Strange and Curiously Powerful

Memorial, Alice Oswald (Faber)
Shelley at Oxford - blasphemy, book-burning and bedlam, Heathcote Williams
     (Huxley Scientific Press)
Aphinar, Norman Jope (Waterloo Press)

Alice Oswald trained as a classicist and therefore it's no surprise that she should turn to Homer for inspiration in her work. Her method in rendering this interpretation of The Iliad is that of a vast reduction in the length of the text, including only a list of the names of those who died in Homer's tale, with a brief biography of each soldier, followed by a repeated simile, this being appropriate to Greek lyric poetry and the domain of the lament. In her own words, her approach to translation is 'fairly irreverent - working with the original Greek but aiming for translucence rather than translation'. This isn't what you might call an 'anti-war' poem in the sense that, say, Christopher Logue's or Tony Harrison's re-workings are but Oswald's technique is entirely effective here, her pared-down narratives getting inside the ritualised descriptions of violent death in a manner which pulls the reader in.

I felt in a strange place the first time I read this work, drawn to the power of the words and the descriptive detail while also feeling a sense of despair and revulsion at the awful business of warfare itself. It may well be that this is the aim of the poem, something which Shakespeare was also well aware of while commenting on the pageantry of the battlefield in a manner which has a strong aesthetic quality while also questioning the nature of heroism.
Memorial is an astonishing book, one which induces a multitude of thoughts and feelings, including, I have to say, an appreciation of the aesthetics of the writing itself. Oswald's meshing of the high lyric voice with an often modern, colloquial, gutsy quality is quite extraordinary:

     CHAROPS died first killed by Odysseus
     Then Socus who was running by now
     Felt the rude punch of a spear in his back
     Push through his heart and out the other side poor Socus
     Trying to get away from his own ending

     Unmaking you mouthful by mouthful
     Eating your eyes your open eyes
     Which your mother should have closed

     Like when the wind comes ruffling at last to sailors adrift
     Trying to manage the broken springs of their muscles
     And lever and lift those well-rubbed oars
     Making tiny dents in the ocean

     Like when the wind comes ruffling at last to sailors adrift
     Trying to manage the broken springs of their muscles
     And lever and lift those well-rubbed oars
     Making tiny dents in the ocean

     All vigorous men
     All vanished
          (from 'Memorial')

I recently missed an opportunity of seeing Oswald read from
Memorial and from all accounts her performance was spellbinding.

Heathcote Williams' previous collection from Huxley Scientific Press, Forbidden Fruit, seems to have met with a relative lack of critical response and has also, so far anyway, not sold particularly well. This is a bit puzzling but hopefully Shelley at Oxford will do better on both counts. It certainly deserves to, given both the subject matter and Williams' treatment, which is passionate, exploratory, well-researched, polemical and above all, very readable. I'm currently (belatedly) half way through Richard Holmes' mammoth biography of Shelley (Shelley, the Pursuit), so on a personal note the appearance of this collection is useful and timely. The cover has a lovely matt finish and includes a beautiful design by Pete Rozycki.

The work itself is a compound, a sort of collage including quotations from Shelley's own work - both poetry and prose - and elsewhere, together with Williams' take on the period Shelley spent in Oxford as a student before he was expelled for atheism. It's the story of a great lyric poet, a disaffected aristocrat, who became an oppositional rebel, a great political writer, comparable to Tom Paine, a revolutionary poet opposed to injustice, eager for knowledge of all kinds and for that knowledge to be available to all.
Shelley at Oxford also touches on the possible origins of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - earlier than many have realised - and gives a vivid account of Shelley's relations with the ecclesiastical University officials who literally had the power of life and death in terms of his youthful rejection of religion and its establishment orthodoxy.

It's also a tale of intellectual curiosity and the desperate attempts to crush this aspiration as well as a plea for a fairer society not based on capitalist greed and short-term accumulation. If this all sounds a bit too contemporary then I'm afraid so, however depressing this may be. Williams himself is a fine poet, described on the cover blurb as Shelley's modern day heir. This may be immodest - on his behalf - but it certainly isn't hyperbole. Take this extract from an early section of the book:

     Meanwhile the celibate dons of this profitable religion
     Guzzle venison from Magdalen deer park;
     They gnaw at ripe game-birds shot on college estates
     And wash it down with hogsheads of claret.

     A theological mafia, with every whim indulged
     By their colleges underpaid servants,
     Which is hired to cook up the day of Creation
     Or to invent the location of Eden.

     Then, after debating such thorny questions
     As to how many angels can dance on a pin,
     It can choose to discuss whether it was Eve or a snake
     Which caused man's original downfall.
          (from 'Shelley at Oxford')

Williams also makes some interesting observations about the influence of Shelley on certain counter-cultural figures of the 1960's, notably Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and John Lennon and while none of this is exactly undocumented I hadn't previously realised how closely related some of Lennon's lyrics were to Shelley's poetry. There are other sections which suggest links between Shelley's time and the modes of the 1960's counter-culture:

     At Oxford Shelley wears his hair in long shanks--
     'Like a lion's mane or meteor's tail'--
     To show solidarity with the spirit of 1792;
     Unlike the fashions of the right

     For adopting close-cropped military styles
     By way of homage to Wellington's troops
     Then engaged in an ugly Peninsular War
     Shelley adopts the ideological haircut of a free spirit.
          (from 'Shelley at Oxford')

Williams has a knack of bringing in these unexpected angles and his enthusiasm, learning and sheer intelligence, shine through in this superbly constructed text. That,  and his anger at the madness of the military machine (of then and now) and the waste of human resources and of true human flourishing. All a bit pie in the sky I hear you say and there is certainly contradiction and paradox in the body of this writing. But we need a bit of hope and celebration of what is truly good in these dark times, together with a degree of justified anger with the powers-that-be that often seem to frustrate the best of what we are. Paul Foot would have loved this book.

Norman Jope has been publishing prolifically of late, Aphinar being the last in a loose trilogy of books which have appeared since 2009. The title poem itself relates to a fantasy location based on Arthur Rimbaud's deathbed delirium writings and is a mini-tour-de-force, a pocket-sized epic which shows how it's still possible to write ambitious poetry even when it's not so easy to find an audience. Aphinar is an exploration of the self, confronted by the prospect of mortality while being keenly aware of the experience and immediacy of being alive. This has become a key theme in Jope's poetry during the past few years, projected through an insatiable appetite for travel and adventure - whether real or virtual - which has as its counter a reflective, somewhat introspective persona which appears as the opposite of action. The tension involved here, while often low-key, infuses the drama of Jope's storytelling and leads to some wonderfully controlled yet beautifully intense evocation, painterly, thoughtful, apparently objective yet so involved at the same time - an intriguing paradox which has become a signature of his oeuvre:

     Crowley, my errant friend, the one
     who signs his name with a phallic flourish,
     basks in the den whilst the rickety city
     throbs with business. Nothing is made here -
     spices and oils and precious stones go out
     on precarious ships to the cold coasts of Europe
     in returns for guns and iPods -
     but, every day, you can hear the rustle
     of transactions, even here

     where my errant friend reclines, his eyes
     as vacant as the sails of stranded dhows.
     Hour after hour, for a million years
     he dozes, only
to wake
     so that he can take pleasure
     in the sleep to come.
(from 'Aphinar 7. Brunch in the opium den')

This substantial volume is split into five sections and one of the other central texts, 'Merlin Shadows', from set 5, deals with the poet Peter Redgrove and the aftermath of his death in 2003. Jope knew Redgrove and is attracted to the expansive and ambitious nature of his prolific output so this nine-page poem is part-reflection, part-homage, an attempt, perhaps, to utilise Redgrove's own methods and concerns in a manner which pays tribute yet also creates continuity:

     As geologies clash, as weathers slam,
     igniting the sky, your death is something I
     in the hairs on the back of my hand
      that stand, a little, to salute you.
     Where can I lead you now
     but through myself, through the imprint you leave,
     that limited download, complete and un-mute?

     Anonymous thunder, heard
     but so hard to locate, offshore.
     The man, embarrassed,
     ceases his Thor exertions
     and his partner smiles
     at his ring-nosed fury.
          (from '
6  Merlin Shadows')

Very Peter Redgrove and very Norman Jope.

There are a variety of other 'locations' within this collection, whether based on Jope's own hometown of Plymouth ('The Cattedown Carnival', for example) or on a period living in Bristol ('The Mariner's Path') or on a projected exploration of the Sahara based partly on his reading of Douglas Porch's
The Conquest of the Sahara, 'Cockpit', another mini-epic poem which is written in couplets and evokes the harshness of an extreme environment, another topic which has fuelled Jope's imaginative sweep:


     The air's as brittle as a wind-chime.
     Its distance stokes migraine, suns embedded

     in their metal crania, in purposes chewed on
     like the strips of meat that flavour their mouths.
          (from 'Cockpit')

Or there's the more gentle, reflective reverie of  'Homage to a Wasp' where the author takes in the unexpected warmth of a day in mid-March and welcomes the stirrings of better weather:

     It travels a road that I would gladly travel - 
     with its tiger-coloured top, it predicts the summer
     and the sight of a stirring wasp has never been more welcome.

'The Fairground in Autumn', set in Budapest, is Jope as flaneur, a strange, melancholic setting, filled with 'red imagery', tipping its cap perhaps to Roeg's off-season Venice in
Don't Look Now, yet vivid and filled with mystery and invested with the power of a muse/lover who challenges and disrupts the otherwise death-imbued evocations of this late location. His stage directions - 'This way for the Tunnel of Love' are minimal, elusive and appealing yet the eroticism of the setting feels drenched in a mood of fin-de-siecle ennui, where the energy or motivating libido is sucked dry by the prevailing feeling of entropy - '...  . In a city/autumnally grey but with a Fauvist sheen...'

Strange and curiously powerful.

     Steve Spence 2013