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.

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