The Glimmer by Shazea Quraishi (Bloodaxe Books, 2022) Of Discourse by Giles Goodland (grandIOTA, 2023)
Reviewed by Ian Brinton
Reminiscence and expectation
In their very different ways both Shazea Quraishi and Giles Goodland write about the central importance of particularisation and they would doubtless both express agreement with William Blake’s comment in his 1798 ‘Annotations to the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ that ‘To Generalize is to be an Idiot’. A voice from Day 23 of The Glimmer asserts that every image emerges from a series of variations around the same theme
expresses its own clearly
perceptible character. [p. 78]
As the blurb on the back cover of this typically attractive publication by Bloodaxe tells us (the front cover art is of a Green Bird, Mughal, Indian School from the 17th century) The Glimmer ‘is a meditation on the time-span of life illuminated by many voices’ and the 31 days into which the sequence of poems is divided opens with a taxidermist’s morning as she contemplates her day’s work in advance:
She wakes to birdsong sun slats on the floor
suitcase by the door spills clothes quiet
of the house a cocoon a skin
At the table she waits for the mouse to thaw
scalpel tweezers calipers
pins pipecleaners wire scissors
needle thread straw
putting together [p. 9]
The emergence of a new day is welcomed with sound and light but the sun’s arrival is almost perceived through a hint of confinement as it ‘slats on the floor’. A slat is a long, thin narrow piece of wood or metal deriving its name from the Old French esclater, to break, splinter or burst. There is a further sense of projected movement with the focus upon a suitcase sitting by the door and clothes spilling out to give the house a sense of an anticipation of travel. This sits intriguingly alongside the tone of peacefulness: it is, after all, a cocoon offering protection, a skin. Almost as if echoing the liquid movement of clothes spilling out of the case a frozen dead mouse thaws on a table and the instruments of the taxidermist are laid out in neat preparation which is emphasised by the very slightly longer gap between each noun on the page. This is the opening of a highly organised analysis of life after death and the taking apart precedes the ‘putting together’.
The movement of a mother and small son passing the gate of the house in Day 2 brings to the poet’s mind a sense of ‘past-in-present perhaps’ and the thought heralds a series of memories which come to include ‘swimming in a river by her brother’s house’ and, in Day 8, her brother ‘tying flies’. As past becomes present in Day 10 a boy called Havi brings to her four hummingbirds, ‘pitiful things poorly preserved’, and he gazes towards the stuffed animals on the shelf prompting her to show him the mouse ‘curled up in a pale green china cup / fur so soft’. Further on the poet offers tea to a painter who comes to the house in Day 12 and she meditates that
People look at my work think it’s about death
really it’s about life the fullness
within time’s holding of it [p. 36]
The world of the taxidermist is a world of things and, in the words on the back cover of this deeply sensitive and moving sequence of short and sometimes fragmentary poems, she works in an artists’ colony in Mexico tending animals ‘in their after-life, contemplating what remains of us after death.’ Among those artists whom she encounters there are painters, photographers, singers and dancers all of whose art presents reflections ‘on the impulse to make work and meaning in a world where value is increasingly monetised.’ All art brings the past to a type of life and the words of the poems can, as Geoffrey Ward puts it in ‘Poetry and Rift’ (PN Review April 2010), evoke, suggest, delineate, propose, haunt and do all manner of things ‘except be the thing or feeling or concept to which they refer’. Words are not things but they can evoke a sense of physical reality and, as if echoing the taxidermist’s piecing together of a past life, Giles Goodland’s Of Discourse provides a book-length focus upon functors, those words that have little lexical meaning but which often provoke ambiguous suggestiveness in their expression of grammatical relationships among other words within a sentence. Functors often specify the attitude or mood of the speaker and become the glue that holds a sentence together.
This new publication from grandIOTA is a novel-length hybrid of prose and verse in nineteen sections each of which explores and expands upon those common words which hold our lives together. As the back cover tells us
The resulting texts are expansive and extraordinary: a series of quotations, collages, reframings, imitations, homages and homologies, referencing myths ancient and contemporary, computer games, instruction manuals, diary entries. They are mysterious, surreal, comical and lyrical, suggesting endless avenues of invention.
The contents page gives the reader a list of the functors which are being explored in each section and in chapter twelve ‘Of Time Before’ Goodland presents us with ‘Once, Past, Ago, Before, Been, Was, Were’. The word ‘once’, famous for opening a fairy-tale, permits a nostalgic sense of the past to become the present and similar to the art of the taxidermist words permit that which has gone to rise to the surface of the page like the statue of Hermione in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as Paulina calls out for the work of art to move, ‘descend / And take you by the hand’:
’Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach.
Strike all that look upon with marvel.
The suggestive power of ‘once’ raises the curtain that permits the merging of past and present and a yearning sense of the lost is woven with the immediacy of the moment, ‘once’ this is recognised.
Once the names were entered I typed the data for each field
if I could retrace the threads that once were people
the holes they leave once you notice their absence. [p. 186]
This magical reconstruction of what has vanished prompts Goodland to suggest that ‘PAST BEHAVIOURS PREDICT future behaviours’ and as he plays with the different associations explored in the word ‘past’ a moment like a journal entry reappears:
Many trains go past but none is our train, my dead cousin Robert walks past me, smiles, and tells me to give his love to J. Out of that tune the past rings like a bell and I wait until a man cycles up the track past me as I descend into the wide estuarine bay and drive past seaside shops. [p. 187]
There is an element of permanency in small functional words and Goodland’s playful focus upon the word ‘past’ explores precisely this. The dead cousin Robert is in the ‘past’ but in Goodland’s imagination he is also in the present as he ‘walks past me’. Just as the verb ‘to pass’ conveys one moment overtaking another, hence its often being used nowadays to refer to people dying, that which has ‘passed’ is not condemned to remain in the ‘past’. As Gaston Bachelard put it in his book about how we experience intimate places, The Poetics of Space (Beacon Press, 1969) ‘inhabited space transcends geometrical space’ and small words, functional words, open up new areas of thought. In the ‘new house’ of our present lives ‘memories of other places we have lived in come back to us’ and ‘we travel to the land of Motionless Childhood, motionless the way all Immemorial things are.’
In chapter fifteen, ‘Of Space’, Goodland offers us the words ‘Here’ and ‘There’, Somewhere’ and ‘Everywhere’ and, of course, ‘Anywhere’. The emergence of the particular from a general background is presented in decisive terms:
THERE WAS A GENERAL in order that there could be a particular. I started by disarticulating it at the fissure, there cutting the palate to split the face at midline. [p.221]
One can almost see the taxidermist at work bringing separate pieces together to make them appear to come alive. As Goodland put it earlier in the book ‘Words began later than that inaction we call thought’ and the effect they can have is to make new pictures emerge. As he tells us in chapter one, ‘Of That Which Exists’, ‘a stone falling from a fabled sky is also a sigh that hangs in the air’ and a ‘Sigh and sign break that signifying mast of the terminal aitch.’ Air and sound become something of permanence and so as the stone falls from the ‘fabled sky’ and the sign becomes a sigh one recalls Brueghel’s painting of the fall of Icarus echoed in Auden’s ‘forsaken cry’ that lingers on the page of ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. Auden’s poem, written not long before the outbreak of World War II, had presented the reader with an awareness of perspective and how immense suffering takes place ‘While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking / dully along’. And in chapter three which includes ‘or’, Goodland brings our attention to language’s emergence:
Or suddenly the language laughs, or twists or puckers her mouth because the origins of words like gag or nah are articulatory or imprisoned in sand, or in the limestone regions of the tibia; or in the swelling uplands of the brain. [p.52]
In Day 23 of Quraishi’s The Glimmer the poet suggests that the ‘form is always the measure of the obsession’ and for the taxidermist the reconstruction of the dead is closely bound up with the finished object, which can of course be seen as a work of art. The connection between form and what it embraces inevitably prompts to mind those famous words of Robert Creeley from his letter in June 1950 to Charles Olson in which he proposed the notion that ‘form is never more than an extension of content’. However, what is not always recalled are the two short phrases which follow in the same letter:
An enacted or possible ‘stasis’ for thought. Means to.
For imaginative ideas to take solid form may well be a matter of many years and in Day 23 Quraishi tells us of the patience of the artist:
Creation requires time.
It took me 23 years
to develop this cicada
from initial inspiration
to the full development of folds. [p. 78]
In Creeley’s terms a work of art is the standing still of thought, its stasis, and the form becomes the means through which the invisible can be communicated. For Quraishi’s taxidermist ‘every creation emerges / around the same theme’ until, as the work becomes stationary, held within a work of art, it
expresses its own clearly
perceptible character. [p. 78]
In the eighteenth chapter of Giles Goodland’s foray into discourse he tells the reader that language exists ‘so we do not have to think so much’ about the extent to which we are prisoners ‘of the decisions it makes’. Some three-hundred and eighty years earlier Ben Jonson had said that ‘Language most shewes a man’ and he was suggesting that we can see each other through our utterances: our language becomes the form in which content is held:
It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind. No glasse renders a mans forme, or likenesse, so true as his speech.
(Timber: or, Discoveries, 1640)
‘What’ is Giles Goodland’s second word at the beginning of Of Discourse and although ‘what’ is an indefinite pronoun it is an idea:
what is poetry’s interest in time what is the work of nerve fibres what is loosely called existence what puts us in relation with being what is going on in your head it should be obvious what, what is discernible, what is lost, what is this what that language uses. [p. 11]
The functors of Goodland’s book bear similarities to the tools of Quraishi’s taxidermist and his own words about the assembling of Of Discourse are not that far removed from the London-based Canadian poet who had been born in Pakistan and whose extraordinarily powerful and haunting ‘Glimmer’ contains poems that range in form from syllabics and ghazals to OULIPO-inspired anagram. Quraishi’s poems emerge from found text and verbatim speech through the corridors of which she brings a choir of voices to life. Goodland had worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and as is quoted on the back cover of the book he had kept a list of examples of function words in use:
Not just BE, but prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, and a few verbs that did not suggest much in the way of a specific action. Anything that seemed to lack a semantic aspect, or in which the function of the word was more important than its meaning. After I had assembled an almost unmanageably large file of phrases and sentences, both from external sources and from my own writings, I started to assemble ‘poems’ from them…
As the taxidermist had put it the work begins with a taking apart and is followed by a ‘putting together’.
The Latin base for the word functor is functionem meaning performance or execution; a word made for a particular purpose to do a specific job. The Greek words táxis and dérma, arrangement and skin, are perhaps the foundation for Quraishi’s glimmer that brings the dead to life:
And if a woman and a boy stand before a glass coffin that holds
the bones of a northern bottlenose whale
the softness of his hand will be enormous
as she tells him how a story that began with a kiss
despite the enormous hole at its heart can hold a boy
and a river that began with rainwater or snowmelt
can briefly hold a whale before letting it go
to spill from its mouth into the ocean
stories of whales and boys and all it has known [p. 97]
Having opened with a reference to William Blake’s awareness of particularity it seems appropriate for me to close with John Ruskin’s similar understanding of the importance of the individual moment:
The more we know, and the more we feel, the more we separate; we separate to obtain a more perfect unity.
(Preface to Modern Painters)