The art of the poetry blurb is such a particular thing, and, as I’m asked to perform it with increasing frequency, I find myself wondering whether or not I do so from a sufficiently principled stance. Below are the most recent three I’ve managed (there are, as always, others I wanted to do, but ran out of time for). It seems evident from a glance that they function as mini-reviews, and so might help draw attention to a trio of what I think are fine books. I hope I can also see a couple of simple governing impulses: generosity, honesty, specificity, and separation.


The blurb most obviously differs from an actual review in that the principle of generosity is necessary, rather than optional. In fact, I tend to think it a fairly good thing in reviewing too, but only because I dislike the ‘brave truth-sayer’ pose of the reviewer actually out to establish or mantain a reputation by other means than their mere poetry.

When this happens at an early stage in the reviewer’s lifecycle, the lauding of some hopeful or knifing of the hapless can escalate to an attempt to knock spots off the cosy coterie of elderly poet/reviewers for their inability to laud or knife appropriately. As many of these may well have graduated from exactly the same nasty rep buildin n spots knockin skool, it may then be identified as conforming to a pack behaviour, that stage of struggle with the dominant which is the opposite of any progressive or rebellious stance being struck.

Of course the same urge to atavism or the tribal is as strong in those more elderly poet/reviewers, and, as it is usually to them that appeals for both blurbs and reviews are sent, it behoves them to consider their privilege at such moments as gatekeepers to the art as well as the business of poetry.

An important function of the blurb-writer, then, may be to appeal to the potential reader on behalf of the particular book as much as the particular poet, as an instance of something they must read, rather than as a conveniently shaped stone to fling at or to be flung by the, usually, alpha male. That also gives the reader the impression that poetry may not be, as it too often appears, about poets howling in pain and derision about poetry.

The blurb should stand outside that ring. Its function is to suggest that poetry may be a pursuit and a perception, rather than an in-fight and an always-further-in-crowd. And this consideration of the relationship between book and reader requires generosity.

Honesty, then, becomes the necessary check on your enthusiasm: if you really don’t feel that way about the poet, or, as sometimes happens, about this particular book by that particular poet, don’t do it. Things that puff and pop – popcorn and meringues in particular – are marvellous in their place, but the evidently false-because-insincere claim does the poet concerned as much damage as the nasty-for-selfish reasons review.

(There now follows a short interlude in which I think about peanut meringues:


The best confirmation of that honesty takes us back to a key part of reviewing: specificity in the form of quotation – something which can, briefly, underscore the point being made. Too many blurbs fall into portentous pronouncement that cannot be assessed because the very thing, the poem, is not there. It is the equivalent of the waving of the arms when, you know, when, you know…

One phrase is enough to establish the distinctness of the voice, and hence the sincerity of the blurbist. If it’s not in the blurb, you fear it may not be in the book either.

The final category is perhaps the most difficult: separation. We all already know that the poet, the publisher, approaches someone who will be at least sympathetic to what the book is setting out to do. But that sympathy cannot amount to patronage, or some version of the blessing of the prefiguring author. So a line must be established between affinity and affiliation. The independence of the poet being blurbed is as important as the ability of the reader to draw their own conclusion about the genealogy that may or may not be being alluded to.

So, how do I do? These are three younger Scottish poets in the sense that they are younger than me – that’s becoming increasingly easy to accomplish. They are all male (which is already prompting me to seek out those blurbs I have done slightly less recently for women poets). Two are first collections from a single enterprising Scottish press, Freight, the other is from my own publisher, Bloodaxe Books. A.B. Jackson’s second collection is a PBS Recommendation. Russell Jones’s I first saw as part of his PhD submission. And, finally, I should just add that Harry Giles’s blurb is only longer because, in Pascal’s phrase, ‘I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.’

1 Tonguit, by Harry Giles

Harry Gile’s impressive first collection shows every sign of a particularly Scottish alertness to language, political radicalism, and intellectual play. So particularly Scottish, in fact, as to be specifically Orcadian, his language flickers adroitly between that island’s idioms, and the urban and literary Scots of Morgan or Leonard or Kinloch, then expands to take down the discourses of power, infecting and subverting the texts of our political and economic masters. This is a poet who understands from his use of Scots that all language, especially the language we use in a poem, is simultaneously intimate and estranging, and he uses the full palette of substitution, interrogation, translation, and variation, to explore the beautiful and frightening consequences. Most importantly, he does all this with tenderness as well as tenacity, deploying lightness as much as logopoeia.

From the song of a fossilised cricket to what will happen geologically when “a’ the seas gang dry” (and in a pantoum too); from the blue ghosts swimming in a shut pool to a habbie have-at-you aimed at a dull councillor; from reinventing the language of love by deploying the toponyms of fantasy fiction (how often have I read a reference to Clark Ashton Smith’s ‘Zothique’ in a contemporary poem? – mebbe no that often) to a gentle encounter with a formerly pierced partner – this is a considerable lyric and satiric gift wielded in critique of simplistic models of identity or of poetics, and in praise of the utmost imaginative diversity.

From its opening salvo, aimed at a nation wha ‘wadna ken hits gowk fae hits gadjie’, through its depiction of the ‘Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ ‘sittin in his airmchair in the mids o the junction’ weeping, to its closing subversion of Alasdair Gray’s famous dictum, ‘lurk as if you live in the early days of a better sedition’, Tonguit shows the sharpest new tongue in Scotland at its most seditious, liveliest, and visionary best.

Order it here.

2 The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping, by Russell Jones

Russell Jones’s collection moves from the micro to the macro and back with an alert alacrity that marks him out as a younger Scottish writer of real promise. This quality of attention demonstrates itself in both his language and his level of engagement: syllable meets chromasome, minute particular collides with particle, sonnet sequence essays a society. There is a Morganic faith in form, in information, and in format’s capacity to frame the universe in a verse, evidenced by an abecedarian sequence of one word poems that recalls Hamilton Finlay at his wittiest. In all this, the deities are in the details, as it were, be they a telling snippet of recorded dialect, the ‘origami feet’ of a kingfisher, or the way a station ‘is painted darker by the rain’. The tenderness with which they are recorded, the equal compassion for individuals caught in catastrophe or lost in introspection, makes this collection as impressive as it is engaging.

Order it here.

3 The Wilderness Party, by A.B. Jackson

‘Demons occupy the air’ in A.B. Jackson’s new collection, but, as Dracula once remarked, what sweet music they make. There is a gothic edge to the lyricism and a witty eye for the disquieting, but what distinguishes this work is a genuine curiosity about how we could still classify and evaluate meaning. The idea of the apocryphal provides a counter to less original poets’ dependence on the anecdotal: what is it like, these poems ask, to exist outside or on the fringes of sacred space, where ‘The risen Elvis/rolls away his rhinestone?’ Only half in love with the music of categories, Jackson asks: how shall we live in a world which presents itself as something to be decoded rather than experienced? Writing with equal facility of mice and mammoths, of Gethsemane and Guantanamo, these are canticles of praise to the wily as well as to the wonderful: ‘Long live critters, in caves, in earth, in ashes.’

Order it here.

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Carry On, Leonora: 5

This summer I went to Liverpool to see the large Carrington show in the Tate. I stayed, as is my wont, in a mid-range hotel, part of a chain so, wherever you go, the rooms and the menus are much the same. Except, being Liverpool, my room was themed after a McCartney song, ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – and, instead of being reasonably priced, it was extremely expensive. I didn’t understand why until, the following the morning, I got up to find that the streets – which I’d strolled easily enough around the previous evening, getting my bearings – were completely packed with people.

Streams of folk paced slowly up and down the pavements. Some roads were choked with them, so that the cars sat with their engines idling or switched off, and it seemed that, not just was everyone in Liverpool out and about, but that crowds had arrived at dawn to do the same, meandering in packs that meant it took half an hour to cover a distance I’d managed in five or ten minutes the night before.

I thought about Eliot’s re-visioning of Dante: of the countless dead crossing London’s bridges on their way to the office. This had a more holiday air, as though it were some daytrip across the Mersey-as-Styx, or a few million souls on day release.

Of course, when I finally made it to the docks I could see the cause if not particularly the focus of all this activity: the three Cunard vessels known as the Queens – the Alexandra, the Mary, and the Elizabeth. They were performing a slow synchronised twirl as though the Mersey were some ballroom for royal female metal giants, while the famous ferry, painted in psychedelic dazzleship style by Peter Blake, carefully skirted round them like a harlequin waiter.



The Tate itself, where I’d bargained a decent prize for a couple of days’ entry, and casually previewed Leonora’s paintings and drawings (and doll and costumes and poems and cradle) the afternoon before, was embedded in a thick wad of people, like bales of sticks or giant clothes pegs jammed upright, as though they’d been offloaded during the night from flotillas of now-evaporated ships.

When I got upstairs to the three rooms Leonora had been given, I found them packed with people, but people who were all doing the opposite of what you might expect: instead of looking at the pictures, they were looking at or rather out of the windows. They were in fact almost all there because of the excellent view of the river and therefore of the Three Queens that access to the Leonora Carrington exhibition afforded them.

While I’d been trying to weave my way through the crowds on the way to the gallery, I’d been struck by that sense one sometimes gets that the nap of the universe is against you. They were all tending in one direction in their tens of thousands while I alone was struggling towards Leonora. Here too there seemed to be some basic subversion of the space – what a gallery was for – that meant I alone appeared to be here for the paintings. I was, in a sense, and like many of the images I was studying, an apparition stranded in another reality, another way of engaging with history and culture and community.

There were queens here too: the benign-seeming great giantess, the unsettled cradle-as-yacht, the reflected image of Leonora herself from a series of photographs entitled ‘Necrophilia’. But these were somehow queens in exile, royals so without subjects they had themselves been reduced to mere subjects in an artwork, or rulers with only one commoner to acknowledge their command. 

Meanwhile, the great intricate floating machines, carefully preserved and carrying within them their highly specialised retinues, continued to receive the unquestioning universal worship of an entire city, swollen by thousands upon thousands of day trippers. They were like robot versions of the fates, or the maiden, mother, and wise woman of Norse myth, believed in in a way that Leonora was not to the extent that to look over at them was, in this room at least, literally to overlook her, in just the way that I had failed to see her painting those years before in Venice.

All this, of course, seemed exactly right. Most of us do indeed mostly invest in the greater myth of narrative, of the story of our days, of the way history unfolds in a single direction that concurs with time through its great men or women or states or machines. It all felt much as the playwright James Graham put it, discussing his work about the 2015 General Election: ‘It is only by applying structure to life’s random events, in the way that films, plays and novels do, that anything makes any sense.’

Our selves, it feels to us, must have beginnings, middles and ends, and it is only now and then that the great continuity in which we are immersed drains away and leaves us gasping in an element others find perfectly natural.

There was, as it happened, a film playing as part of the exhibition, about a madman who ruled over a remote asylum, but no-one watched for long enough to establish whether it did indeed apply any structure to life’s random events, or to ponder, if these events were indeed random, whether applying structure wasn’t a bit misleading.

If, as the neuroscientists hint, memory is a combination of recreations and interpretations, of intentional and unintentional confabulations, then everything we think has happened to us up to our experience of this present moment – which is, even in its few seconds of opportunity, overshadowed by how we have habitually come to regard such opportunities – is story.

The issue then becomes: why do we trust story to the extent of supposing that what it makes of our memories and experiences is ‘sense’? Is it even possible not to, as Strawsen claims we ‘episodics’ do?

It is this moment of questioning, of exposure, of disturbance, that Leonora’s work returns to again and again, as the spirits spread out their picnic cloth, and the tiny red-coated hunters pursue the massive weasel, and the head inside the beard of the saint has another head inside it with another beard, and the dreamers inside the labyrinth find themselves dreaming of a large liner passing directly overhead.

The figures may or may not suspect their continuity has been interrupted; they may or may not have felt as absurd as I did, visiting an art gallery to look at, of all things, the art, but the viewer, the reader, the interpreting self who finds themself stranded before these images may well think, as Leonora continually thought in relation to herself, ‘My main task is to try and spot which one is this – they’re all me, whatever that is, whatever “me” is – it’s a word…’

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Carry On, Leonora: 4

(This penultimate section is by way of illustrative digression, tying two bits of what I think of as under-acknowledged Britishness together. Especially as those ideas our lords-with-no-sense-of-timing and self-serving masters declare as ‘British’ are tearing us apart in a singularly unlovely manner. This clip might be useful.)

At this point, an analogy from that particularly British example of dark whimsy, Doctor Who, might be useful. In the second episode of ‘Terror of the Autons’, from 1971, Roger Delgado’s Master compels through hypnosis a bluff businessman, played by Northern Irish character actor Harry Towb, to sit down in a self-inflating shiny black plastic chair, which then proceeds to suffocate him in a manner that may not seem very convincing to modern eyes. A sinister synthesiser accompanies his demise much as pianists provided atmosphere in early silent cinemas.

Just before he sits, Harry opines, ‘You’ll never sell that, I’ll tell you that for nothing. Sure, it looks like a…like a black pudding!’

How manically close the terrifying is to the absurd in this scene, and in lots of the ‘classic’ period Who, where limited budgets competed with the wildly imaginative writing. It’s hard to take seriously as an adult, but part of that is precisely because it’s so disquieting. The proximity of the food reference to his near digestion by a chair, that hint of kinkiness in the shiny shiny blackness, the use of synthetics both material and musical (I remember getting just such an inflatable chair for my teenage bedroom, though it never showed any signs of being possessed by the Nestenes) – all of these elements combine into a model of the unheimlich that adults hurriedly dismiss as mere genre, but children instinctively get. There was accordingly an outcry about the amount and kind of violence in these episodes from the Jon Pertwee era.

This effect appears to be generated in a similar way to Leonora Carrington’s work by the interplay between narrative and symbol: here the narrative is very simple, and the symbol is highly complex. By contrast, in new Who, it’s often the other way round, because it is partly directed at the adults all those children became, who now want the Whoniverse to have the narrative and rational integrity of other long-running or slow arc series. In place of heroes and companions and monsters and villains, they now require characters, so that their attention appears to be dignified by narrative substance rather than irrational obsession.

As Doctor Who acquires continuity, as opposed to the suggestion of continuity, and approaches that type of realism which causes people to draw up schematics of imaginary starships, as opposed to that type of narrativeness which allows children unpoliced access to both daydreams and nightmares, it becomes, inevitably, less scary.

In a way, then, the process by which hard-headed Harry both surrenders and is surrendered to his weird, as the Anglo-Saxons rather precisely called fate, is a version of the famous suspension of disbelief – here a suffocation of scepticism that the primary demand of narrative be met: that the story must be followed, that its interpretation of events must dominate. As children and Leonora Carrington realised, there is something profoundly weird about such an idea, which might be more important still than narrative’s insistence on continuity.

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Carry On, Leonora: 3

(Here the piece returns to old obsessions about what story is, and what it is for. It’s no coincidence that at a certain point during this summer, sitting peering out at the Libyan Sea in the tiny Cretan port of Chora Sfakion, I felt the need to download a digital version of Ernst Neumann’s Jungian study of The Great Goddess, as I was clearly visiting my anima for Sunday lunch at the time…)

What ‘Oink!’ does, in a parallel manner to its juxtaposition of the mythic and the absurd, is suggest a relationship between Leonora Carrington’s art and her fiction. There is a sort of narrative here, just as in her stories there is a sort of ekphrasis: each refers to the other and is dependent on the other to varying degrees. It is not, as ever, an equal relationship: her visual gifts, it seems to me, far outweigh her verbal ones. She is a see-er more than she is a teller, a seer before a narrator. But the relation between the two is a significant element here. 
I was introduced recently to G.S. Morson’s idea of ‘narrativeness’, the idea that we identify in certain successions of events a binding, driving quality which helps us, in re-telling or indeed inventing those successions, to make sense of them: ‘Narrativeness may be defined as the quality that makes narrative not merely present but essential.’ There are those of us who feel, with Galen Strawsen, that such bindings and drivings may be interesting, but only constitute one kind of sense, perhaps not actually an essential one:

“…I do, like the American novelist John Updike and many others, ‘have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning’. The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s ‘heteronym’ Alberto Caeiro (one of 75 alter egos under which he wrote) is a strange man, but he captures an experience common to many when he says that: ‘Each moment I feel as if I’ve just been born/Into an endlessly new world.’ Some will immediately understand this. Others will be puzzled, and perhaps skeptical. The general lesson is of human difference.”

Similarly, Leonora Carrington states, ‘I don’t think we are one person, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a whole complete individual…The ego is a very practical thing, but relatively superficial. there are many egos within each person.’

For us, then, narrativeness is perhaps a sense of story as a more fleeting presence – that it could begin, or end, or, more often, that we are in the midst of it, or are aware of the possibility of story, or many stories. In fact, the plethora of story traces makes it less likely that we need to latch onto one, identify with it, and pursue it by the traditional act of narrating it. Rather we are its reader, picking up one book off a table for a moment, or its watcher, flicking onto a channel briefly, or we are its witness, walking into a gallery and glimpsing a painting by Leonora Carrington.

Because Leonora is of Strawsen’s camp, radically questioning herself from moment to moment through the twinned media of art and writing, we find ourselves confronted by the traces of narratives that both do and do not matter hugely. Her version of narrativeness, then, questions the role of story in constructing delusional continuities, even as her iconography undermines our ability to put together a coherent model of reality. 

As a result, narrative appears as an almost coherent – or, more hopefully, sufficiently coherent – matrix, a pattern which enables us to get by, to make a kind of sense that may or may not relate to reality. It is in just this sense that we do not question, while dreaming, that the dream makes sense, and, while awake, continue to assign meaning and indeed narrative to a phenomenon we essentially have no such convincing model for. While we are dreaming, we do not know what we are doing, but we tell ourselves – or rather the dream tells us – that we do. Sensing narrativeness, then, can sometimes awaken us to the fundamentally provisional nature of this act.

It was at this sort of point that, standing in Venice in front of ‘Oink!’, I realised that, for Leonora Carrington, Surrealism was exactly that: a surmounting of realism as a mode of handling reality, rather than a surmounting of reality itself, which is already ‘sur-‘ our capacity to experience it, except perhaps in the ecstasies of the mystic, or the instants in which, as here, a complex of elements – iconographic and narrative material, but also quite quotidian imagery, estranged from its usual context – combine into the symbolic. 

Her work is disconcerting in exactly the right way, and in fact ‘disconcert’ is a germane verb to use here, because ‘Oink!’ seems to require one type of concerting, or gathering of disparate elements in an unusual context, the aesthetic, in order to disassemble another, the usual self with all its assumptions and prejudices about itself and the world it places itself in.

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Carry On, Leonora: 2

(Part two focuses momentarily on the image at the heart of this piece before pursuing these abstruse threads any further through the Labyrinth…)

Naturally, that isn’t the painting’s full title, which is ‘Oink! (They Shall Behold Thine Eyes)’, with the animal announcement purporting to be in Hebrew, and the bracketed statement a translation. Whether this is true or not – and it certainly doesn’t sound true – the relationship between the two types of discourse is what interests me: one is as silly as it may be transgressive, the other as sententious as it may be vatic.

(I happened to write this before the bizarre Piggate rumour enveloped our current Prime Minister, but there remains something marvellously appropriate in revising my description of ‘Oink!’ as those calumnies reverberate. What Mark E. Smith, citing Philip K. Dick, calls ‘precog’.)

The high priests of art and poetry, the Andre Bretons or Geoffrey Hills or Ron Sillimans of this earth – pluralising the names of such singular figures perhaps gives an appropriately ridiculous air to what I’m saying – although they appear to appreciate the comic as a region of the aesthetic palate, never seem to be or indeed have much fun.

Leonora Carrington, on the other hand, even though this picture is plunged in the subterranean light of the deep unconscious and filled with ambivalent symbols, has no difficulty in presenting us with our own difficulty in placing the comic beside the unsettling, indeed in suggesting that one may well be the trigger for the other.

We find ourselves in a soupy subterranean chamber, the sort we often turn the corner onto in dreams, as indeed a Cretan bull is doing on the left. That’s not right, it thinks, surely I was charging towards a young acrobat only the four thousand years ago? But the dream, as is its way, soon persuades the bull and us that all this makes perfect sense.

Look, at the back of this long, columnar, low-roofed hall: the Mistress of the Thresholds is indeed standing at a threshold. ‘A-sa-sa-ra’, she’s called in the Linear A – and something similar in the Hittite, assuming we’re getting any of this right – Astarte or Dyktinna, a powerful spirit or a snake charmer, who can be sure? Should Arthur Evans have stuck that cat on her head? What is the Greek for having a cat sat on your head? (I actually have this written down somewhere, but where?)

Never mind that now, because here be the sleepers, a long bed filled with them – is it five or five thousand? Nothing stays stable long enough to count, especially as their hair is standing on end in long candle flames that stretch up to the figures leaning on the bedstead in black Calvinist diddy hats. They look like they ought to disapprove but they are just as bewildered as everyone else by the huge chimera centre stage.

Did we mention that mothy-furred stripy-necked raccoon/jackal hybrid with droopy archaeopteryx wings and a bone Boreas blowing from its up-reared tail-tip while it sprays frightmare juice from its lemur paw thing upon the dreamers? We probably should have, as it seems to be directing the whole charade.

There are various alchemical vessels, giant lacewing flies, and glass snakes, left coiling and collapsing about the place, but we can discount those, as all poisons, medications, and tea, have already been drunk. In fact it’s only a matter of time till they kick in, or have kicked in, or whatever tense we’re in.

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Carry On, Leonora: 1

(This is the first of five sections of a piece I’ve been puzzling over all summer about the great British Surrealist painter and writer, Leonora Carrington. Puzzling because I don’t quite know where I’m going with this, though it clearly fits into the thematic territory of other posts on here from the last few years. The five pieces appear to have developed a certain symmetry of their own.)


I don’t know what keeps drawing me back to Leonora Carrington. That I love and am deeply involved to the point of obsession not just with many of her images and texts, but also with the way they interrelate, is very likely part of it, but that combination of affections is true for several artists and writers. I have more or less strange and unresolved debts to many, as most writers and artists do. Most of their names crop up with relentless frequency in my writing, and do not need rehearsed here except to note one detail: they are almost all male.

Although I could list an alternative selection of women writers, artists and musicians who have influenced, affected or disturbed me in ways every bit as profound as those usual suspects, it is their usualness that interests me here, given how unusual they are in their art, and how it is that Carrington effortlessly disturbs that under-considered tendency toward my own gender.

A recent trip to the Peggy Guggenheim illustrates this more or less precisely. In the eighties, travelling on a tiny budget with my first partner, an art historian, after going round the churches and galleries devoted to the great Venetian and Italian artists, we would usually head to the Guggenheim to top up on Modernism, as it were. There I found myself obsessively sketching the same few paintings over and over, usually trying to get a handle on Cubism and that moment of perceptual shift that obsessed me at the time. Surrealism was less interesting – hadn’t Ashbery told us everyone was a Surrealist now, or rather then?

Nonetheless I distinctly remember the de Chirico, Dalí, Miró, and the Ernst – de Chirico was exempted because he pre-empted Surrealist orthodoxy; Dalí because he was ejected from it for being heretically well-known; Miró because of that command of line; Ernst because of the techniques – the slight rudeness of frottage and grattage that nonetheless linked back to Braque’s use of painter-decorators’ techniques for reproducing wood grain or marble. That was something my paternal grandfather had known how to do, and in any case related further back still to Da Vinci’s famous remark in the notebooks about finding images in random patterns.

(The other reason for admiring de Chirico was equally personal and subjective: an encounter with one of his horse’s heads in a small Venetian gallery one year had been followed by hearing Iggy Pop’s ‘Horse Song’: a little chimeric switch clicked on in my brain.)

So it therefore seems extraordinary that it wasn’t until this last visit that I really looked at the one Leonora Carrington painting in the collection. Her obsessions with both horses and Ernst are well-documented. Her difficult relationship with Guggenheim is explored in Elena Poniatowska’s biographical novel, Leonora. But on those previous trips I had evidently just classed it with the Victor Brauner nearby as not only small but minor, and passed on by.

Leonora Crabbington

Of course in the meantime I had drawn on her accounts of extreme anxiety, most notably The House of Fear, at a point of crisis in my own life, plus I’d embarked on a long term relationship with Crete, the Great Island where I began writing this, which sent me back to what I’d considered the stock imagery of the Labyrinth and that ultimate chimera, the Minotaur. In several senses, it’s not until you’ve visited the labyrinth, both as a psychological and as an archaeological phenomenon, that you begin to reconsider its aptness as a depiction of the mind, with its simultaneous awareness of, and difficulty with, historical fact and mythopoeic perception.

That the palatial constructs of the Minoans were labyrinthine was an interpretation by their less sophisticated Mycenaean supplanters in just the way that early modern archaeologists like Evans and Schliemann not only excavated but reconstructed the Minoans, the Trojans, and indeed the Mycenaeans themselves. (Or as the Anglo-Saxons described the ruins of Roman Britain as being in some way ‘enta geweorc’, ‘the work of giants’.) Whether we re- or mis-interpret something we don’t fully understand, we occasionally by doing so invent interesting ways of conceptualising understanding itself. Leonora, of course, already knew this.

She was inside and outside Surrealism in precisely the way that, for instance, Edwin Muir describes the Labyrinth continuing beyond its physical limitations:

…since I came out that day,

There have been times when I have heard my footsteps

Still echoing in the maze, and all the roads

That run through the noisy world, deceiving streets

That meet and part and meet, and rooms that open

Into each other – and never a final room –

Stairways and corridors and antechambers

That vacantly wait for some great audience,

The smooth sea-tracks that open and close again,

Tracks undiscoverable, indecipherable,

Paths on the earth and tunnels underground,

And bird-tracks in the air – all seemed a part

Of the great labyrinth.

Similarly, she was also within and outwith Britishness, in the realm of dark whimsy that we encounter equally in Dadd and Carroll, the traumatised nonsense of Lear or Milligan that finds fruit in the imagery of Python and Gilliam, the ‘English magic’ of Susannah Clarke’s Strange and Norrell, or the ancient Quixotic cult of Doctor Who – but which doesn’t take firm root in British poetry. Surrealism is replayed as a Celtic fringe sport like the hurling: the apocalyptic Celts, who are displaced by the bourgeois Movement and the suburban madnesses of the Confessionals, who then in turn must head away from the metropolis, to Mytholmroyd, to California, in order to find room for their own strangenesses.

Of course, out there on the edges, the others persisted – among the Scots, W.S. Graham was conducting his own reconfiguration of the reader’s experience of the printed page, MacDiarmid building a personal internet of information, Hamilton Finlay planting a garden of text, Kenneth White and Alastair Reid wandering in the time-honoured Caledonian fashion. The Welsh with David Jones or Lynne Roberts, the North-East with Bunting and latterly MacSweeney, the Irish with of course Beckett but also, crucially, Flann O’Brien – and in Mexico, throughout it all, Leonora Carrington – were all doing other.

As someone living and writing in Oxford throughout the 80s, I felt estranged from both the British Poetry Revival as exemplified by Cambridge and London poets such as Prynne and Mottram, even as I worked out my own relationship to the same US figures writers in those affiliations admired – O’Hara, Berrigan and Hejinian, rather than Ashbery, Duncan and Silliman, perhaps. But equally, I felt no strong links to the post-Auden school exemplified by John Fuller and my contemporary, Mick Imlah. Connecting to Scottish writing as – complex term – an Informationist helped the literary cartographer in me just as, in later years, poet-to-poet translation would help me define a role at an angle to the major European canon, but that didn’t necessarily sit well, pun intended, with the absurdity.

It is the role of what British writers disparagingly think of as ‘humour’ that is the issue here: the comic as a lesser form to the high seriousness they feel inheres to the significant art of their time – you know, the stuff they write. Of course the ‘comic’ is precisely what takes us close to the less controllable and predictable: what we are really doing when we laugh is as mysterious to us as what we do when we sneeze, or defecate, or dream, or orgasm: we are placed in touch with our animality, our inner otherness. It is the ‘odd’-ness of Tristram Shandy, that won’t do long but has somehow nonetheless persisted. This is all summed up exactly by the title of that painting I overlooked by Leonora Carrington: ‘Oink!’

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The Three Ms: Mammoth, Minerva, and Merkin

Mark Doty, Deep Lane (Cape); Frances Leviston, Disinformation (Picador); Christopher Reid, The Curiosities (Faber).
(Three collections reviewed for the June issue of Literary Review, here with – slightly – critical notes restored.)
Mark Doty’s ninth collection displays his customary gifts of empathic observation, collapsing the distance between poet and subject to establish an observance of both secular and sexual mysteries. This is accomplished by an intensity of sensual imagery, and through an ecstatic syntax, as in this passage about Jackson Pollock: ‘Forget supplication,

beseechment, praise. Look down

into it, the smash-up swirl, oil and pigment and tree-shatter:

tumult in equilibrium.

His focus on the redemptive act of gardening, in the titular series of poems called ‘Deep Lane’, and the fit between this and the animalistic, exemplified by masterful descriptions of, among other creatures, his dog, a fish, a mole, a mammoth, and a goat, is driven by a Yeatsian dread of our self-inhibiting self-awareness:

…I have believed

if the scales fell from our eyes we’d see the world

as it is, that the core-light never flags…

There are also echoes of Blake here – perhaps George Herbert, in the address to an ambiguous, God-like ‘Sir’ – and of the addressee of a key poem from Source, Walt Whitman. In ‘What is The Grass?’ he brings together word and world in a crisis at the heart of the book: can language capture, if not the world, then at least our experience of it? ‘…he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it,/…for him the word settled nothing at all.’

A fracture runs between (and within) poems which find communion, and those which state it. The fine poem about the body of a baby mammoth, forever bereft of its mother, is followed by ‘Apparition’ in which, returning from the garden’s depths, he hears the voice of his own dead mother. Another poem places a little goat’s actions in similar contrast to language: ‘I can see the smallish squared seeds of her teeth, and the bristle-whiskers,//and then she kisses me, though I know it doesn’t mean “kiss”‘.

But in poems focussed on social contacts and contracts, a larger divide opens up between, say, the first half of ‘This Your Home Now’ with its funny, tender account of the rituals of going to the barber, and the mythopoeic second half, in which the underworld of dead friends and lovers is accessed through the same establishment. As in the switch in ‘The Lesson’, from a description of a wall on 25th Street to an account of the fall of the Berlin Wall, something is being stressed here that is brilliantly implicit elsewhere.


Frances Leviston’s book is similarly poised on the cusp between private and public utterance. As in her first book, Public Dream, she asks what aspect of the private self can survive in the poem. The speaker in her first poem, ‘making jelly/for my nephew’s fourth birthday party’ while the radio ‘intimates…certain unpopular/facts…’, is positioned just outside the role of mother, and just within that of citizen. Similarly, two titles in this section juxtapose acronyms of the exterior and interior – ‘GPS’ and ‘IUD’ – both serving and inhibiting autonomy: ‘something big is about to make sense/if we just keep going in the opposite direction…’; ‘This gadget intrudes so nothing else can…’.

Her most immediate poems are in the first and final sections, trusting the middle to reveal its different approach on re-reading. Here her impressive control of imagery and stanza is seen to quieter effect in the parallel sequences, ‘Sulis’ and ‘Athenaeum’, exploring the feminine through the merging of the ancient British goddess Sulis into Roman Minerva, herself identified with Greek Athena. Images of sleep and immersion replay earlier concerns about control over meaning:

If you fall asleep in a temple, be prepared

To wake with your ear licked clean as a conch

And the statements of the gods

Suddenly cold and clear to you…

Her most powerful poems are saved for last. ‘The Historical Voice’, both critiquing and embodying its subject, is an Audenesque triumph: ‘The syntax it likes is clean, perhaps translated’; ‘Knowing the worst, it speaks from that shadow.’ In ‘A Shrunken Head’, an artefact being returned to its origins, ‘a birdy ounce in the undercarriage’, reflects on its time in the museum, ‘I miss being part of the known//quantifiable index…’ – returning us to a mediated being, pitched between loss and belonging.


Christopher Reid’s latest collection responds to amplitude not with anxiety, but with a witty constraint. Seventy three poems beginning with the letter C amount to a Wunderkammerer of words. Recognising the alphabet simultaneously collects and randomises, Reid has found a neat way of announcing his approach to his materials, one mostly poised on the disquieting side of the comic. ‘The Coin’ for instance, is an obol placed on the tongue of a dead speaker:

The taste, which would have made me

Wince and scowl before,

And spit the nasty thing out,

Was neither here nor there.

Taste is a recurrent trope throughout, and, as ‘The Chocolate’ indicates, often eroticised: 

…why don’t you close your eyes,

Part your lips, and let me pop a square

That’s already starting to melt between my fingers,

Onto your moist and acquiescent tongue?

This poem opens with a mock-scholarly flourish, and part of the entertainment here is in the play with tones, including bursts of signature Martianisms (‘The cyclists took the corner/in italics’). The Elizabethan parody, ‘The Conceit’, ends with a ‘nether adornment,/…termed, wantonlie, Merkyn, or Mynge, or Merrie-thovght.’

However, Reid’s conceit compels him to act as the dictionary does, and it, of course, lists words because of the letter they begin with, rather than their inherent merit. Many poems depict the British obsession with sex, but not all are as sharp as the Byronic rhyme in ‘The Centaur’, concluding, of a bit of mythological bestiality: ‘[it] could only, the chorus agreed,/ end messily. Which it did. Yet for a while/they were the happiest couple in all Thessaly.’ 

One, ‘The Craving’, steps over the mark of healthy vulgarity – the craver may well crave ‘a schoolgirl’, but the conclusion, that ‘the itch/is still there, which he’ll have to satisfy some day’, has an unpleasant aftertaste.

He seems at his liveliest when least English – or at least that middle-aged, middle class, metropolitan version of Englishness seen to better effect in The Song of Lunch – allowing his imagistic gift free sway, or letting other influences in, as in the version of a Welsh medieval poem, in which the lover’s detachable genitalia are addressed: ‘Go Gogolesque member!’

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