On Yang Lian

This is a longer, more personal version of a review of Yang Lian’s Narrative Poem (Bloodaxe, 2017) that appeared in Poetry London (Autumn 2017: Issue 88).


It was once said that a ‘great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations.’ But that doesn’t have to mean, as it did for poets from Wyatt and Sidney to Pound and Eliot, absorbing the influence of ‘foreign’ voices and domesticating them. In our age, at least, it feels like it’s coming to mean something very different: that we might understand all voices as, in some sense, already foreign.

Yang Lian’s poetry is unusual – as good poetry should be – but it’s also recognisably similar, combining a range of styles and allusions that dissolve any notion of a simplistic East-West binary. Yang grew up in Beijing, but was born in Switzerland, and since being forced into exile in 1989 he’s lived in London and Berlin. Narrative Poem is the fruit of an impressive twenty-five-year working relationship with the Scottish translator Brian Holton.

Like Yang’s previous publications, Yi (2002) and Concentric Circles (2005), it is a single long, ornately structured poem. In his Preface, Yang refers to these three poems as forming ‘a dialectic of China, Non-China, and the Unity of China and Non-China’. Narrative Poem is the sublation of his previous work then, in which China and Non-China are held in suspension and simultaneously transcended – in Derrida’s terms, you could say that Yang leaves China and ‘returns to it, but without annulling the difference’.

The result is a skittering back and forth across the globe, taking in and transforming a bracing array of influences, from Thucydides and Christa Wolf to Yu Xuanji and Osip Mandelstam. And their voices aren’t lost in his – submerged or annulled – but quoted, echoed and challenged.

The book is divided into a three sections – Yang’s mind clearly works in threes – whose titles have the sweaty portentousness of Swedish death metal albums: Photograph Album: Dream of Time; Watermint Elegy: Timeless Reality; and Ruin of Sages.Synchronic.Dreamless. Each individually contains a number of subsections I won’t list here. But to give you a characteristic flavour, the second part of Watermint Elegy is called ‘Watermint Narrative 2: Love Elegy’ (addressed to Yang’s wife, Yo Yo) and opens with a poem called ‘A street name makes a love look fondly back’. It begins

a street name makes a love look fondly back

all our wavering permeated with the taste of water

Lea River valley’s silver-grey rippling is set on the windowsill

silver-grey brightness can always take more rain

which is beautiful. The indefinite, non-specific way ‘a love’ looks back resists any reading which would privilege a nostalgically-minded confessional speaker. Here, as elsewhere, the first-person singular is studiously avoided; this is spoken from an altogether more wavering, rippling perspective. There’s also a subtle nod to a line from Shakespeare’s much-maligned Sonnet 135, ‘The sea, all water, yet receives rain still’, which is another poem about names, and about how names (the signifier rather than the signified) can always take more of our fondness, more of our love.

The poem circles around a particular scene – in this case, unlike most, clearly located in a house by the Lea River – with a roving, hallucinatory set of images. The concluding description (not that anything is ever quite described in a Yang poem) is of various spinning things, from a gramophone record to a staircase to a ‘grove of glossy tiger-skin orchids’. Can you see those orchids spinning? Me neither, but Yang makes it sound good:

as they spin a tattoo of golden thread

bright silvery waters cross us

obliviously refuse two little unformed figures

chase their own never to be formed voices

This is typical of Yang’s style (in Holton’s rendering at least) in the way that it picks up on earlier phrases (‘silver-grey brightness’ becoming ‘bright silvery’), isn’t shy about adjectives and adverbs, makes a syntactically knotty virtue of its unpunctuatedness, is rife with (clanging) symbols, and elides the concrete and abstract with minimal concern for readerly comprehension.

It’s because of passages like this that Chinese critics labelled Yang’s work ‘Misty’ or ‘Ambiguist’. But he’s no aesthete, or not in the usual, decadent sense. Though sounding euphonious, he usually throws in a jangling image or word as well: here it’s ‘refuse’. It makes sense to read ‘obliviously’ as flowing on from the previous line – the lovers unaware of the waters around them – but this leaves ‘refuse’ stranded. Are the lovers refusing to let the waters ‘cross’ them? How do waters ‘cross’ you anyway, unless you’re beneath them? Is it a transmuted reference to the ‘crossed oars’ earlier in the poem? Could the waters be a blessing, making the sign of the cross over them? Alternatively, is ‘refuse’ rubbish, the ‘unformed figures’ bits of trash borne along by the water?

The crucial point – echoing the myth of Echo – is that Yang’s ‘figures’ are always chasing ‘their own never to be formed voices’. He refuses to be pinned down, his figures and voices folding into and out of one another endlessly. ‘Endlessly,’ by the way, might be Yang’s favourite word: he uses it 19 times in Narrative Poem, the more times it’s repeated the more – and I guess this is the point – we start to feel the circular monotony of ‘Timeless Reality’.

Later, in a subsection called ‘Watermint Narrative 5’, Yang riffs on elegies by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin, and offers an idiosyncratic definition of aestheticism as

falling in love with impossibility itself

reduplicated unvoiced sounds heave and surge forcing us to turn and go

Aestheticism, for Yang, is not about a des Esseintes-like turning away from the world – you could hardly accuse him of shirking social and political engagement – but rejecting any attempt to instrumentalise art. Holding to the self-sufficiency of the aesthetic is part of an (impossible) attempt to overcome the self, or the voice which says I saw Z, I own X, I want Y . Yang wants – indeed, feels forced – ‘to turn and go’. This being the end of the poem, that ‘go’ suggests dissipation, his singular voice melting into a ‘reduplicated’ ocean of ‘unvoiced sounds’, heaving and surging.

Throughout the book, aestheticism is expressed in these moist terms, some variant of ‘flow’ or ‘overflow’ occurring a levee-breaking 28 times. This brings up the spectre of Rilke, who, in the last of his Sonnets to Orpheus, famously said to the still, silent earth Ich rinne (‘I flow’). Yang’s book opens with a prefatory poem, ‘Canto I: Ghost Composer’, which makes a comparable statement, but – so far as I can tell – from the perspective of a foetus, a ‘little mouth in the womb sipping at scarlet sludge’ (gross, I know) with its ‘flesh still flowing in the little ears flowing into a sort of thought’. Not yet having sorted its thoughts, with a budding mouth and ‘little ears’, this foetus, all oceanic feeling, is Yang’s poetic ideal: an impossible, unformed voice.

Yang is an overbearingly powerful poet. And maybe it’s a side-effect of his ambition that he can sometimes lapse into writing badly. Some parts of Narrative Poem are you-must-change-your-life good; others are dull, adolescent and nonsensical. There are more terrible descriptions of nipples, for example, than any long poem can sustain: if it’s not a ‘tulip’s swollen nipple’, it’s a ‘sucked nipple’s beauty so enchanting’, or the ‘cactus fruit’s blood-red nipples’ and ‘the incense on your nipples/ after a minute’s separation’ like a ‘plant reincarnated’.

Writing in an abstract or anti-realist mode can’t excuse sentiments and imagery that, in any other context, would be derided. To render a woman by her disembodied nipple, however ‘enchanting’ and spiritual it may be, rehearses old misogynistic tropes. It’s not enough to write complicatedly about History and Time, if you’re going to make a cringe-worthy reference to a ‘feminine gentleness you can’t not adore’ a few pages later.

The repetition of key words, though intentional, also grates: there’s only so many times you can hear something being described as ‘vast’ (even ‘vast vast’) or ‘perfumed’ or ’empty’ or ‘true’ before every word blurs into indistinct mood music. Too often, he leans on flowers, ghosts, snow or rain to make a point – and, every time, the rain brings up the same hackneyed cycle of feelings: loneliness, emptiness, infinitude… Take these two lines from ’12: Narrative Poem’ (part of ‘Hometown Elegy’):

let it be called the hometown’s storyline of wandering ghosts done wrong

snow calcified in the body banished to below a burning sun

The patterning of vowel sound and alliteration is Dylan Thomas at his most excessively lush, but with more generic imagery. It’s hard to know what to do with this, hard to consider it intellectually or emotionally. Its relationship with conscious thought is like that of a raindrop to the Lea River.

For all these criticisms, Yang is a broad and visionary poet, and not just because of his ambitions to combine a form of European-inflected modernist poetry with two thousand years of Chinese verse and culture. For me, personally, he points toward a distinctive kind of modernity: at home in multiple traditions, both a Chinese poet and a ‘Non-China’ poet, or a sublated synthesis of the two.

Over the course of writing this piece, I discovered a coincidental link between the two of us which changed how I see Yang. A few weeks ago, my mum saw my copy of Narrative Poem poking out of my bag and recognised Yang’s face – or, rather, his distinctive, flowing locks – on the back-cover. She said that he’d taught her Mandarin for a few months in the mid-90s when she was doing a course at the University of Westminster. I pressed her for details, but she couldn’t remember much – he was very ‘cool’ and ‘casual’ apparently.

The next time I saw her, she gave me a pamphlet, Where the Sea Stands Still, which Yang had given her in 1996. There was a dedication scrawled on the first page that my mum couldn’t read – Yang obviously hadn’t done a great job with my mum. After messaging back and forth with a Chinese friend, she told me that it said: ‘No beauty is without cruelty.’

Initially, I found it a bit icky that this was what he’d inscribed on a book to my mum, then I settled on embarrassment at his oblivious pretension. He must have been trying to conjure those famous lines from the beginning of Rilke’s first Duino Elegy which in J.B. Leishman’s translatorese go:

For Beauty’s nothing

but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,

and why we adore it so is because it serenely

disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.

That use of ‘serenely’, awkwardly enjambed, reminds me of Yang. As does the dialectical interlocking of beauty and terror, adoration and destruction. Why did Rilke call them elegies? Likewise, why are so many of Yang’s poems, even his love poems, framed as elegies?

In ‘Little Tiger’, Yang says that ‘a departed soul/ keeps an avenging weakness a pinpoint-fine moan’. To depart a place is to become ‘a departed soul’, moaning, weak and vengeful – and not just because of the leaving itself but the realisation it brings about. In ‘Sky in Water’, he says that ‘home is untrue’ (Rilke puts it this way: ‘staying is nowhere’). Yang, like Rilke, is committed to flow, to capturing that flow in words; in their work, stable ideas of home and self float away, become untrue.

When Yang wrote that message to my mum, he would have been aware she wasn’t from London – she came to England from Indonesia in the early-80s – and it makes sense to see it (more charitably) as a message from one ‘departed soul’ to another: when you leave home behind, cruelty comes to tinge everything you see and do and make. However beautiful, everything becomes elegiac.

Fortress Craft

I’m a fellow of The Complete Works, an Arts Council-funded programme that has sought to develop the writing of poets from BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. Why did it choose to foreground poets of colour? Because 10 years ago fewer than 1% of poets published by major presses were from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite at least 14% of the population being non-white. Even now, the work of these poets is massively under-represented in prize shortlists, reviews and amongst reviewers themselves (as highlighted by the research of Dave Coates). So is it really true, as Rebecca Watts suggests in her recent article in PN Review, that the media is “terrified of being seen to criticise the output of anyone it imagines is speaking on behalf of a group traditionally under-represented in the arts”? Given that silence is the usual response, the terror seems to be Watts’ own.

When I started writing – against a literary background as white as a ski slope – a big problem was just imagining myself as a writer. Watts quotes T.S. Eliot: “the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric.” But “the people” that care too much for their literary inheritance – or their version of it – can come to treat anything outside of it as “barbaric”. I remember that feeling of being on the outside and knowing that, if I wanted entry, I would have to speak like an insider. This was where craft came in. Craft, according to Watts, is about “technical and intellectual accomplishments”. It’s all too clear, though, that technique and intellect can’t be separated from their political and social contexts. A culture predicated on exclusion will create an exclusionary literary culture. For a long time, and this article continues the trend, craft has acted as the bulwark – the beautiful excuse – for dismissing work by socially marginal voices. Behind its technical veneer lies an implicit threat: adapt to the rules of “literary inheritance” or face exclusion.

There is an irony to this line of argument. Watts cites Sylvia Plath (all of her approving examples, I should add, are white), who Harold Bloom once attacked for her guileless and over-emotional verse, saying: “Poetry relies upon trope and not upon sincerity”. Sound familiar? Then, as now, the espousal of craft grants entry, while “sincerity” or “honesty” (Watts’ preferred term) bars the way. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of those experiences being written about? I don’t know if the work of Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest – whose work Watts takes issue with – will be read alongside that of Sylvia Plath in fifty years’ time, but I know that the opposition between honesty and craft is false. Worse than that, it’s in bad faith. It converts one person’s taste into a moral or technical fault on the part of the accused.

As with so many defences of inheritance and tradition, Watts’ essay also strikes a constantly fearful note. Peaking through the crenels of Fortress Craft, she seems scared at the prospect of it being overrun by youths with funny accents who’ll tear up the Shakespeare and Eliot. More terrifyingly, she suggests that they may already be inside, scribbling on the table-cloths and stealing all the awards. Why is no one among the “middle-aged, middle-class” reviewing guard saying anything? I don’t think it’s because they’re terrified; I think it’s because this is a fiction. Literature doesn’t need to be seen in Bloomian terms, as an arena for agonistic confrontation. Art doesn’t need to be defined by exclusion. Our language isn’t a prize diadem, and our role to “safeguard” it. Poems will go on being made and spoken in ways exceeding any one definition of craft. And as society changes – hopefully for the better – so too will poetry. In the meantime, those who hold onto a singular idea of craft will only have succeeded in buttressing themselves against the world and the possibility of changing it.

‘Ropes of Conjecture’: a review of Joey Connolly’s Long Pass

W.H. Auden said he would always ask two questions of new writing: firstly, “how does it work?” and secondly – “what kind of a guy [or woman or non-cis person] inhabits this poem?” These are questions which cut to the heart of what Joey Connolly does (and does so well) in his first collection, being always aware of what verbal limitations shape a poem and what moral implications arise from invoking a person.

Long Pass begins with a poem about a poem. In ‘The Finest Fire-Proofing We Have’ he gives us a scorching fable on the act of writing and the strangenesses involved in sketching out a fictional character:

It’s a poem about a father insulating his family home,
written some time in 1924.

It’s not immediately clear as to whether the ‘it’ in question is the poem in front of us or the one set in 1924. The next few lines zoom in on the father:

It notices, the poem,
the knotted rope of his spine through his
flannel workshirt as he hunches to the skirting

This seems to suggest that the poem of 1924 is the one doing the noticing – the ‘It’. The father is being described from the perspective of another (I assume fictional) poet who turns out – as the poem progresses – to be female and probably unrelated to him. It’s fitting, of course, that a poem with so many insulating narrative layers should be called ‘The Finest Fire-Proofing We Have’.

The poet “drags and dwells” – the way you would on a cigarette, something harmful/addictive – on the father’s love for his wife and their new son. She “almost” (but not quite – it’s still a poem) “stalls and weeps for it”. She pours so much of her love into the poem (“love” is repeated five times) she doesn’t want it to end, for her to have to leave the world she’s conjured into existence. And she doesn’t quite. In spite of all the tricksy meta-fictional layering, the poem’s ending is both exposing and sincere:

There’s love in the way panels are pried up
and replaced. And something else. How the poem’s author, reading
of the Medical Board’s classification of asbestosis
in 1925, how she was reminded of that young wife arriving home,
and the pride already metastasising inside the husband how

she’d never know how anything behind the boards had changed.

The wife will never know about the insulation – I guess her husband isn’t the kind of guy to brag about his handiwork – but both father and poet must hope that their love will show through their secret labour. At this point, startlingly, the narrative cuts to 1925 as the poet sees a note from the Medical Board that changes how she reads – and sinisterly undermines – her poem of the year before. What dangers has she plunged her characters into? What else might have changed “behind the boards”? The epistemic rupture – between poet/subject/reader – is signalled by that gap in the last line: a conscious flaw, or an acknowledgment of the metastasising unknown.

In ‘[Untititled]’, several pages on, Connolly picks up the thread:

All I want is to tell you that I love you,
but how to trust that craft – its shoddy caulk – on those

bracing seas between us?

The desire is there but the resources are lacking. Desire, in fact, whirs behind the machinery of many of these poems, coming to a head in ‘In the Moment,’ where the body glimpsed in sex is like a shipwreck: “all these sensuous surfaces pushing outwards from the dark echoic hollows”. The question remains the same: how to traverse Matthew Arnold’s “salt-estranging sea”, to sound out the body’s dark hollows, on a “verbal contraption” (as W.H. Auden called it) as inherently unseaworthy as the poem. Later, drawing on Hölderlin, this image will resurface in a more tragic-sounding “little skin-keeled coracle on a sea of confusion”, the line between boat/sea/body having become fully confused. The problem, as Connolly says at the beginning of ‘[Untititled]’, is language itself, or

The orthodontic meddling of language
with the world, its snaggling malocclusions
between a group of objects and their name

A malocclusion in orthodontics is when the upper and lower jaws don’t quite mesh, often causing some of the teeth to snaggle. An occlusion is also a term for the momentary closure of the mouth required to produce those liquid (“l”) sounds which jangle terrifically through the first two lines here (a malocclusion, in this sense, would suggest an inability to properly sound out these lines). Language, which names objects, also occludes them. And love or desire, by this analogy, is the unnamable, unvoiceable snaggle-tooth.

In his ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, Montaigne calls philosophy une poésie sophistiquée. Connolly’s is sophisticated poésie, for sure, but also contains something of what the Shangri-Las called ‘Sophisticated Boom Boom’. This is a serious attempt to write philosophy as poetry, to render complex arguments about nominalism and epistemology in verse without losing sensuality’s boom boom. So on a shingle beach in ‘Themselves’, hungover, the poet tries to get his head around “the static hiss of unthinkable numbers”. Hovering behind is Georg Cantor’s work on number theory, the attempt to understand infinity in mathematical terms, but also an implicit sense of personal loss – why is the speaker walking along the beach hungover “scouring off the need for words”? In ‘Loss’, a few pages earlier, Connolly writes how

                                           everything
is being set down, somehow, and nothing
at all is slipping past too easily.

The inability of words to “set down” (with its suggestion of placement in space as well as time) the complexity of things, the “nothing” of bodily desire, comes up again and again. In ‘Comprehension Test’, a similar point is more blankly put:

Complete the sentence

How blank longs for greater blank

Try to bear in mind it’s never

a case of changing one thing for another

That grim first line turns life itself into a kind of Beckettian prison sentence – one longing followed by another – that can only be completed by death (though does that count as completion?). An unbearable concept, and almost impossible “to bear in mind” given that our comprehension of the world can’t help but dampen and lessen it, “changing one thing for another”. Rather than grasping a pebble in all its individual pebble-ness, we mostly encounter an idea of the pebble. This is explored more fully in the raft of translations – riffing on Hölderlin, Montale, de Pizan, Cavafy and Lorca – which are interspersed throughout Long Pass. Here, Connolly refuses to change “one thing for another” but uses the source-text, in Dryden’s words, to “run division on the ground-work”. For my money it’s these translations that feel, pebble-like, most capable of weathering the test of time.

Since Lowell’s Imitations it’s been de riguer for contemporary poets to plonk a few loose “versions” of mainly-European twentieth-century poets into their collections, usually cribbed from pre-existing translations. I don’t mean to sound snooty, because I love many of these versions (Tom Paulin’s The Road to Inver is an especially audacious – sometimes terrible/brilliant – example of the form) and, hey, a lot of translations themselves are terrible. Connolly’s do something different, though: usually composed of at least two parts, the first will cleave fairly closely to the source-poem, while the second (or third) will give a more personal, tangential interpolation. Rather than fail in their faithfulness, they succeed (to quote Connolly in ‘[Untititled]’) in being “wrong/ in corresponding ways.” This project surely takes its inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s rejection of the binary between freedom and fidelity. Benjamin suggested a relationship between the original and its translation that’s too beautiful not to quote in its entirety:

Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point, with this touch rather than with the point setting the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path to infinity, a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux.

“There’s really no connection,” Connolly says in ‘What You’ve Done’, “the net of implication/ like everything comes apart in your hands”. The poem’s thinly woven “net of implication” – like human kind itself, as the bird in Burnt Norton says – cannot bear very much reality. These poems and translations, though, offer a small point of implied contact amid the linguistic flux.

Which brings me back to that opening description of the father’s spine as “knotted rope”. Images of knottedness and involution crop up again and again (“cosy ropes of conjecture” in one poem become “the burning rope bridge/ by which we approach the world” in another). Connolly’s sense and syntax are ravelled, amphibolous, each disentangling clause giving rise to further knots, circling and coiling back on themselves. The structure of the collection seems to work on this scheme, too, teasing together ideas and images and sealing itself in at the same time.

Long Pass ends with a ‘Last Letter from the Frontier’. The reference here could be to Seamus Heaney’s ‘From the Frontier of Writing’, except that in that poem Heaney is interrogated by soldiers, “arraigned yet freed”, while Connolly is continually self-interrogating and forever unfreed. In fact, by the end of the book he has given up on the possibility of “requital” and is “bricking myself in.” It’s Connolly’s skill, though, to show the brick walls – and insulating layers – of the poem-as-contraption while still implying connection.

Why Do We Hate the Poor? (Review)

Review of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont (Verso, 2015), originally published in The Oxonian Review (Issue 28.4).


By the end of the 16th century, England was scarcely recognisable: the countryside was being divvied up by private landowners and the customary rights of those who had farmed there for centuries abolished. Real wages dropped while food prices and rent soared. Those who could fled to the city to find work, but London—a maze of cramped medieval streets—was hardly fit to accommodate them. In fifty years, its plague-ravaged population had doubled to 140,000. Unscrupulous property developers, seeing an opportunity, partitioned old houses and quickly constructed new ones. Many, though, were forced on to the streets and became nightwalkers, homeless and destitute, the victims of a new kind of poverty and a new attitude to the poor.

In 1572, the Punishment of Vagabonds Act made “vagrants” the responsibility of local authorities or “bridewells”—so named after London’s notorious Bridewell prison. These were “houses of correction” that, as Matthew Beaumont puts it, treated the poor as criminals “to be punished, reformed through labour, and even transported.” But who were the poor? George Rudé, in his book on Hanoverian London, gives a swift, depressing rundown of “the unemployed and unemployable, the indigent, the aged, the poorest of the immigrant Irish and Jews” who were together classed as vagabonds—or worse—and discarded.

Such disdain for the poor was frowned upon, if not condemned, in early medieval England, where poverty was still regarded as a “holy state” and charity seen as essential to the attainment of salvation; then, churches not “bridewells” cared for the poor. In the late medieval period, says Christopher Hill, this state of affairs was reversed: idleness became next to sinfulness and poverty “presumptive evidence of wickedness.” From the 16th century onwards a new lexicon of moral approbation and mistrust arose: the poor were palliards, rascals, courtesy-men, clewners, eavesdroppers, dummerers, clapperdudgeons. A number of these abusive terms refer to beggars pretending to a worse condition than they were in: palliards carried self-inflicted injuries, dummerers acted at being dumb, and courtesy-men took on the role of ex-soldiers. As now, the idea that the poor were just pretending—conniving at people’s sympathy—made their suffering easier to dismiss.

Beaumont, in his new book on the history of the London night—which is more about the people who were forced to take refuge there—does not exactly have to overreach himself to bring out the contemporary resonances. He links the Vagabonds Act and nightwalker statutes—which gave watchmen “warrantless arrest authority”—to the Vagrancy Act of 1824 (known as the “Sus” law) that allowed police to stop, search and arrest anyone they suspected of criminal intent. During Margaret Thatcher’s first term, the indiscriminate use of this law—though highly discriminate in other respects—caused an outbreak of anti-police rioting across the country. It was repealed in 1981, though Theresa May has since pushed to have it reinstated.

Beaumont makes clear the extent to which capitalism, agrarian or otherwise, has always relied on “accumulation by dispossession” and the criminalization of the dispossessed. As E.P. Thompson remarks, “The greatest offence against property was to have none.” So property-less migrants, along with the poor, elderly and infirm, became offensive to public decency and to the state, their social vilification going hand in hand with their official criminalization. Beaumont cites as evidence the 49,000 offences that were tried at the Old Bailey in the 18th century, 95% of which were property-related. This was a “war against the poor”, he says, and the respectable classes were not just complicit but willing combatants. John Gore, foaming at the mouth, called the poor “the very Sodomites of the land, children of Belial,” while Samuel Johnson—despite himself being an occasional houseless nightwalker—defined the proletarian as “men; wretched, vile, vulgar.”

In the 1770s, though some way from the dream of 24/7 capitalism, London began a series of more radical transformations: morphed by “processes of capital accumulation,” old slums were demolished and shopping districts built in their place. A leaden curtain fell between the lamp-lit West End and the dank, unlit East End, where gangs of proto-Bullingdon boys ventured out after dark to terrorise the proletariat or get dosed up in Covent Garden’s red light district. The poor were ghettoised, made to feel ashamed, alone and, as John Clare said of himself, “homeless at home.”

It was this psychological and social stigmatization—expertly realised—that paved the way for the working class’s later assimilation into the 19th century “industrial army”. Beaumont borrows this phrase from Marx, who used it to describe the new world of commodified labour where workers were “organized like soldiers.” But these soldiers were lucky, in a sense. They were shadowed by the still more desperate ranks of the “industrial reserve army,” made up of those same floating workers displaced at the end of the 16th century. In the late-18th and 19th centuries, the interplay of these active and reserve armies performed a decisive role in the industrial-capitalist system: the reserve force competed with the active one for jobs during stagnant periods, quelled dissent in booms and, ultimately, came to justify the immiseration of both. Even now, despite the advances of the labour movement, a similar illogic justifies the West’s continued reliance on structural unemployment, zero-hours contracts and unpaid labour, concerns about which are brushed aside because, at root, the unemployed are seen as lazy scroungers until otherwise proven.

It is in the Victorian period—with capital in full ascendance—that Beaumont’s book draws to a close. The final image is of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”, a composite of the nightwalker’s various guises—”petty criminal, detective, bohemian outcast, stalker, homeless vagrant and, finally, Satan himself.” He observes passers-by, restless and flushed, talking and gesticulating to themselves, “feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around.” Alone among others, turned out onto the streets and driven further into the dark, Poe’s narrator becomes—even at the centre of a booming megalopolis—”terminally marginal.”

~

Beaumont is a protégée of Terry Eagleton—who returns the favour by dubbing Beaumont “one of the most brilliant of the younger generation of English critics”—and both balance a reverence for the canon of English literature alongside a deep engagement in Marxist theory. Nightwalking could have easily taken shape as a non-partisan study of the London night and the literature surrounding it, but, attentive as it is to both base and superstructure, it achieves something more timely and, in a sense, timeless.

It is not, though, as Will Self calls it, “a grand narrative of the counter-Enlightenment.” Nor is it, as its more modest subtitle suggests, just “A Nocturnal History of London.” The first is too “grand”, while the second sounds more like a coffee table book. Beaumont, influenced by Louis Althusser’s “pluralist” approach, sets out a range of multiple, often conflicting histories, which are reflected in the book’s layout: it divides into four parts of fourteen chapters, each splitting into further sub-sections (titles include “Witty Extravagants”, “Knight Errant of Hell”, “Paddington Frisk”) of varying length and tone. The past is unpicked, entangled, made into a series of conjunctures—points of crisis and conflict—so as to be woven together again to form what Eagleton calls a “tradition of the dispossessed.” The result is not so much “grand narrative” or capital h “History” as a more readable, pleasurable mix of Althusser and Foucault, with added close reading and humanism thrown in.

The Enlightenment, in Beaumont’s eyes, brought about less illumination than it did benightment. Keats was keenly aware that, underlying the surface improvements made to the commercial centre of London and the new valorisation of scientific progress, was a deeper, encroaching sense of moral darkness. To talk about Keats’s “dreamy, sensuous” prosopopoeia (as Beaumont does) without looking at the underlying shift in the mode and relations of production (as Beaumont also does) would be to limit the work, to shorten its aesthetic stakes. This, perhaps, could define twee: the love of a past without context. “The goblin is driven from the heath,” said Keats, “and the rainbow is robbed of its mystery!” This lament, if not seen in the context of the countryside’s rapid despoliation and disenchantment, is all twee.

Most of the poets Beaumont discusses—like Richard Savage, Oliver Goldsmith and Keats—channel a form of dispossessed, dissident poetics, but it is William Blake who occupies the pivotal role. Early on, Blake saw the darkness at the heart of the Enlightenment project and pitted himself against its “instrumental logic”—one that sought to justify, in rational terms, colonial exploitation abroad and violent repression at home. One image remains a constant, haunting presence in his work, though it disappeared behind the walls of Newgate Prison in his early-twenties: the gallows at Tyburn. For him, as Beaumont suggests, it was “an unescapable symbol of the oppressiveness of Britain’s ruling elite.” William Ryland, an artist to whom Blake was almost apprenticed aged 14, was hanged there along with at least 1,200 other Londoners over the course of the 18th century. Most of the executed were poor men and women—”apprentices, ill-paid servants, unemployed labourers and vagrants”—whose crimes were ones of desperation.

By the turn of the 19th century the Bishop of London, whose land it was, had begun building an expensive new development—with the gruesome name of Tyburnia—over the former execution site. In a song dedicated “To the Jews” from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake asks:

What are those golden Builders doing
Near mournful ever-weeping Paddington
Standing above that mighty Ruin
Where Satan the first victory won.

Those poor “Builders” (mainly migrant Irish labourers), forced to squat in huts, living off potatoes tilled nearby, were trying to redeem the land, to purge it of its evil spirit. This, says Beaumont, is why they are “golden”. But, in return, Charles Knight and others derided them as “squatters of the lowest community.” They were given a hateful task and hated for it. Their plight draws out a paradox: capitalism is fuelled by the twin-desire to erase all trace of origin while ingraining the myth of constant progress (Pascal said “The truth about the usurpation must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable”).

Capitalism’s “ideal state,” in Eagleton’s words, is a state of “eternal motion without source or telos.” The sinister result is dirt-poor labourers building over the bones of the executed poor, “elegant remains… sunk in earth enriched by the remains of brutalized bodies.” Civilisation and barbarism go side by side as the “mournful ever-weeping” cycle of crime and punishment rolls on.

There are numerous ways to approach Nightwalking, but running beneath them all is an account of how London’s urban elite turned against the poor. The writers Beaumont focuses on—themselves often on the dark fringes of society—give a depressing portrait of the city, but it is one whose very bleakness suggests a utopian lining. In a real dystopia, after all, injustice would pass without comment, everything being taken at its dark face-value.

But Blake sees through it, his prophetic outrage animated by the kind of radical Christianity preached at the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus’s argument hinges on the impossibility of anyone serving two masters, God and mammon, “for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24) Cyril Connolly updates this maxim for a secular age: “you cannot serve both beauty and power.” Holding to a love of power will lead to despising beauty; holding to a love of beauty will lead to despising power. Against all better reason, faced with the civilised barbarity of the Hanoverian state, Blake would have us put our faith in beauty.

Just one of these options poses an existential threat to state power, though, so it is no wonder that, right now, the Conservative government is looking to make further cuts to arts funding (Culture Minister Ed Vaizey says we need to find “new and imaginative ways of supporting the arts”) at the same time as it seeks more “imaginative ways” to slash benefits—again—and essential services for the poor, disabled and elderly; its rhetoric on economic migrants has, unsurprisingly, grown ever more hostile. Without a politicised, active arts sector that might act as a counterweight—and offer a range of utopian possibilities—this course has been made to feel inevitable, the past re-aligned to block out all glimmer of hope.

Beaumont’s book stops short of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for a reason. Why go any further? Here is what he might have said: nightwalkers and nightsleepers still rove the backstreets of London; a new generation of nightworkers—drawn from the old “reserve army”—service the craven needs of 24/7 capital; property speculators continue to build empty offices and luxury apartments; the poor, meanwhile, are as despised and immiserated as ever; mammon is unchallenged and beauty has been priced out of the market.

Ranting Post-Colonial Verse (Review)

This review was originally written for The Poetry School. Do check out all the fantastic stuff on their website. If interested, I’m also going to be running an interactive online course for them in May called Keeping Our Wits – sign up while there’s still space!


“We co-exist.” Speak from Here to There begins with this deceptively slight claim, followed by a description:

                         The York gum bark is stripping itself off,
shiny skin underneath exposed to the sun. Late summer –
summers that won’t end – and it seems to be a statement,
much more than restating a habit, a well-researched fact.

That stripping bark sounds like a metaphor, an image of sloughing off and shiny renewal appropriate to an opening poem. But no, it’s a “statement,” says the Australian poet John Kinsella, “a well-researched fact.”

Kinsella’s tree isn’t, like Larkin’s trees, “something almost being said”, an emblem of underlying decay or hope against hope—though it might be that as well—but a specific York gum bark. Whatever we might project onto it—a certain emotional freight accruing to any natural object placed in a poem—it’s something whose alienness we must contend with, with which we must co-exist.

The book that follows builds up a sort of daily chronicle in verse between Ghanaian-born Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes and Australian poet John Kinsella. Over the course of 125 alternating poems, their correspondence dramatizes their struggle with various forms of co-existing: with themselves and their families, an irreparably damaged ecological system, the legacy of colonial violence, and, of course, the rise of orange-faced ersatz-fascism. Here he is in one of Dawe’s later poems:

                       the demagogue, again,
so fully formed he trompes the eye.
I have always hated cartoons for the flat
passion of their antics, but oh the colour
and the noise…

These are poems that often induce a sense of incipient historical vertigo, as if they can’t be read in the present but only from some indeterminate point in the (post-apocalyptic, scavenging-for-berries-on-the-side-of-a-crater) future, bearing witness to the horror and stupidity of our present moment. In poem 42, Dawes writes:

                  Outside, the prairie grass multiplies
and a sharp wind drudges up history. Oh for history’s
sake, the confederates are back in the great plains museum,
with the woven textiles and overdue confession
that northerners enjoyed the softness of cotton
and the pulped currency that build a nation with slaves.
Tonight a Filipino American will stand before that flag
and rant post-colonial verse while the news travels.

The “sharp wind drudges up history”. This feels wrong at first—like it should be dredges up, as in brings to the surface or collects—but then implicit in Dawe’s choice of words is a bleaker view of how history happens: “drudges” means toil and servility, useless labour, signifying nothing. Though surrounded by abundant prairie land, where the religious injunction to be fruitful and multiply should ring truest, there is always—like Marvell’s “winged chariot hurrying near”—the “sharp wind” at your back. History is not the promise of eventual redemption but a record of those dispossessions and atrocities that make clear the impossibility of anyone (anywhere) being redeemed.

There’s no date given, but I assume this poem was written not long after the church shooting in Charleston when nine African Americans were killed. Afterwards a photograph was discovered online of Dylann Roof, the attacker, posing with a handgun and confederate battle flag. A national debate ensued as to the flag’s enduringly malignant symbolism. Dawes’ poem, rather than explicitly laying out this argument, makes the point that, whatever we decide, we can’t sift out the complexity—the horror—from history: the great plains museum thus holds both “woven textiles” and confederates; northerners also “enjoyed the softness of cotton”. He switches into an awkward present tense to convey that the United States was built on—as it continues to “build” on—slavery.

The banal/prophetic claim that “Tonight a Filipino American will stand before that flag [Confederate, I assume] / and rant post-colonial verse” is, to me, beautifully and tragically defiant. There were Filipinos in America decades before the docking of the Mayflower, but through a quirk of colonial history the US ended up taking possession of the Philippines in the late-19th century and brutally suppressing local struggles for independence. The US is composed of migrants, but for the settler mentality this is exactly why migrants are seen as a threat: the lucky descendants of white settlers live in terror of their fathers’ sins being visited upon them. Hence their pre-emptive rage, paranoia, isolationism. That ranting—read, dissenting—Filipino American points to another America: outward-facing, at ease with its multiple, unsifted but co-existing identities.

In the next poem, Kinsella is with his wife Tracy and son Tim:

I take your poem, Kwame, in my head out onto
the land, out on yet another of my endless walks,
out into the possum country of Goomalling, out
to Oak Park where sheoaks on the edge

of the dead dry lake sing in the breeze,
the voices of ancestors who are not mine

“We live,” says Kinsella, “on the boodja of the Noongah people.” Or, as he specifies earlier, on boodja (land) where three Noongah tribes intersect. This awareness colours his appreciation of possums and trees; they are full of those voices—“ancestors who are not mine”—singing in the breeze between the sheoaks, heard in another poem “whispering: theft theft”. The land he loves is not only tainted by ancestral theft but, as he describes elsewhere, the still-ongoing agitation of far-right groups like “Reclaim Australia”, keen to finish the job their forebears started.

This is Kinsella’s credo (or nego) in response: “No belonging”. Belonging implies a sort of “claim” that can’t be proven, only enforced through drudge and whip. Instead, he says that the self must be “insinuated” into a place—“insinuated” suggesting “tortuously… indirectly, or by devious methods” (v. 1.a. OED) and containing the appropriate level of ambivalence. The structure of his poems likewise attempts to resist the path of least resistance that most (especially short) lyrics tread. Poem 43 is no different, ending on a non-sequitur: “All of it, all of it the lyric and its utter, utter trashing.”

The lyric form, according to Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, is one in which “the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself”. But Kinsella and Dawes do their best to present their work as thoroughly mediated, crafted not in relation to themselves—or not only to themselves—but to a wider, darkening social and historical situation. They see through themselves so as to see through others. In Speak From Here to There, with its structure of call-and-response, each utterance is filtered through the other, trashed in order to be recycled.

Later on, Kinsella writes:

We share a faded peripheral vision –
between us we have two good eyes
or are blind. Blind – always been
a word that’s bothered me cast
as a moral pejorative, when lack
of vision can be stunning or devastating
insight.

In Blindness and Insight, Paul de Man argues that readers and critics can “grope toward a certain degree of insight only because their method remain[s] oblivious to their perception”. Blindness, in other words, is necessary to insight. What Dawes and Kinsella provide each other with is less a means of achieving perfect insight than of casting light on the other’s blindnesses. Both do literally have eye problems as well. Dawes takes eye drops for his glaucoma and describes “the impulse of the body/ to close all apertures”. The body politic’s natural impulse when faced with a perceived threat is similarly to close off borders. The overriding message of Speak From Here to There, though, is this: reject the false consolations of belonging; there is no other kind of existence than co-existence.