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Congratulations to Carcanet for paying equal attention to new poets and to modern classics. The Collected H.D., Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and Yvor Winters are all essential books, and Carcanet is doing a public service keeping them in print.
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Review of The Anti-Basilisk, Herbert Lomas - Ambit Magazine, May 2006
How to remain human and sane in an insanely violent world?Next review of 'The Anti-Basilisk'... To the 'The Anti-Basilisk' page...
The cover quotes: 'Thrones wilt whey they are not fed with blood, their vitality grows with the mass of wrongs committed, with life-denials, with the crushing of all that is perpetually different and that has been ousted by them.' Middleton comments 'I conceive of the basilisk' - which is both the cockatrice and a brass ordnance - 'as a monster, all ego, atavistic and implacable.' 'Doctor Dark' comes with an apparently charming performance for children. He turns a box of 'lokum' - Turkish Delight? - into a glowing moon that enchants the children: they think their bodies 'will measure heavenly perfection.' No, says Dr Dark. 'You see a rising moon, I see a Cyclops.'
This garden incubates our grand collapse.
Industrial wars will torch these fanatic empires;
The children of your children will be cindered
Then, like a dancer, he bounds across the lawn, and disappears indoors. It appears he's both literally night and a prophet of global doom. There are other similar implications. But of 'Dead Friends' the persona asks:
Who can they have been
In that red car
Going by, so fast, and waving...
So what of 'Paradise'? Well, '...Without paradise / There would be nothing at all to think of.' The legends are dismissed: 'it could happen to Anyone'.
For everyone a garden to cultivate at leisure
Floated from heaven; there would be leisure
In which to touch up the shrubbery, leisure
To scythe the lawn, so amiable ruminants
Might also have holistic fruits to chew.
But something more literally mystical is evoked: 'The simultaneity of everything, such as Seferis saw / In a trance at Engomi...' This too is dubious, however: it may be 'a latent state of mind' - especially if simultaneity 'has to include the horrors'. 'After all it was a trance - / Seferis took one step, at once / Inside paradise and out of it.' The gate of Eden is guarded by something stronger than a sword: Anguish. Yet Paradise may be a glimspe of beauty - in a voice like woodsmoke, paradoxically announcing news of a car bomb. The theses and antitheses end with an elusive synthesis, starting with an ambivalent allusion and ending with an ambivalent conclusion:
Go lovely rose into that vacuum.
Anyone can dance away the night.
Anyone can meditate on paradise.
In paradise there might be no call for
These two poems suggest a dialectic at the heart of the book.
Christopher Middleton is of course a well-established polymath, a much-travelled linguist with out-of-the-way lore, and all this inhabits a poetry aimed at the intelligent and not intended to be too easy. These clever, oblique, two-edged, sometimes obscure, sometimes detached, sometimes enraged, sometimes beauitful, sometimes too cortical hundred and forty-odd pages are to be read slowly and pondered. Terry Eagleton says 'he uses the ordinary as a leaping-off point into some space quite elsewhere.' John Lucas says Middleton 'gives experimentalism a good name.' I don't find the poems partiuclarly epxerimental but I agree that 'he possesses a wit that flickers with almost graspable significance.'
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