Monday, October 27, 2008

Marechera as Magus.


In 1987, The journal Zambezia (from the University of Zimbabwe) included an article by Marechera on the African writer and the European novel. Marechera was never modest about his reading: The Black Insider reads almost as a catalogue of the author’s readings. The eclectic inclusions within this journal, however, are interesting because they suggest some directions taken by Marechera’s mind amongst the labyrinth of fiction.

The article begins with an interesting question:

“If I am looking at something, and I am conscious of myself looking, does that affect what I see?”

Marechera does not answer the questions that he poses. The answer, however, is “Yes”. And it is this self-consciousness that characterises his fiction and the way that he looks. In some ways, Marechera is the voyeur more interested in how he watches than what he watched. For as he says, fiction is a matter of "optics". Given this view-point, it is surprising that Marechera does not mention the master of the nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet and the novel Le Voyeur (1955). Instead, Marechera refers to the main disciple of Robbe-Grillet in English, John Fowles. And to one novel in particular: The Magus. By the time that Marechera wrote and published The House of Hunger (1978), Fowles’ star was truly in the ascendant. In fact, all of his significant work had been published. It is noteworthy therefore that Marechera singles out one novel, The Magus, and why he does so should not be overlooked. Fowles’ novel is a descendant of The Satyricon (the bawdy element in literature) and of the “expansive” psychological trend in the modern novel. Following Bakhtin, Marechera adds Fowles to the “carnival” tradition of literature.

Like the central character in The Magus, Nicholas Urfe, Marechera was fascinated by the spectacle of violence and inquisition. What Fowles read into the magus metaphor (magus, magician, adept, deception, illusion, reality, interrogator and interpreter), Marechera unravelled and re-incarnated as the African shaman. And the writer, for Marechera, consequently became a voyeuristic vampire like creature, a being that consumes his/her art, his/her blood.

At the close of his reflections (from 1986), Marechera states that Ginsberg’s Howl rang in his ears as he wrote The House of Hunger. The outsider parallel is made through this reference, but more importantly Marechera is drawing upon The Magus image within Ginsberg, and his capacity as a poet to mix sex, terror, psychological disturbances and create a dark form of creativity…a disruptive creativity that came from the interrogation of the heart and the tricks of the mind.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reginald Shepherd...

The death of Reginald Shepherd on September 10th came with tragic weight. Given his candid account of his illness, time was not on his side: Death waited in the wings (though unable to catch the winged words that had already flown). The tributes to him have been fitting and moving, though I would wish to differ from the writer who said that Reginald Shepherd was best known as a blogger and from those bloggers who praised his genius whilst admitting that they had never read his poetry. To not have seen Reginald Shepherd as a poet first and foremost is an error…to believe that his identity might be divorced from his poetry is a fallacy. True, Reginald Shepherd happily walked a tightrope with Poetry in one hand and Criticism in the other, could balance the quill and scales with consummate ease, but his love (as revealed by his poetry) was always poetry…the act of making (as he phrased it) the original that would endure rather than the transient new—he valued gold from the crucible rather than bling modernism.

In Orpheus in the Bronx (2007), Reginald Shepherd published a timely essay: “One state of the Art.” Designed as an extended version of his introduction to The Iowa Anthology (2004), this essay outlines the crossroads of modern verse, or post-modern verse, or post-post modern verse ad infinitum. This essay engages with some of the nonsense that often outraged him: the need for poethoods; the discounting of lyricism; and the mythical “school of quietude”. The essay is modern in its vision and yet it derives from older versions of poetic theorizing. The opening claim that “poetry is passion” (70) is pure Milton.

Like Reginald Shepherd, I have no liking for the anti-“school of quietude” critics and poets. Viewed from across The Pond, this appears as American arrogance: it dispenses (in its ignorance) with the whole history of UK poetry, as if contemporary poetry must spring by parthogenseis from hydra-headed American modernism. There is something curiously English about Reginald Shepherd; and I mean that in the best sense. Like Christopher Middleton, he seeks vistas, poetic and critical, and his belief in the experience of poetry rhymes fully with Middleton’s belief in "prosetic space": that poetry is original, not second-hand, is a living first-hand experience, not a re-making of the real in a virtual sphere. Shepherd and Middleton share a world view of poetry and as such never accept the “pre-cooked, processed” nature of language, a language governed by isms— a revolution made from conformism.

At the close of “One state of the Art”, Reginald Shepherd welcomes the poets who approach the self “as an open question”. Presumably, by extension, that means a poetry with an open field (as Duncan would have said) in which the self can be constructed. The poem makes the self, not the self the poem. That view is key in understanding Reginald Shepherd’s dislike of identity poetics and a methodology that places the fixed self before the flux of creation. The final words of this important essay return to Milton. The open poets stand against the “poets for whom the self” is “cynosure” and “mystification” (78). The allusion is to Milton’s divine melancholic whose lyrical blackness cancels out the frivolous “cynosure” of L’Allegro (l.80). The “mystification” of the false poet is transmuted by Milton, in Il Penseroso, to a worship of the links between word and nature—into a truly hermetic poetic placing himself/herself amidst the cosmos. Il Penseroso seeks to revive a new Orpheus for a fallen age. The poetry of Reginald Shepherd does the same. Some have wandered off the track to lament (Romantically) what Reginald Shepherd’s poetry might have been…in years to come. They would be wiser to stay and consider the immense achievement of his poetry as it exists. The poetry of Reginald Shepherd has an hermetic density…like HD’s…which will endure because it was made with Hermes’ flame; and like HD he wrote against Death, bringing creation out of disorder.