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Flex & Go

Drew Milne reviews
Sarn Helen, by John Wilkinson

(Cambridge: Equipage, 1997), 32 pp., £2.00. Copies available from Equipage, c/o Rod Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge, CB5 8BL, U.K.
This piece is 1650 words or about three printed pages long.

The opening epigraphs of Sarn Helen quote Delacroix’s journals on the distance travelled by light from its source to the plates of the first daguerrotype. Through the parenthesis of quotation, Delacroix comments that in this distance he finds: ‘monotony, that inexhaustible source of everything that makes a deep impression’. A cluster of interests are announced, then, regarding the distance between source and representation, and the quality of persistence which makes for deep impressions. Wilkinson’s poetry has a remarkable persistence in its sustained differentiation of tone across centrifugal registers and grammatical torsions. How then, does this persistence fashion an encounter with its voice without making it monotonous?
      The simple answer is that Wilkinson’s poetry engages the art of surfing. Analogies with surfing the net are not completely inappropriate, but Wilkinson’s poetic line maintains not a series of random but brief concentration spans so much as a flight across the surface of language. This flight offers both flights of fancy and a baroque sublime of figurative alienations, alienations which speak of damaged lifeworlds. Wilkinson’s skill is in the balance with which primary processes of poetic production cut through the ebb and flow of information and sound bitten desires.
      The sequence begins in media res with the line: ‘bayonetted. If any will hear the truth must cling best’ (p. 5). After the ominous opening title of an oblique slash — ‘/’ — the scene is announced as a shift from martial weaponry to the figurative violence of spiked language. Truth-hearers are cling-ons deafened by the news of warring clans and spin doctors. If primary epic, such as ‘The Iliad’, invokes poetry as the song of heroes, while secondary epic, such as ‘The Æneid’ or ‘Paradise Lost’, contrasts the components of primary epic with the awkwardness of literary retrospection and republican imperialism, this is more like a tertiary epic of impetus regained and then lost again. There are no more heroes. The way second nature coordinates referentiality with the ideology of action has transmuted into a conflict of figurative resources. Each apparently innocent metaphorical resource is spun out, beyond the poetic refashioning of the narratives of primary process, beyond the garden of knowledge and referentiality, and on into the fallen world of a resistance even to allegorical reinterpretation: ‘Beading a referential link far as the eye shook whole.’ (p. 8). Each figure is spun, then, so as to test its capacity to skiff along the surface, releasing the energy of ‘the unseeming aimless / river to a bank’s sediment’ (p. 5). And yet the directions to be taken along the figurative route from river banks to capital flows are indeterminate. The effect is of a persistence through fluidity which seeks to keep its balance, while all around lose theirs, surfing through the historical torrents and whirlpools of the second nature of contemporary language.
      Thus, as the title and cover illustration of Sarn Helen suggests, this is nature poetry. Maps of ‘Sarn Helen’ may still be available from Her Majesty’s Stationary Office. The poem, however, offers rather different descriptions of land and seascapes, where, for example, ‘Common seals luxuriate, / transmitters pinned behind their perked-up ears’ (p. 5). Such a description could echo a natural history documentary on the tagging of seals so as to trace shifts of nature across increasingly dense information charts. Beyond the anthropomorphic arm-chair television scaffold, this description might also serve as an alienation effect with which to describe sun-bathers listening to walk-men. Pastoral, then, but touched by barge poles.
      The shift between the naturalisation of figurative description and the alienation of naturalisation from any identifiable poetic authority constitutes the plate tectonics of the sequence as a whole. The poem’s matrix of interests appears not simply to describe an external world but to cross refer residues of memory with a wariness towards the sentiments of collective false memory syndromes. An investigation, then, not into the day’s residues, but into the imagination’s capacity to perceive its metastatic harmonies. What might be identified as sepia-tinted fictions of youthful recollection are turned through the optics of conflictual disaffection: ‘the memory’s point of stress, wrong turn, / cyclic loadings’ (pp. 7–8). These disaffections may reflect an acute sense of personal distress, but distress also finds objective correlatives in the waste lands of the ‘squatter’s claim’ and the wreckage of a ‘burnt-out car’ (p. 7). This landscape is contrasted with descriptive figures which work through the hippy recidivism of those who are ‘plucking at straws, toking at glassy spliffs’, and search for more acute anthropological resonances with the ‘preternatural’ ancients (p. 9).
      The long lines of the opening poems have a relatively regular metrical appearance which suggests an epic hexameter with variable and legless feet. This longer line returns in the closing poem. Between these poems this line is modulated into quatrains. Both these formats are interrupted by poems more akin to lyric in their formal brevity and in the relief they offer from the insistent lack of narrative resolution offered by the other poems. These shorter lyric poems also offer a more recognisable contemporary idiom, an idiom announced by the first lines of these lyric interruptions: ‘It gets up my nose.’ (p. 10) and ‘You’ve got some lip.’ (p. 22). These poems are more akin to the lyric energy of ‘Proud Flesh’, while the other poems could be compared with the allegorical subject-object dialectics of ‘The Speaking Twins’. The virtues of the former mode involve a crisper shift in focus between immediacy and reflection, shifts highlighted by the effects of white space:

writing a traceless
mirror out of
soilage, catapulting a skiff
to bounce on the glimmerous
delusory pool: what are the depths
believed in
you would sink towards,
impetus lost?
(p. 22)

This is coordinated through a play of the rhetorical personæ of I and you, a play which is more reconciled than the externalised perspectives offered by the poems with longer lines. And yet the final lines of the sequence conclude with the longer line of unreconciled externality:

ripped between currents, proud & foaming. Flimsy
as I am I burrow the fallopian waste of my making.
Throat like sandpaper spasms on the manrope knot
but it was what I have to excess. Granted its width,
its breadth & distance, what calibration serves to fold
edgeless, radiant, erasive, your saved up fervencies
(p. 31)

This spermatozoic persona seems to imagine tracing its representations back into the chicken and egg origins of the double helix of deoxyribonucleic acids fondly known as DNA. As the sources of poetic creativity seek to cut a more preternatural figure, the history which gave us Gabriele Fallopio (1523–1562) as the name for female reproductive organs is refigured as an adjective for waste. Poetry is not in your genes, however. A recent British Telecom advert proclaims the Hegelian speculative proposition that ‘geography is history’, but modern pastoral needs more than figurative excess to conceptualise its unnatural history: it needs concepts.
      If a generation of poets have worn badges proudly declaring the end of the human subject, this poetry is less happy with the absence of viable subject positions, and tests its mettle through a persistence which avows its desire to be ‘edgeless, radiant, erasive’. Critical assessment needs must falter before the combination of heightened attention and inattentive distraction this poetry invites. There is no hidden agenda of pristine ethical virtues or political laws to be divined and taken down the mountain for the edification of those dancing round their sacred cattle. There is, however, a significant grasp on the way the sensibilities of language which seize the perceptual body — ‘the manrope knot’ — are both sociopolitical and personal. John Wieners’ ‘Behind the State Capitol’ provides a more appropriate point of comparison than most of the English contemporaries with whom Wilkinson’s work has been associated: Wilkinson’s poetry has an analogous tension between its desire for immaculately conceived lyric surface and the exuberant transgression of the sensibilities of more tasteful poetry. Wilkinson’s affront to the technicians of post-modern sensibility is the vulnerability of his poetry’s woundedness. At the same time, Wilkinson’s unreconciled energies are resistant to those who would seek refuge from linguistic deformalisation in new pæans to spirit or hymns to the sacred. The sources of poetic imagination and invention are too polluted for such solaces.
      Sarn Helen, then, continues the extraordinary trajectory of Wilkinson’s oeuvre, going boldly out on a limb where legless angels fear to tread. The immediate surface of this poetry is pleasingly enlivened with resonances which modulate the moods and syntax of romanticism and modernism. It seems somewhat churlish, therefore, to ask for a more mediated integration. The variety of ways this poetry finds to surf extremes of idiom is unrivalled in contemporary poetry: these twenty-six pages provide only glimpses of the range of his recent work. And yet the persistence of pleasures taken from the surfed surface produces a characteristic second-order appearance of inexhaustibility. Vulnerability risks becoming invulnerable if the relation between impetus and representation is both immediate and yet quickly and immediately refracted through new immediacies. The underside of this baroque sublime is rococo mannerism. The unhappy consciousness of radiant edgelessness remains edgy, both restless and persistent. This contradictory motility is not resolved dialectically but remains caught within its repetitive inventiveness. The demands on attention are too demanding, while heightened inattention paralyses the possibility of a more knowing expression of the traumatised surface. This oscillation between demanding attention and heightened inattention reveals a contradictory but monotonous ground as the unarticulated support for the polyphonic figurative surface. Contradictions run deeper than the persistence of the surface can articulate or acknowledge. This begins to specify the conditions of possibility developed in Wilkinson’s poetry. Such conditions cannot be shared or discussed easily, but the poetic specification of such conditions in an immediacy of linguistic tension is remarkable. For those who have yet to experience the quality of Wilkinson’s poetry, there really is no time like the present.

Drew Milne

Drew Milne’s books of poetry include Sheet Mettle (Alfred David Editions, 1994), How Peace Came (Equipage, 1994), and Songbook (Akros, 1996). You can read some poems by Drew Milne in this issue of Jacket.

John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson’s collection Flung Clear, Poems in six books was published by Parataxis in 1994. You can read two poems by John Wilkinson in this issue of Jacket.

This review first appeared in Gare du Nord, edited by Alice Notley and Douglas Oliver from 21 rue des Messageries, 75010 Paris, France, Tel. 1-45-23-08-48, and published three times a year. Single issues: Three pounds, 25 francs, $4.50 (cheques should be made out to ‘Douglas Oliver’).

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