Close, 2

(A short disquisition on how sideboards do furnish a room, in which I’m thinking about types of closeness: how close we get to – or should approach – those lives we thought we might lead. How distant the writer might be, or want to be, from those he or she writes about. 

The element of retreat in this reminds me of the suki no tonseisha, those writerly monks who retreated to their temporary huts to contemplate transience in medieval Japan – Bunting’s ‘Chomei at Toyama‘ being one reconsideration of this motive, simultaneously ascetic and aesthetic, with just a dash of Bartlebyism in the mix. Similarly, I suggest, Hugh MacDiarmid wanted to get away from the couthiness of the close, to become uncouth. 

My feelings on the matter are, perhaps, more conflicted.)

I find myself fantasising (in the sense that nothing I do quite amounts to planning) about augmenting the inherited furniture of my rented tenement flat, given that it is a mirror image of my grandmother’s flat, with my grandmother’s sideboard – which was itself the ‘virtual sideboard’ of a lost novella, written on holiday in the 90s in the darkness of a Tenerife holiday bungalow while my partner and infant daughter slumbered in the bedroom, my ‘inspiration’ fuelled by half bottles of three year old whisky with names unheard of in these parts – Auld Perth, The Highlander’s Delight, Prince Stewart’s Own Blend. 

The novella, as far as I can remember anything about its plotless meanderings, simply located all my memories and fantasies about my childhood and Dundee somewhere in the recesses of the sideboard, and so too folded away the past itself like a tablecloth, or the vast thick table mat that was brought out every time my great-aunts and-uncles foregathered to play cards (always ‘Horsie’, or Newmarket), which could be accessed by crawling into it a la Narnia or a Tardis. It sounds and presumably was terrible.

The actual sideboard currently languishes in Asbestos Garage, AKA my mother’s unused garage, itself an echo of our identical old unused garage from Kennoway Place, the bungalow where we lived for the best part of thirty years, alongside the damp boxes of papers which may or may not contain the manuscript of Virtual Sideboard, which themselves are only like my archive, in that they are completely unsorted. (They are in fact more like a forgettory.)

This gesture would then reflect and reinforce the way that my current stay in Broughty Ferry is itself a simulacrum of my lost ‘Life in Dundee’ in my thirties and forties when I was in fact earning a living for my family in Newcastle (ie being a grown up), but somehow ‘should’ have lived here.

That mirror imaging is the key to the sideboard/garage/archive/forgettory: I’m in a simulacrum of my twenties: following a life like a life I ‘want’ to lead, just not enough to actually do so. Thus the weekly visits to my mother in Monifieth reverse the polarity of my treks up the Perth Road in the eighties (via Groucho’s and various vanished second-hand bookshops) to Gran’s flat. Thus my constitutional walk of a Sunday is not past the Castle and along the sandy beach, but in the opposite direction, to the yacht club and the Stannergate. 

The trope of reversal, like the McGonagall supper in which the courses are eaten in reverse order, or the manner in which the Three Estates in Sir David Lindsay’s Satire are led onstage ‘Gangan backwart’ by their respective Vices, points me to the figure of the shaman who lives life backwards, tricksily, or contrariwise, the Heyoka of the Lakota: for instance, the ‘Straighten-Outer’ is described as ‘always running around with a hammer trying to flatten round and curvy things (soup bowls, eggs, wagon wheels, etc.), thus making them straight.’

Thus the whole practice becomes a bad shamanism, trying to make something straight and simple which happened to follow its own kinks and arabesques. Thus the weekly breakfast at Visocchi’s; the stimulating diet of pies or bridies from Goodfellow’s; the diurnal purchase of the Evening Telegraph; the hour of devotions to that Tullie or staring at the Tay in one of the set quartet of public houses, The Ship, The Fisherman’s, The Phoenix, Mennie’s; the purchasing of Braithwaite’s coffee despite misgivings about this being some sort of proto-hipster gesture; the visiting of the DCA where once it would have been the Steps Cinema – these are all attempts to imitate a life, and are indeed an imitation of life.

But there are virtues to be glimpsed among the errors I have led myself into. My fascination with the contrary writers of nineteenth century Dundee – whether the working class figures associated with the kailyard, the genuine innovators, or that peculiarly Flarf-like strain of deliberately bad writing that led to Dundee’s yurodivy, the Holy Fool McGonagall – folk like James Easson, ‘Poute’ (Alexander Burgess), and James Young Geddes – has led me to reconsider those Dundonian values Michael Marra characterised as ‘hermless’ in a manner that would have appalled that great dismisser of all poetics but his own, Hugh MacDiarmid.

His dislike of poems which were in his opinion ‘like a dog when it loves you’ manifested itself in a marked rejection of closeness in the sense under discussion here. MacDiarmid wished to flee the sentiment and nostalgia of such nineteenth-century poetry – symbolised for him by the Burns Cult, and, metonymically, by the use of the Burns stanza, with its tightly-packed rhymes and dimeter and trimeter lines – precisely because it was so proximate to him. 

He wished to escape from the closeness of the toun, that place where he actually lived – be it Langholm, Montrose, Whalsay (the toun as island as whale), or the ironic homophone of Biggar – into the conceptual space of international Modernism: the continental, the cosmopolitan, the urbane. In short, the eternal city, the city of the world’s desire, the city of God, the city that never sleeps – anything but the Scottish city with its transferral of the horizontally parochial to the vertical of the close.

MacDiarmid’s mode was always to foreignise, to make strange and other and separate what it is that the (Scottish) poet does and is – though in doing so he conformed to a rather conventional Romantic notion of the distance between the genius and his (always his) genealogy. 

Because his politics would not allow him to retreat to the ivory tower, he favoured a more extreme vertical still, the Tower of Abstruse New Song, in particular the upper floors of that brutalist structure, the long poem, ‘The kind of poetry I want/Is poems de longue haleine – far too long/To be practicable for any existing medium’ – in the words of the Chinese poet Yang Lian, he wished to ‘begin from what is impossible’.

I’d like to try instead to think of a summation of the poet’s role as far too possible – a polyphony of possibilities, or an irreducibly plural series of roles that have to be assessed, categorised, and assigned priorities – the multi-tasking of a close-dweller, or citizen of the polis, a participant, however inept and/or reluctant.

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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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