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Review of The Anti-Basilisk, Matthew Sperling - Poetry Matters
My initial reaction to The Anti-Basilisk was a sort of disbelief, turning into gratitude. Middleton was born in 1926, and his first books, Poems and Nocturne In Eden, appeared from the Fortune Press in 1944 and 45, respectively. To put it in context: these are the same years when Eliot’s Four Quartets were coming out as a whole. There are two amazing things. First, that if you’re lucky enough to have a legal deposit library nearby there really are some good poems in the wartime teenager’s books. Second, that The Anti-Basilisk contains 150 pages embodying a vast energy, invention, intelligence, talent and curiosity. It collects five years’ work, and is the sort of book that feels like it could carry on surprising people, as slow reading matter, for at least that duration.Previous review of 'The Anti-Basilisk'... To the 'The Anti-Basilisk' page...
Okay: but which people? There are reasons for suspecting that this book will not be a Christmas bestseller, and one of them has to do with the ways we think about poetry in relation to knowledge, intellectualism, academia. It’s impossible not to notice that Middleton is a poet with an endless patience for erudition, for allusions, a sort of playfully austere or austerely playful appropriation of ‘academic’ matter. In this mode – to pick almost at random – we have a poem on ‘An Enigma Commonly Passed Over’, which considers the evidence surrounding ‘the graphic details / In Cavafy’s poem about the Cappadocian king / Orophernes...’ These words come from the first three lines, and, as a mise en scène, you can understand why it might stop some people from carrying on. I think the poem is pretty good, but I admit it only really comes to life if you know or go and look up the Cavafy poem (which, it turns out, is also really good – p.43 in the Chatto paperback of the Keeley/Sherrard translations). Is this the way we want to read – endlessly having to go read something else?
In the old Eliotic/Hillean/David Jonesy style The Anti-Basilisk gives us ‘Notes’, telling us too little of some things and too much of others at the same time. For example, this gem:
‘…resting on a negative’: cf. Hegel, Phenomenology cap. 1 and commentary by Giorgio Agamben, in Le langage et la mort (1982, French translation, 1991).
The way readers take this no doubt crystallises a pretty fundamental reaction to Middleton’s poetry. Personally I love this kind of thing; the attraction is the same as in reading a novelist like James Buchan – those hints at a vast body of clinching and detailed information just waiting for you to uncover it, with a generous pointer from the author. But then, as a comfortably-imbursed PhD student I must be in a fairly small demographic of people who could plausibly be bothered to chase the implications of a four-word phrase in a poem through two books of rather hard-to-read continental philosophy (other people, I imagine, must have lives to be getting on with). And if I’m honest, I won’t actually ever do it myself; but it’s a pleasure to me to be offered the chance by Middleton. And I’m amused by what must be the donnish joke of citing the French translation of Il linguaggio e la morte rather than the English one, as if making a generous concession to our slowness, but still refusing to make things too easy.
The argument I want to make, however, is that readers who don’t like this sort of thing would be wrong to assume that The Anti-Basilisk is not worth reading, or able to be read. The poems are often very funny, fun and self-aware. One section is called ‘Apropos Saul Pinkard’, and features poems in which the eponymous Saul negotiates the intersections of some of these forms of knowledge with the business of ‘real’ or actual life, in ways that sometimes seem to overlap with the author’s experience, as in ‘Pinkard Brings Hölderlin to the Awareness of Americans’ (Middleton worked for many years as a Professor of Modern Languages in Texas and, along with Michael Hamburger, is one of the great translators of German poetry).
The Pinkard-persona is a tool for examining the sorts of interest the book has, as in ‘Pinkard Bookish’, where we find him,
Prone on a couch, with pillowed head,
Holding with both hands a book,
Pinkard conjectures: Devil take it,
There must be more to life than this…
By the end of the poem, after encountering a ‘big bird-spider’ (which is another pleasure of the book – when there are animals, they seem like brilliant cartoonish allegorical presences; this must be what it’s like, living in Texas), and wondering ‘Where was the world not full of people?’, Pinkard tries to come round to a realisation of Keats’s ‘negative capability’:
Pinkard recalls the words of Keats,
How he could slip inside a sparrow.
Now unheroic Pinkard squats
And ‘picks,’ with Keats, ‘about the gravel’.
It is a winning moment of ‘bookish’ burlesque in a splendidly clever poem, and it’s of a piece with some of the other places where the poems delight in mischievous or telling silliness which sometimes approaches what Yeats called the ‘tragic joy’ of aged poets, as when a mocking-bird becomes a compound figure of political violence, ‘Saddamosamahitlerchingiskahn’, or when the poems seem to go a bit ruefully insane:
As if all that aches had oaken
As if all that peaks had poken
As if all that creeps had cropped
As if all that peeps had popped
Along with this, there are poems such as the opening ‘Tableaux 1-20’ where the author’s rather massive and tough intelligence is brought to bear on scenes and questions which are evidently ‘about’ life, even if their syntax and arguments can seem hard to parse:
Hairclip a semicircle of imitation tortoiseshell
To aureole her really uninteresting hair,
She gazed through schoolmarm glasses at a script
And laughed to see the way her father wrote it.
Thus a girl in a restaurant. It’s a thumbnail sketch done with a miniaturist’s precision, even at the expense of seeming a bit mean or finicky (that ‘really uninteresting’ hair). The point is that the precision, the playfulness, the entertainment are underwritten by the same intelligence that gives the rigour of the learning, if we want to see them in opposition; and they underwrite it in return, making the experience of The Anti-Basilisk, for this reader and perhaps for others, unusually rich and rewarding.
The views expressed by contributors to the reviews section of Poetry Matters are not those of Tower Poetry, or of Christ Church, Oxford, and are solely those of the reviewers.
The original article can be found here.
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