Oli Hazzard shifts and repurposes clichés about the rainforest in his poetry. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Puzzle pieces: finding the patterns in the poetry

Matthew Sperling looks at new poetry collections by Paul Batchelor, Oli Hazzard, and Toby Martinez de las Rivas.

The Love Darg
Paul Batchelor
Clutag, 52pp, £8.50

Within Habit
Oli Hazzard
Test Centre, 48pp, £12

Terror
Toby Martinez de las Rivas
Faber & Faber, 80pp, £9.99

When a new poet published by Faber & Faber starts using ampersands in his poems, you know something is afoot. In recent UK poetry, the symbol has been a stylistic identifier for “experimental” work; for Don Paterson, “the Ampersands” is a derisive nickname for pretentious avant-gardists. Yet in the opening lines of Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s remarkable first collection, Terror, we find ampersands working in the service of a lucid and spontaneous lyricism:

As snow falls, as the first snow of this
 year falls & falls
 beyond all light & knowledge . . .

In the same poem, “Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Things”, the spirit of a recent avant-garde poet is invoked:

I pray for the wild ghost of Barry MacSweeney
which has a bird’s throat & thrumming, elliptical wings.

If it’s true that a generation is coming to maturity for which the stand-off between mainstream and experimental poetry no longer holds, then Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s first book, along with the second collections by Paul Batchelor and Oli Hazzard – all of them English poets born between 1977 and 1986 – marks a decisive moment.

The modernist ambitions of Terror are signalled immediately by its typographic strangeness. We get two kinds of title (one large and roman, the other small and italic) with no obvious reason for the distinction; dividing pages with mysterious large dots, perhaps recalling the large dot after the penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, and a Latin word underneath (“Ignis”, “Natura”); words that escape from the lines into marginal and interlinear space; and a final poem, placed after the notes, like a hidden track on an album, that consists entirely of punctuation.

This all sounds rather tricksy, but the exciting thing about the book is how unlike most of his contemporaries Martinez de las Rivas seems to be in his seriousness and intensity – a mad monk living among baffled hipsters. (The only writer on the Faber list he resembles is David Jones but Jones was born in 1895.) His poems go deeply into the matter of Britain, digging up buried cultural deposits from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, from early-modern sacred anthems, from religious history. If this reminds you of Geoffrey Hill, it is surely intended to. The sequence of poems that come as prose paragraphs is clearly the work of a writer who has learned much from Hill’s masterpiece Mercian Hymns (1971) about how to twist the language into phrases that seem to come out of nowhere, at once surprising and true. Terror is a bracing performance.

Like Martinez de las Rivas, Paul Batchelor both enjoys an ampersand and finds room in his poems to credit a wide range of poetic forebears. His new book, The Love Darg, elegantly produced by the Oxfordshire small press Clutag, takes epigraphs from, among others, Louis MacNeice, the darling of a whole generation of mainstream lyric poets, and Bill Griffiths, among the more alienating of avant-garde outsiders. This was already the case in Batchelor’s first collection, The Sinking Road (2008), but six years on, his poems have gained a different sort of authority and formal control altogether. The opening poem, “Brother Coal”, begins with a Heaney-esque childhood vision of the “darkness of the coal shed” and follows through with seven stanzas on the “compacted sentiment” and social history of coal:

Fibred, veined, fissured like an icicle –
black, pleated muscle ripped with black blood-crystal.
It stranged my mind that I could never lift
a shovelful or lug a sack – the heft!

There is muscle here but elsewhere Batchelor is capable of a light touch, too, particularly in the cool-headed love poem “The Catch-Up”, which perhaps takes as its formal model the rhyming triplets of Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Mahon and stands up pretty well to the comparison. The publisher’s blurb boldly states: “Batchelor is the most accomplished poet of his generation.” The Love Darg shows that to be a credible claim.

Like Batchelor’s book, Oli Hazzard’s Within Habit is a deluxe, small-press offering from a poet with one previous book with a mainstream publisher. Put together by the east London-based Test Centre, it’s a beautifully printed, large-scale object, the size of an exhibition catalogue, with generous white space around the blue text. It’s not one for reading on the Tube. John Ashbery writes in a preface: “Oli Hazzard’s stunning set of prose puzzles suggests a kit with only a few instructions supplied. We must figure out what to do with it . . .”

So what is to be done? Hazzard’s text has all the components from which people create significance – the raw materials of language, the body and spatial relations: “Here lies | the field across which patterns such as people appeared | to feign intimacy in appearance.” But it’s as if the parts have been jumbled up and speculatively put back together by an archaeologist. The vertical bars in that quotation are part of the text, presented in prose blocks divided by bars into units that seem sometimes conceptual, sometimes phrasal and sometimes a bit random. As we read, the meaning emerges not on the level of primary statement but through secondary implication and pattern-making.

This is more fun for the reader than it might sound. Throughout the book, motifs recur teasingly. Ideas about reproduction and authenticity are important: “I prefer the copies | of masterpieces | over the originals,” Hazzard writes. Limits and boundaries are significant, too, and again the opening poem gives the keynote: “I was intimated across the threshold | of a margin | of a centre.”

Clichés come back in shifted and repurposed forms: “High over | an area of rainforest | makeshift barriers are erected | to distinguish the trees | from the wood to form a thick, impenetrable paywall . . .” Hands and faces stand in for bodies but may be merely stage props: “I extend my hand to shake your | rubber hand.”

Other readers will find their own patterns. It’s not quite clear what Within Habit amounts to but the experience of the poems is exciting even when missing the meaning – and the book is a lovely thing to own and have nearby. Get one while they’re hot.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism