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Review of Collected Poems - Frances Leviston, the Guardian13 September 2008
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Frances Leviston is entranced by an inventive, engaging collection
If the 19th century was about controlling the environment, then the 20th was about admitting how it controls us in return: 'One is not duchess / A hundred yards from a carriage,' wrote Wallace Stevens, crystallising in a single line any number of cultural and sociological drives, from Leninism to linguistic relativity. Christopher Middleton, now in his 80s, whose early publishing career overlapped for a decade with Stevens's, is one of the few British poets to have kept exploring this Modernist territory right up to the present day, as his vast and inventive Collected Poems shows. 'I exalt a space ripening and continuous,' he writes; and such spaces are not just physical, not just the interior of a house or the shape of a dress (he has a wonderful poem, Chanel Always Now, on the rise of the fickle fashion industry), but imagined and spoken, too.
This is perhaps to be expected from a linguist. Having spent his academic career at the University of Texas as a professor of modern languages, Middleton is well aware of the different worlds available to different tongues, and better equipped than most to resist his own centrality. The poems hardly ever come from a distinct poetic 'I', but instead are turned outwards to explore the 'developable surfaces' that lie all around. He models for us all manner of landscapes - Cornwall; Texas; a tussock moth's wings; shipyards; refugee camps; the interior of a nude photograph, where mystery is 'buttressed at one end by the puckered wall / of stone and plaster, at the other end / by the gaze exploring all without distress'. Seemingly untrammelled by his own nationality, Middleton's visions of Italy, Mexico and Russia are equally bold and convincing: 'at the valley's other end a slope of roofs / this maze long abandoned by the tinkling animals / old stone room inhaling all the winds' (Petrarch's Country).
Environment leads, naturally enough, to ecology: Middleton has amassed many poems that might now retrospectively be folded into the emergent 'ecopoetry'. Old Woman at the County Dump describes someone who lives among 'All the stuff / people have left, beyond and behind, / marching toward a world of absolute deodorants, / infallible laxatives', and would seem to prefigure Derek Mahon's better-known trash poems. Middleton is also drawn to obscure plants (opoponax), reptiles (the coral snake, the anti-basilisk) and insects, and merely by considering them intelligently, no hand-wringing whatsoever, makes plain how much they enrich our world. An early poem, The Greenfly, which reads as freshly as if it were written yesterday, considers how the singularity of a greenfly on a train window makes it impossible to kill: 'Some evenings I squirt / Swarms of your kind with a reliable poison. / Here it may not be the same.' The poem effortlessly reaches back, towards the battlefields of the second world war, as well as forwards into the future, where 'the killing' will undoubtedly go on, without ever needing to explain itself. It is enough that the speaker is on a train; it is enough that we, too, want to protect our 'one or two roses'.
Such a genteel, orderly piece, being just one facet of Middleton's talent, is inevitably followed by something more resistant. He experiments restlessly, provocatively, with allusion, quotation, typography, tone, only occasionally succumbing to the chaos that all experimental poets risk. His command of idioms, and the huge vocabulary at his fingertips, are quite astonishing; and by letting all fields of reference into his work - from poststructuralism to hick-talk - he offers us poetry equal to the world it depicts, but always with a radical undertow that saves it from being inertly permissive. Ballad of the Putrefaction, from 1996's Intimate Chronicles, tells of an angry poet (referred to as 'himself') and his plan to write a 'poem of hateful persons, / Nobodies governing nations without any sense of what's what'. Alongside the usual gripes about weapons deals, 'himself' broods on the absurdity of power and the words in which it's formed:
Typically one who ordered a total
change of trees
Resenting the way leaves tore loose
from a sycamore
Himself too mumbled how their
language formulaic and glib
Formulaic and numb and belittling
gave rhetoric a bad name
Mouse gray their claptrap squeaking
Instead of lampooning the impulse to write a poem that will 'shine through air in the darkest places / So its voices will banish the fug they spread', Middleton lets it speak for itself, in all its mad glory, and in doing so produces a poem more intelligent and moving than the intended protest rant could ever be.
As well as revisiting collections as exciting as The Lonely Suppers of WV Balloon, anyone already familiar with Middleton's work will be pleased to find new poems here, especially the keenly piteous Chekhov at Sumy: 'While he slept, / One lung, or both, might have whistled / So entertainingly, the light-winged / Dryads of the wood joined in.' Perhaps there are times, in The Tenor on Horseback for example, where an enthusiasm for continental philosophy or theology can seem to overwhelm the structure in which it appears; but such occasional imbalances are a small price to pay for genuine metaphysical engagement. Anyone who wants to peer into the corners of the language, and who feels they're ready for a challenge, will find enough insight and innovation in this collection to keep them happy for years.
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