Space and Play

Variations on Painting a Room: Poems 2000-2010,
Alan Baker.
(198 pages, 10.95/$17, Skysill)

Alan Baker is perhaps more familiar to us as the editor of Leafe Press and Litter magazine than as a poet. I have admired those poems of his that I have read in publications such as Great Works, Shearsman and Stride, but that was all I knew of his work until recently. 

Variations on Painting a Room
gathers together poems from separate pamphlets. Nevertheless, one has the impression of a collection which very much coheres and creates a single complete work. I was going to say 'the man', but it would be accurate to speak of a sense of 'the poems' themselves making a kind of post-modern pilgrimage. If John Bunyan were writing today, perhaps this is the book he would write. Indeed, Alan Baker quotes from Bunyan, and the quotation is aptly given near the beginning of the book:

      How is it then, that thou art so quickly
      turned aside, for thou
      art now out of the way

The different voices are all aware that they are 'out of the way' and would seek - like Bunyan, or Blake, or Eliot - a return to that way. But this is now the twenty-first century where we live in a distracted and fragmented world without God or 'truth' - or at least without a fixed definition of God or truth - and this is the world that Baker, or the voices he adopts, must navigate without the fraudulent fiction of a 'grand narrative'.

The core of the book is perhaps contained in the 64-section sequence of prose poems. The voices here are both philosophical and lyrical. They are fractured, and make use of many different kinds of text (which are all listed conscientiously in notes at the end of the book) alongside Baker's 'own words'. The prose poems make up what Baker calls 'The Book of Random Access'. Yet, although Baker may have used 'chance operations' as an initial foundation in order to lay himself open, to prevent his 'poet's ego' from getting in the way of what language can say through him, one has the impression of anything but 'random'. This is painstakingly honed work.

The various voices speak both to one another and to us. Each creates its own momentary light to shine on the path they are travelling on. Baker's sense of strict form helps to bind them into a shifting whole. Each of the 64 prose poems is 256 words long. As Baker explains, 64 is the number of hexagrams in the I Ching
, and both 64 and 256 are significant numbers in computing. Why should we care about this? Perhaps the best answer is to read the poems themselves. Here I can point out that there is no feeling of strain or artificial forcing in the prose poems. They seem 'natural'. Baker has perhaps used this structure as the best way not only of providing a discipline to hold the different voices together, but also to allow the form to offer its own 'chances', to keep the poet open to the possibilities of language which will suggest themselves to him only if, paradoxically, he stays true to the limitations he has freely chosen.

What is especially appealing is the way the prose poems search and yet at the same time undermine their own seeking, as if aware of the transitory nature of any discovery that may be made. They are relentlessly questioning, but not in a manner that wants to prise open the truth as if it were a tied-up package containing something to be consumed. Rather, the questioning is gently self-mocking and makes no assumptions, and is conveyed in captivating language, for example:

      The sound of the rain on the leaves is exact and
      full of meaning [] It comes             from some
      place that is no place other than this one'

      I'm watching a man across the park. In and out of
      the streetlight-pools he goes, and I wonder if I'm that man

This may have gravitas, but Baker is quite prepared to poke fun at himself and his quest. He has a great sense of silliness, which he uses to expose the all-too human frailties he shares with the rest of us, and to subvert his own search lest at any time it becomes too presumptuous. This is frequently achieved through absurd juxtapositions, reminiscent of the New York poets: 'When crossing a river, don't get your tail wet (the sixty-fourth hexagram warns against this). It's usually cheaper to book flight and accommodation separately' (p152)

I realise that I have been speaking almost exclusively of the prose poems, but there is much to savour besides in Baker's lineated poems. From the beginning of the book, we are drawn in and hypnotised.
Each poem is beautifully crafted, but not stiflingly so - there is always a great sense of space and play:

            Today the snow, tomorrow
             I will save you from the rest of your life,
             or is it mine?
                   ('Today the Snow', p76).

As Baker concludes at the end of his book, 'much is fluid, shifting and uneasy' (p184). And perhaps all the more to be celebrated for that. The search remains as much that of everyman as it is his.

Ian Seed 2011