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This is Jacket 12, July 2000   |   # 12  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

David Kennedy reviews

Complete Travels, by Martin Corless-Smith

(Sheffield: West House Books, 2000), pbk, £9.95, ISBN 0 9531509 3 3

This piece is 1100 words or about three printed pages long.

The English Pastoral was officially pronounced dead over twenty-five years ago in the introduction to John Barrell and John Bull’s Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse. Barrell and Bull argued that ’The separation of life in the town and in the country that the Pastoral demands is now almost devoid of any meaning’ and concluded by asserting that ’now and in England, the Pastoral ... is a lifeless form, of service only to decorate the shelves of tasteful cottages’. In the dismal days of the British ’Seventies, this sounded indisputable but in recent years it has started to seem that Barrell and Bull were rather hasty in laying out the body.
Andrew Lawson, writing at the beginning of the last decade, argued that the pastoral ’simply went "underground"’ and resurfaced as ’philosophical pastoral’ in Cambridge in the 1970s in the poetry of, among others, J. H. Prynne, Andrew Crozier and Peter Riley. More recently, the poet and critic Terry Gifford has drawn on a wide range of critical and imaginative writing to anatomise what he terms post-pastoral. He uses the term to include wilderness and mountaineering literature as well as critical books like Jonathan Bate’s new book The Song of the Earth which seeks to redress the dominant socio-political readings of the Romantics by focusing on their concern with how mankind exists within and relates to the non-human universe.
What all these accounts miss, I think, is that the pastoral has persisted in quite another way in the work of a small number of writers for whom the past cultural matter of England becomes a subject. I should point out right away that I am not referring to a writer like, for example, Tony Harrison who sets out to challenge the dominant wisdom by re-telling history from a traditionally marginalised perspective. I am referring instead to writers who respond to the various constituents of English culture as literal material to be obsessively reworked and worked through. There are elements of song and shards of obscure history in their work. There are whiffs of the narcoleptic elegance of early Prynne and convergences with the repetitions, puns, variations and visualisations of what used to be called ’concrete poetry’.
One of these writers is Alan Halsey who, in works such as A Robin Hood Book and Spells Against Green Field Development, interweaves the themes and devices of pastoral with other aspects of the English psyche’s relationship with the country: pagan spirits, say, or rural resistance and insurrection. His work offers a conception of the past as a barely tapped resource. This is not nostalgia but a sense that through attention to language, the past can be activated in new ways. The past is conceived as text. Another writer who works in this way is Martin Corless-Smith whose latest book Complete Travels is handsomely produced on good quality paper with a cover that is pleasingly retro-styled to recall seventeenth-century books and pamphlets. This is highly appropriate for a collection of texts which draw on a variety of sources including Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sidney.
The result is a kind of meta-pastoral. The book comprises four distinct but intertwined sections, the first of which is ’Worcestershire Mass’ or ’WORC’S MASS’ as the cover has it. This double titling highlights one of the ways in which past and present combine throughout the volume. The shorter title seems to belong to the beginnings of English literature but is a product of contemporary self-reflexiveness. WORC’S MASS might just as easily be a place in America. Consequently, there is a kind of flickering between the two and an emphasis on the way that words and sounds move in and out of each other. The resultant texts can look fragmented on the page but reading them and, indeed, reading them aloud evokes instead a sense of so many meanings being available that it is only possible to record fleeting snatches as in ’Vestment’:

for now it is
the Aire is the outward refreshing
where this vast creature breathes
was a Branch planted in
thy Court
a Guest a mole
Heaving the Earth to take Aire
a Roote whose flowres are the Second and Third person
for that water we read
was a second substance
a celestial ocean
whose face is beauteous
a Black-bag
amongst visibles
her cupid
Extract a Venus from the sea
The Air is corpus our Animal Oyl
a moyest silent fire
she moves she stands like
wheels in drie

Readers who are experts in church music will be able to say whether ’Worcestershire Mass’ follows a specific devotional form but there is throughout the piece - and the book as a whole - a powerful sense of the choral, as sounds, images and voices slowly aggregate and gather only to diminish and begin again. In this context, perhaps there is another smart pun being made on ’mass’. The passage also demonstrates that Complete Travels collects writing which is often genuinely charming as well as being completely engaging. It may be because I have just been re-reading Thomas Campion, Michael Drayton, Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell but Complete Travels seems to me to give a new take on a recognisable aesthetic landscape. The book’s final section, entitled ’The Garden. A Theophany or ECCOHOME A dialectical lyric’, is particularly fine in this respect in its deconstruction and reassembling of another old English form, the mask. For once, the book’s blurb is absolutely correct in its comment that ’these poems seem always to demand performance but it is a performance they also for sheer pleasure of unruliness resist’:

Just as it ends
begins in silence
the man sing Daimon
dividing Home divine

The ground under the ground
over the ground digging
In solitude I read
Silence the spade engraved

After my death I listen
The last thing you read has been written

However, I don’t mean to imply that Complete Travels is irretrievably embedded in an English context or that readers need detailed knowledge of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English poetry to appreciate it. Corless-Smith clearly takes pleasure in and inspiration from older poetries’ music and intellectual rigour and in a wider tradition of writing about landscape, place and nature but his compositional methods confound assumptions about what it means to respond to a tradition. At the same time, his borrowing from and evocation of older poetries transcend expectations about what we are obliged to term linguistically innovative poetry. And this, in itself, is enough to define his originality.

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