I gave Tony Frazer a hand with the proofreading of this new book, but it was more of a minor editorial job when we faced dilemmas like these. I wrote to Tony:
The paragraph/verse beginning
In the morning we go for a drive…
This looks like prose in the Oasis, but it appears lineated in Collected, as verse. I believe this latter is wrong and that it is actually prose, or should be. We’d need a look at the manuscript to decide this, but see what you think! It could be either, though the tone is closer to the texture of the prose, AND very little of the verse is punctuated in the poem. Only the prose. As this passage is. (Compare to the ‘At night… passage on p. 16 on the Oasis.)
p. 22; those two lines ‘…we finally begin to fall asleep…’ I think that’s prose too, if you look at Oasis p. 19, not lineated (or it is by accident of reaching the right margin…) Again it is punctuated.
Tony has made the good decision to stay close to the original publication, but has corrected obvious mistakes, typos, etc.
You can buy the book here. £9.99
You can buy the book here. £9.99
A Reading of Complexity: Lee Harwood's The Long Black Veil from his volume HMS Little Fox
‘Harwood knows the uses of discontinuity, of partial description, of tangents whose vector energies can be gripped by the imagination, working to cohere information and feeling out of an interior coherence of the poetic action,’ writes Eric Mottram, of Lee Harwood’s work of the 1970s, and this description is particularly apt to the 12 part ‘notebook’ written between 1970 and 1972, The Long Black Veil, which Harwood described as ‘the end-product, the “flower” of my work to date’, and which is the opening poem of the newly republished HMS Little Fox. With its Olsonian notation – actually, it well exceeds Maximus in its notational sparseness, what Harwood called his ‘puritan’ side – and its appropriation of the ideogrammic method of juxtaposition, it is Harwood’s longest meditation upon erotic obsession, yet it is also a quest for the ‘comprehension of process’, to quote the poem’s epigraph from Ezra Pound. Such process is another Olsonian inheritance (reaching back to the philosophy of Whitehead). It is a quest enacted through memory (‘What have we left/from all this?’); Harwood explains the temporal organization of his poem: ‘One actuality in time set by (beside) another, causing waves to go between the two’. Yet the image he proffers of memory, in this most self-contradictory of his poems – he describes it as both process and product – contradicts the possibility of that comforting simultaneity. The image, borrowed from Borges, of a pile of coins, each representing a memory of the preceding memory, shows ‘how our memory distorts and simplifies events the further we move from them’.
two years passed ‘Oh Jung’
the cycles not repeated
only the insistence
This distinction between vital insistence and dead repetition exists in a tense relationship with actual memory. The questor figure from earlier texts has learnt that memory is not just a series of surprising recollections but is both contained and refracted through process and mutability. Memory is paradoxical, cannot be resolved into the singularity of narrative. There is a strong desire to feel ‘totally in one place’, though this is undercut: ‘the dream echoed again and again ... in many places’.
The ‘Oh Jung’ above is itself a reiterated insistence carried over from a quotation in the immediately preceding passage.
‘Concepts promise protection
The spirit does
not dwell in concepts. Oh Jung.’
(Joanne Kyger - DESECHEO NOTEBOOK)
There can be no sheltering from experience in conceptualisations, in intellectual systems of knowledge, even in this, the most allusive and literary of Harwood’s works, despite it being the most trenchantly unpoetic, in its lack of euphony, metaphor, or other elements of poetic artifice and content. The ‘Preface’ ends:
But what of the essence of this? ‘Oh Jung's’ insistences. The Sufi story of the famous River that tried to cross the desert, but only crossed the sands as water ‘in the arms of the wind’, nameless but
The Sufi parable, truncated so abruptly, demonstrates that movement or process always involves surprising metamorphoses. Repetitions also undergo metamorphosis at their reappearances; this involves a continual defamiliarization. The theme turns rather than re-turns. The repetitions are both structuring the text and yet decentring it thematically as it progresses, in a dialectic of repetition and surprise.
Book One plays with the distance between word and thing, unhappy nominalism a reflector of existential distance. ‘How I ache now’ is equivalent to the ‘endless skies/ that ache too much’ that appear several lines later. Despite the alienation, nature is suffused with longing. The text is hesitant, constantly revising itself. ‘It’s light/ I mean your body’. But the body also is the constant referent of Book One amid the general failure of reference (‘the words? how can they...’) and the ‘distance’ between lover and lover, and the ‘unbearable distance’ of the ‘endless skies’. ‘Your body, yes I'm talking about it/ at last I mean this is the discovery.’ Yet there can be no purposeful inventory of bodily elements. The book ends:
dawn - light - body - words - raven - skies - ache- distance - valley - sun - silos - farms - ridges - creek - each other - birds - wind
The Flight - BA 591
These are the nouns of the first half of the section - an alienating inventory of what is irrecoverably lost. The flight number is yet another sign of the reality of distance. What survives this distance, as always in Harwood’s poetry, is an enigmatic impression, a moment from a love-affair that has been frustrated: a cinematic sequence, frozen in the frame.
you stop and half turn
to tell me...
that doesn't matter
but your look
and this picture I have
and at this distance
This is one version of what Harwood calls ‘the dream’: ‘anything that goes on in my head, whether it be thoughts or imaginings, day-dreams or sleep dreams. They all give pictures of “the possible”, and that is exactly their value.’ The ‘dream’, though, is only articulated in this poem through the mediation of the transcriptions of real events, most importantly the recording of the events of a precarious love affair and its aftermath and memories. ‘I hold you to me in a small room - the night air so heavy. Inside “the dream”...’ And, as we have seen, the ‘dream’ recurs again and again in different locations, linking them by paradigmatic connection.
One possible version of ‘the dream’ harks back to, is nostalgic for, the fictions of his earlier work in The White Room, yet they are now unnecessary evasions of the real that is emphatically celebrated in the notebook (mostly in journal-like passages which depict travels with the lover around North America, and which I will be passing over in this piece in the interests of economy) and in its new-found ‘straight-talking’ diction. Unlike the early fictions,
There’s no steamer bringing you to me
up-river at the hill-station
No long white dress on the verandah
I hold you. isn’t this enough?
The landscape becomes prey to the pathetic fallacy, as in his earliest successful poem, ‘As Your Eyes Are Blue’, is ‘only a description of my love for you’. The reiterated depictions of the lover’s body turns upon both her presence and her absence, affected by the complexities of the situation: the poem’s title, a haunting country and western song by Lefty Frizzell (which I used to play and sing!), weirdly narrated from the point of view of an executed man, hints that the relationship is adulterous (he is framed for a murder but will not proffer as his defence the fact he was with ‘his best friend’s wife’). In fact, the woman of the poem was Bobbie Louise Hawkins, the novelist with whom Harwood did in fact live with for some years in the 1980s. (In the parallel with the song, the ‘best friend’ would have been Robert Creeley, as Creeley himself told me, much to my surprise when I was interviewing him. I left that bit out of the printed interview.) But that lies in the future of this poem, as it were. (Also it is worth noting that the notational style was not one that Harwood would return to in such detail ever again. The ‘failure’, as Harwood thought it, of his ‘Notes of a Post Office Clerk’, the follow-up to this poem, would confirm that.)
In Book Six - mid-way through the text - ‘the questions of complexity’ are dealt with most fully. Harwood quotes E.M. Forster’s obituary for Andre Gide which praises Gide for transmitting much of ‘life’s complexity, and the delight, the duty of registering that complexity and of conveying it’. Complexity is the twentieth-century existential condition. It is in using Jung's essay ‘Marriage as a Psychological Relationship’ that Harwood develops both a theory for a constantly decentring process in his work which suggested a structural homology for the ‘comprehension of process’, and a model for human relationships.
‘Oh, Jung’ (1875-1961) on ‘Marriage...’ (1925)
The container and the contained
one within the other
a continual shifting and that both ways
- more a flow - from the simplicity to the complexity,
‘unconscious’ to conscious,
and then back again?
and the move always with difficulty, and pain a pleasure
In Jung's theory of marriage, the container is a complex character, the contained simple and psychologically dependent upon the other. There are pleasurable but also painful resolutions between them as the container looks in vain for his or her level of complexity in the partner, whose simplicity is also disrupted by the search. The contained, however, comes to accept his or her position and becomes acutely aware of the necessity for self-fulfilment. Harwood subverts the underlying submissive-dominant polarity of Jung’s essay, with his emphatic ‘and’ which suggests that the roles are interchangeable, dynamic and discontinuous. The relationship in the poem, it must be recalled, is also far from a ‘marriage’ in conventional terms.
With such mutability, process is both a mode of consciousness and a mode of communication:
not so much a repetition
but a moving around a point, a line
- like a backbone - and that too moving
Part of the function of the ‘backbone’ moving around a (moving) point is that there should be no single point of view, that it should be ‘complex’. The ‘straight-talking’ of certain parts of the poem do not contradict the elaborate but not poetic artifice of others. They are, to have recourse to the concepts of quantum physics, complementarities: mutually exclusive positions that support one another, echoed later in the text: ‘Yes and No’. Yet the most explicit model of this ‘moving/ (on)’ in the poem is
yang and yin
light and dark
which is accompanied by a drawing of the ‘yang and yin’ Taoist emblem.
At one level this is a re-statement of the passage above on marriage where the two partners are in a dialectical but equitable harmony. Yet the earnest unities of Taoism are undercut - complemented - by an all-too worldly, weary, quotation from Stendhal in which Julien Sorel's love, and by implication, our narrator’s, is described as ‘still another name for ambition’.
The poem offers multiple models of experience, many ways of approaching complexity; the instability of the lover and the erotic becomes the paradoxical centre of the poem as he is balanced between love and ambition, and marriage and adultery..
Jung furnished the introduction to Wilhelm's translation of the I Ching, from which Harwood quotes, incompletely, in Book Six.
BEFORE COMPLETION Wei Chi/64
But if the little fox, after nearly completing the crossing,
Gets his tail in the water,
There is nothing that would further.
‘This hexagram,’ the commentary to the I Ching explains, predicts a ‘hopeful outlook’; it ‘indicates a time when the transition from disorder to order is not yet completed’. (It also explains where the title of the volume comes from, though this fact does not explain its meaning.)
The poem continues with a not entirely convincing image of the transformation of the lover. ‘Complexity’ includes a transformative, as well as merely linear, process, catalysis, to use Harwood’s metaphor in other poems.
in the half light ...
A minotaur? a cat? tiger? Her face
a metamorphosis seen at once many times.
Our powers generating...
‘Book Twelve: California Journal’ brings about a full ravelling of the complexities of earlier books, yet focuses upon the lover. It is ironic to centre oneself in decentring, abandoned to the openness of the ‘dream’ that evokes possibility, but constantly returns to the lover, to pitch one time against another, only to find the farthest memories metamorphosed in the vagaries of recollection. When the continual shifting of place and movement, of change and exchange, and of dream and the here and now, come to fulfilment in an extraordinarily powerful piece of prose, it is not a resolution.
Making love, the final blocks clear. My body taken into her body completely, and then her body into my body....
She anoints my wrists
the anointment a ritual like the sweetening of the body before burial, before our parting. My not realising the completeness of this until now....
The ritual of - repeated again - No. We make love - to each other - in turn. The body glowing, dizzy,... walking through clouds. The faces transformed again.
She puts the bead bracelet around my wrist
The ritual is a necessary insistence, not a casual repetition, which involves characteristic transformation and metamorphosis. As in a near-contemporary poem, ‘One, Two, Three’ there is a ritual exchange. ‘She accepts the objects - the stone, the orange blossom./She gives the objects - the whittled twig, the dried seed pod.’ The love-making is complete in both the sense that it has reached a certain stage of intensity; but it may also be a final act with its funereal equation of ‘before burial’ and ‘before our parting’: so the ‘completeness’ of the anointing is not comprehended at the time. The poem ends with what might be a simple imperative or the fragment of a larger utterance, ‘lie naked upon the bed’, which returns to the unstable, dynamic insistence of human sexual relationships. But the pervasive ‘dream’ and its echoes ensure that the story will never be a simple one, that the text's end will never be definitively conclusive.
In the face of ‘a multiplicity of approaches’, as Harwood puts it, there can only be a relativistic discourse, the polyphonizing of a lyric impulse and the dispersal of narrative energies. ‘The Long Black Veil’, the longest poem in HMS Little Fox, is an act of such dispersal, a recognition that ‘each of us lives at the intersection of many of these... language elements.’ The 12 ‘books’ are, with their Poundian precision and erotic uncertainty, Harwood’s mutability cantos. Out of these elements, like postmodern science, it is ‘producing not the known, but the unknown’, as Lyotard puts it; like a lover, it always returns to the known, to find it changed, even in memory or language.
here and here. On later works here; on recent works here. And an earlier gift to him here. A later 'Laugh' with Lee Harwood may be read here.
And news of the British Library Harwood Archive here.
And news of the British Library Harwood Archive here.
HMS Little Fox reappears, with some updated corrections in New Collected Poems : see Pages: Lee Harwood New Collected Poems: the best audio and video recordings (robertsheppard.blogspot.com)