This review is about 4 printed pages long.
If I say Peter Redgrove was religious I will be misunderstood. If I say he discovered himself to be driven to investigate as closely as he could being in the world - not least about being him, Redgrove - about the world as we discover it to be, about all of us born into it under an endless sky, asking difficult and unlikely questions, this would, clumsily, be closer. He was a twentieth-century one-man committee of enquiry into how life ticks. Born 1932, died 2003, whatever else, he was an obsessive writer.
He was crazy for metaphor, as if he never could break the bounds of language enough to see what else was there. His poem, ‘At Westminster Abbey (in The First Earthquake, 1989)’ begins: ‘Chambered like a pomegranate, fragrance / Like the interior of a stone fruit; / The shrine of six kings at the core / Of the mystery-building,...’
It always seemed to me in his desperate need to discover, in his poetry he was sometimes clumsy. Perhaps he’d have said it of himself. How, for heaven’s sake, can you reach for necessary and impossible knowledge? His poetry books came like the talk of a man constantly having another go at it. At what? I suppose at finding the words to match the mental perception and the sensuous rush.
Receiving these seven fictional books I had good intentions but have failed to read them, only to discover them in a more cursory way. The crucial book, though, is the essays and interviews, which I would put high up on any reading list related to writing. I turned up the corners of more pages in this book than I can recall doing in a long time. Talk of his work as a writer-teacher at Falmouth Art College is here, his ventures into psychotherapy (in collaboration with his wife, Penelope Shuttle), his travels, some biography of the chronological kind, discussions of his poems and fiction.
It is the sort of book that has many key statements. This one opens his essay, ‘A Poet in Teaching’: ‘I was never really convinced by the idea that there were two distinct cultures, art and science.’ Here is another, when he is asked was there any experience that gave him a sense of poetic vocation. It was, he said, after making love for the first time, when he was about eighteen, ‘a silence came into my head and into that silence came my first poem, complete.’ There are many surprising, provocative and engaging statements: ‘I have wondered about the reason why men drink. I think it’s because they’re creating sensation in their bodies. The alcohol stills thought and allows them to attend to sensation in the same manner as meditation will but also, of course, they’re pissing, which is feeling the world piss through their bodies.’
So this isn’t your average ‘how to write’ book and it has no such intention, but it is that. Recommend it to students. Nor when it ventures into academic territory does it say the obvious. One essay title, for instance, is ‘Mesmer’s Vision: the Shamanic Heart of the Romantic Movement.’ There’s an essay on Ted Hughes and one on T F Powys & one on Rimbaud which begins, ‘Rimbaud escorted me many times through Hell and back again.’ Redgrove’s life was far from being a comfortable ride, and what is said of it here must be read the way he said it, not in any easy precis.
The fictions, a listing. In her introduction to In the Country of the Skin (1973), Pascale Petit says it was ‘the first novel from one of England’s most original, visionary poets. It deservedly won the Guardian Fiction Prize,’ and she goes on to wonder whether in our more conservative time such an experimental novel would be taken seriously. She continues ‘The narrator does not have a fixed identity. He is Silas, Jonas, and sometimes he is even a she - Teresa or Sarah.’ The Tablet’s reviewer at the time described the book as ‘essentially a long contemplative inner monologue.’ At page 14 it moves briefly into poetry and not infrequently during the rest of the book the distinction is blurred.
The back cover of The Terrors of Dr Treviles (1974) tells us it is ‘the story of a vocation and a quest’. In his introduction Brian Louis Pearce says the book ‘is distinguished throughout by its invention, sweep, vitality of spirit, harnessed through ordeal’. Dr Treviles has a healing gift and it is hard to bear.
The Glass Cottage (1976) was written, Penelope Shuttle tells us, on the QE2 to New York to help pay the cost, more than they’d expected. The book is a species of thriller set on such a ship, but it is no ordinary murder: the woman is found with a Christ-like wound in her side. Redgrove was, the co-author tells us (and she says she only made suggestions and helped tidy it up) in his celebration of life, deeply concerned with death.
Cliff Ashcroft’s introduction tells us The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist (1979)
appeared first (1977) as a 31-line poem, followed by further incarnations including versions for the stage and television. He, Ashcroft, says the central figure is ‘one of a series of charismatic, overpowering male characters that regularly appear in Redgrove’s work.’ The book concludes with a Note on Hypnotism (I assume by Redgrove), which - the presence of such a note - suggests he understood himself as a writer to be working in a kind of laboratory. In the darker uncertainties, he was an investigator.
In The God of Glass (1979) Geoffrey Glass, African because (as Redgrove said in a note) ‘the black African races are more knowledeable concerning healing shamanistic practices than are, at present, the European peoples’), has the secret of the control of witchcraft. Not to banish it but to be essential to the drama that is humanly necessary. An interlude poem begins, ‘O she looked out of the window. / As white as any milk, / But he looked into the window /As black as any silk’.
The brief introduction by Peter Ackroyd to The Beekeepers (1980) could perhaps stand for Redgrove’s fictional work as a whole. Not really a novel, more ‘an examination, sometimes in didactic form, of certain kinds of occult practice,.... There is no great interest in plot or character as such...’ And there are pitfalls, he says, one being melodrama. To make this speak for all these books can’t be precisely right, but Redgrove, such a prolific poet, was after discovering something by way of writing himself into the middle of the crisis and seeing what happened - or what he would show then as discovery. I suppose he had no clear insight into where these books, individually or as a whole writing enterprise, were heading.
The final work, The Facilitators (1982), ‘tells the story’ (I am quoting from the back cover) ‘of the mysterious Institute of Facilitation.’ There is a terrorist bombing. Again it is a book of concepts, in the laboratory of human behaviour.
It isn’t difficult to get a sense of how Redgrove worked. The above suggests something of the sketchiness of plot and character development, and my scanning of the books sees him writing a narratively straightforward prose, only richly imaged and energised. A few samples might show this clearly. ‘He hoped his experiences under insulin shock had helped him with the dying. He was desperately afraid of the devil. The poem of the falling tower said nothing about his suspicions that Silas was him being an unconfident woman, and Jonas was animus, a not very good man....’ ‘Guy still had the dowsing equipment, the crystal ball, the manuals on sex magic and automatic writing...’ ‘The best benders I remember were those when I woke up in the wrong bed.’ ....‘Here Sylvia employs a natural gift she has, that of mimicry. She is able to slip easily and convincingly into an accurate imitation of a man’s baritone voice.’ ...‘She finds in her loins a hole in the day for God to enter.’
I have wanted here to illustrate his style, his way with language. But nothing can be quoted to show that that does not also show his obsessive - and I find myself saying rather thrilling - investigation of what happens when people are tested beyond the ordinary. But then perhaps Redgrove was saying there is no ordinary, we are all pitched into the investigation, we are all tested. Are we? Yes, of course, and differently, responding to and using - wielding, yielding to, toughing it out with - language in this way or that to convey at least something of what it is to be variously delighted and choked.