the dissipating poem
by Douglas Messerli
Christopher Middleton Loose Cannons: Selected Prose (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014)
In his brief Prologue to this new selection of Middleton’s significant contributions of literature, the writer argues that Loose Cannons should be recognized as a short prose work different from both the short story and the prose poem—elements of which these works outwardly share. Alluding to the writings of John Earle, Ben Jonson, Pascal, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Franz Kafka, and Kenneth Patchen (Borges and Robert Walser also come to mind), British writer and German translator Middleton suggests that his work belongs to a genre that displays “a resistance to the tendency of written prose to prolong itself, to expand.” For him, his writing process relates to what he calls an “antigram,” “a variety of imaginative writing which revolts against and may reverse the programmatic.” What interests him, he makes clear, is “something not-said, a hiatus, a vestige of mystery,” as opposed, presumably, to prose fiction’s thrust to delineate meaning through accumulation, if nothing else.
“The antigram calls for (and should arouse),” Middleton asserts, “the most scrupulous thrift, panache, and refinement in writing as such.”
As a lover of genres, I’m always willing to accept the notion that an author is attempting to mine new territory, is exploring boundaries of what we think we know or, more importantly, how we read something that, simply because of its surface appearance, we think we recognize but does not necessarily conform to what we have experienced in the past. Any knowledgeable reader can cite numerous instances of significant authors’ works being dismissed simply because they didn’t seem to fit into the confines of more normative perceptions of a particular genre. I have often repeated in these My Year volumes just such occurrences in connection with writings by Djuna Barnes, Wyndham Lewis, and numerous others. And even as the publisher of two books from which nine of these 33 prose works were selected—In the Mirror of the Eighth King (1999) and Depictions of Blaff (2010)—I must admit that I originally had difficulty, despite my immediate appreciation of the writing, defining their genres. The works of the former volume I simply ascribed to be very personal prose meditations, and the works of Depictions of Blaff I suggested to myself and to others as being an unusual kind of short prose fiction. And I must admit, that rereading those works in the context of the others, I more thoroughly enjoyed them as being cryptic and mysterious prose works with no narrative solution to their meanings.
Middleton is also one of the well-read and informed academics (without being an academic writer) I know, and some of his remarkable prose works read somewhat like satires of pedants discoursing on esoteric information—a bit like Raymond Queneau’s OULIPO-inspired writings—ramblings of a charming madman. Certainly all of the Blaff works might fall into that category, as well as pieces such as “From the Alexandria Library Gazette,” “Manuscript in a Lead Casket,” the frightfully futuristic “A Memorial to Room-Collectors,” and “The Turkish Rooftops.”
Other works focus their attention on intense observation, revealing what is clearly Middleton’s art-critical facilities, often featuring a work or a series of works of art—prose works such as “Louis Moillon’s Apricots (1635),” “The Execution of Maximilian,” “Le Déjeuner,” “A Polka in the Evening of Time,” or, on a more enigmantic level, often involving what is not seen or is only somewhat visible in “Balzac’s Face” and “The Gaze of the Turkish Mona Lisa.”
Still others appear almost to be meditations on history or, more specifically, the possibilities of history or, at least, recreating what might soon become history: “The Birth of a Smile,” “A Bachelor,” “Nine Biplanes,” “Or Else,” “Cliff’s Dwarf,” and “In the Mirror of the Eighth King."
But all do share what the Introducer of this work, August Kleinzahler, describes as forces of that are “subversive” and “ludic,” “liminal” and “disruptive,” in favor of any pre-conceived or determinative experience. Time and again, what might at first seem narrative, is transformed through metaphor into an animistic or even spiritual moment which one might describe as dissipating any plot- or character-based evocation. Although “Nine Biplanes,” for example begins with what seems to be a very specific time and narrator, an “I” located in 1940, the author redirects the reader’s attention throughout until what began as a concrete image has been miraculously transformed into a grotesquely unseen world, invisible from the eyes of the work’s original seemingly narrative voice. The work begins:
Summer 1940: I opened the double glass front door of the
rambling country mansion, school, and saw nine biplanes
flying low, in close formation, and slow; the lower edge
of what I saw is a ruffled green mass of trees.
What immediately declares itself to be a story in which any seasoned reader can predict will be a tale of the discovery of evil in an seemingly innocent world, a tale of gradual recognition of the child-like narrator that within the “beauty” of what he first excitingly glimpses, there is all the horror of destructive hate. In a sense, Middleton’s prose work, indeed, is about just such issues, but the way he reveals that is radically different from what we might expect. By constantly shifting viewpoints after that introductory paragraph to other scenes within the school, moving in and out of different adult and child perspectives, and by placing events is a shifting time that jumps from place to place—from Hué, An Loc, Barcelona, Norfolk, a French road, a certain Moscow elevator in 1937, etc.—Middleton pulls us out of a limited here and now to a surrealist perspective that questions our very assumptions. Yes, by work’s end, we do indeed encounter an evil world, but it surely is not the like one we first expected:
A child, instead of looking downward, now looks outward,
and still cannot awake, the inability to awake being, like an
arm’s reach or the tilting of a head, part of his condition.
With hacked-off hands he constructs for himself someone
else, old, scribbling. Amid the droning clatter of the motors,
a bell of pink fire suddenly sounds. …he listens to the flying
metal blare and does not see the girl’s head rolling across the
gravel to his toecaps.
As if this brutal image—all the more horrific because it goes unnoticed—were not enough, Middleton moves away from the purely visual human-based perceptions, to the aural and aromatic sensations of the now horrific landscape overseen by the animals who, with the destruction of human beings, continue to inhabit it alone:
The sounds are people running in plimsolls, knock of the
red leather ball on the willow cricket bat. A smell of linseed
oil in the thatched pavilion. But the pilot’s head is wrapped
in leather: the pilots are going to knock the Germans for
six, if they can find them, behind the pavilion, between
the pavilion and the woods, where you could hear the
cock pheasant scream before any thunderstorm, or, in
the evening twilight, quietly see rabbits feeding, their ears
laid back along their little skulls.
I think no series of passages can better depict what Middleton, himself, has characterized of his work as being “the animular miniaturism of short prose.” He continues, apropos the work described above, “In the pregnancy of these antigrams, a naïve attention of curiosities of nature, as to outlandish freaks of behavior…has been interiorized and subtilized into crystalline intelligence fathoming its language at outer limits of the imaginable.”
Accordingly, I’ll gladly go along with Middleton’s definitions of his own writing. Call these works “antigrams” if you want, a stunningly original genre that I hope others might emulate
Yet, I can’t help feeling that part of the author’s insistence on our refraining from describing these works as “short short narratives” or “prose poems” has to do with Middleton’s somewhat old fashioned notions of the borders between prose and poetry. I’d be willing to describe all of Middleton’s writings, just like those of Gertrude Stein, as being variations of poetic expression. For it is, as Kleinzahler perhaps unintentionally argues, Middleton’s imaginatively lyrical approach to experience (what Kleinzahler calls the author’s “primal and unpredictable sources of lyrical expression”) that most characterizes his art, whether it be these short “prose”-oriented works or his more straight-forward “poems.” several volumes of which Middleton has published described as such.
One cannot read the works of Serpentine, for example, without recognizing just how completely immersed in the linguistic as opposed to the narrative his writing is. The opening paragraph from “This Is Lavender,” for example, reads:
This is lavender and how it grows large blue caterpillars
This is lavender and how it grows large blue caterpillars
run parallel up their slopes and down in convex furors never
stop following contours a whole field of ripples flows in
large blue caterpillars lavender caterpillars large and blue
running and flowing up and down and whole blue ajoining
fields are solid blue until you move and then the whole
sold blue lavender field swishes open like a fan.
Another passage, this from his fractured fairy-tale, “From Earth Myriad Robed,” reads:
Rope sole of a razouteur. Dust beaten out of it. A puff of
Rope sole of a razouteur. Dust beaten out of it. A puff of
dust beaten out of a rope sole in a small French hotel, old oak
beams overhead. In the puff of dust, vestiges of a village
dancing floor. A dancing floor in the dust in a land soaked
in blood. The features of Elif: mop of tight black curls,
dolphin eyebrows, immense dark eyes, small straight nose,
her breath from lips parting. Elif in her satin dress, pale
golden satin with a blue sash. And the pounding of the music,
in the village dust, the puff of dust gone, Elif gone, into the
A moment later the female figure speaks in a language that might put the Russian Trans-rationalists to shame (after all, Middleton is also a brilliant translator):
—Tais da efendim (so she said, standing near)
ti thelis ti theleis efendim
surieyebilir musunuz yakoondala
—oosa ana tanta asnula kyriye
ishmek ishki inghiliz tek ort poro
tek ort poro yabanchuh…ti theleis?
[This goes on for another half page and into the next.]
I’ll grant, there may be more Turkish and even other European root-words in here than I can fathom. But it is clear, nonetheless, as I previously argued for the so-called fiction writer, Ronald Firbank (see My Year 2012), that any meanings we glean from these passages arise not from rational recognition of the signs, but from an emotional and perhaps irrational sensations of its semantics.
Perhaps there is no other work that better describes Middleton’s poetic aspirations in all this new collection than the “prose” piece he titles “A Postcript of the Great Poem of Time.” In this work he speaks of a poem just as he does of the “antigram,” as a kind of spore that combines with other spores to become globules, which then collide with others of their kind to briefly articulate a kind of “rotary syntax” (like sestinas, or anagrams, or even the “speech of the dead”). The poet’s “spores” bounce (creating rhythm), smell (like “coffee…pinewoods, the iodine sea-coast, cordite, and many smells that exist, like ghosts, only in the memory”), and voice themselves. But their most notable quality, like nearly all of this poet’s works, is their “trailing off,” their transformation into “snippets”—something close to what I described earlier as the sensation of the work dissipating into space:
Into each snippet, however, are built the outlines, now
marked, now fading, now gone again, of a waiting room.
Over the heads of the multitude inside, stiff in sedimenta-
tions or moving about as the travellers strike their
antiquated attitudes, the roof lifts majestically and on
every side the walls expand, roof and walls perform an
immense and constant inhalation, constantly (in the illusion
of this idiom, rotary or anagrammic) the space expands, the
furniture dwindles, and it is less and less like that any transport
will ever arrive, for the waiting room is coming to encompass,
inescapably, whatever journey might have imagined itself into
these multitudinous heads.
Whether you want to describe such a work as a antigram or simply as a very effective poem, I don’t care, but I will certainly join the writer in that “waiting room” in order to encounter his work, as he puts it, “at random,” as I get ready to “pass it by reading again.”
Los Angeles, February 15, 2015
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