Quote of the Day
Carcanet Press is simply one of the best literary publishers in the world.
Subscribe to our mailing list
Review of The Anti-Basilisk, Sarah Crown - The Guardian, April 01 2006
Shifting strands:Previous review of 'The Anti-Basilisk'... Next review of 'The Anti-Basilisk'... To the 'The Anti-Basilisk' page...
Sarah Crown finds hidden depths in Christopher Middleton's complicated collection, The Anti-Basilisk.
Reading The Anti-Basilisk is like swimming across the surface of an ocean: beneath the playful shift and glitter of the poems themselves is a deep supporting reservoir of thought and learning. Skipping through space and time from subject to obscure subject (the 'minotaurine paisano voice' of Catalan composer Federico Mompou, the 'paradox' of the legend of St Jerome and the lion), brimming with esoterica and academic allusion, above all these are sly and riddling poems, united by a reluctance to yield up their meaning easily.
This willful tricksiness begins with the collection's title. Just what is an anti-basilisk, anyway? Rather than providing a definition, Christopher Middleton makes us work for one, scattering frequently contradictory hints throughout the collection. After opening the second section, also called 'The Anti-Basilisk', with two (conflicting) dictionary definitions of 'basilisk' (a fabulous serpent, whose breath, and even look, was fatal or a large piece of ordnance, generally of brass?), he then muddies the water by confiding on the back page that 'I conceive of the basilisk as a monster, all ego, atavistic and implacable.' The bemused reader is left to cobble together a composite definition - which then must be turned on its head to produce a picture of what an anti-basilisk might be.
Within the poems themselves, further clues emerge. Halfway through the collection, an important piece of the puzzle falls into place when the title is recycled again at the top of a poem in which, at last, the dictionary definition and Middleton's own converge. The 'anti-basilisk' of the poem is a real-life anole lizard - quite the opposite, in its zooological exactitude, of the dictionary's 'fabulous'. A chameleon, able to "blend / With a brown or green her modesty settles on", the lizard's habit of fading into the background also suggests a reticence that is the antithesis of Middleton's egotistic basilisk.
The lizard's obscurity is established in the first line of the poem, where she is identified by her lack of identity ("Some locals now don't even know her name"), and confirmed by glancing, doubtful descriptions ("Perhaps the dark torments her ...") which suggest the poet's unwillingness to strip away her camouflage by bringing her too sharply into focus. Even the pride she might have taken in her modesty has been eroded; while it was once "a thrill to vanish, now it is old hat".
This quest for a point where "self evaporates into the cries of birds" is the defining feature of Middleton's highly intellectual, experimental collection. The basilisks he seeks to defeat are all ego, so he counters them with a poetry that is infinitely empathetic, in which the stories of people just as obscure in their way as the anole lizard are told with painstaking care. Anonymous individuals (a "barkeep ... fingering a coffee spoon"; a girl in a restaurant, "hairclip a semicircle of imitation tortoiseshell") appear alongside long-forgotten historical figures.
When famous faces do crop up, attention is deflected from them, as in a poem on Henry V, in which not he but the kitten he discovers "paw sinister lifted / Haptic on a hollyhock pod" is the focus of the poem. In "A Species of Limbo", in which Middleton considers "these old Turks who sit on the terrace", the delicate precision of his portraits of the minutiae of their lives - the way "they sit, hungry for / Music, exchanging an amiable nod / With a neighbour, who calculates the extent / To which the other has washed his nose" - is so intimate that it feels, almost, like a form of love.
Despite his democratic approach to history, however, there are points when Middleton's poetry strays into impenetrability, giving it an unwelcomingly exclusive air. His tendency to pile subclause on top of subclause at times produces sentences so convoluted that three or four attempts are required before sense can be wrung from them.
But such baffling moments are outweighed by those when Middleton's subject matter and supple language come together. Listen to the glory of the final verse of 'Prospecting in Sicily, April 1787', another of Middleton's obscure first-person poems, in which the speaker appears to be a scientist, examining rocks in the crater of Mount Etna. He wakes suddenly in the night and wonders
Had the roof been blown away? What otherwise
Woke me? Overhead I saw the best
And brightest star. Of flowers, thick on the road,
A whiff remembered? Grit needling a shank?
Daybreak: the roof intact, I descried a hole in it;
And scooping Chance into some not indescribable
Design, that starlight, me in total dark, I reckoned,
Had passed through my meridian, a rotary design
Which, come the day, with pen and ink, I'll plot.
The 'plotting' in fact occurs in the final sentence itself, "a rotary design" if ever there was one. Precise, almost scientific punctuation echoes the sense of the lines; the wonderful delayed gratification of the structure combining with the feeling of possibility that daybreak brings. Typically for this author, even that sense of boundless potential is subtly complicated by the fact that just two months after the date given in the title, Etna erupted with devastating violence, destroying much of the island.
In this collection, Middleton makes no secret of demanding from his reader the same dedication to his work that he himself has given. These are poems not so much to be read as studied, requiring serious attention and numerous rereadings. Many readers may choose not to bother. Stick with them, however, and you will find that they give up just as much - far more, in fact - than you put into them.
We thank the Arts Council England for their support and assistance in this interactive Project.
This website ©2000-2013 Carcanet Press Ltd