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Guest Review: Muckle On Goodland

John Muckle reviews
What The Things Sang
by Giles Goodland

The structuring principles of Giles Goodland’s poetry are the list and the proverb, the proverb and the list: a list of proverbs, a proverbial list – of words, objects of perception, apercus, saws, definitions. He is a lexicographer by trade: alphabetical order is irresistible to him, as are all kinds of tidiness and symmetry – as is also a contrary impulse to subvert a policed language of fixed definitions by means of various techniques he has evolved for calling its orders into question. A proverb is a linguistic structure – if this that, as this is so that is, and so on: as many other kinds of ifs, whens and ases as he can dream up, a series of rhetorical figures, checks and balances, permutating propositions, additive arrangements, suggestions of similitude, and paradoxes, spooling on and on, melting into one another until we begin to fear that any notion of a proverb as an encapsulation of useful wisdom is gone, and a collection of them is not something that might hold your chosen people together in the wilderness but more likely send all twelve tribes gibbering in every direction into the tentless desert.

memory is an efficient way of disposing of the past.
The body is thick with contradiction

(p. 43)

The Book of Proverbs tells to ‘removeth not thy neighbour’s landmark’. Giles Goodland seems at first to have no such inhibition. But, taking Wittgenstein’s Zettel and an assortment of other philosophical wisdom books as points of departure, he has come up with a fascinating way of harnessing his saws into a sort of anti-narrative mock-epic; and the funny thing is that the would-be deconstructivist in him ends up being no less a retailer of folk-wisdoms than Benjamin Franklin. ‘Blake, pick up the telephone,’ he pleads at one moment, as if desperate for some guidance from the writer of Proverbs of Hell and Auguries of Innocence, while on another page a series of reflections on absence and presence of mind includes one about discovering that it is your own heart you are frying in a pan – a denied self queasily reappears, along with everyday responsibilities, affections, a sense of constriction, and the need for a private space.

He suggests a subject that is the object of determinations, without much agency, but still lets it bleat a little on the way to the slaughterhouse. Dreams are crucially important in this book, as a part of dailiness, and, in senses both Freudian and Surrealist, as a refuge and a subversive place of recovery of thwarted desires. Goodland thus stops short of being the most extreme kind of language poet: the things do indeed sing, they are indeed the things that once had ideas in them, as well as being, beyond mere language games, the irreducible and inescapable things in themselves of being and temporal experience, of our ‘multiple and polycentric’ political world. He is fairly optimistic that we will be able to make sense of it all.

the sun has been exploding for so long, it looks normal

the past is like the future, unlike the future

night explains in writing so dense, it eludes everyone

knowledge can be suspended in consciousness, not dissolved

your food has been consuming you, your buildings building you

nothing can be measured, although structures still hold up and no catastrophe occurs

Moses bears the first tablets of concrete poetry, but society is not ready to understand

(p. 52)

If I have any criticism to make of this hugely enjoyable book, it’s that, however many shapes the poet finds, they always turn out to be more ways of making lists – the reader begins to long for an argument to develop, a picture to swim up, a character to appear who is not the reflecting poet, or, contrary to this, for more disruption, more fragmentation – more difference of some kind, anyway. More narrative perhaps. After all, if everything had to be a description, an argument or a proverb, even a paradoxical one, we would soon throw existence across the room. But this is a brilliant work that is compulsively readable, witty, poetic, deep-seeking, and, in its own oblique, rueful way, cheerfully celebratory from start to finish.

John Muckle was brought up in the village of Cobham, Surrey, but has spent most of his adult life in Essex and London. In the 1980s he initiated the Paladin Poetry series and was the general editor of its flagship anthology, The New British Poetry (eds D'Aguiar, Allnutt, Edwards, Mottram). Among his books are The Cresta Run (short stories), Cyclomotors (an illustrated novella) and Firewriting and other poems (Shearsman Books, 2005). He has also written for children and published studies of Allen Ginsberg, Tom Raworth, Ed Dorn and others.
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