:: Article

The Cinder Storm of Language

By Darran Anderson.


Drawing In Ash, Will Stone, Salt Modern Poets, 2011.

‘What’s wrong with the modern world?’ is a question that can only really be answered with another question, namely ‘where do you start?’ We live in a time, in the West at least, that has seen the curious death of authentic experience. In the Middle East and elsewhere, they’ve more pressing concerns than such indulgent existential witterings but that doesn’t make it any less real or, more accurately, less unreal for us. Osip Mandelstam was an unwitting oracle when he wrote in the epigram that would send him to the gulag, “We live not feeling the earth beneath us.” Similarly, the words carved on the headstone of the poet Keats have proved prophetic, “Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water.” As it was for him, it’s a thousand times more so today.

In recent years, there’s been a revival of interest in Modernism, the reasons for which are illuminating. It’s not just disenchantment with a conservative literary present, a sense of unfinished business, unexplored
possibilities or that the movements of Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism et al have never been fully explored on these shores beyond a few intrepid outsiders. A further crucial reason is that it seems the last gasp of the authentic. Today, we are grasping for roots. Postmodernism, the internet, social networking all offer us a wealth of things, particularly when used in a focused way but while they give they also take away. There is a loss, as well as a gain, in making the world smaller, in the medium usurping the message, in living in an perpetual present, in avoiding any definitive position or belief through irony, kitsch and continual criticism, in making information and music infinitely accessible, opinions anonymous, communication, friendship and cultural discourse reduced to clicks of buttons. We know where this has led us and it turns out that life in the ether, in the spectacle isn’t as satisfying as we’d dreamt. Things we held precious previously lose substance. Life incrementally loses meaning. The Zeitgeist is more ghost than spirit. There’s that old Native American belief that every photograph steals a piece of your soul, similarly every tweet, every bit of narcissitic self-revelation online causes something to wither and die inside. So we harbour a revolutionary nostalgia for times when words, whether in art, in letters or everyday speech, had weight. When a literary work could be as fragmentary and chaotic as modern life (Ulysses, Apollinaire’s Zone, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, The Wasteland) but have monumental stature, even if the stature was composed of, as in Eliot’s famous phrase, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” For even in these ruins, you could at least attempt to make a stand.

It is in these very ruins that Will Stone‘s extraordinary new poetry collection Drawing In Ash begins. But how did we get here? The book is introduced with a quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, “You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: How could you become new if you had not first become ashes?” This sentiment would be repeated in Nietzsche’s late poem ‘Ecce Homo’ which was poured over by a generation of misfits, lunatics and artists in the first decades of the 20th Century, among them Otto Dix (who carried a copy with him in the trenches, the way others did the Bible), the young brilliant (and doomed) poet Georg Heym and most notoriously Gavrilo Princip who quoted it again and again, psyching himself up to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, instigating the Great War in the process. It enflamed a young generation about to be decimated, the heady boldness of it, the threat of iconoclastic fervour and rebirth through some act of creative self-immolation. Nietzsche boasted of philosophising with a hammer. Reading the quote, you already know Drawing In Ash will not be the toothless mannered execrably smug fare that sadly dominates much of contemporary verse. Instead this is poetry as time travel, psychogeography, cinema.

It begins then among the ruins. We are welcomed in by our guide like Virgil in the Inferno but with the sinister warmth of a carnival barker or a devil. We return as if in some dream to the past, not a mythic past but, as will be the case again and again in the collection, a historical one, reminding us that we are separated from the most horrific events, events unimaginable by the sane settled mind, simply by the thin veneer of space and time. Others are not so lucky and one day our luck may run out, “imagine the hardest winter / imagine the longest scream / unable to fade, for that is how / this generation lived…”

In a fragmented world, in any world, we can be sure only of one thing, the solid undeniable force that is death. It’s effectively the only thing left that we cant cheapen, infantilise, degrade or patronise. It remains irrespective of capital or ideas. We cannot reduce it but, at best, merely postpone, ignore and in some cases sanitise. It is unconquerable. It is this that ties us to the past and in a way to our humanity. We have the fact that we are going to die in common with each other as with our ancestors (in a sense it is perhaps even more terrifying now because, given health and infant mortality advances, it’s more unfamiliar than ever and thus more taboo). In an ever-changing world, death’s the one thing you can rely on, that wont let you down. All through Drawing In Ash Stone is drawn to this theme, haunted by mortality and yet fascinated by it, he returns again and again – the Holocaust, the Black Death, cholera epidemics, suicided writers. Walter Benjamin stricken and outdone by the sun and his pursuers on a mountain pass, Montaigne fleeing the plague, the body of Walser lying in the snow. Mortality is there in the fatalism of ‘Chopin In Scotland’ (“the doctors last conspiratorial whisper”), in ‘The Fears of Charles Baudelaire’, “my cloak the broom / sweeping me down every
spiral staircase / and out under the dripping ironwork / of days” (the poet fantasising which way he will die and we the audience knowing that he does not see what’s coming), in the defiant helplessness of “climbers darkly frozen, all of us / pinned on the ice wall of history / unable to go forward, unable to go back / but signalling.” It watches us all the time while we only catch glimpses of it, “the discreet surveillance / of death.”

All this makes the book sounds like a collection of funereal dirges, poetry to slit your wrists to. On the contrary, it’s never depressing and remains an enthralling read, sustained by a palpable sense of momentum. Whilst far from a barrel of laughs, there is grim gallows humour to be found and also an awareness that the terrible finality raises the pitch of life to a level immortality could never attain. It may glance into the dark but there is always something that glimmers there to be found. The vividness and strangeness of Stone’s imagery and language ensure the book never seems overwrought. Whether it’s “tumbrels trailing tar by torchlight,” “each rooted on his receeding floe / and the last hard sellers of hope / slip with seals into dark water,” “the waiting hooks of stars” or “horizon islands, peninsulas steering / the ghost boom of a ship in distress” this is a grand celestial pessimism, labrynthine and incandescent in comparison to say Larkin’s grubby net-curtain twitching semi-detached bleakness.

It is Stone’s willingness to pursue the monumental, sometimes in Hubblescope, sometimes in a microscopic setting, along with his consumate skill as a poet (and an admirable absence of ‘I’ – the most overused word in the lexicon) that mark it out as a book that towers above the vast majority of his contemporaries. It is this willingness to go there, to take the risk of wrestling with the big themes with no obtuse language for its own sake that makes Drawing in Ash authentic and a book of rare qualities. History, for Stone, is there to be explored, not just simply in books but in location. His poems roam through space and time, the ‘poet as archaelogist’ would be a fair analogy except what Stone finds is never entirely dead nor contained in the past like some insect locked in amber. Rather history is alive through the poet’s powers of temporal flux and it reveals as much about ‘now and us’ as ‘then and them’.

There are many remarkable moments in this collection, chief among them ‘The Extinction Plan,’ an exploration of why or at least how society stumbles onwards with dazzling images from the past, “In order to go on, Schubert pens, / Munch paints Death and the Maiden. / Strindberg runs through the Latin Quarter / brandishing his hands, black and burned / from experiments with sulphur.” It is a poem which defies analysis or to which the best analysis would be to simply read and bask in it, but there is one notable observation. Stone is a master of the pressure drop, the sudden jolt change of scene, the sudden looming into view of a startlingly original image that stays with you, long after the poem has finished; “in one dive billions of krill find God. / Ghostly, like a low gas flame…”

Historical episodes mark the book. ‘Nietzsche At The End’ is set during the philisopher’s bedridden twilight years, his mind eaten away by tertiary syphilis (or the outside chance that it was all an elaborate ruse, an internal hermetic exile inside his own skull). For a decade the most brilliant European mind of his times lived, or rather subsided in a near-vegetative state, in a hinterland between life and death. Stone imagines his internal monologue, a colossal intellect trapped and turning inwards on itself. There are enigmatic strangely touching pronouncements (“What is my heart? A pebble in a black pool / on the side of the mountain / that never sees the sun”) and dark predictions; what those to come would do and claim falsely in his name, that his radical philosophy of betterment would be warped to give intellectual creedence to the most squalid philistinism and butchery under the Nazis. He saw it all, seer that he was, his realisations captured chillingly by Stone, “And the stupidity that must come, / clockwork monkeys beating the skin drum / and my face seen again / beneath the ice…”

Another interim period of desperate reflection is marked in ‘Sometimes This Genius Grows Dark’ which spans the period after Vincent Van Gogh had shot himself in the chest, staggering back from the fields where he was painting to the inn where he would die, past “dark riders driving on horses, / flaming cypresses, windmills.” As the poem continues it becomes more surreal, Stone’s imagery, always his strongest point, becomes otherworldly and cryptic, morbid and seraphic, conjuring up the deathbed visions of the artist. Beguiling stunning scenes emerge at the close of many of these poems that you never entirely understand but in that lies a rare enchanting poetic power.

In Christ on the Cross – Delacroix, Stone’s command of language and sculpting of time and setting is evident. The disorientating violence of the poem seems as devastating as we presume the passion and crucifixion of the Christ really was, “Above the broad bow of ribs / head hard back, taut, stiffened / like a strapped-down lunatic”. There is no glory here, no promise of resurrection or grace, only horror, the extinguishing of all hope and what it is to utterly destroy a human being. The obscene disparity between his message and his fate is expressed here as in the painting itself. And yet it is a small detail that gives the poem it’s power. Stone has a fascinating knack for seeing that other things happen (akin to Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts), almost out of sight but parallel to the main events, glimpses that make the scene eerily real and also suggest that he’s rebuilt the entire world this happened in and not just a two-dimensional alterpiece or grotto, “the light on its way but too far behind, / delayed at a bend in the river.” Again it’s his perception that is the standout quality, the widescreen element. He sees an infinitely bigger picture. Even in these vignette’s of mortality, there’s always a three-dimensional depth. They are more windows you look through than paintings you look at. In doing so, Stone proves his creative ancestors are more characters like Grünewald or Brueghel than ‘the Movement’ or any such poetry school, for want of a better word.

The mid-section of Drawing In Ash‘s triptych focuses on the Holocaust, a notoriously difficult subject to write about, that comes with immense crushing responsibilities. The writer is stuck between the risk of intrusion, of turning it into melodrama and the grim authority of those who survived (and those who didn’t) like Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Robert Desnos. Stone’s poems are harrowing as you’d expect but also deft. He knows not to fictionalise or sentimentalise, he knows he doesn’t need to. The subject is such that you can step back, you must step back and let the terror of fact take over. Let the voice that says ‘this really happened’ act as an undercurrent. In the title poem, we are presented with a real-life event in which the head of the SS Heinrich Himmler briefly faced the stark reality of his orders, “He staggered back, turned pale, / was almost sick and at that moment / I was obliged to step forward / until his composure was regained.” In another poem ‘The Clip’ we watch, in the mind’s eye, “Heydrich in colour… turning pages / roll calls of death, perhaps / the Wannsee guest list / or his wife’s purchases” (the latter a nod perhaps to Brecht and Weill’s ‘Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife’). Himmler a failed chicken-farmer and Heydrich the only blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan in the first rank of the Third Reich. Both competing mass-murderers. There seems an awareness here that such figures can be pathetic and terrible simultaneously. The Aristotelian either/or logic that has pervaded (and cursed) Western Civilisation is redundant. Arendt was only half-right, evil is indeed banal, it is also sadly in it’s own way extraordinary, seductive. In the abdication of human empathy, there can be found great savage power and sometimes a perverted logic, some hyper-twisted work ethic that spurs them on. These were ‘civilised’ educated composed men and they excelled, implementing genocide on an industrial scale. The thought that they were not hell-spawned devils is anathema to most. It’s the dark secret nightmare of the Enlightenment, recalling Goya, another seer, who sketched ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’; they reasoned this.

In this same way, most of these poems tell us as much about now as the past. Things happen elsewhere (“somewhere the eye of a shark swivels”), our present, the here and now is not absolute, it is tenuous. The poems, looking back, are reflected images of ourselves from the feral voyeurism of ‘Inside The Ampitheatre’ to the gentrified nightmare of ‘Loss Of Habitat.’ In ‘Repeat Offenders,’ a bead is drawn on the enemy, “the sprawling empires” and “gaudy stalls” that the herd instinct perpetuates. “Herd that none will bring down / off whose tough bark the axe-heads / of bold individuals harmlessly glance” and against this the doomed creative outsider, it’s a Romantic idea but an enticing one.

As with Stone’s earlier collection Glaciation, the threat of apocalyptic ruin hangs over proceedings. Time lays waste to all. The ruins he explores in ‘The Towers Of Castillon,’ ‘Fallen Aqueduct’ and ‘The Tower Of St Trophime’ are not just the remnants of fallen civilisations but glimpses of our own future. Shelley obsessed on this (in his masterpiece Ozymandias), that time slowly but profoundly erodes all triumph and tragedy, that all human endeavour no matter how lofty or tyrannical will be undone. It’s in Stone’s remarkable image the “cinder storm of language”, the broken white devils and scattered tombs of the cemetery of Ukkel. The tombs of saints and princes are ransacked, the elements attack everything (‘Before The Roman Remains’). After mankind, in a mere handful of millenia, all trace of our existence will be destroyed (bar perhaps the Voyager Golden Record, footprints and junk on the moon, underground nuclear sacrophagi). Skyscrapers and hard drives are more finite than stone pyramid slabs and buried papyrus. In Drawing In Ash what is left from Ancient Rome is the theatre of slaughter – the Coliseum. From the mock-Olympian Third Reich that was supposed to last one thousand years; indestructible flak-towers remain like mausoleums in obliterated cities. These haunt because they are portents.

Why then continue if it’s all doomed? Well what other option is there? Stone acknowledges this, describing the Sisyphean search for knowledge, “I cannot help but read and imagine / read and imagine, read and imagine / like the endless filling of a cistern. / It’s how I measure the depth of a cavern.” Then there is the distraction or torture of matters of the heart, the imploded romance that is nihilism pervades the collection, “your heart’s slow slave ship…” “sowing new life / to tumble more beautifully into the abyss.” At times, you can see occasional traces of Stone’s predecessors, particularly those he’s translated, the unsettling masque of Georg Trakl in ‘The Shriek’ (“Crows grown sleeker… wild men run into the woods”) or Georg Heym in ‘Last Hours In The Flak Tower’ (“a furious giant hand / tearing up rubble, searching…”). Nevertheless it’s Stone’s own enviable voice that resounds thoughout, at his best the effect is unlike anything else in contemporary verse (at least since the early books of Ted Hughes); ‘Montaigne’s Flight’, ‘I Am Charles Meryon’, ‘The Silence’ amongst the high points of one of the most truly exceptional collections of poetry I’ve ever read.

It’s also a collection that gets you thinking. Poetry’s oddness, it’s peripheral status could weirdly be the saving of it. In a time when everyone is shouting ‘look at me’ and profit is squeezed from every possible avenue, an artform that is inherently cultic, that relies on introspection, in which time is not a resource to be depleted but is slowed down if not suspended, an artform that makes no sense in any rational practical capacity, that manifestly does not sell and is written and read by the unhinged (present company excluded), that goes against everything the world is increasingly becoming, it is a strange form of sanctuary. It will take weighty poetry though, not dithering collections on weeds or birds, not ‘1001 Poems for Best Man Speeches’ or associated drivel and not compromised condescending attempts at poetry for the masses, whoever they are (“difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings” as Geoffrey Hill rightly stated). Not poems that are content to be on the same level as gardening or knitting but poetry that is on a par with music and cinema. Poetry, in effect, like this.

Since the death of the mighty poet and translator Michael Hamburger there has been a vacuum here for advocates of visionary, vital, mysterious poetry that looks to Europe and the past for ways to push things forward. Stone is one worthy successor. The traditional blights of English verse are almost entirely absent, indeed are obliterated; gentility, domesticity, the patronising urge to dumb down or conversely to elude and exclude through highbrow language. Instead this is a full-spirited timely reminder that there is poetry to be found beyond the kitchen sink, the nursery and the countryside. There are whole worlds and entire histories out there to be explored.

Darran Anderson challenges you to a duel at dawn at a place of your choosing. If he lives, he will be reading at Neu! Reekie! this Friday in Edinburgh.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 25th, 2011.