Friday, 23 July 2010

In the Kalahari Desert

James Fenton's oddly titled 'The Manifesto Against Manifestoes' (PR 73:3 1983; reprinted in Fiona Sampson's A Century of Poetry Review, Carcanet 2009) has nice things to say about Craig Raine.
The most profoundly interesting narrative poem I have read recently is Craig Raine’s ‘in the Kalahari Desert’. I can remember vividly the circumstances in which I first read it and the sensation it gave. Some poets contrive to tell you: ‘whatever happens, you will not be able to write like this.’ From others the messages is: ‘this too is possible.’ The reason why there are so many imitators of Raine is that he belongs firmly in the second category. He is generous. He is encouraging.

But much misunderstood and misread. He is, primarily, an emotional, an erotic poet. I8t is perhaps the eroticism which is in advance of his day. When a poet looks at his wife and thinks of a tomato, one may feel that he lacks feeling. But when he further shows that his feeling for tomatoes is more deeply affectionate and more sexually alert than most poets’ feelings for their first girlfriends, one is obliged to think again. Obliged to feel again.
'Obligation' is the wrong currency for erotic poetry, I think, and the tomato is surely too obvious a vegetable (or fruit) for Fenton's analogy. But most of all I try to square his observation with the sense I get from reading it that however obsessed with sex Raine's poetry is, it is really, really unerotic. I think it has something to do with the way his images focus too intent a gaze; too precise under the lense; too clinical ... like Swift's Gulliver being repulsed by seeing too much of the Brobdingnagian women. Human sexuality needss a cloak of selective unknowing cast about it to function properly. Porn can't be too vivid.

Anyway, Here is Raine's rain-free poem, the one of which Fenton has such a high opinion:
The sun rose like a tarnished
looking-glass to catch the sun

and flash His hot message
at the missionaries below--

Isabella and the Rev. Roger Price,
and the Helmores with a broken axle

left, two days behind, at Fever Ponds.
The wilderness was full of home:

a glinting beetle on its back
struggled like an orchestra

with Beethoven. The Hallé,
Isabella thought and hummed.

Makololo, their Zulu guide,
puzzled out the Bible, replacing

words he didn't know with Manchester.
Spikenard, alabaster, Leviticus,

were Manchester and Manchester.
His head reminded Mrs. Price

of her old pomander stuck with cloves,
forgotten in some pungent tallboy.

The dogs drank under the wagon
with a far away clip-clopping sound,

and Roger spat into the fire,
leaned back and watched his phlegm

like a Welsh rarebit
bubbling on the brands. . .

When Baby died, they sewed her
in a scrap of carpet and prayed,

with milk still darkening
Isabella's grubby button-through.

Makololo was sick next day
and still the Helmores didn't come.

The outspanned oxen moved away
at night in search of water,

were caught and goaded on
to Matabele water-hole--

nothing but a dark stain on the sand.
Makololo drank vinegar and died.

Back they turned for Fever Ponds
and found the Helmores on the way. . .

Until they got within a hundred yards,
the vultures bobbed and trampolined

around the bodies, then swirled
a mile above their heads

like scalded tea leaves.
The Prices buried everything--

all the tattered clothes and flesh,
Mrs. Helmore's bright chains of hair,

were wrapped in bits of calico
then given to the sliding sand.

'In the beginning was the Word'--
Roger read from Helmore's Bible

found open at St. John.
Isabella moved her lips,

'The Word was Manchester.'
Shhh, shhh, the shovel said. Shhh. . .
It's not my favourite Rainey poem, though it's certainly vivid and evocative. But the beetle-orchestra, the pomander stuck with cloves and the phlegm have just a touch (only the slightest touch, but enough to draw their sting) of strain about them. The dogs drinking is very good though; the trampolining vultures a nice line; the baby in the carpet is precise and really moving and the punchline (cruel of me to call it a punchline, I suppose; but there you go) pretty good.

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