ministrations, legions, loneliness

(This appeared in Poetry London in Spring 2006, and looks at Stewart Conn, David Harsent and Piotr Sommer.)

These three poets, one Scots, one English, one Polish, respond in contrasting ways to their shared European context, its heritage and its present moment. The quietistic meditations of Stewart Conn on cultural continuities (and discontinuities) can be contrasted with the anguished, yet controlled vignettes of warfare and brutality depicted by David Harsent. Both authors’ strategies seem to have been digested by Piotr Summer, whose forensic examination of our lives’ minutiae finds us continually threatened by groundlessness. Together these writers’ work amounts to a weighing up of how best to confront our era: humanism, realism and existentialism are all considered and found wanting, as though events won’t allow their imaginations to settle. And yet the result of reading all three is a curious sense of relief: the imagination has been tested – almost to destruction in some cases – and yet the poem has held. Their work celebrates the tenuous victory that what we make can, sometimes, be stronger than we are.

Stewart Conn’s work has long been valued for its capacity to commemorate human values without seeming pietistic, to seek out our virtues without being blinded to our failings, and without lapsing into homily. Ghosts at Cockcrow is a graceful ‘slipping’ as he puts it, into seniority in two senses of that word: at once a coming of old age, and an acquiring of senior status among Scotland’s poets. It is full of high culture, old Europe and wry self-deprecation, visiting Barcelona, Burgundy and the capital to which he played laureate for three years, Edinburgh.

His verse habitually favours direct utterance and indirect rhyme, seeking to draw the reader into a democracy of sensations, in which a Mozart concerto and a cracked tooth receive equal weight, and a woman being lifted from a wheelchair is as keenly observed as an angel high up on a fresco. He seeks out the small traces, however temporary, that we leave of our humanity. As the painted angel tells us:

Invisible from ground level is a small smudge

on my cheek. His last brush-stroke complete

and before they dismantled the scaffolding

my master leaned up and kissed me gently.

This device of intermingling life with art, allowing the flaws of one to give warmth to the would-be perfection of the other, is turned on its head in a comic piece called ‘The Hill Walkers’ where a wearying line of climbers start to slip on a mud path until they all end up – author last – in a distinctly Breughelesque heap of what another poem calls ‘gnomes in anoraks’.

One of the successes of this collection is a sequence about a late medieval Scottish poet whose works have not survived, Roull of Corstorphin. In these poems the impermanence of art is set against the enduring need to create it, to seek out value in verse ‘the whilk (for a spell at least) made readers rejoice.’

But the reaction of Roull to witnessing two contemporaries, Dunbar and Kennedy, engage in the poetic duel known as flyting, is tellingly self-aware on Conn’s part: he is, he says, ‘of a gentler school/and ill at ease with such crudities’. There is a sense, when Conn’s verse turns to the harsher realities of ‘Kosovo’, that the habitual turn to culture is not sufficient to the task: an account of ‘A fund-raising concert’ with its ‘radiant rendering’ of Bach reads a little too much like a review.

The piece which confronts human suffering most directly, an adaptation of Euripides, feels a little out of place in this book, its portents of dark sacrifice and ‘limbs half-severed, intestines/trailing like an afterbirth’ jarring among the rueful decencies that surround it. Perhaps the most effective confrontation with the ghosts this book summons up is ‘Ministrations’, where the phantoms are those of the faceless doctors and nurses who will attend us at our inevitable end:

Upon which it is we

who will dissolve, not they.

Best believe in them.

David Harsent’s latest book is diverse both in its poetic and in its subject-matter, possessed of a striking control over voice and form. When its characters address you, you feel compelled to listen, and there is always a frisson of unpredictability as to what you may be told next. The book is divided into three sections: one focussed on war and its aftermath; one on the reading of landscape; and the third consisting of a series of those commanding voices.

It is the first section, ‘Legion’, which dominates: a jagged, historically indeterminate sequence which, though it may touch most directly on recent conflicts in the Balkans, nonetheless has an extraordinary, atemporal resonance, as though Harsent is isolating universal characteristics of conflict, and finding their contemporary framework.

Stylistically, he moves between several modes as though suggesting modern warfare has blown apart our ways of talking about it. There are the fragmented recurrent ‘Despatches’, which borrow the documentary feel of military reports and personal diaries. There are the complicit accounts of a pluralized ‘we’ – the Biblical reference implied in the title should not be forgotten here: ‘My name is Legion, for we are many’. And there are epigrammatically terse quatrains, gathered into an anthology of atrocities:

Word of mouth has a gut-shot man walk all of ten

miles from the front to his own front door, lift the latch,

find them dead, dig seven graves, fire the thatch,

fill his bottle, sling his gun, walk back again.

That urgent syntax is emblematic of a compulsive energy to recount which finds its clearest formal expression in Harsent’s use of rhyme. He has a virtuosic gift for the extension of a rhyme sound way beyond the usual decorous limits: in ‘Barlock’ two closely-related sounds are spun out over twenty four lines: the poem begins with ‘next’ and ‘hatch’, and ends with ‘rich’ and ‘dregs’. The effect is of a kind of verbal bombardment, as speaker and reader huddle together in the foxhole of the poem.

This may all sound unrelenting, but Harsent’s real triumph is to combine two realisations: one is the old truism that, for soldiers, war is ninety percent boredom, ten percent terror; the second is that the truly horrible things, for everyone else, take place between the fighting. The brutalisation of the civilian population, especially along gender and ethnic lines, is the real horror of war, and it is the real heart of this book.

The account in ‘Daisychain’ of women killing themselves ‘as if a word had been spoken, as if it might be infallible’, rather than face an advancing army, underscores the sexual relations depicted in this book’s third section. ‘Sniper’ positions its speaker above the town he knows intimately but, thanks to this inhuman perspective, no longer belongs to:

they go in fear. They go in fear

of me. And where they go they go by my good grace.

These lines are as powerful as Keith Douglas’ affectless exploration of responsibility in ‘How to Kill’: ‘How easy it is to make a ghost.’ And the comparison underscores why Harsent’s is an important book: war poetry can no longer be defined as in the twentieth century as the poetry of soldiers. The ‘war on terror’ has created a limitless war-zone, its combatants assume that all citizens share responsibility for decisions taken by their political masters, and that all our identities are sufficiently defined by national or religious borders. In such a context we are all confronted by the potential identity of ‘war poet’. David Harsent’s book has simply taken on the consequences of that confrontation.

The poems in the second and third sections, though overshadowed somewhat by ‘Legion’, carry their own charge. The sequence of block-like texts which describe tors and stone circles depict how enigmatic human traces are outside our narrow historical space. Their borrowings from earlier texts throw us back on our own continual need to interpret, establishing it as, in itself, the most fitting memorial to those we cannot name. The confessions and monologues which make up the final section mirror the driven nature of the opening, finding in intimacy the same potential for destruction and, as the last poem indicates, for love. In ‘Baby Blue’ a mother sees something chillingly reminiscent of Eliot’s ‘skull beneath the skin’ in the colour of her son’s eyes,

then stops on a broken note, her own eyes full

as she catches a glimpse of the sky through the skull.

That sudden moment of doubt or dubious insight, taking the ground away from beneath you, is Piotr Sommer’s signature note. He is one of the most important Polish writers of the last thirty years, not least because of his connection with Literatura na Swiecie (World Literature), a magazine which played a significant cultural role during the communist regime, and which he now edits. But his work, as August Kleinzahler tells us in his introduction to these poems, is not primarily concerned with Polishness.

Identity for Sommer is too fraught a concept to extend to anything as grand as a nation. Perhaps for this reason he has attracted, among others, two very different translators with similar reservations – John Ashbery and Douglas Dunn. These seem ideally suited to his surreal yet colloquial dissections of personal memory, perception and even family ties.

A typical Sommer poem begins off-handedly about nothing in particular, a random observation or account of behaviour which often sits at an odd angle to its title. It is resolutely quotidian in a way which recalls Frank O’Hara’s ‘I do this, I do that’ poems (Sommer has translated O’Hara into Polish), but without that poet’s affectations and enthusiasms. ‘Why make things prettier/than they are?’ he asks in ‘Confirmation’, and we gradually absorb the point. Sommer’s poems work cumulatively on us, nudging us phrase by phrase towards a perspective that is quietly open to transience without celebrating chaos.

It’s hard to catch the flavour of this without quotation. In ‘Standards from the Seventies’, for instance,  the poem opens with an  abstracted description of a conversation whilst coming home that turns on the observation ‘And what does one live?/One lives dead streets, rebuilt now for years,’ before focussing on a series of small details

We get off first: a crossing, a green light,

we take the lift up. A neighbour from the sixth floor

stomps out his cigarette and kicks it down the shaft.

We can try assessing whether this last observation is to be read as an actual symbol, but Sommer has moved back to the conversation and a comment which seems to explain the title: ‘Even a weak theme, done well,/will play itself’, only to conclude ‘Real life doesn’t’. How serious is this comparison of life to some weak ‘standard’ tune from the Seventies? How emotive was that appeal to the ‘dead streets’? This restless, effortless movement, from the outer world to the inner without placing undue emphasis on either, is entirely characteristic.

Sommer works in the same way between poems so that images build up resonances that we’re not quite conscious of. It may be that same lift which rouses ‘the old dog’ who ‘favours/the worldly life, but without conviction’ – who in turn reminds us of the opening of ‘Space’:

The sun is burning out and shining through the dust.

The river is invisible, our house was built by little ants.

It’s freezing and almost dark, white figures return to their homes.

The buses can hardly move –

at home dogs have had a hard day.

And so we find a cycle has been described, and we have unconsciously colluded in his exploration of the nature of memory. As a recent poem concludes: ‘Read as if you were to listen,/not to understand.’

Sommer’s poems have a knack of ending well, producing a series of destabilising couplets which remind us that it is in the ordinary moments that all the big questions must be grounded (‘you won’t be read to the music of speech/but to the hubbub of things.’). His poetry’s defence of and deadpan delight in the stubborn difficulty of particulars is a rebuke to those who believe identity is simply a matter of loud adherence to a dominant ideology. In this sense his work is as thorough an exploration of the European experience as Conn’s or Harsent’s. Instead of a stable series of cultural emblems, or the unpicking of a tortuous and violent history, he sees it as a state of mind in which

Suddenly you notice this everyday loneliness, contrary to your self, perhaps,

and contrary to those you’re thinking about.

(Stewart Conn, Ghosts at Cockcrow (Bloodaxe), 96pp, £8.95; David Harsent, Legion (Faber), 82pp, £8.99; Piotr Sommer, Continued (Bloodaxe), 128pp, £8.95.)

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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