In the Critics this Week

This week's books pages feature everything from Disraeli to walls, futuristic distopias to an autism memoir.

The books section this week begins with David Marquand’s glittering review of Dick Leonard’s “crowning achievement”, The Great Rivalry: Disraeli and Gladstone. Marquand begins by pouring flattery upon Leonard’s literary skill, and approach to this book.

It is written with captivating panache, packed with well-chosen quotations, full of psychological insight and, at one and the same time, readable, entertaining and illuminating.

Marquand himself then goes on to explore Disraeli and Gladstone’s own crowing achievements, from their approach to imperial affairs, to their most significant pieces of legislation. Marquand subsequently questions who Leonard himself preferred in the Great Rivalry, believing it to be Disraeli, due to Gladstone’s somewhat perturbing charisma:

Disraeli [unlike Gladstone] was not charismatic in the Weberian sense. He was more fun to be with than Gladstone, perhaps because he didn’t take himself so seriously. But by definition, charismatic leaders do take themselves seriously. They think of themselves as the vehicles and instruments of a higher cause: Gladstone’s statement after receiving the Queen’s commission to form his first government that his “mission” was to “pacify Ireland” is a good example. There is something wild, un-controlled and untethered about charismatic leadership, and that disconcerts rational moderates such as Leonard and me.

All in all, Marquand manages to produce an inventive and analytical review.

Michael Prodger continues the Disraeli theme with his review of Douglas Hurd and Edward Young’s Disraeli: or the Two Lives. Once again, Disraeli’s character is closely examined, a man with an obscuring “vividness of character”, “a Boris Johnson but with substance”.

In a precise and insightful review, Prodger praises a “concise but balanced assessment, on a man who “was always led interested in other people than he was in himself””.

In contrast, NS deputy editor Helen Lewis’ review of Susan Greenfield’s 2121: A Tale from the Next Century is far from complimentary. After examining the author’s recent fall from grace in scientific circles, Lewis launches into a cutting, and at times humorous attack on Greenfield’s debut novel.

The prose is a mess. There are errant commas, clunking clichés and banal phrases such as “tossed about in a vast sea of heightened emotions devoid of passions. Everyone seems weirdly obsessed with comparing their current situation with that in the early 21st century- “she gestured to the high-speed pod, still recognisable as a distant descendant of its predecessors from a century or two ago” - which, when you think about it, makes as much sense as a writer now describing a car as “still reminiscent of a 19th-century landau."

Lewis combines a questioning of the author’s motive, and an attack on her literary ability to produce a biting and comical review.

Owen Hatherley’s review of Marcel Di Cintio’s Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, adds a global feel to this week’s book section. Hatherley explains that Di Cintio’s travel book offers far more than just his “acute” and “vivid renderings” of landscapes. Hatherley praises Di Cintio’s “unobtrusive and erudite” historical asides, before concluding with what he sees as one of the most enduring aspects.

What is memorable in Walls is its deep pessimism. Whenever a dismantlement appears to be imminent, as in Nicosia, inertia and cynicism invariably win out over the let’s-all-hold-hands anti-politics of the UN and the NGOs. In Belfast, Di Cintio notes the removal of the “peace line” that once divided a park in Ardoyne but considers the underground wall that runs between the Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast City Cemetery to be “a more relevant symbol than the image of little girls frolicking through a gate that opens every once in a while. The constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people are not only enduring but thriving.

Hatherley’s examination of this poignant book proves to be expansive and engaging.

Caroline Crampton completes this week’s books section with her review of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, an inspirational and personal account which looks to enlighten readers on the reality of dealing with autism. Translated by David Mitchell and K A Yoshida, who themselves have an autistic child, Crampton delves into the book’s approach to autism. She discusses both our misconceptions, and the book’s genius in uncovering them.

Every page dismantles another preconception about autism. For a start, Higashida writes mainly in the plural- we need your help, we need your understanding- as if he is not alone but part of a great community of silent children around the world. He explains that it’s physically painful to hold back his “weird voice” (that loud, thick, over-worked diction that autistic people some-times use) because it feels “as if I’m strangling my own throat.

Reading this review in itself forces one to think on their own views regarding autism, invoking empathy and encouraging understanding.

This week's magazine also features Talitha Stevenson reviewing The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing, and Fiona Sampson on Clive James's translation of The Divine Comedy.

Also in the Critics:

  • Jason Cowley on Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest collaboration between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, At World's End.
  • All the latest in TV, radio, opera and theatre from Antonia Quirke, Matt Trueman, Rachel Cooke and Alexandra Coughlan.

This week's New Statesman is out now

An 1880s Vanity Fair image for Gradstone and MPs. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis.
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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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