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ISSUE 14

 

INSIDE THE NEW MAP - Kevin Borman   1999 pub. Redbeck Press, 24 Aireville Road, Frizinghall, Bradford BD9 4HH. £6.95  

The extended metaphor of maps and mapping is especially suited to Kevin Bonnan's work; here is a man whose life revolves around the out-of-doors. His latest book, 'Inside the New Map? defines what he is by what he does. This is the criterion by which he informs the reader, so that we share in the physicality of his passion for hill climbing and come to appreciate the spirituality of these not quite solitary experiences in lonely places. All this is the subtext of a language both engaging and straightforward Borman's honesty shines through these poems; he is not ashamed to expose the breakdown of a long-standing relationship:  

"separate from each other how it increasingly is  
we pause.......  
we've done this for a decade and a half shared those times, but now  
we say nothing.."

(Winter on Beinn Sgritheall) 

The first section ends with the realisation that he cannot depend on the map of his youth any longer. In "Struggling with Cartography he likens the end of his relationship with the failure of the map, no longer reliable, where "crucial details were missing along creases/damp paper tore, the symbols differed." In this poem Borman realises the need to let go, and moves on to the second part of his collection, "Searching for a Compass" In the struggle to find a new direction and purpose, Borman enjoys the companionship of many friends, whose portaits are lovingly recorded. It is in this context that the major work of this section is set: a sequence of poems "From Industry Street to Zannula Dar" where, as teacher, he moves from Damall in Sheffield to various places in Pakistan. His perception of the lives of Pakistanis living in Sheffield, especially students, is illumined by what he has seen and learned, as is his inability to make a difference to those lives, except by trying to understand them.  

each time I want to make a point,  
to give some slant on the Asian girls 
I pause, swamped by complexity  
as if I could presume  
to say something  
about their lives  

It is an extraordinarily moving sequence, and again we feel the pain of his struggle to find his own identity. This search, set against the fixed points of friends and family, has a particular poignancy. One warms to this man, and it is with some satisfaction that one reads the third and concluding section, "Inside the New Map" For here at last is the safe haven, the secure biwi, for which he has been searching. The poems deal in detail with meeting and sharing experiences with someone (the Troy of the dedication); the growth of understanding and the delight in realising this is the partner for whom he has been searching; that final relaxation into the "other" which is the sign of true affection. Borman, as always, avoids the sentimental; his language still straightforward, direct:  

I need this to be a good day. Mountains  
are such a part of me that I hang on whether  
days among them will be something similar for you

(First Winter Mountain)  

The "first" of the title refers of course to her first mountain with him, and ends:  

We are both full of it, looking endlessly from your  
first winter mountain. Sharing a flask, we turn  
to each other and you catch me grinning like an idiot.  
Mountains and love are redefined in the new map of existence.

Borman's book is accessible, full of minutely observed detail both of people and places. It is a book that stays with the reader like the memory of an old friend I warmly recommend it.

 

ON THE TRACK by John Lucas (Redbeck, £6.95)  

'Although he reminds himself that "life's other than art" and feels a firm democratic need to speak up for life. Peter Porter once wrote, 'John Lucas builds his poems with careful artfulness.' Of course there shouldn't be a contradiction between the two. But it is because poetry is so often regarded as 'other than' living that Lucas’ poems are so remarkable and so important.

On the Track opens with an epigraph from Roy Fuller quoting Wordsworth on the need for a poetry of plainness for all occasions it is dedicated to Stanley Middleton (Lucas’ poems have been described as the verse equivalent' of Middleton's fiction), and it includes poems dedicated to Matt Simpson, Gael Turnbull, John Forbes, Jim Burns, Barry Cole, and Middleton again. These are the kind of informal, personal map references which have marked the distinctive route of John Lucas' verse from About Nottingham (1971) to One for the Piano (1997) and which help to locate On the Track in a distinguished - though largely unacknowledged - tradition of radical, provincial English Nonconformity. It's an anti-Mandarin literary tradition which Lucas has done so much to celebrate as a critic (notably in studies of Dickens, Bennett, Crabbe and Clare). As an editor he has helped to keep it in print, most recently at Trent Editions (new editions of William Barnes, George Garrett, John Clare, Robert Bloomfield, a book of essays by Jim Burns). As a publisher he has helped to sustain it (his Shoestring Press publishes Phillip Callow, Matt Simpson, Arnold Rattenbury, Maurice Rutherford and Michael Tolkein).

Lucas is the most accessible of literary critics, and the least 'poetic' of poets There is nothing artificial or decorative about these poems nothing gaudy or flashy ; these poems are not 'clever' or 'sassy' or 'edgy'. There is hardly a simile or a metaphor in the whole book. But writing in Arnold's 'perfect plainness of speech' is hard to do without collapsing into stage-demotic like Carol Ann Duffy or Pooterish artiness like Andrew Motion, and without getting lost (as so many younger poets have done) down Dead Pan Alley. These poems are so successful because their subject matter is always more important to Lucas than their form. He writes with a gruff almost grudging impatience towards the lines which have to carry the experiences they relate. And yet for all their apparent plainness, these are fiercely-crafted poems - roughly metred, framed by insistent half-rhymes and hidden forms:

"All wine is spoilt when put to the wrong glass."
Snob Law for those who've never raised a squat tumbler  
Of resined light in a come-who-may taverna  
Where pleasure waits on each thronged table's call. 
Wilde thought work the curse of the drinking class  
But class is the curse of all

(Small Anacreontic)

'From the Fifties! is a stunning sequence of character portraits recalled from student holiday jobs on a building site. Fred Voss meets Robert Tressell in poems which combine anecdote and direct speech, slap-stick and politics, real names and real work. 'Out of the Present is a lovely series about the death of his father, a former professional footballer, restrained, but not contained by the sonnet structure ('Last Orders', 'Your War and 'Pagham, 1949 are especially moving in this respect). The collection ends with 'Flying to Romania', a series of eleven diary poems and three prose pieces which record complex reactions to a complex place and history, its Monarchist intellectuals, hotel lobby con-men, Anglophile academics, taxi-drivers and its shuffling poor. Lucas refuses to buy any of the souvenir-cliches which Western travellers are supposed to bring back from post-Communist Bucharest:  

Little consoles the poor. That's how  
they must think, queues  
equidistant wherever they shop.  
Here shelves of thermos flasks
brood like a dream of toys  
safe from the grasp of kids glutted on want  
Promise of bread, there, fills a street  
With rumour of salt and yeast  

Until steam-netted windows  
Clear to an aisle of raincoats  
Stacked jars of what might be  
Eggs rotting on formaldehyde  

And are plums. Here, doorways  
Beam up love from trays  
of pirate tapes and snow 
Frets a bus's wipers  

Stalled at red. But veer  
Up a side street lost in quiet,  
And now, see a gypsy shovels  
Tomatoes into leather bags  

And scarved women, 
Deep in their boots, eyes 
Glittering in the wind, 
Grin beside this brazier's winking heat.  

There are two retreads of Greek poems here, a new Thorn Gruin and the wonderful 'An Abandoned Airfield in Norfolk, reprinted from Studying Grosz: on the Bus. These are convivial, direct, plain-speaking poems. For John Lucas a poem is a kind of public bar. There are poems here (as always) about jazz, cricket, writers, drinking and friends;  

Shall I be at your funeral  
Old friend or you at mine?  
Either way, let's pledge to serve 
Only true vintage wine. 
(Agreed?)  

For Lucas, pubs and poems are both are places where friends may meet, where arguments may be put plainly, and where important things may be said, sometimes across the table and sometimes across a crowded bar:  

....may that man receive the bays  
Together with choicest mead and manna  
Who last evening in Beeston's Victoria Hotel  
Suddenly sang “O bollocks to Diana."  
(A Poem is Not a Pub')  

 

FEAR AND LOATHING IN AMERICA - THE BRUTAL ODYSSEY OF AN OUTLAW JOURNALIST   by Hunter S Thompson. ( Bloomsbury £20 ).  

Drugs ! Guns ! Dark glasses worn at inappropriate times ! Hunter S Thompson's rebel yell echoes round "whatever limbo lies between humour and tragedy ." America cowers as his words snap and snarl like the ferocious attack dogs that always attend him !.....More drugs and guns ! Long cigarette holders ! More dogs ! Yet more drugs !.....The reputation of the sixty-something Outlaw Journalist not only persists but - since the cult film of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, starring Johnny Depp as the good doctor - is developing beyond folk myth into a major cultural archetype.

With no new product since the desultory riffing of 1994's Better Than Sex, his publishers have raided the vaults for 77?e Rum Diary ( an abandoned early novel ) and two massive volumes of correspondence, The Proud Highway, tracing his wandering years, and this latest, covering 1968-1976. In these 450 letters we see him first gaining the headlong velocity that fired the two Fear And Loathing masterpieces and then hitting the buffers of celebrity/notoriety.

Two-thirds of the letters are drawn from the first four years, after the commercial success of Hell's Angels : under their surface the subject matter and techniques of the two great books are taking shape. Oscar Acosta, " a Mexican dunce with the morals of a goat, will provide the model for Las Vegas's crazed attorney. Thompson discovers or, rather, begins to create his greatest character - Richard Nixon as " a monument to all the bad genes and broken chromosomes that have queered the reality of the American Dream....The Dorian Gray of our time, the twisted echo of Jay Gatsby - the candidate from almost-Los Angeles." He settles on Ralph Steadman as illustrator, although he'd originally favoured another Englishman, Ronald Searle - provoking visions of lost masterpieces: Flash Harry versus Tricky Dicky or St Trinian's meets the Hell's Angels. These early letters also reveal a giddy sense of fun - his joustings with the Alaska Sleeping Bag Co recall Hoffnung - and a deep commitment to friends and family. Touchingly, the letters to his three-year old son Juan have the same tone as those to the priapic, addled Acosta. He's also generous with sage advice to fans, warning them off Tim Leary and The Angles as being the same " organized bullshit" as the FBI or the LBJ Fanclub.

One admirer, however, Carol Hoffman, a housewife from Tinley, Illinois, revealingly undermines Hunter's toxic Colorado idyll. After her letter on how the mass-stomping and gang-raping Angels" sound wild and delirious fun", he gives her the full Swiftian broadside. Just as soon as his uniform comes back from the cleaner's, he replies, he and the whole gang will be descending on her peaceful little community:" So I'm naked. Yeah, nothin' but crabs between me and whatever I want to hurt. I like it this way. But if you think I'm weird, just wait for terry and Tiny. They'll show you where it's at, and your friends top, if they want it." Needless to say, she loves the idea, writing to him every day, wiring him money. She gleefully anticipates seeing her happy family destroyed, Tinley sacked and burning, and Thompson is hit by the terrible realization that the silent majority can effortlessly outweird even the weirdest. The self-styled bural outlaw becomes just another worried dad:" Every time I get one (of her letters) I look at Juan and wonder how I can possibly tell him what to watch out for. The dimensions of what we have fucked up in this community are beyond any coherent explanation."

Despite his super-stoner reputation it emerges clearly that politics is Thompson's drug of choice. His grasp of strategy, his nose for winners and losers, his sense of the nigh-occult currents of power and opinion are matchless. Above all, he deeply loves its ludic and ludicrous nature: his favourite drinking buddy is revealed to be Pat Buchanan - " absolutely honest in his lunacy" - at the time a Nixon speechwriter. He writes how much he admires how rival staffers " can beat each other like gongs in public, then sit down at night as friends and human beings."  

Thompson's periodic campaigns for public office, usually seen as jokes equivalent to Norman Mailer's or Jerry Rubin's pigs, now emerges as deadly earnest. Despite running for Sheriff of Aspen under a poster of a red fist clutching a peyote button, his programme was sedulously balanced and liberal-libertarian. Less a political junkie, more a political groupie, he regularly contacted promising figures - Ribicoff, Mondale, Teddy Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy - seeking a constructive insider's role. There were no takers, but it's revealing to observe the respect and affection with which such as Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter regarded him. The latter wrote to Thompson when they were mooting rival presidential campaigns for 1976: " When I heard you had announced I started to withdraw. However, with the faint hope that you may still be :"terested in the higher office of sheriff, I'm going to stick around and try to fill the vacuum you may leave."

" My humping action," he writes to Eugene McGarr, "seems to decline in perfect inverse ration to the number of pages I write each night." The correspondence also wilts: while covering the 72 Presidential campaign he wrote virtually no personal letters, the last third of this collection is, apart from those to Tom Wolfe, largely dull, all the energy flowing into the books. Sadness and disillusionment become pervasive. " Like a gang of wild whores or the inmates of some terrible peg house, the editors of Playboy roam the world by telephone, trying to get everybody down in the same bad hole where they are," he'd written in 1969 but by the mid-70s we see him disappearing into that very hole himself. His notoriety gets him blackballed by potential subjects from Kesey's Pranksters to the NFL - imagine being deemed too crazy for Al Davis' Oakland Raiders ! he wrangles endlessly with editor Wenner over Rolling Stone expenses, and with fellow-journalists over misquotation and misrepresentation, increasingly resembling his hated Doonesbury caricature. Loved friends drift away or become enemies: Oscar Acosta sues over non-existent film rights and then dies mysteriously. It's sad to watch Thompson's life ceasing to excite him, starving his gift, condemning him to repeat himself, endlessly, to ever-decreasing effect. Still, who wouldn't settle for a few good years, two great books ?

In my local bookshop his works, now all back in print, don't appear under Politics, History or even Fiction, but on the bottom shelf - between Joseph Campbell and Colin Wilson - of the Alternative/Cult section. Prospective purchasers should perhaps just get themselves down to Tinley, Illinois....

 

CHANGING STAGES: A VIEW OF BRITISH THEATRE IN THE 20TH CENTURY. by Richard Eyre & Nicholas Wright. ISBN 07475 4789 0 (Bloomsbury £30)  

If you know your way round twentieth century theatre, you'll find plenty in this book to touch the nerve of recognition. If you don't, it's a splendid introduction by two practitioners who are passionate about the theatre but also erudite, witty and astute. The authors are modest enough to call their survey" a view". I doubt they'd wish to claim it as definitive. Some readers will take issue with their emphases. Not everyone will find, for example, enough space devoted to Joe Orton. And their claim that What The Butler Saw isn't farce because it lacks "shame and suffering" and "everybody loves sex" is a bit hard to sustain when you consider that the events of the play are set in train by an act of sexual opportunism by Prentice on the unfortunate Geraldine who is never permitted to evince any liking for sex. She is a victim of other people's mad desires and theories. She wants her freedom. She suffers and Prentice is motivated almost entirely by the need to conceal the shame of his taking advantage of her. It looks like farce to me. Nor does the rather grimly wishful warning that he is the heir of Firbank whose work is no longer performed seem too prescient given the plentiful revivals of Orton's three major plays. Finding things to argue with is, however, one of the pleasures of this book. Eyre and Wright seem very fond, for example, of Brecht and his theories. For me, his plays are at their best they leave the theories behind. Surely all art is diminished when it bows to theory ?

The book begins, intelligently, with a chapter on Shakespeare, an acknowledgement of how much we owe him and how his work and its influences reverberate through almost everything on our stages. The second chapter, equally intelligently, is entitled Ireland & England. It takes us back to the 6th January 1642, the beginning of the long sleep of English drama broken only two and half centuries later. It's a chapter full of fascinating detail I and it reminds us of the enormous debt English theatre owes to Irish writers: where would English comedy be without Sheridan and Goldsmith ? One of the delights of the book, in fact, is its emphasis on the multiple foreign influences on our stage. If you know a xenophobe, buy this book for their birthday. It makes you realize how enriched a culture is when it opens to all healthy, imaginative influences. Theatre is joyously promiscuous, but in the best possible sense of mixing and mingling without buttoned-up prejudice or sniffiness. The English novel is English. English poetry is English. But English theatre embraces Grotowski, Odets, Chekhov, Genet, Meyerhold, Fugard. The unEnglishness of English theatre is what makes it so exciting. Surely this eclecticism is a fundamental aspect of all theatre. Certainly, reading this book puts you in touch with the marvellous, uplifting, expansiveness of our theatre over the last century. Nor do the authors snobbishly exclude more popular or populist forms. They discuss the rise of the musical with as much respect as they devote to Beckett.

In almost every chapter there are fascinating little details you may never have known or have forgotten, lovely little anecdotes that illustrate a point. The style is straightforward and clear and the photographs wonderful. It's a book I didn't want to finish and of course it's the kind of book you never do: you keep taking it down from the shelves and reading a chapter to remind yourself of some forgotten detail. Eyre and Wright have done an excellent job and especially impressive is how the book it pitched to be of interest to the knowledgeable and the neophyte alike. I would have thought that every student of drama in England should have a copy of this in their backpack.

Why, the question comes to me again as I think about the subject of this work, with such brilliant and thrilling work on our stages do so many people choose to sit in their front room and watch drivel on the t.v. ? The theatres are there for all. The cornucopia provided by writers of genius, inspired directors, superb actors and actresses and the myriad skills of many others that go to make a good production is not for the few, for an educated or monied elite. It is the inheritance of all of us. And how it can enrich our lives ! Promise yourself a trip to the theatre at least once a month. Take someone with you: your granny, your neighbour, even your boss. And read this book. It's a door into the magical, imaginative wisdom of a rich period. It should make you want switch off the telly.  

 

STRONG WORDS: Modern Poets On Modern Poetry. Edited by W.N.Herbert & Matthew Hollis. ISBN 1-85224-515-8 (Bloodaxe £10.95)  
BLOODAXE BOOK OF 20TH CENTURY POETRY
. Edited by Edna Longley. ISBN 1-85224-514 (Bloodaxe £10.95)  

Two excellent, indispensable anthologies both ably and intelligently edited. These are books worth having even if you're familiar with their content. Readers with an interest in modern poetry will know many of the poems and all of the poets in Longley's selection (it's always possibly to carp about the ins and outs of such anthologies -I would have liked to have seen something by Edwin Brock, Gael Turnbull. Roy Fisher, D.M. Black, Adrian Mitchell, Alan Brownjohn; but the selection is representative enough) yet it's nonetheless pleasant and convenient to have them gathered. Longley has written a short introduction to each poet and these are well-informed and unpretentious. She has the knack too of selecting work which takes you to the centre of each poet's vision and style. A reader completely ignorant of 20th century poetry could spend an evening with this book and take away a very dear sense of its shape and trajectory in Britain and Ireland. Some argue that's the drawback of this kind of thing: it's a shortcut for the lazy. But I see no reason to deprive people with a less than consuming interest, or students embarking on a course of study of an introduction which will permit them to orientate themselves and then pursue the paths which most appeal to them. For enthusiast and more casual reader alike, this is a book well worth having as introduction, guide and reference. Longley has done a superb job and, once again, Bloodaxe should be congratulated for its energy and imagination.

Likewise for Strong Words. Bill Herbert and Matthew Hollis have made their selections judiciously. This is a marvelous read which puts you in touch with some of the best minds in the field of modern poetry and provides insight upon insight into the mysteries of the art. As with Longley's book, more seasoned readers will be familiar with a fair amount of what is collected. All the same, I was delighted to reread many pieces I haven't looked at for years and to find what I'd missed and to discover the freshness of many of the selections. All the people you'd expect are here: Pound, Eliot, Auden Hughes, Heaney. But there are some less well-known entries, Randall Jarrell for example who has written some of the wisest words about his art. You take away from this collection the knowledge that poets are as various in their views on what they do as they are in the doing. The inexhaustible fecundity and variety of poetry.

I would recommend both these books to anyone with an interest in modern poetry. They are anthologies to stay with you for a lifetime.

Not to detract in any way from the collections, but something struck me in both. A falling away once the up-to-date poets appear. The entries by Hughes and Heaney in Strong Words are both fascinating. They have depth and resonance and a real sense of the mystery of the poet's calling. So with the poets from the first half of the century. But amongst the younger practitioners something has been lost. What is it ? I wish I knew. I can offer only tentative suggestions for why I respond with disturbance. Something objective has crept in. Something too knowing. As if when the mind touches the limits of what it can know definitively it retreats to a reduced position of safety. Something hard and defended but therefore lacking in suggestiveness and sudden insight has installed itself in these younger minds. Why ? I'm almost equally at a loss, but it might be to do with the increasing bureaucratization of society, the shrinking of the space for difference and the insane pressure of a culture of success. Contemplation becomes more and more difficult. Self-promotion more and more necessary. But to promote yourself, you must have a self to promote. Doesn't this encourage the illusion of total lucidity ? Doesn't it impel us to view ourselves as hard little concentrated egos propelling ourselves through "careers" forever taking our own temperatures to gauge our "success" ? Dont we then fear to admit that we know ourselves only in glimpses. I don't know, but there's a quality about much modern poetry at once dull and terrifying. As if what the poem will say was decided before it was written. As Picasso famously said, if you know exactly what you're going to do, what's the point of doing it ? Perhaps Picasso is a good example, he went out on a limb with no certainty of success. Those self-portraits from his early days in Paris show a young man familiar with despair. I'm not about to foolishly recycle the cliche that all art comes out of suffering, but surely all great and interesting art comes from being willing to embrace the possibility of failure ? Is this what is missing from modem poetry ? Anne Stevenson sounds a note of due pessimism in her piece when she says, " Poetry...is in pieces." She begins by saying we are in thrall to technocracy and the media. Surely she's right. Perhaps younger poets have grown in a culture where the possibility of failure, of any kind, is too painful to contemplate. Perhaps it is the courage to fail that is missing from modern poetry. The paradox, of course, is that without that courage there can be no real success.