Ringmaster

John Redmond

  • Expanded Universes by Christopher Reid
    Faber, 55 pp, £6.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 571 17924 X

Born at the end of the Seventies and in decline at the beginning of the Eighties, Martianism, as a movement in British poetry, was shortlived, and as a descriptive term, misleading. Largely the creation of Craig Raine and Christopher Reid, the movement was characterised by, and remembered for, unusual similes and exotic descriptions. Its name derived from the title poem of Raine’s second collection, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), in which the Martian, rather like Robin Williams in Mork and Mindy, memorably misconstrues what he sees on our planet – interpreting caxtons, for instance, as ‘mechanical birds’ and noting how ‘Rain is when the earth is television.’ Raine’s poem was not plausible science-fiction, indeed it made no effort to be so – the alien uses earth-words to describe earth-things. His Martian was a distracting, out-of-this-world prop, a pretext for an aesthetic which was resolutely in this world.

A clearer idea of what Martianism was about can be found on the back cover of Reid’s first collection, Arcadia, where Saul Steinberg is approvingly quoted: ‘We spend almost our whole lives reading boisterous, ready-made messages (the mail, the newspapers, traffic-lights). To decipher the other kind of messages requires an effort that renders life rich, gay and, so to speak, inexhaustible.’ Here is the real Martian credo: an optimistic emphasis on the richness of life made possible by the inventive reading of signs. Against the doleful resignation, the narrowed horizons, that one found in Larkin’s work, and in much of post-Movement poetry, Martianism maintained an almost naive spirit of enthusiasm. But in other respects Martianism was continuous with Larkin’s work and this is where the term’s associations with bug-eyed mutants from beyond is so misleading. It accepted the Movement’s ‘parochialism’ (to adapt Patrick Kavanagh’s term), the part which Larkin admired, and identified with, in Betjeman: ‘In a time of global concepts, Betjeman insists on the little, the forgotten, the unprofitable, the obscure; the privately-printed book of poems, the chapel behind the Corn Exchange, the local watercolours in the museum (open 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.).’ It accepted, in other words, what soap operas accept: the limits of the parish, the most visible and typical fixtures of the rural village or the suburb – railway station, corner shop, pub, kitchen, garden. While the outside world and its ‘global concepts’ were mistily obscured, the inside world, as in a sunshower, took on a corresponding, and slightly unreal, brightness.

To this super-typicality, the voice in Reid’s first book brings the cajoling, heightening tones of a ringmaster. ‘Canapés and circuses, of course!’ one poem announces, as if by way of explaining its fellows. ‘Here we are at the bay / of intoxicating discoveries,’ another proclaims. The imagery, and the typically bold Martian similes, often augment the parade-like sensationalism of the voice:

... jockeys in art-deco caps and blouses
caress their anxious horses,

looking as smart as the jacks on playing-cards
and as clever as circus monkeys.

In fact, the circus is a useful key to understanding Arcadia. The poems conjure up a perpetual present tense of communal experience (the voice characteristically says ‘we are,’ ‘we walk,’ ‘we listen’); the creatures and acts on display seem related to each other only by virtue of their peculiar extravagance, sealed off from the world beyond the brightly patterned tent. When Reid, in this mostly impersonal book, does present us, in ‘The Old Soap Opera’, with a family history, it amounts to an assortment of highly caricatured, wildly anachronistic clowns. Belying the futuristic feel of the term Martian, the atmosphere is, in fact, curiously Victorian. The emotions are simple, the logic is internal, the shapes entertainingly elaborate. ‘Conical knockabout bollards’, ‘a cochlear sticky bun’,‘a tetrahedron of cream’. Supplemented by a considerable bestiary, the human beings are either grotesque or comic, ‘fat like a china Buddha’, ‘Glazed, like a mantelpiece frog’, or like the pensioners in ‘Low Life’:

obliged to haul about on stumps,
yet strong enough to contend
with mountainous piggybacks on their humps ...

Early on, Reid described his reading of Wallace Stevens as ‘a marvellous secret find’ and he shares with the American a worldliness that comes out of a book – the poems comprising a sort of introvert’s gazetteer. Many begin with the kind of verbless descriptive clause ‘Cigar-box grandiosity’, ‘Simplicity and opulence’ – which Stevens used, for example, at the beginning of ‘Sunday Morning’ (‘Complacencies of the peignoir’). Reid also shares the American’s bourgeois delight in the accumulation of kitsch, ‘bric-brac’ to use Frost’s phrase about Stevens’s work. So the poems in Arcadia are theatrical but not dramatic, exciting but not dynamic, and the objects which they present are either completely still or engaged in the short, repetitive movements of wind-up toys.

In its vivid parochialism, Reid’s first book nevertheless defines its period. In this respect, it bears comparison with another Larkin-influenced volume, Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street, which came out at the end of the Sixties. Both first volumes insist on a specific mode of seeing – in the case of Terry Street the neutral stare of the journalist, in the case of Arcadia the vibrant gaze of the dandy. Terry Street is of a piece with the reductiveness of Larkin’s vision, whereas Arcadia is a partial reaction to, and rejection of, it. Terry Street anticipates the dreariness of England in the Seventies, Arcadia anticipates the rough, consumerist pragmatism of the Thatcher era. The ethic of Arcadia puts great rhetorical pressure on the need for individual initiative; how we read the world alters it: read it well enough and the world will be correspondingly rich. In Reid’s second, transitional volume, Pea Soup (1982), this optimism is mostly dissipated, the poems become slightly more dramatic and more personal, and in a very rough way, more sympathetic.

God’s clownish, tumbling bells
bang out their Sunday-morning scales
with rabble-using eloquence.
But what of the sad, cramped hells
we know lie hidden hereabouts?

Nevertheless, Pea Soup is recognisably Martian, and if anything slightly inferior to its predecessor. Reid’s third book, Katerina Brac (1985), however, is such an enormous step up in class that it seems, at times, to be the work of someone else. In a way it was. The book’s witty premise (the title, perhaps, refers to Frost’s semi-putdown of Stevens) is that its poems were written by an Eastern European poet and then translated by Reid. The blurb props up this fiction: ‘In presenting a selection of her work, Christopher Reid demonstrates his awareness of the translator’s special responsibilities, and of the paradox whereby a poet must become his or her own translator.’ The framework is pre-glasnost: intelligent, yearning conversations in rundown, dehumanised cafés, films and books laced with state propaganda, sensitive souls in quiet rebellion against authority, an overlay of religion and semi-agrarian superstition. In the book’s opening passage, Reid characteristically flirts with the awkwardness of translated poetry and – in the second line – with the heavy ‘subtlety’ of Eastern European poetry:

Once again, magically
and without official notification,
it was the time of the year
for the pale-blue butterflies to arrive.

‘In Prague,’ Kundera says in The Art of the Novel, ‘we saw kitsch as art’s prime enemy.’ One wonders what he would have made of the transition from the consumerism of Arcadia to the appropriation of Eastern European modes in Katerina Brac. Reid’s parochialism, however, does not completely disappear. Instead it undergoes an exile’s transposition within Brac’s personality. From her delicate, first-person narratives, a life-story emerges – that of a country girl coming to the city, who experiences a disappointing love affair and then returns home. But although the poems track back and forth between locations, Brac seems to carry the village around with her in her head, projecting her feelings of intimacy even on the negative aspects of the city, often marvellously evoked by Reid’s sensitive sound patterns. Remembering her estranged lover, she describes how the urban hubbub was caught in ‘the stairwell that waited beyond your apartment door / like the deepest, most superhumanly patient of ears’.

This poetry is as parish-bound as his earlier work, but the mist at the boundaries is now more sinister. On the individual level, it symbolises nothingness, the erasing void beyond existence (as it did in Larkin), while on the social level it symbolises the historical amnesia characteristic not only of totalitarian societies but of Western democracies too. Here it is as if the pressure on the reader which Arcadia exerted – a pressure to read cheerfully – collapses into a subtly shifting exploration of subjectivity, where the emphasis is on the individual’s relative helplessness. Brac, presumably, would agree with Auden that we are lived by powers we pretend to understand, and with Deconstruction that we are written by texts we pretend to read. Her persistent theme is the phenomenology of memory, especially the way it makes her life feel at one remove from reality: ‘memory supplies the illusion that one has lived,’ she declares in one poem; in another she asks: ‘what is one to make of experiences / that felt like memory even as they happened?’ At other times, she describes situations as like being ‘on stage’ or as ‘standing backstage’. When Brac reflects on her own nature as a fictional character, it makes a nice joke of course, but the seriousness of the point is that Reid seems to feel fictional as well. The book is a sensitive exploration of the masks of personality in which Reid reveals an amazing talent for playing roles. We perceive him now as an Eastern European female poet, now as her translator, now, to use Umberto Eco’s term, as ‘model author’, the voice directing how the poems are to be read. Sometimes, as in the last exclamatory line of ‘Like a Mirror’, all these voices come together:

To have possessed you
like a mirror
in which you glanced once
pulled a face and passed on.

But wait: can mirrors
be said to have memories?
Yes, there is always beneath the surface
an inordinate heaviness.

So these touches of tarnish
are an attempt to express
a little of what it remembers.
How sad!

Even out of context, this deceptively light poem is delicate and moving, but read with the rest of the book, the idea of the mirror’s memories resonates with the reflecting relationships of East and West, Reid and Brac. The phrase ‘touches of tarnish’ nicely sums up one element of the volume’s aesthetic – its deliberate brushes with awkwardness – and, in the declarative naivety of the final line, the book’s ruefulness is caught by the kind of direct statement that is now rare in English poetry.

The role-playing continued in Reid’s next book, In the Echoey Tunnel (1991), especially in the long poem, ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’, an illiterate old man’s account of a childhood marked by poverty and an evangelical father. Though not quite as sustained or various as it is in Katerina Brac, the use of the mask is convincing and original:

i never see the ANGEL
onlie I no its Trow gospil
which it means I wone die
Like a sun clowid over all glomy
its in the Sky.

Such sophisticated ventriloquism is a long way from the frivolity of Arcadia. In the Echoey Tunnel also contains what is perhaps Reid’s single most impressive poem, ‘Survival: A Patch-work’, a very personal account of marriage and his reaction to his wife’s illness. While this long work, and ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’ are superior to anything in Arcadia, the same cannot be said for the short poems, which are notably lightweight, suggesting a close correlation between the ambitiousness of Reid’s poems and their value.

Certainly the poems in Expanded Universes, Reid’s latest book, are relatively short and unambitious. Some initially appeared in the modest form of a pamphlet called Universes, hence the title – which also refers, I suppose, to a lingering spirit of Martianism. The poems are occasional, having the air of slight fancies, afterthoughts, and the result is a prevailing flatness very unlike Reid’s best work:

A workman came to mend my cupboard door
that would not shut. My wife had got his name
out of the Yellow Pages. He did the job
in next to no time, and then, glancing around,
asked if there was anything else he could fix
while he was at it ...

Not everything in Expanded Universes is as poor as this, but compared with Arcadia and Katerina Brac, there is an easily perceived loss of tension. To some extent this slackness is contrived – certainly the book is conscious enough of its own deficiencies to anticipate them. So great play is made, in passing, of lightness, of obliquity, of small, unobtrusive forms: feathers, ice-cubes, bluebottles, tears – these are meant to be infinitely suggestive. Yet the signposts are too insistent and even the visionary poems, like one in which there is an inexplicable blizzard of feathers, seem over-determined:

The incorporeality
and feathers together
to some suggested
angels, exaltation,
a new order;
to others, anarchy, death ...

The interpretations of this vision which the poem suggests are unimaginatively abstract. As a result it comes across as disturbingly literary, an epiphany simply for its own sake.

Expanded Universes is like a Movement book – the writer isolated at his desk, as in Terry Street, is a frequent subject – yet when Reid doesn’t sound like Larkin he sounds like Betjeman:

Night becomes at once
  an unruly circus
for the attitudes and stunts
  most likely to shock us.

There is a serious attempt here to present an ‘unruly circus’, a darker Arcadia, but any social analysis is defeated by the incongruity of the voice. Reid’s diction, here and elsewhere, can make him sound like an unreconstructed Bertie Wooster. The young vandals of this poem, for instance, are described as ‘unbiddable strangers’ who are engaged in ‘truculent japes’. And in ‘Men against Trees’ the archness is even more dismaying: ‘Valiant feats of giant-toppling! Disgrace / to the ancient Empire of Chlorophyll!’ This may simply be Reid wearing another mask, like Waugh late in life. But somewhere along the way, the inventive energy of his earlier work has given way to formal exercise, just as the ethic of making-it-strange, the ethic of Martianism, has given way to alienation.