What Veils in Andrew Crozier’s “The Veil Poem”
Andrew Crozier’s “The Veil Poem” (n 1) has ten enumerated sections running from 0 to 9. The first words of the first part are italicised in an open parenthesis labelling it “(left unfinished” – it is the only section which does not end with a full stop and which does not take up to the same extent as the others the option of normative punctuation and sentence structure. The relative lack of resolution which this beginning exhibits cannot, however, conceal the fact that it shares similar features with the sections that follow it. It opens:
The garden clenched like a root, bare branches
evergreens, dry leaves, winter grass
quiet and still apart from the activity of birdlife
blackbird on the crazy paving, thrushes under the
hedge, two pigeons taken up in space
sparrows on every bush and twig
The passage is, I think, immediately reminiscent, in its limited content and improvising rhythms, of Imagist poetry and more reminiscent still of the way its technical procedures would be extended by the work of the American poet, George Oppen (n 2).
Oppen’s brand of Objectivist poetry sought a route out of the Imagist notation which had modernised poetic language in English and very quickly calcified thereafter. Imagism had been held to the generation of brief, lyrical depictions of discrete things in the world, and particularly the way that those things look, which were minimally complicated by the encounter with the implied speakers of Imagist poems. In Crozier’s opening, the simile slides into a synecdoche which might just do enough to count as an allusion to the first two lines of Eliot’s The Waste Land; the phrase “still apart” more or less discriminates between a sector of non-activity and busy birdlife in a way that calls for a pause for thought; two pigeons may unwittingly provoke the memory of a famous Brancusi sculpture while they are entirely engrossed in their own pursuits.
The second part of Crozier’s opening poem runs as follows:
The light these days lasts
for a few hours, though here is no
yellow candle-light, and the storm I hear wind and rain
raging is an effect of bathwater
emptying into the drain outside or an electric motor
turning in the railway cutting down the road
the train that will take you into the city
through morning twilight and damp mists
This shifts the poem in a more reflective direction, more intently inflected by the thoughts and judgments of an experiencing consciousness and the apposite literary allusions it can muster. It starts by recording the fact that recording what is seen depends on illumination, but that, as the register alters, we might find that the chronicling of what is perceived might not amount to an illuminating exercise in its own right. “[H]ere is no / yellow candle-light” both holds apart and sutures a fragment of The Waste Land (part of l.331, from the final section, “What The Thunder Said”) with a phrase from a well-known poem by Stevenson and seems to toy momentarily with conjuring the ghost of Lear on his heath before swiftly and ruthlessly undermining the possibility of access to sublimity. That there is stuff and that stuff is, amounts here ultimately to the observation of prosaic mundanities: plumbing, transportation and the world of work. Concentration on the act of looking, however, as is likely when the light begins to fade, promotes the persona of the implied speaker, who will, as the rest of the poem proceeds, step forward in his suburban garden to seek a commitment outside the range of depiction, where all of his cognitive powers might interpose themselves and arbitrate to the utmost of their abilities. The opening section as a kind of unfinished whole, prepares the way for what is to come, via description and via the description of perception, which is an attempt at the understanding of a condition met only on the far side of each ordinary occasion.
Described in this way it is possible, perhaps, to consider the Imagist aesthetic as pre-phenomenological, an “ontic” exercise, in Heidegger’s sense of the word, and to characterise Oppen’s extension of Imagism into Objectivism and beyond as a phenomenological deceleration, abstraction and complication of Imagism with the aim of permitting the disclosure of the Being of those things that Imagism can only list or depict. Another way of putting it might be that Oppen’s poetry, and especially the work he wrote in the 1960s after breaking a twenty five year silence as a poet, initiates a linguistic approach to the quality of substance, in search of a poetic rapprochement between matter and meaning that might disclose the nature of being in the experience of an unveiled encounter. Is Crozier up to something else in “The Veil Poem”? In order to try to answer that question, I want first to take a detour through what is Andrew Crozier’s most celebrated work of criticism, the extended essay “Thrills and frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism” (n 3), a study of the process of canon-formation through anthologies and their polemical introductions as it worked to define contemporary taste for British verse around poets associated with the Movement and especially the names of Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.
The essay is itself a subtle polemic aimed at what it considers to be the assertive and successful (in terms of market penetration) but profoundly questionable assumptions made by central figures in the relevant debates. Crozier’s underlying intention is to alert readers to the persistence of viable poetic alternatives and the terms of his criticism of the Movement poets and their champions may allow us to discern a poetics to which he subscribes, which is the negative complement of features criticised in his essay. This poetics could also be bolstered by certain aesthetic elements which link the poets of the “New Apocalypse,” displaced from public view by WW2 and then the post-war rise of the Movement but whose associate members benefited from editorial work and scholarly commentary from Crozier’s pen. He lists the following facts about the poets whom he disdains: that they tend to “apprehend or, at least, allude to the discrete” (n 4) in the sense that an unfamiliar “thing” often incites the poem into existence, an existence that hangs around long enough to conclude that the incitement led only to disappointment; that this being roused into making a disenchanted representation of the drab world is implied to be something that in future we should do our best to avoid, so the terminal point of each poem amounts to rattling around unhappily inside conventionally-approved shapes, borrowing something of the authority associated with traditional forms; that these poets go out of their way to avoid “ideas” by promulgating “the empirical derivation of poetry from exclusively personal experience” (which makes for a “socially conservative poetry, uncommitted and without dedication”) (n 5); and that the over-reliance on metaphor, and the inevitable praise awarded to the maker of the most inventive metaphors, leads to a situation where the reader is asked to “trust the poet, not the poem” (n 6). Whether these charges are sustainable or not, Crozier’s poetics, therefore, and, I would argue, “The Veil Poem” itself, can be described as work which eschews the mere and grudging apprehension of things in the world for a vision which aims at a synthesis of active relations, of perceptions and of theories of perception, by adept experimentation with formal properties inherited largely from Objectivism and other kindred poetries. This synthesis, when successful, seeks to provide readers with the opportunity to engage with ideas and by that provision to reward the trust of those willing to forego the reassuring experience of dealing with the persona of the poet through the largely dispensable screen of his or her words on the page (n 7).
The second section of “The Veil Poem,” numbered one in the sequence, marks a new beginning for the poem, deploying strategies which determine the character of the rest of the work:
In the dark there is a fretwork
that reveals a lightness beside it, gradually
a tree stands out from the hedge and
the rest of the garden, the sky lightens
and bleeds off at the edges, quite sharp
but not definite, the blueness has the frequency
of space and there is nothing else but whatever
has brought this tree here, quite taut
but flowing smoothly through its changes
I know it again and again and see how
set in one place as it is and small and
fragile I cannot dominate it, in the dark
or with my eyelids closed it will score
my face. Along a bright corridor the way
turns or is transected and is lost
in shadow, framed by a black latticed screen
its light foreshortened, lacking
depth. There is no radiant source within
these walls, they hold the sunlight to
define their intricate arcing.
The most important alteration in approach here, of which the reader must take note, is the absence of any clear demarcation between discourse-worlds (n 8). A reading of the entire poem can confirm that it is not possible finally to establish a settled location for the implied speaker. He is standing in his own back garden as the light fades; he is indoors studying the drawing of a garden, or perhaps a photograph of one, possibly the garden in the courtyard of a mosque or palace and/or he is imagining his progress through such a space. This irresolution means “he” is not absolutely there, and there is no definitive place for a body to stand inside or to sit or stroll in, but the integrity of the poem, across its themes, its amplitude and its sensitivities, guarantees that it is never in danger of dispersing its energies too widely or vaguely across the inter-connected potentialities. The various “spaces” delineated and permitted to overlap in this way constitute a non-empirical site for the manoeuvres of an intelligence poised in the poetic interim between salaried work and sleep.
The “fretwork / that reveals a lightness” is a pattern of intersecting lines emerging from the darkness as the eyes strain to perceive where perception is made difficult; it is also the cross-hatched lines of a drawing, and the decorative carving of the “black latticed screen” mentioned later. The lightness that is revealed is the light that slowly picks out the tree and provides a sense of its physical presence, its solidity and veracity, a sense which provides access to another “lightness,” the condition of experiencing the sensation of relief from a burden and an access of ease and grace. Knowledge beyond the fruits of epistemological enquiry pivots on participation in moments like this one, which disclose themselves as being uniquely revealing and can lead to a description of human experience beyond personal reference. When the speaker declares that “I cannot dominate it,” therefore, it is not said with regret or resignation but with something like deliverance from the necessity of mastery and appropriation. The same kind of serenity governs the closing sentence of this section, which gives the initial impression that the speaker has moved indoors. Subsequent sections suggest that this is the first passage describing a quiet progress through drawings or photographs of Islamic architecture and interior design, whose combinations of lustres and shadows, and magnificent abstractions tending towards the infinite by intricate formal repetitions, become a beautiful equivalent of the process of mind (n 9).
The subject who holds all of this together for us is, as I have said, composed inside sets of coinciding discourses given a carefully modulated timbral consistency, and is tied together at points by the knot of personal reference without the poem falling into the traps Crozier identifies in his own criticism. What, though, constitutes the veil in “The Veil Poem”? What is the veil. The third section begins with the sentence: “What hides in darkness and what truths / it veils.” Elision of the question mark that would normally follow ‘what’ when used as an interrogative pronoun means that its interrogative function is suspended (without being extinguished) and attention is focussed on the word itself. The function of enquiry is said to be concealed and to be concealing and with the suspension of the requirement to establish where exactly the speaker has his location the mind finds itself “strangely free” amid its different options. The advantage and opportunity of poetic language, as opposed to epistemological investigation, is that it can formulate ideas by the linguistic imbrication of moods, times, places, thoughts that philosophical discourse would want to separate and arrange in a hierarchy and a chronology. In “The Veil Poem,” thought is not cordoned off from perception and both are allowed to happen in the same discursive interval or ‘place’: the set of apparently physical facts (the doors, arch, wall) which might have constituted a “situation” in this third section of the poem is not framing and grounding the other moments that also make up the poem. What allows the subject to “walk with certainty” is the poetic act of mind which “has placed me / within these doors.”
The poem’s relationship to empirical philosophy requires some unpacking. There are instances of what could be termed “deep empiricism,” where the operation of concentrated observation is taken to an unusual pitch until it estranges “the world of empirical reference,” (n 10) such as this moment in the seventh section:
The colours are black
and gold and red, evening and dawn
and when I close my eyes against them
I see their pale capillary tracings.
I am there, shaky, overwhelmed by
the sense of it, piece mating to
piece : blood, shit, and pus.
An intense act of looking takes place when the eyes are closed so that the eyes (or eyelids) themselves are observed, and/or the visual image of what was previously perceived is still projected onto the darkness. The “capillary tracings” are branched organic systems, tree and bloodvessel primarily, but interlocking across the poem with the dynamics of Islamic tessellation. Each of these networks are constituted in fractal rhythms distributing information through their own extent and it is the immediate apprehension of the cohering meaning of their existences, or the sheer, unmediated perception of the same, which shakes the existence of the perceiver. “It” all comes together in the human body as nature, not culture, in what would normally be registered as abject matter, or death. Apprehension of the fact of the subject’s present existence amounts to apprehension of the fact of death, its envisageable future. This is it.
The idea that knowledge originates in perception brings Crozier close to John Locke, and Locke’s famous empiricist dictum: nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu (n 11). This suggests the possibility that the veil in “The Veil Poem” is related to Locke’s so-called veil of perception problem, the notion that if we are to know for certain that what we perceive to be true is true “we should need independent access to empirical facts about the objective realm,” (n 12) something it is not in our power to possess. We appear to be inclined towards activities which only conceal further what we wish would be revealed and David Marriott sees “The Veil Poem” as an analysis of Dasein which is confined to melancholic failure because we are immersed in a life of degraded repetition, exemplified and symbolised by the mimicry of the sun by electric light fittings at the end of the fourth section of the poem (n 13). Much of what Marriott has to say about “The Veil Poem” is persuasive at a local level but I do not finally agree with his over-arching point, that the work portrays impotence and affliction before what he calls “the dismal re-experience of the event,” (n 14) and not just because this would situate the poem too close to the diagnosis Crozier makes of the Movement poets’ exercises in frustration and displeasure. The lamp may hang from the centre of a dome on a long chain which bisects a succession of arches in the preserved abandonment of the Alhambra palace or an Andalusian mosque. Each form might be cadastral in its lustre and structure without meaning to rival the sun, and their “exactly repeated tracery of magic,” the infinite, calligraphic elaboration of the surface in the Islamic decorative arts sounds like a wonderful artistic achievement, to be marvelled at. If Heidegger claims that unveiling is the work of the word as poetry then with this attachment to the profundity of the superficial Crozier, consciously or not, signals a different set of priorities. Expectation of the coming to presence of all truth is thankfully in abeyance as the poet decides to settle for a position where the surety of the truth of his own knowledge is found in that knowledge itself, that is, it foregoes the requirement to find a separate and unaligned guarantee for what he has observed of the observable earth:
the ordinary world, naturally incomplete and
in no wise to be verbally separated
from your picture of it.
What wisdom there is
in the way you set it down…
In the half-light which both harbours and reveals, we begin at last to feel that strange and mild consolation which is attendant on the realisation that the veil itself is enough, being all that we have. Crozier seems intuitively to grasp that the problem with the phenomenology and the poetry of perception, including Imagism and Objectivism, is that they are predicated on the existence of a natural compatibility between the experimental subject and the examined or represented object. As the quotation immediately above suggests, he does not seem to consider that the separation identified is more fundamental and irreducible, that it is not between reality and a particular poetics but between reality and language itself.
A palace wall or arcade of arches in an emptied mosque, adorned across every fraction of an inch with intricate repetitions of a cursive script, encourages meditation on the processes of looking and of thinking and of writing, and offers a viable representation of those processes at the same time. The veil of words inscribed over the form of a building realises the dream of “The Veil Poem” as it unites linguistic and physical realities in a consummate feat of artistic production, though the Islamic master craftsmen fashion their work in relation to a spiritual truth beyond the physical world, arranging the veil as the intermediary presence intervening on behalf of something else which is not amenable to representation (n 15). Crozier’s reasonable coming-to-terms with the veil, on the other hand, after assessing various attempts to go beyond what is immediately before him, in sight or in imagination or in the virtual experience of reading, amounts in the end to its tearing away, when it dispenses with that beyond which the veil’s only function is to signify.
(1) Published in Andrew Crozier. All Where Each Is. Agneau 2: Allardyce, Barnett. London and Berkeley. 1985. 111-122.
(2) See for example portions of the book This In Which (1965) in George Oppen, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2003), 91-160. Oppen’s book has an epigraph credited to Martin Heidegger which runs “…the arduous path of appearance.” The argument of this essay tries to dispute the notion that “appearance” is merely “arduous,” that it demands nothing more taxing than an unprecedented effort to be accomplished.
(3) Andrew Crozier. “Thrills and frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism,” in Society and Literature 1945-1970, ed. Alan Sinfield (London: Methuen, 1983), 199-234.
(4) Crozier, “Thrills and frills,” 204.
(5) Ibid., 208.
(6) Ibid., 220.
(7) Crozier’s argument is restated more crisply in a later essay: “The relation between empirical subject and rhetorical figuration is the canon’s defining nexus, in which what is figured is given as deriving from the posited experience of a self which, in turn, appears as the author of the poem’s figurative scheme, in a discursively foreclosed writing. Imagery does all the hard work of the poem, subject to ratification and guarantee (as fit for consumption) by an originating self. This is true equally of Larkin, Hughes and Heaney, so that whatever their genuine differences – which are, as much as anything, a matter of temperament, inflections of an individual poetic ‘voice’ – they represent and define a canon of contemporary poetry with determinate horizons of social and cultural engagement and, I might add (for I think these the more important), no horizon at all for engagement with either the history of poetry as an art, or the questions of metaphysics and ontology that concern us as human beings which great poetry has addressed.” (Andrew Crozier. “Resting on laurels,” in British Culture of the Postwar: An introduction to literature and society 1945-1999, ed byAlistair Davies and Alan Sinfield (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 193 (192-204).
(8) Crozier’s preference for this kind of ambiguity is shown in the following quotation from his “Thrills and frills” essay: “[Ted] Hughes’s ‘A Dream of Horses’ observes a clear-cut distinction between real world and dream world; we may move between one and the other, as we wake or sleep, but we know which is which. (Such knowledge, of course, is not operative in both worlds and implies a confident demarcation of reality.)” (227).
(9) This identification is supported by a remark in an essay by Douglas Oliver: “his hermetic theme arose out of a correspondence with Jeffrey Morsman, dedicatee of the Veil Poem, and the lamps were suggested by a photograph of Moorish architecture that Morsman had sent.” (Douglas Oliver. “Andrew Crozier’s Perceptions,” Fragmente 18 (Summer 1998): 109 (107-117).
(10) See Andrew Crozier. Signs of Identity: Roy Fisher’s A Furnace,” PN Review 18:3 (January/February 1992): 27 (25-32).
(11) It also brings him close to Wordsworth, whose Prelude (Book One) he quotes in the eighth section of “The Veil Poem.” The cited exclamation admits as much and affirms the idea that the understanding develops through the experience of affection and pain and fear.
(12) Jonathan Bennett, Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 70.
(13) “For “[t]here is no radiant source within / these walls” and what “echoes prodigally down the corridor” is the failure of all metaphysics to unveil Being.” See David Marriott. “Veil, No.2.” Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007, ed by Robin Purves and Sam Ladkin (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2007), 145-152. 152.
(14) Marriott, “Veil, No.2,” 146.
(15) See Ernst J. Grube, The World of Islam (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1966):
The ornamentation of surfaces of any kind in any medium with the infinite pattern serves the same purpose – to disguise and ‘dissolve’ the matter, whether it be monumental architecture or a small metal box. The result is a world which is not a reflection of the actual object, but that of the superimposed element that serves to transcend the momentary and limited individual appearance of a work of art drawing it into the greater and solely valid realm of infinite and continuous being.
This idea is emphasised by the way in which architectural decoration is used. Solid walls are disguised behind plaster and tile decoration, vaults and arches are covered with floral and epigraphic ornaments that dissolve their structural strength and function, and domes are filled with radiating designs of infinite patterns, bursting suns, or fantastic floating canopies of a multitude of mukkarnas, that banish the solidity of stone and masonry and give them a peculiarly ephemeral quality as if the crystallization of the design is their only reality. (11)
Thanks go to John Temple, who answered some questions for me as I began to think about this essay, and to Zahida Ahmad, who discussed the spiritual symbolism of Islamic architecture with me and lent me the best book on the subject.
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