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

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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.

Unreal City

Michael Symmons Roberts – Mancunia (Jonathan Cape)

Mancunia by Michael Symmons Roberts is dedicated to the victims of the horrific Manchester Arena Bombing. The book was being prepared just as it happened and so a dedication could be made, even though the poems were finished before the attack.

Still, I cannot help reading this collection through the events, both the horror and the swell of local pride and resistance that came afterwards. The poet’s overcoat appears first, as though this is the nearest skin to shed and examine, before sitting down to look at the city itself, the exocoat, the second skin, the overcoat being the first.

This has always been the ‘shock city’. Coat off, he takes out his pen and writes. Mancunia is ‘both a real and an unreal city’. We get the petty bureaucrats, the fact shufflers and the ranters, the mad and the sane, but they all fold into one another like a dream. This is Manchester: It is steel hard concrete and a drifting cloud of amorphous, constantly shifting myth, at the same time, without contradiction.

A panorama poem across two pages lists the usual suspects, computers, Turing, Wittgenstein, Marx and Engels, suffragettes. But the lines that bring the streets right into my head are the ones to catch.

Roberts’ views Mancunia from below, but also from above. In my head he is descending into Manchester Airport, grids and lights under him, but also drunks weaving home. The near and far seem combined via some secret cubist strategy. The whole book unfolds in this way, like a neon Mondrian, perhaps called ‘Manchester City Jazz’.

It’s an odd state of affairs, but ‘Manchester literature’ is still not quite a thing. There is no single big book to go to and find all the great works written on or in the city. People I know are working on that and Mancunia by Michael Symmons Roberts already needs to go into the big book.

Burgess beyond Burgess

Anthony Burgess, Life, Work, Reputation, Centenary Conference – International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

One thing marked this conference out from the start, a simple rule: No Clockwork Orange. That slim work has become so swollen that it has eclipsed the burning star of Burgess’s talent. It definitely needs to orbit away somewhat.

But can you imagine another conference or arts festival doing that, at this point in history? Or even a university event? There would be Alex mugs and bowler hats for sale with expensive ironic vitamin milk during the breaks.

Not here. There was a straightforward dignity about this event. The idea of Burgess scholars relaying the dark side of The Burgess World for three days might sound off-putting to the more casual reader. But the papers were all accessible, as well as high quality. There was a generous intellectual atmosphere on both sides, that of the presenters and the audience. People enquired in the spirit of wanting to know, there was no needling. There was an early start each day – lots of papers were got through – and the atmosphere was unpretentious and non-combative, at the same time as it was never dumbed-down. All of these things are possible, they can exist in one space. PhD students can give papers without feeling they are about to be torn apart by horrible grey wolf professors.

One of the main pleasures over the three days was this: To take a slice of Burgess is to take a slice of the entire twentieth century. Earthly Powers is perhaps the concentrated form of this, but Burgess is clearly a world-historical writer, and many of the papers spoke to that theme. The papers were skilfully grouped to speak to the larger dimensions of Burgess’s work, Empire, for instance.

According to Nicholas Rankin on ‘Burgess in Gibraltar’, the ‘comic dimension’ of Burgess’s take on Empire was ‘well-meaningness gone wrong’. Siti Saridah Adenan followed this with a paper on ‘Lethargic Empire’ and ‘Boredom in Burgess’s Malayan Novels’. She discussed empire and detachment, in the Burgess character Fenella Crabbe, who sees her new Malayan surroundings as a ‘shabby version of Europe’. Here we got Malaya as boring, as opposed to London, the thrilling centre of Empire.

Crabbe also described the north of England as provincial. Crabbe believed civilisation only happens in temperate climates, ‘where sweat starts, nothing starts’, she explained. There are echoes of this in the current although fundamentally broken London-centric attitudes that have recently been cracked by the vote to leave the EU in 2016. The start of the Cold War in Gibraltar, said Burgess, will also ‘be the end of it’, and perhaps only now can we see how truly prophetic that was.

Matthew Whittle explained how Matthew Arnold was important to Burgess. He took up the quest of the middle class guide for the masses. For Burgess the TV was static and the music hall was social. Television, for Burgess, was the ‘brutal hypnotic eye’. Great points were made here about Burgess’s theme of the little individual versus the imposition of the state, in his novel The Doctor Is Sick, Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. The paper on the The Doctor Is Sick, actually, by Jess Roberts was enthralling.

Burgess’s Toryism must surely be a part of his attitude, but elsewhere we heard how in Italy ‘Burgess rooted for the anarchists and communists’. Burgess was one of those truly independent liberal intellectuals, in the strong sense of that, a permanent dissident and a man who knew his own mind seemingly instinctively, then put that opinion forward no matter who it offended.

Burgess, uncovered by the obscuring bulk of Clockwork Orange, is essentially a rich archive curated by Andrew Biswell and his colleagues, novels, non-fiction, poetry and music. We went to the Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday night for the premiere of a Burgess symphony. The book reviews of Burgess, as with Orwell, are a whole other historical dimension. Joe Darlington’s paper on these was magnificent.

In a break, Manchester Review of Books writers discussed the Burgess reviews and blurbs they had encountered: As novel readers, in their student days; they were all over, including one on the dust jacket of a single-volume dictionary which simply said ‘this is a fine dictionary’. Burgess perhaps over-reviewed, but he was a staunch advocate of the less successful writers he admired, as well as those he considered to have potential.

There are very large archives beyond not only Clockwork Orange, but beyond all the published work. This said, the ‘No Clockwork’ rule was actually broken three times (let’s call it a rule of thumb) for a paper on performing and re-performing the work for theatre in different countries, translating it into French, and a keynote presentation by Jonathon Green, the slang expert who has been described as the ‘greatest Lexicographer since Johnson’.

Green was there to talk about the recently discovered Nadsat Dictionary fragments. And they are really fragments. But the other thing this conference had was a sense of humour. Green and others addressed this aborted project with an endearing mix of reverence and gentle laughter. Andrew Biswell put up a slide ‘of Burgess getting pissed’, how he would like us to remember him, and Burgess was well remembered throughout.

In fact it felt like he was strangely present, as his piano and other bits of furniture were in the room with us. Many of the discussions ended up talking of ‘Anthony Burgess’ – after all, only a pen name for a bloke called John Wilson – as a shifting series of layers, rather than a solid core. Taken this way, Burgess was in fact present, as the archive holds many of those layers, some of which are still being discovered. Burgess had not, as the saying goes, ‘left the building’. I think John Wilson would have loved this.

We took a coach ride to see No End To Enderby at The Whitworth, which is definitely worth a visit. Then we went on to Xaverian College, Burgess’s old school, then to a drinks reception. Some have claimed that Manchester and Burgess have little real connection, International Anthony Burgess Foundation is changing that erroneous perception.

But they are doing so much more: Here, actually, is the model for the new arts festival, the new conference, and perhaps even the new university. The idiocy of student tuition fees is only just being declared by the politicians who originally advised them. The conference was clearly subsidised, there were no berserk, excluding fees. In fact it was probably cheaper to go to this conference than to sit at home and eat your own supplies. There were no patronising, infantile stage dressings or speeches. The usual galaxy of alibis on a double page spread at the back of the guide was entirely absent. There was no feedback form with a marketing intern standing over you waiting to collect.

The generosity of the Burgess estate is clear: Burgess was a tax exile and criticised for it; he put his money into properties when the tax rate for his income bracket – under Wilson – was 90%, but his estate has now put that money back into Manchester with a faith in the city even Burgess couldn’t quite match some days.

If you swap the patrician capitalism of International Anthony Burgess Foundation for a return to state funding, you have a very good model, in this conference, of how to do things. Formally, the ‘less-is-more’ approach of concentrating on the things that matter and doing them with style, humour, generosity and a fuss-free seriousness should be adopted all over the arts and humanities.

International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester Review of Books salutes you, and all who sail in you.

The Poetry After Auschwitz

Jennifer M. Hoyer – The Space of Words, Exile and Diaspora in the Works of Nelly Sachs (Camden House)

Theodor Adorno famously stated that to ‘write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Adorno later revised this statement, in his last work, Negative Dialectics.

But he didn’t renege, he made it even more damning. He said that ‘it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems’, but it is ‘not wrong to raise the less cultural question’ of ‘whether after Auschwitz you can go on living…’

In some ways, Nelly Sachs proved Adorno wrong. She did both. She carried on living as she took in the knowledge of the camps, and she wrote poetry.

But she did not really write poetry directly about Auschwitz, she wrote poetry that is fused with the raw, livid, negative energy of the incommensurable horror of the camps. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.

However, the point Adorno was making with his quotation was and is correct, even though it is more often misconstrued than it is correctly deployed. Adorno really meant Wagner, Mahler and all that was ‘poetic’ but rotten in Germany, that then became rotten in Hollywood: The cultural inflations of ‘beauty’, emerging from the rural idyll, that are then inscribed as ‘natural’, before this ‘nature’ is re-inscribed, finally, as a measure for who lives or dies.

Adorno was right, all that was rotten in Hollywood continued in an unbroken line. For Adorno, World War Two didn’t really end. It continued right through into the wars in Indochina, Vietnam and Cambodia… Now Donald Trump is in power.

Jennifer Hoyer explains that Sachs’ poetry is best not viewed as a set of open signifiers, emerging from an event, but as spaces opened by the words themselves. Gaston Bachelard is given as an example, that his poetics of space are also the space of poetry in Sachs’ work. It is not merely imagistic, it opens up a zone in the mind that is perhaps closer to occult practice than it is to poetry. Write and rite are one.

Hoyer includes a chapter on Sachs’ explorations of the Merlin myth. She piles version on version until they become a kind of occult map, until all the stray fragments have been aligned and transfigured, in some enormous mystical-linguistic Tetris game.

Hoyer’s chapter on ‘space after the abyss’, the space after Auschwitz, where simply ‘going on’ is a question, rather than a given, explores the redemptive dimensions of Sachs’ work too. But this is negative theology, it does not inhabit some fake positivistic philosophy of rescue.

Hoyer cites Rudolf Hartung in 1947, describing how the poetry after the war was ‘untimely’. Hartung returns to Adorno’s concerns about whether making poetry could be moral at all, in yet another time of the greatest material need.

Hartung had Gottfried Benn’s poetry of supposed aesthetic timelessness in his sights. In any case, it fails. What is meant to make Benn’s work ‘timeless’ puts it in orbit around a collapsing star.

Sachs’ work directly mirrors this gravitational implosion. She crushes the protons and electrons of ordinary language to form charged, neutron constellations, in colours we have never seen before. Tiny, but impossibly dense, many of the later poems are the afterimages of the collapse of the monstrous swell of Benn and others, and their cultural elevation of nihilism to art.

Benn’s work, often influenced by his time as a physician dissecting corpses, views humanity as simply pathos and disease.

Sachs, although she describes the present as a ‘wound ripped open’, sees the torn curtain of bloody flesh as proof of the inevitability of life, not death:

His pen, his scalpel cut. The writer of the Zohar surgically drew blood, pulsing, from the unseen circulation of the stars, gathered in a cup… the words, the homesick sparks. The grave split open, the alphabet arose, each letter was an angel, each a crystal shard, each held refracted droplets dating from creation. These sang. And there, within, glowed ruby, jacinth, lapis lazuli so many scattered seedlings not yet stone.

As you can see, Sachs’ post-war poetry also tried to pull what was left of the Jewish traditions through the eye of a needle.

Through the present moment that had been reduced to a grim corridor, and out into the light of another diaspora. It doesn’t just will the future into being, it returns like an avenging angel from that future.

This is the difference between poetry and the occult, or mysticism. As Hoyer puts it, Sachs’ texts ‘are often written in the present tense and destabilize the boundaries between then and now…’

Hoyer’s book also reconnects Sachs’ early work to the later work. Most studies focus on the holocaust poetry, but Hoyer’s places Sachs’ work in a broader picture. The themes that run through what are often seen as two distinct and separate bodies of work are painstakingly traced. Hard, wearying, detailed academic toil has clearly gone into producing this book.

The result is more than admirable, and fascinating. There is too little space to even begin with the details, but through them the richness of Sachs’ work is clear. It has a nuclear half-life of one thousand years.

Hoyer also aligns Sachs’ project to the stateless Jews after WW2. Sachs’ work makes ‘a state’ for the stateless. In the spaces of words she opens up, in the ash and smoke, after WW2. But bleakly, those without a state now are the Palestinians.

Adorno was not wrong, but Sachs’ work is open enough to weep and wail for all.

Adorno’s comments on poetry after the camps concerned ‘reification’, that the abstract is made concrete in a bad order. Well before Foucault, he described the world as a kind of open prison.

But Sachs the mystic might see the prison as Adorno’s own, ‘so many scattered seedlings, not yet stone.’

Postscript

Andrew Shanks has re-translated a lot of Sachs’ poems. The Penguin Modern European Poets edition presented very muted translations. Shanks’ versions are wide-eyed and alive. You can find them here: http://www.nellysachs-translations.org.uk/

Holding On To A Dear Life

Various – A Jar of Wild Flowers, Essays in Celebration of John Berger (Zed Books)

It’s tempting to think that we no longer have figures like Goethe, Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt or Adorno. But John Berger was their equivalent, as was Zygmunt Bauman, who also died recently. Berger may not have made work that sounded or looked like any of those people, but why would he?

His work is influenced by them all to a greater or lesser extent, but he rarely came on like a card-carrying German Idealist philosopher. It is there though, pulsing up from the past.

But now we no longer have John Berger.

Manchester Review of Books covered Tom Overton’s book on Berger, Landscapes, some time ago. This book though, arriving for Berger’s 90th, not long before he passed away, is a collection of tributes.

Berger’s life spans much of the 20th and some of the 21st century, emerging after the second world war, alongside the British New Left. But he carried on, becoming, if anything, more radical the older he got.

I remember reading an essay on Bruegel the Elder and ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. Berger compared the social world in the paintings to our own, implausibly, I thought, at first, until he explained that the lack of a centre, of a focal point, was a description of hell. He compared them to a CNN news bulletin.

It was utterly brilliant: So simple, so counterintuitive; yet so completely correct.

I also remember reading Hold Everything Dear when it came out and getting a sense that he had jettisoned many of the pointless courtly dances of writing. In it, he states, at one point, bluntly, that yes, he is still a Marxist. At the same time, the book is filled with poetry.

Zed Books are a co-op and this seems very appropriate, part of the tribute of the edition. Berger’s leftism never departed from him, it seemed to get stauncher, in inverse proportion to his generosity of spirit.

In London, Berger hung out with exiles who knew a lot about art, but cared nothing for art markets, and in fact were completely scornful of them. Berger was highly critical of the art market all his life, a tradition carried on nicely by Julian Stallabrass, who puts out books with empty squares where the accompanying picture should be, because the copyright is locked down by capitalist cartels.

The titles of the pieces in this collection are just single words, grouped under a themed heading. For instance a section called The Colours of the Cosmos has titles which run ‘Graphite’, ‘Hay’, ‘Fire’, ‘Milk’, ‘Blood’, ‘Forest’, ‘Toast’ and ‘Oil’.

There’s something straightforward and poetic about this, as there was about Berger’s work, and Jean Mohr’s, who also contributes the moving foreword to this collection.

But the universal and particular are one here too. Toast, blood, fire, oil. The cosmos and your immediate surroundings are part of the same vast continuum. But the search for god, or in this case, the god particle at CERN, is pointless, if the mortal lives of all cannot be lived blessedly.

For Berger, as Amarjit Chandan puts it, and beautifully, the ‘existential angst’ is ‘further expanded with the extent of multiplied horizons’.

Put more practically though, this way of titling pieces avoids the usual contents page in a collection, where each author’s long title, well-crafted in isolation, immediately drowns in all the others. This is refreshing.

Editor Yasmin Gunaratnam mentions that Berger met Orwell while working for New Statesman and that some of his style of argument is passed on from Orwell. This simple fact strikes me hard. Just that plain fact, that they met, and the continuum back into the past, into Orwell’s time, or rather Eric Blair’s time, in the Imperial police in India, on the road with ‘vagrants’.

Suddenly I cannot stop thinking about the simultaneous closeness and distance of history. But it is ordinary, too, as Hans Jürgen Balmes shows, in his section ‘Graphite’. He remembers Berger lighting a candle during a powercut and then reading. Suddenly I’m in some place with friends, on a break. Anywhere. The pencil line, fragile, shaking, easy to erase, is history.

Rema Hammami then writes about John Berger’s text messages. The facile notion that somehow newer forms of inscription are profane or less serious, although it is faster or more quotidian, is completely exploded by this section. The SMS message is a fugitive pencil line too.

A very interesting dimension of Berger’s life that is becoming much clearer in this moment of national breakdown is his decision to move to a rural, remote town in France and live there. There are parallels with Henri Lefebvre here, the great urbanist who in fact began in the landscape and life of the French peasant. But Berger also seems to mirror that other very British exile, Robert Graves. Part of the establishment, but pacifist, avant garde and totally dissenting. They left the island and stayed away. Never has this made more sense than now.

You can never escape, of course, in France there is Le Pen, but you can remove yourself to the edges in order to look back in again, awry.

Nick Thorpe and Iain Chambers turn the book towards migration. A Seventh Man is now a book about all migrant journeys. Decades old, it is as contemporary as the breaking news and as universally intense as Homer. Rochelle Simmons’ section explores Berger’s use of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to open up the politics of race. Simmons unflinchingly points out the ‘limitations’ of Berger’s ‘propaganda by deed’ – in this case donating his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers – at the same time as celebrating it. Yahia Yakhlef’s final chapter ‘Courage’ makes clear Berger’s commitment.

Gunaratnam writes about Berger’s comments on the photographer Chris Killip’s work, in Thatcher’s Britain, describing it as a series of views of a -20 degree winter where people simply insulate themselves in any way they can to get through.

The same horror is with us again. Out on to the streets you go, and if you are lucky, with a tent or sleeping bag. She describes Howard Becker’s comments on Berger and Mohr’s work, how it gives you what I call in my head ‘truthness’.

There’s a richness to this collection. It unfolds, yields, gives. Nikos Papastergiadis contributes a wonderful section on landscapes, art and creation and how it connects with the human social world. The essay by Gavin Francis on A Fortunate Man is wonderful. It’s one of Berger and Mohr’s most moving books, and, perhaps not surprisingly, one that I rarely see for sale in book shops.

Who will replace the likes of Berger, Bauman and those taken far too soon, such as Gillian Rose? There is much to hold dear here for the art school. There is a generational cliff edge as those of Berger’s generation and the one after pass into retirement. The arts have been coloured pink for a long time, but it is not a natural state of affairs. It can and will change, and now we see how quantifiable outcomes and instrumentalised rationales affect all but the most resistant arts institutions.

However, what’s truly great about this anthology is that it is almost completely multi-purpose. It is of relevance to everyone in the humanities as well as the arts, and to the general reader interested in the new century and the one that has passed and how they connect: This is an electrically passionate collection.

The New Delta Blues

George Szirtes – Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe)

These poems now leer out of the pages with increased significance. The title piece is about a globalised world that now feels like it is shrinking:

‘There’s no exhaustive language. The maps are a start, in gathering up strands of a notional heart.’

Out this year, it feels old already, this poem. A piece called ‘Bartok’ follows on, it describes how eastern European folk music became transcribed, with all of its atonality for the concert hall, so that those audiences could hear music that ‘screeched and snapped like bullets freshly fired’.

The preceding poem describes the old men of this even older landscape, respectably concealing trenches with corpses in them. The plucked strings and bleary ravaged landscape of Bartok’s String Quartet No.4 in C., Movement III rises to the surface.

Szirtes virtually inhabits your body with his description, via his own music, which is not the same as Bartok’s, even though he came from Hungary. From those landscapes.

But now, after Brexit, after Trump… This is not just a great collection of poetry (it is) this is an essential book of any sort for our newly darkened times.

It is an actual map. I fear that we are all going to need it.

After Saint Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky – Vladimir Mayakovsky & Other Poems (trans., James Womack, Carcanet/Fyfield)

This new volume presents a very sharp set of translations for a fundamentally incisive poet, with a clear and unromanticised introduction. The selections give us a very open reading of Mayakovsky, the Mayakovsky that is relevant to all times, without ever losing his utterly iron circumstances in history. The footnotes explain the arcana of Soviet terminology where needed, but the whole seems much more light than other collections, an aggregate of what is universally useful in Mayakovsky.

Mayakovsky’s influence on poetry and art is huge. The Beats would be lost without his R&D. Kenneth Rexroth’s poem Thou Shalt Not Kill reaches a ridiculous crescendo in its recited version, in 1957. Here, Rexroth melodramatically roll calls the names of the dead, Dylan Thomas, Mayakovsky, with a cello sawing darkly, under braying trumpet:

‘You killed him! In your gawd damn Brookes Brothers suit, you son-of-a-bitch!’

However much we might want to claim it, neither Mayakovsky nor Dylan Thomas were killed by a city slicker in a suit. In some ways, their deaths were polar opposites.

Dylan Thomas died of ennui, anomie, the lack of a name for himself and the thing his whole being did, the thing he escaped, through the clear door at the bottom of his glass, just once too often and too far…

Mayakovsky, on the opposite side of the globe, ideologically speaking, died because he cared too much. Like many of the avant garde, his revolution turned to clay in his lifetime.

To be clear, we don’t really know why Mayakovsky committed suicide, the introduction here is admirably unpretentious on such points, scholarly and engaging at the same time. But what is certain is that Mayakovsky loved and lived for the revolution and saw it splintering apart in himself. The translator and editor of this new volume James Womack cites Mayakovsky putting ‘his foot on the throat of his own song.’

Womack makes interesting points regarding the dating of the poems. One was later re-dated to place it a year before the revolution, when its real date of writing in 1917 meant that Mayakovsky was being critical of both the Bolsheviks and the opposition. These little ‘alterations’ were made in post-Stalin editions of Mayakovsky. Boris Pasternak apparently named Stalin’s enthusiastic championing of Mayakovsky’s poetry as his ‘second death’. Mayakovsky was unfortunate enough to have emerged from Stalin’s treasured Georgia.

I have one of these Mayakovsky-The-Saint volumes, Volume 2, the longer poems. The long piece here is the ‘play’ called ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky’. This gives the lie to the view of Russians as somehow egoless drones of the revolution, in fact Mayakovsky gives the lie to the default view of Russian Constructivism as all angular lines and squares. Here are Schwitters scraps at beer tables, cigarettes, dirt, grease, sweat. But the four-square rhyming is of cubism and tallies with the formal aesthetics of the time, Futurism, Vorticism.

But despite these organic scraps of everyday life, Mayakovsky was not a personal, existential, individualist writer either. He valued sound and pulsebeat over meaning itself. He looked outwards to the world, often with a kind of third person ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky’ that was in no way proto-postmodern ironic or romantic: ‘They say my themes are too i-n-d-i-v-i-d-u-a-l-i-s-t-i-c’ he wrote, returning even the rebuttal of the charges to formalism.

Mayakovsky often became a cipher in the world observing that world, to then be filtered through rectilinear formal aesthetics and the music of modernity. Mayakovsky’s beat is in no way straightforward though, and more often than not he is closer to surrealism than any other movement. Rexroth became an anarchist, seeing through the Bolshevik myth of the Russian Revolution when the Kronstadt uprising was crushed by Lenin in 1921. Mayakovsky killed himself in 1930, he was going down badly with his public. ‘How many are hopeless alcoholics?’ Rexroth asked of the poets and revolutionaries of his time.

Perhaps Mayakovsky ‘pulled back the curtain in Oz, proved that the Man Upstairs is a scam.’ Perhaps he simply sensed what was coming with all of the precognition of the poet and decided to leave.