Thursday, February 3

Going Outdoors Each Morning

Review by Martin Stannard

A Conference Of Voices by Rupert Loydell (Shearsman, £9.95)

Be awake. There is nothing much better a poem can remind you of than to be awake. I don’t know about you, but I don’t care for poems that remind me the poet is cleverer than I am, knows the names of rare and exotic stones, has read everything in the original language, went to Oxford (not only for the shopping, which I gather is the same as elsewhere) or has mastered the shape if not the spirit of some obscure poetic form I can’t name and wouldn’t recognise if it came up and bit me on the nose. In the same way as I ache for music to put its finger lightly but determinedly on that brilliant spot where you know a truth has been told even though you can’t ever say quite what it is, so too with poems: let them, in whatever way is possible (and there are infinite ways, I’m sure) touch that spot, open hearts and eyes, be mysterious and untouchable and indispensable. And let a poem be one of those things that remind you why you want to be alive and play an active role in the pantomime. It isn’t much to ask, and since it’s a set of criteria that lets you out of reading around 90% or more of all known poems, it’s kind of practical, too.

There is (it is obvious to say but I’ll say it anyway) no formula for how a poem might do what I want a poem to do, in the same way as there is no formula for a song to do what I want it to, or a painting. And when it happens it is (and this is equally obvious, I think) very difficult to explain quite how what has happened has happened. And of course, a poem may do this thing for me and not for you. Life is nothing if not various and argumentative. Which is why it’s good to be awake.

Rupert Loydell’s poems say this, and they say this, and they say this: Be awake. Which is not to say they say the same thing over and over again. One might compare the experiencing of them to going outdoors each morning: it is never the same twice, if you care to notice. It is only the same twice if you have your eyes closed. To pluck a poem (almost) at random, “Continuum” begins

This January morning is dark,
bluer and colder than yesterday.
However, the scene will change.

An unusual collection of creeps, freaks
and divinely accented characters
are outside making history.

One thing that strikes me about this is that “bluer” in the second line is an unusual awareness. Another is the phrase “divinely accented characters”, which is a very interesting phrase. And this leads me on to mention what has to be mentioned, which is Loydell’s method of composition. I would like to talk about it in some detail, but since I don’t know what it is I may not get very far. It is no secret that most of the poems are, in some degree, collages. Loydell credits sources. In the case of “Continuum”, for example (which has, incidentally, a further six three-line stanzas), those credits are “CD booklet, Caught Between The Twisted Stars, Velvet Underground; The Other Side of the Mountain, Thomas Merton; Silence, John Cage”. Make of this what you will. There is no way that I, as a reader, either would have known that this stuff is in the poem, or can know to what extent any of it is in there or, for that matter, if it is there at all. (It could be seen as a tremendous post-postmodern wheeze, after all, to name lots of souces that aren't actually sources at all: a joke purely for oneself, I guess.) Similarly, it is somewhat of a lost cause to extrapolate from any of this how the compositional process functions and to what end. As a poet, fascinated by composition and process, I want Loydell to tell me how he does it and to throw open his box of tricks and reveal the magic formula, although I know (a) he won’t and (b) he probably can’t and (c) writing doesn’t work like that so forget it. But I’m intrigued, nevertheless. The reader in me, though, has only the poems that are the end result of whatever process happens. Only the poems! Consider this, from “What To Give The American I Have Never Met”:

It is a crucial moment when you do paint over a part you like
in order to get to the whole work. I have likened it to
a string of pearls breaking: one by one they roll across the floor.
Has to be done tho. Eventually you stop trying to retrieve them.

I’m quite ready to take the loss in favour of the process,
allow language to break apart, be plunged into shadow.
Emotion counterbalances the emptiness left by not knowing,
but I do not know whether I want to struggle any more.

This poem may be read, and perhaps is meant to be read, as a meditation on the artist’s own procedures (“artist” here taking into account how Loydell paints as well as writes). In that sense, it may be a personal poem. On the other hand, the list of so-called sources for this poem is a lot longer than that for, say, “Continuum”. So how personal is this poem? Does it matter? I’m not sure it does, because one of the finest achievements of Loydell’s poetry is that, somehow or other, it combines a sense of the personal with its exact opposite, which I suppose is the impersonal, objective, and in poetic terms a concern with language, and what innovation and risk in its use have revealed as possibilities. And the degree to which these two apparently disparate elements combine, or can be combined as you read, is always in flux. What I am trying to say here, I think, is two things. Perhaps more than two, but two at least. They are (1) there is not a poem here that I don’t want to read again and I’ve read the book twice in full and more than that in parts, and (2) no poem here is exactly the same the next time you read it; and (3 -- I thought of another thing) there is something in this blend of opposites that renders what can often be the cold results of collagist processes as something much warmer. There is a profound sense of thought, humanity and caring here that is, to be frank, somewhat astonishing in that one doesn’t come across it very often.

All this is profoundly rewarding, because while one is reading these poems one is also being made aware of ways of reading poems. Of ways language can be used, ways it behaves, and of ways in which as a reader one can work with it. This afternoon I was reading again the poems that make up the second part of this book, and in particular the sequences “Ballads of the Alone”. These poems are much more obviously collage than those I’ve already mentioned. For example:

radio stations as instruments
how we eat our young
telephone scissors perimeter fence
find me some new sounds
re-shape, re-order everything

simmering becomes boiling
from gas to solid to liquid
correction collapse reversal
we all rolled down our windows
as the past rode up to talk

the king of the island
became what had been dream
ladder ocean orchard
the man who brings assertion
stark contrast between dark and light

The poems that make up these sequences all take this form and pattern and I should say, perhaps, that on first glance the poem quoted here may seem to pose more of a challenge to the reader than those in the first part of the book. They are, on the face of it, more disjointed and they certainly eschew any hint of narrative framework. Yet they still, somehow, and somewhat against the odds, retain the warmth and depth and resonances I’ve mentioned previously. I don’t know how Loydell does this, but do it he does. And, this afternoon, I found myself experimenting with reading across from the left hand page to the right, and thereby forming my own (are they my own?) constructions and connections. This was brilliant – not because I was brilliant to think of doing it, but because the poems allow of it. They are open to this kind of attention as they are open to the world to which they pay their own attention. I can’t remember exactly what it was I said I wanted poems to do: I’d need to scroll back up and take a look. But I can come up with theoretical manifesto kind of guff at the drop of a hat. It is also very easy to end reviews with a hearty recommendation or, more often, a "Steer Clear" sign. I have no idea how to end this one. Perhaps this is it: a poem that’s not in the book. At least, not in this form:

painting declared to be dead
I don’t have a camera
blue light snow light twins and trees
striking features drafty halls

chew your fingers suck your hair
jump-rope songs and bawdy rhymes
monuments and steel towers
isolated mausoleum

fantasy is self-comfort
remember the stranger I never met
squinting at the morning sun
magical textures of light engross

(Sources: Wallflower (Ballads of the Alone 3, Parts 1-12), Rupert Loydell.)

Note: There is an interview with Rupert Loydell, by Dee Rimbaud, here.

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