We’ll do the puppy dog enthusiasm first. Anyone with even a passing interest in English poetry in the 21st century needs to obtain a copy of Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ which was published by Eyewear at the end of last year. This is because his work is important and exciting and more challenging than almost everything else that I’ve read in the last ten years. End of the tail-wagging thing.
One of the recurring themes in Jarvis’ very broad range of work is the plight of the middle aged bloke, one of the other themes/interests is the Great British road network. I’ve had a few problems with the bloke thing because it’s felt scratchy but never quite scratchy enough although there are elements of ‘The Unconditional’ that come close. The usual Jarvis angle on the Bloke Thing is the troubled issue of complicity with regard to cash and the extent to which we all have to play capital’s game. Many, many middle aged writers do this and most of it is an extended whinge about how difficult life is and how the ways of the world force us into new depths of melancholic sadness. The Jarvis take is usually more effective than this and the first poem in this collection raises the Bloke Thing to new heights of non-wallowing expression. These are the opening lines of ‘Lessons and Carols’
The ring road rests, and frost settles over the meadow; down at the river the lights are strung out into faint points of attention and silence envelops the dark. Here I am standing again on the path on the edge of the city. Here I am set with a face looking up at the black exit from lighting, the place where the money runs out.
This sets the scene for an elegaic account of Bloke Things which seems to use metre to set up a kind of incantation effect. I’ll deal with this shortly but I think the most striking feature of the above lines are their lyrical strength- I’m particularly fond of ‘faint / points of attention’ and ‘the black / exit from lighting’ because both do clever and evocative things in a few words. The ‘points of attention’ manages to be both lyrical and complex without seeming to try.
I’m going to ignore the ringness of the resting road for the moment and talk a bit more about this Bloke Thing. There has always been a miserablist faction within the Bloke school of poets and this kind of self-lacerating exhibitionism has won more than a few plaudits and continues to do so. This is fair enough, there’s obviously a readership for what Drayton once call ‘ah, me’ verse but I find it inherently dishonest and reasonably loathsome so I approach the Jarvis forays into this territory with a degree of prejudice. It turns out here that he’s not pleading for sympathy but delivering a thesis that’s been one of his semi-formed bones of contention for a while. He’s also elaborating on the Bloke as Dad gizmo in a way that Doesn’t Quite Work.
We’ll continue with the retail problem, J H Prynne is more than a little scornful of the devices used to get us to buy things but Jarvis seems intent on taking this to a new level:
Each knows, sees us. Although we can never believe it, under this laboured neutrality lurks a persisting terror of scorning them, terror of giving offence to them. We must by gifts; we must come to the store, leaving our monoglot offerings there at the checkout leaving with objects apparently filled up with life.
Most blokes will confess to disliking shopping (I’m banned from shopping because of my obvious desire to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible) but this is an analysis, description of how retail is supposed to work on our soul and make us feel inadequate if we don’t participate to the full. It’s very well done and sustained through most of the poem and I like it because it gives me something to test my own prejudices and phobias against- I’ve long been of the view that we can’t live on this planet without being compromised by the money machine and that retail does a reasonable job of pulling us in further by means of deception and guile but I’m not convinced that in the many Blokes there ‘lurks a persisting terror’ of ignoring the whole rigmarole. In fact I think most people are aware of the compromises involved and ‘succumb’ anyway- which is probably more worrying but akin to the feeling that the current austerity binge is somehow our fault.
I’m not sure that ‘apparently’ works on the last line but the rest is another example of Jarvis using metrical constraint to get his point across.
The road/driving motif is preserved with
the telephone smooth as a baby, the shallow recessed hand-holds which welcome me into my family car, all are quite empty of thought or motive: all, all think nothing at all, think all that a stone thinks or less than it. All that I feel for them floats in an ether of foolish half-waking conjecture, cutting the circuit short just where thought might become painful, might tell me how to wake up.
This is brilliant because it uses simple objects and our feelings about them to make a wider point. It doesn’t matter that the point has been made many times before- what matters here is the ery human elegance with which it is expressed. The ‘ether of foolish half-waking conjecture’ is wonderful and currently the subject of some debate in the Bebrowed household.
I’m not entirely clear that the dilemma of the Bloke as Dad theme works quite as well because it’s trying to do too many things and has this:
just as a father wants to protect his dear children holds them against him, enfolds them in cuddles, for fear that his own strength will be too small to save them all, knowing he floats like a twig in a river of pitiless money
I am going to come back to this and the conclusion at a later date because I think it needs to be unpicked in the context of the Jarvis Project as a whole but for now I’d like to conclude that this is brilliantly expressed, thought-provoking stuff and that ‘cuddles’ really doesn’t work on any level. At all.