Alan Morrison on
Pessoa – A Vision
Selected by Mario Petrucci
(Perdika Editions 14, 2010)
Simon Jenner’s highly idiosyncratic, modernistic lyricism – armed as it is with an array of polymathic ammunition – is perfectly attuned to the very specific poetic challenge of giving new life to the Proustian scope of heteronyms that were the ingenious signatures of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), who in spite of his great gifts, died in obscurity. So to the uncanny powers of Jenner to reignite the Pessoa legend, disinter those posthumous heteronyms, and sculpt his mediumistic ectoplasm into a whole new interpretation; a fittingly audacious spot of poetic cross-correspondence for Jenner, who also writes poet obituaries for the Guardian.
Jenner’s deeply erudite and involved poems are written via those legion alter-egos of the Portuguese master (some elementary familiarity with these sources is desirable, though not essential, before embarking on this ambitious collection), each of whom had their own opinions and quirks – an ambitious enterprise, a kind of psychic transcribing; but as far as the novice can tell, an ambition matched by a formidable marshalling of language. Not many other poets writing today could meet such a specific challenge as voraciously as Jenner, to whom poetry is a seemingly endless opportunity to rediscover – even renegotiate – language; to knead and stretch its metaphorical possibilities; to manipulate and disorientate its grammatical conventions (one of Jenner’s signatures as a poet, for example, is occasionally turning nouns into verbs, or adjectives).
In spite of its high style and literary erudition, this is not a strictly esoteric work – the accessibly written and informative introduction to Pessoa and his heteronyms at the beginning serves to open the door to the novice; and while the use of language is not for the linguistically faint-hearted, this is no obscurantism, but a rewarding read for those who relish a subtly mined didacticism in their poetry, and an imaginative, highly figurative and suggestive method of conveying it.
Reading these poems, it will probably come as no surprise to the uninitiated that Jenner is also an accomplished painter, as the impasto of his poetry in its dense verbal play illustrates. In ‘Pessoa’s Portrait to Pessoa’, for example, Jenner demonstrates the ocular preoccupation of a connoisseur colourist:
The slowing down of mauve I can face:
Its unnatural chemics striate: cerulean
faded cerise stranding in my nose’s shadow.
Now this is you, artificial but fixed –
moustache hatched in a single scratchy brio,
round the hyperbolic modernismo of my lines.
Note also the accomplished use of alliteration and assonance in, particularly, the last two lines.
What Jenner frequently has in his favour over similarly oblique, even slightly elliptical poets, is his wit, albeit an often surreal one; his capacity at ‘high brow’ humour, as in the hilariously titled ‘Henry More, Platonist, 1614-1916’:
You, sir, are a masturbator, as if
your destiny were a virgin splash of names –
Jenner’s visceral candour is expertly balanced with a sensuousness that makes for some sharply juxtaposed tropes:
She’s the greater masturbator, your charts
will flow, kindle her balsamic moon.
Again, in this as in other poems, an alliterative and assonantal serendipity trickles through skilfully:
Mistress is my judgment, not the state of wife
with its basket of tares. You’re built for the flurry and rive
‘Henry More, Platonist, 1614-1916’ is a curt swipe from the Seventeenth century philosopher and ‘Spissitudist’ (from his own term, ‘Spissitude’, for a fourth dimension which he believed housed the spirit world) appropriately – and satirically of course on Jenner’s part – from beyond the grave, as the dates of his existence impossibly suggest (though one wonders therefore at why his post-translated spirit ceases abruptly to exist by 1916, or possibly I’ve missed something there, since I don’t pretend to be familiar with Pessoa’s oeuvre). A reply from ‘Pessoa to More’ ensues, updating the late Platonist on the very nature of modern politics:
Neo-Platonics red-shift with new physics
as Europe’s vigilance dons black armbands.
(Jenner’s acute ear for assonance and alliteration is again in evidence here).
‘More to Aunt Anica’ is a crystalline lyric, displaying Jenner’s astrological instincts through beguiling expression:
Gemini’s a cruel window onto its own
icefields, the river of the absurd
winking blackly beyond.
Imaginative tropes are abundant: ‘shutters/ beating open like a wooden heart’; and:
He purloined both sides until there was just a heavy pencil
shadow of him left...
So comes the response in this cross correspondence: ‘Anice to Pessoa, 1816’ is equally rich in metaphorical lyric, including this Keats-alluding excerpt:
That basil pot your christened Isabelle puts forth
surprisingly. I should plant near a graveyard.
Alliteration here, again, is an efficacious feature; as is the sublime aphorism:
patience of civilization.
Again, too, the zodiacal focus:
I write where night and Mercury are retrograde.
Forgive me writing whilst your ruling planet
lies against us.
Jenner has written a zodiacal cycle of poems outside his published portfolio, which no doubt will also see print at some point; this astrological preoccupation echoes the sensibility of an earlier modernist poet, Joseph Macleod (1903-1984), whose diverse oeuvre Jenner’s Waterloo Press is currently championing.
‘Álvero de Campos to Pessoa, 1914’, starts evocatively:
They ravish patter-songs in upper Albion, spilling
from pubs on the Clyde...
These poems can be read on many levels (indeed, such is an intrinsic aspect to Jenner’s poetry in general, which implicitly insists on its own sense of ‘Spissitude’ on the page). The Pessoa poems carry of course a thematic narrative of ‘cross correspondence’ (communication from beyond the grave in the form of automatic writing), like psychic postcards; but my own reading of them - happy as I am to bask in a certain ‘Negative Capability’ regards fully fathoming the more elliptical elements to these occasionally cryptic poems - is a more lateral one, snagged as it is on the picturesque promontories of the of the poetic language employed, and content to savour its verbal sinuousness:
So they prophesy that my doctrine of rivets,
my blueprint of engineer puckering
through the tracing paper, is dead
as an Etruscan’s night song down the Arno
where kyries overtone his breath.
And, too, on the occasional social snapshot of period:
I’ll go where the cabbagey kings of overtime
listen with their cauliflower ears...
There is indeed a Vorticist quality to much of Jenner’s oeuvre, though from knowing him well both through his poetry and personality – and in the capacity of benefiting from his formative mentoring – such a tendency is not I think a conscious one, his main influences being more John Keats and Hart Crane than Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound (though don’t most poets often unconsciously echo some past voices they’d not cite as conscious influences?).
‘Alberto Caeiro to Pessoa, 1914’ proffers an image worthy of Dylan Thomas:
a farm cat’s purr amplified in a tin bath.
There is also a stirringly surreal aspect to some of Jenner’s more oblique metaphors:
I watch the blinds’ umbrage pine to eleven.
strides – coughing, it’s true – a match blaze
invisible in the noon that will take him,
refusing shadows that imagine.
Certainly there’s an afterglow of the likes of David Gascoyne in such a trope – again, Jenner pushes our grasp of the figurative that little bit further; his poetry makes us work for its rewards.
‘Pessoa to Bernado Soares’ is also rich in aphorismic tropes, single clauses from which can stand alone, as:
Just that brief intercourse over laminate tables.
And, in the same poem:
Why did I feel such cruel paring, this
shoehorn of a life to shadows...
‘Soares, 1934’ also gifts numerous beguiling phrases:
the scent of memory’s impossible...
Its first line, as ever, heavily sense-impressing, and colouristic in focus:
There should be a library wine to sip
books with; rammed chalk palate but enough
fruit to show the browsers’ azure shirts apple
-green and stretched to the bole. Coral dresses
Would flounce slowly to Burgundy underwater,
fluting in the glaze.
That first trope before the semi-colon, I predict, along with ‘You, sir, are a masturbator....’ from earlier in the book, will be recalled in the future as two of Jenner’s definitive poetic phrases.
Ever the physical poet, albeit more sublimely than most, Jenner has a sharp colouristic – not to say mineralogical – eye, with nuances of the spectrum cropping up a number of times throughout this chapbook collection: ‘coral’, ‘age-burnt ruby’, ‘intense throw of lapis’, by ways of example, and ‘swart’, which appears more than once (‘mauve’, too, is a favourite). Jenner’s vocabulary is indeed rich, and it is to be welcomed that in such a prosaic period of verse, poets such as him so brazenly take some of the less common nouns, verbs and adjectives out for a graze on the page ( ‘sump’ and ‘tupped’ spring to mind); his sheer love of words and their many varieties, his voracious verbalism, is to be commended in our prose-inclined contemporary poetry landscape (and I can vouch for Jenner that he is almost genetically allergic to prose, due no doubt to the Welsh part of his DNA). In similarly inventive vein, ‘Anica to Ophélia Quieroz’ gifts us an all new collective noun: ‘a melancholy of windows’.
Jenner’s eye for detail is sometimes testing, albeit intriguingly so, and perhaps footnotes wouldn’t be amiss occasionally for the uninitiated:
behind the egg-white Venetian half-Arlecchino
But those who are familiar with Jenner’s work, there is a polymathic quality. His surrealist tendencies also at times push the figurative boat out, and one could imagine even a young David Gascoyne wrestling slightly with:
...I see him as a winter
carbuncle, a futurism ski-launch from your nose.
Apart from his painterly credentials, Jenner is also something of a musicologist (classical), and occasional quavers of related leitmotifs flute through his poetry:
What can a minor voice like mine hope
to sliver between such querulous giants?
quarrels, self-cancellings? I know timbre –
This trope is another example of masterly alliteration, particularly here with the consonantal interplay of ‘q’ and ‘c’; while a bouncing of ‘b’s reverberates through:
...delivered in yellow
with botched type by beautiful, frowning boys.
But most commonly, traces of Jenner’s true medium, poetry, through prosodic allusion, sprinkle intra-textually in striking phrases such as ‘to twist wild scansions from his brows’ (‘Queiroz to Caerio’), ‘the harem of white-stained adjectives’, ‘sucked-out bones of metaphor’ (both from ‘Trunk to Pessoa’).
The correspondences between Pessoa and his various heteronyms seem to spark off one another in endlessly energetic camaraderie from the struck match of banter. Sometimes their surrealism is suggestive of a Carollian afterlife of elliptical pen pals:
the mauve evening to its own masque.
(‘Quieroz to de Campos’).
And there really are plenty more examples of Jenner’s ever-striving descriptive pyrotechnics:
Bevel your tooled face to the scalloped
edges of my brain. Seal me back to the twenty
-thousand scraps of me in squid-ink darkness...
(‘Pessoa to Trunk’)
And, in the same poem:
But gimleted through you, my sweet wood, I’m
constellated in your limitless coffin like an ancient
Such image-striated tropes are almost a contrapuntal echo to the work of Jeremy Reed, who is also an associate of Jenner’s.
This richly textured collection – elegantly typeset and classically dust-jacketed by Perdika Editions – ends on a winding down poem (or as near as Jenner’s relentless energies can come to one) with another crystalline lyric, ‘Days of 1933’, where the Egyptian poet Cavafy is pictured ‘trafficking the classics’.
Pessoa – A Vision is its own inner-vision, and one that rewards rereading, which is the test of well-researched, pseudo-didactic poetry; a highly distinctive, accomplished collection, light years away from the prosaic hinterlands of today’s mainstream. Poet and Perdika editor Mario Petrucci is also to be commended for his insightful selecting and editing of this multi-textural poetry, and without sacrificing any of its essential Jennerism.
Alan Morrison © 2010