Sunday, May 25, 2008

Gents: Warwick Collins.

Gents, by Warwick Collins, is not a new novel. It was actually published 10 years ago, but it has had a mysterious revival in 2007 due to a paperback edition and vigorous displaying by Borders and Waterstones. The novel is dedicated to Scott Pack, once the head buyer for Waterstones, now the Commercial Director of The Friday Project Press, the book’s publisher. Reviewing Gents on his own blog, Scott Pack has this to say: "It is a lost classic. It is a masterpiece of modern literature. It is a telling parable of racial and sexual tolerance. It is a book that should be on every self-respecting shelf in the land." The novel would appear to have benefited from some energetic marketing (for which Scott Pack was famous) and reviewing! In a comment note, Scott Pack also adds that he has yet to find a reader who does not like the book. Well, there are quite a few on Amazon, and there is another one here.

The novel centres around three characters, the initiate to toilet cleansing, the evangelical Ezekiel Murphy, the pragmatical boss, Josiah Reynolds, and the idealistic Rastafarian, Jason. Together, these three black straight Caribbean men manage “the swamp”, a Gents near Charing Cross, London. Their daily problems are “the reptiles”, the mainly gay white men who meet in the toilet cubicles for anonymous sex. The scenario sounds seedy, but the novel is anything but: it is written using a light, lyrical prose, is free of modern lavatorial humour, and has wit and conviction. The climax of the novel comes in Chapter 18 when Jason disturbs a “tall, elegant black man in a leather jacket” “Kneelin’ down in front of Whitey”. After a number of provocative comments, Jason assaults the black gay man, whilst Ez briefly speculates whether Whitey made the black man gay or he chose his sexual orientation for himself.

The problem with Gents is that “racial and sexual tolerance” is simply a matter of being distanced and non-judgemental. There is no attempt in the novel to analyse or explore the events that take place. The author approaches events with a detachment as cold (and as undescribed) as the sexual encounters taking place in the cubicles. Consequently, the result is a novel with little substance that gains weight from its linguistic precision. It is a great pretence. At the close of the novel, to stay in work, Ez and Josiah do a u-bend turn: they reverse their policy of sexual cleansing (as advocated by the Council), buy the Gents for themselves and live off the revenue that “the reptiles” contribute. Sexual predators meet predatory entrepreneurs. A “telling parable”? Or a tale that some are too quick to see as well-endowed? I am biased towards the latter.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Muse today?

Song of a Reformed Head Hunter features an interesting article by Clive Wilmer on his blog. The article relates to Thom Gunn and his concept of “Muse”. And indirectly, this question: Is the Muse necessarily female/feminine?

It is unfortunate that the source of inspiration has become such an uninspiring idea in modern poetry. (Look here for an example. Not so much an agent of divine breath as a zombie bringing dead thoughts to life). The Muse has largely passed into the realms of dead metaphor, but why?

Clive Wilmer’s article points out one key relationship for Gunn: son-mother. Gunn went as far as to change his name by deed-poll to acknowledge that bond. This early photo of Gunn also captures that intense bond. Though, in a somewhat staged manner, Ander Gunn looks up in adoration, it is the older Thom who stands affirmatively at his mother’s right hand.

A poem from Passages of Joy (1982), “Expressions”, sees Gunn, the mature poet, reflecting on the “black irony” of his students. (They write with ease about suicide…Gunn would not write about his mother’s until near to his death). It is no accident that Gunn turns away from their “very poetic poetry” to a different inspiration: an Italian painting of Virgin and Child. The implied Muse, for Gunn, is the Mother-Son bond, the eternal Feminine, as Clive Wilmer recalls Gunn saying:

"I used to believe my muse was male: but I've come to realize that [Robert] Graves is right, that the muse has to be female. The Goddess is a mother, not a wife or a lover. The feminine principle is the source and I think it dominates in male artists whether homo- or heterosexual."

The Muse of Robert Graves is, of course, The White Goddess, known as Alphito to the Greeks, Cardea to the Romans and Arianrhod to the Celts. And answering her, as Graves phrases it, demands that the poet finds

“inner communion with The White Goddess, regarded as the source of truth…The White-Goddess is anti-domestic, she is the perpetual “other woman”, and her part is difficult indeed for a woman of sensibility to play for more than a few years, because the temptation to commit suicide in simple domesticity lurks in… every muse’s heart.”
Perhaps, those words informed Gunn’s acceptance of Graves’ poetic dogma: had a biographical ring-of-truth. If so, the Oedipal myth, so often blamed for “gayness”, the over-feminising of a male child by an over-bearing mother, is here recast as a positive psychological source.

Throughout his tour of poetic myth, which includes some fifteen detailed references to the origins of the Muse, Graves finds little to suggest that the Muse might be otherwise than history records. The Muse, for him, is clearly a lunar principle born alongside poetry in the matriarchal past.

But must it be so? After all, he is an archaeologist of myth finding what he desires to find.

Traditionally, the Poet-Muse relationship is a heterosexual conception. In alchemy, it is paralleled by the transference whereby the subconscious elements of one person transfer to another. Invariably, this is seen as a male-female/brother-female relationship in which the male is opened to the dark world of the Anima (the Moon-woman). There are no extensive accounts of “homosexual” alchemy, any awareness that this paradigm might be different. Male-to-male projections do occur, however, frighteningly so, yet the Jungian model does not shift its image base. The argument would seem to be that whether heterosexual or homosexual the male lover must respond to subconscious elements that invert his gender: so, the male lover’s subconscious (his Muse) always takes female form, is the Lunar, Feminine Principle to his Solar, Masculine Principle. Yet, this does not seem to fit with the root of the projection…which is an erotic drive. Yes, with the heterosexual male, Aphrodite is a likely image for the subconscious to assume. But with the gay male?

Writing a poem is a kind of “spiritual pregnancy”, as the Jungian therapist, Nor Hall puts it in The Moon and The Virgin (a truly wonderful book on identity, culture and poetic myth). The poem is born out of the male as much as the female. And the music that accompanies that birth, the musing on words, the museum of images, take a per(verse) form, do not simply replicate heterosexual culture and traditional forms of representation.

Graves felt that the Muse had died in modern poetry because poets wanted “her” to be a real person, a wife and lover to them, a power indistinguishable from the real person they married (or partnered). There is some truth in that statement. Hence, the prevalence of so much sickening love poetry that only achieves greeting card sentiments. It is equally true, however, that the Muse has died because too many poets continue to be unquestioning about their sources of inspiration.