Carol Rumens: Blind Spots (Seren £8.99)
There’s often an artifice about a group review, like the carefully casual seating arrangement for a dinner party. But all three of these poets – confident writers with long careers – gesture outwards in some way, towards wider reading or engagement, so connections should come naturally. Of the three, Jeffrey Wainwright is the least extrovert. He offers us the most white space around the words – a tactic that demands close attention. Why, it asks implicitly, does these few words, chosen and exposed, matter so much? In the sequence ironically called ‘Mere Bagatelle’, slim, often short, sections eschew as much punctuation as they can without loss of (that key term) clarity. Not starting with a capital and not ending with a full stop gives the effect of notes, almost of work-in-progress. But the end of the process is that any reader who responds to such a challenge helps complete the process by joining in to think.
The challenge is a real one, given the defiantly abstract nature of the ideas on offer: the pure geometry of forms, particle physics and philosophy. Even the world of history, so present in Wainwright’s early work, barely figures among these absolute concerns. Wittgenstein and Whitehead, Penrose and Feynman are there in the text (but so are Homer Simpson and Mr Cooksey the Technical Drawing teacher). Wainwright’s concern is to hold the worlds of ideas, of observation and of emotions together. Quite how interwoven they are does not become apparent till the final pages of the book.
Wainwright’s work has always attracted praise such as‘chaste and scrupulous’ (from Sean O’Brien). He has been in no hurry to publish. It is nine years since his last collection and even this present one was written between 2001 and 2005. You can almost feel the paring back of language in poems which show a constant self-examination: ‘Why did I choose almonds as an image / in this advocacy?’. The opening poem seems to tear itself away by force from an affectionate detail:
but what I am saying is not
to do with longing […]
but with whatever is like and like
within blotch dab patch
and is necessary to think of
and beautiful and
like the loveliness of conjunctions
The suspension of a haughty dryness in all this comes partly from the presence in the corner of our eye of Geoffrey Hill, on whom Wainwright has written in depth. Again and again, I’m ready to catch something like Hill’s lip-curling superiority at the expense of everyday speech:
So, to refer to recent cases, let us simplify
and say that therefore you can step into the same fox twice,
whether it be that one this morning fleeing from the bins,
this one in the knitting pattern or even that Basil Brush,
although he pretends to a name all his own.
The difference, I think, is that similar moments in Hill only pretend to humour at his own expense; Wainwright can do wry self-mockery without arrogance or anguish. There is a grounded humility about the way he brings the pure idea into life. In the Technical Drawing class:
places that have no parts of magnitude –
that do not exist –
will arrive at your desk here on the top corridor
as squares, triangles, parallelograms,
and, between these non-existent points,
we get a table lamp we can take home.
Even the final short sequence, starts with a joke:
call death an observation,
a supplied fact, even more precisely noted,
(though mistakes have been made, ask any Goth)
You do not need to have read the interview in PN Review that reveals the death observed here to have been the author’s mother’s to sense that this is personal and real. Against this, the fastidious abstraction (where precisely is the point that life ends?) and even that curious joke become moving. The human urge to flinch away and the dedication to attention hold each other in tension. All the other lines and points in the earlier poems suddenly refer to that point, as does the question of the ‘point’ of anything, in the epigraph to ‘Mere Bagatelle’ (from Jerry Fodor): ‘A world that isn’t for anything, a world that is just there’.
In Clarity or Death!, almost every poem is prompted by a reading of somebody else’s writing. This isn’t a weakness but a method, announced by the use of quotations both for an epigraph and for a title. It is a conversation and the reader is invited to take part.