Haunted by the Past and Future

Dreaming Arrival, John Welch (224pp, 11.95, Shearsman)
Hoodoo Voodoo,
DS Marriott (140pp, 9.94, Shearsman)

Reading John Welch's autobiographical musings is a strange experience. Unlike a lot of life stories, there is no clear line from birth to the author's present. It starts, in fact, with a trip to the psychoanalyst and moves back and forth between childhood memories, the present and his university breakdown, linked by the ghostly presence of the analyst, known only as B.

Spending so much time in the head of one man makes the book a difficult read at times. One can't spend too long in this company before wishing to look up and breathe fresh air. There is a great deal of questioning of motives, self-analysis and questioning of whether is memory is correct, so that there is a feeling of unreality, of dreamlikeness, throughout the book.

Nevertheless, the book is fascinating, partly because John Welch is a member of that generation of poets that rose in the sixties, the first wave of British non-mainstream poetry. But there's no real gossip about that period, though he does speculate about why he became a poet, and a non-mainstream poet at that, as if he were guaranteeing that he would be unknown during his lifetime. That desire to be uninvolved, separate from the world, is the theme of the book.

The effect of this fascinating, inward-looking book, is that you end up questioning yourself. Why did I become the poet and the person I am? What is there in my background that makes me who I am? He talks a lot about dreams, but though sometimes listening to a person's dreams is not unlike listening to someone's drug experience, it almost never feels too private. Behind it all, there is a collapsing house, a very reticent family that never talked about emotions, and a child who both wanted to be part of the family, and society, and wanted to be apart. There is a sense of trauma, but nothing specific.

This is a book to read in small bursts maybe a chapter at a time and mulled over, not taken all at once. It's a slow read, and those who simply want a standard autobiographical account are advised to steer clear. There is no gossip from the literary life, and although you do get a sense of the times he lived through, there's no real mention of historical events. This is a kind of Confessio, an account of one man's internal struggle. This will either appeal to you or not, but it is, ultimately, a very rewarding book; like all good books, it leaves you with your own thoughts.

D S Marriot's Hoodoo Voodoo deals with a very different, much more public set of trauma than John Welch's book. He is a black British writer now living in California and his poems reflect a much more public world than that of John Welch's. However, they both share an interest in how the ghosts of the past can affect the present. Here, however, the ghosts are the ghosts of slaves, of lynched black men, of the child victims of the Moors murderers, of drowned sailors. None of this book comes as straight reportage, however, and there is no political point-scoring about white oppression. He has far too much respect for his ghosts than to make them pawns in an argument; but because of this, the anger and the grief becomes stronger, more focused. If this book is an elegy for the victims, it's also an elegy for the society that creates those victims, because a society that creates such victims is also a dying, or dead, society.

'On the Moors'- a poem set not very far from where I live - reveals the glamour of horror:

     When she first saw him the ground opened,
     she saw herself fall, as the rain fell,
     and fire appeared in her eyes. Seared, shaken.
     The skin reddened so hard his coming
     the eye caught
     as if he had frozen her forever  -

     here, having lain long in his mouth,
     no words sinned as he came so yeildingly,
     and no will to end what is said and done.

This, too, is not an easy read; but not because the language is inherently difficult, or because he has been influenced both by Amiri Baraka and the tradition of English late modernism that a poem dedicated to the late Andrew Crozier reveals, but because like Celan, he is dealing with difficult matter.

There is an essay of the poetry of this book at the beginning, which does help to illustrate its themes, and there are notes at the back that explain some of the sources of the poems. I'm not yet sure of the use of the essay, though the notes are useful. The essay by one Romana Huk does give a context, I suppose, but is it anymore than a slightly elevated form of puffery when the poems can quite obviously speak for themselves?

I didn't know this poet's work before this book, and I am very glad to have had the opportunity of delving into the ocean of these words. There is a depth and seriousness to these poems which is very rare in contemporary poetry. The language is fully awake throughout, but there is also a strange kind of dream landscape being invoked through the words that runs parallel with the real world of phenomena, a kind of hope beneath the darkness of the subject matter. This is a haunting, haunted book haunted by both the past and the future.

      Steve Waling 2008