Sunday, July 10

Style vs. Substance (The Peter Mandelson/David Herd Mix)

Review by Gareth Twose

Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir by David Herd (Carcanet £7.95)

The first thing to say about “Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir” is that it’s not about Peter Mandelson or, rather, that it is only indirectly about him. Mandelson does make a cameo appearance in a poem called “Peter’s Poem”, but he is more of an off-stage presence, alluded to, but never quite encountered. As such, the book is a post-modernist tease. Just as Mandelson is the king of spin, the master manipulator of messages, so this book is about the infinite malleability of meaning. Just as Mandelson’s politics is a triumph of style over substance, so this poetry is a kind of triumph of style over substance. Therefore, to accuse the book of having nothing to do with politics would be to miss the point: it’s overtly about the absence of a certain kind of politics. And the book suggests, with Wildean insouciance and élan, that aesthetics might be the new politics. This is its covert anti manifesto. After all, as “A Note on the Title” mischievously points out, one of Mandelson’s abiding legacies was the re-branding of the Labour party red flag as a rose, a rose, a rose.

In form, and here Herd is clearly indebted to the New York school of Ashbery et al., the book is a collage. It mixes prose of varied forms and free verse poetry. The poetry is interleaved with a one-act Japanese Noh play, letters and pseudo diary entries in post-it note form (à la Carlos Williams). At one point there is a quite astonishing prose explication of the physiological process of breathing, apparently factual, but which is poetic in its intensity. In typically post-modern fashion, the boundaries between fact and fiction are very blurry. At times, the book reads as a kind of history, a record of absurdly trivial ‘facts’ and events. At other times, the book reads as quite fantastic and surreal. If the book is, loosely speaking, some kind of autobiography, it is one which readily admits it is a charming fiction. Which is another way of saying the book is not really a memoir (in the same way that “Tristram Shandy” isn’t). It talks about whatever happens to fall into the poet’s field of vision at a given time. In other words, nothing in particular.

Yet there are some kinds of threads, admittedly frayed, holding this all together. There are questions in the heavily ironic “Disclaimer” at the book’s beginning that appear to be addressed, or at least flirted with, later on. The ghosts of themes emerge. For example, according to “Disclaimer” the key question, one we most owe it to ourselves to answer is: “What makes us happy?” An implied ‘answer’ to the question, half suggested by the book, seems to be enjoyment of the most trivial, simple and basic pleasures. Enjoyment of, say, the beauty of cherries, breathing itself. The value of breathing is revealed in the book, for example, via a two-page long, minutely detailed description of the whole process, of which the following is an extract:

The term respiratory system refers to those structures which are involved in the exchange of gases between the blood and the external environment (the world). Oxygen has to be absorbed into the blood because the body depends on it. Carbon dioxide has to go out into the world because, frankly, there is nowhere else for it to go. The respiratory system comprises the lungs, the series of passageways leading to the lungs, and the chest structures responsible for movement of air in and out of the lungs.

[You might, at this point, like to think about your own breathing for a moment. Is it steady? Can you rely on it? Are your chest structures as responsible as they might be? Are our passageways clear? Are your lungs capacious? Do you exchange successfully with the world?]

Insofar as this is very metaphorical, especially the witty questions at the end, this can be seen as a prose poem. Reality is de-familiarised via a technique akin to slow motion in film. What we most take for granted is represented as most miraculous; what is most natural suddenly appears to be nothing of the sort. The unconscious is made conscious. Another way of viewing this is as an old-fashioned affirmation of the commonplace, but one that occurs in shockingly post-modern form. Moments like these represent, or may represent, epiphanies.

But it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of over assertion here, in that one can never be secure about interpretations of a book in which non-sequiturs, interruptions and parentheses are such a governing principle of composition, and where meaning is so readily subject to automatic deconstruction. The world of the book is one in which appearance and reality are fairly interchangeable (something Mandelson would understand only too well); in which life is represented as such a succession of accidents and random happenings that any attempt to look for a pattern is doomed to failure. In a typical poem, with its typically mock-heroic Shandean title, “In Which the Poet Speaks of Time Spent in America While Noting in Passing an Alimentary Complaint”, the speaker apparently situated in America recollects an incident that occurred when he lived in Europe. The walk down memory lane is not so much a walk as a maze or a trip, in the sense of falling:

…I left a building expecting rain – hours the city had been dogged by rain, all the talk was of how much rain – and I stepped outside and found the rain had stopped. And which in itself might not have proved sufficient, except that that morning I had woken up, from an adequate sleep, quite largely rested to the sound of a woman preparing food; or preparing something, and if not singing exactly, not not establishing a strong theme, from Strauss perhaps: Ariadne auf Naxos. Aware, apparently, that the light had changed.


But then not of course completely also.
It was food.
It probably wasn’t Strauss.
More settled somehow.
Not quite so keen to be splendid.
The way sometimes we say snow ‘settles’ on windows.
And sometimes doesn’t.
Except it wasn’t snow.

Here, we are in a world of multiple and unstable ironies. Ironic undermining follows ironic undermining to the extent that the underminings themselves become the norm. The original referent slides further and further from view as the apparently poignant memories are revealed to be completely unreliable. And yet, even with all the hesitations and qualifications, the reader does respond to the memory as if it is something worth recovering. The care the speaker is exercising in getting it right, even if it only proves he’s got it wrong, is surely a guarantee of something, isn’t it? It emerges that if nothing else, whatever the precise outline of the scene is, there is an emotional truth at the core of the experience: that the speaker was happy, if only momentarily.

This is lovely writing, too. The switch to short-lined free verse brings each alternative possibility, each alternative re-framing of the memory, into sharp focus. The switch to free verse also marks a move to a yet more interiorised presentation of reality. Suddenly, free direct thought is used to enact the butterfly movements of the speaker’s mind as he freely free-associates. One possibility, that the music he remembers was by Strauss, is rejected on the grounds that it was more “settled”. He re-describes the music, in an effort to be more accurate and precise, as “not quite so keen to be splendid”. Then he meditates quite beautifully on the meaning of “settle” used, metaphorically, as a verb: “The way sometimes we say snow ‘settles’ on windows.” A surreal, synaesthetic image of music floating through air and gently coming to rest, like snow, is momentarily conjured up and, then, subsequently undermined. As so often in this book, the detours, or the side alleys, are the point. Herd is here illustrating something, dare I say it, about life: that only change is permanent. (One of the questions in the Disclaimer, after all, is Does all that alters in fact persist?) Reality is quotidian and plural. This is embodied in the very form of the book.

Ultimately, the question of whether the book’s different parts add up to some kind of sum is one the book itself pre-empts. It might do. It almost does. It creates a kind of (w)hole. But what should be said is that for a debut collection, ‘Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir’ is immensely ambitious, smart and funny. In terms of formal experimentation alone, it leaves most mainstream UK books of poetry standing. It could be some kind of masterpiece. Detractors, of which I can imagine there may be many, may feel that the book is ultimately unsatisfying, a little empty; or, more cynically, that the book disappears up its own fundament. But it’s meant to. The book is nothing if not self﷓conscious. And that’s where the fun starts.

© Gareth Twose, 2005

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