Intentionally Intangible

Le Fanu's Ghost, Gavin Selerie
(352pp, £15.50, Five Seasons Press, 41 Green Street, Hereford, HRI 2QH)

such a hoo-hoo-o-o-high
     something or another slips in
          [from 'Suspiria']

I wanted to like this book a lot. It is beautifully produced, on thick paper with clear graphics and facsimiles. It is long, and I like that confident imposition on my time. Flicking through, almost every page displays a different form and several typefaces.

Le Fanu's Ghost
comes endorsed by Susan Howe ('information has been arranged to perfection'), and is clearly heavily influenced by her. The centre is the Irish Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). His novels, letters and concerns are all drawn in, as are his family, their writings, his friends and contemporaries, writers the like of R.B. Sheridan, making a broad study of Dublin at that time. Three years ago Susan Howe published The Midnight, a similar mix of prose and poetry (though the majority is in prose, the poems all in small blocks) ruminating on the Ireland her mother knew, its writers and literature. Howe seems to have influenced the historical bent of the book, which includes a long introductory essay on Le Fanu. Selerie lifts the content of the poems from documents and books - and the result is a kind of history.

Another writer this book wears on its sleeve is Alan Halsey, who composed the graphics. The sheer variety of form displayed has more in common with Halsey than Howe, and the difficulties are alike. Halsey wrote in Marginalien
that 'I am interested in the perspective: how these creatures would seem in Browne's time, before the structural distinction between amphibia and reptiles had been worked out ... [T]here is an openness in Browne which our more precise distinctions close off.' In his work there is a drive to break down taxonomies, to blur distinctions, in an attempt (I think) to get the reader to see the work without preconception, as an object the limits and use of which are as yet unknown. Selerie's book does likewise; the mix of poems, prose and documents, and poems that read like prose, documents versified, etc., keeps the work from being easily identifiable. Poetic techniques interrupt historical content, forcing the reader into an uncomfortable position - how to read. If as poetry, then why the insistence on history, complete with tedious notes on sources? If as history, then why make it impossible to reconstruct from the fragments? While this may be a tactic to engage the reader, such instability creates distance.

Direct engagement is further limited by 'questions about authenticity of perception and occurrence' ('Prologue'), raised by writing about Le Fanu and re-organising original documents. We come as close to unmediated experience of the poems as theatre comes to life. Selerie is aware of this; he writes that Le Fanu's 'fiction abounds in devices that are equivalent to stage technique' ('Prologue'), and the poems regularly mention theatre, as in 'Smock Alley Secrets':

     Richard Burbage played Hamlet with John Lewin
     who conveyed this and the part of Henry VIII
     to William Davenant ...

Indeed, Selerie seems to want to make drama of his poems. Speaking of the 'hybrid nature' of Le Fanu's novels, he notes that 'greater detail and slower progress allow other layers to emerge' ('Prologue'). With detail, Selerie hopes that connections will arise and disperse, and movement be created, between poems and lines:

     A ghost is a thing repeated, a shade
     that reappears with variations
     you hear it as a half-aside on the forestage
                                                 [from 'Revisals']

This desire is in turn frustrated. The problem is, if the poems are read as part of a whole (there are six sections), fragmentation and obscure and tedious inclusions throw us off. But if we read poems selectively and individually (they are all individually titled), at intervals, we lose the drama.

Halsey has said '
I do try to write around the back of any subject. ... That's what my kind of poetry's meant to do. That's what it's for.' (I stole that quote from Ian Seed's review on this site.) This too provides a key. Le Fanu's Ghost resembles the jumbled index of a history book in list poems such as 'Catalogue of the Letter M':

     The Hon. Richard Marston
     Mr Merton
     George Mervyn
     General and Miss Montague
     Mr A Mervyn/Mordaunt
     Mrs Marston ...

or footnotes, in the inclusion of correspondence like 'Missing Spring':

     Dear Willie the Railway Wanderer [W. R. Le Fanu],

     I want to know where Brinsley Lefanu is & whether he is still
     studying art as a profession. ...

There is no poetry going on in pages such as these, which hints that individual parts are units making a whole book of poetry, but which in themselves are not poems; but we have just noted the problem of reading the whole.

The subject we have been broaching, with found texts and juxtaposition is collage. Rather than fitting together into new possibilities, the juxtapositions are metonymic - they point to a larger structure, one we see only partly; this is writing 'around the back'. This engages the reader's imagination as well as keeping poems concentrated without having to resort to abstraction. A poem that can be compact but never culminate is appealing. An example is 'Amarantha Takes':

     Lace ruffles spell a story
     about the cuffs and neck
     love is always selfish
     you must capture the 'o' - voilą
     a carriage wheel spinning
     hoofs in the night ...
In poems like this, indeterminacy is surprising and exciting - I particularly like 'about' in the second line, referring to the subject of 'a story' and to material around a 'neck'.

At other times, Le Fanu's Ghost
resembles Kurt Schwitters' Merz collages; found objects are stuck and layered together; connections occur, but the pieces are discreet enough to keep from binding. No picture results. Despite often being too small to be recognizable, the scraps, finding no home, call to their original contexts. The result is work that doesn't from a cohesive whole, or enable the viewer to imagine individual parts in their original states. Selerie's poems inhabit the same space between worlds: the content points out of the poem, to a complete history, while form constrains. The final stanza of 'Exquisite Corpse' is a case in point:

     Are we any wiser as we grow
           disburthened of gauze and torches
     or is it our illusions which change
           one single object in steel or taffety
     like your skeleton-key, I see the ceiling
           burnished to prove
     what no chemistry can detect
           in four times so many years
     tried by a terrible escape

The result is that the poem becomes a contested site, a register of juxtaposition. Indeed, the book runs on juxtaposed words:

              art         act
          blend        brand
       contend        consent
         dame        damn
           ergot         regret ...
           [from 'Alphacrux']


     she in letters     I show
     gold inturned     from granite
     with octagon     lines bespoke
     a mother lost     breathes still
     for flowers     who climb
     not barred     by musty brocade
          [from Helen's Tower']

and sentences:

     Could not be called a cave. Dark and bright the stones.
      United by labour. A vaulted passage with many stairs.  
     Reft of reach. Sunbeams strain through painted glass.
      Friend is the voice carried by holes in the statue. Family
       Covers forbidden issue. Echoes with the lightest foot.
          [from 'Casement']

as well as poem to poem. In that sense Howe's comment is true. The problem is that it takes a lot longer to read this book than to look at a collage, and interest fails. The reader must lift what they can from each poem. There are arresting moments, especially when sound comes into the equation - take 'Echo Plate':

     Mary Shelley reads Rousseau,
     stares at one sheet of creeping ice
     Byron dreams of the sun extinguished
     and the icy earth swinging blind
     in moonlit air

The problem is that they exist in contrast to a lot that is not salvageable; as well as lists, original documents and letters, there are poems - like 'Smock Alley Secrets' - that read as just versified prose. The imposition on time becomes too much.

I wanted to like this book a lot, but I don't think Selerie wants me to. The interesting problems Le Fanu's Ghost
raises seem to be the point: but discovering them needn't take 352 pages.

     © Thomas White 2007