Fab Fabbro

, Adrian Clarke (108pp, £9.95, Shearsman)

The more you know about poetry, the more poetry becomes a matter of echoes and hauntings. Eliot dedicated 'The Waste Land' to Pound with the words il miglior fabbro, the same designation that Dante had given to the troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel. Larkin's 'postal districts packed like squares of wheat' triggers a memory of Auden's 'The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat'. George Herbert's 'Is there in truth no beauty?' becomes a kind of backbeat at the end of Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. This sort of poetic relationship is at the heart of Adrian Clarke's new book which, in the words of the blurb, tests 'some possibilities and limits of cultural and linguistic exchange'. Eurochants gathers translations of Max Jacob; improvisations on Chinese love poems, Persius, Tacitus and Villon; and other recent work in Clarke's characteristic short-lined, phrasal style. Daniel and Dante are in there too.

If you've not encountered Clarke's poetry before then, depending on whether you read Robert Sheppard or Andrew Duncan, 'The discourse of the State (one might almost say statement) is rejected in favour of ceaseless phrasing' or 'The long cadence of the discourse of the State and professions is replaced by Pulse.' And, surprisingly, this isn't as distant from Arnaut Daniel as one might imagine. As Robert Kehew points out in his indispensable bilingual anthology of troubadour poetry Lark in the Morning
, Daniel's main innovation was to take the traditional long lines of his predecessors and contemporaries and '[chop] them up into smaller lines of uneven length'. It was an innovation that gave greater energy and movement to the verse as well as allowing for greater play with internal rhymes and half-rhymes.

Andrew Duncan describes Clarke's poetry and the other work collected in the Floating Capital
anthology (which Clarke co-edited with Robert Sheppard) as pitching the reader against a violent surface and, on the surface, this is literally true. Spasm, cunt-lack, oppressive, scars, piss, blood and puss, injuries, hurts, damaged—it's easy to find this sort of language in both 'Terminal Preludes' and the title sequence. But it's also only partially true. What's most striking about the two sequences, and particularly 'Eurochants', is their use of other languages: French, German, Italian, and Occitan. I estimate the proportion in 'Eurochants' at 15-20%. There are epigraphs from, inter alia, Ingeborg Bachman, Barthes, Baudelaire, Celan, and Pavese. Here's the closing the section of part 2/poem 11 which has an epigraph from Racine 'Je pars plus amoureux que je ne fus jamais':

     cento for synthesis
     les lŹvres dependent
     on nomi indecifrabili:
     their faces blurred through
     salive di spettri instants
     link back
                      poca eco
     from its hollow throat
     a life versed in your loss
     what survives love shelved

Clarke's work in, say, Ghost Measures
(1987), Spectral Investments (1991), and Obscure Disasters (1993) uses short, four-word lines which mean that his poetry, in Sheppard's words, 'dwells in its conditional saying.' The conditionality is also a result of the poem's momentum. As the reader proceeds through a poem, its line breaks —which are also potential links—force him or her to revise meaning backwards and forwards. It's a little like reading Creeley at his most abstractedly self-reflexive, although more nakedly dynamic.

But what happens with the kind of late modern euro-creole on offer here is that, multi-lingual readers excepted, both linkage and momentum are interfered with, estranged from themselves. In one sense, the foreign languages are another version of the way that the links in Clarke's work also function in Eurochants
at the level of sound: 'cento for synthesis', 'flotsam pro tem', 'Vetoed by fax. / Voted a fix.' In another sense, the multi-lingual mix works across time (Daniel, Bertrans de Born) and borders to convey a powerful sense of crisis and displacement. It's a sense that's reinforced by the way many of the epigraphs refer to departure, distance and exile. A single language is not sufficient to describe the state we're in, or more correctly, other languages have been and are doing it better than English. Other languages suggest other voices and other vantage points. The way that different languages are broken and mixed across and within lines performs a sense of struggling for new vantage points and of intermeshing with other traditions. Another important effect of Clarke's euro-babel and of the references to a wide range of European writers is to remind us that there is a European tradition in which poetry, poetics, writing on cognition, and philosophy are closely connected. Arnaut Daniel, Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, and Roland Barthes are all engaged in the same sort of enquiry.

So what's partly at the back of all this is a sense of the inadequacy of where 'official' English poetic traditions have ended up. The Persius improvisation, 'Satire 1', sets this up with its often hilarious, Raworth-like montage of capital and 'official' poetry culture and its competitions:

     faced, eyes in your arse
     hit the epithet that counts.
     Forward means a bid for
     'the imaginative franchise'. Improve, not
     'improv'. When did competition rule
     out work on the line?
     Ditch the semantics, meritocrats care:
     ascendancy discards superior crusts. Enduringly,
     an epic 'yes' to piss
     'Sizzling in our...grassy language'.
     Vowels ploughed'; 'green fields greying';
     The 'verb, pure verb' 'stained
     to perfection'.

Isn't that the best Poetry Review
editorial Fiona Sampson never wrote? The MoMo Penguin antho and Heaney's 'Oysters' are in there and a lot more besides. I love the crackle and sweep of it. And, of course, 'competition' and 'work on the line' might just as easily be 'about' the Potters Bar rail disaster as they are official poetry culture's anti-modernism—which is partly the point of this sort of writing.

What about the rest of the book? I translated Part 1 of Max Jacob's The Dice Cup
with Christopher Pilling for Atlas a few years back. I actually think Clarke's versions of the prose poems are in many ways punchier than ours and make a good introduction to Jacob. The 'Chinese Whispers' sequence reduces Clarke's short line even further to two-word units and for this reader the reduced resources made it hard to get much from it. The closing 'Terminal Preludes' sequence is centred down the page and its short lines and broken phrases mix images of war, terrorism and eco-crisis to give a sense of 'post-catastrophe', 'apocalypse / scaled spasm' and 'monument to impact'. There's an important question about form being raised here: is the crisis so urgent or the connections between things so dynamically complex that more measured poetry is irrelevant, pointless, just too slow? It's a question that Clarke's been asking all along.

      © David Kennedy 2010