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Neil Reeve and Richard Kerridge

Deaf to Meaning:

On J.H.Prynne’s The Oval Window

... from Parataxis magazine, Cambridge
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This piece is 10,500 words or about twenty printed pages long.
Endnotes and copyright credits are given at the end of this file.
Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

      In darkness by day we must press on,
      giddy at the tilt of a negative crystal.
                [Note 1]

When a crystal tilts, it reveals another of its many facets, one perhaps hitherto invisible or overlooked. It reminds whoever views it how much the scrutiny of any one aspect depends on the occlusion of others, since there is no single vantage point to which the whole of the object is open. Prynne’s poems are characteristically crystalline, multi-faceted, in this sense. The least shift of phrase or word or tone will tend to dislodge and replace whatever meaning, or beginnings of meaning, that the reader had previously observed. Sustained reading of texts so unstable and elusive can induce a kind of vertigo, a sense indeed of pressing on through a disorientating darkness; the mind is never quite sure whether it can adjust rapidly enough to meet each fresh challenge, or how much it can afford to overlook in the interests of staying lucid. But the shifts and turns also bring moments of bright exhilaration, of tantalising and exasperating beauty. A configuration will flare up briefly among the swirl of possible paths to follow, or a moment of colloquial directness will suddenly invigorate lines which had seemed blurred. The strange power that this writing can generate — and nowhere more so than in The Oval Window (1983) — prompts a search for a way of responding to it that respects the continual surprise, the sense of naive or heedless fascination, that runs alongside the rigorousness of thinking which the complexities of the text seem to demand, for it is remarkable how the language manages to retain a mysterious freshness despite all the wear it suffers.
      From the first of its twenty-seven sections The Oval Window has an unmistakable energy. Its paragraphs look densely packed, after the spare stanzas of its immediate predecessor Down Where Changed (1979), but they are humming with activity, and they certainly appear to offer more room for events to occur and register than in News of Warring Clans (1977). The opening lines have a pace that was missing there:

The shut inch lively as pin grafting
leads back to the gift shop, at a loss
for two-ply particles                            (p.7)

‘Lively’, ‘at a loss’, and later ‘in a twinkling’ reflect the quick staccato bursts, the tone of terse suggestiveness: ‘You cut your chin / on all this, like club members on the dot / by a winter blaze.’ One may think of ‘cut your teeth’ — of initiations, openings, joining clubs — but has only a moment to wonder why teeth have become ‘chin’ before being hurried on by the drive of the words, towards ‘in a twinkling mind you, to pick up / elastic replacements on the bench code’. Our first reading tools are already taken over by ‘replacements’; there is always going to be that double sense, of what is simultaneously felt to be given and taken, offered and snatched back. It seems moreover that one source of the energy and momentum in the text will derive from regular hints that it is self-consciously anticipating the reader’s struggle to stabilise his or her reactions. For much of the time the poem seems to be dancing ahead, beckoning us to keep up with it. The penultimate section, for example, appears to offer a kind of ironic commentary on the very difficulties it imposes:

In darkness by day we must press on,
giddy at the tilt of a negative crystal.
The toy is childish, almost below speech
lip-read by swaying lamps. It is not
so hard to know as it is to do:
wresting the screen before the eyelet lost
to speech tune you blame the victim.
Pity me! These petals, crimson and pink,
are cheque stubs, spilling chalk in a mist
of soft azure. At the last we want
unit costs plus VAT, patient grading:
made to order, made to care, poised
at the nub of avid sugar soap.                  (p.33)

      ‘It is not so hard to know as it is to do’ stands out, in its simple bluntness, to warn the interpreter against self-satisfaction. But it does seem possible to observe the transition from ‘giddy’ (line 2) to ‘poised’ (line 12), as the two words face each other symmetrically across the poem. The active participles indicate involuntary or uncontrolled movement — ‘swaying’, ‘wresting’, ‘spilling’ — and in each case occur in phrases which could refer to stressful quests for information: trying to lip-read in uncertain light, or apparently struggling to catch something on screen before it disappears, or discovering, with suitable chagrin, that what at first sight seemed so promising (‘petals’) were only the records of where value had been (‘cheque stubs’). Halfway through comes the cry for relief from these stresses, ‘Pity me!’, because what ‘at the last we want’ is for the Gordian knot of such frustrating difficulties to be cut, for everything to be properly accounted for and audited (‘unit costs plus VAT’). Our desire is for ‘patient grading’, which could suggest either the careful sorting of items into their appropriate places, controlling the instability that makes us giddy; or something like the battlefield triage of the army medical corps, where patients are graded into more or less urgent cases. The knowingly general tone of ‘at the last we want’ makes us accomplices in a resentment derived perhaps from an over-pampered life (some further implications of that are discussed later). But at least we can regain some ‘poise’, because our impatience with complexities goes with an eagerness to assert our control, to rub everything down (with ‘sugar soap’) ready to paint it over again.
      This section of the poem thus appears to conduct us through the progress of our own response to it. We recognise here a number of elements which have occurred earlier in The Oval Window (the toy, the lamps, the screen, the petals, mist, azure), and which are now redistributed in such a way as might seem to encourage exactly the search for significant connections which the ‘commentary’ fends off. Indeed, virtually every linguistic event that happens in The Oval Window happens again, perhaps in slightly altered or disguised form, and sometimes more than once. But the results tend to be disruptive, and deny us the stability we usually expect from literary repetition (even the stability of those repetitions that proclaim their own lack of significance). Our memory of what we have seen in the text, and our predictions of what may be to come, are not providing safe enough ground for the organising of meaning, and the poem itself seems to look sardonically on our discomfort.
      One possible solution that a number of writers on Prynne’s poetry have suggested would be for the reader to abandon the effort to shape or control the reading, and live instead in the instant of its occurrence. ‘Lifelong transfusion’ is how The Oval Window phrases it, a continuous recomposition of the self with no blocks to the flow. Reading would then take place somewhere apart, where the conscious self, as constituted by its history and its social identity, the self that observes, comments on and analyses its experience, would not be allowed to intrude. If that condition were ever realised, the text would simply flood through its reader and leave no mark. But here, on the contrary, the half-caught or incomplete repetitions obstruct expectations rather as Wilfred Owen’s half-rhymes did, drawing attention to what is not there, and prompting the reader not to give up looking but to look again — a second look which can only be taken by a reading prepared to pause and make enquiries. ‘We must press on’ itself calls for more than one response: it sounds one minute like a brisk refusal to linger or to be distracted, and the next like the weary acknowledgement of an obligation to investigate further. Each alternative has to keep the other in view. Even while some moments of knowledge in the poem do sweep past too quickly, we are not thereby absolved of responsibility towards what has registered.
      To return to that penultimate section: ‘In darkness by day we must press on, / giddy at the tilt of a negative crystal.’ Other lines of thought can be triggered by the conjunction of ‘giddy’ with ‘crystal’ and, a few lines later, ‘spilling chalk’. The tiny calcite crystals which lie loosely packed on the otoconial membranes of the inner ear, crystals which under the microscope so resemble snowflakes that neurologists refer to part of the otoconial layer as the ‘snowdrift line’, would certainly produce sensations of giddiness were they to tilt very far. The tiniest spills or shifts in their positions on the membrane, stimulated for example by the rapid ascent of the body in a lift or an aeroplane, can produce significant changes of emotional mood.

Otoconial crystals

Otoconial crystals

      These crystals are responsible for providing the brain with information as to the position of the head within the earth’s gravitational field. They begin to develop around the tenth week of gestation, and by the twenty-sixth week are virtually fully-formed, sending impulses to the brain at a prenatal stage when the eye and the auditory ear are still quite limited in their functions (although recent research suggests that the auditory ear begins its active life earlier than was previously believed). The otoconial mass does not form itself into a finished state which then remains unaltered throughout life. It constitutes instead a continuously developing system of combinations and replacements whose end is to measure and promote the stability of the organism. The American psychologist David Hubbard, a follower of Schilder’s pioneering work on the role of gravitational awareness in the formation of human personality, pointed out this apparent paradox: ‘Had nature intended true ‘ear stones’ of unchanging characteristics, a single large crystal with maximum mass and smallest surface area might have been designed. Exactly the opposite structure and possibilities exist, with a system comprised of millions of small crystals offering a large total surface area for chemical interaction. Moreover, had the system been designed to be static, the crystals would have been deeply buried behind an impermeable barrier rather than surrounded by membranes containing active ion pumps operating in a fluid of nearly neutral pH (we should remember that calcite is readily soluble in solutions of pH less than 7)’ [Note 2]

Otoconial crystals

Otoconial crystals

      Hubbard saw the otolith crystals as ‘physical particles which symbolically represent the outer world’. They comprise the ‘organ’ through which ‘gravity speaks’. The suggestion seems to be that, by registering the laws of gravity upon the human brain, the crystals act as agents of a primal encounter with external reality, a negative point or limit for the ego’s aspirations (in this case, to fly or to float). They mark one of those threshold sites at the rim of human identity, across which pass the fundamental processes which enable us to have our being. In a previous article (The Swansea Review, no. 4, Jan.1988) we discussed the general interest in such processes that distinguishes Prynne’s poetry; in this particular case the ‘oval window’ itself, the aperture in the middle ear through which sound waves travel to be transformed into neural impulses, is another point at the edge of what constitutes the integrity of the human subject.

Diagram of the ear - copyright Northwestern University

Diagram of the ear - copyright Northwestern University

      Such processes, whether neural, molecular, economic, geological, or political, can rarely be brought to consciousness in the moment of their effect, and normally require special conditions and equipment in order to be observed or measured. Nor are they readily accounted for in materialist terms alone. The otolith crystals, for example, could be said virtually to constitute the point where mind and matter start to intertwine, and such categories lose their homogeneity. In this case, moreover, we have something more complex than a threshold or a boundary post. The crystals, along with other parts of the vestibular apparatus, not only mark the edge of the organism, but act as a safety check built into it, warning against inappropriate or destabilising activity — from outside, by giddying disturbances, or from inside, by overreachings. The continuous chemical exchanges of the otoconia, reacting to the tiniest nuance, are as Hubbard describes them part of a process of constant re-orientation of the organism in the face of upsets; and in this way they offer a special kind of analogy for — or affinity with — the experience which The Oval Window offers — the experience of recurrent tension and interplay, as in the section quoted, between the ‘giddy’ and the ‘poised’, in all their forms and associations.


There are frequent references in the poem to the languages used by information-processing systems which have their own internal safety-mechanisms, and which apply pre-organised or programmed responses to the variable data they meet with. There are several phrases from computer terminology, for example. These phrases are not included merely as obscure bits of specialised discourse, designed to baffle the lay reader, or to glow with the romance of the elite group who have privileged access to what for the rest of us may be meaningless. They are also used in much the same way as the computer itself would use them:

From the skip there is honey and bent metal,
romantic on trade plates: PUT SKIP EDIT,
PUT SKIP DATA, the control flow structure
demands a check that subscripts do not exceed
array dimensions.                               (p. 19)

An array is a reserved block of computer memory. A programme can specify that the computer should reserve, before it proceeds, so many memory locations as space left available for future use. If more subscripts are fed in than there are locations available, a subscript will crash the programme by colliding with something already there. The warning demand to ‘check’ signals that the processing system is about to be overloaded, unless there is a deliberate intervention, an adjustment to control the flow.
      As a storing and processing house for received information, the computer challenges the human scale of possibilities with its speed; it responds and connects ‘in a twinkling mind you’ (p.7). But its performance depends on the exclusions it makes. It registers only those meanings which fit the programme. Others — meanings which continue to reside in words, meanings of human concern, have to be ignored, or ‘skipped’; pre-emptively excluded by the absence of a programme that could recognise them even if it chose. ‘PUT SKIP EDIT’: the computer disposes words as units, indifferent to their sense. It can skip to the middle of a phrase, remove a word or letter and replace it with another. Something like this appears to have been done several times in the poem; ‘cut your chin’ was mentioned earlier, and there is ‘nipped by the bud’ (p.24), or ‘Low in these windows’ (p.11) (which should be ‘Lo, in these windows’ [Richard III, I.ii.12]). Each occasion makes for a mildly disruptive mishearing of the familiar or the expected. Elsewhere in the poem whole passages from literature, from proverbs, political theory, oriental history, seem to have been edited together so that their margins spill over. The reading mind that notices these things has more freedom and flexibility to engage with meanings which for the computer would be either inadmissible or surplus to requirements. But only somewhat more, if it is to retain its balance and be able to press on: ‘Or sit and choke or / die too, you must mind only so much, / looping ahead with do and while’ (p. 21). You must allow into your mind, or care about, only so many things; any more would produce clogging or paralysis. At the same time, the warning encourages a flippant unconcern about this; you must not overload yourself with anxieties, but rather stay safely nonchalant in the crush.
      The ‘skip’ in ‘PUT SKIP EDIT’ has been picked up from ‘silent fire / dumped in a skip’ and ‘from the skip there is honey and bent metal’, earlier on p.19. A skip, a container for rubble, may be filled with material for which a particular project has no use or room; ‘bin liner’, a few lines later, develops the image of unwanted leftovers. As a verb, ‘skip’ suggests both a light-footed avoidance (‘skip round it’) and an abrupt rejection (‘skip it’). Retaining poise, the deftness of movement required to execute a skip, is again connected with pragmatic awareness; either rapidly assessing, as in triage, how much attention one can afford to bestow on each passing appeal, or reacting only to the sheer utility of whatever is encountered, like a scavenging animal. The computer is an extreme case, closing, as it were, the oval window on the sounds it cannot make out, and appropriating those it can to its own use, irrespective or their values and meanings elsewhere.
      Other clearing-house systems have different responses, or rather methods of responding, to unfamiliar input. Insurance companies, for example, calculate the likelihood of various eventualities and offer policies graded according to risk predictions. Their terminology is well-represented in the poem: ‘Motor life says the branch office’ (p.18); ‘single life’ (p.23); ‘life cover’ (p.23). There are phrases more faintly recalling insurers’ ways of dealing with acts of God — ‘a pestilence rated up for coverage’ (p.11) — or their pedantic small-print definitions — ‘cold is the meaning of heat notably absent’ (p.18). City dealers, if more superficially volatile, are equally adept at converting incoming problems into their own terms of assessment. If there is an ‘inspired fear in the bond market’ (p.14), it sparks off a self-protective reaction: ‘Somewhere else in the market it’s called / a downward sell-out, to get there first / and cut open a fire break.’ (p.12) If an area has already been cleared by fire, the flames when they arrive will have nothing to feed on; the space beyond is temporarily secured. A drastic measure, but it keeps those who take it one step ahead of the ever-advancing threat (there is a ‘dangerous fire risk’ [p.26] all through The Oval Window; almost every page contains references to burning). The stock exchange may frequently come close to panic in its anxiety to stay in front of the game, and indeed such panics can now be computer-triggered, unrestrained by a human operator. (The poem twice uses a phrase ‘they could only panic through the medium’ [p.8], ‘he too could only panic through the medium’ [p.23], which almost suggests that panic itself is only possible within a certain delimited area and according to a known procedure.) But much of the time the dealing-rooms keep their balance by means of a system of discounting — an arrangement which can deal with the unexpected by having ‘the unexpected’ already included as a category in the programme. Hence whatever happens the financial market minds ‘only so much’, and makes all safe again:

                      A view is a window
on the real data, not a separate copy
of that data, or a lower surplus in oil
and erratic items such as precious stones,
aircraft and the corpses of men, tigers
fish and pythons, ‘all in a confused tangle.’
                       Changes to the real data
are visible through the view; and operations
against the view are converted, through
a kind of unofficial window on Treasury policy,
into operations on the real data.
To this world given over, now safely,
work makes free logic joined to the afterlife.      (p.14)

The market designates as ‘erratic items’ commodities like diamonds and aircraft, whose irregular sale and delivery dates cause blips in the monthly trade figures; here the phrase becomes progressively ironic, or merely inadequate, given the list that follows it. If we try to pursue the syntax, it seems to say that such designations comprise not a genuine view of reality but a separate copy of it, in which phenomena or ‘data’ can only appear if there are categories for them already in place. ‘Changes to the real data’ — which might be all sorts of things; a revolution overseas, perhaps — are processed only as influences on prices and surpluses, whose adjustments are in turn fed back into the real to influence it; while at the same time there could be the suggestion that such regulating systems create a world of their own which masquerades as the real one, or becomes virtually indistinguishable from it. Either way, the computers, the insurers, the stock dealers proceed without wavering or digression, reading the incoming ‘data’ by means of automatic and passionless conversions and reconversions, predetermining which items will pass into the system and in what ways they will register there.
      A reading of The Oval Window undertaken without recourse to considered memory or to pauses for assessment would avoid what was deliberate and mechanical in these closed systems, but would make exclusions similar to theirs. It would move too quickly for remembered meanings to come in; it would keep ahead of them. But the losses and responsibilities connected with this do make themselves felt in the poem. Its texture is not even, and the degree of involvement with memory fluctuates, as does the nature of memory’s demands. In the last quoted line, for example, the Nazi slogan ‘work makes free’ is a phrase we are under some pressure to remember. If it so merged with other fragments of language as to lose its outline and become invisible, its warning power would be lost; like the ‘erratic items’, it would have been neutralised before admission. We could not allow the phrase any extra attention unless we could move beyond the automatised responses that totalitarian creeds have always sought, via such slogans, to impose on their adherents and victims alike. The ‘logic’ of ‘work makes free’ is that by devoting himself to labour, by giving himself over to a world which defines his tasks and his activities, man gains a freedom which is not political liberty but a deliverance from the problems of self-consciousness and identity: ‘To this world given over, now safely / work makes free logic joined to the afterlife.’ The self is ‘safe’ now, being entirely absorbed into its function and redefined accordingly. In this way the idea resembles the saving insensibility we came across earlier, minding only so much, which guards against mental or emotional congestion; unconsciousness brings strength. ‘Joined to the afterlife’ could indicate that this new condition goes on for ever; or that whatever is excluded from selfhood now, whatever the slogan brusquely expels, is projected ahead, foregone here in order to be recovered later. Since the slogan was inscribed above concentration camp gateways, that ‘afterlife’ is a cynical promise; we are shortly afterwards advised as to our options upon meeting its like: ‘Think now / or pay now and think later’ (p.17). All the time it seems necessary to maintain that difficult balance between too little vigilance and too much. If the self erases itself so much as to become invulnerable in one area, it courts danger in another.


The skip was the place where all these unwanted bits had been dumped. ‘From the skip there is honey and bent metal’ (p.19) — a strange assortment of debris in the one container. Perhaps poetry is able to feed on precisely the meanings that other systems have no use for; these are poetry’s ‘honey’, still available because other purposes have skipped or looped past them. Modernist poetry has frequently found itself picking over, in a kind of redemptive scavenging operation, what from other vantages might seem to be refuse or trash, in order to see what kind of life could still be gleaned from it. A chaotic tangle of phrases in a heap can in addition offer possibilities of survey denied when those phrases are working self-sufficiently. But though it often seems so, the language-tangle in The Oval Window is rarely a random colliding of discards, or the residue of a crashed programme. The most sustained merging or editing together of separate texts has an extraordinary intricacy, when on pages 23-24 a speech from All’s Well that Ends Well wanders in and out of the poem’s territory:

                      Hold your chin
to the relief coach; I am a woodland fellow,
                       sir loin parted formerly
      that always loved a great fire.

The window glints now in the lee wave,
fed with light up-ended. Crape put out
                       on the hives. Life cover
streams under, the master I speak of

ever keeps a good fire. Give a low
whistle, such country cannot be burnt;
                       fit the rebate, but
      sure, he is the prince of the world.

We will cast on the half then and find out
the neural crest below, an inquest
                       wrought with frost without
snow-marking on the run to try

the spoil and waste in a white suit.
Speak truly along the lip there, let
                       his nobility remain in’s
court. I am for the house again

and the egg-timer, give the sweet air
back as the nipped by the bud of ruin:
                       three to one herring.
Arms in sisal with the narrow gate

over-arched, knocking at the septum,
which I take to be too little for pomp
                       to enter a pleasant fee,
their faces are part-eaten. This is the place

where, deaf to meaning, the life stands
out in extra blue. Some that humble
                       themselves at the songbook
may turn the page enchanted; but

the many will be too chill below
in profile, and tender -limbed
                       in the foil wrap.
They’ll be for the flow’ry way and draw

a sharp breath by flutter action, do it
quickly, tongue-tied. That leads
                       to the broad gate
and the great fire, and deaf to the face

soundlessly matched to the summit.
We go over. The dip stands down
                       in the oval window, in
the blackened gutter stop of the newly born.

The italics are ours, simply to clarify the arrangement of the words. This speech is made by the clown Lavatch, while the Countess and Lafew are bewailing the apparent death of Helena, and Lavatch’s contribution, with its sarcastic talk of hell-fire, the afterlife, future hopes and spiritual insurance, is characteristically tactless.
      Lavatch is a highly marginal figure even for a Shakespearean clown, out on the edge of a play whose central characters attempt to take vigorous grips on their destinies. He adds next to nothing to the action, either by initiative or commentary, and most of his scenes comprise tedious digressions from it, digressions felt to be tedious even by the other characters. On the few occasions when his witticisms do seem to bear on events, they are so routinely sour that they never disturb as much as they might — as when, for example, he anticipates, without quite damaging, Helena’s bed-trick to ensnare Bertram, by arguing that the offices of marriage might as well be performed by a substitute as by the real spouse: ‘he that ears my land spares my team’. For the most part he lives by scavenging, since the entertainment he is retained to provide comes from his feeding off the word-scraps other people have dropped. He twists whatever he finds into new shapes without regard for the old ones. His slight skill at wordplay seems always about to degenerate into bitter, monotonous muttering, as each pun or innuendo primes ever more self-absorption. In a play where proverbs and commonplace-book arguments tend to be clung to as repositories of wisdom, Lavatch breaks them down with sceptical casuistries; while other characters refuse to accept what seems implacable, and look to their active wills to impose changes and cut new paths, Lavatch — in the speech The Oval Window uses — invokes a final judgement, which humility alone has a chance of influencing. But these reactions never amount to a coherent or sustained challenge to orthodoxy. He operates on the data according to a system of his own, from the sidelines of a world increasingly without time to waste on them — a world anxious to press on, since: ‘on our quick’st decrees / Th’inaudible and noiseless foot of Time / Steals ere we can effect them.’(V.iii.40-42)But perhaps because it is completely isolated from the progress of the action, Lavatch’s speech testifies to an invulnerable position, an eternal ‘decree’, on which the ‘noiseless foot of Time’ cannot steal. This position is made doubly secure by the way his deliberately unsettling manner throws into doubt the nature of his commitment to it.
      His speech both breaks into The Oval Window and is broken into by it. It arrives — as later it will leave — unobtrusively, in mid-sentence, after ‘Hold your chin / to the relief coach’; a relief coach is one especially laid on when the normal service has become overloaded. And the straightforwardness of Lavatch’s words, in tone if not in import, does bring relief. There is an immediate effect of decongestion, as if the relative clarity of his phrases could reflect some light on the obscurity they mingle with. This is a suggestion that the text itself at once picks up with its familiar nimbleness: ‘The window glints now in the lee wave, / fed with light up-ended.’ Hints of a fresh glimmer, a promising scent, a shelter from former buffettings, all play along these words. The poem’s apparent knowingness as to the reactions provoked by new input has the double effect mentioned before, both inviting and warding off the quest for stability of meaning. Here, for instance, in addition to the imagery the speech itself includes, of fires, thresholds, and making oneself safe, we might see ‘up-ended’ as up-ended or overbalanced recollection of ‘even end-up’ from the poem’s first section (p.7). ‘Crape put out on the hives’ sounds like something done to calm a frantic buzz of activity (it actually refers to an old rural custom whereby a person’s bees, as well as the rest of his family, were put into mourning when he died, as it was thought they would otherwise worry themselves to death for being overlooked). ‘We will cast on the half then and find out’ talks of setting a search going; ‘to try / the spoil and waste in a white suit’ sees us picking over the rubbish, having first taken steps to protect ourselves from contamination.
      What might be the point of such knowingness? Does the poem’s relentless exposure of the self-righting procedures that reading habitually adopts amount to a kind of Puritan scourging, on a par with Lavatch’s call for greater humility? One moment might suggest so, where the two texts, Lavatch’s and the poem’s, come together to form a uniquely complete and coherent passage:

                                 some that humble
                       themselves at the songbook
may turn the page enchanted;                (our italics)

None of the other concatenations of the two texts has quite the self-sufficiency of this. If it were delivered in a sardonic, sneering tone, Lavatch’s tone, it would point out how some readers, in a spirit of misplaced reverence, invest poetry with superior powers and thereby enchant themselves, unable to recognise the constructed or pre-programmed nature of their responses. But at the next glance, the lines carry a note of conviction unhindered by the instant edits and replacements which predominate elsewhere in the poem, a note which perhaps sanctions an almost literal reading — that some may allow the poetry to work its magic, its revelation of truth and pleasure, by being willing to abandon their proud demands on it and by setting their egotisms aside. Since none of the strands of entwined text can ever gain supremacy, or come into being without its accompanying contrary, we veer again from side to side; any of the positions taken up in the play of alternatives could be ‘Either contract / or fancy, each framing the other, closed / in life.’ (p.31) The word ‘framing’ moreover also splits in two, since it can mean both fixing a margin around something, and concocting a false charge against it. The bond of trust and hope involved in a ‘contract’ is both surrounded and unjustly yet plausibly accused by the whims and self-entrapments of the ‘fancy’, while the former reciprocates, in a continuous and seemingly interminable pattern, ‘closed in life’.
      There is however more here to contemplate than the blank abyss of aporia or the undecidable, since the place to which the poem has conducted us has a specific character: ‘This is the place / / where, deaf to meaning, the life stands / out in extra blue.’ (p.24) Where ‘meaning’ cannot be heard or is wilfully ignored, ‘life’ seems to take on additional intensity and radiance (and with what superb authority this poetry catches up with one swoop so much that paraphrase struggles clumsily to hold together). The reminiscence of the more familiar ‘deaf to reason’ — which in fact occurs a little later in the poem, on page 29, as one of those misremembered repetitions — brings with it that note of what the pragmatist might call obstinate recklessness, as if this point of maximum intersection, at the centre of the poem with avenues radiating out, were not just the point of triumphant imperviousness but also one where the security system had finally broken down, where no screen interposed between ‘life’ and apprehension. It would be the point of minimum consciousness and maximum exposure, like the instant of birth or ‘onset of the single life’, the ‘first delivery’, whose imagery opens and closes this section of The Oval Window. The freedom and drive of the writing here build to a kind of climax, as if to mark a turning-point in the poem which henceforth takes a markedly different direction. The Shakespearean passage maintains its integrity despite the violation of its borders; even after slipping quietly away it seems to continue its decongestant effect through the closing stanzas, sustaining their tone of fulfilment even when the nature of what has been fulfilled remains obscure.  This tone is a matter of cadence, rhythm, technical construction; phrases stand in rhetorical parallels — ‘deaf to the face / soundlessly matched to the summit’, where ‘face’ becomes a mountain face — or in apposition: ‘in the oval window, in / the blackened gutter stop’, with its suggestions of the filtering out of waste; while ‘we go over’, ‘the dip stands down’, ‘the newly born’, all trigger the sense of a positive transition, a clear demarcation between things ahead and behind.


This section had set out with ‘it is joined’; the next starts ‘As they parted’. As with the tilting crystal, the moments of clarity or convergence are short-lived. Once again consciousness can only briefly inhabit the ‘place’ apart, and glimpse the vision it affords, before the forces which were held there in a kind of balance resume their momentum. There are various Romantic traditions of negotiating a place for the self, a place of at least provisional stability, amidst the boundless organicism of the world, and The Oval Window seems to touch on them when, shortly afterwards, we come across what appears to be a rough shepherd’s hut:

It is not quite a cabin, but (in local speech)
a shield, in the elbow of upland water,
the sod roof almost gone but just under
its scar a rough opening: it is, in first
sight, the oval window.                   (p.28)

There is a picture on the book’s cover of some such dry stone building, which would appear, like so much indeed of the poem’s text, to be in the process of disintegrating — or reintegrating — back into the environs from which it was constructed. It would offer some rudimentary shelter and a prospect on the surrounding landscape, like a Wordsworthian occasion for reflection and insight (it is hard not to think of the ruined cottage in The Excursion, or the heap of stones in Michael). It is a type of temporarily secured area, providing a vantage-point from which the continuous movements of the world’s processes could be acknowledged, without the acknowledging self’s being instantly dissipated by them. The Oval Window had begun by pointing such a position out, somewhat ruefully: ‘What can’t be helped / is the vantage, private and inert’(p.7). The tone seems to lament the fact that we cannot avoid occupying protected positions to see from. ‘Private’ and ‘inert’ are relative terms, however, liable to dissolve on closer scrutiny. The pressure of those continuous movements will sooner or later put both our privacy and our stillness in jeopardy, and hence this vantage also ‘can’t be helped’ in the sense that arises at the very end of the poem: it is ‘beyond help’ (p. 34), and can be neither avoided nor preserved. It constitutes much the same temporary relief as the ‘fire break’ (p.12) afforded the stockdealer.
      ‘Fire break’ is one possible translation of ‘Holzwege’, the title of one of Heidegger’s post-war collections of essays, largely on poetry and the arts, and certain Heideggerean terms and concepts do seem to have relevance here. Heidegger repeatedly sought to adjust what he regarded as the distorting perspectives from which man targets the world as something set over and against him. One of the terms he coined for the reductive application of technological enquiry was Gestell, ‘framing’ (‘Either contract / or fancy, each framing the other’, p.31). This is a measure of things in solely human terms, a recourse to formulae or mathematics; the knowledge about things which we bring to them rather than find in them. For Heidegger this insistence on the primacy of the human subject, master of all he surveys insofar as he preemptively determines the method of survey, was symptomatic of technological man’s rootlessness, his incapacity to be at home with things, to dwell, with all the stress Heidegger lays on that word — a problem which is not to be tackled by any false back-to-nature nostalgia or an artificial putting-down of roots, since such procedures presuppose that man remains the ‘centre’, as Holzwege puts it, ‘to which beings as such are related’.
      When Prynne’s text declares that ‘a picture is not a window’ (p.18), or ‘a view is a window / on the real data, not a separate copy / of that data’ (p.14), it may be remembering the kind of distinction Heidegger drew in one of his essays on Hölderlin: ‘The nature of the image is to let something be seen. By contrast, copies and imitations are already mere variations on the genuine image which ... lets the invisible be seen and so imagines the invisible in something alien to it’. [Note 3] Heidegger wants here to name as ‘poetry’ that approach to the world which allows the invisible to manifest itself in its concealments, that is to say a kind of extra dimension to things which is retained precisely by not being explicitly uncovered. In contrast ‘science’ — as for the systematic ‘operations on the data’ which we have traced through the poem — is in Heidegger’s view a method which ‘always meets up only with that which its kind of representation has from the outset permitted as a possible object for it’ [Note 4]. Hence it may be — science as ‘framing’ cannot by its very nature conclusively determine — that the essence of any phenomenon or relationship stays hidden, inaccessible to objectification or the orthodox categories of meaning that derive from the presumptions of the inquirer. This line of thought, with its increasingly grand claims for ‘poetry’, may conduct us back to that centre of The Oval Window, where

           deaf to meaning, the life stands
out in extra blue. Some that humble
                       themselves at the songbook
may turn the page enchanted                                        (p.24)

Certain ethical implications of this position, this decentering of man to allow his ‘measure’ (Heidegger’s term) to be taken, instead of his measuring being imposed on things, are recurrent in Prynne’s work (and are obviously central to the modernist tradition he is aligned with — Olson for example, or the Pound of the Pisan Cantos). In The Oval Window, amidst man’s giddiness and ‘control flow structure’ (p.19), ‘The arctic tern / stays put wakefully, each following suit / by check according to rote’(p.18). To stay put wakefully, to have patience which is not passive lethargy, repose which is alert and vigilant rather than timidly self-protective, would be a control flow structure of a quite different order — something close to what Heidegger meant by ‘dwelling’, a kind of reverential letting-be and letting-come of the world in which man was properly rooted.
      It is not clear how directly this injunction is used to oppose the opportunist realism elsewhere, of skips and not minding, or how far the tone of the latter is made consistently ironic by these suggestions. As usual the various alternative positions stay mobile, run alongside each other, or essay sporadic flanking movements that are promptly countered. The serenity and orderliness of arctic tern existence does not seem readily available to humankind, nor is it convincing in zoological terms; ‘following suit’ and ‘according to rote’ can also suggest the docile obedience to whose dangers we were alerted by ‘pay now and think later’ (p.17). The poem’s emphasis is always on the temporary, threatened, fragmentarily glimpsed moments of ‘staying put’, and the barely habitable condition of such buildings as would make Heideggerean ‘dwelling’ possible. The relationships with a landscape and its life that a dry stone ‘shield’ can offer now seems scarcely relevant where

is a fashion laid out like data, the view
loops round from the test drill sponsor
like a bird on the wing.                   (p.17)

      There is a good deal of abrasive sarcasm in the first half of The Oval Window, some of which has a specifically early-1980s British political edge to it, with the persistent tones of free-market cynicism and the use of highly-charged phrases like ‘safe in our hands’ (p.9), ‘pay-bed’ (p.17). But one could not confidently trace a consistent attitude in it, any more than in Lavatch’s, and it is just as likely to collapse into anarchic humour:

                      the view
loops round from the test-drill sponsor
like a bird on the wing. Think now
or pay now and think later, the levels
of control nesting presume a reason
to cut back only and keep mum.             (p.17)

‘Think now’, Eliot wrote in Gerontion, ‘History has many cunning passages’. The bird and the ‘control nesting’ anticipate the arctic terns on the following page (although one computer programme can also be ‘nesting’ inside another). At the instant that ‘keep mum’ colloquially denotes silent complicity in such interference, an unthinking acceptance of a ‘reason’ to control and cut back the levels of procreation, isn’t it also the plaintive cry of someone protesting about thus being deprived of his mother? So much in Prynne’s poetry pulls both ways at once that whenever we want only the figurative in such phrases the literal refuses to lie down.
      But one can at least be confident that if there is to be any effective wakefulness, it has to be found and has to be practised in a context altogether hostile to it. The beguiling alternative, as was pointed out for ‘work makes free’, is to cede control to an organisation or system which offers to relieve us of all anxiety and pressure. There is a clear parallel here, between the problems facing a reader trying to maintain a more alert response to the poem than the mere application of techniques can provide, and this moral concern: is our poise, our balance, only to be recovered by recourse to ‘framing’, by removing ourselves, whether from exasperation or fatigue, to a safe distance, while our various measuring systems take over?

                      At the last we want
unit costs plus VAT, patient grading:
made to order, made to care, poised
at the nub of avid sugar soap.             (p.33)

      We noted earlier how this penultimate section of The Oval Window seemed to be casting a backward glance over some salient features of the text, offering an ostensible drawing-together or promise of orderliness whose viability was promptly put into question. The ironic presentation of our impatient wish, as readers, for everything to be ticketed and labelled, applies now perhaps more widely: do we really ‘want’ to be ‘made to care’, to have our humanity brought out in such a constrained and automatic way as is suggested by ‘made to order’, as if by a customised package or a physical reflex? A similar dilemma seems to be posed by another passage which interweaves evocations of health care management with ‘reflex’, ‘skip’, and the strains on reading:

Skip and slip are the antinomian free gifts
mounted on angle-iron reflexes, as sick pay
predates a check to recovery. You’re flat out?

      The antinomians believed that since their salvation was preordained they were exempt from the moral laws binding upon ordinary humans — which again makes skipping round things or slipping past them sound like the kinds of dubious freedom conferred on the elect that we had with the Nazi slogan. That such gifts should be ‘mounted on angle-iron reflexes’ suggests that what is claimed to be ‘free’ here is in fact as fixed and inflexible as a Pavlovian reaction. In the second clause a ‘check’ could mean simultaneously a test, an obstruction, or a bank draft; in all three cases the payment is predated, made in advance, because the system of sick pay discounts ‘recovery’. It operates on the presupposition that since a recovery will eventually occur, it has in a sense already occurred. In this way, like other systems elsewhere in the poem, it effectively skips round or slips past the actual problem. The sickness itself is not permitted to have a unique nature calling for a special response, but is regarded merely as an item of data to activate the system.

                                            You’re flat out?
But the method sorts downward, wired up
from the NCR cashpoint; you must choose the order
of choice, on the nail from which shadows hang.
What else null else just else if before
out into the garden with overshoot, the
moon is bright as snowy day. In broad
strip neon it ranks as a perfect crime.            (p.20)

      The view becomes increasingly bleak, as the universality of ‘the method’ forms a circuit running right through the economy to infiltrate all areas of life. There is no choice where choosing is compulsory, and where what is to be chosen is an ‘order’ to pay now, ‘on the nail’. Alternatives seem to have been dismissed by another moment of Thatcherite rhetoric: ‘What else null else’. If exhaustion (‘You’re flat out?’), or accident (‘overshoot’) should drive us into the ‘garden’, even our relief is presented sardonically. After so much metallic grinding in the verse here, with its angle-irons, wire and nails, its relentless pressure, the moon’s liberating brilliance exhilarates us for a moment. But in terms of the social grid the intervention of such natural brightness ‘ranks as a perfect crime’, insolently disrupting the uniform pattern of organised street lighting (‘perfect crime’ hovers between two tones, a kind of grim satisfaction for the rebel, and slightly camp outrage for the upholder of convention, without quite committing itself to either). The ‘method’ seems by this stage to be continuously eroding our efforts at meaning, difference and freedom alike: ‘So what you do is enslaved non-stop / to perdition of sense by leakage / into the cycle’(p.18).


If there is a quest in the poem for alternative responses to the world, Heideggerean or otherwise, which are not artificially stabilised by controlling circuits and mechanisms, then one might expect, as was mentioned earlier, to be able to trace it through natural imagery drawn from the Romantic storehouse, such as the moon and the snow shining here. But, characteristically, just as we reach a ‘point of entry’ (p.9), the structure tilts again, and our tracing leads us into a quite different territory. As we move beyond the turning-point of the Lavatch section into the latter part of the poem, these apparently natural images — snow, moonlight, blossom, mist — start to proliferate and repeat themselves to the point where their integrity as natural signifiers is lost. They find themselves being absorbed into the increasingly predominant network of borrowings in the text from a certain form of Chinese poetry. It is this, rather than the glimpses of Western Romanticism, which really creates the new mood of spaciousness and serenity in the second half of The Oval Window. It produces a number of neatly-contoured phrases which stave off the threat of disintegration much more effectively than before:

Her wrists shine white like the frosted snow;
they call each other to the south stream.      (p.26)

The clouds are white in a pale autumn sky.       (p.29)

                       A flickering lamp burns dimly
at the window                              (p.31)

            the waters of spring cross under
the bridge, willow branches dip.            (p.32)

Such lines, along with several others, very much resemble English renderings of the ‘Palace Style Poetry’ of the Southern Dynasties, which Prynne discussed with considerable erudition in a critical essay appended to Anne Birrell’s translation of the anthology New Songs from a Jade Terrace. In this kind of writing the frequent references to nature are essentially functional, operating within a highly stylised poetic code. Landscape, for example, ‘is not so much a source of images for contemplation as rather a set of tropes for the separation of lovers by the hardships of distant travel’ [Note 5] — which separation is of course itself a trope, by its self-disarming frequency, for something private and unspecified. Autumn is by convention the season of partings; a reference to willows implies a desire to prevent someone from making a journey; the window itself, marking a more severe distinction than any normally found in the West between inside and outside, is the place from where the lonely, isolated woman, shut up in an indoor world of cosmetic surfaces, gazes more or less helplessly for signs of her departed lover (‘Tunnel / vision as she watches for his return’, The Oval Window, p. 30).
      The women who are both the subjects and the intended readers of these lyrics certainly display a calm surface, and exercise patient vigilance, but their serenity really results from their frustrations having been strictly controlled by a set of highly formal, almost ritualistic regulating devices. Emotion whose real target is absent is displaced on to precious and symbolic objects; Prynne comments in his critical study on what he calls the ‘window / mist / curtain / screen / mirror cycle, in which hidden feeling is variously projected metonymically upon the screens which hide it’. [Note 6] The components of this cycle all feature prominently in The Oval Window, as does the idea of a ‘cycle’ itself (pp. 13, 16, 17 [‘recycle’], 18, 28 [‘cyclical’]). The recurrent motif of the screen in particular makes for a bizarre link between the distant cultures, as the intricately-decorated Chinese folding screen and the video display unit can both be used as surrogates for the otherwise inaccessible world represented on them:

the echo trembles like a pinpoint, on
each line of the hood screen                   (p.27)

in azure along the folding screen            (p.27)

Mountains reach across the folds of the screen;
green sedges line the path below cold mist      (p.28)

Drawn to the window and beyond it,
by the heartfelt screen of a machine
tenderly lit sideways                        (p.30)

The Chinese screen would be ‘heartfelt’ from the emotional charge carried — and in a sense carried away — by its symbolic landscape paintings. Western conversion systems tend to leave passion to wander unattached, so that eventually, like an unwelcome intruder, it sidles up to a host who tries not to recognise it; a kind of equivalent to the Palace Style mists and mountains might be the snippets of forensic reportage: ‘when the furniture was removed / he pulled out the window frames, threw down / the roof, and pushed in the walls’ (p. 17) — which almost buckle under the pressure of everything their dispassionateness is trying to keep out.
      The point that Prynne stresses throughout his essay is that conventional Western ideas about Chinese lyrics, ideas derived largely from Pound, are not appropriate to the Jade Terrace anthology. The technique of these poems is essentially metonymic. Their images should not be thought of as evocative metaphors, sufficient to themselves, but as points of entry to a sophisticated network of meanings which is called into play whenever its components are mentioned. The tradition of encodings allows for the entire cultural world of the subject to be registered in the nuances and hints of its detail — a reflection of the intense confinement in which that world is bound, and the accordingly magnified reverberations of the tiniest shift or tremor. The use of such thoroughgoing metonymy, bypassing the particular objects themselves which serve here only to trigger a set of pre-formed reactions, aligns the procedures of these lyrics somewhat with ‘framing’; at the same time, however, such texts do not respond to methods of making sense which are brought to them from outside, but impose on whoever approaches them a discipline generated from within the material.
      In The Oval Window some of the lines adapted from the Palace Style are juxtaposed with references to China that belong to a quite different kind of discourse; for example,

                      They appropriated not the primary
conditions of labour but their results ...
            The denial of feudalism in China
always leads to political errors, of an
essentially Trotskyite order ...             (p.32)

In their own way such statements reinforce the stress Prynne’s essay places on the uniqueness of that culture and the resistance of its forms to the easy extrapolations translators like Pound and Arthur Waley indulged in. The problems of care and precision introduced both by this discourse and by the metonymic usages surrounding it bear on a more general and recurrent issue in Prynne’s work: one of the sensations released by reading a poem like The Oval Window is quite simply an awareness of the large, sometimes overpowering consequences that can be brought on by the slightest changes — whether these be the least displacement of an otolith crystal, or the skipping of a letter in a programme; and hence the question as to whether a kind of insensibility, or a deliberately cultivated indifference to that awareness, becomes a necessary factor in human survival.
      Snow, one of the features of the chinoiserie here, is frequently associated in Prynne’s work with the limits of survival and habitation. It had already been mentioned a couple of times, but it really comes into prominence as the latter part of the sequence begins, firstly in connection with a conventional scene of lovers parting: ‘As they parted, she heard his horse cry out, / by the rustic lodge in a flurry of snow.’ (p.25) The moment hints at some hidden romantic tragedy — ‘rustic lodge’ sounds rather more pastoral and sophisticated than the dry stone ‘shield’ — but the snow thrown up around the scene starts to blur it from sight just as it takes shape. Falls and flurries of snow like this are visible types of all the unseen processes that run over the edges of things and render their identities unstable and distinct. A few pages later we are given another glimpse of something similarly half-obscured:

Looking at the misty paths I see this stooping
figure seeming to falter, in a thick compound
of adjustments, sublimed in white flakes.       (p.29)

The flakes make the figure sublime, or take it beneath conscious perception. We cannot make it out clearly because of the faltering and adjusting as it struggles to keep its balance on treacherous and slippery paths. The white-out erases, or leaves subliminal, whatever we thought we had seen — at which point, ‘snow-blinded, we hold our breath’ (p.27): ‘the echo trembles like a pinpoint, on / each line of the hooded screen. It is life / at the rim of itself’ (p.27). We strain intently for a kind of radar evidence of the very extremities of life, identifiable on a screen when they are no longer accessible to the senses.
      Just as elsewhere we find artificial systems to match and regulate the ‘adjustments’ of the world, so we have a miniature representation of the effects of snow: ‘A child’s joy, a toy with a snowstorm, / flakes settling in white prisms, to slide / to a stop.’ (p.25) All that power to blur and to overthrow the integrity of things is both illustrated and controlled by a shake of the wrist. The toy works because the container is sealed and the ingredients are of fixed quantity; nothing can leak in or leak out. The child’s joy is in the combination of novelty and security, since the world that responds at once to his command neither stays the same nor ever changes. Its rhythm is the alternation of giddy swirl and resumed balance, with the particles settling into slightly different patterns each time. The otoconial mass viewed through the electron microscope forms itself into comparable shapes; pitted whorls, rifts, clean expanses. What is being observed in that instance is not just a stable aesthetic order, derived from continuous variations within a given mass of formal components, but the fundamental basis, at the very ‘rim’ of life, of our experience of stability itself. And as we saw, any excessive shaking up of the crystals on the utricular membrane would produce not just a blurring of the integrity of those patterns, but a temporary loss of the identity of the self that was composed by them.
      A similar rhythm, a similar interdependence of stasis and motion, can be offered by the macrocosm as by its minutest portions. At the close of the passage quoted above, where Palace Style phrases were answered antiphonically by Western academic remarks about Chinese political history, The Oval Window borrows a line whose new context makes it a kind of playful blending of East and West: ‘Calm is all nature as a resting wheel’ (p.32). It sounds for a moment like another gnomic remark from the Jade Terrace, but is in fact the opening line of a sonnet written by Wordsworth at the age of sixteen. It captures a feeling that became so important to Ruskin, for example; that the most profound experience of calm is in the repose of something whose essence lies in movement, whose latent energy is intimated even as it relaxes. The sense that the capacity for change and motion is not opposed to but bound up with the experience of contentment and peace injects a fresh organic vitality into a mechanistic eighteenth-century idea of cyclical order, or perfect balance between centre and ‘rim’. In order to see nature as a wheel, the observer is implicitly raised to a vantage-point from which the local agitations of the world no longer press themselves on his attention, because at this distance they all seem merely the necessary and inevitable constituents of a universal equilibrium.
      Such an outlook — whether it promises a wise passiveness or an inhuman complacency — is maintained of course no longer than any other that The Oval Window brings us to. ‘Calm is all nature as a resting wheel’ is the penultimate line of the section in whose last line ‘the red candle flame shakes’, as the light is about to go out, and the next sections finds us where we started: ‘In darkness by day we must press on’ (p.33). But the child’s joy was in the settling and the swirling, ‘each framing the other’ in continuous mutual disruption and adjustment. ‘Joy’ now emerges as one of the strong notes sounded in the final section of the poem, a section in which calm certainly co-exists with a flurry of linguistic activity:

Standing by the window I heard it,
while waiting for the turn. In hot light
and chill air it was the crossing flow
of even life, hurt in the mouth but
exhausted with passion and joy. Free
to leave at either side, at the fold line
found in threats like herbage, the watch
is fearful and promised before. The years
jostle and burn up as a trust plasma.
Beyond help it is joy at death itself:
a toy hard to bear, laughing all night.            (p.34)

‘The crossing flow / of even life’ sounds like a climactic vision of equilibrium, as continuous transversal waves and pulses, moving through both space and time, pass over the ‘fold line’, the turning point where speed and direction alter. Everything that gathers here, everything that is part of the ‘flow’, is ‘free / to leave at either side’; it all ‘runs in / and out and over’ (p.28) the entries and exits, like the oval window itself, that open and close throughout the poem. So much material, from the years both of an individual life and of a longer perspective, so many glimpses of meaning, ‘jostle and burn up’ in their mutual abrasion, but the tone of the lines seems to celebrate the kind of continuity which death itself cannot close.
      The freedom that is released here is not simply an anarchic struggle for mere survival. There can also be a more orderly co-existence of separate and divergent interests, such as is implicit in the last system the poem mentions, ‘herbage’, the feudal right of pasture on someone else’s land. Herbage does not contest the ownership of what it uses; it is not seeking to press a rival claim to the same territory, only access to a share of the yield. It would represent a ‘threat’ to any jealously-guarded possession; to those anxious about the boundaries and the integrity of what they think of as theirs; to the kind of secured area which sees every encroachment upon it as a challenge for mastery. The co-presence of alternative positions in the one field tends to blur and confuse the relationship of dominance and submission which the ‘framing’ self presupposes; that self, as we have seen, is constantly decentred, as meaning splits and systems and processes take their course, but it is never annihilated altogether.
      For a moment, anyway, in the opening lines of this last stanza, the subject is upright, stable, confident in what is knows, asserting the authority of the senses (‘I heard it’) in a way that was scarcely possible hitherto, given the poem’s concern with deafness, blindness, uncertainty, faltering, loss of balance. ‘Even life’ is made audible in the lull between changes — ‘while waiting for the turn’. The turn has been anticipated — the tilt or shift of direction that may cause what is momentarily clear to become scrambled or consumed altogether in white noise. Yet a commitment is made to that brief clarity, right at the point of exposure (‘by the window’); the subject struggles to remain open to sounds which may have not yet taken their muted place in the security programme. Whether the nocturnal laughter at the end is joyous or mocking, the negotiations between disturbance and poise will be constantly renewed.

— N.H.Reeve (University College of Swansea) &
— Richard Kerridge (Bath College of Higher Education)


Note 1. The Oval Window (Cambridge, 1983), p.33.

Note 2. D.G.Hubbard & C.G.Wright, ‘The Emotion of Motion: Functions of the Vestibular Apparatus’, in Paul Schilder, Mind Explorer, eds. Shaskan & Roller (Human Sciences Press, 1984), pp. 180-81.

Note 3. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Hofstadter (New York, 1971), p.226.

Note 4. John Sallis, Heidegger and the path of thinking (Pittsburgh, 1970), p. 148.

Note 5. J.H.Prynne, ‘China Figures’, postscript to New Songs from a Jade Terrace, trans. Anne Birrell (Harmondsworth, 1986), p. 374.

Note 6. ibid., p. 381.

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