Issue 28: Adam Piette reviews Andrea Brady, David Herd, Jay Gao, Philip Terry
Andrea Brady, Poetry and Bondage: A History and Theory of Lyric Constraint (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021)
David Herd, Walk Song (Bristol: Shearsman, 2022)
Jay Gao, Imperium (Manchester: Carcanet, 2022)
Jean-Luc Champerret, The Lascaux Notebooks, edited by Philip Terry (Manchester: Carcanet, 2022)
The lyric distinguished itself from epic by an agreed enclosedness within its own form matching the way the conventions running the script of the lyrical encounter demarcate boundaries around whatever exchanges occur through a labelling of the space of the poem as a private zone of shared feeling. That act of enclosure within the private is presented as a textual performance designed to generate limit: a limit that excludes the public world of epic culture and history in ways that strike the receiver of the lyric as liberating because of the intricate emotions being shared. New Criticism turned this fact about the (predominantly Romantic) lyric into a dogma with its reactionary anti-historicism, the lyric a well-wrought urn full of the ashes of the once turbulent dead, their voices captured and quiescent within the formal container.
The liveliness of the dead within the urn-like lyric form is a poor substitute for the political difficulties and powerplay of history and epic; yet the display of complex feeling and the concepts and drives associated with affects in the lyrical exchange more than compensate for the loss, Cleanth Brooks might have argued. The urn contains multitudes of passions and seductions that its own cold marmoreality domesticates into attitudes, paradoxes, unifying symbols: that have the side-effect of turning history and histories into myths and hors-textual irrelevancies. The scare-quoted 'history' of the lyric-as-Grecian-urn is 'a history without footnotes' that is actually myth derived exclusively from 'the context of the "Ode" itself'.
The tired reactionary apoliticism of New Criticism need not again be demonstrated: yet its influence is pertinent inasmuch as the lyric is still intuited as a private space of intense exchange of feeling distant from history and culture, taking place as a drama in a room so isolated it might as well be on a cloud, say the cloud where Aurora entertains the endlessly aging Tithonus. The lyric inhabits this reserved space, this 'quiet limit of the world', as a zone so removed from history that the living past becomes merely the wasted residue of the I-persona ('all I was, in ashes'), an arena separate from the noise of history ('ever-silent spaces') the better to accentuate the intensity of the anguished exchange (Dawn's 'tremulous eyes […] fill with tears' as she registers his suffering).
History is over there, down there somewhere, the 'dark world where I was born'; the lyric inhabits 'these empty courts', a cold and eternal textual performance, endlessly returning to the same I, the same Thou, the same old tears, the same old story, the same old 'strange song I heard Apollo sing'.
The turn against this model of the lyric would fuse it with epic, as Wordsworth does in The Prelude. The lyric encounter can focus on intensities that are historical or stagey with history, as with the dramatic monologue; or it might construct sequences to work up a collective vocality, a history of interventions into the public sphere; or it might find consonances between the suffering or specific oddities of the mind and the politics of the world – Empson praised Auden for registering enigmatic correspondences between 'a disease caused by mental stress' and 'a political confusion or harmful arrangement' and 'the threatening world wars'.
It can explore the history of others, locked into the distant past, or over there in other classes, genders, identities, or located elsewhere in other nations. The difficulty, ethical as well as formal, is that to do so with the lyric is to tempt the writer to expropriate whatever's staged as other to the greedy I-persona (however exploded or deconstructed) as food for that persona's appetite for sensation; to abstract all the lost history down there into symbolic and elapsed props or mannequin others that populate the silent ground against which the figure performs their solipsistic anguish:
Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch—if I be he that watch'd—
The lucid outline forming round thee
Aurora is there as weeping silent interlocutor, merely: indeed, she is taken to be the enabling cloud, the empty court for the display of loss of what seemed at first to be pain at losing her erotic presence through the infirmities brought on by time. What is being mourned is not her at all, however, but the heart and eyes of the young man he once was: Tithonus's dream is to turn not into the grasshopper of the myth but into the beautiful observer he once was, the person kissed and sung to, the narcissist in love with his own 'Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm' – 'if I be he'. The texts reviewed here ponder the perils and pitfalls of lyric-epic appropriation, the projection of the dreamt persona's sympathising agency upon the lost collective, the dead, the loved other to service a deeper desire for self-watchfulness ('if I be they').
Andrea Brady's monograph, Poetry and Bondage, explores the limits of the conventional lyric as pointedly exclusionary, removing the traces of violent history from the textual record, abiding by unspoken or mystified white and patriarchal ideology. In an astonishing reading of Wyatt's lyrics, she demonstrates with detailed analysis and deft political tact how the poet deflects his own vulnerability and precarity (as a privileged aristocratic diplomat and courtier, subject to the sovereign's whims and casual violence) upon the weaker vessel, the lusted-after female in his chamber. That deflection is actually a straight switch of identity: she is made to act out the male ontological manoeuvres. The identity-switch is subtle and concealed beneath the deliberately enigmatic style and wry twists on Petrarchan conventions, but Brady catches Wyatt in the act with cool precision of gaze on the rhetoric of those manoeuvres.
Wyatt makes sure that the subject upon whom he projects is kept in her place with the work done by the animal comparisons: the 'they' that some time did him seek mimic therefore the male seducer's access to and abandonment of the courted women, but are tamed by the comparison with deer, revealing both the true predatory instinct of the I-persona and the logic of the switch. He projects in order to turn this lyric space into a hunting-ground servicing both the narcissism of the hunter-ego (he only loves her the better to love himself as hunter-hunted) and enabling a dissociation of the ego from the humiliations that have feminised the courtier-servant of the patriarch lord and master. The Petrarchan mode is an effective machine for annihilating the other as loved one, replacing her felt otherness with a textual space set up as an 'ay me!' zone for Wyatt to playact lover and loved one, courtier and courted, I and they-as-I.
Brady braids together this superb reading of Wyatt within a section of chapters that explores solitary confinement and the problem of poetic access to this extreme example of the removed space of lyric, the punishment cell. The second chapter reads Rob Halpern's erotico-political engagement with a dead prisoner of Guantánamo Bay, Common Place, as making a Wyatt-like category error, confusing the desire to connect with silenced voices and bodies of the detainees with the lyric impulse to speak for them, to voice their suffering, to adopt their interiority as flesh and otherly presence. What is difficult about the reading is Brady's acknowledgement that Halpern knows the risks, and actually stages the sado-erotico-military appropriation and relishing of detainee suffering as key to the 'lyric' procedures of the secret state.
Nevertheless, the chapter ends with a querying of this excessive Wyatt-esque gesture of doubling and substitution: much of the power of this delicate critique turns on our sensing the similarities of the Halpern point of view and the Wyatt persona's gaze upon the deer loved one. The next two chapters open up to a devastating demonstration of the vicious use of solitary confinement in the United States to discipline and punish black citizens, working up from the panoptical prisons of the 19th century to the terrifying horrors of the industrial prison-sites that use this technique. Brady bases the first on a close reading of some of Wordsworth's late poems on the death penalty and solitary confinement and remorselessly demonstrates the reactionary logic running many of the poems.
The second explores prison anthologies and shows the resistance possible to the system among the detainee poets, whilst also revealing the extreme suffering meted out to prisoners within the Secure Housing Units or SHUs of the solitary confinement prisons. SHU syndrome, the traumatic effect of extended solitary confinement, is detailed in the readings with unforgettable force, showing how the white critic can best serve the cause of justice – not by writing their own prison poems, but by pointing the way to detainee texts, and giving solid evidence of white violence in these institutions, at the same time as acknowledging their own complicities. Brady's ethical work is, too, to show how the assumptions about lyric as self-testimony within an enclosed space, self isolated as self talking to itself like Wyatt to his supposed mistress, take on an entirely different dynamic once the witness of those detained in real closed spaces, forced to self-commune till their minds and bodies are broken, is acknowledged, read and felt, moving readers to political action to counter the systematic abuse.
This Lyric Cells section is followed by Songs of Slavery which looks at Emily Dickinson's silence on slavery and the Civil War (despite her proximity to the abolitionist activist Thomas Wentworth Higginson); at M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong! with a tremendous line on racist law as itself a political form of white lyricism; African American chain-gang 'work' songs showing how the lyric is turned by black detainees into satirical attacks on the destructive system, though generated by the white violence of the surveillance regime; and ends with critique of New Criticism's definition of lyric, tracking how it draws on African American writing whilst whitening the lyric form, erasing white histories of vicious appropriation.
A final series of chapters examines the lure of sado-masochism as defining lyric affect, with a surprising turn back to Ovid and his Amores followed by a chapter on Swinburne and Hopkins that looks at the pleasures of bondage (this the most predictable of chapters given the title of the monograph), and ending with chapters on Lisa Robertson's use of bondage as a trope for surface ornamentals ranged against varieties of patriarchal forces and on Phillis Wheatley's strategic use of ornament mutedly recalling the bondage she suffered during the Middle Passage.
Again, as when Halpern is judged most when we remember the Wyatt chapter, the juxtaposition of Robertson and Wheatley silently raises questions about Robertson's privileged insouciant savoir-écrire as white 'freedom' to ornamentalise the perceived fetters of the lyric. There is no such statement in the chapter itself, which is if anything lavish in its praise of the writing and its intricate manoeuvres. But there it nevertheless is, the critique: and it is a critique which at several points of confession during this book is levelled by Brady against herself as white, middle-class, privileged.
In the Wheatley chapter that privilege emerges as ineluctable, inescapable, despite the efforts made to dissolve the I-persona away, to counter patriarchy, to deconstruct the ideology of skin that shapes lyric demarcations and hierarchies:
Where Robertson is at leisure to abandon the fiction of the lyric ‘I’, for Wheatley that is still the pronoun that explodes: a claim on a subject position in poetry that she cannot easily make in person. Robertson imagines skin as a porous threshold that renders obsolete the fictions of inner and outer worlds; for Wheatley, it is a racialised marker of difference that condemns her to slavery and loss. The solidarities across time that Robertson constructs with a female community of writers are fashioned by Wheatley across place, as she tries to create kinships in faith and grief with people who do not need her. (411)
The 'ornamented bondage' that Wheatley suffered as a result of racist reviews of her work, and by the marginalising poverty and neglect forced upon her and her children by white culture, cannot be disappeared by any act of white solidarity – political action was and is still needed, not just lyric's acts of sympathy. This simple statement of Wheatley's predicament renders the lyrics written by Robertson (and Brady herself?) as necessarily shameful, bound to the procedures of lyric despite and maybe because of the ease with which such acts of solidarity can be made from such a white vantage point. This is an intricately argued and tough-minded book, passionate, moving, disturbing, and hyper-aware of both the privilege it renounces and condemns and the ethical difficulty of solidarity; yet insistent, too, on the absolute imperative of political justice and the revolution of creed, code and category that that justice demands.
Andrea Brady does not speak for these black others – her book excoriates any such attempt; but it does seek to reveal the intricacies of white appropriation, reception-racism, the prison-house of white lyricism which binds us and blinds us still to the procedures of control as well as the sado-masochistic logic deploying the pain of others as spectacle. Infinite prejudices are shown packed into the sweet little whitewashed room of the lyric: ring for the removers.
Andrea Brady leans on Erich Auerbach's theory of figura to help with thinking through the structure of her book and its tracking of the prison space of the lyric through history. Auerbach's figura enables the intertwining of different historical moments without hierarchy or sequencing:
[it] implies the interpretation of one worldly event through another; the first signifies the second, the second fulfils the first. Both remain historical events; yet both, looked at in this way, have something provisional and incomplete about them; they point to one another and both point to something in the future, something still to come, which will be the actual, real, and definitive event.
Auerbach's theory of figuration enables a concatenation of different readings, as when Brady pairs her chapters (Wyatt and Halpern, for example):
The pairings of poets in this book emphasise the provisionality and
contingency of any historical moment of lyric self-determination. They
are intended to draw out the radical potentialities of past and present
poetries, to identify how the breaking open of possibilities at specific
moments also foreclosed others and to recognise how those apertures
continue to give structure to our ideas about what lyric can or cannot do. (26)
The particular trope or image being tracked across different texts and times enables a chronotopic exchange that acts something like a focalising agent, drawing the different historical occasions into relation not only through the figure's recurrences but also in the way the figure settles itself against the ground that is the other occasion's cultural formations. This manner of chronotopic pairing, and of figure/ground relationality, is a key feature of David Herd's moving and emphatic advocacy of refugee consciousness in his collection Walk Song. It forms part of the Refugee Tales project which Herd co-founded, a project aligned with the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, sharing the stories of those held in immigration detention.
The walking inquiry that is key to the project is designed to accompany the public inquiry into abuses at the Brook House immigration removal centre at Gatwick that followed on from the 2017 BBC Panorama documentary 'Under-Cover: Britain's Immigration Secrets'. The campaign to change immigration rules involved Canterbury Tales-inspired four-day walks every summer from 2015 by former detainees across southern England sharing their tales at every stop along the way. The UK is the only country in Europe to detain people indefinitely under immigration rules; the tales told along the ancient way are a form of direct action calling for that policy to end, as well as acting as a social gathering and provisional community to counteract the isolating limbo of the detention regime.
Walk Song is dated from June 2015 to June 2019 so emerges from the experience of five summers of walks before lockdown. It begins with a prologue, quietly pointing to Chaucer's Tales, but countering the isolating effects of the conventional lyric by refusing the definition 'poetry': 'This prologue is not a poem / It is an act of welcome', based on rejection of the government immigration policy 'criminalis[ing] / Human movement'. The solidarity of the declaration invites the coming together of the community of detainees through the 'oldest action / Which is listening to tales / That other people tell / Of others'. The walking inquiry of the project creates a language space that is not closed in and atomised as detainee cells and racist governmentality would have it, or as the tradition of the lyric will have it:
We set out to make a language
That opens politics
Where a person dwells.
Where they are now
Which is to say
Where we are now
Along an ancient track
That we come back to the geography of it
North of Dover
That where the language starts
Now longen folk to goon
On this pilgrimage (9)
What is longed for by the collective 'Is to hear each other's tales / And to tell them again / As told by some hath holpen / Walking / So priketh him nature' (10). The space of language conjured by the solidarity of the walking project generates a dwelling-place of belonging that accompanies and inspires the longing for the stories of others. The ancient track of the Pilgrim's Way in Hampshire, Surrey and Kent connecting the shrines of Saint Swithun at Winchester Cathedral and St Augustine and Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral also connects to the way taken by Chaucer's pilgrims, with a longer view to the trackways leading across France and Spain to Compostella.
The ancient track predates Christianity, though: a way connects Dover to Stonehenge that may be four thousand years old; stretches of this became Watling Street under Roman rule, connecting London to the coast and thence to Rome, becoming the Via Francigena for pilgrims seeking the tombs of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and the Holy See. The four-day walk of the Refugee Project makes 'a spectacle of welcome' (11) out of the chronotope of the 'ancient track', both revising the Canterbury Tales as immigrant stories and reimagining the Weald of Kent as 'political carnival' reversing the punching down logic of the detention regime.
As a welcoming act of solidarity, Walk Song also reconfigures the aesthetic relationship of figure and ground which Andrea Brady saw as key to both analysing the evils of, and enabling resistance to, the 'lyrical' logic of detention. The repeated figure in Herd's texts is the preposition 'against', as when the figure in landscape art is set against the ground of the countryside. The figure set against the landscape, if read with open mind, opens up contradictions in the sense of 'against': the figure may have to present as set against the ground-rules of the culture they immigrate into, as in standing in solidarity against the injustice of the Tories' hostile environment. Or the preposition might be used to register the simple mechanics of a body physically present in the natural environment, as in a figure seen against the sky. We hear the contradiction between these senses in Herd's song:
And at its dissolution
I think that day the trees were visible
As you were surely
Beside the billboard
Against all the instruments
Of the State
Against the grass
The oppositionality is juxtaposed against the physical position as if to contrast a politics of the state and a state of nature; but in truth bringing the predicament of the resistant body into contact with the instrumentality of state power. The vulnerability of the stateless is made the ground of the being of the poem: the 'anybody' who sleeps 'Whether alone / Or with belongings / Who occupies / The background' (37). The poem and the project together bring the detainee refugees out from the background marginalised zone of immigration control into the foreground of public activist consciousness.
As habeus corpus and constitutional rights are dissolved by the state, the better to victimise and hold in arbitrary detention those deemed outside the limits of nation and the language of power, so the poem as activist resistance in solidarity with the real walking inquiry of the project changes the ground of the debate: 'We were conscious / Sometimes / Of the ground beneath us / Not as category / But in our occupation / The way we watched the landscape / Turn / Quietly / As it dropped / Towards the coast' (28-9).
The walking and the refugee bodies and tales occupy the cultural and geographical space that is no longer categorised as the ground against which the immigrant is thrown as foreign category, hostile environment designed to preserve the fascisant nation state. Rather, that ground presents as the mobile zone of solidarity, a way connecting peoples, space of occupation turning the landscape into a quiet and open field. The open field gestures towards the radical political space of open field poetics: Olsonian poetics is revised to resist the fetishising of the poet and their environment, and to enable a language open to the activist commons of transnational peoples intent on each other's difference and stories.
The plain style developed by Herd for Walk Song is deceptive: much of the subtlety of the writing is cumulative, the working and reworking of trope and figure, the attention to the changes rung on the simple nuts and bolts of syntax, as with the range of meaning of 'against', the often difficult lack of clear sense down the long column of lines: there is a playing out of the heartful and occluded contradictions of the politics of solidarity in a contested political space that can be heard in the very articulation of the sentences.
The ancient track as walked is visible as the column of text stepping down the page; and it is not Herd's poem but woven from the collective energy of the tales told, set against the ground won by the walking, the quietly turning landscape of bodies in concert. This is a fine fine collection, offered to the world as companion to the political project of such scope and true activist solidarity in ways that make the words on the page sing an alternative mode of lyric, passionately engaged, moving towards real change, charged with the vivid strength of a collective commons.
The encounter with history that the epic lyric enables breaks with the detainee logic of the lyric as exclusive monomaniacal textual zone. That does not make it easier to escape the contradictions of lyric, as we have seen with Brady's critique of misplaced solidarity, and with Herd's consciousness of the hostile environment a poet's poet's poem might foster when writing a simple nature lyric. Jay Gao's Imperium takes us on a tourist tour of the world to explore the temptations that beset the lyrical imagination on holiday in the imperial zones of globalisation. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire lies behind the political logic of Gao's prose poems; as their preface states, the new imperium is radically different from the nation-state imperialism it has replaced:
In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorialising apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command.
With a world-weary wit and consciously self-ironising parade of tourist ennui, Gao explores the hotels of the world as historical objects generated by Empire. In one of the prose poems, the tourist persona peers disgustedly at the colonial kitsch of a hotel bar ('Who adorned this bar in all its camp colonial fodder?'), registering the ways the postmodern fakery of its illusions enacts the colonial violence it purports to sentimentalise and monetise: 'Dark wood varnished in some synthetic chemical, a sinewy discharge pulsing from each panel. An invisible wound will never heal' (47). The bar is merely a stage set, not to be taken seriously, but its form is synthesised by a nameless chemical industry, designed to be visible as animated, abject and polluting in order to render the wound of colonial violence invisible by its very kitsch and camp awfulness.
The bar repeats the trope of colonial background to a thousand colonial movies only to render the tourist figure unreadable as postmodern critic of the fakery. In the bar, the tourist persona registers the ghosts of those movies: 'A body holding back its imperial breath'. The persona sniggers at the Jamesonian postmodern trickery of the décor, the fake books on the shelves, the breakable lamps pretending to be daffodils, the cables disguised as twigs, but the bar asks back 'Then what are you?', capturing the ways the persona is also faked up by their reaction to this display of pseudo-colonial history. And it is history that is the gap across which Gao's persona perceives the new imperium of the globalised economy, generating a uniformity beyond all borders:
Motorised fans moved as languidly as history, pushing nothing around in their perpetually slow revolution setting, a lazy threat of decapitation. Behind the table of sweating artichokes, oysters, figs orbited by flies, resting watermelon slices weeping like meat, seven grandfather clocks prognosticate, from the seven most vital cities on the planet, that there will always be sunlight beating down ceaselessly onto the pale skin of one timezone. (47)
The bar becomes a space of fake history, a zone of imperium that is driven by lazy control machines threatening to cut your head off like the Queen in Alice's Adventures, but which are appeased and rendered invisible as tourist jokes by the comedy of the sweaty buffet, the tacky timepieces. The clocks may articulate the globalised economy and white Global North uniformities, just as the 'repeating wallpaper' of the bar maps out 'indefinitely' the imperium as global dominance of 'the same two continents' (Europe and North America?). The pattern of the wallpaper threatens to 'trap you in its endlessness', therefore revealing the way the imperium 'incorporates the entire global realm' in a totalising temporal move; except that the repeated map on the wallpaper is 'unevenly paired' so the seam creates 'two irregular and jagged borders, one contact zone'.
In other words, the very tacky shoddiness of the décor disguises the seriousness of the new imperium, collapsing it all down to a ghastliness that simply shocks aesthetically. Gao's own wit is under judgement, and our own revelling in the satire opens us up to our own secret desire to refuse to acknowledge the reality of the new Empire. We'd rather sip our drinks and mock the bar: Gao suggests this very mockery is a mode of nostalgia for the old imperial nation states and their irregular and jagged borders, an invitation to indulge in hard-nosed sardonic sneers.
The lyric has been expanded and exploded in this droll and eloquent set of satires of the imperium's tourist spaces, opening up its field of inquiry to include the contact zones of history, faked or otherwise, of the colonial and globalised economies and cultures of the planet: and yet still subject to the drive back towards an old imperial space as something we so enjoyed attacking, because kitsch and comic, even and especially when the tourist ego is so lazily decapitated (again) with its Greene-like ennui. This is an elaborately resourceful book, driven by a wittily self-conscious and politically savvy comic brio, satirical about its staging of its very counter-imperial animus, a powerful and febrile text.
If Gao discovers how difficult it is to engage with colonial history and its victims when that history is being annihilated by the camp and kitsch homogeneity of the new imperium, he finds a post-Joycean élan in following the prompts of Homer's Odyssey to chart the new globalised environments theorised by Hardt and Negri. Just as Chaucer enables a way back to the ancient track of the folk of prehistory, and therefore to a truer potential commons of both prestate past and radical future in Herd's poem, and just as Brady reflects on Ovid and Wyatt to unpack the political valencies of the detainee lyric, so Philip Terry pushes the clock back to Ice Age culture to get a handle on modernism. Carcanet joins in the complex joke Terry plays in passing himself off as mere editor of the work of Jean-Luc Champerret, a supposed poet and scholar of the Lascaux caves when holed up in them as a Resistance operative during the Second World War.
Champerret fashions a theory about the marks accompanying the astonishing animal art of the caves, dwelling on them as potential signifiers, translating them according to the three-by-three grids that famously grace the walls of Lascaux into three-line stanzas of mini-lyrics, then developing them by three more transliterative stages into beautiful modernist poems. One example I hope will have to suffice. Champerret, in his notebook, sketches nine of the marks you can find in the caves, in this order, and 'translated' into what each mark is thought to signal:
That initial translation is developed into:
A single stag
among the trees
in the hut
full of song
roots are eaten
the stag we thought
we had trapped
begins its journey
This is recast with a more feeling (one could say haiku-like) imagination as:
A lone stag
among pine trees
in the noisy hut
full of song
roots are passed around
the stag we thought
we had caught in our trap
begins a new journey
This takes final shape in a recognisably modernist lyric form:
A lone stag
among the pine trees
turns its [head] and vanishes
in the noisy hut
full of song and chatter [?]
roots are passed round as night falls
the stag we thought
we had caught in our spikedtrap
suddenly breaks free
The three-grid form of the Lascaux grid modulates into three stanzas shaped as the three steps of William Carlos Williams' triadic lines. This modernist move has the effect of making us rethink the other steps in the transliteration: the initial single word transcriptions resemble Fenellosa's cribs of ancient Chinese that would be reworked by Pound; the first version might be one of those reworkings.
The second reads like H.D., conscious of haiku plainstyle and turning it into a vehicle for her own imagist concentrated verbal patches of energy. Champerret's song is in the hut of American modernism, then, noisy with their appropriations of ancient Chinese forms; the stag might be taken to be the subject of lyric, like the deer in Wyatt, trapped by the hunter-poets, drunk on the shamanic power of their art. The stag breaks free, though, and we can see here some of the reverse psychology Brady found in Wyatt: the male poets with their stag-night bravado project their own anarchic violence onto their non-human prey.
At another level, it is Philip Terry who is exploring the mystery of prehistory, finding filiations between his own comic procedure - inventing a French archaeological poet and persona to articulate his own attempts to rival the great modernists - and the practice of modernism as a historical project. T. S. Eliot had ordered the modern poet to write like the draughtsmen at Lascaux: '[The poet] must be aware that the mind of Europe - the mind of his own country - a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind - is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen' ('Tradition and the Individual Talent').
The cumulative hunger for the past of the artist has to be understood as collective, as an act of mental appropriation, rolling all history's strength and all of its sweetness up into one ball, to generate a transhistorical mythos of Europe. But it is as clearly an act of figuration, interpreting modernism's worldly event through another, a radical primitivism that sees its own origin in the hunter-gatherers of the Ice Age and their dream of prey. Terry takes this prehistoric modernism, the modernism of the rock drawing, a parietal lyricism of marks in confined space isolated within the European mind as in a Magdalenian cave, and performs a satire of the primitivism of the modernist lyric and critiques the dependence of modernism on appropriative and wildly inaccurate acts of translation from other cultures and temporalities across the globe.
The raillery works so excellently because within Ice Age archaeology itself there has been a disconcerting series of wild attempts to translate the marks on the Lascaux cave walls to suit the current orthodoxies: from Darwinist reasoning once the Palaeolithic caves were discovered in the 19th century, through to aesthetic theories (Edouard Piette no less), anthropological religious readings, Marxist interpretations (Reinach), Breuil's hunter-magic theory, to structuralist and mythogramatic readings of the sequence of images as they appear in the caves by archaeologists such as Laming-Emperaire and Leroi-Gourhan.
The most popular reading at present is the shamanic theory of David Lewis-Williams, whose bestseller The Mind in the Cave Terry acknowledges as one of the drivers behind his project. Lewis-Williams argues that the cave images are drug-induced visions, and that they appeared to the eye of the artists as figures on the ground of the walls in trance conditions, the marks accompanying the images signifying the abstract shapes and geometric forms that are commonly seen in such trances. He states that the paintings were not actually painted under trance conditions, only that they represent the images seen in the mind's eye by way of memory. Many of the images are entoptic, therefore subordinate subjective phenomena created by the physiology of the eye seeing itself against the eyelids in trance dream states.
Terry in his role as editor quotes Lewis-Williams bemoaning the fact that strict rationalists among modern archaeology base their discipline solely on empirical evidence, and therefore 'close the door on more speculative methods of enquiry' (24). Though acknowledging that Lewis-Williams is not interested in the signs in the caves as having specific significations, 'his arguments', Terry goes on, 'indirectly suggest that Champerret's poetic approach might be valid': 'Only by bringing the poetic imagination to bear on the mysterious signs and marks left by our ancestors on the walls of the caves of Lascaux, is Champerret able to restore to us the lost archive of Ice Age poetry' (25).
This is deliciously bonkers in its circular logic, but it works with the equally outlandish assumptions of Lewis-Williams himself, who ransacks the art of the world to prove that the Lascaux artists were off their heads on drugs. This is not to say that Lewis-Williams may not be right - just as even when we relish Terry's complex play with the doxa of modernism and its universalising styles, there is a little shy reader within who'd quite like the poems to be Neolithic not satirical squibs. The reason this is so is in the more furtive assumption that the European lyric stretches way back through Archilochus and the Greeks to the notionally poetic speech-acts of the hunter-gatherers, a rock art that negotiates between the human and non-human in loving and fearful ways at the roots of the species imagination.
If you catch yourself dreaming that, though, like the stag in Terry's artful Ice Age poem, you've fallen into the trap even when you think you've broken free. This is such a superb and invigorating collection, breaking ground to discover the figure of our dream of lyric's song in all its lavish beauty, primitivist rhetoric and longing for ancient home in the language of the I's eye seeing itself to abstraction.
Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) (London: Dennis Dobson, 1949), p. 151. The well wrought urn originates in Thomas Gray's abbey church in the 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' - Brooks takes Empson to task for politicising the elegy in Some Versions of Pastoral (Empson had argued that the poem naturalises social inequality, the 'Full many a gem' section implying that the poor are better off without opportunities) by demonstrating the poem's advocacy of a common humanity in death backed up by the decision of the Gray persona to be buried in the churchyard among the rustic swains and not in the church with the Proud. Empson would retort in a review of Brooks' book, that this made the poem 'even smugger than I supposed': 'If the rustics are so much better off without opportunities that the speaker will leave the wicked world to join them, surely that is very near to saying that they ought not to have opportunities' [1947 review in Sewanee Review, collected in Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture, ed. John Haffenden (London: Hogarth Press, 1988), 282-88 (p. 283)].
Empson, 'Early Auden' The Review, 1963, Argufying, 375-7 (p. 375) - what made Auden wonderful was the ways these striking comparisons were delivered with 'this curious curl of the tongue in his voice'.
Eric Auerbach, Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 58. Quoted Brady, p. 27.
Hardt and Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), xii.
Adam Piette co-edits Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen. He teaches at the University of Sheffield and is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, The Literary Cold War.
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