Elusive Intellectualism

The Anti-Basilisk, Christopher Middleton
[148pp, 12.95, Carcanet]

'a wit that flickers with almost graspable significance' writes John Lucas on the back cover of this substantial collection by a substantial poet. It is this flickering light playing over Middleton's undoubted substantiality which fascinates me as a relatively new reader of this poet. There is clearly a great deal of learning in the poetry here. Middleton adds his own footnotes, rather more seriously than did Eliot in The Wasteland, though there is something reminiscent of the work, and of that time when poetry was dominated by polymathic men of letters. But Middleton's flickering conjures up shadows, and shadows make for interesting shifts of tone and shape. Many an artist or photographer will tell you that there is more truth in shadow than flashlight exposure. The same holds true for much poetry. And Middleton knows this very well. 'Waiting For The Harvest Moon' illustrates this in some beautifully spare lines:

     Shadows thrown by people on a wall,
     A fragile charm, and they stand upright.

     More often the flat shadows, horizontal
     On a paving stone. You tread on them.

The poem extrapolates the shadows, mixing fact and imagination, linguistically flickering like the 'air polygons' themselves.

     They put shadows in the wrong way round,
     Sometimes for symmetry, the painters.

      Persians put no shadows in at all -
      No place for shadow, the divine creation.

     Perspectivally the word-penumbras
     Make us shiver, hair stand on end;

     Flesh creeps back, seeking divinity
     As light is caught in the branches of an oak.

This was one of the poems that made me shiver. The 'Anti-Basilisk' is replete with heavier themes; translations from the classics and European poetry tradition. There is also prolonged engagement with menacing and also slightly ludicrous personae (Doctor Dark, and the presumably self-satirizing Saul Pinkard) - 'Me bespewed with my own mess of tempers' as 'Pinkard's Ditty' goes. Why is it that so many male poets summon up a poetic comic persona, a detachable alter ego? These are clearly  erudite pieces, referring back to and ironizing the literary tradition. But I was watching for the flickering shadows, and those I found more easily among Middleton's unnamed peripheral characters; the long dead artist of saint who has influenced the structure of something, have facilitated a latent fluidity which is present in the most solid of constructions:

     Facts are few. Just as well. Under the altar
     Those rippling verticals remember marble's origin;
     The mason knew how marble starts in water,
     That waters wove marble into its being,
     That even the saint, the saint waters the marble.

                 ('The Altar at Vaison')

The subtle sublimation of solid states, the almost mystical oblation involved in such a change, recurs in the image of a mango thrown off the balcony, a quasi hagiographic analogy of saintly self-immolation, in 'Buffoon Voice in a Small Port':

     ...This mango,
     Should I pick it up and fling it, ho,
     Pick it off the balcony table, hurl it high
     Onto the furnace. That is how the saint

    Hurls his will at the invisible, blends it
    By faith into an infinite desiring. Sacrifice
    To the imaginary...

If the last phrase is double edged (an imaginary God? Or merely the price required for imaginative creativity?) this lengthy poem's own syntax melts away at the end, changing from a poem of substance - despite the title - into one of elusive insight 

     ...And sorrow, pause,
     Toward the sea it floats a, floats
     A 'fabric' through the glass open door.
     Door. How heavy it was, now how light.

Middleton is thus a spiritual poet, though perhaps a reluctant one, and also an epigrammatic poet, though perhaps a rather knowing one. I liked the proposition that 'under the brooding lurked, not yet material/ A poem scheming to coax into focus a local image' ('Elegy of the Flowing Touch') though I was probably supposed to take it with a pinch of salt. I also liked the wry 'Many different people have to have been there/ all sorts have been going to go there', the opening lines of 'Of Paradise'. Middleton's language is often sonorous, but can also be impressively flexible. I loved the anti-basilisk, with her swivelling eyes, 'Suckers for toes, tender belly, flexing her tail,/Hush while she skedaddles clean across/ The screen she cannot penetrate...' ('The Anti-Basilisk'); she wonderfully embodies the subversive element that flisks through so many of these poems - and I never came across 'skedaddles' in a poem before. Other readers may draw weightier conclusions from this collection, but, as final recommendation, I invite you to watch the gleam of 'Sanctificat', where the poet and his cat watch a floating foil wrapper landing on a rug 'from far Beluchistan'; where, like many of my favourite poems here, it scintillates with both potential meaning and obscurely satisfactory closure:

    Any old soul might call it futile, this flutter
    Of liberation with geometry. Fret no more,
    Sainted cat: right royal was the pleasure
    You and I could take in such a sign.

                      Sarah Law 2006