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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Robert Sheppard: Iain Sinclair's Lud Heat

The title of Iain Sinclair’s first important work of poetry, Lud Heat (1975), which juxtaposes poems with expository prose, is itself an exemplary juxtaposition. Lud was the mythological king of Britain who is supposedly buried beneath London’s Ludgate, and whose name is one of the etymological contenders for the place name of the capital. Heat is a term used throughout Sinclair’s intratext, as I characterise his work, to denote energy, malign or benign, often associated with certain places, and persisting through time. Early in Lud Heat, talismanic poets are imagined as ‘a sequence of heated incisions through the membranous time-layer’. (LHSB 16) Place for Sinclair, as Rachel Potter states, ‘is understood as a continuum within history which withholds and determines the particular memories and lore to which it has borne witness’. (1) That Lud Heat is subtitled ‘a book of the dead hamlets’ should not obscure the fact that death does not imply inertia, but potential. Lud Heat is identified as ‘The Muck Rake Book One’. The allusion operates through the epigraph to the book, from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, wherein the pilgrim, ‘who could look no way but downward’, cries, ‘Oh, deliver me from this muck-rake.’ (LHSB 9) At a literal level this points to the fact that Lud Heat records Sinclair’s period as a grass cutter and gardener for Tower Hamlets Council in 1974, but it also alerts the reader to the existential questioning of the book that results from both being rooted in and held captive by ‘place’, its heat, and its inescapable ‘lore’.

The book’s process of composition seems to have arisen out of journals, in which both dreams and reality are meticulously recorded; some of these find their way into the finished book. ‘An invasion of white rats, scuttling over the steps of a double ziggurat’, (LHSB 41) matches the precision of his daytime perceptions: ‘The white of horse-chestnut candles’. (LHSB 41) However, Sinclair is no Hopkins, looking for the inscape of nature. Textual quiddity comes from chat with his mostly Irish Catholic workmates as they discuss their negative reactions to the death of Princess Anne’s horse or the visit of Cardinal Heenan to the East End. The thirty-five poems of the book first appear as extensions of this journal, a poem a day. Barely punctuated, using space and the ampersand to punctuate both meaning and pace, the poems’ sentence-phrases hang on the line, their enjambement often at the ends of phrases, leaving an appropriately notational flavour. The first poem begins in medias res with an awareness of its potentialities and processes:

the coat of darkness, wondering
if he would ever write it (LHSB 41)

(Unfortunately, this blogzine can’t accurately reproduce the indentation on ANY of the poems in this posting, on this page.) The poems overhear the things of the world, in this case a television, with painful intensity:

in another room the electric serial
loud & raw
has taken something from his eye (LHSB 42)

The self, presented in the third person, is threatened, is still looking downward, but accepts the powers around it. The first poem ends:

these are the summer words
& if he works
it is not all because he has to
face down
along the curve of falling energies
there is nothing more
or less
than to become unconscious

to hood the day’s falcon (LHSB 42)

This extraordinary final image suggests that the essence of daytime consciousness is a fierce predatory gaze that must be actively extinguished. Later the poems rise to generalities and the first person plural to express their sense of human absorption in, and the lack of escape from, cyclical routine (and again the (impossible) typography is constituent of it meaning).

we come out of the cycle of pains
the pains become by repetition pleasurable
are worn down
& go into the butter
of a fat new moon (LHSB 88)

The passive awareness of uneasy harmony both in consciousness (‘dreams are sleek now filled/with pasturing doubts’), (LHSB 88-9) and in material reality (‘the sofas are human /& enclose every vertebral ache’), (LHSB 89) lends a certain grace to these poems unique in Sinclair’s work, the confirmation of personal happiness that strives, in the words of another poem, to ‘construct a more generous sentence’. (LHSB 94) Brittle theorizing is reserved for the prose essays (which were composed later), but these poems also register unease with their own lyrical compass, a striving towards such analysis. Pleasure and pain are insufficient measures as they absorb one another.

we loll in the pleasure of it
until that becomes boring & the eyes
ache again for images they cannot bear (LHSB 89)

The poetic inheritance of this work is largely American. While the ‘relaxed, meditative free verse’ derives from that tradition, more importantly so does its permission that a ‘poem’ might include prose.(2 ) It was William Carlos Williams who observed that Pound’s Cantos ‘can include pieces of prose and have them still part of the poem. It is incorporated in a movement of the intelligence which is special, beyond usual thought and action’.( 3) Williams sought to emulate this is in his own Paterson (1948-63), which not only uses assorted prose but, like Lud Heat, is intensely concerned with locality; the ragbag approach is arguably well suited to capturing the cluttered physical collage of urban space. Olson’s Maximus Poems (1950-70) makes use less of prose as a vehicle, but its tightly scored lines of breath-units (also scored for the eye using the layout devices of the typewriter) were dubbed ‘Projective Verse’ by Olson in his famous poetics essay of that name. Concerned to keep the rhythms of perception and language open and in harmony, sensitive to each momentary experience by emphasising writerly process and improvisatory spontaneity, through a mobile free verse line, projective verse was an ideal model for Sinclair’s journal-like responses to his quotidian existence. Indeed, Sinclair has admitted that, early in his writing life, Olson ‘became the major figure for me’. (V 38). Additionally, Olson’s focus upon topological data dealing with New England’s early settlement, which Sinclair experienced as ‘a sense of somebody nailing down a sea town and opening it up to the world’, suggested that a semi-scholarly attention to place might also yield appropriate aesthetic results. (V 38)

These examples may have influenced British precursors to Lud Heat, one acknowledged by Sinclair, the other not. The unacknowledged is Roy Fisher’s late modernist evocation of Birmingham, City (1960), with its assemblage of varieties of poetic forms and defamiliarizing prose. The acknowledged precursor is Lee Harwood’s Cable Street (1964), which focuses upon the same East End territory as Lud Heat, juxtaposing slight lyrics and background prose, particularly dealing with radical politics (such as the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street in 1936). Contemporary to Sinclair’s own work, Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door (of which Sinclair published the first two books in 1975 and 1977), is praised in Lud Heat for its ‘neat fast descriptions’ and its ability to show that ‘the dream/with the observed world is shared’, both qualities Sinclair has emulated. (LHSB 65) Allen Fisher’s Place project (1971-79), is – in Sinclair’s words, an ‘Olsonian epic about South London’ - which places Blake at the centre of its inspiration. (V 73) Like Blake, both Fisher and Sinclair were publishers of their own books, in Sinclair’s case, adding maps, drawings and photographs to illustrate the text in its Albion Village Press edition. Part of Place offers a reading of Lud Heat as a fraternal enterprise, which is still one of the best introductions to the work. Fisher recognizes the need to communicate about the nature of place, and the symbolic interpretation of the built environment. (Sinclair just listed the omnibus edition of Place, published by Reality Street, as one of his books of the year.)

The necessity to locate, to place ourselves becomes increasingly apparent to people living, as you do Iain, in the throws (sic) of, up against the old walls of a city, when this city – London – is now one borough of 33 held in the name of the Greater Council.(4 )

Fisher writes approvingly that ‘your concern is energetic and about energy’ and that Sinclair is concerned with ‘situational fields, lapping overlapping’, but he sceptically employs a qualifying set of inverted commas when he observes that ‘it is from … buildings that the energies of the area are – I was going to say, “generated”’.(5)

Fisher has in mind the theory contained in the essay with which Lud Heat opens, ‘Nicholas Hawksmoor, his churches’. The architect Hawksmoor, who designed and built London churches in the early eighteenth century after the devastation of the Great Fire of London, is represented as a man who could read the metropolis he found, and, more importantly, who could ‘rewrite the city’ in a frenzied, barely conscious urge, (LHSB 14) with ‘risky quotations’ from architectural history; (LHSB 14) ‘It is possible to imagine that he did work a code into the buildings.’ (LHSB 17) Even the modern standard work on Hawksmoor confesses, ‘The strangeness … of many of Hawksmoor’s formal devices, has found recognition in the present century’s exploration of the subconscious.’ 6 The guiding conceit of Sinclair’s essay is expressed in the form of a map of London; lines are superimposed upon it in the shape of two pentagrams, rather like Alfred Watkins’ ley lines, supposedly demonstrating that Hawksmoor’s six churches – he had a hand in a further three - were deliberately aligned with one another for occult signification. What Sinclair attempts in the essay, with its strategic cod academic tone, is analogous to what he accuses Hawksmoor of achieving: quotations are piled on, associated, encoded and presented as ‘evidence’. Writers – Yeats, Milton, Blake, Defoe, Bunyan, Keats – are nodes of ‘heat’ spread around the pattern, ‘generated’, as Fisher almost cannot bear to say, by the configuration of the buildings. We are promised ‘only a fraction of the possible relations’. (LHSB 16) Hawksmoor’s architectural quotations include Egyptian symbols and pyramids, and these assume the darker aspects of the patterning: sun obelisks (more heat) point the reader to invisible plague pits and murder sites, emphasizing the ‘unacknowledged magnetism and control-power, built-in code force of these places’. (LHSB 21) The Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 (which De Quincey had famously taken a cool look at in his essay ‘Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’ (1827)), and the contemporaneous murder of Abraham Cohen in 1974, had all occurred within the influence lines of these churches, almost literally on their doorsteps. More speculative accounts, that Hawksmoor planned an unrealized Basilica after the Primitive Christians on what would become the site of the Carpenters Arms, which was the Kray Twins’ gangland headquarters, stretches the threads of the web almost to breaking point. St Anne’s Limehouse, which is identified with a Mortuary Temple, becomes particularly important, with its pyramid (around which, one may read in other sections of the book, Sinclair mundanely mows the grass and against which he ‘risks’ leaning while he eats his sandwiches). Sinclair himself suffers sunstroke working this patch – the Scorpion god Selkis is invoked by this time - and it is no surprise to learn that ‘St Anne’s was gutted by fire on the morning of Good Friday, April 6, 1850. Vernal Equinox, time of occult threat’. (LHSB 37)

While Sinclair is careful to emphasize that his quotations act only as provisional confirmation of one another, of patterns of unacknowledged repetition, the reader is marshalled by a relentless rhetoric of assimilation and connection to believe that these sites are indeed funnels of power for the gods, diffusing their influence through the ‘heat’ of poets, yet emerging in a violent and violating form in negative acts of murder. Murder, far from being one of the fine arts, is a sacrificial act of purification. The possibility that the family of Abraham Cohen, for example, might not have appreciated this conclusion, should they have read the essay, gives pause for thought. Peter Barry recognizes the danger: ‘This overdetermined universe would quickly become unbearably claustrophobic, and perhaps ultimately silly, in the hands of any other writer.’( 7 ) It provided a neat enough thesis for Peter Ackroyd to run with in Hawksmoor, but that was a work of fiction and Sinclair’s essay – unless it is read like one of Borges’ meticulous inventions - is not. Allen Fisher’s scepticism about this over-determination remains as a powerful corrective. Barry also argues that, despite the mode of argument and its problematics in terms of ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, there is something ‘common’ to the urban experience in Sinclair’s ‘mapping out danger points’; he explains, ‘The mapping reclaims the city, recuperates its mean, chartered streets, and fits them into an ordered, frightening, preconception’. (8) Once again, Sinclair’s actions seem close to that of his invented Hawksmoor,‘re-writing’ the heat of Lud’s territory, as well as to the experience of the ordinary urban dweller.

The finding of equivalences becomes the focus of other prose essays that intersect the poems and journals. The essays on viewing the films of the American experimentalist Stan Brakage and the sculpture of his friend Brian Catling locate a similar ‘autoptic instinct’ in the artists’ practices. (LHSB 78) While Brakage is literally filming an autopsy – ‘meaning “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes”, from the Greek’ – (LHSB 54) Catling ‘serves the Necropolis. Objects are made in fear & expectation of death… In photographs we see the wooden pyramid … that is so close to the Limehouse pyramid, & was made in advance of the first sight of it: intentional, willed, pre-vision.’ (LHSB 84) Art is an energized, unacknowledged intensifier of circumstance and the lore of place; the artist is a variety of shaman, simultaneously blessed and cursed with vision. But the narrator of these pieces – culturally sophisticated and self-regarding - is still the character who waters his broad beans after work and records that fact. He writes of his family (and family to come): ‘Anna sickens towards the new life/the frog-bud forcing itself in her womb.’ (LHSB 134) But this is balanced against the recognition that ‘death/is every mother’s prophecy’; the hot dead of the dead hamlets are always beckoning. (LHSB 134)

At the centre of these discourses, contending with these patterns of connection, is the ‘narrator’. Sinclair is here recognizing the problematics of autobiographical representation, but also capturing a sense of the discontinuous self that the artist-shaman must assume. He wonders ‘when I am/ “not quite myself”/what (not who)’ he is. (LHSB 50) Egoic dissolution, activated psychosomatically by the Limehouse contagion of sunstroke (and by hay-fevers, upon which he theorizes), is addressed in the essay ‘In the Surgery of the Sun’:

As the ego breaks I am host to another being, who pushes through & not with the pink tenderness of new skin – but with old flesh, hard as wood. The earlier ‘I-do-not-know-who-I-am’ virus is confirmed, as this terminal caricature eases out of my face. (LHSB 109-10)

Host is held hostage by the parasite. Sinclair appears here as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll, fully aware that Hyde is bursting through. Indeed, Stevenson is quoted: ‘As for myself I cannot believe fully in my own existence… the weather is threatening.’ (LHSB 50) At times there is a more beneficent sense of diminished selfhood, of a sinking of self in perception, almost a Zen Buddhist approach to the process; characteristically, this appears in the poems:

subdue all ego
(& rigorous eye)
into the unmarked
morning quality of autumn light (LHSB 124)

To break the patterns that the text builds up, to approach something like this ‘unmarked’ experience, the energy must be annulled or countered. On a literal level, the ‘narrator’ has to leave his summer employment. On another level, he must return to the map and locate an ‘oracle’, on the outer point of London. He must then run to the oracle and return; a state of ‘total body exhaustion’ is ordained. (LHSB 138) That the oracle turns out to be a urinous machine-gun bunker in the Lea Valley seems not to matter at this stage of Sinclair’s career. Later, he would allow irony to undercut the cosmic patterning. It is, however, a ritual he feels impelled to enact, as later, Sinclair is drawn in his documentary to become a stalker of predetermined routes. This run even prefigures his need to circumnavigate the M25, as a ritual of annihilation, in his much later book, London Orbital. But his final state is a kind of Keatsian negative capability before the energies he invokes, an imperturbable emptiness rather than oracular fulfilment. Like the artist figure in Blake’s Jerusalem, Los, whose healing pilgrimage across London matches his own, he annihilates selfhood. ‘He knows nothing of the precisions & mechanics & movements & meanings here either. An ignorant man, ground-held, muddy in motive – he jogs back the way he came.’ (LHSB 134). That means he’s on his way over one of (at least) two bridges know as ‘Suicide Bridge’, a name that provided the title of Iain Sinclair’s second substantial book. (9)

1. Rachel Potter, ‘Culture Vulture: the testimony of Iain Sinclair’s Downriver, Parataxis 5 (Winter 1993-4), 42.
2. Peter Barry, Contemporary British Poetry and the City (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), 173.
3. William Carlos Williams, ‘Excerpts from a Critical Sketch: A Draft of Thirty Cantos by Ezra Pound’ (1931), reprinted in ed., J.P. Sullivan, Ezra Pound (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 119.
4. Allen Fisher, ‘A Confluence of Energies: A Reading of Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat, in his Stane, Place Book III (London: Aloes Books, 1977), 30/31.
5. Fisher, ‘Confluence’, 30/31.
6. Kerry Downes, Hawksmoor (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), 206.
7. Barry, Contemporary British Poetry and the City, 178.
8. Barry, 172.
9. This text is dealt with in my forthcoming Northcote House publication, Iain Sinclair.

Updates 2016: Further links: 

Lud Heat is once again available here

My book Iain Sinclair may be bought here

Another of my reviews of Sinclair's poetry may be read here

My account of Dining on Stones is featured here

My critical volume When Bad Times made for Good Poetry has some further thoughts on Iain Sinclair's work. Some of the thinking for that, on the 'social poetics' at play in Sinclair's work may be read here.   

Suicide Bridge is also back in print and may be bought here.  This reprints my 1980 review of the book!

Here is an account of Iain Sinclair celebrating Malcolm Lowry in Liverpool in 2014.

Here is Iain Sinclair's poem 'Patrick Hamilton' on Pages.

You can read about my recent poetry here, here and here, and follow the links to points of online purchase.

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