Everything looks like something else.
This new anthology of Peter Didsbury’s work collects poems published over the last 20 years and presents them, curiously, in reverse chronology, so that the most recent work comes first, and the oldest languishes at the end of the book. Consequently we see not the development of themes and concerns but their regression, forcing us to recognize that poets’ work both changes and remains unchanged through time, and that within change reside continuities of reference, of tone, of the manners of dealing with words.
One of Didsbury’s recurring concerns is precisely this theme, of how words work in poems to generate meanings. He writes in the long tradition of the English eccentric, weirdly both inhabiting and residing somewhere outside of normal reality, and his poems offer versions of that reality that approximate and then diverge wildly from common experience. The common remains in the words used (referred to in ‘The Barn’ as “The names of common things”), although as he develops backwards in this book, he displays increasing proclivities for the lexically bizarre, the etymologically obscure.
Didsbury’s profession of archaeologist doubtless has much to do with how his poems construct themselves, offering seemingly discovered fragments which in themselves seem superficially recognizable and safe, but which, when conjoined together, offer glimpses of an alternative world, an unknown civilisation lurking in the foundations of our own. In this sense Didsbury shares much with British experimental poetry of the 1960s and its concerns with ‘defamiliarising’ the world and the reader, and with offshoots emerging later, like Craig Raine’s ‘Martian’ poetry, in which common things are represented through an outsider’s sometimes baffled perception. There are echoes, too, of other poetic archaeologies, like those of Geoffrey hill and Seamus Heaney.
But Didsbury also shares much with an older generation of experimentalists, influenced by Surrealism and its insistence on the fragmentary, the incoherent and the unconscious as the essential truths of modern experience (no surprise, then, that one poem here should be titled ‘A White Wine for Max Ernst’). His poetry, read in completeness as it’s presented here, is reminiscent of the world of Edward Upward’s The Railway Accident, a wholly English but utterly impossible social landscape of oddities and incongruities.
So ‘Clues’, the penultimate and therefore nearly earliest poem in the book, is, we are informed in the notes, constructed from “consecutive clues of a crossword puzzle” (that typically English pastime), leading to a seemingly incomplete narrative, a fragment of a “fraught and interrupted Odyssey”:
twittering, failed to script soliloquies for night long watch
filled with dread made a queue
now Friendly Isles rescind an oared craft, and put into words unhappily face covers like tough old beans
Each fragment seems both to connect to the others and to gesture towards a different text entirely, another narrative of which we hear only the echo or see only the shadow. The lone punctuating comma in the middle of the poem suggests another linguistic pattern from the one we read, another kind of tale being told.
Didsbury offers at various points in this book his own clues to understanding his poems. ‘An Egregious Talent’ parodies Auden’s ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’, and Auden himself appears momentarily in ‘The Flowers of Finland’: “After my head hit the windscreen / I thought of Auden’s words / that without a cement of blood they would not safely stand”. Elsewhere ‘The Guitar’, itself an echo of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Man with a Blue Guitar’ blurred together with Coleridge’s ‘The Aeolian Harp’, reworks Auden’s ‘Jumbled in the Common Box’ (“Lunatic, driver and diesel all look up. / Their faces assume an almost communal rictus.”).
Such allusions offer their own crossword-like complexities, and make reading Didsbury a sometimes demanding pleasure (“Art”, he notes in ‘Gillan Spring’, “concerns itself with the difficult and the good”). His poems are typically loose in form, offering an internal, self-generating rhythm, which relates to that of the English of the King James Bible, as the closing lines of ‘A Shop’ imply:
[. . .] On a distant sphere where the fog and the bells On the doors of the shops on the islands like dark gems Conspire to evince a permanency of winter I doubt I am licensed to portray, And which causes me to end these verses simply, With what, when that large book is opened, I pray it may contain, which is itself a prayer.Didsbury’s poems are “unstable munitions” (‘The News’) in which language and the world become momentarily (and potentially explosively) confused, the former suddenly replacing the latter, with almost absurd ostentatiousness, as the primary focus of attention:
I hoped that when the evening finally came, as it has, I might find some words about English coastal parishes, each with its beacon, spire, gallows, ragstone tower or en-hillocked elm as landfall, to be battered towards by crumster, cog and barque through stillicidous arras or wrist-wraithing bone-racking sea-wroke. (‘The Seventeenth of June’)One consequence of this, as these poems know well, is that the poem becomes mere words, merely playing at being significant:
The trouble with language, here and now, is that it’s riddled with devices, far more tropes than we ever teach our children, more ways of saying nothing than anything else. (‘Saying Goodbye’)These lines come from the final poem in the book. Nearly everything that precedes them demonstrates the opposite, as if Didsbury’s subsequent career were a sustained and largely successful effort to disprove his original assertion.
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