Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Austerities of Sam Riviere 1: Space and Time

Girlfriend Heaven from Grave Berries on Vimeo.

81 Austerities from Grave Berries on Vimeo.

Those are Austerities as film. The website for all the 9x9=81 Austerities poems is here.

Here is one:


I know what you're thinking
it's dull unless they're sex dreams
dreams about violent murders
mine are pretty banal
I dreamed I wrote a poem
beginning "Hi!" and ending "See You Later!"
the middle part was amazing
that's the part I don't remember
I was sitting on a platform high above the jungle
this all feels really familiar
probably from something I've seen on tv
I was dressed up as a witchdoctor
and used this stick of judgement
taking back the names of creatures
restoring them to myth I was doing wisely with it
in my dream the poem didn't have
this assonance that's creeping in
after I'd taken back everything
I kept hold of my stick using it
to designate the categories that really matter
while adding bones and wings to my hat
sitting up here out of danger
I hate this/I like that

I should say I am still supervising the poetry part of Sam's PhD so there is little I can say about the work here, except that much of it is funny and that all of it is ironic in the various senses of the word 'irony' while maintaining an uncanny ear for language, for the way language abstracts itself and winds into itself. 'Austerities' is a complex project of course and no one description will fit.

As for me, I sit and read the work and there is often little detailed to say because of that uncanny ear. It's like watching an alien creature performing some kind of ballet where you know the moves are right. Sam is, of course, one of Faber' New Poets - number 7 in fact - though Austerities is not exactly Faber land as Faber knows it.

But that's as far as I'll go with it because of my continuing engagement with the work. Insead I want to shift, in as graceful a fashion as I can, to the reading last night with Lidija.


In the conversation after the poems - a conversation that is available in part here - she talked of the poetry of her generation in Macedonia and Slovenia in terms of irony, humour, and irony about irony. Her poetry embodies this and here there is a link with Sam's work and, I suspect, with the sensibility of a generation, or at least of some people in that generation.

The irony is particularly engaged in two areas: the area of the self (the frequent use of the pronoun 'I') and the area of time. In talking of Lidija's work Chris McCabe makes mention of 'white noise'. What I understand by 'white noise' the way he uses it, is the sound of time and self as they drift or thrust through language.

I can practically hear myself sighing as I type this, not because I think it is pretentious rubbish, as some might think, or cerebral nail-paring, as others might think. I sigh because I think it is a difficult area to be concise about. I am sighing because I must try, without referring to a bunch of alienating theory. I sigh because I feel it. It is an emotion as much as a thought.


Let me put it this way then.

Once upon a time there was a thing called history, or rather the sense of being in history. History was a more or less grand narrative held together by a series of interrelated events. It was always hard to fix those events too firmly, but one had a sense of them, as of being on a train. Life felt like a long train journey. You were asleep for some of it, dreaming in other parts, but through the window you could see the landscape with its beauties and terrors and boredom; beauties and terrors and boredoms that would haunt your dreams and thoughts. They would haunt them because you knew the train was on a real track with real level crossings, much like my real train was last night that had to stop and slow because some signals by some level crossings weren't working as they should.

The train moved not only through space, of course but, like all trains, through time too. My train was the continuation of my parents' train. Their terrors invaded the train itself. Trains crashed, led to compounds, to death. They were packed and suffocating, filled with the stench of human waste. My train only existed because it had been my parents' train before. My task as a poet was to register their journey as it became mine, or ours, part of the same landscape, night and day, winter and summer.


That train was my sense of history and continues to be. Or, since analogies are only analogies not reality, let me choose another analogy altogether. When Elizabeth Bishop ends her great poem, At the Fishhouses, with the image I have talked about before, in other words -

...I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark grey flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

- I am moved to trembling. I experience an inner shaking brought on by the great paradoxes Bishop perceives: the water being a transmutation of fire drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world being one of those paradoxes, and the less overt paradox of history being a terrible sea that is at the same time a river, that is to say flowing and flown, being the other.

The two monstrous truths are what make great poetry great.The speaker of the poem has a firm identity. Bishop's 'I' in the poem is the staging of a real 'I' - a figure whose experience is completed in the sea/river that is history.

So, sometimes in the past, when people have asked me what sort of poet I am, I would answer, a history poet. Not a historian poet, of course, but one whose grounding experience is one of a knowledge that is historical, flowing and flown.

That means - it must after all mean, for isn't it obvious? - that I am a creature in time, of time, time being, like knowledge, something flowing and flown. You don't put your hand in the same river twice. The generations before me and after me will be putting their hands in a different river. And that would make us alien to each other, each new generation performing an alien riverborne ballet of its own. But the paradox remains: the sea of freezing fire doesn't vanish, it just seems to. But maybe I think that only because I am of the generation within whom such seas rocked and such rivers flowed. Or so it seems. I could start being ironic about irony at this point.

The sense of being in that sea - a sea that is the sensation of being in language as much as the sensation of being at all - may be different for Sam and Lidija's generation. I'll write more about that tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

It might be a generational thing, George, I don't know.I also feel it's a personality thing, though. I too am a history poet. Am in my mid-forties. Does this make a difference ? I know a lot of people round about my age and even older are not history poets at all.

I'm a history poet because I'm a history person, I suppose. Not a professional historian in the sense of writing books about Napoleon, or the rise of the working-classes in the nineteenth century. But still, a history person, sensing how these things and much else press in on us.

Defining image for my generation : the Berlin Wall coming down. I was 22, and a newly-graduated modern language graduate. perhaps that's what makes the difference. That I've spent quite alot of time in Eastern Europe, travelling, teaching, living (and writing) certainly makes a very big difference. But it didn't MAKE me a history person ; that was there already.

George S said...

Yes, perhaps one is born a certain way, as a history person. When I want to be curmudgeonly about this I tell myself the young have nothing to write about. Nothing beyond the personal has happened to them - and everything they have witnessed has come to them filtered through the technologies of our time, technologies that people like Baudrillard regard as constituting another reality - the computer game of the first Iraq War for instance (the one about the occupation of Kuwait). But this is the part I want to explore next.

Before the Berlin War there was Vietnam and Prague 1968. Before that it was the Seven Day War, before that the Cuba crisis, before that Budapest and Suez which is as far as I go back as a child, though my life was clearly conditioned by what had happened before - the War and the Shoah, the fascist Thirties, the break-up of Hungary, and all those Biedermaier buildings of Budapest that signal the Habsburg era.

No doubt some of this will enter into the second post tonight. In the meanwhile, thank you for writing and my best wishes for those history poems.

panther said...

Thank you, George. I'm panther, by the way, not sure why I came up as Anon. Not that I have anything against Anon.