- Walking a Line by Tom Paulin
Faber, 105 pp, £5.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 571 17081 1
Everybody knows – Paul Muldoon said it on the radio recently – that writing poetry can only get harder the more you keep at it. Against that is the belief, or perhaps the determination, that it shouldn’t. That instead of the diminishing returns, spending twice the time saying half as much twice as cumbrously/flashily/winsomely, one should use craft and expertise to overthrow the stiflement and self-importance of craft and expertise – to be as uninhibited and fresh and airy as a beginner. Not continue to paint yourself into a corner with aching brush and paint gone hard, but take a line for a walk, as Tom Paulin says, taking a leaf from Paul Klee, whose daily wit, invention and application (not to mention his use of bastard materials) stand behind this, his fifth book of poems.
It is seven years since the appearance of Paulin’s fourth, Fivemiletown. To say that was one of the best books of the Eighties isn’t enough: it is one of the best books I know, or for that matter, am capable of imagining: a corrosive and uproarious litany of bad sex, bad politics and bad religion:
All I could try
was turn a sly
hurt look to soften her
and that night in bed
I stuck my winedark tongue
inside her bum
her blackhaired Irish bum
repeating in my head
his father’s prayer
to shite and onions.
But my summum pulchrum
said I’ve had enough
we rubbed each other up
a brave long while
that’s never love.
because you’d fallen for this young priest
he was a loiner Tim Ryan that’s a lie
and driven with him July a heatwave
all through the West the East Riding
some harbour Hornsea Spurn Head it’s pathetic
you were in cheesecloth he’d green shades I could scream still
the Society of Jesus White Fathers it’s invisible
as that day the same day she and me
we made a heavy pretence of love
I mean we’d a drunken fuck in the afternoon
after a dockland lunch the Land of Green Ginger
its smell of sex herrings desire
‘Sure I’m a Cheat Aren’t We All?’
for a geg one day
I bought this tin
of panties coloured
like the Union Jack,
but she slung it in the bin
and never breathed
the least bit sigh.
‘Va-t’en!’ she spat,
‘I just can’t stand you.
No one can.
Your breath stinks
and your taste
it’s simply foul –
like that accent.
Please don’t come slouching
near my bed again.’
So, real cool, I growled
‘Lady, no way you’ll walk
right over me.’
Dead on. I chucked her then.
‘Waftage: An Irregular Ode’
The language flows as simply as blood from a wound, but how multifarious it is, borrowed and pieced together, now like a feather cloak, now like a lead painting, molten and jagged and impressively crippled. Every poem varies its resources, while keeping its outrageous ‘spoken’ feel: tags of Classical and modern learning, literary debris (‘winedark’ and ‘slouching’ from Yeats, or Homer and Yeats if you’d rather), the Shakespearean puns on place-names, the opposition of French chic and US cool; the anxious, dreary and deluded male protagonists; the way the whole literal scene seems forever on the point of dissolving into wicked metaphor. Some readers were alienated by its phallicism, perhaps bizarrely failing to grasp its misery: these are not phallocrats but losers, phallopaths if you like. What can one feel for the hero of a poem actually called ‘Really Naff’ but pity and contempt, the way his girl or boy does: ‘but he’s as bare as need, poor guy / or the sole of that trainer’?
Linguistic richness on its own, or the tight thematic focus, would have made Fivemiletown a distinguished book: but with both, in harness, it was irresistible. It read like nothing else, even looked like nothing else: the columns of short irregular lines, broken by syntax, less and less truck with punctuation, occasional full rhymes and italicised scraps of learning, dashes or indentation to introduce dissent or chorus (‘hear me sister! / brother believe me!’) – what other British or Irish poet was doing anything like this? Reading it, one couldn’t even tell what Paulin had been reading. Only Zbigniew Herbert, with his construction and layout, his unpunctuated chorales, narratives and meditations seemed undeniably an influence: but where did Paulin’s bizarre marriage of Ireland and America, of Paisley and Presley, come from? Was he reading William Carlos Williams, or were the influences all vernacular, as he, the vernacular anthologist, might have us believe? Whichever, it was an unforgettable performance.
Epochal books like that, invigorating and new, are a hard act to follow. A quick successor might only have betrayed Paulin’s exhaustion. Instead, he has held off for a long time, and written most of his new poems towards the end of a seven-year lean spell. The new book is inevitably less focused, less fierce, it burns with a lower wattage. It demands to be read in a different way too, with latitude, amusement, appreciation for the features of Paulin’s idiosyncratic style, tolerance if not approval of its new, almost unstrung mode. Both books deserve their jackets: Fivemiletown its thunderous black and grey, Walking a Line its little-boy blue and girl pink. It is somewhere between jaunty and kittenish. For someone who first made his name and his mark (in A State of Justice, 1977, and The Strange Museum, 1980) with austere and crunching formulations, it is an extraordinary pass to have come to. The style was one of the period styles, the Dunn-and-Motion style of the Seventies (out of Auden and Larkin), the mighty encapsulation, a double-headed hammering abstraction, offering Truth and Compression and not much Pleasure, and Paulin was a natural at it: ‘a buggered sun’, ‘a fierce privacy’, ‘a vegetable silence’, ‘a grey tenderness’, ‘an ignorant purity’. There are still, in Walking a Line, occasional echoes of this freeze-dried descriptiveness – ‘the alum verities of dissent’ – but this dominant feature of early Paulin has now almost disappeared. And on the other hand, the man of the senses (‘the rickety fizz of starlings’, ‘the snarl of hair burning, its bony pong’) and quirky word-spinner (‘sweet, sweating explosive’ – a play on glycerine; ‘the bistre bistro’; and that patent-deserving Paulinism where he takes a man’s occupation and cripples him with it, ‘the boreal teacher’, ‘the hunched detective’) who was such a grateful, relieving element in the earlier books, has now taken over the whole show. The things that make Walking a Line worth reading are either tiny or inconsequential: alphabetical sleights, puns, words run together as one, fantastically noisy descriptions of noise, a dash and a heckle, the gentle, almost pointless flips and flings with words. One of my favourite half-dozen poems in the book is ‘Portnoo Pier’, about a
built about 1905 by yes
the Congested Districts Board.
‘This disappointed bridge’, Paulin writes, ‘is home – home of a kind’, because ‘my namesake Tommy Pallin’ goes swimming there:
each morning in summer
he goes running along the concrete
then takes a header into the ocean
– a contented man Tommy
as he bashes the frameless mirror
come on on in and join us!
I don’t know that Paulin has ever sounded so happy in a poem; but, movingly, his happiness is either second-hand or empathic, depending on things being twinned or doubled: ‘Portnoo’ and ‘Portnua’, Pallin/Paulin, the ‘frameless mirror’, even the two ‘on’s and the ‘us’ in the last line. All this adds up to the carefully-sloppily qualified ‘home of a kind’. The ease and grace of the poem are of a kind that seem not worked for but almost inevitable – the reward for that craft and experience that I began by invoking.
‘Portnoo Pier’ strikes me as an absolute departure for Paulin: American and parlando, plein air and bonheur. A few more of the most programmatic poems of Walking a Line take their place with it: ‘Kinship Ties’, ‘Almost There’, ‘Naïf’, ‘What’s Natural’, ‘Airplane’ and ‘Basta’, which picks up the book’s wonderful epigraph from Moby Dick, describing whales swimming through ‘brit’: ‘As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea.’ ‘Basta’ is a tabula rasa, a subject peculiarly congenial to Paulin’s new mode and style:
a reverse epic
in our chosen mode
– performance art
so krangg! brumpfff! shlump!
we took out the punishment block
... the romper room
– below the snapped electrodes
what we found was simply
a green field site
its grass almost liquid
like duckweed or cress
– so we waded right into
that watery plain
that blue blue ocean
and started diving and lepping
like true whales in clover
‘Reverse epic’: where to stick craft and experience; the comic-book violence of demolition; the touchingly, magically literal adaptation of the terrible expression ‘green field site’; the exultation of jumping and swimming; the nod at Melville and, punningly, (‘clover’) at Klee; all this in a rousingly surrealistic, more-than-realistic, finale – this is what Paulin is up to now. Think of a knotted string or tube: the knot, the dead end, the windsock (a favourite Paulin image) is the terminal volume Fivemiletown; coming out of the knot again, there is a new opening out, new positive feeling, new hope.
Walking a Line looks like a transitional book to me. While there are a number of examples of the new type of more ‘open’ Paulin poem, with almost unready, questioning endings – ‘though maybe the opposite / just happens to be the case?’, ‘no ubi sumus / let’s leave it there’, ‘– a tree that isn’t a tree quite / like the doubt in “literature” ’ – he is still a poet of quite a Manichean cast of mind, a poet of good and bad trees (‘where the juniper / talks to the oak, / the thistle, / the bandaged elm, / and the jolly jolly chestnut’ from Liberty Tree of 1983), more at home in black and white than colour, given to thinking in categories, forever working up alliances, parallels and lists of enemies. He actually criticises this propensity here, when he speaks of ‘so many fatuous binaries / and all / to too much purpose’ – but he goes on doing it all the same. It remains difficult to imagine him surprised by motivelessness in himself! One could, for example, draw up a list of things endorsed in Walking a Line – Paul Klee, whales, the wind, the tongue – and find them all, perversely and paradoxically systematic: all amiable, dishevelling, square-fronted and blunt (or keen). Still, he seems to have entered more deeply into his metaphoric systems than ever before: they remain his cubist staging-posts, but what perhaps matters to him more is the deliberately sketchy, scribbled quality of the thinking-aloud and thinking-in-images with which he connects them. The poem ‘A Taste of Blood’ labours through a page and a half of imagery on a relationship, self-mocking and costive and excitable and trapped:
– if she’s a clamped oyster
that may or may not have a liking for him
then he can only be a claspknife
that turns into Kinch
the fearful Calvinist
a hard penis
a hand writing
with someone else’s pen
before shifting to the perspective of the woman:
he lies on a lapsed futon
always losing and chasing answers
to his own question
there’s a dirty spatter of rain
on the skylight window
its skittery sprinkle
falls on their amours
and she knows this morning there’ll be blood
– blood and fuckyous
In the desperately reifying poem, the ‘blood and fuckyous’ have wickedly and ironically turned into words, giving the whole thing a wonderfully defeated shape. The notable thing about the poem is not any brilliance of analysis but its open-handedness and decompression. Its drama is much less lurid and electric than that of comparable poems in Fivemiletown, its despair more ordinary and endurable. Paulin seems to me to be embarked on a kind of démontage of his own writing – Yeats’s ‘more enterprise in going naked’ comes to mind – which in the end may take him to some exhaustive pastoral or protocol, maybe a very long poem or perhaps a book of translations along the lines of Lowell’s Imitations, for which his style, both distinctive and serviceable, would qualify him better than anyone now writing. In contemporary poetry, where voice is almost everything, he is using noise instead. One day he will compose a hymn to trash that will put everything in the shade.