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John Hall reviews

Whisper ‘Louise’: A double historical memoir and meditation
by Douglas Oliver

438pp. with 11 black and white photographs. Reality Street. GPB£15. 1874400318 paper.

This review is 7,200 words
or about 20 printed pages long

Also see Jacket 5: Douglas Oliver: The School of Bedlam (a 2,600-word excerpt from Whisper ‘Louise’)

Ventriloquising Against Harm

Whisper ‘Louise’, Douglas Oliver’s last book, quite deliberately mixes genre and mode as a way of keeping faith with the writer’s ‘hope that a whole view of life might be poetic’. (89) Oliver had argued elsewhere:

A poet’s full performance is the whole life’s work; it is for that he or she finally takes responsibility. After the poet’s death, individual poems will be seen as part of that overall project, even if they didn’t seem so at the time. (1997, 93)

This book can be seen both as an individual component of ‘the whole life’s work’ and as an attempt to summarise and reflect on that whole. For Oliver there could be nothing serene about such an undertaking. The responsibility of engaging with a ‘whole view of life ... means that there’s this political, historical and personal journey to undertake before I can reach towards a poetics’. (89)

Douglas Oliver and Alice Notley

Douglas Oliver and Alice Notley

The historical part of the journey is in some senses arbitrary in relation to that ambitious aim:

Along our way Louise [Michel] and the Commune become worrying allegories: the bloody pathway of too optimistic a politics, too bombastic a poetry. (89)

Another revolutionary episode might have done. The difference, apart from Paris, is the figure of Louise Michel. His interest in her brings together the political, historical and personal. It is also part of his larger project of understanding an increasingly inter-connected contemporary world through the city, Paris, where he had chosen to live.

The book’s title does not spell out Louise Michel’s full name. Instead, it reactivates a repeated phrase from the song sung by Maurice Chevalier, in a far from innocent accent, in the 1929 film, Innocents of Paris — a title that would be almost as apt for this book. In the song, the lover is ‘haunted’ by a name, hearing it in ‘every little breeze’. ‘Innocent, You’re so innocent,’ the song goes, ‘And gentle as a dove’.

The Louise who haunts Douglas Oliver’s book is in many respects also innocent and gentle, and he admires and likes her for this. But she is also wholly committed to what she sees as necessary public violence. It is this apparently contradictory combination that preoccupies him throughout. Oliver had called his 1990 Paladin selection Three Variations on the Theme of Harm. Here is another extended enquiry — and a prayer also, I think — that asks how to act in ways that are not harmful, how not to be harmed, and how to allow innocence to be an active good in the world.

Louise Michel and other participants in the struggles towards, during and after the Paris Commune of 1871 offer a test case for the enquiry. The enquirer’s complicity in the theme is acknowledged at every point. Indeed his own life provides a parallel test case. In the 1970s, for example, he was working on a novel on boxing, still fascinated by a sport whose aim seems to be to cause physical harm to an opponent while avoiding reciprocal harm, all according to strict rules. He abandoned the novel but not the larger theme, and even found clues to prosody in the anticipations and movements of boxers.

Douglas Oliver died at the age of 62 on 21 April 2000. Whisper ‘Louise’ is the last of three significant publications since his death, the others being the memorial collection, A Meeting for Douglas Oliver (2002), that included twenty-seven of his own previously unpublished poems, and Arrondissements  (2003). A Salvo for Africa (2000) had been published just before he died, by Bloodaxe, a UK poetry publisher that aims at wide circulation and that had also (re-)published Penniless Politics in 1994.

His first publication was the 1969 collection of poems, Oppo Hectic. This had come out from Ferry Press, a small specialist publisher. His novel The Harmless Building (1973) was the first publication of work written after the very early death of his son, Tom, who had been born with Down’s syndrome in 1969, and the first to engage directly with the ideas of harm and harmlessness that Tom’s life and death had prompted.

The Harmless Building starts with Tom’s death and you could almost say that Whisper ‘Louise’ ends with Oliver’s own. The last chapter, ‘Humming ahint ma back’, gathers together a kind of testimony in the face of death. The ‘humming’ in the chapter’s title implies a sense of undifferentiated wholeness, ecological as well as ontological.

Oliver only knew that he was seriously ill towards the end of the drafting of Whisper ‘Louise’. As well as testimony, the book can be read as an apologia pro vita sua[1], reflecting as it does on the responsibilities of a life in writing through the device designated in the subtitle as ‘double historical memoir and meditation’.

The first part of this subtitle is — knowingly, I’m sure — troublesome. How can a single authored book be a ‘double memoir’? How, without obvious tautology, can a memoir be ‘historical’?

The doubleness of the memoir consists of the ‘matching’ of his own with that of the French communard, Louise Michel, born over a century before he was. But though her Mémoires are the most important source and are frequently cited, often at length, they are not reproduced here to combine with Oliver’s as a kind of dual text. If — to anticipate later discussion — any memoir is a highly mediated set of narrated memories, you could say that Oliver puts Michel’s Mémoires through a comprehensive set of secondary mediations through selection, commentary and comparison.

A memoirist’s primary source is, as the word almost tells us, memory, implying a modality of memory that seems produced by life experience rather than study (as though that were a simple distinction!). How can Oliver ‘remember’ Louise Michel, someone who died some thirty-two years before his own birth, a woman, and one of different national, class and religious upbringing, with a very different programme for at least the mechanisms and ethics of social and economic change?

The answer seems to be that he ‘remembers’ her because the more he finds out about her the more ‘every little breeze seems to whisper “Louise”’. He is hooked. By the use of the word ‘memoir’, Oliver can distance himself from the formal tasks of historiography — even as he most conscientiously puts them to his own uses — and at the same time almost claim, as it were, to be Louise Michel; at least to have a full empathic understanding of her and so to have incorporated her into the domain of personal knowledge. She is referred to throughout by her first name.

In his terminology, the mode of engagement is ‘empathy’, the writing device ‘ventriloquism’. He defends these tactics vigorously against the charge that Penniless Politics presumed to speak for Others or that he could write about Africa without even visiting the continent. To him this is more than defensible; in a global context it is necessary: not to speak for others, but to take responsibility for knowing, as it were from within, how others speak. And at the same time, always to acknowledge that this is an act of writing: that it is you and not the other who speaks.

Historical method is mostly about finding out through research, reorganising and making visible a knowledge that has slipped away or that might otherwise do so. But why find out? Why make such an effort to remember? Without empathy, Oliver would argue, there is no means of understanding agency in any behaviour, including that belonging to the category of history, and without an understanding of agency there can be no way of assigning responsibility.

And then there is memory — knowledge that won’t go away. Are you responsible for what you remember? Louise Michel won’t go away. He finds himself ventriloquising her, being ventriloquised by her. He responds by finding out more and the research produces a kind of knowledge that uncomfortably finds its home as memory. And why won’t she go away? He sees this as a risk and one he needs to understand.

Here is a very early indication, from the first chapter:

I see Louise decay there, up on her tribunal, her dress twisted halfway around her waist and held together with pins, the pouchy flesh, lips twin tree funguses in their spoilt-child pout. History, that decaying tooth, has lost its bite. With her half amused, soulful-eyed, fanatical stare. I don’t want her. But something in the memoirs that she left behind now holds me to this spot in the 20th arrondissement. (12)

With over four hundred pages to go, the author tells us, ‘I don’t want her’. Of course the next word is a ‘but’. ‘I don’t want her’ signals strong negative desire rather than a lack of interest. It is the kind of performative act of resistance that can initiate a love story. And the plot implied by want / don’t want is further complicated by the elaborate process of ‘matching’ the two memoirs — in other words, comparison, even perhaps competition, careful juxtapositioning and joining.

Conventional historiography does not include an explicit and systematic comparison of the historiographer with the object of study, especially one founded on an oscillation between ‘object’ and ‘subject’, between ‘want’ and ‘don’t want’. As a matter of principle, Oliver takes on the risks of identification across difference, at all times exhaustively declaring both the identification and the difference. And that’s always what happens in any invested or implicated comparison.

The Michel story is the dominant of the two biographies — certainly in terms of page count. She was born in 1830; spent her childhood as a favoured but illegitimate child in a decaying chateau; became what would later be called a progressive school teacher; became involved in the political life of Paris, very directly in the events of the Commune; was deported to New Caledonia; and feted on her return, as a prominent figure on public speaking circuits. This is all given in some detail.

There is nothing like so full an account of his own life. Douglas Oliver was born in 1937 and spent his childhood in Boscombe, just outside Bournemouth. His parents were Scottish Presbyterians and indeed his father’s father was a minister. His father worked for an insurance company. Much of this childhood took place on the exposed south coast of England during the Second World War and in the austere period that followed.

He left school at fifteen, to the disappointment — or so he felt — of his family. By this time he was already committed to poetry, and fascinated by prosody and its links, as he saw it, with the natural world. He worked as an insurance clerk; did national service as a clerk in the RAF School of Cookery; found his way into provincial journalism. In 1962, he married Janet Hughes. They had two daughters, Kate and Bonamy, and a son, Tom. They moved to Cambridge in about 1968. Oliver got to know there the group of poets connected through The English Intelligencer and the Ferry and Grosseteste presses. At this time his own poems began to be published.

Tom’s death was in 1969. In 1970 the family moved to Paris, where Oliver worked for Agence France-Presse. They returned to England for him to take up a place as a mature student at Essex University, which had also become a gathering place for poets. There, for example, he befriended Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley.

Despite opportunities of paid work with the university, Oliver left Brightlingsea and his family in 1982 to take up a teaching job with the British Institute in Paris. He commuted regularly. His poem The Infant and the Pearl (1985) was completed and published during this time. His marriage to Jan was dissolved in 1987. He moved to New York and married Alice Notley in 1988. Penniless Politics came out of the New York experience.

In 1992 he returned to Paris, to the same job. He lived there with Alice until his death, working mostly on Arrondissements.

Whisper ‘Louise’ does not itself easily offer up such a sketch as the one above, since his own memoir is more thematic than chronological.

I have said that the Michel life is dominant. This could be misleading since the two lives do not play anything like an equal part in the method. Oliver’s autobiographical presence is as much there in the mode of narration, with its planned detours into comparison and meditation, as in what is narrated. It is not until the third chapter that he makes this explicit move:

Louise has told her childhood. Mine took place ... (30)

This turns out to signal no more than a brief excursus of about a page and a half, and the terms of the account have in part already been set by Michel’s narrative, in part by the emerging themes of the ‘meditation’. In practice these are usually one and the same, since it is the meditational themes that have, as it were, chosen Michel’s story: place in family and place of family; displacement and exile; leavings and ‘betrayals’; writing as calling and responsibility; religion; statuses of knowledge and of different poetic ‘styles’; time and prosody; political responsibility, or harm and harmlessness in a context of a need for change; and a tireless enquiry about good behaviour in whatever context.

The account of his own life is spread through and told and retold through particular episodes, sometimes traumatic ones. It is possible to discern in Oliver’s own memoir a pattern that is made up of leavings and of goings towards. These two motifs sometimes both apply to the same decision or change: sometimes leavings are just leavings; sometimes you have to leave to go towards somewhere (something) else.

Everyone both leaves and doesn’t leave their childhood. And it is the most charged acts of leaving rather than those that are casual, even automatic, which do not get left behind, that can never be casualised in memory or wholly forgotten. Oliver tells of leaving: religion and the values of his parents (mostly identified in this respect as father); schooling, early; (the values of) Jan and Brightlingsea (in Essex); a sense of secure poetic affiliation with ‘avant-gardist poet friends’; journalism — to which he owed so much — partly out of a sense of the harm it could cause; a UK University career; ‘Thatcher’s Britain’.

There are two others, each with a different relation to this list.

First, his parents had already bestowed on him one act of leaving, by leaving Scotland before his birth.

And most poignantly, on one occasion he left Tom in his cot when he was crying. Most readers who have been parents would say, yes of course, that happens sometimes (if not often or even routinely). But on the occasion that Oliver cannot forget, Tom died.

As for the goings towards, the list should be read as wholly interconnected: writing; harmlessness; knowledge, including self-knowledge and that practical knowledge that extends beyond any curriculum in its drive for a direct purchase on the world; social, cultural, economic, political, ecological responsibility; contemporary cities.

He clearly remained ambivalent and unresolved if not hurt by some of the leavings. This is on the end of his twenty-year first marriage:

I neither chose wrongly, nor was I not in love, nor have I ever relinquished my original admiration for her. (52)

It would be difficult to pack more qualifying acts of negation — both grammatical and semantic — into so short a sentence. The emphasis on responsibility that comes with the verbs, ‘chose’ and ‘relinquished’, is in striking contrast to the previous sentence, where agency has been avoided by placing the marriage in the grammatical subject position: ‘how such a solid marriage fell apart’. Given what I have said about ‘leaving’, I am particularly interested in the connotations of ‘relinquish’, in which etymologically ‘linquish’ is ‘leave’, relinquish ‘leave behind’ (OED). More than that, though, it is one of the many verb phrases in the book that have the stamp of Austinian performativity about them. ‘I do not relinquish’ is the performance of an act of refusing to relinquish. There are certain performances whose inevitable partial failure — whose ‘infelicity’, to use Austin’s term — dooms them to repetition.

Of course, of all the losses the most painful was the death of Tom:

The premonitions and guilts that flew around the event were winged by his mental handicap and have never left me. [...] his death cut through all the heartless university-driven political questions. I was to write: he had “the true blessedness allowed only to the really low in IQ.” (55)

In Whisper ‘Louise’, this blessedness and heartfulness recur again and again in the punning figure of the ‘deer/ dear’ that appears for the first time in the first chapter, just after a passage quoted above.

Here, at the close of the millennium, Alice and I turn on the avenue Menilmontant, embrace, and the door of our lives opens. At the back of an Arab store, past the piled vegetables, I glimpse a deer. It’s waiting to take me home on its back, and when it has done so I shall have finished my book. (12)

In its context, and in its careful initial statement of a theme, this paragraph gives some indication of the emotional stakes of the enquiry, and the correspondence and tension between leaving and going towards. The ‘here’ is both this very particular ‘spot in the 20th arrondissement’ and the moment when he presents himself as captured by his interest in Louise Michel. So the ‘here’ is as always a ‘now’ too, as the present tense confirms, and this is a layered ‘now’ that includes ‘the close of the millennium’ and the very moment in which this couple ‘turn’. How much is bent back into this beat of time. Near the opening of the sentence the word ‘close’; at the close of the sentence the word ‘opens’. And then ‘back ... back ... book’, with ‘finished’ covering for ‘closed’.

The glimpsing of the deer and the explanation of the part it will play in the whole text is slipped in as though there were no surprise at all of register, of status of perception and knowledge. The figure is just there, in a waking context of everyday perception. I take it initially as figure, by which I mean that it is as though there is an implied ‘as though’.

That is straightforward enough. But then, in retrospect, having read the whole text, I am not so sure. What do I know about the cognitive processes of ‘as though’? For one thing, I assume that there is no singular explanation: that they can range from deliberate acts of symbolising or analogising, in which the ‘as though’ is a carefully selected instrument of thought or rhetoric, through to processes in which perception is itself figured, so that, indeed, he did see the deer in the Arab shop.

This kind of discussion is prompted by a thread running through the book on the status of premonition, dreams, and what he calls ‘the eidetic’, as forms of knowledge. He seems to want to believe in them, to ‘refrain’ from a full claim to do so fully, and to resent the exclusion of such knowledge from orthodox science. The main discussion comes in Chapter 19, ‘Mending a Window; Thinking of 1880’ (276–282).

In the final chapter, written when Oliver knew that his life was ending, he has this:

Even if I had to stop telling the ‘deer story’ itself, — the foundation story for my whole life since Tom’s death — then, I told myself, so be it. Face up to it. (411)

The deer story stayed and Louise Michel is part of it. His concern with Michel — and also with Tom — is to keep these figures as forces for thought and action, to resist having them become fetishes. Even in the first chapter he has cited this ‘danger’.

The danger is this: if Louise comes to mean too much to you, leave her alone. She’ll suck you into bad thinking. Not into hers: into your own bad thinking. (13)

Whisper ‘Louise’ is part of the larger project of Arrondissements, undertaken on moving to his ‘adopted city’ of Paris for the third time. In a preface written for his contribution to Etruscan Reader VIII (1998) and reproduced in the Salt publication Arrondissements (2003), he provided a sketch of the expansive project to which, as a whole, he was giving this name. ‘More than midway through my life’, he wrote — deliberately invoking Dante’s earlier European project that also brought together poetics and ethics  — ‘I have begun writing Arrondissements, a series of books, or long sequences in poetry and prose, designed to reflect the world at large through the prism of Paris’.

In this same preface, he provided a sketch of the ‘sampling so far’. It included what were to become the three main components of the Salt book — ‘The Shattered Crystal’, ‘China Blue’ and ‘Video House of Fame’, together with Salvo for Africa, Whisper ‘Louise’ and  ‘Miscellaneous Poems from Arrondissements’. There is no such last collection; ‘Well of Sorrows in Purple Tinctures’ is included in Arrondissements as an individual poem.

Whisper ‘Louise’ is considerably longer than all the other parts of the project added together, and longer too than any other single work that he published. It is possible that he would have abbreviated it, had he lived. Given the manifest writerly care in the stitching together of the whole, this would, I think, have been with some reluctance.

Arrondissements are, in this context, municipal divisions of the city of Paris. The term carries etymological connotations both of the ‘rounding off’ of a district for administrative and political convenience and that looser sense of what is ‘around us’. The Paris arrondissements are numbered in a sequence from 1 to 20 that spirals out from an implied centre. These numbers have become familiar names for those who know Paris well. The name of any part of a familiar city is also an image — often imaginary or out of date — of specific social, architectural and geographical character. Because Douglas Oliver is interested in urban change, these numbered locations are also moments in history, and nodes within the global migrations that define, for him, those modern cities he wanted to live in.

In that same preface he describes his working method like this:

I investigate these arrondissements until an idea comes for a piece of writing suggested by the nature of the district. (1998, 35; 2003, x)

And he adds, a few paragraphs later:

Since I have little control over the process by which these books come to life, I deliberately refuse to decide in advance what genre to adopt. [...] I have abandoned none of the avant-garde’s long fought-for positions, nor its current interest in verbal density and texture, nor my loyalty to its practitioners. But the avant-garde is always, in hindsight, a genre. (1998, 36; 2003, xi)

That term ‘genre’ has to work hard for him, combining  ‘position’, formal linguistic qualities (‘verbal density and texture’), and a company of practitioners bound together in a purpose. Questions about ‘genre’, and in particular this ambivalence about an ‘avant-garde’ that, in his view, eschewed responsibility for the reach and effect of its work, recur frequently in Whisper ‘Louise’.

In Poetry and Narrative in Performance, and in a number of related articles, he argued that ‘texts’ were only activated in the ‘performance’ of reading. It can be further argued from this that ‘genre’ is a name for contexts and terms of engagement between readers and texts, never only for the latter. Writers have limited control over the settings and kinds of relationships their texts find themselves in and activate. A writer’s decision to write ‘accessibly’, for example, does not in itself begin to guarantee access.

I suspect that Oliver’s policy of writing in different ‘styles’ did not lead to the wide and diverse reading communities he wished for, though there are specific anecdotes in Whisper ‘Louise’ that point at successes. Taking myself as an example, I did not choose to read Whisper ‘Louise’ out of any strong prior interest in the Paris Commune and did not know of Louise Michel. I read it because I was already interested in Douglas Oliver as poet and novelist. The book is published by a specialist poetry press that does not have the kind of access to high street bookshops that, say, Bloodaxe does.

So, keeping open a broad understanding of the term, to what ‘genre(s)’ does Whisper ‘Louise’ belong? The book is mostly in prose, though a significant number of poems are included, sometimes illustratively, sometimes in modal parallel or complement to the prose; and there are also a few photographs. It is divided into twenty-seven chapters, each of which has a title. The double memoir aspect of the book’s structure provides two main informing chronologies, bound together by a single narrator who is also the meditator (and of course the mediator of comparison and homily).

There isn’t a consistent mode or posture of narration. This moves between — and sometimes combines — history, memoir, cultural geography, a journalism of the ‘fait divers’ (the title of the seventh chapter), meditation on ethical responsibility in social relations and therefore (this ‘therefore’ is important) on aesthetic and political behaviour and the connection between these two. And this list only begins to catch the nuances of modal alteration, although a continuo of the first person speaking voice of the self-enquiring Douglas Oliver is always there, holding the variations together.

Sometimes the ‘history’ is the story of the finding out itself and the thinking aloud about the discoveries (reminding me of Charles Olson’s pleasure in the etymology of the word history as ‘finding out for yourself’). Sometimes the narrator is the professional (hi)story teller — journalist or historian — who has silently done the necessary research and can bring the story to life as though he had been there. Sometimes the narrator is someone who has thought profoundly about narrative, about rhetoric, about historiography, and wants to complicate the role of narration with reflections on its process. The writer is also, as the subtitle tells us, a recounter of ‘meditation’, a producer of something like a secular sermon. And the narrator too is auto-biographer.

The book starts out from a contemporary ‘investigation’ of a particular part of Paris, initially a particular building, once a dance hall, at the time of the initial encounter a car repair shop, by the end of the book on the brink of another development. The device of the opening will be familiar to those who have read other sections of Arrondissements:

On the sunny boulevard Menilmontant, we feel our semi-old legs stop by a 19th century dance hall called either Le Bal Graffard or the ‘Menilmontant Colisseum’.

This is a quite specific time and place. Of course we don’t know yet who this ‘we’ is, even whether it really is plural. It feels specific, probably dual. Later there will often be a very inclusive first person plural, that could be called the ethical collective. It feels specific because it catches a spontaneous or automatic non-decision: ‘we feel our semi-old legs stop’. This is completely consistent with that description of the process of ‘until an idea comes’.

Already in the first sentence there is this mix of the phenomenological and the researched. It is clear from the photograph and from detail just a few lines later that those names are not on the building. They have been found out. Was this research done later and folded back into this narrative moment? Or was Le Bal Graffard all along the destination of this walk, prompted by earlier enquiries?

These are not idle questions. The way that time can bend back on to a moment, on to the sensation of a pulse or a beat, is a question that engaged Oliver in his long study on time in poetry and narrative (1989) and is one to which he frequently returns in this book. There is here this movement between the reading of signs left by time — this façade as witnessed; the bullet holes in Père Lachaise cemetery, mentioned on the same page — and a retrieval from an archive of the signs that time and/ or human decision have effaced from their original setting. Or: how does a past or an absence speak in this present? And how can missing signs that matter be made good?

Often it will not be clear which mode of reading of signs is at work. A Salvo for Africa offers an extreme instance. Africa in that book is a continent that can be known from Paris. The author makes this quite clear and is unapologetic. Both the past and elsewhere can be read. I am sure that he learnt to value these contrasting methods as a journalist.

Here is the second sentence of Whisper ‘Louise’. At some point the author had entered the building:

Only the entrance building and its facade remain, three-rooms deep, crumbled brick laid bare by cracked plaster, leaning against a newer building.

The third makes it quite clear that research has been done:

In 1891 a new owner added an upper storey with a curlicued podium whose glazed mosaic portrays a lantern surrounded by blue-speared, geometric flowers amid happy white dots. Blue late 19th century letters still read: CONCERT DU XXE SIECLE.

The fourth opens on to two related themes of the book: the communards and the  ‘uniting’ of two centuries, or the play between two chronologies:

Two centuries unite: the 19th century, when the dance hall was used for rallies by the Belleville communards; the 20th when it lost its notoriety.

In the fifth sentence an apparently banal observation is given the twist of a cultural reading of time through the transfer of ‘modern’. After the colon an invitation to the sublime is given a modern brush-off:

Metal shutters catch the modern sunlight: three masks of tragedy haloed in gold seem even grumpier than normal up there.

The single line of the next paragraph — ‘A mosaic chronology glinting in evening sunlight’ — doubles as an imagist summary of the description of the façade and as an anticipation of the structure of the book. At later points Oliver will use the metaphor of stitching — implying patchwork — to the same process. The metaphor of mosaic and the metaphor of patchwork both suggest different source chronologies from which fragments can be selected and arranged together. The two obvious sources are the lives of Michel and Oliver. There are others, most of them introduced very early: there is Paris, particularly from, say, 1848 to the time of writing (‘the close of the millennium’); there is specifically the short period of the Paris Commune; there is Britain in the second half of the twentieth century; a precise few years of New York; and over and under it all, an inexorable chronology of global capitalism.

There is no sense of an equality of time within these chronologies. And it is not the ‘and then’ that compels the enquiry, though lived sequence is always there to be returned to. The careful patterns that are arrived at are always in part thematic, in part chronological. The themes are all treated as emerging out of the lives and never as imposed on them from without. Sometimes, as with his use of Husserl to explore his idea of the ‘eidetic’, he goes for help. Never, though, is the route presented as the other way round: as first the excitement by a ‘theory’ (he might even say ‘dogma’) and then its application to instance.

His resistance to collective positions, whether literary, intellectual or political, is very strong. I would say that a secular variant of the values of Presbyterianism remained undiminished in the Oliver of this book. The Freudian grand narrative is just one that he attempts to see off. He is as resistant to systems as he is to the institutions which promote them, whether they be Theory or Religion, favouring at all times the difficulties of individual doubt, and the laboursome heuristic processes of research and testing that make of doubt an active process.

The grand narrative that he resists with most obvious irritation is the one in which grand narratives were supposedly dispatched. The ‘heartlessness’ of university knowledge has already been cited. It is made very clear that Oliver did not move to Paris in order to be in the ambience of, say, Lacan:

If a politics or a philosophy is either (a) wilfully obscurely phrased; or (b) has a cold emotional tone, or (c) is anti-feminist, there’s something seriously wrong with it. I mean as philosophy. Sartre, Althusser, Lacan — such charismatic thinkers as these fail my test. Freesome winsome huff and puff with sudden spurts of hot jissom. French intellectual jack-off, jack-off, just a hiccough there, excuse me, I’m sure you find them very interesting. (80)

The chapter in which this appears, ‘Cold Lead, Hot Lead’, ends like this:

But if you’re old enough, think back: what did you do about the Greek torture regime?

“None of my business.”

No, of course not. Any more than the globalisation of the world economy is your business now. What’s wrong with you? Do you wear trousers without pockets or carry purses or wallets with no money in them to spend?

Take out a coin and look at it. There’s your power, right there. Louise knew this. (87)

On first reading this, I felt a finger pointing at me, catching me with money in my pocket. There is much in the book that seems to value poverty as such, as a choice that reduces harm within the enforced circulations of capital and expresses solidarity with the less possessed. It struck me with some irony, given the dismissal of Althusser a few pages before, that a blatant ‘hey you’ of puritanical interpellation was taking place and that I had my ‘who? me?’ all ready to meet it.

As a lecture on world economics the quoted passage stops well short of, say, Brecht on coffee production or on what a photograph of a factory does not show. The symbolic force of a coin is multiple and various, and this appeal to the self-evident could, for many readers, misfire. Of course Oliver ‘knew this’. This is one of the points in the text when his frustration at the daily occlusion of such knowledge breaks through as frustration.

As with so much in this book, the chances are that Oliver himself will at some point have anticipated any critical comment a reader might make. For example, in this instance, in the last chapter:

Both Louise and I myself have a silliness in us, a wish to end political complications by imposing our naïve compassion on them. (413)

The figure of the ‘silly’ narrator is one that Douglas used at least from the time of The Harmless Building (1973) as part of his valuation of ‘wise foolishness’, perhaps as part of his continuing homage to Tom. ‘Silliness’ in this context does not mean ‘not serious’[2]. This is a deadly serious book, a sustained exercise in moral judgement, in which no opportunity is lost to include, even if in parentheses (such as ‘(disgracefully)’), an ethical comment on cited behaviour. Poets have the same responsibilities for their world that others do, with the duty to exercise that responsibility through their own poetry. It is a calling and an obligation — almost, you could say, a ministry.

His own work, including Whisper ‘Louise’, offers an example of what this can mean, though I don’t believe he would have wanted his solutions be copied. The ‘poetic’ that is implied and developed was already outlined in Poetry and Narrative in Performance (1989) and in ‘Poetry’s Subject’ (1997). He is a tough judge of behaviour, probably every bit as tough as his father. At the same time he always wanted to understand, to place behaviour in full context and to assess his own competence to live by his judgement. There is a refrain that could be spelled out as, ‘What else could s/he have done?’.

I doubt that a book by a writer who describes himself as a ‘reformist non-hero, a pacifist, a poet, a man’ — in contrast to Michel as a ‘revolutionary “heroine”, an activist, a poet, a woman’ — will be read as a manual on political activism any more than Penniless Politics (1991, 1992, 1994) was or is. The book has an appendix, entitled, in speech marks, ‘“The Fifty-Eight Potentially Disastrous Pathways”’. The first one, as an example, is ‘Global warming, ozone holes, and all the rest of it’. And the fifty-eighth starts, ‘Practically no significant attack in most countries on the millennia-long subjection of women ...’.

What historians might make of this book, I don’t know, but I do like the idea of their reading it and having their own historiographic motives drawn in to its questioning and its troubling of time.

Should it be read by poets and the readers of poems, all four hundred and thirty eight pages of it? There is very little in the way of detailed accounts of, or anecdotes about, other named poets, and the book does not have an index to make for easy short cuts to those that there are. But my answer is most certainly, yes, and read, preferably, as part of the full body of his work.

The book can be read as an argument about prosody, with a notion of pulse or beat that is anything but formalist at the heart of it:

Publishing in their [the “New Cambridge” poets] circles helped me to confirm my adolescent obsession with prosody — that my ideas led towards truthfulness of spirit, because the consonance between poetic music and the passage of time through our minds is a true one. (54)[3]

A poetic that allies a formalised — and bodily — conception such as ‘beat’ with a notion of ‘truthfulness of spirit’ is one that is almost a theology too; it at least offers a sketch for a kind of liturgical practice that is intended to be of practical relevance in the world at large.

There is a strange moment when Oliver has been comparing Louise with the Diana who was for a time married to the heir of the British throne:

Then there was the real unmediated Diana, whose life remains just as mysterious to me as yours does, and so I would not touch her real life with these words. Diana herself, shorn of image, I will not sully. (127)

‘True’ has taken me to ‘real’. I find this another troublingly symptomatic passage, implying that each person has a ‘real life’ that is separable from a ‘mediated’ one: that is, so to speak, im-mediate. If so, what of the mediating rhetoric of ‘mysterious’, of ‘you’, of ‘I would not touch’, ‘I will not sully’?

As I have already suggested, this use of performative statements, often in the negative, is a feature of the method of the whole text, making prominent the decisions of the author, and bringing into play their cost.

Implied in the remarks about Diana is another already discussed feature of his poetics:

If conducted whole-heartedly, this ventriloquism, like all empathic response, is one sure way of knowing that we have understood a mind foreign to our own; one sure way, therefore, of avoiding cruelty. (245)

It matters very much to his whole project that the logic invoked by ‘therefore’ is sound. For myself, I paused first at ‘knowing that’, with its implication that what really matters is knowing that we have understood. What kind of knowledge is that? What happens if I put ‘believing’ there instead? Or ‘thinking’? What happens if that part of the chain is removed, to leave, ‘one sure way of understanding ...’? And I have no confidence that ‘understanding’ necessarily avoids cruelty, even — perhaps especially — when ‘conducted whole-heartedly’. This matters because the ideas are so important and not just for writing.

It is worth contrasting these notions of the ‘real’ and of understanding through ventriloquism with a later reference to Diana. She is again being used as a comparison with a phase in Michel’s life when she was a ‘media star’:

Or, what’s the difference between Louise and Princess Diana at this point? The former required revolution to bring her class to the top; Diana’s class was already at the top, so her mode was kindliness, stardom and charity. (284)

Is class part of the ‘real’ Diana or is it part of the unavoidable mediations that constitute ‘history’? Could her style reasonably be described as ‘empathic’, and if so what role did class play in this?

As an aside, it is worth pointing out that in Oliver’s own account, Michel’s class position is far from straightforward, being the child of an ‘illegitimate’ union between a man (and it wasn’t certain which one) whose family owned a ruined chateau, and a woman who worked as a maidservant in that chateau. Michel was brought up in her early years as a member of the family, only to be rejected later, when a family marriage meant that she was in the way.

I would not want these remarks to be seen as moments where a reviewer catches the author out. The method and texture of the book invite engagement at all points and often, at least in my case, this is an argumentative engagement. Douglas Oliver would have expected no less.

In responding in this way I hope, I suppose, to act like a ‘public’ that a book like this calls for but may lack. I pick up a sense of an isolation, a loneliness, even helplessness that it is possible to tabulate the ‘disastrous pathways’ without any practical chance of contributing directly to global solutions.

This is not a comment on the author. I don’t even know if it is about the text. This is the kind of book whose generic assumptions have to be that there is a shared context for such enquiry. This is another way of saying that it belongs firmly in a tradition of rhetoric as well as of poetics. Poetry in English does not in any obvious sense have leverage on global decision-making and is only precariously linked to other domains of discussion that might be closer. And here is a poet who chose ‘exile’, who held at bay the current orthodoxies of companionable theory, who obviously wanted a wide readership but even so chose to write within a set of forms that offer little potential for a role as public intellectual.

One symptom of what may be in the text itself is a lack of overt engagement with other current thinking about some of his broader themes. Oliver read extensively and thoughtfully and would have had an answer for this. It seems to have been a stylistic and rhetorical decision to write the text as though a wide readership awaited it. In time Whisper ‘Louise’ could well find its company. [4]

Note: I was very glad of the opportunity to discuss Whisper ‘Louise’, particularly the opening chapter, at a session of the Plymouth Language Club on 26 January 2006. My thanks to Tim Allen and all those who attended.

Publications by Douglas Oliver

In the text, page references to Whisper ‘Louise’ are given in brackets, with no date. All other references give the date of publication first and then the page number.

1969  Oppo Hectic  London: Ferry Press

1973  The Harmless Building  London and Pensnett: Ferry Press and Grosseteste Review Books

1974  In the Cave of Suicession  Cambridge: Street Editions

1979  The Diagram Poems  London: Ferry Press

1985  The Infant and the Pearl  London: Silver Hounds, for Ferry Press

1987  Kind London, Lewes, Berkeley: Allardyce, Barnett  (includes ‘Oppo Hectic’, and revised versions of  ‘In the Cave of Suicession’ and ‘The Diagram Poems’ as well as additional material)

1989   Poetry and Narrative in Performance  Basingstoke: Macmillan

1990  Three Variations on The Theme of Harm: Selected Poetry and Prose  London: Paladin Grafton Books  (‘The Infant and the Pearl’, ‘An Island that is all the World’ and ‘The Harmless Building’)

1991  Penniless Politics  London: Hoarse Commerce

1992a  The Scarlet Cabinet: a Compendium of Books (with Alice Notley); New York: Scarlet Editions  (‘Penniless Politics’, ‘Sophia Scarlett’ and ‘Nava Sūtra’ by Oliver; also four ‘books’ by Alice Notley)

1992b ‘Three Lilies’ in Poets on Writing, Britain, 1970-1991 (ed Denise Riley) Basingstoke: Macmillan, pp. 276 — 281 (‘an extension of “The Three Lilies”, transcribed remarks originally published in Lamb No 3, 1982, edited by Anthony Barnett.’)

1993  What Fades Will Be  Cambridge: Poetical Histories

1994  Penniless Politics  Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe

1996a  Selected Poems  New Jersey: Talisman House

1996b  Penguin Modern Poets 10  (with Denise Riley and Iain Sinclair) Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

1997   ‘Poetry’s Subject’ in Real Voices on Reading (ed Philip Davis) Basingstoke: Macmillan, pp.83–102

1998   Etruscan Reader VIII  (with Tina Darragh and Randolph Healy) Buckfastleigh: Etruscan Books

2000   A Salvo for Africa  Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe

2002  ‘27 Uncollected Poems’ in A Meeting for Douglas Oliver (edited by Wendy Mulford and Peter Riley) Cambridge: infernal methods, Street Editions and Poetical Histories

2003  Arrondissements (edited by Alice Notley) Great Wilbraham: Salt Publishing

2005  Whisper ‘Louise’ Hastings: Reality Street


[1] ‘Apology for his life’ where ‘apologia’ means a rhetorical defence rather than saying sorry. I have in mind Cardinal Newman’s 1864 book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua: Being a Reply to a Pamphlet Entitled ‘What Then Does Dr. Newman Mean?’ There are a number of moments in reading Whisper ‘Louise’ where I have had a strong sense that it contains important replies. The book also relates, perhaps, to the tradition of theological ‘confession’.

[2] For the writer of The Infant and the Pearl (1985) and ‘Video House of Fame’ (2003), ‘silly’ would resonate with the ‘seely’ from which it had come apart. ‘Spiritually blessed’, ‘innocent, harmless’ are among the meanings given by the OED.

[3] The most succinct expression of this view, developed at length in Poetry and Narrative in Performance, is perhaps to be found towards the end of Part 1 of Penniless Politics.

The music begins in each point over again, the beats that unite

the flow of melody into infinitesimal perceptions. And within each beat

the overall form is anticipated; so the past is caught up in the present:

the future breathes in the point. Here is the clue to the decent

founding of politics in a poem: that the future comes alive

now: that the neighborhood is to the world as the moment

is to the whole; unlike the politicos, poets get their world right

if the point and the flow of the whole are united in beats: all alive

now and thrilling with the future. (1996, 36)

The ottava rima stanza includes lines with over twenty syllables in them, attenuating ‘beat’ and it complicates the theory with that different repeatability of rhyme. And this is a break, a moment of parabasis in the poem that needs to practise what it preaches. Eliot’s Four Quartets may be audible in the first lines. If so, that word ‘decent’, perhaps pulled there in part because of rhyme, might give pause for thought within the wider discussions of Whisper ‘Louise’. What occurs, for example, if in a moving of stress — and therefore of ‘beat’ — ‘decent’ becomes ‘descent’?

[4] During the time that I was working towards this review it just so happened that I also read, or had started reading, the following books, each one of which set up a dialogue in my mind, of differing kinds, with Whisper ‘Louise’: Italo Calvino Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings (translated by Martin McLaughlin, New York: Pantheon Books, 2003); Rachel Blau DuPlessis The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York, London: Routledge, 1990); Walter Jost and Michael Hyde (editors) Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time: a Reader (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997); Jean-Luc Nancy Being Singular Plural (translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000); Joan Retallack The Poethical Wager (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003).

I do want to stress that ‘just so happened’. How foolish it would be to imply that Oliver should have read these books, even if they had been published in time. Their methodological and generic differences are all too apparent and it is difficult to imagine any of them taking on the topic of premonition, for example. This helps to see quite how singular Whisper ‘Louise’ is. But they do, also, intersect with some of the main motivating concerns of Oliver’s book; and books do go on finding their company after the (all too sad, in this case) actual death of their authors.

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