Friday 25 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (6)

Prolonged sobriety – it turns out – is the strangest high of them all. Waking straight and staring out at roof-tops and satellite-dishes, first symptoms of autumn on the uppermost plane-leaves, stoned wasps pottering between them as if lost: it’s all here, if you want it, things are exactly as they seem. The barest facts hold true. The bald mechanic mooching past keeps throwing his keys up and catching them again like some tiny clinking instrument; there’s a ceremony inherent in the mundanest gesture today, the rhythm upholds us if we let it.
     There’s a pause between the simmer in the plane-leaves and the second you feel the first scraps of rain begin to wetten your arms and hands, a barely-perceptible hiatus: the moment opens if you listen for it, a mouth about to speak; it receives you in the downpour as you move through.


Oliver Dixon is a poet and writer based in West London whose poems and reviews have appeared in PN Review, the London Magazine, The Wolf, Frogmore Papers, Blackbox Manifold and other places. His first volume of poems is forthcoming from Penned in the Margins. He blogs at Ictus, and his day-job is as a college lecturer working with students with learning disabilities.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (5)

(After Rimbaud – the speaker has made a counter-journey to his, from Harar to London via France)
‘I am a transient, not-too-downtrodden inhabitant of a metropolis assumed up-to-date because every criterion of taste has been disregarded as much in the architectural design of its office-blocks and new-builds as in the panopticon of its urban planning. ‘Monuments to superstition’ are subsumed within the retail-facades. Morals and discourses are reduced to binary-codes. These millions of beings with no need to acknowledge each other’s existence conduct their educations, careers and retirements with such uniformity and lack of will that the duration of their lives is several times longer than what accredited statisticians have found to be the case in ‘the Developing World’. Hence, from my fourth-floor window, I make out a new species of apparition jay-walking through the fetid exhaust-fumes these never-dark summer nights – a new breed of Furies haunting the benefit-hostels as squalid as in their home-lands, but everything for them is no better than this: Death, like a social-worker, removing an unwanted baby; Love an unaffordable marketing-ploy; the pretty one with a police-record, snivelling for a fix by the bins.’

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (4)

Memory: waterboatman in a frozen puddle, rowing deeper far from any pond. Sense: the faint line of down between navel and pubic hair. Response: if witch-hazel smell, then pain. Dream: as demons scale fire-escapes to riot and loot in heaven, angels are parachuting down to aid the damned. Sign: THIS WINDOW OPENS ONLY PART WAY. Text: he opened his veins with his father’s gold-plated fountain-pen, he claimed to be crossing himself out. Recording: the black-headed oriole, a restless bird with beautiful cries, feeds on berries, nectar, caterpillars, even butterflies in flight, taking the bodies only and letting the wings fall aimlessly to earth. 

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (3)

Need any help?’ In the labile porousness of an extreme hangover you interpret the pert shop-assistant’s civil enquiry on multiple levels. Adrift in the mall, putting off everything, stationary objects and strangers keep grazing against you. Wiry overhead light-fittings, exposed by operatives from Third World countries (stymied Whittingtons in corporate overalls), threaten to tentacle down and incarcerate you.
     You hole up in Waterstones, staking out the Poetry shelves for any ‘spark of sedition’. (It borders on Fiction, not Autobiography, mind).
     Ambushed by random dipping, caught unawares, the Levine poem suddenly protrudes out of the book, like a Magic Eye Picture turning 3D.


Back home, suppurating with toxins, you carefully remove your liver, lungs and heart and rinse them through in the kitchen-sink, wringing them out and leaving them to dry in a row as neat as an upwardly-mobile butcher’s.
     Standing there eviscerated, you feel so feathery and hollow, you must be held up by whatever ‘spirit’ might mean.
     Try praying now: how will you fit the pieces back inside?

Monday 21 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (2)

From every direction, a different noise penetrates my room. The feet of the Scandinavian man upstairs, dancing alone to his heavy techno. The tinny arguments of the soap-opera from the right; the tinny arguments of the couple aping the soap-opera from the left. The baby with colic screaming from below. In a shadowed corner, waiting to eat, the mosquito’s tremulous theremin. Even from outside, the night-racket of car-stereos, teenagers and drunken obscenities infiltrates the rattling window.
     The only way out is in. I block my ears hard and listen to the fluid undulating around my brain, and imagine myself flotsam on that viscous, bone-locked sea.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (1)

i.m David Foster Wallace

Just as your life begins to assume the format recommended in the award-winning weekend supplements – your life-partner and offspring appropriately medicated, lawn plaid-mown with the aid of a theodolite, favourite reality-show pre-recorded and shown on a loop – the moment you’ve braced yourself against since early childhood is somehow a pixellated shadow flickering at the bevelled glass of your door: the policeman from the drama-series, helmet cradled like unexploded ordnance, bearing revelations you would harm anyone not to hear?

Sunday 13 November 2011

Simon Turner - Notes on Alice Oswald's Memorial

Pound's concept of translation is often seen as 'idiosyncratic' (this on the back of having picked up a copy of his collected translations in a charity shop, and entering into a conversation with the volunteer there regarding Ez's wayward approach to the original text), somehow flying in the face of accepted modes of translation.  My own feeling: that EP is drawing attention to the fact that every translation is making it new, is a brand new construct in the target language, which closely resembles the poem being translated, but is distinct from it.  Pound isn't destroying or blowing razzies at the discipline of translation: he's making it more honest, more self-aware.


In the absence of a fully theorised corpus of 'civilian war poetry', poets at home who want to write about conflict have for the most part been forced into two modes of writing.  On the one hand is protest poetry, following in the tradition of Sassoon's satiric assaults on military hierarchy and the evasions of jargon; one the other, there's what we might call the Owen-ite tradition, which concerns itself less with anger than with the 'pity of war', transforming Owen's own startling assertion of his choice of subject matter into cliche in the process.  Case in point: yesterday's poem in the Guardian by our current laureate went for the Owen mode, seemingly thinking it enough to enumerate the received iconography of the trenches, clumsily welding military iconography onto the landscape (the moon is 'like a medal', naturally; frost 'winks' on the barbed wire like 'strange tinsel' - it's a poem about Christmas, remember?), and falling back on that hoary old cliche, the Christmas football match.  The poem doesn't need to do any work: all the effort's been achieved by decades of popular memory.  For all the good it does, 'The Christmas Truce' might as well be a series of boxes for the reader to tick: Barbed wire?  Check.  Tommy and Fritz?  Check.  Trenches?  Check.  Rats?  Check.  Mud?  Check.  Soldier-poets?  Check. 


Memorial begins with a list of names: the dead of the Iliad.  It's reminiscent of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington - austere black stone etched with the names of the Americans killed during that conflict - and doesn't feel like a reduction of the Iliad, but rather a concentration.  Oswald is forcing the poem to speak across centuries: the numbering and naming of the war-dead is as vital an act of public memorial and mourning now as it was 100, 500, 3000 years ago. 


What characterises much anti-war protest poetry by non-combatants is an absence of witness.  The moral and aesthetic weight of the work of Sassoon and Owen, Douglas and Lewis, derives from the fact that they were witnesses to the events they describe and respond to.  John Stallworthy's brilliant 'Poem about Poems About Vietnam' dissects this problem ruthlessly, creating opposition between those poets, like Owen, whose acts of witness were achieved at a high price, and home front poets content to derive their opinions from newspaper reports on the conflicts they decry.  But in the process of lambasting the very concept of a war poetry not based on first hand experience, Stallworthy suggests that such a thing might be possible: rather than the simple minded paltitudes of protest poetry, an ethicaly and aesthetically engaged civilian war poetry might resemble Stallworthy's own poem - a poem engaged not with the actualities of frontline combat (such an engagement would be fraudulent according to the terms of Stallworthy's own argument), but with the moral and ethical questions raised by war poetry's confrontation with historical violence.  The trench lyricist might ask: what happened?  The homefront poet confronting the same topic might ask: what is the correct response?  What forms of language are appropriate? 


Memorial differes from previous poems that have used Homer's poetry as a jumping off point - Logue's War Music and Simon Armitage's version of the Odyssey spring to mind - because its act of reduction is formal rather than narrative.  Logue strips the Iliad down to brass tacks to tell the story of Achilles' rage more readily, whilst Armitage recasts Homer in his own blokey idiom, chopping two thirds of the tale in the process.  Oswald is as ruthless in her editing, but her interests lie elsewhere: her intention, it seems to me, is to make the poem more contemporary by, paradoxically, stripping it of all but the aspects of Homer's work that precede Homer.  Writes Oswald in her preface: "This version . . . takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you're worshipping.  What's left is a bipolar poem made of similes and short biographies of soldiers".  Oswald sees these two poles of the poem as deriving from distinct sources: the pastoral lyric and the formal lament, both with their roots in the oral tradition.  (Tellingly, Oswald has also released a CD of herself reading the entirety of Memorial, suggesting the poem is as much a vocal as a printed object.)  The poem itself is startling, relentless in its close focus on violence and death, like the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan spread across 80 pages.  With the narrative gone, the function of the Homeric simile - where the action pauses momentarily and we are whisked away from the combat zone into the realm of the natural world - becomes doubly important: there'd otherwise be no breathing room at all.  Oswald seems to have been aware of this, with the similes in many instances being repeated, like the chorus of a song.  The reader is literally being forced to slow down for just a moment before rushing back headlong into the afray.  It's very effective, no more so than at the poem's conclusion, which provides an epilogue of disembodied similes that might be read as collective elegies for the war dead (the similes in the body of the poem emphasise singularity; here, collectivity seems the dominant theme), or, more troublingly, images suggesting the inherent tendency of nature towards violence.  There's no easy comfort here; we're a long way from Duffy's platitudes here.                              

Friday 11 November 2011

Anticord: Renegade Angles: Xavier

In between musing about the possible representation of landscape sans meaning in Peter Riley's Alstonefield, this arrived in my inbox, courtesy of Peter Blegvad.

Warning, mature content, antilinear structures, etcetera...

Yes, Simon, I will take this seriously once again.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Simon Turner - War Poetry Thoughts (1)

In the run-up to a planned review of Alice Oswald's new contraction of the Iliad, Memorial, in the next week or so, I thought I'd set down some thoughts I'd been having on the question of war poetry as a means of framing some of the more outrageous claims I'm likely to make about the poem.  First of all, Philip Larkin (look at him there, with his face and his suit, all gussied up like a tax inspector on the first of April), who, in a 1963 review of Wilfred Owen's Collected Poems, made this fascinating commentary on the cultural status of the war poet: "A 'war' poet is not one who chooses to commemorate or celebrate war but one who reacts against having a war thrust upon him: he is chained, that is, to a historical event, and an abnormal one at that.  However well he does it, however much we agree that the war happened and ought to be written about, there is still a tendency for us to withhold our highest praise in the grounds that a poet's choice of subject should seem an action, not a recation."  (The review in question appears in Required Writing.)

Given the almost religious character of war remembrance, and the seemingly high regard that Owen and Sassoon are held in, Larkin's reading of the field might seem to be wildly counter-intuitive.  Aren't 'the war poets' (always the poets of the trenches, of course, never Douglas or Jarrell or their equivalents from other conflicts) taught with clockwork regularity throughout the school curriculum?  Hasn't 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' taken on the status of a kind of alternative national hymn?  Well, yes, that's true, but on closer inspection, Larkin has a point, and a troubling one.  The speechmarks around 'war' in the opening sentence of the quotation I've chosen say it all: war poets are bracketed off from the mainspring of 20th century poetry, critically and culturally.  Where they're taught, they're taught in terms of content, not form: a generalised fog of cliches envelopes the work of Owen and his fellow trench-poets, summed up by the catch-all term 'the horror of war'.  There's comparably little room to consider, say, Owen's musical innovations (the half-rhyme), or the problematic place of the war poets within the bipartisan literary politics of the period.  The very designation 'war poet' means that we don't have to trouble ourselves with these questions.   

In a way, war poetry is beset by the same problem of any perceived deviation form or genre: it becomes ghettoised the moment it is clarified and named.  (Or even earlier: consider how HG Wells' fictions were classified as 'scientific romances' before science fiction existed as a publishing category: rather than treating them as literature, pure and simple, works such as The Time Machine and The Invisible Man were forced into the straightjacket of an existing literary mode.)  And although the demarcations of genre help critics and readers to find a path through what might otherwise be an incomprehesibly complex field, they can also be incredibly limiting.