Wednesday, 1 April 2009

"a very remarkable collection of trees"

The Editors discuss Nathan Thompson's the arboretum towards the beginning (Shearsman, 2008, £8.95)

GT: Dude,

Seeing how we haven't yet started that review and Nathan sent us that collaborative piece he did with Rupert a few weeks ago, do you think we can get the ball rolling?

How about this for kicks - cos I know you said you had a lot of ideas about word placements and so on - what do you make of the use of the word 'arboretum'? I noticed Luke Kennard also used the word in his first collection a number of times, and a quick google of "exeter arboretum" (exact phrase) came up with this: So they both studied at Exeter and they both drew inspiration from the arboretum, would be my fairly educated guess. But what the hell does it symbolise in Nathan's work? A place of safety or diversity? This from the above web link: "The Arboretum was begun by the original owner of Streatham Hall, R. Thornton West, who employed the firm of Veitches of Exeter and London to plant a very remarkable collection of trees."

I like that as a description of Nathan's book: "a very remarkable collection". 'Remarkable' in this instance meaning, for me, that it sets out its own limits in opposition to other poetries (including Luke's, which is remarkable in its own way) with great precision, calling attention to itself, or specific points within its boundaries.




ST: Hey man.

My first encounter with Nathan's collection was through a slightly hyperactive haze of caffeine and Day Nurse, but thought it was wonderful. As for the question about the arboretum, my own feeling is that it doesn't matter quite what it means in a purely semantic sense. Think of it as a free-roving signifier that means whatever it has to mean at any given moment.

What does interest me is the degree to which Nathan's work is feels like part of a wider trend in recent poetry towards what I would tentatively label the 'Harwoodesque'. There are a few poets - Michael Ayres, Peter Hughes, Ian Davidson - whose work shows the influence of Harwood's elusive style of storytelling, and Nathan's collection is very much part of this set.

(I would hope that these poets are part of an advance guard, who will usher in a new era when Harwood's work is more widely appreciated for what it is: one of the great contributions to 20th century poetry. But that might be too much to ask).

Anyway, in particular, I like the way in which various elements of a wider narrative - the arboretum amongst them - keep drifting in and out of Nathan's poems, so that the reader is left to put the pieces together. The process is strangely collaborative, if that makes any kind of sense. We are not spoon-fed a linear tale, but have to pick our way through the signs and symbols he puts in our path. Much like navigating a wood. Or, indeed, an arboretum.


GT: Okies.

I thought for a moment you were going to sidestep my question completely with a kind of 'arboretum schmarboretum', but well recovered.

The Harwood point is probably key. I haven't met a poet who didn't like his work (maybe I don't move in circles where those people go, though for circles probably you could read 'sewers'), but the more important point there is the influence he's having. There's something here of the nicest (in tone) parts of Harwood. I get the sense of Nathan building a jigsaw out of several mixed up, partial jigsaws. So yes, rather than inherently meaningful symbols, there are things presented as symbols from which the reader can draw meaning.

(If I had to concede anything positive to postmodernism as a concept, I suppose that would be it. It would be grudgingly conceded, and still won't make me want to use the term as anything but an insult to intelligent critical thought. Sorry, putting the muzzle back on that personality.)

But the nature metaphors - the wood, the arboretum - don't quite stand up for me as analogies for this collection. There's something decidedly not-urban about it, but equally something not-rustic. I guess the part that strikes me most is the cultivated sense of reality. It's as if the narrative voice is always reaching to try and impose (in the nicest possible terms, even when he's burning down every civic edifice in the town) a subjective view of reality.

Nathan's got a good handle on the idea of an unreliable narrator. It reminds me of Bill Pullman's character in 'Lost Highway' - "I like to remember things the way I want to remember them, not how they actually happened." Only there's a fair bit of beauty here, gentleness, mixed in with the darker sides. Perhaps a tone of oblivious violence, or clumsiness might be a better description, mixed in with a zippehdidoodah approach to life. The first image that ever attracted me to his work was, "scattering glass like the slow explosion of surprise fennel" from 'Lilly's Planetarium'. Like smashing a chandelier to make it even sparklier, even though there's a whole room full of people underneath it.




ST: Yo.

A point that Jonathan Bate makes in The Song of the Earth seems important here: that the form of the pastoral is predicated upon the loss of an imagined Eden. It attempts to sing the praises of nature or the countryside, even as it registers the fact that such a pre-lapsarian condition of unity with nature is always already past. Bate says this much more eloquently, but essentially Arcadia can only ever be discussed - invented, even - from the vantage point of Rome. The idea of nature poetry is a condition of 'high' or 'late' civilization, so there's no real disconnection between the highly cultured and worked nature of Nathan's poems, and the reading of them - metaphorically, at least - through the lens of ecology. But that's a little knotty and pedantic, and doesn't really help to move the discussion on.

Oddly enough, I was thinking of cinema a great deal when reading these poems. Nathan's is an intensely cinematic poetics. By that I do not mean that his work is simply visual - though it does have an impact at the level of the image - but rather that the narrative techniques of cinema (bascially, editing as a narrative tool) are applicable to Nathan's technique. He builds narrative through ellipses and jumps - just as in Eisenstein's theory of montage, disparate images, when juxtaposed, can create a new meaning, a third meaning - rather than leading the reader by the nose. David Lynch is actually quite instructive in this context.

This cinematic quality is present at the level of the smallest building blocks of the poem, too, not just within the bigger (narrative) picture, and Nathan's use of what I would call juxtapositional simile throughout is very interesting (by that, I mean the technique Pound employed in 'In a Station of the Metro': "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough".) In traditional simile, the second image - the 'like' component - is subsidiary to the primary image, and as such is alive only insofar as it is yoked to a dominant 'real' image. In juxtapositional similes, both images share the same degree of weight and significance, and by drawing them together without the glue of 'like', the meaning of both is amplified, without either image being rendered secondary to the other.

Here's a favourite of mine, from 'service': "winter steaming off the corrugated roof singing and rattling a kettle on a ringed hob". There are clearly two distinct events taking place here: it is raining (likely heavily), and someone is making a cup of tea. But the reader, given the absence of 'like', is free to read the images as connected, or as discrete. We are not, importantly, hidebound by the 'like'. The absence of 'like' frees the images and, paradoxically, makes them more real and concrete. Indeed, that feels like one of the great strengths of the collection: the degree to which the real, the objects of the everyday, are brought to the fore, even as they are dislocated and rendered dream-like by Nathan's structural jiggery pokery.

Sorry, that was a little long-winded. Over to you. By the way, why don't you sign off your emails Yours, Ttoouli? If I were you, I would.


GT: Well, why don't you sign your emails off at all? The temptation for me to put in 'Up Yours, / Ttoouli' would be too great, whoever I was emailing. Even my own mother.

Your point about juxtaposed simile is really important and it won't be unnecessary repetition for me to go through it again in detail. It's a basic building block here which I hadn't yet framed clearly. I've seen that kind of shaping and spacing used in different ways - to capture a sense of whispering (David Morley's Mandelstam Variations), or of waves (Carol Watt's Wrack), but here there's something more quantum about it, forcing the reader to fold two units of sense together, as if they've been spliced to be read simultaneously.

Interesting we were looking at Brian Joseph Davis the other day. Some of that folding springs to mind, particularly the Greatest Hits stuff, where he crams an entire album of songs into one track. Nathan's work is less violent, less about cacophony than, as you say elision and cinematic montage. I'm particularly taken by how this creates multiple meanings, in, say, 'laws of attraction': "sweetening the philistine edges / of your dimly lit ornamental music // I expect the frogs will be at it for some time / winking like ellipses in brilliant prose". There's the immediate juxtaposition of an evening scene, waterway, mating frogs, and the internal scene, the intimate artistic experience.

That leads me to a point about prose techniques deployed here. The middle section especially takes on characterisations - the female love interests, the love rival - the vasectomist - and the arsonist. The way these things recur are like plot threads. Things like the stolen harmonica, aforementioned, show up repeatedly. It's as if the poetry is appealing to the prose reader in me, who attaches sympathies to objects and characters, and desires to know the outcomes to their predicament.

That seems to be the effect of the whole book. It builds sympathy for the narrator's subjective passion for the world, but maintains a kind of delicate longing, aims towards resolution - 'will Petrarch get his Laura?' kind of thing, in lines like, "she is elusive as tinnitus" ('purloining a fritillary') or with the general presence of the arsonist and the vasectomist - destructive or negative voices that have to be overcome in order to reach the love song at the end. Although that in itself implies a strange failure, or reversal: "this will be / the last winter before the graves open / for the Queen of Hearts"; and the last lines, "goodnight my love / I meant it all" seems to ram home the point.

Keats is checked early on in the collection and a helpful signpost, a poet who almost never allowed his subjects to attain their fantasies. Here the fantasy seems attained and then let go of, as if the whole collection has been building a narrative tension, only to turn its back on a resolution: "it's time to click my heels / and go to Kansas". It's like a mild send up of the happy ending, the 'no place like home' of Hollywood. For all the subjectivity, the various plots, played sympathies, defamiliarised representations of reality - i.e. all the brilliant technical displays - there's a flesh and blood heart pumping this stuff along, a genuine sentiment.

Right, will stop there. Back to the grind.

In comradeship,



ST: I don't sign off my emails because whenever I use my name, Satan gets a little bit more of my soul. It's in the contract I signed, which is why I is as clevva as I is, and stuff.

There's not much I can really add to your last round of comments - they got to the heart of the matter succinctly and eloquently - but I would add that in many regards, Nathan's focus upon the processes of subjectivity (I noticed this most of all in a poem entitled 'projection digressions', which is kind of an internalised account of a train ride along the coast) places him much more within the sphere of classical modernism rather than that of its upstart offspring postmodernism. Your comment concerning the genuine sentiment underlying Nathan's work ties in with this: underlying the poems, too, is the assumption that the self is a given - fractured, certainly, and often at war with itself, unsure of its motives, but definitely there, in some form or another throughout.

If I could add anything, it would relate to the matter of humour, which neither of us have hit upon as yet, and which I would see as vital to the essential humanity of Nathan's writing. It's a hazy, woozy, absurdist kind of humour, more akin to Guy Maddin or Jacques Tati, but it is humour nevertheless. Most overt in this regard is 'casting calls are almost complete', which runs in its entirety:

the black cat in the arboretum is to be played by a black cat

because out of all the applicants she was by far the most beautiful
There's a wonderfully deadpan tone to this that I love, and it recurs at other moments too ("you know it's been good when / 'all night' is closed"). There is, of course, a natural affinity between poetry and comedy: both rely upon the subversion of expectations; both often relish the joy and excitement of language for it's own sake; both rely upon leaps of logic - comedy with the unexpected punchline, poetry with metaphor and simile - that rope together disparate realities to create a new unity: the gag, or the image. Both are, most importantly of all, essentially impervious to analysis: however much you pick apart lines like "He may have ocean madness, but that's no excuse for ocean rudeness" (Futurama) or "The spruces rough in the distant glitter / / Of the January sun" (Wallace Stevens, 'The Snow Man'), they'll never fully give up their secrets. They simply are. That's why we keep on reading, I guess, however jaded we get, because there's always something to surprise us. Nathan's work certainly fits the bill.

Right, shall we try and trim this into a cogent review?


GT: Nah, sod it. I'll just lop off the subject headers, chop it together and bung it up.

You can order the arboretum towards the beginning from Shearsman Books. You can read some of Nathan's work at Gists & Piths.

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