The Long Haul

 (A version of this review appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Poetry London)

David Constantine, Nine Fathom Deep (Bloodaxe), 88pp, £8.95; Peter Porter, Better Than God (Picador), 81pp, £8.99; Sheenagh Pugh, Long-Haul Travellers (Seren), 64pp, £7.99

One of the minor reliefs of the last decade has been a sense that contemporary poetry is at last moving on from its twentieth century obsession with beginnings. By this I mean seeing an art form solely in terms of myths of origins, those in which the world either comes into being without awareness of any past, or sees its old gods imprisoned, murdered or emasculated — and, crucially, deposed.

Whether in the shape of modernism being characterised as simplistic rupture, or the impact of surrealism on Soho (if not the Scots), or the sixties and seventies engagement with US poetics as a social behaviour, rather than as a counter-tradition – our previous century’s poetry was continually attempting to begin again, like a serial monogamist, unable to commit to any muse for more than the few years in which a literary movement can persuade itself it is innovative.

This had the unfortunate effect of characterising that writing not intoxicated by a current excitement as antithetical, as reactionary rather than, as with key figures like Auden or, more recently Donaghy, part of a search for continuity, an attempt to arrive at the middle myths, those concerned with the quest, the labyrinth, the return.

Until acknowledgement is made that the anguished journeys of Gilgamesh, Odysseus and Dante are of continued, indeed especial relevance to the post-Baby Boom, postmodern, post-punk, post-theory culture in which we find (or fail to find) ourselves, there can be no meaningful appraisal of our elder masters, those poets who are now writing about the myths of ending, whether to resist or affirm the one definitive act of closure our culture has to agree on, death.

These three writers concern themselves in very different ways with the matter of the middle myths, and how they reconfigure our understanding of beginnings and prefigure to the point of occasionally ushering in our endings, whether characterised as oblivion or apocalypse.

Sheenagh Pugh’s use of the trope of travel to explore instabilities of identity engages partly with the cultural pressures of our period, and partly with the sheer impact of time, what it means, not just to exist in crisis, but to continue to exist through the passing and arrival of ideologies. David Constantine’s explorations of European sensibility are grounded as much in the ageing body as in his daring, darting syntax. Peter Porter’s marriage of wit (in both its metaphysical and satiric sense) with technical brilliance and a cultural reach that seemingly encompasses everything from broadband to the Bosphorus, is the very definition of what we must call Old Mastery.

Taken together they enable us to consider, yet again, the resonance of symbols that, if they cannot make sense of our world, at least deepen our response to it. The conceptual frameworks they assemble would suggest that poetry is not a matter of harmony or dissonance, of revolutionary rupture or untroubled conservatism, indeed that this kind of dialectic is itself a symptom of being stuck at the beginning.

If books have directions, Long-Haul Travellers would appear to point north. From an elegy to Mackay Brown to a hallucinatory poem possibly set in Leningrad, the northern light of the Scottish islands, of Norway and the Baltic, recur throughout the often short-lined, crisp descriptive verse of Sheenagh Pugh’s twelfth collection: everything seems to sit in the ‘vast white shallow bowl’ of Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura.

But this would be to overlook the injunction which opens the book: 

The trick is to take only

what will be scarce

where you are going.

A long central sequence focuses on a northerner who travelled in a contrary direction, Murat Reis, a Dutch slave trader in Algeria, whose identity has undergone such radical shifts, no one, family or victim, can tell exactly who he is: ‘Such fluidity/he thinks in the end/may be a way/of staying the same.’

And the types of crises arising from such juxtaposition of opposites are also the theme of two poems set in the North East – in the Roman camp visible across the Tyne from my window, in fact, Arbeia, ‘fort of the Arab troops,’ where two gravestones depict the figures of Regina and Victor, one a local girl who married a Syrian, the other a Moor who died here aged just twenty:

the glow of triumph on him, this rising star

who’d won his freedom and his master’s love,

wearing his youth like armour. Ave, Victor.

Here, elegiac irony is well-balanced by the depiction without comment of an apparently untroubled multiculturalism. And that subtle exposure of underlying tensions in our sense of identity lies at the heart of Pugh’s oppositions of North and South, passion and intellect, Christian and Muslim. Murat Reis’ meditation on female identity – ‘how used they are/to change their names/…sleep with the enemy’ – is reflected in a poem which teases at a mythic concept, ‘The Girl Taken By An Eagle’.

Sudden mysterious flights have intrigued Pugh for some time – witness the early title ‘Beware Falling Tortoises’ with its allusion to the death of Sophocles. (One of the less successful pieces here is a monologue by a long-lived and therefore sententious tortoise.) Their analogous relation to the enigma of creation is bound up not just with the fluidity of female identity, but the issue of being regarded as subject as well as subjective:

Now it seems,

after all, I was in the wrong story.

The Girl Who Climbed A Mountain – she sounds

bolder, more fun. Maybe I should have been her,

if I’d known. If you ever know.

The ultimate source of this laconic perspective on interpretation and the passions is of course Cavafy, and there are several few points where he is evoked, as at the end of ‘The Opportune Moment’: ‘When you go/ashore, take nothing but the knowledge/that where you are, you never will be again…’ or this glimpse of the Romans on Hadrian’s Wall:

One day, someone looks out and admits

the enemy is not coming;

he has changed his ways, or maybe

he was never there at all…

David Constantine has long been a poet capable of the triumphant re-imagining of a distant viewpoint, literary, classical or otherwise, and this new collection is shot through with his characteristic marriage of the ecstatic with the marmoreal. The poems often seem to work in dialogic pairs, one piece picking up and amplifying or challenging the view obtained by another. There is a striking poem on the attempt to domesticate a ‘Roman Sarcophagus’: ‘And no, the idea

Of that in the living room doesn’t stop my blood,

Quite the opposite, several dead

I’d willingly give them house-room and be glad

This seems balanced by ‘Finder,’ in which, with the eighteenth century Scot, Sir William Hamilton, in mind — and his multiple roles as ambassador to Naples, vulcanologist and archaeologist — Constantine produces a delicate monologue in which the fragment of a statue (‘a woman’s breast, the left, with some/Clavicle and beginnings of the upper arm,’) is viewed first as a fossil, then imagined as regenerating the whole woman. Echoes of his young wife Emma, who famously danced without undergarments for Goethe as well as becoming the mistress of Nelson, are not hard to find.

Desire and the intellect are combined throughout the collection in a series of portraits of women or parts of women, from Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du monde’ to the translation of two of the poems removed by the censor from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. Goethe appears in ’18 Via del Corso’ arriving in Rome with ‘his writing hand…desirous of learning the other arts.’ This poem is contrasted with ’26 Piazza di Spagna’ where ten minutes walk away and thirty odd years later Keats lies dying, clutching a flower from Fanny Brawne:

He swaps her white carnelian from hand to hand.

He will go under a roof of violets and daisies

(His friend has promised) holding her letters as though

In there he could bear to read them.

In that extraordinary ending, Constantine reveals again his gift for elegy without sentiment. He achieves such effects by juxtaposing human frailties and desire with the inhuman, often using lapidary imagery, but also drawing on the oceans, as his collection’s title suggests. Between a rock and a deep place his protagonists apprehend their needy interactions in poem after poem where they literally warm each other against the endless cold: 

He is good in bed

For thawing your toes, he takes them

In at the top of his thighs and nothing

Delights him more than warmly eclipsing

Your cold bum.

That homely monosyllable recurs in an otherwise decorous translation of Baudelaire, ‘her arms, her legs, her bum, her thighs,/Smooth as oil, swanlike, serpentine,’ and points to another distinctive trait. He is drawn to a breadth of vocabulary and an open-ended, flowing syntax which contrasts strongly with the air of terse, classical finish we might otherwise associate with such subject matters. Unusual phrasings like ‘the creatures flair this’ and ‘breakable//As sparrowframe’, terms like ‘a poor wisht thing’ and ‘this little porth’, the repeated use of ‘cicatrice’, the deployment of restless dimeter lines, all illustrate something hinted at in his ‘Three Notes on Lear’:

He became Poor Tom, fished deep

And as in posh old people after as stroke

Up came the vernacular, the dirt, the baby talk,

The horrors.

This is what raises his work above many contemporary practitioners, the sense that here is a writer who has, in his own words, ‘deployed the spine like a diving rod’. The result is a daring collection which occasionally feels less integrated than it might – the savagery of some satiric quatrains doesn’t quite come off – but overall we feel like the

Amiable believer in Atlantis

Who rowed out over a possible upheaval

in 1712 and the boiling water

Uncaulked his boat.

Peter Porter provides his own epigraph to Better Than God, a tercet which reads

As He said of the orchestra

at the Creation, they can play

anything you put in front of them.

Here the relation between Creator and creation (shadowed by the slippage between God and Haydn) is presented as the latter outdoing the former by actually expressing what the former has ‘merely’ composed.  It is a statement of great metaphysical subtlety and, both in terms of its scale versus its scale of reference, and its position as the opening poem of a late collection – a beginning myth seen from a conclusive perspective – very funny.

Porter’s titles are always a delight in themselves – he is one of the few whose contents pages are a better read than most other’s poets’ actual works – and ‘That War is the Destruction of Restaurants’ ‘My Parents Were Walking Islands’ and ‘Henry James and Constipation’ are worthy additions to the catalogue, urbane, lyrical and waspish in turn.

What this collection establishes beyond its initial successes is that mastery of tone is partly mastery of the complex interaction between idea, syntax and (metrical) line, that verse is a method of generating and containing thought as a paradoxical energy, something at once disciplined and unconstrained. This is what enables Porter to engage with the assumptions which underlie our culture without surrendering that lightness of touch which we associate with the lyrical.

This is evidenced by his habit of taking a familiar phrase from philosophy and qualifying it radically. ‘Whereof We cannot Speak’ challenges that urge towards austerity and away from messy humanity we recognise in Wittgenstein. Remarking ‘There is nothing here “whereof”’ he presents language less as a tool for meaning and more as symbiotic part of our composite intellectual being (‘Under the microscope [our species] seems/to be covered in odd parasites/called words’), concluding ‘a philosopher feels on his cheek/the tears whereof he cannot speak.’

Another mark of his command of poetic register is that, although several poems claim to be light verse, none of them on closer examination actually is. ‘To Murder Sleep’ implies it is a satire on shallow experimentalism (‘Panopticon of all that’s new/It gleams in Weekend interview.’ But in its depiction of the poet locked in nightmare re-enactment of ‘some much-applauded dumbing-up’ the poem rejects easy oppositions in favour of miasmic complicities – Porter is not content to conjure the dread that ‘relevance may not go slow’ he must also confess ‘You’re still both Neophile and Dunce.’

Sleep is granted a voice in ‘In Bed with Oblomov’, another poem where the assumed irrelevance of the literary and the historically-distant is first metaphorised, then challenged:

Beyond your windows Russia sleeps

In snows, as drifts, which might not even be,

Surround your resting; vacant deeps

Soul-white but bled into the wintersea,

‘Give up the world, even when awake,’ Sleep cajoles, just as, in ‘Under the Rupe Tarpeia,’ the apparent unreality of real things is discovered to be both our doing, and our undoing: the self, regarding the rock from which traitors to Rome would be flung, remarks ‘“If death is deep,/Why does the fall appear so miniscule?”’

This collection is full of memories of relatives and ancestors, as well as literary heroes and classical antecedents, all of whom must face the same challenge: to be awake to the full complexity of circumstances, not merely clinging, as his great-grandfather, the architect Robert Porter, did, to reassuring ideals, finding ‘no reason why the sun/Now shining in the South changed one/Iota of the Law’ he designed pubs, churches and, as an anti-masterpiece, Boggo Road Gaol. 

Two types of doppelgangers help to round out Porter’s portrayal of the truly awake, one comic, the other something more. The monologue ‘The Hungarian Producer goes to Lunch’ contains a perfervid and hilarious self-analysis: ‘Isaiah was Hungarian and Elijah/and Jesus was en route to Budapest/when a passing donkey led him to Jerusalem.’

‘Opus 77’ returns to Haydn and the musical motif of the title poem to deliver a series of poignant and precise utterances on what survives us: ‘What works you did will be yourself when you/have left the present…’.  Again, it finds images for language’s role in our passing, and finds in these a simultaneously moving and stabilising resonance, something which grounds the reader not merely in meaning, but in the meaningful:

They love me, all my words, despite how often

I made fools of them, betrayed them, begged

Forgiveness of them. They are like the million grubs

Which swarm around their Queen. I file them in

Wide boxes where they wait for their Master’s Voice,

Accusing and defending.

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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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