Footprints in the Snow

Han Kang – The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nonsense! Books are physical objects. Things to be experienced. That a writer should leave a book’s design to chance, or worse, a half-conscious set of inherited expectations, strikes me as carelessness.

That isn’t to say that every writer should be considering presentation from the moment of conception, but when a book comes along to which this level of thought has been put, one can’t help but take a moment to appreciate it.

Han Kang’s The White Book is the novel to which I’m alluding. It is a novel about a woman reflecting on life’s poignant moments and its presentation – stark white with short paragraphs like footprints through snow – invites a mood of reflection before one has even read the first page. We are addressed by the narrator, who begins her story by listing white things: ‘swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice…’.

We find she has moved from Korea to a ‘town with white walls’ in the Mediterranean. From here she imagines her mother who, lost in a snowstorm deep in their rural homeland, gave birth to a stillborn child.

Her mother told her the baby was as white as a ricecake. From here the colour white enters, and then recurs, recurs, recurs, at times clever, at times surprising, at times heartbreaking, until the close of the book. As the book moves forward in short, self-contained sections it is tempting to compare it to poetry. The use of the poetic moment, deep but without obvious metaphor, is most closely associated with haiku (particularly Basho).

But this is nevertheless a rigidly structured novel. Each step forward in the narrative is subtly announced beforehand, a catalogue of white imagery interlaces disparate sections, tying together moments across time. The recurrence itself is accounted for, becoming a metaphor for memories whose emotion fades more with each remembering. The translation by Deborah Smith is itself a thing of subtle beauty.

Some Korean words appear, couched naturally in context, as do some translated phrases – ‘laughing whitely’, for example – which draw attention to themselves as curiosities of language to be commented on. The unjustified text and short sentences complement the sense of the writing as a fragile thing. Small marks stamped black on a white page, the whiteness threatening to swallow it all up.

White is not a colour, it is an absence of colour, and The White Book is made, in a similar paradox, of words defined by their silences. The sparing black on the tundra of white pages, the scattering of moments which rely on white images to connect them together; all of it seems to suggest our continued desire for language to communicate in the face of its impossibility.

The use of traditional imagery reinforces this; snow, the sea, birdsong, all carefully deployed to invoke the poetic while avoiding cliché. Trying to say something about the unsayable, again.

We are wandering on, leaving footprints in snow, as more and more snow seems to fall. It’s difficult to review a book like this other than to admire its power and the wholeness of its vision.

The White Book represents a significant achievement in the area of book-as-experience. Everyone who picks up this book will get something out of it, but people who read a lot of novels will, I think, adore it. There is nothing careless about this book. It commands the whole attention. It is a book which realises that reading too is an art form.

– Joe Darlington

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Map Ref. 418-419

Neil Astley (ed.) – Land of Three Rivers, the poetry of north-east England (Bloodaxe, 2017)

Vin Garbutt is first up in this collection. Just that fact alone makes me love this anthology. I am a sucker for books it is possible to live one’s life in and here is another one. The surface of this collection covers the territories of the northeast. It carves it up by area, its contents are a kind of metapoem of the northeast: County Durham, Teesdale, Middlesborough, Cleveland, Farewell… 

Take a moment to leaf through. Open it randomly, as I did, to find the double page spread formed by 418 and 419. Geographical co-ordinates with a deep valley between them. 418 is a hymn to the A184 by Jake Campbell – there is poetry in the numbers alone – it was written in 2017, and 419 contains a twelfth century description of Durham in verse. A thousand years falls into the fold between the pages…

This book is a map, but don’t mention the ‘p’ word. There is no need to be so pretentious as to pull that word ‘psychogeography’ in here. It has been dragged about until it looks like a filthy rag. Throw it out and leave it there. But something must be said about the curating, editing, selection, production – call it what you will – of this book. It runs across pages, down columns, along roads, down rivers and into parallel centuries. It runs through biographies, Auden, Basil Bunting, Garbutt. Did I mention Vin Garbutt?

Tom Pickard is here. Tony Harrison is here too. Jimmy Nail is here! And Mark Knopfler, with the lyrics from ‘Tunnel of Love’, which is not just a picture of a place, but of time in that place, of a whole generation’s experiences, of a particular class, in the north.

What’s the matter with you? Have you heard the soundtrack to Local Hero? Forget your prejudices and open your heart to this book. Its contents pages crack the horrible slablike thingness of ‘the northeast’, a term that takes so much difference and richness and seals it into a cold fossil of prejudice. This book then explodes the term completely. Taking us to the Roman Empire via Hadrian’s Wall. Housesteads, Vindolanda. The Roman goddess Diana, of the hunt, of the moon, of nature, who freezes her features off in a poem by Gareth Reeves from 1984.

But this book is warm, body temperature to be exact, it is about life. There is ‘donner meat and chips’ and Jarrow, but this book never rests in the clichéd afterimage of the northeast. The cold shoots right through, to be sure, but the warmth always wins. Visitor Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘Sonnets From Whitley Bay’ wakes up, shakes up, we ‘hot up instantly like a four bar blues’, by B.B. King or Muddy Waters.

If you have any interest in this island of Britain, in its politics, its idiotic bloody class nonsense, its stupidly tolerant people, still tolerant of even worse idiocy, of the machinations of lazy fat Lotharios straight out of a Gillray, buy this book and learn to love again.

If you are going there, don’t buy a guide, buy this. If you never intend to go there, buy only this. You can’t get farther on just short of fifteen quid any other way.

Devils and Details

Claire Potter – Round That Way (MA Bibliotheque)

The first piece here is a close reading of a YouTube performance by chavscumboss which demonstrates and understands the temperature of the work: Potter manages to convey the performed masculinity and the classed conditions of the artist’s practice just via descriptions of the backdrop and other details. It unspools like a parallel piece rather than a commentary, as though it were written live. Performance and poetry, their temporalities, are a big part of Potter’s work I sense.

Potter understands atmospheres and temperatures too, particularly at her readings. I saw her in Manchester, at one of the Other Room events. She dressed provocatively, read on her knees, reading words she had crossed out, in a kind of punishment-reward relationship with her own writing: It is clearly about power, but it achieves potency through exploring that. I wanted to shout ‘go on!’ but something had been conjured before me and the air was gob-stopper thick.

The second piece here is about a housefire, and having experienced one myself, but also a flood, in the town where Potter now lives, I saw how – television now off – people gather in the street to look, but it takes a disaster for them to do this. It takes a catastrophe that switches off the electricity for them to turn their backs on the television, come out and actually speak to each other. The plague of locusts is next. I wonder if she has an unpublished piece on that somewhere.

Again though, the details of this piece move the mountains. Potter has an acute eye and a scalpel-like ability to convey what she has seen through taut description. Sharp tongued. Unsentimental.

One part of the second piece describes – I think – Potter’s father and the Page 3 girls pinned up in the mechanics garage where he worked. I watched Potter perform this at another Manchester poetry night called Peter Barlow’s Cigarette, but interspersed with other pieces. It seems that when she reads, she picks up elements from her archives, sutures them into new pieces, improvises with composed sections. This pragmatic approach is refreshing. Not over-precious, it is work.

‘Dominique’, 19, ‘from Wapping’, leers out of the poem, just as the mechanic in his garage leers in, these girls, the stark fact that Wapping is the place where the newspapers are printed, it becomes an unfact, then a cheap lie, transmitted through sheer laziness, a lie that is somehow more brazen and more shameful than the supposed brazenness of the images, impossibly tidy, clinically hairless, smooth.

There is something about this line and the descriptions from the chavscumboss video that then connect, come full circle, expose the way class can be both detected in the details, but also how it operates through those details. Here lies the power of this work.

Down the dark rabbit hole…

Julie Egdell – Alice in Winterland (Smokestack Books)

As a lover of Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’, I was initially hesitant to read this collection, but I came away feeling enthralled by the atmosphere of the poetry though with a slight after-chill. The book left a lasting impression upon me.

Egdell uses Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’ as a way to look at transitions and being an adult in the world, particularly her experience of living in Russia. She uses the original works effectively and with caution and respect, in order to frame other issues.

My favourite two poems come near the end of the book and the first one is ‘Something from Alice’ with excellent use of images and language. For example, the line: ‘I emerged from the belly of my outer skin’ is inspired and works on many levels. Egdell successfully plays with words, metaphor and meaning and also describes the harsh reality of the realisation in adulthood that life is hard.

The second poem I really liked follows the one just mentioned and is named ‘Dreamchild’. Although the poem has an apparently cheering title the poem discusses death. It includes a line that makes reference to a ‘nothing game’. A ‘nothing game’ is very like something Carrol may have written and invented but, to my knowledge, did not. This poem however is far darker than Carrol’s Alice and left me quite unsettled.

The contrast Egdell portrays between childhood ‘fluffiness’ with references to children’s fairy stories, literature and myths, and experiences, and on being a person in the world (which can be a cold place – in many ways) gets into your bones. The feeling it resulted in for me was dread, as opposed to fear, with a bit of low energy excitement thrown in. The collection becomes darker and darker as it moves on and Egdell successfully keeps pace in the collection by interweaving styles and content, encouraging us all the time to get to the end of her journey with her.

– Sally Barrett

More trouble with lichen

Drew Milne – In Darkest Capital (Carcanet)

Drew Milne has published with Salt and other revered poetry presses. His work is solidly structural, but it is also fluid. It is a combination of a quite hard formalism and looser riffing. I can only reach for jazz metaphors, but this work hits me like the moment of post-modal hard bop, when bands were tight and free at the same time, the Coltrane of Giant Steps and Favourite Things, for instance.

But Milne’s credentials are Marxist and academic, ecological and political, declaring himself ‘in solidarity with lichens against capital.’ I am immediately taken to the sequence in Patrick Keiller’s third Robinson film, The Robinson Institute (BFI) where we get a series of views of lichen on a road sign. They grow over the illustrations of human routeways, ‘our’ supposed mastery of geography. They indicate their own ecology and cosmology and this collection seems to hint at a similar ambition. Cover it all over in beautiful green sleep for decades until something emerges.

Keiller’s Robinson Institute also contains a monologue about the Speenhamland agreement of 1795 and accounts of rural uprising, over shots of a neatly clipped industrialised rural without a riot in sight. The descriptions explain how sections of this bucolic view are owned by overseas corporations and companies.

For very good reasons, all of these things ghost my reading of In Darkest Capital. Milne is the essential antidote to the accelerationism of the Nick Land that ended up producing ‘Dark Enlightenment’.

In Darkest Capital has the sense of ‘In Darkest Africa’, and here is Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, that capitalism begins with a defibrillator jolt of genocide and an injection of the raw materials that would have been available to the dead. It is its shift from chemistry to biology. Schumpeter didn’t agree, but after protesting oil wars for much of the first half of my life, I don’t agree with Schumpeter. Capitalism is, then, as ‘primitive’ as it gets.

But what makes this a collection that should be with us for a thousand years is its use of language. There are tens of thousands of chumpy leftwing writers and hundreds of cringemakingly worthy leftist poets, with their middle class fuzzyheaded notions of the loss of pits and factory work, without ever having gone in one that wasn’t already a museum.

Milne’s work avoids all these deadly, suffocating traps. It manages to somehow align itself with a europhile notion of avant garde formalism without being totally indulgent. It manages to simultaneously be bleakly, blearily of the deracinating landscapes of late capitalism, while retaining a skewering micro critique linked to a macro overview.

It is academic poetry though. We get references to Aristotle’s notion of ‘entelechy’, a sort-of self-organising motive force, and words familiar to Marxists such as ‘verstehen’ and German Idealist philosophy and its critics emerging in Marx and onwards. The nods and references are there, but unlike some leftwing poets it isn’t too self-aware, particularly in the poems that appear later in the collection. Sometimes the huge signs of, say, ‘Habermas’ seem overbearing, included in titles, but what comes after always gives the scratchy, scrambled lie to the monumental signifier.

Suddenly, Milne writes of the Halifax spreadsheet and having worked there as a designer on their report and accounts, watching 9/11 happen on the vast marketing digital screen, it gives me a chill. It feels like the long-dead tradition of prophecy has been revived. But I must be very clear, these are surfaces, but lichen surfaces, growing, moving, not staying still. I introject into them, finding fertile ground there. These poems scramble meaning in order to take the slow organic journey towards new forms.

This is a writer who understands that meaning is made and re-made across facades, in clusters of complexity, not in ‘depth’. But these surfaces crawl over and cover the neatly ordered default cultural landscape, giving a sense of thin hope in a world with little left in it.

This is useful. This is solid work. There is no pompous introduction by A Big Somebody. This is a book to live in and grow in, and through. One for the big list, until the end of our time.

Long Live Ashbery

John Ashbery – Commotion of the Birds (Carcanet)

John Ashbery is dead. His last book of poems seemed to sense its arrival. The coming of the not being. The nearness to the absence of even the negative. The use of three dots… the coming space of void. Céline used this motif and far too much has been made of it. That it breaks the master-signifier-phallus, that it turns his texts into pure play like jazz, it doesn’t and it does not have that function here either.

But Ashbery, not really impressionistic, but always very open, yet always also about something, seems to be shrugging his shoulders more than he asserts and more than usual here. Sometimes this is naughty ambivalence, ‘At Puke University, I’m glad he goes in there’ he writes, but sometimes it is beautiful blank ambivalence.

‘The Old Sofa’ is a wonderful skewering of cultural rites. It is almost anthropological, but the point of view an anthropologist reaches when she decides that playing cricket and performing the Yanomami rain song are for her and for her only at this moment just flat choices. What Robert Creeeley meant when he wrote that what you did was all that there ever was. Ashbery knew for a long time that this was The Truth. At the end he glows with the radiance of this Truth, the privilege of not giving a toss.

But to leave it there would be to do him a terrible disservice. ‘Friends… die down with me…’ ‘House passed away…’ he writes, and Creeley also explained to me in interview how his friends were going, how it was like a neighbourhood fire, coming closer each day, until one day, you knew it clearly, it would be your house and your turn:

‘Hello. I have to go in a little while. Well, maybe later. If at all.’ 

Ashbery had his turn and his absence is felt. But in these poems there is a cut glass clarity, even if the meanings are more feelings. They undermine the idea of Ashbery as a ‘difficult poet’, or maybe the times just caught up. The dense circularity of the New Criticism has been distilled into another substance. Take a deep drink and take it with you.

Human Error as Truth

Essayism – Brian Dillon; This Little Art – Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters – Dan Fox; The Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner (all Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Fitzcarraldo Editions are beautifully made, with their matt cover and drop caps serif typeface, with their embossed bell logo. Fitzcarraldo publish novels and other things, but I have just read a brace of their essayistic books, with their white covers. Four of them: Essayism by Brian Dillon; This Little Art by Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters by Dan Fox and The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner.

These editions look like European editions. They talk like European editions, perhaps with the addition of a little English punk attitude, in the case of Ben Lerner’s book on poetry. In a time of Europhobia in Britain this is all the more reason to buy and read the essayist Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Kate Briggs contributes a wonderful book (sort of) on translation called This Little Art. She begins in a section of Thomas Mann’s genius novel, The Magic Mountain. It is a dramatic opening, it grabs you and pulls you in. But the story twists into that of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann and her villification after her death.

‘No poem is intended for the reader’ Benjamin once wrote, in his own meditation on translation, but Briggs points out how the ‘little art’ of translation carries big risks. The underpaid, unacknowledged and ignored craftspeople that are translators carry huge burdens and risks along with their joys. Rilke’s translations into English by J.B. Leishman have been similarly villified. These are stigmas that travel beyond death. I have a copy of ‘The Rilke of Ruth Speirs’. The title says, essentially, ‘the proper stuff, not that other shit’.

A dangerous game for no stakes, this is truly the zone of the ‘committed’. Briggs cites a translation of Deleuze by Hugh Tomlinson. Coincidentally, my friend Robert Galeta translated some of the Deleuze editions after Hugh could no longer do it. He tells me, ‘I went grey doing it’. Imagine then being pilloried for your efforts.

In medieval times a Bard could sing a Queen or King into 1000 years of hell. In an unliterate culture they made songs that would outlive the mortal life of its targets. It could put an entire family into a ‘spell’ that persisted for generations. Here I sing Briggs into the opposite, into a song that I hope will carry this book through many reprints and editions.

Briggs describes translating Barthes. But she is navigating Paris, going to libraries, looking at Barthes old apartment, thinking about the people she sees, feeling, reflecting. Briggs puts shoes on, cooks, teaches. She is a human being. The chapters of this book both are and are not about translation, because like translation itself they draw on all the skills and experiences a human has, right to the edge of their consciousness. Because of this, I am reminded of my own reading of psychoanalytical texts often, when reading Briggs.

Kate Briggs is an explorer of her own under-read zones, as well as her over-read exterior, which is littered with Barthes and Benjamin on reading lists as though first year undergrads – and often many of their university tutors – straightforwardly know what those texts contain.

Briggs describes Robinson Crusoe making a table for the first time in his life. I have done this, I am the kind of pretentious pervert who will make furniture and fail fifteen times before getting something that works. It is the only way to learn properly. But like a bad translator, I am failing the original here. You just have to, in the case of Briggs’ book, read the original. It is deeply, velvety rich and utterly life-affirming.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism is also a cornucopia of sorts. It argues for the flaws of the essay, for its speculative, hedging, unfinished nature, as its virtue. This is a theme of these editions. That doing scholarship and writing is not something undertaken by Uberhumans beamed down from Planet Academic with everything and some other stuff that nobody knows yet uploaded into their swollen skulls. Out students don’t live in this reality enough. Academics don’t speak honestly about that reality enough.

Ben Lerner’s book on poetry argues that we might engage with poetry through the negative. This isn’t quite Hegel via the Frankfurt School, the negative he describes is closer to the word ‘HATE’ written in white paint on a leather biker jacket. After being immersed in intolerably polite Manchester Literature Festival events, this is a wonderful read. Who says the literature scene must be polite clapping and cups of tea? At this point in history, why wouldn’t the discussion of literature that is often so fluffy it barely touches the world be characterised only by seething invective? However, this is to reduce Lerner’s argument a great deal. He begins hating poetry and urges us, in a Beckett-like way, to ‘hate better’. In between these almost identical poles there lies a fecund meditation on poetry.

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit prefigures Pretentiousness, by Dan Fox. This book is also very un-British, as it calls for fabulation in the face of the British climate of dumbed-down, stylistically lumpen miserablism. If I have a worry here it is that the book dovetails too easily with ‘play’ and its origins in horrors such as Playpower by Richard Neville. They didn’t play where I grew up, they were slowly ground down in twelve hour shifts, six days a week, and that was down to another very British thing, class. But then I know from emerging out of the working classes that you get called a ‘clever bastard’. Is there an equivalent phrase in French? I don’t know.

But these books make you think. They don’t just drone information at you. These books take risks. They blend serious scholarship with a human voice. British academia has for too long been a blend of its past in an empirico-logico-utilitarianism that does not really exist outside of its texts and its present in an Americanised vaguely po-mo ‘liberalism’. These books are not some middle way between the two, they just ignore all that and begin where they stand. For that alone I applaud all the authors under review here.

This does not mean they are uncitable, dangerous curveballs from the world beyond Truth. It means that they are a little more Real than all the other rubbish pouring out of academic publishers. This is not to denigrate the few percent of incredible, lightning work emerging from academic publishers. But it is a percentage. You know the other books too well: The literature review with an argument imposed on it, rather than an argument being made from long messy immersion in the world, as the scholarship was done.

We are going to need Fitzcarraldo Editions on this island much more in times to come.