Issue 1: Adam Piette on Jen Hadfield, Peter Manson and Mervyn Peake
Jen Hadfield, Nigh-No-Place (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008). ISBN 978-1-85224-793-5. £7.95
Peter Manson, Between Cup and Lip (Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Press, 2008). ISBN 978-1-4243-3110-9. $15.00
Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. with intro. by R.W. Maslen (Manchester: Fyfield Books, Carcanet, 2008). ISBN 978-1-85754-971-3. £12.95
Poetry that sneaks up on prose and steals its fire. Or prose that raises its game to rival poetry’s densities and complexities. Or language at play through the forms and scenes and estrangements that force themselves gently upon composing attention. Blackbox Manifold interests itself in the zones between prose and poetry: narratives, sequences, dramatic or dramatized stories, ‘prosaic’ levels of engagement with language which start to work differently once on the page, generating relations and correlations within the page’s arena. Prose poetry is not the only genre BBM is concerned with – it is rather the specific kinds of thing which happen when verse structures are ‘loosened’, other flows allowed to pool up and fill the page, when the icon Poetry is turned aslant. The three books I’ll be reading here have very different manners of engaging with the prose/poetic page. The three poets taken together might be said to overturn and reinvent that old Snark the prose poem – to have found alternative sources for the prose-energized pages that get themselves written.
Jen Hadfield’s collection Nigh-No-Place, a Poetry Book Society recommendation, is remarkable for the radical-witty suppleness of its concept of the collection as free network, as a developing set of stories within the islands of its concerns. Written under the sign of the wanderer through unknown and unknowable territories, the collection works with three modes of attention: one to the Shetland islands where she now lives, then to the travel writing generated by a journey to Canada, and third to the animal world allowed to inhabit the pages in sharp language encounters at the edge of it all. She works with domesticated animals mostly, the dog, the horse and the cat, as though to overturn Adam’s thrall and rename by way of discovered othering and affectionate instinct. That instinct is procedural as much as it is thematized: just as the journeys into foreign utopian zones, the no-places of the earth marginal to modernity, are redreamt not as primitivist sanctuaries, but as language crucibles, so the skirl of words generated by the beast fables unpick Adamic masteries and Lawrentian egotistic encounters. The poems do so to discover friendly animal-centred speech forms that attend to the insides active in all vocalization, understand animal subjections at this environmental endgame, and also acknowledge Jen Hadfield’s own yearning for other creature-creative knowledge, as with this comic hymn to the hedgehog:
Drunk, I coddle it like a crystal ball,
hellbent the realistic mysteries
should amount to more than guesswork
The animal poems sidle alongside a nature poetry which is intent too on listening to the language being received at such edged zones as this. The sound system of the words on the page become sound-affects, the odd eccentric richesse found as if by accident. Shetland’s weather is received as a bearing the heavy brunt of it all, in good bad temper as a lively gift to the human species. Jen Hadfield’s Shetland words are not in her element but in theirs, a no-place immersion in the creased furls and coils and unfurling, uncoiling energies being released. The comedy of the poems lies in the phrases that are allowed to occur, as found objects given high levels of care and scrutiny. It is a high risk performance, going beyond displays of lyricality to a listening along the line towards the page, comically aware of the precariousness of the listening posture, and awake to the fact of nearly being heard and hooted at.
The post-romantic lyric is reinvented as rockpool in one of the best poems in the collection, ‘Daed-traa’, Shetland Scots for the slack of the tide. The rockpool discovered at daed-traa is the nigh-no-place Jen Hadfield goes to ‘to mind me what my poetry’s for’, for it has ‘ventricles, just like us’, is a closed theatre, a Little Shop of Horrors harbouring tiny monsters, its Lears, Monroes, monk-like barnacles. The analogies bring the rockpool into sudden, comic relation to the body, to our own language-memory as theatre, cinema and freak-show. But they also stretch the confines of analogy too, for the rockpool takes its force and comic sway from something bigger than the mind’s own theatre:
It has its flodd.
It has its welling god
with puddled, podgy face and jaw.
It has its holy hiccup.
Its minute’s silence
The flood of the tide is a water-god, a drunken Poseidon hiccuping its way to its own wake, an it upon the white sands of the page discovering silences and expanse as though in dead-true, deed-twisting afterlife. The welling god is as much Shetland Scots as it is the sea, and as much the great language out there which surges into the rockpools of poems to furnish watery material, to preserve a poet’s strange mind-inhabitants, to provide the life forces within the words that remain once the tide withdraws.
It is “Daed-Traa” which acts as a centre-piece to the collection, drawing the poems around it into play as various-minded modes of encounter with the welling language tide, and also, incidentally almost, providing the watery grounds of possibility for the tidal energies linking free verse forms and the alternative prose experiments of the volume. The tiny semi-stanzas of the poem break down into phrasal units, revealing and revelling in the music, and so inaugurate ways of listening to a prose poem like ‘Snuskit’ (Shetland for a sulky state of mind) which sits like prose to the eye, yet sings like a poem to the ear:
wind punches me gently into a pool. I’m doing my best impression of a gull – pesky, pitied, lonely, greedy, hopping up and down on my tuffet. The wind punches me gently into a pool.
The comedy of the Poseidon drunk, boozed out genius of the rockpool, finds echo in the sulky figure cut by Jen Hadfield on the beach as the Shetland wind buffets Miss Muffet. She is a gull of the island she inhabits, as any intruder might be felt to be, but the performance of acting the gull punches her gently into the pool-zone of the maker, a zone we register by hearing her words’ arrangement into sweet rhythm (hear the four-beats run along through the sentences), sweet repeats, and, best of all, the comedy of a vocalizing of her own estrangement which homes her in to the environment of the rockpool. The homing occurs as the rockpool we read, the prosepoem on the page, enacts the encounter with Shetland raillery at the same time as it discovers the gentle violence of the forces of language. The self is humiliated (‘the wind topples me’) to reveal a comedian of the language at its edges, beyond the lyrical I, and into affectionately pooled apperceptions.
Peter Manson’s first American collection, Between Cup and Lip, is made up of an astonishingly varied set of slips of the tongue, jokes, bagatelles, serious wit and a jangling of all registers and codes. Miami UP tell us on their website that the collection’s diversity is a function of its status as a holding bay for poems that lie between two very different modes of work, ‘the missing link between two collections published in Britain, For the Good of Liars (Barque, 2006) and Adjunct: An Undigest (Edinburgh Review, 2005), demonstrating the continuum between the prosodically-dense, endlessly considered poetry of the former and the procedural work of the latter.’ In other words, the poems here are more than a melange of procedural and prosodic compositions (though there are examples of both), but a quizzical quest, through comedy, for a procedural prosody or prosodic procedure, as Snarkish a beast, perhaps, as the old prose poem of old.
‘Rosebud (after Robert Herrick)’ takes the done and dusted old ragtagline ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying’ and subjects it to a Oulipian procedure of dictionary exponential substitution: a factor of four creates a gargantuan text for all the world like some badly programmed robot improvising Joyce’s Ithacan episode. The joke lies obviously in the parodic acid thrown on the Old Time lyric, dissolving its creepy sentimentality and releasing arcane Spinozan-abstract energies, whilst cocking a snook at the New Critical language bores who insist the OED is God of the small poem. Here the OED acts more like a paranoid computer, generating fractal textual universes from insanely feedbacked looping of tiny scraps of data. The text fabricated by the procedure bears resemblances to the prose poem, however; the last lines discovered by Manson’s HAL a curious blend of the animal-human hybrid, and the sexually-compulsive religiose-obsessive:
of the part of the trunk between neck and abdomen, by which the flight of a bird, bat, insect, angel etc. is effected, one who attends, devoted to God, or person employed to carry messages, and so on, is caused to come in the course of events
These words are virally connected back to Herrick’s ‘a-flying’ (from previous expansions of the concepts ‘wing’ and ‘angel’) only in the sense that language connects everything along an infinite and unstable metonymic string of all words that harbour (paranoid) illusions of origin. But the viral attack on the lyric generates a curious singsong made by procedural play, a semi-hypnotic rhythmical hum (beats of 4, 2, 4, 2, 2, 3+1, 4), a quasi-rhyming of endwords (‘abdomen’ and ‘attends’ crossing over ‘effected’ and ‘events’). The textualized lyricism bolsters the comic verve in zany ways, drawing the eye/ear towards the weird physicality of the divine-animal monster generated by the procedure. The monster is the Herrick-humanist ejaculating in rapt wonder at the angelic beast that is lyrical man, flying into the nets of Manson’s clever trap. The lyrical signs are parodic registers capturing Herrickal poetry ‘caused to come’ but whose only emissions are the viral absurdities of the dick-dictionary.
The best extended joke of the book is the extraordinary ‘Snail Book’, which stages Manson as the ultimate nature geek, a keeper of snails. The knowledge of snails itemized in the prosy piece is too much information, oh far too much information gluing the eye to the goldfish tank walls, watching the mucal copulations, the tentacles, tubular siphons and toothed shells of the different gastropods as they masturbate, crawl and metamorphose, in Manson’s mad-dry, proboscis-in-cheek diction. The tiny body parts of the animals come together in vile-slimy dismembering fusions and breedings, like the virally-infected words in Herrick’s poem, but summoning exhilarating contorsions of speech and attention. It is not just the snails that generate Linnean poetry but a generally heady scientism, as in this wee riff on fossils:
Small piece of Rhynie chert has a druse-like void or vug branching like a trachea and lined with white silica a quarter of an inch wide, the surface covered in tiny warts which I’d like to think were surface features of a plant stem but are probably quartz crystals.
The gaze is 19th century, a Darwin-eyed scrutinizing of the remaindered world of the earth, and also into the deep past of Scotland – Rhynie chert taking us way back into the strata. Again a troubling and comic rhyming sucks one into the language on the page, 'void or vug', 'trachea'-'silica', 'quarter'-'warts'-quartz', sound-repetitions staged as mistakes almost, cutting across the mock bumbling of the mad-professorially long sentence sound. The distraction such a gaze (and rhyming language) enact is comedic too because of the incidence of political events in some of the prose paras, incursion of Westminster from media sources breaking in on the snail-keeper's study. The clash of registers generates a bashful trialectic between poetry-as-snailkeeping, Scotland as fossilized world and the political present as Blairite propaganda. What larks. This is a wonderful poem, and reinvents procedural prose prosody as comic routine, with Snarkish laughs as tough as old snails.
It is quirky comedy too which marks out some of the finer poems in the entrancing and illumined poems written by Mervyn Peake, especially those written during the Second World War. The poems dwell in the neo-romantic zones of surreal analogy, drawing fascinating lines of connection between the gothic fantasy of the Gormenghast prose and the Apocalyptic School movement within whose orbit Peake writes. There are extraordinary riches here, the ballads, the dream sketches, the Blakean meditations, which editor Rob Maslen has brought together for the first time, and matched with the beautiful cartoons and drawings Peake produced to accompany them. The wartime work is at the core of the volume: the war nearly broke Peake and that brush with madness, and the horror of what he saw in the Belsen poems, haunt everything here. But it is the dark comedy of his fantasy writing which salves some of the wounds in the mind, rising to macabre frenzy in the wonderful ballad, 'The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb' . It narrates the tale of a sailor in doodlebug London who saves an infant from a bombed house, takes it to a ruined church, laughs and dances a mad dance of death, whilst singing of the war, the sea and destruction. He is a war-traumatized ancient mariner, and the ballad is written in Coleridge's form. The song summons the babe into supernatural life, revealed as Southwell's burning babe announcing apocalypse and the approach of the flying bomb. The verse is high on pastichy energy, teasing out of 1940s culture the madder extremities of wartime zealotry, apocalyptic fantasy and Eliotic churchy endgame. At the same time, the Coleridge parody releases some of the finest comic writing of the war, a grim gallows humour with a sprited Burns-like panache and earthy-metaphysical livewire English.
The prose poem as developed by Baudelaire was modelled on a situating of the post-romantic lyric (sign of poetry) within city spaces (sign of prose). Peake's prose/poetic thinking (beyond the prose poem) takes here the way of Romantic ballad narrative, sensing in the jogtrot rhythm, the loud rhyme and the rapid story-telling a zest and supernatural gaiety appropriate to the V-2 Blitz. The ballad narrative is situated firmly in modern London, as if to demonstrate the way in which the blitzes turned the prosaic world of the industrial city into a surreal and fantastic realm, just as the poem moves across prosaic city language with the lunacy of the balladic imagination. The result is a punchy, punch-drunk poem, travelling fast towards radical derangement, kept sane only by the Tam O'Shanter comic verve:
And his dance was a scare-crow dance, and his feet
Clashed loud on the streets of glass
And his bones shone red and were sticky with his blood
While he signed for the ships to pass.
And the ships of brick and the ships of stone
And the charcoal ships lurched by
While his footsteps clashed on the frozen waves
That shone to the scarlet sky
The sailor's frenzy is the city's, transformed by bombs into its surreal seascape analogue as though directly and concretely by Dali's paranoiac-critical method. The sailor's dance and clashing feet is the ballad metre gone too far, the lurching and the clashing steps witness to the blasting disruption of poetry in the wartime world, acknowledging with sardonic wit the childish clunkiness of the war-born verse. For the war turned men mad as children; the burning and the surviving and the unforgettable destruction of the war brought combatants like Peake's sailor close to becoming burning babes in the incandescent city. Peake's brilliance was to have sought out the roots of the neo-Romanticism not only of wartime London poetry but also within the fantasy he found himself composing out of Gormenghast. The roots are revealed in the Krazy Kat violence of the war itself, the flying bomb as the apocalypse of the political unconscious, the war dead child as Burning Babe Terminator, the poet as supercharged ancient mariner narrating himself through to London's death. The edition of the poems is very welcome indeed, and should establish Peake permanently as a key wild voice of the 1940s.
Adam Piette teaches at the University of Sheffield, is author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War and a forthcoming book on Cold War texts. He is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold