Felix Cassiel on

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‘To have with decency knocked that a Blunt should open,’ says Ezra Pound, in his eighty-first Canto, ‘this is not vanity.’

An old man, looking back upon his own vanity, and burdened, as he was, with a painful far-sightedness, Pound offered to the generation succeeding him those gentle words, that the new artistic liberties delivered unto them may not be accepted outright, nor their worth assumed at face value. The craftsman knowing the rules of his craft knows, too, that they are immutable; the judgement of his fathers is his own judgement; he services his society, and while it is not expected that that society remains precisely as it was when serviced by his forebears, nevertheless, it does not alter so much as to demand from the craft a new set of rules: or, if it has altered to such an extent, it no longer needs the craft at all.

In Sleeper, Jo Colley does not with decency knock, but belabours the door with fist and boot, and screams, I know you’re in there.

To our chagrin, Blunt opens not. Nor, for that matter, do we find ourselves received by any personage, notable or otherwise; the door remains shut, but out of the letter-box comes a vapour, and in that vapour is a collation of images: leather school shoes, Rugby shorts, Latin textbooks, black suits, Homburgs, and Freemasons’ handshakes; identity cards, bulging wallets, and bullet-ridden women. And as the vapour dissipates, our voluble guide turns to us, and asks: What more proof do you need?

Boys. The smell of boys: feet, fart and sweat. Later, testosterone.

The muscle surfacing through puppy fat, hardening. The thunk

Of dropping testicles. The gasp of mass masturbatory rites of

Passage, of toilets flushing over the upturned heads of the

Smaller, less fortunate ones. Cruelty and adoration, pain and

Pleasure, the twin peaks of learning to be a man. Chinese burns,

Floggings, wet towels, the hurling of possessions and items of

Clothing. How on earth do you survive without nanny?

- from ‘Boys’.

Calumny, in literature, is pregnant with risk; a writer, in prosecuting a lust to censure, drastically lim-its the colours of his palette: that he chooses his colours adroitly is of premier importance. Too many colours, and the work falls short of its object; too few, and the reader is bored. It is possible, of course, for a writer so taken with this spirit to use too many shades of the same colour.

Censorious poetry usually is endowed with what may be termed an antiheroic spirit; the writer, implicitly, confesses his limitations, both artistic and moral; and if he does have the gall or wit to erect an edifice before his persona, it is just as nimbly dismantled by the reader, who is too wise to impute any superiority to one whose aim is to drag a brother or sister over the rocks. The best examples of this kind of poetry, then, carry with them an understanding between the author and auditor: the author, in his effort to commit to Hades the object of his ire, must be willing to go there with him.

And if we return to the likes of Juvenal, it is not owing to a desire to feel superior to the characters he renders, but rather to drink from that peculiar and abundant draught of imperfect insight, poured by one who has condemned himself, along with all he describes, to the pit of merciless correction.

This hour each week was like

A poultice on the open wound

Of my alienation, my wrong

Footed scurry through the world

Of academe. How the voice joined up

The bigger things: history, politics,

The great movements of thought

That shaped the world. I sat

In the dark, in love with

Ideas, their power revealed in each

Uncovered layer. So when I read of Blunt,

The minds he touched,

His mannered cleverness, I weigh

This against his snobbery, his

Queen Mum teas. I force myself

To imagine that he cared about

Injustice, about class war, about

The lives of those he never met or knew.

- from ‘Was the Queen Told?’

We note, with regret, a worrisome symptom, and one that persists through much of the work. There is, in the text, a distinct lack of humility; and where there is no humility, there is no humour; and where there is no humour, strong passions are want to go untempered, and in works of animadversion, the stronger passion like an ascendant weed drives out the weaker, and sucks dry the soil from which it grows.

Iconic, back lit, your silhouettes are history

Symbolic of a war that never ends. You

Have the family silver, the Crown Jewels,

And every acre of this land at your command.

You believe - God put you here to rule, to conquer,

And to bask in His glory. We say - the life

Of the mind - ideas have no master. We say -

One day - justice will prevail, the people

Will rise up, and all this will change.

- ‘Class War’

The poet attributes to her enemy recognition of a master, that being God, but is careful not to assign to him piety: the elites, in Colley’s conception, do not fear God, but laud Him only; their religiousness is confined to assigning divine approbation of their own actions (which weakness of mind is not the dominion merely of the elites, of course; status is no bar to believing that what is good is simply that which one happens to do, or say, or think.)

Yet to the poet and her fellows, introduced here as ‘the people’, some other communal treasury is enjoyed: ‘the mind’, populated with ideas that ‘have no master’. Whereas the God of the elites is the giver of material abundance, the people, poor in spirit and resource, recognise no God: if this is said without jest, we cannot but discern its historical, not to mention philosophical, unsoundness; the latter, for as created things, ideas have as master their Creator; and the former, for as history bears out, among the classes it is the one that rules that is first to divest itself of religiousness, and embrace atheism; the common rung is the last, and even when the name of God is no longer on the lips of the poor, the conduct of their interrelations, in the main and indistinctly, retains the commandments.

Those long days. Endless loops of movies in my head,

Our technicolour figures on a beach. He came to me

On the cusp, the high wire act about to fail.

The game was up, before I had a chance to learn

The rules. I shelved my life, flew to a dark airstrip

To meet a man in a dark coat who spoke in his voice.

But it was not the same. He blended with the grey,

Made the alien streets of Moscow a new backdrop.

I needed light, a balcony with a view of the sea,

Restaurants, bouillabaisse. I shivered in my Harrods

Camel coat, incongruous in the bread queue. How

Love thinned in the cold. Did you miss me when I left?

- from ‘Eleanor Brewis’

To a generation conditioned to accept as a given the glamour of espionage, Colley’s objective is clear: our views, conditioned though they are, deserve modification; for the characters before us are not the subclinical psychopaths we have come to know by names such as ‘Bond’, and who have, by their psychopathic acts, brought us hours of mindless entertainment; they are subclinical psychopaths known by names such as ‘Philby’, who have occasioned, by their psychopathy, untold destruction, with impunity.

Even as a child, she was promiscuous, knew

How to get what she wanted by pleasing men.

Her father leaves, her husband’s wedding gift

Is syphilis. She endures the death of a son,

The theft of a daughter. She refuses the blindfold,

Her last sartorial decision. Twelve men eye

Her breasts, hoist their rifles, fire. Margarethe

On her knees, waiting for the coup de grace.

- from ‘Margaretha Geertruida ‘Margreet’ MacLeod’

So much for our foe. But what of the portrait? At once we may surmise the poet does not care much for rich white men, and the richer they are, and the whiter they are, the less she cares for them. Nevertheless, we are to caution ourselves against that proclivity termed reductionism. Colley’s gripe is not with spies, but with the ruling class, not with the individuals, but with their origins. The complaint is not a new one; indeed, one would be hard-pressed to discover a man who had an affection for the ruling class of his country, and if, among those surveyed, there was one who did in fact harbour such a sentiment, it would be disadvantageous, socially and politically, for him to reveal it. The tenor of cultural discourse today is such that the poet’s view must travel far to run into opposition.

In several of the works, the poet seeks the inner life of her subjects, and her goal is to represent it by internal monologue. Too frequently, alas, this quest is stymied by an overriding contempt, which serves only to turn us away at the door. Nevertheless, there are occasions when the device finds its way clear, and we are received hospitably.

Gone, the boy who ran naked through

Gran Hester Meadows, swam in the Cam,

Compact body pink with privilege. Now

You stagger slant through Gorky Park, nothing

Working as it should. You don’t complain: that’s

Not your style. Besides, you know none of it

Will last, try to be stoic, accept the diversion

Of the dream, a paradise lost. A country lost.

You try to be philosophical.

-from ‘Burgess in Bolshaya Pirogovskaya’

Probably the most rewarding pieces in the volume come to us near the end, under the head ‘Motherland’. Here, for the first time, we are granted an unadulterated perspective; here, there is no more assumption, and little conjecture, unlike many of the pieces that preceded it, which relied for their content on textual research, and theories of power, class and manhood, never fully developed, and at times errant, we profit in Motherland through an encounter with Colley’s tenderness; a tenderness which, we suspect, has been forged with some violence, and which, we are happy to note, reveals itself as an operative function in the poet’s intellection: the sentiment is clean, crystalline, and without a hint of excess.

Your feet and my feet on the weathered boards,

Your arm in mine. The stick keeps you upright

In the northern breeze, while the salt air uncovers

The woman I once knew. Years and cares blown

From your face as you drink in the view, recall

All the oceans of your life, from Flamborough Head

To the Great Bitter Lakes, from the Bristol Channel to

Cardigan Bay, to both sides of the German Sea.

What you liked was the way it always changed,

That view from the beach of water on the move.

Later, landlocked, you lived like a stranded dolphin,

Gasping for breath, unable to help yourself, slowly

Collapsing under your own weight,

- ‘Saltburn Pier with my Mother’

It is in these later pages, too, that we discern, for the first time, an earnest attempt at a poetic idiom; hitherto, generally speaking, Colley’s ideas have been delivered to us shorn of any attribute we may term poetic: the production is at all times neat, crisp, and balanced; yet for a true poetic encounter we might trade these in favour of the rough, the imprecise, the uneven: in other words, we would take a big-hearted Gothic failure over a conceited neoclassic certainty.

Nevertheless, there are stanzas that please the ear. Colley is, perhaps, at her most lyrical when utilising sensations recalled from direct experience. The most successful in this regard, ‘Cold Grey Sea’, exhibits the following.

Eyes down, I cased the pebbles, while you

Kept silent, your switchblade tongue

Slid back inside your mouth.

Alone together, we detectorised the stones,

Gathered what we could: aquamarine tears,

Opaque crumbs, mere fragments. Not enough

To penetrate this complicated fog. I took off

My shoes, immersed my feet in the North Sea.

The reader finds himself not unsympathetic: the fog, indeed, is a complicated one, and rifling through the opaque crumbs and mere fragments yields little in the way of instruction: Sleeper gives us a view of history, which is no less than a philosophy; and as a philosophy it must, as John Ruskin would have it, avail towards life, or towards death; and by its fruits we will know it. And by our knowledge of the fruits of Sleeper, not only is our hunger left unsatisfied, but our palate embittered.

Thus we return to our initial concern: what service may a craft provide to a society so altered from that in which the rules of the craft were set? The said rules do not change, and we see this with poetry as with anything else: the rules have not been adjusted, but by degrees removed. To T.S. Eliot’s assertion that No verse is free to the man who wants to do a good job we may find ourselves in wholehearted agreement; yet we confess, too, to a disconcerting observation, that as verse becomes freer, its reason for being becomes more tenuous. If it is argued that certain subjects must be rendered in a manner prosaic, we agree that certain subjects are not fit for poetry. And as the world, and the things in it, become more prosaic, there are correspondingly fewer things for poets to write about. Yet, as the evidence suggests, this does not prevent them from writing. Its effect, indeed, may tend to the opposite: for when rules are relaxed, membership swells. And if the craft of poetry, ‘originally intended’, as Pound claimed, ‘to make glad the heart of man’, is to continue gladdening hearts, it will not do so by its own principles; it will become, instead, merely so much vapour, reflecting images agreeable to our predilections, and its charms will be such as we can get, and will prefer to get, from our amiable espionage thrillers.

Felix Cassiel © 2021