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From Head to Toe

James Peake

English Martyrs, by Conor Carville, Two Rivers Press, 76 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1909747531

In a late philosophical sonnet, “Meru”, Yeats portrays our species as an avid but far from unthinking destroyer, “ravening, raging and uprooting that he may come / Into the desolation of reality”. “Uprooting” is the stunning and unpredictable verb-choice, the poem both energised and appalled by the cost of our intellectual appetite, the collateral in our quest for metaphysical bedrock. We can surely recognise the verb’s suitability in an age when our treatment of natural resources is so obviously unsustainable, and anyone in search of first principles now surely has further to dig than even Yeats could have envisaged. Waking life for most of us has become increasingly abstracted, commercialised, striated, digitised and mediated. If there’s a there there (to co-opt Gertrude Stein) it’s surely very far down indeed.

Heaney, of course, dug, and masterfully. But as his extraordinary career recedes into the past there is disappointment that such gifts were so often restricted to what could be, hostile critics might suggest, a sort of poetic known, or, more generously, that his work was of such deliberate and humane continuity that readers from previous eras would always be closer to it than the burgeoning urban populations of the post-digital world. What his literary decorum excluded, the argument might run, is our moment’s atomisation, the proliferating material novelty as well as the distance between even neighbouring generations in what is deemed sayable, known or valued, how work is undertaken, possessions treated, communication performed.

Heaney is memorialised in Conor Carville’s powerful second collection, English Martyrs, in a poem entitled “Bog Thing”. It brings together the toothsome Heaney of North and the brash and colourful comics of an optimistic America. One of the most philosophically playful lyrics in the book, it sets out Carville’s preoccupation with the fallibility of media in the physical world:

…as the first big spots of rain
intermittently plumped

the coarse pulp
to which my father’s
back had turned,
benday dots
blending readily
with that thing
popularly referred to
as reality.

When the poem’s narrator discovers this copy of DC’s Swamp Thing that moody humanoid has yet to make his unlikely journey from also-ran to mainstream property (he now enjoys his own glossy TV series on Amazon Prime). The writer who postmodernised the character in the 1980s, Alan Moore, enjoys reminding readers new to comics quite how worthless they were once considered to be, routinely used as ballast for transatlantic shipping (which likely explains their presence in this poem’s Belfast). Certain superheroes were makeweights in a very literal, as well as imaginative, sense.

Conor Carville won the Patrick Kavanagh award in 1996 and published an outstanding first collection with Dedalus Press in 2013, Harm’s Way. An authority on Irish writing since 1800, as well contemporary British, Irish and American poetry, he has recently published pioneering work on Samuel Beckett’s lifelong enthusiasm for painting. He has spoken publicly about his deep admiration for Heaney, a writer who, like himself, was born and raised in Northern Ireland, and whose name and example directly fired Carville’s interest in poetry. But where the Heaney of The Spirit Level speculated that his last things might include wild mint stirring in the breeze, Carville has drolly admitted to the fear that his might include any number of 1970s TV shows with their wobbly sets and rainbow-glare camerawork. In an interview with Prac Crit Carville describes Saturday afternoons in childhood spent visiting uncles in Heaney country –certain as-yet unbroken conditions of rural life – and then coming home via British army checkpoints in time for Doctor Who:

… searchlight, sniper loop and slide,
the ivy-woven netting that throws

a grid upon the earth’s weird glow,
the earth that is neither round nor flat.

Borges (or the semiotician Alfred Korzybski) might be audible in that description of recalcitrant earth but to a formative imagination that afternoon journey of “about ten minutes” between authentically rural and televisually futuristic could be a single experiential continuum in a way adults would instantly reject as either unethical or misguided. And yet there is poetic value there, recalibrating what Carville calls in another poem “the horizon of [the] hippocampus” (responsible for short term memory-making). In a handful of poems in Harm’s Way (the blackberry-picking Bowie wannabe in “Starman”, for example), and with increased audacity and range in English Martyrs, the mature poet makes of these perceptual and temporal relativities a poetic claustrum of real affect.

The unstoppable flow of pop culture into mental life – that great tide of images and derivatives, echoes and borrowings, gains and losses, treasures and trash – is a serious and ongoing subject for poetry. While pop culture’s aesthetic successes can be genuine enough few would deny its proliferation is driven by the market more than any essential expressive urge (think of the phrase “content-provider” without wincing). We have all of us internalised enormous quantities of it and carry around long-term what was only intended to passingly divert. The disposable has almost conquered the internal, and Carville’s achievement is to show us this in poems that are by turns vivid, horrifying, clever, funny and visionary.

Carville’s formal range ensures technique is tailored to subject. A softer, more vulnerable tone enters the vignettes involving children, and there is real pathos in “Ping”, a poem in which a mobile phone is shared by parent and child and the utterly different realms the same device keeps for them. There are moments too of notable haptic description, as in the “The Flip-Flop”, revealed to be a distinctly unnatural object, especially when considered without its twin:

…  slim as an insole,
clean as a Polo, with only
the faintest hint of a toe-tip
tainting the moulded foam

The last two-thirds of the book is wilder in its propulsive energy and makes up a single major sequence, “Bless”, a sort of hellish journey through Wimbledon. The sequence proceeds by either lessening or increasing the tension between embodied and disembodied forms of experience. The poet tests the traditionally understood whereabouts of such divisions while generating immense poetic heat from the refusal of one to endure prolonged separation from the other. While the book’s title alone is innate with productive tension, it’s apt indeed that decapitation is a recurrent motif, that perennially shocking means of execution which creates two dehumanised and irreconcilable objects from a singular functioning whole. The practice has of course a correspondingly long iconographic history. In Caravaggio, for example, we’re shown something almost too brutal to look at but the Western tradition is also home to the anti-realistic renderings of Redon (which arguably go on to inform those breathless heads of Cocteau or Beckett). The severed head of the Symbolists has been freed, eyes closed, expression serene, its occupant safely delivered into the inexhaustible interior. Between these representational poles Carville shows us, among others, an Aztec crystal skull, a hand mistaken for a mummified head, the pre-Photoshop “almost skull” on the cover of an album sleeve, and the spate of cat beheadings pinned by the UK media to an anonymous sadist when they were more than likely the work of non-conspiring foxes. This grim necklace has as its centrepiece the head of the last Catholic martyr in England, William Plunkett, which (as distinct from “who”) communicates a bravura and anachronistic journey from Tyburn by van and helicopter in every available Irish accent.

Where might an overloaded mundane head find liberation, then, however brief? In the accidental resistance, perhaps, of either genuine misunderstanding or sleep itself. The narrator of “Cinema” insists on going to the two great shibboleths of sci-fi film – 2001, and what is often called its Soviet “reply”, Solaris – only to fail to see what’s in front of him twice. Here again we have Carville’s commitment to the unexpectedness ‑ the singularity ‑ of subjective experience, imperfect happening set against perfected representation. I enjoyed the joke that two such grindingly revered films should be met not at their own estimation but as things as ordinary as the nightly routine, our entering a darkened room and submitting to images we can’t predict, control or fully understand.

To Eliot’s complicating pattern of living and dead we might well add films, ads, videogames, and a hundred other designed sources, the stuff of our own indiscriminate ballast. English Martyrs is necessarily home to a host – holy or otherwise ‑ of real-life figures and unrelated fictions. We’re as likely to hear Robert Frost or Galway Kinnell getting a word in as we are to cross paths with a “packing” William Burroughs, a liminal Pokemon or a Womble marked for death. It’s difficult to think of another recent collection which brings such force and wit to the simultaneously undernourished and overpopulated culture of the franchise era. Carville shows what it is to be a thinking feeling agent for whom some cultural accumulation is voluntary and hard-won (most books, alas, don’t read themselves) but an astonishing amount is involuntary and by dint of commercial designs upon us. William Empson once said that he wasn’t sure how much of him Eliot had invented, so pervasive and hard to detect was the senior poet’s influence. Reading Carville we’re left to wonder at the extent to which we are not ourselves as we might wish to think, less the never-wrong consumer than an unintended by-product, a bamboozled inside-out recipient of more cultural data than can be reasonably processed, and with less and less access to the profounder reality (or realities) that it continually obscures. English Martyrs confirms Carville’s provocative originality and puts him in the company of writers who deserve to be read repeatedly and with increasing excitement whenever they publish.

1/3/2020

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