Tuesday, May 30, 2017


The man at the helm in Knut Hamsun's Women at the Pump, 1920, tr. Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass, is like and unlike the much earlier men in Hunger, 1890, Pan, 1894, etc, the solitary figure who dedicates himself to stubbornness so publicly that he becomes a mystery to all the other characters. This man's covert fantasy is to be the only person in the world who can act. Everyone else should be capable of nothing but reactions. He can't manage the universal equilibrium, though; he jumps in the sea. On the day that one of my work colleagues graduated university two weeks ago his flatmate slit his wrists and walked around the house for a period of time sprinkling blood over the walls and floor in every room – his girlfriend had left him – spraying everything so thoroughly that my colleague and the flatmate's mother spent the rest of the week struggling to clean the carpet. M. saw the colleague yesterday, still wiping down the railings on the patio where the flatmate was found by the police, alive and sitting in a chair. He was discharged from the hospital within hours. As far as I know he has never helped with the cleaning. Anyway, the man in Women at the Pump is more settled than his counterparts in the earlier books, enjoying a wife, a house, jobs, children, and a recognised role in the town. He is relatively satisfied with himself when you compare him to the others. After the third child is born with blue eyes he begins to stalk his wife because he's afraid she is having an affair but then he stops worrying and doesn't stalk her. They produce more children. There is a rumour that he has fathered the illegitimate son of an elderly servant and this pleases him more than anything else.

Near the end of the book you discover that his genitals fell victim to a shipboard accident when he was a teenager so none of his wife's children could have been the result of married intercourse anyway. When this fact appears in the book it is almost as if the recalcitrance of the earlier characters has been given a shape, a point, or even an answer, as though the author is saying, after years of mystification, that things deserve to happen for prosaic and sensible reasons after all, but when you look again then the mystery of the man whose knowledge is produced by his own performance of that knowledge is still there. "One is saddled with the world one creates, as all creators are," says the author. When the man declines to repeat his jealous stalking while his wife is obviously having sex with the powerful lawyer Fredericksen then you see how skillfully he has learned to play his own trick against himself for his own benefit. Now I might think of Stevie Smith in the poem Egocentric, 1966, ending a line with the word "baboon" when all she had to do was to find a rhyme for "Star."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

prams are pushed along

Wingfield’s innate and unconscious faith in authority and ennoblement is strangest in Beat Drum, Beat Heart, 1946, a book-length poem that spends its first half discussing the suffering of British men during and after World War I without ever suggesting that anyone was responsible for the war or that the soldiers might be annoyed at them. Instead a first-person man-voice wishes that some inhuman power would “Find me a cause | Or a catastrophe” to rouse him out of his postwar ennui, even if it kills him. Alex Davis in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, 2003 says that Drum “counterpoints male brutality with an exploration of the ferocity that subtends female desire” but the distance between a man on a battlefield getting a bullet in the head and a woman trying to pin down her soulmate is so wide that it’s hard to take the counterpoint as seriously as the poet wants; the man-violence and the woman-violence are operating in different worlds, though Wingfield tries to bring them together by giving the woman-half of the poem language like this:

Each fibre through my frame is used, with enough
Force and guile to split apart an empire,
Or exhaust the world with strategies.

There is no corresponding reaching-out in the language of the man-part, which mirrors, apparently unintentionally, the motion that Wingfield depicts in men and women: the women grasping for the men and the men grasping for something intangible. The language around women in the man-half of Drum is casually scornful: “And tramps unwrap things from a newspaper | And women mince, and prams are pushed along”, “But now, as salesmen moving through half-lights | We might be women traipsing | The rainy suburbs, on uneven heels, | In ugliness, unkindness and in waste”. But Wingfield believes that the right man will bring a woman to a mystic point of cohesion and this will perform the same service for her as “a cause or a catastrophe” would for him.

Opening Practicalities: Marguerite Duras speaks to Jérôme Beaujour, 1987, tr. Barbara Bray, just now I found myself reading similar ideas coming out of a different writer. It would be interesting to run Wingfield’s poem through the beliefs that Duras outlines in this chapter called Men.

About writing, Duras says:

The image of a black box in the middle of the world isn't far out.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Another List

Sheila Wingfield: Collected Poems 1938 – 1983, 1983
Kathleen Raine’s poem Night Thought, from The Hollow Hill, 1964
C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950
Enid Blyton, Hollow Tree House, 1945
Arthur Machen, The White People, 1904
Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye, 1928

(N.b. an inclusion in the list should not be read as an endorsement of the book. I decided to add this caveat when I was thinking of putting John Masefield in there.)