Thursday, 11 February 2010

Poetry: Review - 'The Hoplite Journals' by Martin Anderson

At the risk of alienating the more casual visitor, I'm continuing with my occasional republication of reviews, essays and features written for literary magazines. In this case - with Tremblestone in abeyance - 'Hotel of Shadows' hasn't and may never be printed on the page, but it seems a shame for it never to be read when reviews are at a premium for any writer...

Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter, EX4 4LD

Martin Anderson realises a form in which action and dialogue are of the inner world, that is the outer world turned outside-in; compiles a phrase book to translate sensation into perception, and then reflects upon it; the mind a hall of mirrors in which the ego exists, though as we chase it, the less like fire and more like smoke it seems. That panoply of diverse vistas, voices. Where are you, unable to sit still, taking off to now?

These meditations occur at the boundary between occidental and oriental modes of self-enquiry, thought experiments that occur in the cities of Asia where east meets west, shape shifting and casting shadow plays in the magic lantern of the self. They owe something to the art of loci, a memory technique that Matteo Ricci took to China as the memory palace, a visual repository of ideas and images situated in architectural space. Draw this line around your life, here, where it does not exist; locate yourself at this particular point in space and time, and then eradicate it.

Malraux and Picasso further developed the concept as their musée imaginaire, a gallery without walls where they hung not so much objects of art as ideas of art, unconstrained by physical possession. Anderson’s own method is less static, a journey through landscape of place and mind in the tradition of Basho’s poetic diaries, in and of the world and yet beyond it. They are not explicitly Buddhist but a seeker in that tradition would recognise their quality of insight. They are not linear either, but do move.

Those are the frames, what of the pictures? The Hoplite Journals are the records of campaigns into where language can take us, intense inner battles against complacency with words, the author challenging himself to experience as if for the first time, and capture what cannot be captured as precisely as motes allow. A long poem, then, divided into cantos, each section of which is a chain of thought to be escaped from, the reader as Houdini.

Absorbing such work demands an approach that puts mind on the line. The common sense is of being elsewhere, never quite at home, and on edge like this horizon, upon which we listen for our own lives, ungarlanded and uncelebrated, as they arrive and leave without us. We are invited to make connections we don’t ordinarily make, like seeing familiar landscapes from above, or living a day of our life in another body.

Why do we become alien, choose exile? There is self-pleasure in the isolation of being abroad, but to achieve it is never easy. We are always reaching for the just out of reach, the tension Anderson inhabits but is restless in, wanting the moon, not just the finger. Keep on keeping on. For all children are brought up in a land that is foreign, and are, therefore, natural and curious travellers. Perspectives and tenses switch, the cubist language of Blood on the Tracks. And even when the train stopped, no one got on or got off.

One travels alone or does not travel at all…Over the empty tract of this page voices are calling. Liquid prose, not so much finding its place as defining it, a meniscus on the contours of what is. Alone, each of us, amidst the floating debris of all lived moments known and unknown to us. Here is the country that does not exist. There is the woman who died at the passing of her own illusions. Words wrought by tough love, in paragraphs the size and shape of instants. Inflate the balloon, then burst it. Now try and blow it up again. We yearn to capture the fleeting drift of ephemera that define us, situating our being.

The danger is that language detached from its ordinary purpose stiffens, becomes sallow, a book on the slab. But this is not the work of a coroner. It engages with life, does not detach us from it. The objective is to break the boredom of sameness that contains us, escape the grey of a northern continent, not seeing through the fog of unlived days. We remember only that which can be forgotten. Pursuing the many, finding the few, sifting the fewer for the one until we have become what we contemplate.

Again, the risk of existing in life as a cultured consumer, lost in our base sophistication, not shaping but only receiving. Such are the temptations of the megalopolis and the contrary urge to escape it, until we entered a landscape where the city was forgotten. Spiritual tourism is not the answer. Anderson’s rituals are private, not off-the-shelf observations; he peers beneath surfaces, knowing identity is a reflection on the water we can reach into and thus disrupt, reform. Place, time and object, yearn for that ideal solitude that will reunite them. This is the ungiven - that which cannot be taken away.

If a poet is true to himself, the idea of the poem is invariably greater than the poem itself. Anderson plays on this tragedy. Memory becomes tincture, a homeopathic presence, intangible but pervasive. There is existential comedy aplenty here. Messages dictated, sent by telegram, translated by the shaman of an obscure tribe who traces these mysterious markings with his fingers, symbols etched on a sacred log, and intones them as Artaud. A time before instant communication, in which we achieve so little by saying so much.

Anderson takes the responsibility of creation seriously, decrying the replication of the familiar, those who seek patronage and prizes for mimicking the scriveners who have gone before them, with ever diminishing returns; ants dragging looted booty towards the queen of recognition, apple seeds from ruined orchards. The endless clack of typewriters – infinity’s monkeys. We’ve read enough. We’ve read too much, already.

Instead, he invites us to draw up the bamboo ladder – climb above, look down, look up, transcend. Exercise the method of doubt. Discard the known to know. Disrupt the routine by the extraordinary and you have poetry. Is that what we came here for? Impermanence is a given. Beginnings end. The leaves fall. Our lives return to what they were before we claimed them. I commend this book; its pages are fragile and will fall apart, though you will go first, into the unknown and unknowable, its greatest concern.

Damian Furniss.

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