Guest Review: Noon On Forrest-Thomson

Alistair Noon reviews
Collected Poems
by Veronica Forrest-Thomson

This collection of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s curious, witty, observant, crafted, exploratory poems includes, as your average Collected might do, a section entitled ‘Uncollected Earlier Poems’. But unless you’re a reader able to put a restraining order on all prior biographical knowledge, it’s hard not to read all of these poems as early work: Forrest-Thomson died at the age of 27. The obvious question is what another fifty-odd years of writing might have produced. Though one shouldn’t make too much of this of course: when Hendrix died, at the same age, he had demonstrated that rock can be art. Some people just get it all done faster.

Forrest-Thomson’s first book Identi-kit (1967) gives, in places, a sense of having being written by a young person. Late-teen/early-twenty-something cynicism comes through in the imagery of stasis and decay, the themes of banality and theatricality in conversation, and the use of psychological abstractions like ‘experience’, ‘self’, ‘personality’ and the ‘identity’ referenced in the title, objectifications of what we rather self-centredly refer to as the ‘first person’.

But these elements are part of a structure which is more mature. The writer behind the words is already merging her reading, thinking and living in poetry: the result is depth and interest of perception. I’m reminded more than once of early Bunting in the dense, taut line of concrete images alternated with Latinate abstractions. The poems of Identi-kit are actually the achieved poems of a young person, something we almost ipso facto don’t often get to read – early David Gascoyne, and the equally write-fast-die-young Keith Douglas come to mind. These early early poems are already as much performance as practice.

The title poem of Identi-kit derives from a sensitive young person’s take on the centrality and impermanence of sexual love, but has the more distanced analysis you might associate with an older poet. ‘According to the Script’ verbalizes a youthful disdain for the perceived falsities of conversation, but combines wisdom with form in a way that speaks beyond that moment. Some of the poems in Identi-kit refer to evolution and the human in ways that prefigure the ideas of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene of 1976 (I guess they were in the air at the time). They are also prescient of our own slightly later turbo-biotechnological age, and the probing if problematic anti-humanist arguments of John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. ‘In the Greenhouse’:

The silent rhythm of pulsating pores
filling my lungs with filtered earth
is all I know or feel of alien shapes
that once were flowers.
I breathe their breath
until all definitions are dissolved,
and homo sapiens is nothing more to me.

These lines tie into insights from discourse analysis and applied linguistics that, despite Chomsky’s assertion of the huge number of novel sentences that our brains can and do produce, our conversation and communication are frequently not nearly as individual as we like to think. They very often follow analyzable patterns both in lexis and structure. Forrest-Thomson’s take is this:

Thus the individual ego (once called a soul)
must learn to let the transcendent go;
find fulfilment pulling puppet strings
and putting on an entertaining show.

The argument is taken up again a little later in the uncollected ‘Individuals’:

But there is at least a case
that poetry should trace
the double helix
(those interlocking strands of DNA)
before it try
to straighten the spring.

Weaker pieces in ‘Uncollected Early Poems’ point up the strengths of Identi-kit, revealing in another way an early maturity, in the author’s critical judgement with regard to her own work. ‘Uncollected Early Poems’ also includes transitional forms evolving towards the poems of Language Games, employing a ludic approach with frequent plays on proverbs – ‘Don’t bite the hand that throws dust in your eyes’, ‘I’m an old mouth at this game’. We get the first of Forrest-Thomson’s literary parodies here, and a kind of punning and knowingness that fore- and overshadows Armitagian verse. And her first concrete poetry, with its word patterns, deliberate semantic reductionism, visual aspect on the page and anti-lyricism, parallel to Gomringer, Cobbing, de Campos et al. There’s something young-ish at work here, too, in the primary interest taken in the surface of language.

Four years apart in their publication dates, the two volumes of Forrest-Thomson’s poetry published in her lifetime are quite different, and require different ways of reading. Where Identi-kit impresses in an immediate way, a response to Language Games (1971) may be more delayed: the fairly traditional, if often loosened-up forms of the first book give way to poems where sense is less traditionally arrived at. In Language Games the forms are more deliberately individual, and there’s a parallel tendency in the titles: the first collection’s ‘Christmas Morning’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ contrast with titles like ‘Notes to Chapter 1,002’ and ‘It Doesn’t Matter about Mantrippe’ in the second

Language Games also opens up to the voices of others, through frequent quotation and paraphrase of other texts, including Wittgenstein, Proust, Pound and the O.E.D. In Identi-kit, Forrest-Thomson is making perception and statement, looking for and often finding the Image. In Language Games, she’s throwing a great deal up in the air again, becoming the poet of Text: one poem is a meditation on hyphens. The unifying thing in both books is the sense of Argument in the poems. In Language Games this is certainly a disrupted argument, but an argument nonetheless. The reading and thinking are made simultaneously more explicit and more opaque: Forrest-Thomson later describes this book as ‘a head-on collision with non-poetic language’ (from the Preface to On the Periphery).

The posthumously published On the Periphery seems in some ways to be the synthesis of the Identi-kit thesis and the Language Games antithesis – proposition combined with the deep play of language. A kind of self-consciousness is still evident here, but put to good use: consciousness of self combined with technical control provide the power and appeal of many of the poems. Bits of the everyday – both town and gown – intrude: Cambridge university life pops up now and again – how could it not? There’s a pleasure in irony:

the abstract ditch we dig with our fundamental
disagreement about the proper form for a picnic.
(‘Approaching the Library’)

I can’t help thinking of W.S. Graham here – ‘abstract’ was a favourite word of his – and his recurrent theme of human communication. In On the Periphery, a Philosophical We reflects, sometimes in an almost taunting voice, on the arbitrariness of the world, with allusion, parody and authorial aside.

It’s Slow Poetry, and adherents of residual universalism in poetry – I mean the idea that it’s a great poem only if its ways of making meaning are already accepted and widely known – might decry much of this. Too intellectual. Too academic. Too Oxbridge. Too elitist. Check out the end to ‘The Aquarium’, a kind of Derridean supplément, or string of tin cans banging along behind the car:

Note: see Roland Barthes: S/Z, L’Empire des signes
Denis Roche: “Leçons sur la vacance poétique” in Éros énergumène
Alain Robbe-Grillet: La Jalousie
and Nathalie Sarraute: Le Planetarium

Are you going to ‘see’ these? And in French? If it’s a joke, it didn’t have me rolling in the aisles. I don’t buy the challenge argument sometimes made, with reference to references, by Defenders of the Difficult. I’m really not going to read, skim or google three books or essays of critical thinking and a couple of novels, in the original or in translation, to increase my understanding of this poem.

But then few people, except perhaps the writer of Penguin Key Notes, will have followed up all, or even any of Eliot’s parody-inducing notes to ‘The Waste Land’ (vide Martin Rowson’s comic book resetting of the latter as film noir, The Wasted Land, replete with notes, including one from Bakunin – in the original Russian.) The problem isn’t in the text, but in the social power and prestige too rapidly, and sometimes inaccurately, associated with it. Deal with it. And then read the poem.

What engages me in Forrest-Thomson’s work is the way it is demanding of my attention while still providing formal pleasure. The ‘Further Poems’ include ‘Cordelia’, an essay poem zipping in and out of Western literature and thought, which shows its author working her way up to larger forms. She pops herself into it in a way that is neither self-deprecating nor arrogant – ‘I, Veronica did it, truth-finding, truth seeking’ – but simply as a poet moving through the past. What ultimately wins through with Forrest-Thomson is the combination of intellectual probing with some down-to-earth yet worthwhile restatement of old themes, in her own way:

The motto of this poem heed
And do you it employ:
Waste not and want while you’re here
The possibles of joy.

‘The possibles of joy’. Can you say that? Well, she just did. Edwin Morgan wrote an elegiac sequence (‘Unfinished Poems’) for Veronica Forrest-Thomson, and I’m reminded of Morgan’s openness to and skill in both traditional and experimental forms (yes, there are scare quotes to be put round those adjectives). Her preface to On the Periphery, one of a series of prose statements that rounds off the Collected, talks of ‘recapturing the right to speak directly through the traditional ranges of rhymed stanza’. That goes hand-in-hand with the range of enquiry. In ‘S/Z’ – is it her or Barthes’ piece of the same name? what or who is the text? – are the lines:

Poems teach one that much:
to expect no answer.
But keep on asking questions;
that is important.

Alistair Noon’s chapbook At the Emptying of Dustbins recently appeared from Oystercatcher Press. He will be reading at A Midsummer Night of Poetry, at The Bear, in Camberwell, London, on July 2nd 2009. He lives in Berlin. He often writes for Eyewear.
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