Issue 16: Adam Piette on R. F. Langley

Review of: R. F. Langley, Complete Poems, edited Jeremy Noel-Tod (Manchester: Carcanet, 2015)

The borderlines demarcating the differences between textual and graphic representations are scumbled somewhat if one introduces mental image as factor in the game of correspondences. The matter of dispute becomes trickier and curiouser if the following coordinates are also in play: (i) if the inwardness posited as host of the mental images is psychologically extreme, or dreamy, or Id-distorted beyond recognition; (ii) if we have to take the dreamer’s word for it, especially if the word is presented as symptom; (iii) if we have no other recourse than this, to accept psychoanalysis as governing the setting; (iv) if the philosophical base for the description of the cognitive inward mental events reads as dated, sentimental, or plainly at odds with the psychological theory; (v) if we have to play at being ‘we’, or allow the ‘I’ to adopt our own occasions as props, or indulge any other pronominal whimsies beyond endurance; and of course (vi) that once image enters language , as it always already must, the object is flattened and emptied, decognitivized, invalidated, arbitrarily coded, unreadably pseudo-(in)corporeal, polysemous, treacherous, not an ‘object’ at all.

R. F. Langley’s poetry reads as unassumingly alert to, yet at another level crazily hyperaware of, the slips and jangles involved in the imagining of a relation between objects seen in the inner and outer worlds, or more generally both at the same time, especially if and as they only have performative being in the words we are reading here and there on the page.

That being said, Langley works up a warmth of a strange and unsettling kind, created by the attention lavished on the tiny phenomena, often insects, birds, plant-life, that is souped up somehow by the very ways the sequence of mental images they form for the reading mind do not cohere as sequence or clear narrative. This warmth generated by obliquity is hard to fathom – and has unfathomable sources; except that Langley helps us a little, with his gnomic, plain-style, cryptic fables, addending lists of source texts that may guide the bewildered reader. They are guides, so to speak, to the bewilderness of the reading affect and floaty yet spiky experiencing of Langley’s poems. Bewilderness is generated – by way of the key sources confessed to in the notes (which Jeremy Noel-Tod has helpfully pegged to each poem) – by an aesthetic field fusing visual arts and poetics precisely to invite us to entertain a text/image punctum that beguiles, at the same time as acknowledging the political even comic disabling of such a project by the ways and means of contemporary compulsions.

The key three source texts to Langley’s delicate, rackety work are by Adrian Stokes, Marion Milner, Richard Wollheim. And by so faithfully, generously, selflessly even, acknowledging his debts to their work, Langley has paradoxically ensured his strange and haunting poems will last a little longer than the amnesiac limbo that jaded poetry heads (like me) might just about have enough energy to confer. (This is not to say that the poems do not ‘work’ without knowledge of source texts – but it is dull beyond measure to have to downplay the loved textual environment of poems in order to salvage a dubious New Critical autonomy based on anti-intellectual premises that are art-destructive). He is guaranteed longevity in any case by this great edition of the complete poems, edited with feeling and diligence by Jeremy Noel-Tod: to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.

From Stokes Langley took most: it was Donald Davies’ advice to Langley and J.H. Prynne to read him along with Pound that motivated their crazy jalopy trip to Italy in 1960. Stokes’ combination of Kleinian psychoanalysis with meticulous study of quattrocento stone architecture, Piero della Francesca, Giorgone, Michelangelo, Turner, Cézanne launched Langley’s career as a poet of the inner mind and as an art teacher. It also afforded him a base for the kind of attention he pays the objects in the world. If for Stokes the Quattro Cento realized the concreted time in limestone, fusing past and present, water and earth, in a revelatory non-moment, then Langley aims, with the circling repetitive singlenesses of his poem’s presentation of objects and scenes, to generate the unsettling uncertainty that countermands timing and constructs an uncanny presentness of surmise, as here with the early ‘The Upshot’:

We leave unachieved in the

summer dusk. There was no

need for you rather than me.

Here is the unalterable truth.

Outside the open door peculiar

bugbears adopt the dark, then Kate

passes across. Next to nothing

depends on her coming in.

This bewilderness of lines sketches a sequence of events (the observer – without an I – about to leave a space, crossing a door as threshold into the dark which the partner passes across) which is undone by the present tense. It seems to narrate what has happened as if it were happening, yet reads as a dead historical observer’s memory, in what Beckett’s Molloy calls the mythological present. But that does not quite work. To ‘leave unachieved’ is also to resist pastness as such. The reason for the unachievement of the mythological present is due, the poems says, to the lack of any need for pronouns. What matters is the ‘here’ of the artwork: the present arena of interplay between the reader’s visionary eye and the poem’s scenes. And that hereness is generated, critically, by our abandoning I-you conventions and distances as we enter and cross the language threshold (or rather as we are suspended between a fiction of crossing into language and a spectatorship of the scenes summoned, as paradoxical observer/Kate ‘we’).

The poem negotiates not only between past and present by banishing sequence and pronominal inhabiting but also between inside and outside: by creating a threshold event at the open door in open field encounter. If ‘[n]ext to nothing / depends on her coming in’ implies a call upon William Carlos William’s pitching of the modernist object in terms of juxtapositional simultaneity (so much depending on the red wheelbarrow being ‘beside’ the white chickens) it is just as much a revision of post-imagist objectivism: for more depends on her passing across the threshold as if outside or at the threshold, than it does on her moving from inside to outside with the observer non-I.

‘Next to nothing’ at the threshold (as at the line break) is a situating of next-ness as encounter with a potentially liberatingly empty form. If sequence is undone, so is the next-ness of spatiality within the epiphenomenon of the poem. I say epiphenomenon because the writing deliberately courts a reading of its lines as symptoms correlating to some pre-existent field of sorts, to affect-peculiar scenes that occurred to a mind, distorted or created by dream and creative memory. The lines read like a dream diary, as a consequence.

But it is fruitless to speculate, since the poem is all we have; the upshot of the poem’s repeated engagement with the threshold (and with the ‘eight absurd captains’ it moves on to stage ‘whether they are seen or not’) is a careful summoning of dream sentences onto the page to create the presentness Stokes admired so much. For Stokes, writing about the sculptural work at the Tempio Malatestiano, ‘the very process of time can be expressed, without intermittence, as the vital steadiness of a world of space’ [The Image in Form, Penguin 1972, p. 170]. Yet the dreaminess is significant too: the painterly modulations of ‘the great variety of sensation from the object’ which Stokes drew from Cézanne [Image in Form, 244] – and which gave such life and colour to the network of affinities and reduplications on the canvas – are dream modulations for Langley, since language so abstracts and intensifies and creates affinities all of its own.

The ‘peculiar / bugbears’ that adopt the dark are unconscious drives summoned at the threshold between langue and parole: they adopt our subject positions even though the artwork invites us to abandon the I and the you. Bugbear words are there to frighten children, animal bogey selves, who may materialize into the loved one, mother love, disconcertingly (‘and then Kate / passes across’). Subject positions are bugbear identities in the dreamtime of the artwork. In his shift to Kleinian psychoanalytic readings of art, Stokes distinguished between depressive and paranoid-schizoid interpretations, ecstatic apprehensions of connectedness, affinity, identifications and wholeness set against part-object splitting and obsessively theatricalized displacements.

The bugbears act in Langley’s stanza as part-object-driven invitations to haunt the poem with gendered roleplay, according to Oedipally nightmarish scripts. The artwork enables the dreamer-reader to enter into reparative relations with potentially traumatic material from the unconscious and from random language (and Stokes is, as Peter Robinson has shown, so key to thinking through the process of reparation) by loosening the bonds of causality, guilty sequentiality, reality-addicted melancholia, detaching the dreamt biographical body from its bearings: ‘My hands and feet are already lost’, Langley’s non-I says, ‘in this country, with the immediate / sadness which no one has to believe’.

 Stokes determines the other two sources of many of the poems. Stokes writes admiringly of Marion Milner, as Janet Sayers has shown, particularly Milner’s On Not Being Able to Paint and her essay ‘The Role of Illusion in Symbol Formation’ [Image in Form, 106]. Illusion for Milner helps children aestheticize their experiencing of the world, framing it so that distinctions and resemblances between I and you can be negotiated, just as a frame enables what is seen to be demarcated from what is not in the picture, or as the frame of analysis enables transference.

Though this apprehension of the fluidity of self-presentation fostered by frames may be feeding into Langley’s doorframe in ‘The Upshot’, the key essay is Milner’s ‘The Coming and Going of Delight’ from her wonderful 1934 A Life of One’s Own (Routledge, 2011): the essay, as Jeremy Noel-Tod details in his notes, and, crucially, as Langley himself insisted in his notes, lies behind the thinking and feeling of ‘Jack’s Pigeon’, ‘Poor Moth’, ‘The Barber’s Beard’, ‘Tom Thumb’. Another section of the book, ‘Two Ways of Looking’, fed into ‘The Upshot’. Milner’s book tracks her own thought processes as she experiences the world on her own, in a form of intense meditation on the world’s surfaces. The two ways of looking are, on the one hand, habitual piecemeal narrowly focussed looking, and on the other, wide attention based on managing to ‘step clear of the distortions of my personal interests’ (79).

The delight that comes and goes in the key essay is generated by a slow training of the observer and sensationalist to become apprehensively aware by way of what Miner calls a ‘special internal gesture’ of the mind (49) which manages to displace attention from its locus in the head, to occupy other parts of the body then fully to leave the body and occupy an alien point of view. These projections of the attentive centre of consciousness both pluralize the mind – the non-I is made up of many potential points of view, that can be generated by the internal gesture – and engender feelings of ecstasy due to the astonishing novelty, clarity and plural oddity of apprehensions. We can see something of this process in ‘Poor Moth’, which worked up an uncanny real experience (narrated in Langley’s journal) in a washroom when he saw three rare moths on the wall.

The uncanniness of the core experience captured the whole surround so that the rememberer can inhabit the poem-space from multiple projections, seeing the mop in the corner, zooming in on the moths’ small eyes, switching to the sun stripes on the ‘green gloss paint’. Adjacent (but not next to) the images of the moths is the figure of Jack (a Langley alter-ego) in a reference library, hand on an encyclopaedia struck with fear suddenly. Jack and the moths circle the Langley I-voice, and he begins to panic, as though he is missing something (as the word 'moth' mouths 'mother' lack), fearful he might be locked in this night-mère artwork. Milner comes to his aid:


             I wonder if I gave

one frantic gesture it would

uncover all the complex

information, suddenly

silvery, riffling quickly

through the well-thumbed pages of

this ordinary place?

The gesture is not given, though, and we are left in the barren bleakness (‘here we are, and now’). The poem moves on to variations on its own perplexity: Jack going mad with paranoia in the library, the moths looming either as inaccessible, creamy and musical occasions to be other, or as monsters from the death-entranced Id. Yet something in the detailing of the craziness of the monologue points another way, as though seen by Milner’s ecstatic wide way of looking and her pluralizing special gesture. It is there in the chance beauty of ‘suddenly / silvery, riffling quickly’, conjoining the moths’ flash of wings and Jack’s hands at his book in the library, fusing them, momentarily, with the perplexed I-voice suspended between animal and human, ecstacy and death, identity and annihilation, mourning and melancholia, a threshold effect that gives such strange temporary and time-suspended delight.

Richard Wollheim as editor of Stokes and aesthetic philosopher for whom Stokes’s essays were as foundational as Hegel, Kant, Gombrich, is noted by Langley as key to poems after 2003, ‘Depending on the Weather’, ‘My Moth: My Song’, ‘Brute Conflict’, ‘Skrymir’s Glove’, ‘The Bellini in San Giovanni Crisostomo’. The key essay, for Langley, is ‘Iconicity, Imagination, and Desire’, from The Thread of Life. That essay redefines the acts of identification which art invites one to participate in as semi-dramatic selving and coopting of role within the frame of possibilities.

Central imagining, for Wollheim, in a version of Milner’s wide attention, entails a temporary act of role-play that cedes agency to the fictional avatar who becomes, fleetingly, the ‘protagonist of my project’ (Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 73). But that act of identification is only possible because the act of dramatization the art-observer is invited to engage in is dependent on a threefold structure of dramatist, actor, audience, all of whom are necessary corollaries to any imaginative project. In Langley’s poems, more often than not, we have creepy triangles (like the moth-Jack-I of ‘Poor Moth’, or the bugbear-Kate-nameless observer of ‘The Upshot) which parallel the trifold theatrical points of view in these internalized dramatic monologues.

Wollheim’s theory of repertoire and project point back to the darker intimations in Stokes: we remember that in his more psychoanalytic essays, such as his essay ‘On Being Taken Out of Oneself’ from A Game that Must be Lost (Carcanet, 1973), Stokes thinks about the need for aggression and conflict within the psyche, speculating that the 'libido as a whole […] requires an inner opponent if we are to find good reason for the very existence of the ego itself, the hardened rind of the id that withstands the pressures, frustrations, and dangers of the external world’ (p. 55). That doubling has another third front, the superego, which hosts much of the death drive for Klein. The ecstatic loss of self we see in Milner, the imaginative range afforded de-selving in Wollheim, is shadowed by this other more sinister triple formation: inevitable life and death struggle overseen by the death-drive.

‘Depending on the Weather’ stages a struggle between a beetle and a wasp, and concentrates with some intense prurient regard on the sight: ‘All their / embroidery. His nip. His stitch. The set of / grapples in his grin. The rich twist of you’. The luscious precision of these lines gives some sense of Langley’s local gifts: the capacity to conjure, from next to nothing, a repertoire of local effects that have the bounce and energy of early Auden, something of the sinister twist of a cartooning of Hopkins, a succouring of plain Anglo-Saxon like a Berryman, Spicer, Moore.

Other sections of the poem stage a third figure, captured as a fly, who shuttles through the ‘glints and darkness’ in ‘her room’: the ‘her’ refers to an evil fairy witch figure, like Kate at the threshold (‘She passed by the door, speaking nothing’) – who has a Jack-like role to play as the uncanny alter-ego (multiple too), with imago properties and powers. There we have the trifold shape of Wollheim’s theatrical theory. The entomologist crosses the species boundary yet knows he is projecting and assuming repertoire, giving an object-lesson in iconicity and its threefold structure, fabling identity with a dreamer’s set of defences, repressions, dreamwork, acting out. And again, when we would wish to withdraw, renewed in our cynicism and deconstructive fatalism, the poem gives us pause, with the questions raised by its local felicities.

‘The rich twist of you’ and other fragments summon love poetry, made from the sensuous particularities being made by the three creatures and their fairy alter-dramatist: and the poem twists again back to its sources, stirring febrile memory and desire, that matches the inner opponent and superego death drive with the delight that comes and goes with wide attention, sparring the doubts articulated in the opening paragraph (suspicion of psychoanalysis, Id-distortion and symptomatic poetry, of out-dated concepts like iconicity and the poetics of identity, doubts informed by hardcore L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E savviness) with an affect-seductive scening that is effusive, expansive, sentimental, open to delight; and that can register, beyond the cerebral uncanny knots of twisted consciousness staged in the poems, motions of the mind, special gestures of the mind that sponsor heartfelt vital steadiness, suddenly silvery, quickly riffling movements among the lines that establish a species of fascination that lives with and transforms the complexity of information within the frame.

Adam Piette is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold. He is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, currently Head of the School of English, and author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War.