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Guest Review: Brinton On Thompson

Ian Brinton reviews
Holes in the Mapby Nathan Thompson

editor's note: due to html restrictions, some of the text quoted may be differently presented on the page in the published collection to how it appears on the reader's screen.

It must be disconcerting at the very least for the mundane traveller to discover that his map has holes in it whilst for the more imaginative explorer the very nature of those holes can provide both challenges and opportunities: openings through which the mind can fall. Nathan Thompson’s twenty lyric pieces which make up this attractive addition to the fast-growing Oystercatcher canon echo hauntingly across the page, a geographical and historical map where the reader is guided by literary references and poignant accumulation of detail. This poetry is as obscure as music and it brought to my mind immediately the words offered by Peter Riley in a letter to the editor of the Cambridge Literary Review which will appear in its entirety in the forthcoming third issue of that journal:

Obscurity is a natural condition of poetry. To fail to acknowledge that is a cowardice and an evasion. It is poetry's song condition which it always fails to renounce. Listen to any song and it is obvious. It speaks in shadow. It has to because it is not alone, it is not free to speak. As a developed faculty obscurity opens the text to far laterality and distant sightings, it shakes off the fetters of sense and relevance. But why, to what point? Surely the ambition must be to pass beyond the pleasures (and pride) of obscurity into the real world without losing the reach, and then possibly total sense, a kind of paradise.

From the opening of the sequence, titled ‘heresy hut’, we are presented with shadowy suggestions of the journey ahead:

idea herself verb as in ‘to’
we are able to discover

taking my authority in jeopardy
a small red vase shaped from an empty heart

ventricles and a black cat
I have heard of life worth

possibilities of transport ‘a typewriter’
banged out by the holy ghost on a typewriter

music shed its clothes to punctuate
night is due about now

a northern psychologist in the 1940’s showed this
lit inherited feuds horror and alarm

other data objects your cigarette this map


The forward impulse here, abstract ‘idea’ into movement with the root of the infinitive, leads us to being able to ‘discover’. The uncertainty of the journey’s guide is mooted with the suggestion of ‘my authority’ being ‘in jeopardy’ but a dual meaning of the word ‘transport’ pushes us out not only into vehicular movement but also into a raptured state of mind. Just as any journey forwards contains a good deal of reflection that looks backwards as well there is an archaeological feel to that last line with its ‘data objects’.

As the journey gets under way in the second of the lyrics, ‘sparsely populated’, we are soon confronted by a world of commerce where ‘a world of money and power’ and declining fish stocks is contrasted with ‘your sensory browser is delighted/autonomy’: a safeguard against what is almost literally in store for the pilgrim. But this sequence of poems looks backwards as well as forwards and the ninth of the poems is titled ‘near harbour radio’:

so many angles light off
the sea touching us gentle

rounding on boat-chimes
to back where we came from

sorting ley lines in the dark
you a brush of musk

sandalwood curtains drift
soft air lips to kiss returning

a lent-on promise open
light swell tomorrow south-westerly


The impressionistic first line is both immediately visual and also reflective of the way language has been used in the sequence of poems. The accumulation of what is seen crossing this map with holes in it suggests a reference to Jeremy Prynne’s ‘Afterword to ORIGINAL: Chinese Language-Poetry Group’:

Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations not previously observed.

In ‘near harbour radio’ these inclinations can move us musically, ‘rounding on boat-chimes’, to rediscover where we came from and the transporting of the mind along routes which are also unseen connections (ley lines not to be found on maps) opens up a fragmented beauty of time gone which itself echoes the drifting fantasies of the Man in Samuel Beckett’s Play.

The seventeenth poem plays again with perspectives as we contemplate ‘ship in a bottle’: the symbol of exploratory journeying contained immobile within the glass-house. We are transported to a world that is ‘bigger inside than out’ and find ourselves at the end contemplating

this picture is stillness

closed guilt a map superimposed on
another place smaller more people

Holes in the Map has a musical resonance and the echoes bring to mind many literary references which all form parts of this map of the mind’s journeying. For instance I can hear Lee Harwood’s voice in poem thirteen, ‘in open parenthesis’

the river moves through cities and ‘you move me’

And, to return to Peter Riley, I can hear the letter to Tony Baker which opens up another sequence of mapping, Alstonefield:

And I began to think of the place as an arena, a theatre of outrageously manipulated light in which the soul puts on a show for the people, where the self’s instant of being is depicted as the lost masquer bearing a lantern among towering land-forms, in search of his company.

Nathan Thompson’s sequence of twenty poems is a magnetic land which I shall re-visit on many more occasions. The doors in his language keep opening to offer vistas of both past and future and he scatters words with precise weight. As Philippe Jaccottet wrote in his diary for March 1962:

So, too, must you go on, scatter, risk words, give them exactly the weight you want, never stop until the end—against, always against yourself and the world, before you can finally go beyond the opposition, with words, precisely, words that cross the border line, the wall, words that make their way, overcome, open, and finally triumph, sometimes, in perfume, in colour—one instant, only one instant. That, at least, is what I cling to, to say what is almost nothing, or to say only that I am going to say it, which is still a positive action, better than inaction or the action of withdrawal, refusal, denial…For the hundredth time: I am left with almost nothing, but it’s like a very small door you have to pass through, and nothing proves that the space beyond will not be as vast as you imagined. All that matters is to pass through the door, and that it should not fall shut for ever.

Ian Brinton is a critic and scholar. His books include A Manner of Utterance, a study of JH Prynne.
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