Alistair Noon reviews
by Ben Borek
Judges of the National Poetry Competition must be glad, no doubt, of the sanity-saving line limit in the rules. Deliberately or not though, that limit helps norm the poem of our times into a text of forty lines or under. So much poetry from both the distant and the not-so-distant past would, if it were entered now, be disqualified, in more than one sense of the word.
Ben Borek’s recent Donjong Heights tells how one inhabitant of an eponymous tower block in South London organizes a Christmas party with the ulterior aim of winning back his estranged grand amour. For this it draws on Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin as a model, with its distinctive and complex fourteen-line stanza form.
That isn’t all that Borek half-inches. The Russian winter countryside and its melancholic, bored inhabitants are transferred to Peckham in December, inc. plumbing problems and SAD. Dancing the mazurka is replaced by staggering out of the boozer. As in Pushkin’s work, there are boxfuls of contemporary cultural references, both high- and low-brow, in this case to everything from Adorno to Hiphop, via Watership Down. A knowing, tongue-in-cheek narratorial voice fesses up to its failings. Mood and mode are varied by inserting letters into the narrative, or shifting from the past tense to the present.
Pushkin also supplies the model for some of the kinds of rhyming used. One is translingual rhyme, principally between English and French, such as in ‘après vin’ / ‘man’ (French has similarly snooty connotations in Russian). This is tied into the hero’s Francophilia: he discourses on the relative merits of Camus and Sartre, rhyming ‘egalité’ with ‘anthropocentralité’. There are numerous fun proper noun rhymes – ‘chance it’ / ‘The Lancet’ for example – and sometimes the two techniques are combined: ‘Siddhartha’ / ‘persona non grata’.
Donjong Heights is still very much its own thing though. Borek’s hero is also the main narrator (in contrast to Onegin, who is the object of an unnamed storyteller). There is also a hilarious postmodern lisping, berating ‘Omniscient Narrator’ – more of a one-person Greek chorus really – who gets his two cents’ worth in whenever he can. And this must be the first time that a DJ’s spinning turntable has been subtly transformed into a symbol of death.
Borek and his lisping second narrator rhyme where no poet has rhymed before. Here’s part of the shopping list for the Christmas party that the hero throws:
Tequila (with a jar of thalt)
An oak-wood finished thingle malt.
That party provides the opportunity to throw together most of the novel’s characters. A lot of fun is had in their interaction, and in the observation of how interlocutors – here highly disparate ones – find common ground in conversation. The hero’s macho wrestling brother and a sensitive Italian tailor bond over a discussion of the merits of lycra as a material, and a disgraced and disgraceful former Oxbridge tutor receives a lecture on the etymology of ‘break’ in hiphop parlance from a drugged-out DJ.
All this would be so much entertainment if it weren’t for the background noise: the hero is terminally ill. Though there’s a kind of jocularity here too – the condition in question is the medically impossible one of the heart simply slowing to a stop – impending death remains real enough in the narrative to lend the text the kind of depth that great comedy can have – vide Blackadder Goes Forth, which played out in the Trenches. The omnithient narrator quipth ‘It’th not a punithment – it’th fate’, and in an era in which biologists refer to cell fate, that final abstraction is not so out-of-key with contemporary thought.
There are a couple of things I’ll carp at. The book is beautifully produced in terms of its graphic design, but now and again the spellcheck function seems to have been overlooked. The rhymes occasionally cross into the Pam Ayres zone (‘nominally’/‘abominably’). Sometimes they trip up on their stresses: when a strong sound structure has been created, variations are likely to be read/heard as either meaningful or else ‘wrong’. The lovingly detailed characterizations of the teenage DJ and the late-Flower-Power fan of esoterica contrast with the skimpy view of the hero’s object of desire. She appears intermittently in the hero’s memories and in written communication, but doesn’t come to life the way the other characters do. As the hero’s attempted reconciliation with her provides the central tension of the plot – will they get back together? – something of an imbalance in the characterization results
Many elements are carefully placed, contrasted and developed though: one character is into reggae, another into hiphop; clothes get wet in two separate erotic episodes; shopping on credit for clothes and Christmas over-consumption are recurrent themes. Ms Esoterica’s fry-up of tofu and rice on the one hand, and diverse piss-ups on the other, foreshadow and are then synthesized in the Christmas orgy of booze and food that ends the book.
Donjong Heights is a great deal of fun, and, as it draws to a close, both raucous and moving at the same time. It also demonstrates what poetry can still do and be at the present time if it chooses to play off past models of narrative and discursive thought (for a revival of the essay mode in the digital age, see for example Andrea Brady’s recent Tracking Wildfire).
Links to Alistair Noon’s work online can be found here. His translations from German, Chinese and Russian include Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman. He coordinates the annual Poetry Hearings festival in Berlin, coedits the magazine Bordercrossing Berlin, and is guest-editing an online symposium on the work of Sean Rafferty this June.
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