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Barry MacSweeney, Desire Lines: Unselected Poems 1966-2000, ed. Luke Roberts  (Bristol: Shearsman, 2018).

John James, Sarments: New & Selected Poems (Bristol: Shearsman, 2018).

Michael O’Neill, Return of the Gift (Todmorden: Arc, 2018).

A desire line is an Americanism meaning the path created by the public across grass in parks or public spaces, to create short-cuts, or, more subversively: desire lines are communal and anarchic sets of body-marking drawing the best line across the ground to invite you to go where all those secret invisible others all went, the lineaments of gratifiable desire as target and motive for the mark-making or path-following. The title is well chosen by Luke Roberts for the fine collection of unselected work by Barry MacSweeney, for it aptly suggests the communal and countercultural desires motivating MacSweeney’s line-composition in all its varied and fluid forms: for the desire lines fuse together recognition of the driven movements of the collective with performative identifications – if you follow the path you help make it. MacSweeney’s work at its best mobilises an armada of desires, illicit, expansive, political, erotic, to force into the lines the lineaments of drive and pulsion, passion and anger and hope, temporal fusions and confusions of energy. Luke Roberts as a scholar of this explosive vortex of a poet has done several kinds of wonder, archival, ethical, aesthetic, to bring to the attention of the public (with its multiform paths of desire) a discriminating selection of poems MacSweeney himself chose not to feature in his selected poems, Wolf Tongue, published three years after his untimely death in 2000. His life as a poet was off the beaten track insofar as he had to publish mostly with small presses and little magazines (though at the same time many of those small presses can now claim to have acted as desire lines across the cultural landscape) – the possibility of getting collected in the 1993 Paladin Tempers of Hazard collection might have been a break-through but it got pulped in disastrous circumstances, and made life very much worse for the poet.1 It may seem oddly unsettling to see his work being so well served after his death, as though this might distort the anarchy of the life: at the same time, such poems as presented here rise to such heights, with a sweet music to them that is so breath-dissolving, sung in such close harmony with the Morden Tower choir so important to him (Bunting, the Pickards) and with the French poets he so loved (Apollinaire, Rimbaud), that one thirsts for more.
        These unselected poems publish, most importantly, sequences that would otherwise languish in the dusty corners of the past, and bring to light his way with sequences, variously serial, surreal, unconscious-trusting, language-loving, such that the narrative pathways being traced stop and start and weave and jump-cut in soft and dizzy mazes of desire with the erotic work, and in clashing and titanic satirical detonations of anger with the political sequences. It is simply extraordinary that MacSweeney, for instance, chose to sideline the superb ranter and chanter political ode, the 1978 Black Torch, a sequence on the Durham Miners’ strike of 1844 – written before the miners’ strike of 1984, it seethes with the injustice of the Victorian destructive exploitation of the Durham miners, and also with the Chartist war-cries and political determination that MacSweeney saw as at the heart of England’s socialist fulcrum. It must have been the defeat of the 1984 Miners’ Strike that is behind MacSweeney’s decision not to select – a misapprehension redeemed here by Luke Roberts. They fuse together dialect writing that preserves the Durham speech of resistance (‘bailiffs clanking pots / busting furniture / nee violence / fagodsake hev yis not done enough’); mimicry of the capitalists (‘I have endured this strike / until my patience is exhausted’), harshly ironized when set beside the appalling conditions of the miners, driven from their homes, surviving on nettles in earth homes on the moors; and a lyricism of passion written with a political edge close to Muriel Rukeyser and Roy Fisher, deploying the open form of a  Carlos Williams or Apollinaire to give multimodal narrative powers to the poet as transhistorical witness.
        It is the love poems that most charm, in the strong sense of the root, ‘carmen’, song, incantation: they lift the spirits with their invitation to sing and feel the affects at play, through the thick and thin of relationship, and to sense the identifications, so entrancing, with the elusive loved one as body and mind, she traced in lines of memory and desire but never caught, only vividly dreamt as partner lost. The 1974 sequence Pelt Leather Log has only ever appeared in bits and scraps; should have been printed by Grosseteste Press in 1975 but they ran out of money – it disappeared from view and has been recuperated from oblivion by Luke Roberts from J.H. Prynne’s archive. It is, as a note to the sequence written by MacSweeney for Grosseteste argued, a ‘series of particularities’ that fuses ‘inner and outer geographies’ (note to poem, p. 327). The writing is sensuous, passionate, precise, and delightful, in its savouring of the other as a loved geography experienced (‘blue buds, trees / & forests / of your island mind’) as well as composing a colourful break-up poem fantastically focussed on the detail of a trip to Scotland taken in the last days of the relationship. The loved one’s body is as there on the page as are the sight of the eagles and the wet moss, all the specifics: there but lost to the past, evoked because so missed, conjured out of language, conscious of the reasons for the destroyed life together (‘sad drunk self / mewing cloyed brain’), yet tracing the affair’s dreamt sinuosities into possible future:

        pave the way
        with love
        let the path
        wander.

        steaming wine
        from cups
        we paint our blood
        with sky.

The confession of the sequence as a drunken poetry is telling and would have such consequences later in life: here the allusion to Bacchus and bacchanal is accompanied by a songlike faith in the voice as improvisatory, as a sung desire line driven by love and conditioned by the art of lovers transforming their environment through radically joyous interchange of culture and nature. It is hopelessly romantic and feverishly post-Romantic at once: but the song fuses us into the poem too against the grain of our cynical modernity: it invites us to take its wandering path through its combination of released drive (‘we paint our blood / with sky’) and anticipation of our loving cohabiting of the poems’ inner and outer geographies. The reader must accept the invocation as an injunction, will read with love, will pace the desire line, making as much as following MacSweeney’s passionate lead.
        John James has a new selected with Shearsman, Sarments, which has his characteristic flow and languor and wit, with a sweet eloquence that matches MacSweeney’s, with similar debts to French poetry: one of the poems is about how much he loves MacSweeney’s versions of Apollinaire. These are swan songs after his death in May this year and with a swan song miraculousness; but have such liveliness it hurts. The Jamesian local language play has the swing and gait of Apollinaire, too, but also a Dickensian precision of diction and naming which gives just sheer pleasure in and of itself. There’s a little lyric here, dedicated to Douglas Oliver, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, which seems slight and occasional until you just sit back and listen. It pictures a day along the shoreline of the Colne estuary, watching oyster-catchers dipping and bobbing, ‘a splashing blur of blue and white’, curlews ‘ghosting by a little’, and the lyricism, quiet and meditative and bright with accurate joy, becomes mobile, with colourful shifts and starts: the sight of the curlews above the fleet snatches a line out of the air of history and myth (‘fly our souls out of perversity’), whilst Brightlingsea gives itself up as painting, ‘sepia / gaff-rigged sails of the smacks’, with the ‘Dutch hinterspace beyond Mersea Island’ as the poem and its subjects ‘mooch along // towards a frith / dreaming of sprats & opals’. The found eloquence is light and breezy, the image-work clear and caught on the fly, the naming of what is seen happy with what language it takes from the scene as much as with the fall of things into vocal place among the lines. The romanticism here is comic and charming, the desires triggered as simple as the day is fine: the beginning of the poem plays with the supernatural with the ‘soft grey light’ sneaking James’ heart away, and conjuring the spirit of the place. But the scene is the poem is the scene, and the language comes from James’ own gifts as much as from the companionship of the friend and the honours of the occasion as seen and told. There’s a great deal more to this collection, but I pick this as one way into the heart of the matter: James’ poetry gives as much as it loves the world, making this collection a joy to hold and to have.
        Love poetry, under pressure such as MacSweeney suffered and also chose to place upon his practice, can warp and distort into dreamwork about the inward object of desire, in a ‘surreal reversion,’ MacSweeney acknowledges. Elegies too can suffer similar warping under the pressure exerted on the language by the death drive, especially if the fear of one’s own death shapes the ways one mourns the loss of one’s loved others. Such distortion is the topic of Michael O’Neill’s extraordinary collection, Return of the Gift, which responds (if response is an adequate term for the delicacy, intensity and turmoil here) to the loss of his parents whilst he himself undergoes disabling cancer treatment. What staggers is the fidelity to poetry even here, even at this pitch of annihilative distraction: for Michael O’Neill clings to poetry’s quiet powers as if to a form of life, drawing on the rich resource, as MacSweeney does, of Romanticism and its credences in art’s life and life’s art (flowing together across time and in space), as much as to the Irish poetry he has been such a superb critic of, the serious play and command over particularities of Yeats and Mahon. The collection ends with a sequence on his cancer treatment, ‘From the Cancer Diary’, and characteristically includes a poem about a sudden experiencing of Keats’ searing line ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’. The line ‘jumps out alive in front of me’ and goes through him like ‘a spear of white fire’: and these lines become electric with feeling because of the hardly spoken fact the line hits him as he is travelling into Kings Cross by train – the line catches fire as a train-track struck by sudden sunlight, and makes the scene as suddenly alive with the fire of the circumstance, his being moved so remorselessly towards non-being. The poem moves on to speak of the gap between the living people ‘laughing and swallowing in Jack Horner’s pub’ and his own existence, reduced by the cancer to ‘a malignant strictured foodpipe’ – but again the train reference complicates this already harsh view. The whole weekend, ‘mind the gap’ is in his mind, he writes: the London tube recorded imperative turned into a dark message from the collective unconscious about the line from life to death, and the gap between the death-train and the living world. The mind is also a gap here and under these circumstances: ‘mind the gap is in my mind’ not ‘on’; a black hole that is the malignant stricture abiding there. Yet the poem holds on to its own capacity to voice, despite the reduction of the poet to cancerous gap: it is the very poem we read which resists the occasion in the very same words that define that fearful occasion’s malignity. Keats’ line describes his fears of annihilation from his disease before he has had the time to glean his teeming brain; and it is that very line which provides a weird form of stability for O’Neill:

        When I have fears … cease to be

        Put it on hold I tell myself put it all on hold

These lines come to him as he walks through Bloomsbury, breathing its ‘unsolacing bracing’ air while the day ‘turns inside out’. Elegy is awakened and turned inside out by the summoning of solace in ‘unsolacing’, and the impossibility of writing a consolatory self-elegy informs this air, this bracing poem. What braces, in a different sense, is the accompaniment of Keats as a fellow mind, body, poet, and his comparable anguish, though edited in final form without ‘that I may’ as though dictated by the death drive: the felt connection across time and space occurs, nonetheless, as if O’Neill were experiencing a shaft of Keats’ pain. The language of the line from the Romantic sonnet is taken on and in and becomes a way of holding on, of putting the death so feared on hold, through an almost supernatural interchange of feeling activated by impossibly actual identification – the poem, in a moving sense that puts on hold the death train and its movement, puts everything on hold in a waiting game beyond the normal satisfaction of the death drive. This is as if Michael O’Neill were holding on to the performative powers of sustaining and bracing that can make Romantic poetry such a companionable form, and which this poem launches into spacetime as a voice holding on for all future others in such plight, for all others who seek for the resources of desire (beyond solace) and identification (as if one had ‘a right to be a person’) that only poetry can provide.

        And the cancer sequence does come to us at the end of the collection, so its ending only occurs after we have experienced the many poems’ quizzing of endings, of terminal and afterlife fears, of poetry’s extension of endings into open breaks in a non-finite white space between now and then. In particular it undoes the terminal expectations you might harbour about the estranging fact of facing an ending co-terminous with your parents. The poems about the mother’s decline are ghosted as silent dreamlike dialogues with the dead, so intimate as to feel sorrow at sensing:

                              those souls swoop off,
        borne on tides of light and dark above
        the bed I’d been dreaming in and rose from,
        ready to begin again, to leave
        my dead behind, to know they’ll call me home.

This is both fully sentimental and technically accomplished, finding extra feeling in the spacious felicities of sound and syntax: note the dreamy rhyming on ‘dead’ at the beginning of the last three lines, creating a rhymey effect that brings ‘rose from’ home to ‘home’, manifesting the tides of light and dark as sound-effects; and the line-break play at ‘leave / my dead behind’, which enacts in little the imagining of the terminal as death only to turn it around as both a resurrective gesture dreaming and rising from the lines and as a farewell to the ghosts: as though part of the call home is a sustaining, rather, of the putting it all on hold. This is poetry that has Dickinson and Berryman behind it alongside a melodious expansiveness that must come from Shelley himself: a collection that asks to be read and re-savoured and begun again.

[1] With thanks to Peter Riley for this information.


[Adam Piette is the co-editor of Blackbox Manifold, is author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War and The Literary Cold War, and is just about to end a stint as Head of English at the University of Sheffield.]

Copyright © 2018 by Adam Piette, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.



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