Chuang-Tzu and Prospero

Caleb Klaces on the improbable range of Christopher Middleton’s work

Christopher Middleton
Collected Later Poems
Carcanet, £25.00

 

Christopher Middleton’s Collected Later Poems begins with something missing. The first poem, ‘For Preface a Lacuna’, has lost Saint Francis. Francis left his shoes ‘At the edge of a forest when / On a whim he took to the trees’. He also left his hair somewhere. The poem, elliptically, with a series of doubting injunctions, and by way of Lucius, Hafis and Allah, defends shoes and hair:

Tell me flat that hair and shoe hold good;

Feet convenient, nothing to be damned about,

Hair no icon to induce a rapture with.

But the thorns in Saint Francis’s bare feet tempt a question, the ‘s’s of which make it almost camply venomous: ‘How steep must be the slope a body slithers down?’ The poem finally hits a painted brick wall: ‘Wait one moment, birds. Look, look into this. / Then tweeting, agile, out of the fresco flit.’

The lines make me think, as if it were self-evident, that ‘t’s, ‘l’s and ‘i’s are the trees of written English – trees and words which here command the birds to move out of a flat plane and become birds. The poems in this volume never encourage the reader to believe that this is possible, quite. And yet, in one of them a ‘motleybird’ brings ‘the news to Chuang-Tzu / to Li Po and Kubla Khan / Auguste Renoir and Prospero’ (‘Homage to Renoir’). Another bird sings compositions by Alkan. The holly is painted by the Flemish renaissance painters. The steamboat is Manet’s steamboat. A ‘homing flock of crows’ is from Bruno Shulz’s ‘horizontal script’ (‘A Testimony for the Deaf’). Rafael Nadal is the charismatic composite of Elvis, a baboon and a gladiator (‘Against Frenzy’).

There are a thousand ways in which Christopher Middleton is other artists as well as himself. His working knowledge is improbably wide and his verse is astoing knowledge is improbably wide and his verse is astonishingly varied. There are elements that recur: trade, sand, music, ‘heroes, animals, utensils’ (‘Samuel Palmer’s Ghost Goes Scavenging’), phantoms, exile, caravans and caravanserai, urine, snow, strangers, lovely old objects, multitudes, God. There are aspects of his poems that are consistently surprising: the balance of procedure and improvisation (poems in ‘Poems Without a Subject’ omit a letter – r – so, just as a frog ‘pops / into the poo // so do sous / into the word / beow’); his use of European philosophy; his Second World War. Middleton’s war poems, dispersed throughout this volume, are self-sufficient, erotic, hard, instructive and adventurous. ‘Souvenir of Hamburg, 1946’ describes a ‘barefoot girl, whose powers // stormed the earth, made heaven false’ and makes of ‘hole’ a straightforward and devastating pun.

Perhaps the most striking skill of the poems in this volume is their unusually flexible and expressive syntax. Each poem has a particular, unruly movement that reveals itself to be purposeful. ‘Of Imminence’, holds off the noun to which its repeated pronoun refers over four stanzas, in a single sentence with several tenses, which asks a long question in many clauses, resolving itself with:

whistling his large

quiet reassuring tune, round the corner

the balloon man will be coming.

The poem makes an odd list of creatures in voice, including a wren that sang about Machu Picchu and George Herbert imagining ‘All things are busie’, and at some point, the sentence stops being a question and becomes a statement. As it ends, though, the poem is still imminent; the balloon man is always coming round the corner. The poem can be ventured for the same reason that the wren and George Herbert can venture their versions – because the whistling balloon man is going to be coming, or is coming, or comes: a thought expressed in the delaying tactic of the syntax.

Another great pleasure of these four hundred or so pages is the animals. They are sometimes comforting, sometimes horrific. Occasionally they are symbols: a rat, as English insists, is also art (‘A Stuffed Shirt’). But the point of view of any animal here, whether mole or ephemerid, remains immanent. The attempt to inhabit is wonderful and comic, like Saint Francis’s tonsure. The excellent dog – ‘dog that I am’ – around the corner will always be coming; in this case, to ‘piss on dreariness’ (‘Promenade’). The cat throws off the voice that tries to speak from inside the cat. The poem is written in cat nonsense: ‘A cow or pig might look you in the eye only for a moment asking why am I, what am I, secreted in this mass, this melange, of meat and skin’ (‘Palingenesis); but the philosophical animal can’t be captured: ‘How emptied of swan they did swim along, / The swans.’ (‘Variation on Prose by Rudolf Kassner’).

Over the six parts of ‘A Keeper of the Reliquary’ – one of the book’s final poems – the ‘I’ is Middleton (or no one in particular), the phantom of a dead anarchist Malatesta, a cicada in a ‘Costume cut from my own juice’, and a token (which I imagine as the relic of the reliquary). Malatesta’s language is swaggeringly plain; the voice of the high-minded, passive-aggressive relic stuck in a tube on a lintel is brittle and willfully structured. It says:

I blessed the house, I alone

knew what I said;

slide me from the tube,

unfold the roll of me,

my letters spell no noise.

This is the missing thing heard from the inside. Throughout the poem, verbs are shifted to the ends of sentences, delaying action. In the relic’s case, the critical verb ironically ends its section: ‘my silence lost, again I begin’.

Christopher Middleton is in his late eighties, and it is temping to see evidence in these poems of their poet getting older. It is tempting to say Middleton’s touch becomes surer as he more fully renounces himself. Prospero comes up quite a bit. This volume, in which poems are placed broadly but not entirely chronologically, encourages a less linear reading. The 2007 collection, The Tenor on Horseback, precedes the poems of Poems 2006–2009 (Shearsman) and the section containing poems omitted mistakenly from Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2008) appears after 2012’s A Keeper of the Reliquary. In the seven years covered, Middleton produced eight collections. Collected Later Poems ends with an ‘Interim’ section, which gives the heartening impression that he has already outworked the book and, therefore, that it is not really ending.