JUST HOW MANY POSTMODERN POETS ARE THERE IN FLANDERS ANYWAY?


THE LAST TO LEAVE: SELECTED POEMS by Dirk van Bastelaere
120pp, 9.95, Shearsman Books, Velwell Road, Exeter
COMPARED TO WHAT: SELECTED POEMS by Laurie Duggan
225pp, 12.95, Shearsman Books.  
PICTURES FROM MAYHEW by John Seed
172pp, 10.95, Shearsman Books


The Last to Leave, by Flemish writer Dirk van Bastelaere, brings together poems from eight books published over the last twenty years or so, here collected in English for the first time. This isn't a collection for the faint-hearted, full as it is of sexual violence, blasphemy, shock tactics and an intertextual sweep which takes us from Peter Handke and Gilles Deleuze to Baudrillard and Beckett. 'Pornschlegel', the title poem from van Bastelaere's hotly debated second collection, reads like a cross between a Handke novel and a David Lynch film, following a day in the life of the poem's eponymous hero, a psychopathic museum attendant, with a smile 'as hard as a dildo'. Other poems, like 'Anja's Wardrobe 1-3', hit a more meditative note, while some, like 'Soon at a cinema near you', reflect and refract the discourses of contemporary movie culture:

     This is where
     The story ends. In his Mustang
     the bomb Expert Kisses the girl
     (
zoom in, dolly back)  And yes, they fuck
     like rabbits, living hard and long  

At its best, this is powerful, visceral, intelligent and highly visual poetry. Yet for a selection bringing together work from so many individual collections, it's a shame it isn't longer.  As it is it is difficult to judge whether or not such accolades as 'the most important postmodern poet in Flanders' are really justified. And just how many postmodern poets are there in Flanders anyway, one begins to wonder.

The same complaint cannot be levelled at the capacious and enchanting
Compared to What, which brings together work from Australian Laurie Duggan spanning more than three decades. Duggan's range is astonishing: there are landscape poems, like the subtly unfolding The Ash Range, which owes something to William Carlos Williams' Paterson, there are found poems and occasional poems, like the witty '(Do) The Modernism', poems written as captions to photographs, and some great translations of Martial:

      You drink from crystal
                and you piss in brass;
      it's the vessel between
                that lacks class.

Martial's epigrammatic wit has left its trace on Duggan's short poems which he groups together as 'Dogs', in which he reflects on everything from poetry and politics to market research. One of these, 'Creative Writing', observes tersely: 'No in-/ tuition/ in tuition.' Duggan does so many kinds of poem well that it's a difficult task to convey his range and skill, yet it's perhaps in the rough and tumble of the documentary poem, above all, that Duggan proves himself a master again and again:

     An improbable group of demonstrators at the Literary Festival
     want to get rid of poetry.  They complain about having to read
      anything that is old, that poetry itself is perverse, gives people
      strange ideas and ruins their career prospects.
               [from 'Louvres']


The urge to document lies also at the heart of John Seed's Pictures from Mayhew, every word of which is drawn from Henry Mayhew's writings on London, published in the Morning Chronicle from 1849 to 1850, then in his own weekly paper, London Labour and the London Poor. From the thousands of pages of Mayhew's investigations, John Seed has selected a few hundred extracts from those passages where he attempted to record the voices of London's poor. Seed artfully cuts and rearranges the source texts, splitting the poetic line in such a way as to make the passages both more accessible and less quick to read, in a way that gives us access to the original voices in stark close-up. Seed likens the process to that of a sound engineer editing a tape to try and get rid of interference and distortion. The results are startling, letting us eavesdrop on the voices of London's streets in the 1850s in a seemingly unmediated way. We have the reflections of pickpockets, prostitutes and spice-sellers, and the voice of a reformed alcoholic:

     Then I was always thirsty
     & when I got up
     of  a morning I used
     to go stalking round
     to the first public-house
     was open my mouth was
     dry parched as if burning
     a fever I was ashamed to
     be seen out clothes ragged
     shoes take the water in
     one end left it out the
     other I keep my old
     rags at home to remind
     me I call them the
     regimentals of the guzzler

Then we have the reflections of eye-vendors, boot 'translators' and those of a host of traders long since vanished, alongside the voice of a London cabby, bemoaning one thing that will seemingly never change, the dysfunctional nature of the royal family:

     it was a gaming-house
     he went to that night
     but I have driven him
     to other sorts of
     houses in that there
     neighbourhood he hadn't
     no pride to such as me
     hadn't the Prince of Wales


                  Philip Terry 2005