Archipelagos, you write, where begin, armadillos, gloves, a cart with apples, song and pollen, rock wing, labyrinthine nests, a different game.
It is essentially. It could not be other. In the beginning absolutely. Not how the world is, it could not say. But that it exists, the word. Supreme visibility in deepest darkness. As children we kept our secret and grew old. With nudity exhausted.
As for birds, you write, beside me, abyssal glossolalia, soup, brass handles, too early in the day, formation of geese, grammar, not confession, landscape of possibles.
Nothing could be without it. It was made by us. But the nervous system speaks no known language. Roots burst out of the ground and we stumble, jolting the marriage of skeleton and flesh.
Mumblers all, you write, spit and babble, one way sun, inch into the open, mirrors on string, scent bottles, black walls, black kitchen table, in Bamberg, touch everything.
It says nothing. It shows itself. St. Augustine was interested. Words, that is to say, no foundation. Variables crowd the lines of perception, brushing off flies, the time stolen. The body expands. Orgasm not certain.
Pieces that do not fit the puzzle, you quote, sizes, shapes, launch into space, if a round mat, sigh with pleasure, le nu provençal, life takes a long look, a birth and its clarity.
I owe CM a debt of understanding. At a time when the Sunday broadsheets still carried reviews of new poetry there appeared a review of his book Torse #3. The piece was by its own standards civilised: but it was patronising, ignorant, insular and weary. I had at that time virtually no contacts and no prospect of getting a book published; but I was working tentatively in a distant corner of the same territory, and the review showed me in an instant how the cards were stacked. It freed me from setting any store by opinions that might come from such a quarter.
In Time a Wise Anarchy?
An afterword by John Hartley Williams, with a choice of four poems by Christopher Middleton
When Michael Glover told me he was going to put some tributes to Christopher Middleton into The Bow Wow Shop, I suggested making a small selection of poems as well. Michael agreed, and said I should be the one to choose four poems and say something about them. Now four poems isn't enough, as they say, to show 'the range of the poet's work', but they ought to be a taster that would whet the appetite for more. Should they be 'accessible' poems - the sort you can read without blinking? That would be difficult in Middleton's case; most of his poems make you blink. In England he has been characterised as 'avant-garde', a term so wildly applied as to be completely meaningless. 'Avant-garde' would normally be translated into the demotic, I think, as 'unintelligible foreign muck'. To take the word 'foreign' to start with: Middleton, despite having lived most of his mature years in the USA, is a very English poet. And what's wrong with 'foreign'? Good poems should be foreign to the soles of their boots. As for 'unintelligible': on the back of my Paladin edition of Middleton's selected writings, Douglas Dunn is quoted as saying: 'A poet of considerable importance - an avant-garde poet we can actually read.'
Yes we can. You will recall Wallace Stevens' oft-quoted observation that poems should 'resist the intelligence almost successfully'. It's true that sometimes Middleton's work is deeply encrypted, but what is fascinating about it is that you do want to persevere with the poems, you do want to read them, you do go back to them. Take a poem like A Huapango for Junius Avitus. I've often re-read this poem and wondered about it. It fascinates me. I couldn't for the life of me give you a prose paraphrase, but then prose paraphrases of good poems can't exist. What did Eliot say? A poem 'can communicate before it is understood'. Indeed, understanding in the literal man's gloss on the word may never take place, but if communication is there in all its sensuous and sparkling unfolding, what more do you need?
Sometimes there is a hint of Wallace Stevens about the work of Christopher Middleton, though he is very much his own man. I recall as I write that Stevens' wife considered her husband's poetry 'affected' and perhaps Middleton is not always free of that fault, but then you have to ask: 'Was Edward Lear affected?'.
I think Lear may have had more influence on Wallace Stevens than any of his revered French models ('Heavy with thunder's ratapallax' anybody?) and on Middleton too:
Now all the sounds will keep you
wide awake: the nosing, quibblous, of the fong,
click of bullwits, the oom's horn.
The natural world is all there in Middleton's poems, translated but there. He has a fascination with birds, cats, dogs, and that gives me an occasion to start this mini anthology with:
How to Listen to Birds
Put no trust in loud sounds
Learn from the crystal
Ladderings of music
To listen: bodily. Slip
Through the rifts which model
Their notes. A moment, one, day
Or night, may be a more favoured
For penetration: one tiny spool
Of the unseen
Unrolls from a chirrup. Feel
Feel again its formal flute alarm,
The wave creation -
A dancing woman's hair, it floats
Across your face -
A note or two, at last,
Concentrates the practised world
Into some new thing;
Wake, otherwise, attentive
To such a call, you might
Inhale the first perfume on earth,
Touch the ghost,
Voluminous, of a howl tight coiled
In the plain tune,
Or find no way of your own
Belief, at a variance so fine
It modifies the whole
Machine of being: this
Is not unpolitical
There is so much in this poem to admire. The short phrasings echo the brief, staccato calls of birds themselves, those 'crystal / Ladderings of music', and the line breaks are so delicately modulated you could imagine yourself in a garden listening to that pleasing avian orchestra: 'To listen: bodily. Slip / Through the rifts'. Rifts of course suggests riffs as well. There are breaks and there are repetitions. And you do listen to bird calls with the whole body. The poem makes you want to quit the city right away and go somewhere quiet to settle down and encounter that 'formal flute alarm'. You might 'inhale the first perfume on earth'. I know, I know. This is nothing new. No one is immune to the magic of bird song. But the poet's job is to remind us of what we already know in such a way that it comes back to us with fresh force and reawakens our appetite for living. Poems also have a teaching function, creating in the reader's mind the formal shapes necessary for reception (in this case) of a too-often overlooked event in the natural world. Doesn't a poem like this do that?
Is not unpolitical.
The two poems which follow illustrate both Middleton's Englishness, sense of humour, and are also, perhaps, not unpolitical.
In the gardens of Windsor castle
walks a philosophic owl;
wingtips clasped over his coccyx,
stooped, he stalks, pondering much.
Meanwhile the moon puts pale fire
in the turrets of Windsor castle:
shut windows halt its gleam,
the queen is pulling her boots on.
The moon is evident also
on the buttocks of stallions grazing,
in the lake without any holes,
in the blood that drips from the owl.
For certainly blood drips down
the philosophic owl:
he leaves a pool on the turf,
wherever he stops to think.
Now the queen comes riding, sag-jawed,
down the long moonlit avenue;
her dead prince gallops beside her
on a very noble ostrich.
Richard Lion Heart
His country, what a place to have lived in:
Farm girls bringing milk for free, taste of berries,
Sunshine all summer long, the salmon leaping,
Snow crisp in winter, smoke from cottage fires.
I'll ride beside my king on horseback,
Rock hard river valleys hear him sing:
His new song in langue d'Oc for the redbreasts
Goes to the tune of silver horsetails flicking.
In time a wise anarchy will be possible.
Bursts of laughter have washed away oppression,
If anyone wants to govern, gracious people do.
He'll cure my wart and I will clean his crown.
No whining nasal voices, no la-di-da,
No craving for empire, no rotting industries;
Village ponds and words and coastlines are unscummed,
No scummy timid souls could haunt that England.
In Byzantium we'll booze it up, feast with friends
In the south of France. Ah, didn't they clap him
Into a dungeon? I'll spring him. Past far timberlines
We'll clatter on our mules and ask the way to Japan
The philosophic owl stalking the grounds of Windsor Castle is, to my mind, a rueful image of the poet. The blood that drips off him, leaving a pool on the turf, is what happens when any deep-in-thought poet confronts the fact of sag-jawed monarchy clinging to its dream of poor dead Albert 'on a very noble ostrich'. And an ostrich is exactly the steed for a dead lineage that won't lie down. The creature's reputation for head-burying at moments of alarm is a folk tale of course, but we all remember it. I wonder if that 'pale fire' the moon puts in the castle turrets gave Vladimir Nabokov the title for his brilliant, crazy novel? The comic vision of the poem is like one of those Tenniel drawings for the original Alice in Wonderland before hideous Disney got to it.
The second poem gives us a picture of what monarchy might have been, or rather it gives us a picture of the England any poet might want to live in, a place where 'wise anarchy' is possible, where the relations between crown and populace are moderate, intimate, and untainted by oppressive pecking orders: 'He'll cure my wart and I will clean his crown.' It's absurd, of course, it's funny, it's even, as they say, wacky, but there is a longing in that fourth stanza that goes unrequited: 'No scummy timid souls could haunt that England' - a longing, one has to say, that is also shot through with anger.
What I can't, unfortunately, say about any of these poems is that they are 'typical' of Middleton. The term 'avant-garde' won't do to describe him, neither will a word like 'experimental', which suggests something that doesn't quite work ('still at the experimental stage'); nor are words like 'post-Surrealist' of much help. As a matter of fact 'post-Surrealist' is an oxymoron. You can't be post surrealist, you either are, or are not, surrealist (in the original sense of that Apollinaire-coined word). Actually I think surrealist will do very well to characterise this poet, even though he might reject the description. Someone who can write jaunty ballads:
Before she bought the knife to kill Marat,
Charlotte Corday had bought a fancy hat
or begin a shredded novel with such a wonderful Kafka-like opening as:
The night I arrived in Puerto Vallarta to give singing lessons to Senor Ramon Pradera, formerly chief of police but now a dentist, was a very dark night indeed
or write a poem like the following is to my mind a surrealist:
My white cow tonight is quite silent
My white cow milking a heart from darkness
What tricks and silks will she tumble into
My white cow with opening parachute lips
My white cow with a shirt of woodsmoke
My white cow with a beehive of desires
Sometimes an abandon seizes her by the horns
Sometimes she is placid and sings in church
My white cow dancing in her field of fire
My white cow walking with dangerous steps
Everywhere she supposes there are cathedrals
Everywhere bells inscribe on air their spiral signs
My white cow with marked ideas of her own
My white cow whose tuft is a tangle of tempers
The baskets of air hang from her solid bones
The jugs of earth lift with her little breasts
My white cow who makes sorrow burn a day away
My white cow who makes sorrow bite like a shark
My white cow who shivers and penetrates men
My white cow who rides men bareback
Often conscious of too many things at one time
Often come times when she knows nothing at all
She has no clock for her timing is internal
No voice buts hers alone tells her when and how
She will eat dry bread if there's none better
My white cow who tastes always of oranges
My white cow who goes one better than the snow
Her quim is heaven for whom she pleases
In the nights we stretch with furious argument
My white cow takes every word to its limit
Shortening days we walk together hand in hand
More than once she tore my arm from its socket
I will do my dance one-armed for my white cow
I love her life her ways her difficult nature
We live beneath roofs that stand centuries apart
My white cow in small towns and purple cities
My white cow in a village dances to the guitar
My white cow sipping wine from a cup of clay
When the baskets are hanging bright in the water
They fill with her fish and creak in earthquake
When in my white cow's hair old stories are told
We stop them to start the world afresh redeemed
She is absent in the canyon of her red lust
She is present in the ordinary dishes we eat off
My white cow is a black one to tell the truth
Or else Chinese or else some kind of Arabian
To call her a cow at all is a profound mistake
She is a leopard with four cubs in a forest
My white cow in that hotel stripping off her clothes
My white cow who is not mine at all
My white vanishing cow with her dolphin legs
My white cow who wades toute nue in the Toulourenc
Her skin mirrors itself and that is it for us
I fall into her skin to oblige Lord Shock
I tongue my white cow in her purity and playfulness
She will never come round to believing I mean it
My white cow imagines me far off running away
Little does she know I run to catch her leaping form
White cow who dances wild in the middle of the world
White cow with your sweet dust with the wind blowing over it
I love this poem. I wish I'd written it myself. It has all the casual insouciance, wildness, gaiety and metaphorical intoxication of, say, the best poems of Benjamin Péret. In fact, although, Middleton is a Germanist and has spent his life teaching German language and literature, I notice that he seems to slip more easily into French than German. Perhaps it is the lightness of the French language that appeals to him (as it does to me). German is a steamroller. I've no idea what the title refers to. In my mind the poem is simply 'White Cow', but I assume it is a name of some sort. I won't insult the poem by trying to prise out some possible readings. I know this is the kind of poem Philip Larkin would have hated, but it isn't in any way obscure or devious, its meanings lie open for the reader to try, like the white cow herself. The poem is playful and sad at the same time. It runs a gamut of emotions and possibilities, and each couplet is almost a mini-poem on its own. It aspires to that desire of boundless freedom that lay at the heart of the surrealist project, and it is also intensely human and humane, and in its loving detail exactly right:
When in my white cow's hair old stories are told
We stop them to start the world afresh redeemed
These four poems by Christopher Middleton can be found in his Collected Poems (Carcanet Press), which is available to readers of The Bow-Wow Shop at a specially discounted price if you buy it from Carcanet's online shop. Just use the code BOW-WOW (case-sensitive) at the checkout to claim your discount of 20%. You can also pre-order his Collected Later Poems (published in January 2013) on the same terms.