘Drawing the curtain’ elides domestic and Iron Curtains, hovering uncertainly in

that time when history packs her bags and pays the bill
long owing, and the intimate events,
the lives of chairs and beds, are drowned,

unclear whether this return to ‘the belly of the commonplace’ is a drawing back or a drawing shut of curtains. ‘A Domestic Faust’ finds in ‘homely physics, domesticity’, danger as well as ordinariness. ‘You could be anywhere. Indeed you are ... It is where you go,’ he says to himself, hinting at the Marlovian subtext (‘for where I am is hell’). Nevertheless, in the next poem

a fat black fly crawls up the windowpane.
               He feels the winter’s over,

recalling both Sartre and Golding to subvert the triumphalism of a dark time ended.

In these bridge-passages of history, the fracturing of ideologies offers a brief chance of ‘understanding what remains the same’. A woman observed from his window beating a rug looks across ‘in one of those lost moments’ – not measured by clocks or recorded in public documents – transfixed by Vermeer in his astonishing manifestos of everyday life. The world returns the gaze of the voyeur, reminding the theorist of the real that the real has a life of its own, of which he’s an observable part. ‘Nachtmusik’ offers us ‘a conjectural landscape, Heimat’, which

proclaims that though we die
we nevertheless belong.

The catch is, it doesn’t tell us where. The musical passage is no more than a dissolving bridge to somewhere else. ‘Bridge Passage’ itself starts with a body abandoned on the beach, while ‘the sea just went on mumbling as it does’, beyond the adjustments of discourse. But its conclusion speaks of islands staring back at

                          some blind
corner where things must quickly find a sign
to live by, to remain mere things.

Szirtes’s preoccupation in this memorable volume is with ‘the live/arguments of the planet’, buttonholing us in

         quiet empty places
where the streets are full of dogshit.

What he seeks to decipher, in these passages between England and Hungary, here and there, sign and referent, is a simple declaration of presence: ‘We’re here, such as we are. We will be missed.’

Another kind of returnee, Fleur Adcock explores the strangeness of the unestranged in a native parish composed of those ‘Time Zones’, between England, New Zealand and everywhere, where differentiated histories (her own, her family’s, the world’s) converge in a present of recollection that brings them comfortably home to roost. The volume is dedicated to the memory of her father, and ‘My Father’ records her learning of his death (in New Zealand) while coincidentally visiting the Manchester of his childhood, passing en route signs

to nowhere, to the names of some nothing streets
beatified in my family history file.

A sense of absences on the map translates, as much as for Gross, into Utopian reconstructions, challenging the dead in a childish wishful contract to stop their silly game. She vows, of the now demolished places that once thronged with family names:

I’ll go to look for where they were born and bred.
I’ll go next month; we’ll both go, I and my sister.
We’ll tell him about it, when he stops being dead.

‘The Last Moa’ offers another sad history of non-events, speaking of all those occasions when that great bird, extinct five centuries, was not last seen, fantasising negatively that

Somewhere in the bush, the last moa
is not still lingering in some hidden valley,

so that the vacuous signifier becomes the site of loss’s real presence. Adcock’s time-zones are resumed in the collapsed and confounded narratives of ‘Central Time’, where England and Australia, the dates of centuries (1830) and the time of day (6.30 in the afternoon) are overlaid, and the formulaic ‘Meanwhile, back in ...’ provides the only narrative link between discrete moments of real time picked out from a curiously flattened, Post-Modernist Jetztzeit (‘Whenever now is’) which has lost all its Benjaminish insurrectionary prickliness.

‘Theme Park 1980’ imagines a mock-Tudor cul-de-sac in Thatcher’s Britain. In 50 years time the thought of these fake half-timbered semis will make the children now playing there ‘sick with nostalgia’ for Shakespeare Close. These suburbs of inauthenticity are the site of the real. Such originary places are always confidence-tricks in which we connive at being taken in, made to feel at home, the more poignantly to savour our dispossession. Exploring the manifold ways in which we imagine the suburbs, Time Zones displays Adcock’s usual mischievously casual, offhand approach, all parenthetical afterthought and laid-back digressive elucidation. It is accompanied by a welcome paperback reprint of the 1983 Selected Poems.

Two poets whose promising first volumes tread the luminous passages of the real speak from different kinds of expatriation. Sarah Maguire, an Irish orphan born in London, offers some sharp cameos of the metropolitan parish. In her by now statutory but rather good Berlin Wall poem, a piece of concrete from the Wall next to rock from the Moon puts us all in our place. Auguries of ecological apocalypse rub shoulders with wry feminist anecdotes. The title poem’s clever confusion of Eros and Eris in a cocktail of soluble aspirin and sperm comes to rest in a proverbial closure which leaves us still waiting. A similar sensing of ends (‘all bone’) is reproduced in the final poem, with its fishy pun on ‘Fin’.

Jamie McKendrick, Liverpool-born, writes, among other things, of the Mezzogiorno, but also of fossils exiled in a quarry which was once an ocean, displaced at last by ‘the great earth movers’ which excavate them for plasterer’s dust; of the sirocco which shifts the Sahara grain by grain to Europe; and, in ‘Nostalgia’, of waking

drenched in sweat and homesick
for nowhere I could think of, a feeling
scuffed and quaint as farthings or furlongs.

A couple of pages later another poem cheekily offers us ‘News from Nowhere’,

               that place just out of reach
of Caesar’s wrath, where no one is bled dry
and bread is broken for each one to eat,

which is a fruitful terrain for the contemporary poet to imagine, now that the order described in the witty and eloquent parable of the Gottwald era, ‘A Czech Education (1948- )’, has seen a terminal date added to its brackets.

An impressive new talent appears in Gerard Woodward’s Householder. Born in North London, as English as the Stanley Spencer on his cover, Woodward sets up house in the suburbs of poetry, aggressively flourishing his title-deeds. Yet an opening sequence called ‘Window-Breaker’ indicates his recurrent fascination with acts of transgression against all property and propriety. His unsettling imagination violates all the thresholds between inner and outer. In the opening poem, ‘Rough Sea’, ‘dangerous holidaymakers’ and ‘violent tourists’ gather at the pierhead to

laugh as the English Channel
Spits in our faces and the prom
Is overrun by frothy hoodlums.

A kind of punk anthropologist, Woodward subjects the most everyday things and activities to a leery scrutiny. But, like his mentor Peter Redgrove (whose stylistic influence is still too apparent at times), he practises an anthropology from within, participating wholeheartedly in the mysterious rites he records, mingling strangeness and familiarity. In ‘The Coming of Gas’, a domestic installation reveals the fragility of things, as a house’s apparent fixtures are torn out, and an old mantelpiece becomes a November bonfire. ‘Gas Fire’ speaks of the sea exhaling into the livingroom, while ‘The Kettle’s Story’ is a steamy epic of the history of water. ‘To a Power Station’ rewrites Shelley à la Redgrove, envisaging a world all evaporation and condensation, where ‘I would boil myself if I had a big enough pan.’

This note of sinister felicity is the most curious and original of Woodward’s features. In ‘The Unmade Bed’, the site of love-making is one where the springs

Have come up like worms
From the dark underworld of shoes,

and ‘the pillows have love-bitten us’ – shaky dry ground over a quicksand in which, he reminds us, most of us will die. ‘Smoker’, with its fanciful lucubrations on spontaneous combustion, riots in a vision of kitchens devouring their inhabitants. Woodward’s transgressive imagination leads in more than one poem to images of cannibalism. In ‘Meeting the greengrocer’ the infant’s dream of consuming the mother translates into the jovial tradesman’s fantasy of eating young girls’ breasts. In another poem, a girl dreams happily of feeding herself to her cats.

Beneath these atrocious whimsies, ably rendered in the monitored bubbling ebullience of Woodward’s verbal stockpot, burns an even darker dream. Cannibalism is for Householder’s man of property the ultimate appropriation of différance, a metaphysics of presence that effects a terminal closure between self and other. But it figures also a nightmare of final solutions on a planet which is greedily devouring itself.