I have been one acquainted with the night…
Anne Rouse’s poems belong to the school of modern verse that relies on careful, detailed observation of reality as it presents itself to the poet. The poem is a record of that reality, rendered in words that most appropriately convey impressions and express the poet’s responses. At its most extreme, this approaches the experiments of concrete verse, like the formal innovation of ‘Starlings’, a poem read upwards in a curve across the page, imitating the sweep of a flock of starlings. Each poem, each sequence of observations and comments, is located, in The School of Night, within a wider structure that organises the collection as a whole, which offers a nocturnal sequence of instruction stretching from dusk till dawn, a poetic long night’s journey into day.
Rouse’s style is condensed, abbreviated, circumstantial—openings are abrupt, swiftly precipitating the reader into the poem. ‘A God at the Audition’ begins with “A god attended the audition”, no explanation, no rhyme or reason to the apparently surreal inaugural event, until the poem itself becomes a kind of curtailed explanation for itself, its own rhyme and reason an elaboration of its own conceit (man makes God in his own image; divinity is revealed as a performance, like any other identity). Ezra Pound’s ‘The Return’ nestles beside Judith Butler, both are domesticated, and the poem, its unobtrusive rhymes and formal coherence gently working on us, proceeds on its odd, disconcerting way.
Rouse, an American by birth, studied in London, and writes poems largely situated in that most poetically familiar of ‘unfamiliar’ territories, the city of London at night. While this tendency is occasionally bucked, for example in the oddball pastoral of poems like ‘Cattle Among Trees’ or the prehistoric fantasy of ‘Tyrannosaurus’, its city streets that we’re led back to and then through, the terrain of modern poets since James Thompson and Jules Laforgue (W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz recently claimed to walk the entire length of the city in a night). If T.S. Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ offers a template for this brand of modernism, Rouse adapts it to her own purposes, and The School of Night, her third collection, extends and particularises the metaphor of alienated poet as nightwalker.
Eliot lurks in the background at several points (as he does with much contemporary writing). ‘Curtains’, with its “great aunts” and “their little ways”, evokes the domestic scenes of Eliot’s ‘A Cooking Egg’ or ‘Portrait of a Lady’, but adds a sprinkling of gothic menace in “That sound in the eaves of the loft, too - / a child imitating a ghost, steadily cooing / or playing a recorder, badly.” In ‘Outcome’, “The hurried voice as beating rain, / the driven breath as stubbed-out-on-the-floor” evokes “the burnt-out ends of smoky days” of ‘Preludes’.
Rouse takes up and transforms these allusions, offering a postmodern take on modernist convention. Her imagery ultimately belongs to her: in ‘Fort DeWitt’ we enter “Safeway’s opulent chill”, a wonderful phrase redolent of the air-conditioned consumerist aisle of plenty; ‘Aura’ opens in another marketplace at dawn, when “A winter sun is fingering the stalls, / slowly lightening, like milk in tea” before “a woman / rigid as a crane, and elder Fury / in descent, who angles fiercely for / a bargain lime-green double-pack”. These are images of the urban present, lamenting the reduction of the world to market forces (“that long violence”, the poem calls it), the limiting of human desires. This reinvests images of modern alienation and dehumanisation with pertinent political force and adds weight to Rouse’s observations.
‘The Awkward Guest’, the longest poem here, offers a kind of condensed summary of Rouse’s style and themes. The poem, oddly narrative, meditates on identity and history, reading the self off against its actions, always second-hand (at its heart is “the Heart Fund charity shop”), derivative, coded by generic conventions made manifest as competing voices: “The ghost of the Gothic peered in
A relic of the Real snorted…”. The self becomes an awkward guest within the house of itself, a Jamesian house of fiction haunted, like Thornfield Hall, by the apparent ghosts of previous selves: “A single self, a dark and distant girl, / rippled deep, as if to disappear…”.
The final section presents a clearer summary of the poem’s philosophy of identity:
The lived Ibeing above all, diffuse,
poised in the door of all its open rooms,
a rebus; an Egyptian eye, vase water -
to say I vow, is like kneading mist,
but there is another, tangible verb.
The “other, tangible verb”—“I am”, perhaps?—is, nevertheless, resisted, as if the poem cannot bring itself to assert its own singular existence.
Rouse is sometimes a demanding poet, requiring from the reader the kind of concentration she’s clearly invested in the poems. Brevity is a virtue here, each poem a snapshot in words, or a sequence of images gesturing outwards, away from the contingent and specific into the general. ‘Nocturne’ (again that echo of Eliot) starts with another description of those “Great aunts in wicker chairs”, familiar symbols of a world of memory (“a pink 50s kitchen”), lost; the poem departs the drawing room of the past and moves into the streets of the present, the alleys, the sky, the universe:
The tree in the alley dangles its claws
over the green, and ghostly blooms.
The sky, night-streaked and opaque,
Turns outward to the ignorant distances.
To move so swiftly and with such assurance (that ‘ghostly’ both adverbial and adjective, the tree blooming over the blooms beneath it, large and small simultaneously rendered) from the trivial to the grand, and to place each so carefully in relation to the other, requires poetic skill. There are plenty of such moments in The School of Night.