The mixing of the language
Obsequy for Lost Things, Martin Anderson
Collected Poems, John Berger
(146pp, £8.95, Smokestack)
The prefacing quotation to this excellent collection sets
the scene - 'It is only delusion, and not knowledge, that bestows happiness.'
(Stefan Zweig). Anderson's book is split into three sections, comprising 'The
Lower Reaches', 'In the Year of Expeditions' and 'Obsequy for Lost Things'.
His subject is centrally the history of colonialism as a major force in the
world and its effects on both colonisers and its victims. His is not exactly
a didactic form of poetry though his writing combines critique with an
astonishingly succinct and piercing lyricism and reminds me, in different
ways, of the writings of Kelvin Corcoran and Robert Hampson.
We are reminded throughout of the narrator in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and also of the Roman occupation and of the war in
Vietnam and also of more recent events. On page one we get this:
After the pitched whine
of bellicosity: 'We'll bomb you back
to the stone age' the
remote is pressed. Crackle of distressed air.
Warm, incendiary smell.
All colour implodes to a white mote.
Silence. The crevasse
( from 'The Lower Reaches I')
Descriptions of warfare and colonial oppression are juxtaposed with
commentaries on the banking system and although each section is made up of
short, fragmented prose poems, there is a sense of connections being made
which probe both the psychology and the politics of a system of production
and commerce which is global and ideological. We are referred back, by
implication, to the opening quotation - 'It is only delusion, and not
knowledge, that bestows happiness.' - and also to the fragment from Jean Rhys
which prefaces 'The Lower Reaches' - 'This is England, and I'm in a nice,
clean English / room with all the dirt swept under the bed.'
'Big swinging dicks' amid
the rigging. All hands below aloft
chipping ice off a top
heavy vessel. The ice-master frantic. All
LIBOR rates 'fixed'. 'A ...
culture rotten with cynicism and
greed..' From the Hill of
the Hawks, what eye looks down?
The mixing of the language of the stock exchange and that of the maritime
world is appropriate and telling. This is poetry which is unsettling and
disturbing and that is certainly part of its intention though I'm also
constantly in awe of Anderson's ability to mesh his critique within such a
tight yet lyrical focus. As a reader you're permanently up against the
tension between the aesthetic qualities of this writing and the nature of its
subject matter. In this sense perhaps poetry is the ideal vehicle for
Anderson's kind of exploration because he forces the attentive reader to look
hard at what is going on under the surface while also being appreciative of
the quietly musical qualities. You can savour this writing 'as writing' but
never at the expense of what it is 'saying' and what it is saying is complex
No journey's end. No end
to looking. But under the moon we
raised up a giant
gallows. Harvested pain. We sharpened our
blades upon them.
( from 'In
the Year of Expeditions')
In the final section - 'Obsequy of Lost Things' - there are references to
'exile' and to 'the departed', terms which can relate to both the colonisers
and those colonised. We are in a world without mapped geography or where the
designations have become blurred:
All the borders are
closed. Or dissolved. No more promiscuously
trafficking across them.
And all the signposts are buried, or are
pointing the wrong way.
Sound of the tongue on
these crisp, ice fringed margins. The
rustling of the page is
not as loud as the silence of the departed.
Only later did they
realise they had been walking backwards and
forwards across the
border without knowing it was there.
walking, in worn out boots, back to a country they do not
remember but which they
have been exiled from.
from 'Obsequy of Lost Things')
Anderson merges historical events, fragments of exile and appropriation, with
the here and now in an impressively quiet post-modern lyricism which is as
sharp as it is moving. There is a sense of dislocated beauty within the
writing and within the events suggested and hinted at here, allusion and
reference are allied to lyric precision and to an overwhelming feeling of
loss and deep alienation. A profound historical survey of warfare and greed
is located within the present tense and there is a powerful feeling of
matters coming to a head, of things falling apart and of the absence of the
human subject, alluded to in an array of 'things left behind'. This isn't
quite apocalypse but we live in interesting times. Powerful and disturbing.
John Berger is best known for his writings on art and
politics yet as well as being a novelist he has produced a fair amount of
poetry over the years, work which has often been 'smuggled' into his other
books. It turns out that there was no need to be 'coy' about his poetry as
this considerable body of work includes some real gems and most of the poetry
included here is at least stimulating. As you might expect his interest in
the relation between art and society and his documentation of human
displacement and enforced exile are also themes which appear in his poetry,
and there remains at times a tension between 'realism' and 'innovation',
issues of form and content which have always been evident in his other
writings. Take this extract from 'Amsterdam', which appears at the beginning
of the section entitled 'Places':
close to the bed of the sky
ash fall like snow
their feet in flight
to walk upon the flakes
paintings of Malevich
space made substantial
crossing the traffic lights
on the brown arms of the canal
raised imperceptibly higher
the cold huddle together
The opening stanza presents as a possible description of a painting, not, I
would suggest, one by Malevich, but we are immediately presented with a
powerful and puzzling image which is both surreal and metaphorical. The
'jumps' in consequent stanzas combine a realist with a more abstract approach
yet the whole poem holds together satisfyingly as a construct and displays an
aesthetic, playful element. As with all of Berger's work, however, there is a
cerebral, probing quality which keeps you, as reader, on your toes and is one
of the things which I so admire about his writing. You have to think when
you're reading Berger and while I don't always follow his train of thought, I
usually find the necessary effort stimulating.
In 'Orlando Letelier 1932-1976', from the section 'History', Berger has
produced a quiet homage to one of the key figures in the Chilean revolution,
murdered in the aftermath of the right-wing coup. What I most like about this
piece is its understatement as most 'obituary notices' of this kind are
written in high passionate mode (the poem was written in 1976, the year of
Letelier's death) and although heartfelt are often also overtly polemical.
Berger's poem loses nothing by being quiet and largely 'plain-spoken' yet his
reverence and admiration for Letelier are still apparent as are his
He has come
as the season turns
at the moment of the
blood red rowanberry
he endured the time
which belongs to the
he will be here too
in the spring
until the seasons
(from 'Orlando Letelier 1932-1976')
In 'Viva Voce' from the section entitled 'Words' we get the following - 'One
who dreams deeply / of mountains / speaks next day / with the voice of a
and it's a puzzling poem which seems to combine a surreal dialectic with a
probing 'underground' lingo which questions the disorder of language as
utilised by those in power. It's almost Orwellian, in fact, with the added
ingredient of a surreal critique - ' A third to overcome insomnia / imagines
himself a beaver / and barks at meetings / in the name of necessity.'
Elsewhere, as in 'Story Tellers', for example, the language appears more
Berger's poems, in fact, usually say much more than any apparent 'message' may
suggest. In 'Troy', despite an implied clue in the title, the dialectic is
between the beauty and the mystery of the universe - Berger often appears
like a child, lost in wonder at what he is seeing and thinking about - and an
almost Kafkaesque sense of , if not quite paranoia, then apprehension in the
face of authoritarian government. His imagery is often strange,
straightforward yet suggestive and appears quite singular -
'When a prisoner is shot / the sparrow flies / out of his eyes.' There is an
almost fable-like quality to his storytelling, which can appear quite archaic
yet strangely compelling. Unsurprisingly, for a writer who is also a visual
artist, the imagery is often striking yet there is also a very cerebral
quality to Berger's poetry, allied to compassion and a probing intelligence.
Once again, this isn't the kind of poetry I'm most interested in these days
but Berger is an intriguing polymath in our intellectual firmament and it's
good to see his poetry collected in one volume.