Friday, 22 April 2011

No Place like Home

George Ttoouli on Alasdair Paterson's Brumaire and Later
(Flarestack Poets, Birmingham, 2010)

I had the fortune to read alongside Alasdair Paterson at the Poetry Café some time ago. It was the Shuffle, a gentle, lovely event (they offered to cover my travel expenses, which was beyond kind), which had somehow ended up with me on the roster. I kept trying to remember where I'd heard of AP; turns out I'd read a collection by him while hanging out with Nathan Thompson many moons before.

Nathan's been championing AP's work quietly (now more loudly, on book jackets), leaving copies of early work on bedside tables for his guests, or sneaking in comparisons from time to time in conversation. E.g. "Oh, Simon Turner's new book? Yes, it's very Paterson-y, isn't it? No, not Williams, Alasdair! No, not Paterson Alasdair! Oh you moron." Well, Nathan's too nice to call anyone a moron, but my point is, AP:

a) has surfaced from a twenty year gap from publishing poetry, as if reincarnation and reputation are entirely correlative with magnitude of time elapsed between death and reappearance (well, it's Easter weekend after all)

b) is brilliant

c) makes Simon's work look somewhat derivative, even though Simon can't have read him, because there was nothing to read (sorry, Simon, I did genuinely see connections with your work; probably fairer to suggest AP read you)

All of which adds up to the fact that AP's work is brilliant x lots. That's a weak aesthetic comparison, also repetitive, I'll admit, but I'm trying to break the deadlock of tumbleweed gathering around here, so bear with me, I'm tired. I recall the early stuff - something about gardens, a collaboration with his wife, maybe, lots of acutely presented imagery, some jolts of language that arrested me, above all though, a sense of control of intention in language, perspicuity in providing insight into the nature of things. All that, and more, has been refined to such a degree here that the poetry is delicate, airy, deceptively readable for anyone unfamiliar with craft, yet still clearly masterful to anyone who's tried writing a poem.

So, back to the Poetry Café. Poor sods, most of them, didn't get a word I was saying, like being in a room full of Tralfamadorians. Still, one mug among the nonplussed coolness of London faces before me chuckled endlessly throughout my set, for which I am eternally grateful. That person then got up to read and blew me away with selections from his Shearsman collection, On the Governing of Empires.

His first book for twenty years, and it was as if AP had been doing nothing but read every poetry book he could find, weighing it up, selecting the best technical aspects from the most exciting, oddball poetries and putting it together inside a watertight, beautiful framework. (Actually, he said to me on the night that he'd mostly been listening to rock music and working in libraries for two decades. King Crimson, I think he said.) I could go on with a list of endlessly mixed metaphors about that collection, but that's not what I'm supposed to be reviewing. I'll stop wearing my fingers out and get to the point.

Brumaire and Later arrives from Midlands spectacular indie pamphleteers Jacqui Rowe and Meredith Andrea, with their Flarestack Poets imprint. Green cover, silver and black text on it. Cream paper, 32pp, Garamond. Does the job nicely, won them a Michael Marks last year with Selima Hill's collection, Advice on Wearing Animal Prints (that has a salmon pink cover and, of course, the poetry went some way towards the prize too, but production values are important with these little things).

AP's poetry arrives in two sections here, half called 'Brumaire', set somewhere in the post-French Revolution calendar, half called 'Later' set in a Communist oubliette of anti-time, somewhere after the Russian Revolution. Reading both side by side has a curious time-displacing effect; neither section has a fixed 'when' but seems to settle between contemporary UK and the historical periods. Time is further unsettled by the repeated appearances of wormholes, their implied warps and absences.

To be more precise, the poems deliberately fold time in a way that I've not seen captured in English before (maybe someone else can refer me somewhere). The comparison with Cavafy's poetry is easy to make, but he used Greek vocabulary from across the spectrum of that language's historical periods to create a sense of humanity's cyclical/repetitive progression. AP somehow stays very firmly in readable, stylistically modern English, something that modernists tend to achieve through evoking Chaucerian or similar discarded dialects.

The illusion is so perfect, I felt that I wasn't reading historically set pieces at all, but instead reading in the historical genre. The poems seem to conjure up the generics of the periods and post-revolutionary hysteria/decay - e.g. the bullets, paranoia, car doors, dossiers, abductions, etc. in Communist Russia - as if the landscape AP describes is already an imagined one. This is a cunning solution to the idea of representation. Instead of representing something that might be perceived as historical accuracy, the poems cut straight to the idea of representing the generics of representing those periods. Genius!

This gets to the heart of the matter: it's not the world that repeats itself, but the narratives we tell ourselves in order to understand the world as it happens! So history isn't necessarily cyclical, instead we allow history to repeat itself by (mis)understanding it through recycled language.

So what is the point of AP's 'chronic technique'? Brumaire and Later plays out these two sequences in tandem, but also with a sense of simultaneity. Individual threads of imagery (daughters, oppression, the violence evinced by ideological progress/revolutionary spirit, in the first section) and also of narrative (the second part especially plays out an ongoing story of investigation by secret police, culminating in an arrest or abduction), are supported by linguistic threads across the two (such as the wormholes, but other examples appear thematically). The result, for me, was a sense of trying to understand 'now', a palpable Ballardian project of questing and interrogating current action.

Is 'Brumaire' a critique of violence as a way of bringing about a better society? If so, parallels to Iraq are so covert as to be barely present - again, the comparison to Cavafy appears in his oblique, coded mythologising of bureaucracy. And the police state in 'Later': a critique of British surveillance society, restricted civil liberties? The nature of the beast here is to give the reader the option to make these relativities apparent as one sees fit, but above all, the lack of pointers (they may be screamingly obvious and I missed them, you'll have to read it yourself and tell me in the comments) leads me not to fixed time, as said before, but to the timeless nature of human activity.

The most relevant comparison I have from recent artistic indulgence is to Werner Herzog's recent documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog strives to understand not the meaning of the Chauvet Cave's paintings directly, but the meaning of the human urge to create. At some point one of the expert archaeologists suggests that 'homo sapiens' is the wrong name for our species; 'homo spiritualis' would be more appropriate. As an insight into human nature, AP has tapped into a deeper fear, evoking the necessity and pain of personal, familial structures in the face of wider tribal atrocities against the personal urge to love.

The pamphlet is slight, sure, and some reviewers might not see something this short as warranting such an in depth analysis. The poetry demands this kind of reading, however; it is unfathomable in many ways. AP is intensely acute in his ability to craft poems of great emotional power, but also a depth of abstract understanding into human nature. He has something to say and he is saying it with all the reserve of someone who has thought long and hard about what he chooses to put on the page, and when, and why. His work as a whole is one that celebrates wonder and gives fresh insight and oh balls, I didn't really want to end this on a dud string of clichés, so I'll close by saying that it's not just a serious collection, he also has a fine sense of humour on display here, in places, though it's not as funny as On the Governing of Empires.

No, I absolutely can't end there. I've thought of something.

Some might take issue with the idea of using poetry to talk about, interrogate, language. That the world should be the subject, not the tools by which we read the world. Maybe it's my leanings as a reader that take me there, but that's not the point: the message I took away from Brumaire and Later is this: if no one critiques the means by which we understand the world, then the means to understand the world remain stagnant; that, in turn, reinforces power hierarchies, reinforces suffering; those are the lessons AP communicates to me, from his deep and generous insight into the world.

You don't need me to follow reviewing convention and refer to the poet by surname throughout a review; you understand perfectly if I abbreviate the poet to a pair of capitalised letters. Why then, do I follow convention? Why do we accept that every society will stagnate, return to conventional narrative patterns of inflated hopes and crushed dreams, revolutionary spirits that evolve into sustained hierarchies of exploitation and oppression? Here, in this pamphlet, that's what I found; read it, celebrate it.


The Editors said...


I very much enjoyed your review, tho you've got to stop your opening gambit of comparing me to established and much better poets (see your review of Peter Gizzi's reading some time back). First, it bolsters my ego, and it really didn't need bolstering; secondly, and more importantly, it makes me want to buy books by the poets in question, and I already have more books of poetry than I think I'll ever read. I'm meant to be reading now, but I'm here, typing a comment about how I've got too many books to read because I keep chasing up your damned recommendations. You see the bind I'm in?

Anyway, second, and slightly more grown up point. It's a great reading of Paterson - I've read Empires, though have not procured a copy of Brumaire yet - and a good defence of language-centered writing (or a particular strand of it) as postentially revolutionary. But I can't help feeling that your (political) conclusions are rather bleak: is time so cyclical? Does language trap us in an eternity of struggle and repetition? I ask because I've been thinking over similar issues myself, though in a different context (and with conclusions you'd no doubt take issue with), so I wondered where your thoughts were leading you?

(In the interim between now and the next barrage of invective from anonymous commentators taking issue with our critical opinions, you need to worry less: listen to some Ponytail and read Nemesis. I guarantee your worries about the language trap with fall away, if only for a moment.)

Simon @ Gists and Piths

The Editors said...


I've tried goading you out of your hole with sticks, now I've tied cookies to the stick. But your point about volumes of volumes: overwhelmed. Yet the guilt of reviewing backlogs is getting to me and the comparison is there! Less so in 'Brumaire...'

The main thing with time: narrative tries to make sense of time, narrative convention tries to fit time into pre-existing patterns. Witness the Obama/Clinton struggle vs. the Walcott/Padel struggle. Experimental narrative that specifically tries to deal with the present, e.g. Philip K. Dick's /Valis/, Ballard's /Atrocity Exhibition/, Paterson's /Brumaire/, attempt to find new ways of understanding current history, through reference to the past. That's a positive thing for me.

Language /conventions/ trap us, but there are ways to break the repetition of the old. These become new patterns, new conventions over time. Will post up another slightly mad article which goes into this in more depth.

Meanwhile, Ponytail...


Aidan Semmens said...

George - I love the picture of Alasdair being the one chuckling member of your audience: it seems definitive of a man who is a generous, intelligent and amused reader/listener, just as he is a generous, intelligent and amusing writer. Both empires and brumaire demonstrate all that, and that he has emerged from his long absence a much more focused and important writer (and he wasn't bad before).
Although I liked empires a lot on the page, I didn't get quite how funny it was until I heard Alasdair read: I'm sure I wasn't the only one chuckling. But none of his jokes are just jokes - the point that what is funny can also be serious - in fact that to be really funny, it has to be serious too - seems relevant.