Here's the now standard disclaimer, I've known John for about four years, between last year and this we worked togather on an annotated web version of his Trigons. As with all of my poetry contacts I admired John's work before I knew him.
For new readers, John is an important poet on either side of the Atlantic, Guy Davenport (who knows more than most) described him as one of the five best poets in the US. I can't argue with that but I would add that John's work is the most technically skilled contemporary work that I know of, it's also packed with humanity and intelligence. All of these tick the arduity boxes especially when the difficulty arises from the multitude of proper names that feature in John's longer work.
Pages is in five parts and runs to 39 pages so I'm going to deal with one part at a time over the next few weeks because I do have a lot to say and I like to keep arduity pages reasonably short. The work as a whole is subtitled from a book of years and is a wonderful mix of memoir and world history relating to specific years from 1941 to 1966.
The sequence as a whole 'feels' more improvised than most of John's work but this disguises the fact that this is tightly structured work with a conversational tone that is actually doing quite complex things. Part One is in five sections, features 1959 and starts with the personal:
1959. And underneath the photographs names of people you can count as if they numbered works and days and years: one and one by one become again these Davids, Joels, & Fayes and 1959's about to flower flame again to 1960, 1961 The flower in the flame. The fame of that. Those days. People you could count who counted then. David, Joel and Faye, Margaret, Ann, and Mar- garet-Ann; Sondra, Bonnie, Lisa, Lennie, Kaye. Luck (to sister life) you'd think was little more than winning dashes, listening to jazz at Marty's 502, kissing Cora with your left hand up her skirt in that black and bat- tered Studebaker Lark. Boris Pasternak, I'd say. I'll bet not one of you has read a word of Boris Pasternak, I didn't mean his novel. Sister Life, I'd say, I loved the title, hadn't read the poems. My Sister Life. I'd run until I felt like I could fly, then stand under ice-cold showers for an hour. The tingle of well-being being well inside the brackets of a decade for another several months
John was eighteen in 1959 and in Ohio, I was four and in a slowly dying industrial town in North East England so I have little or no memory of 1959 except the ongoing excitement about space flight. There's more than a few very clever things going on in the above, there's the play on yearbook and the book of years (almanac / history book / collection of facts and stats) for one particular year. In addition we have the creative and religious connotations running through the numbering of 'works'.
Ther'e also the 'mixing' of four elements: Pasternak; athletics; sex and the sketch of John's peers. On a personal level, the people who 'counted' takes me straight back to the various levels of social, academic and creative status that prevailed in my sixth form. I tended to be in the last of these with a bit of politics thrown in. We (mostly jazz musicians and poetry types) affected to scorn those at the top of the social pile as being superficial narcissists and us as being 'deep' and without pretence. The thing that comes back to me is just how rigid these things were with very few having a foot in more than one camp. Over the past few months I've become more aware that I come to poetry (rather than other literary forms) to re-consider my own experiences rather than some kind of aesthetic appreciation.
In this vein, I have to confess that I haven't read a single word that Pasternak wrote. My first excuse is that at the age of nine or ten, I was dragged by my mother no less than four times to see Dr Zhivago and have yet to recover from the experience, the second is that, many moons ago, those of us who considered ourselves to be ideologically 'sound' viewed Pasternak's fitful relationship with the Soviet regime with more than a little disdain, preferring Mandelsatam, Tsetaeva and others who were more visible and less equivocal opponents of the regime. The interweb, however, tells me that Sister Life, Pasternak's second collection of verse, was published in 1922 - more than ten years before Stalin's purges. I'm now aware that this collection 'revolutionised' Russion poetry and had a strong influence on both Mandelstam and Tsetaeva so I'll now have a look at it.
II is a little more eclectic and needs a bit more readerly work, this is a good example:
Blue Wave I put my hand directly up her skirt and she did not say no don't do it didn't say a thing so I kept it there a moment just above the knee and then began advancing slowly with my fingertips blue wave, blue wave And out there somewhere Viscount Charles John Lyttelton Cobham. This year Raymond Chandler died and so did Abbott's friend Costello. It's hard to think of Abbott all alone his eyes upon Costello's derby hang- ing on the hatrack in the hall. For days you keened in grief for Errol Flynn your only child's Robin. General Marshall, Admiral William Halsey also on the list. And Ike in tears. Who'd say weep my love for
I'm using the above to illustrate the occasional name-density in some of John's work but also to point out that this is a compressed and intensified version of what a yearbook does. It's also what national newspapers do at the end of each year, as well as the major natural disasters and notable sporting events. I always read these things even though I know that I already know the deaths, disasters and results that matter for me. It's as if I feel that I benefit from some kind of line to be drawn under what's gone before. Of course all of this is of little use later on, I find I've forgotten most of what I was certain that I would remember. For example, I'm decidedly hazy on the year of the UK miners' strike and on the introduction of Cruise missiles on to British soil even though I was very active in both events. I know that Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, and Eric Morecambe are all dead but I have no idea when they died.
There's also a brief list of the jazz musicians that John and his friends were listening to in '59- Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Dave Brubeck. In my eighteenth year we were listening to and imitating Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Roland Kirk whilst revering Monk and arguing long into the night about Davis.
So, for me as a reader, there's this compare and contrast readerly activity going on- think I also need to report that I was sexually active a few years before John and I don't recall that much tentative fumbling going on. One of the main reasons that I consume creative material in general is to compare my own perspectives and experiences with others.
The second appearance of the Viscount underlines the forgetting that we all do. The first section ends in this:
in time you do forget well almost all of it the whole damn thing goes almost blank goes wholly blank in time for Governor-General Viscount Charles John Lyttleton Cobham, say.
I have to confess that I've had a brief look on the interweb and it transpires that the Viscount was Governor-General of New Zealand in 1959 but didn't actuall die until 1977. As you might expect, at a similar age (and ever since) I had no idea who the UK's Governor-Generals were for anywhere except perhaps when one ousted Whitman in Australia and the one that was responsible for the Falklands at the time of the Argentinian incursion (both names I've forgotten and couldn't tell you the dates of either).
III moves on a year and we have Krushchev bangs his shoe and Ingemar Johansson / knocks out Floyd Patterson amongst others. The sense of an improvised riff continues to include spelling competitions, the tv quiz show scandal, the space race, jazz, John's prowess or otherwise at athletics compared with the Russian 50km walker, chess, other board games and politics all in a page and a half.
On a personal note, I now realise that 1960, when I was five, was the time I started to take an interest in public events. I know this because I remember the furore arising from Johansson's (who was European and white) victory. I also recall the wonder that we all felt at the ongoing space race,although I've forgotten most of the details. The poem ends with the satellite Explorer VI falling from the sky in 1961.
A further confession, I've never heard of Jimmy Giuffre but John has I liked Guiffre, the strange sound of his trio and goes on to name the other two musicians in the 1958 group. The Wikipedia article tells me that the 1961 trio was thought by some one of the most important groups in jazz history, exploring the possibilities of free jazz in a less raucous manner than either Albert Ayler or Archie Shepp. I consider myself an afficianado of this particular 'thread' and am mystified as to my ignorance, especially as Paul Bley and Steve Swallow formed the 61 trio. Obviously, the next step for me is to track this stuff down.
IV introduces a poignant note that will be followed through the rest of the sequence:
Between your visits to the nursing home you burrow into all the secret delves of what once was your house, turning up most anything: decom- posing diaries; a list of cities where you thought you'd like to live; names for the year that has locked you in its book.
This is one of the many examples of John's skill, it's clear from the opening line that one or both of John's parents are in a nursing home and that the family home is uninhabited and there is a reflection on the remaining detritus which form some of our earlier memrories. I'm sure that most of us can identify with this, even if we haven't yet burrowed. The brilliance arrives with the last phrase and the way in that the 'locking' is something that we all feel about what time does to us and how that fixity 'works' for us.
This is followed by places and events, then there is:
Or in Santiago in the eastern Oriente province or in Santa Clara in Las Vilas. First the local victories. Then an armored column moving on Havana, In the thinnest air, Edmund Hill- ary's on Mt. Makulu in Nepal. At 20,000 feet there's no sign of Yeti. You sign you name and sign your name again. The checks, the powers of at- torney, living wills. You find the bottom lines and cross your ts. Take me home she said don't sell the house I can't remember quite which one you are you know I don't live here I'm only visiting.
The Cuban revolution, the conquest of peaks, the processes that may be gone through when a parent is no longer capable of looking after their own affairs together with the heartbreaking statement ('only visiting') made by very many elderly people in residential care. The next line brings us to Batista and the Dalai Lama. This personal note is presented in a matter of fact way as a kind of counterpoint to the surrounding events.
V is a little more abstract, in the middle of an extended riff on hats we have:
Distant Early Warning scanned the millenary sky. When teleologists took Alpha from our almanac, Omega wept. Rebel hit-men on the margin became hatters. Barkan, Brinkley,Bowen Cash; Giles, Goss and Griffin. What were they to Advertising, Aeronautics? Taken from aback, Zoetrope and Zero; but underneath the photographs such confidence: not a single future written off as bankrupt. Nor as death from aneurysm. Not a battered bride. These who'd be the doctor law- yer businessmen and engineers demand a potency beyond their prime and potentate. Look at Shah Mohammed smiling warmly from his page. Why ever should he not? He married young Queen Farah in Decmber and is hoping for a male heir. as Lunik III observes the far side of the moon and Don Fidel the progress of a hundred executions in a single hot and humid afternoon.
This puts me back into compare and contrast mode, I remember the sixties as primarily one of optimism, a time when things, thanks to science and technology, could only get better, when future prosperity and ease was inevitable. In the above, this 'mood' is undermined by the marriage of the Shah of Iran who ruled with a particularly vicious brutality, was maintained by the British and American governments solely because of Iranian oil reserves and was overthrown by the Shia clerics.
The cosmic 'element' frames this pasage of faux optimisim yet this also relates to the bonkers mentality of the Cold War, as in an early warning of your imminent destruction would enable you to inflict the same on your enemies. I've also just realised that I'd forgottent the sad fact that both sides still have enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the planet many times over......
There is a sobering perspective placed almost at the end of this first part:
You thought, of course, the future would be yours- as did Che and JFK. Instead you'd be the future's, which would make a meal of you.
Is this right? Are we somehow possessed by the future? Does everything we do have an increasingly precise objective in mind? What does it mean to be eaten destroyed by what might happen- is this about our 21st century fears and anxieties or does it relate to something more general throughout history.?
I hope I've demonstrated the claims that I made above. My other general observation is that John is very good at creating an impression of a place and time, an impression that says something quite profound about all our relationships with our cultural and political past.
Pages is published in John's Collected Longer Poems which is available from Shearsman.