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Experiments in Reading: Simon Jarvis' Night Office.

Part four.

You have now attended the launch of Night Office and the following discussion between Jarvis and Rowan Williams. You have blogged a briefish precis of the main points and have spent thelast few days reconciling the poem with what was said. It turns out that your readerly attention has become a bit more focused and things become a bit more pointful. You decide to start with politics:




   How may sand resist the sounding ocean?
   The pearl conceal itself from any hand?
   How may still life decline this restless motion?
   Or poisons lifted from the toxic land?
   All with immediacies of false emotion
   wish to be just, but just which wish will stand
   is as inscrutable as which flesh star
   hid in the brain will undo who you are.

   A second nature of refused perception
   settles upon the city like a mist.
   A bare-faced veil, a disavowed deception
   falls on that cheek which is not to be kissed.
   A curtain to prevent the least perception
   of air's sent brezzes which must not be missed.
   I stare into this wall of aimless skitter
   glared to distraction by its nameless glitter.

   How long does it take perfectly to choke
   all childish intimations of survival?
   With just what thick variety of smoke
   must we so fumigate the new arrival
   that no small squeak improperly evoke
   some unsolved question. There shall be no rival.
   The lisping wish must silently be strangled,
   hung from incautious clauses which it dangled.

   This is the face of arbitrary power.
   A motorway as single as a myth.
   This is the face of nature: this new hour
   fate's fate-made crueltly, kin's crypted kith.
   I am disjected into sands, since some
   prosthetic souls self-distribute to stiff
   think-sticks & grits, earth's loaned excuse for it
   There's no reason, sunshine, just get used to it.

Having just typed this out, you realise just how gloriously complex this material is, one of the many points that Simon made in his chat with Rowan Williams was that 'serious' poetry should aim for a 'conversational' tone (Wordsworth) rather than announce itself as grandly poetic (Coleridge). However, the first four lines of rhetoric do seem to lean more towards the latter. You've felt some relief thus far that 'Night Office' isn't nearly as digressive as 'The Unconditional' but you now notice that the wish to be just doesn't appear to meet its fate for another two stanzas. You're not at all sure about the alliteration (which wish will, kin's crypted kith) but the section as a whole seems to be clunk-free.

The point was made by both Williams and Jarvis last week that we are all complicit in the current order of things and that we all argue from within and as part of that order. The above seems to go some way to describe the ways in which the prevailing order holds us in place. This seems to be primarily about deception by means of both disguise and distraction. The diguise is effected by veils, curtains and mist whereas the speaker is dsiatracted by 'nameless glitter'. You then realise that being driven to distraction relates more to being maddened that having one's attention diverted.

The way in which capitalism disguises its real nature, the fact that it is based on the exploitation of the week by the strong, has been a feature of leftist / marxian thought since the nineteenth century but it does need repeating in these especially difficult times where we are told that the unfettered neo-liberal market is the only game in town. You are onside with regard to this but the argument here goes a but further. The deception is said to be 'disavowed' rather than unseen and this would suggest that we may be aware that we are being conned but that it is a reasonable price to pay if it means we get the 'glitter' in return. So, it isn't that we are hapless victims of Big Late Capital but that we choose to be so, hence the perception that is 'refused'. You recognise that there's a wider point being made and that is that we all participate in this dismality, even those of us who consider ourselves to be in a permanent state of revolt are just as much enmeshed in this glitter as the average hedge fundist. Of course, this is really quite a gloom-laden view of the way things are and it implies that all types of opposition are doomed to fail. You reflect on this in terms of your own 'involvement' with capital and the mechanisms of the state. You find that you are not in the slough of despond on this because you tell yourself that you can still make some things better for small groups of people and if more people did this then the prevailing order would change. You have no doubt that Jarvis is of the view that religious faith is the only thing that may be able to rescue us from ourselves and that even this is very unlikely.

There are things hear to puzzle over:

The flesh star.

You know that this object is hidden away in the brain and that it has the power or the means to put into disarray your identity and/or your sense of self. You realise that a fleshy star doesn't make much sense in itself and makes less sense when placed in the brain. After trying a variety of grammatical permutations you reluctantly dip into the OED and find that one definition of 'star' is "a swelling or tumour in horses" and "a crack or fissure in the skin". Both of these are said to be obscure and of obscure origin, the first use in the 'tumour' sense given as 1607. Things then fit into place because a tumour or swelling in the brain can indeed cause you to lose your sense of self. It does also remain 'inscrutable' (in the sense of being v hard to read or understand) as to how these tumours or growths begin. You're not entirely sure that these things are 'hidden' in the brain or are 'normal' cells which then develop into tumours but this seems a small point at this stage.

You realise that in going for this option, you are gliding over all of the theological and liturgical connotations that cluster around 'flesh'.

The unkissed cheek.

You start with the obvious. As part of his deal with the Romans, Judas Iscariot identified Jesus in Gethsemane by kissing him on the cheek. So, this is an act of betrayal masquerading as affection. The cheek here is specific, it is that cheek rather than any other and it is the subject of a deception which is recognised as such but is not acknowledged or accepted. The veil that falls on the cheek and thus disguises it is said to be 'bare-faced' which you take to mean something that is brazen, that makes no attempt to hide its nature.

You spend a little while longer on this act of betrayal. Most Christians are of the view that Christ's execution was pre-ordained, that he had to go through the agonies of the cross in order to redeem mankind. You therefore find it difficult to be critical of Judas' actions even though you know (on a reasonably superficial level) the convoluted arguments around free will and faith. You also note that Judas makes an appearance or two earlier in the poem.

It then strikes you that if this cheek is not kissed then Christ is not identified and therefore escapes arrest, trial and execution and that this would negate the 'point' of Christ's mission. At this point your brain starts to hurt and you move elegantly on to:

The incautious clauses.

You decide that it might be best to put these two lines into a more extended prose- This awkwardly pronounced wish / desire / aspiration for justice (fairness) must be killed, cease to exist, must die by hanging and the gallows used must be constructed from these rash or spontaneous clauses. You then consider that the wish might relate to the 'new arrival's' inability to ask questions. You reason that a clause is usually something that qualifies or puts some detail on a main 'point'. A contract, for example, may be about an agreement to buy something at a specified price but the clauses may relate to the time and manner of delivery or to the nature of the payment. A clause is also part of a sentence which provides additional, but not essential information.

You then move on to this wish to be just which you note is different from a wish for justice or fairness. To be just is to your mind to live a life that is guided by ethical and moral principles and this brings you back to the intractable problem of behaving ethically whilst benefiting from a culture and a system which is fuelled by and predicated on greed and avarice. Of course you are aware that ethics is a very big subject indeed and that there are many conflicting views on what a just and fair society might look like. You are aware of your own clauses in that you think it is reasonable to be tolerant and accepting of difference but this frequently clashes with your opposition to exploitation of the weak by the strong and the fact that you a very intolerant of those who aren't as tolerant as you. You also reflect that you were employed for many years to 'contain' various elements of youth crime and your justification for this sad fact is hedged around with very many clauses that may or may not be incautious.

It is the wish that is strangled, not the person who is making the wish and it is the wish's qualifying clauses that provide the support for this execution. You then recall the school of thought that believes that Christianity has been in continuous decline since the death of Christ because to original 'message' of the gospels has been distorted and twisted by an ever-increasing number of embellishments, schisms and points of difference that might be seen as clauses. You're not sure about this, being fairly suspicious of any appeal to a pristine or less complex past.

Motorways and power.

In your head Simon Jarvis is the poet of the Great British road network. You could go on for a very long time about how this is Obviously the Case but on this occasion you are completely mystified because you've no idea how this particular metaphor is supposed to work. You decide that the ambiguity in arbitrary ( relaiting to the discretion of an arbiter or judge and the unrestrained use of power) should stand. We may be meant to view the big road as a straight or direct route without any room for meanderings or (perhaps) clauses. The singleness of a myth however remains completely baffling.

Fate and the crypted kith.

You decide to start with fate and how the workings of fate can seem to be unfair and unjust. Of course you don't believe in fate but there are many Christians who believe that our future is pre-determined and whatever an individual may do will not change the course of events. This can appear 'cruel' because there is no guarantee that living a moral and selfless life will lead to personal salvation. The OED has a number of definitions of kin around members of the same family or group but also as " A crack, chink, or slit; esp. (a) a chasm or fissure in the earth; (b) a chap or crack in the skin" which puts a slightly different light on things, this chasm may be the abyss or it might be the route to hell. 'Crypt' as a verb is absent from the OED so you surmise that this either means to inter in a crypt (as in an underground vault) or to encrypt as in to transform into some form of code so that the content is hidden or obscured. This 'works' if you take kin to be a form of knowledge. It may therefore be that this knowledge refers to our fate which is known by God but hidden from us.

Getting used to it.

This now appears less cynical because a pre-determined future is dependent on God's will which transcends any kind of human reasoning. The other possibility is that our current culture is becoming increasingly devoid of thought and we are no longer able to reason for ourselves what might be going on.

You feel reasonably pleased with this foray into the gubbins of the poem but you do wonder how would have fared if you hadn't attended the launch. Of course, the majority of Jarvis readers didn't attend and won't have as much context and may indeed by deterred by the density of this material, which is a pity.