Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution
Gratton Street Irregulars; Paperback; 32 pages
Alistair Noon is an Anglophone poet based in Berlin, and has translated from Russian and German (Pushkin, Mandelstam and Monika Rinck among others). Unsurprising, then, that a spirit of comparison and reference between cultures animates his chapbook Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution, published by the small poetry press Gratton Street Irregulars, run by Kelvin Corcoran and Ian Davidson.
The poems in this chapbook have the dual quality of being inseparable from the historical circumstance they stem from, and yet able to range across and conflate historical and geographical boundaries in a way that suggests connections, allowing the gaps in between to work as creative spaces from which the poems themselves emerge. Specifically, the major reference points are China, ancient and Maoist, Russia and Germany, with excursions to the ‘Guerrillistan’ of the contemporary Middle East and elsewhere. This method is developed to its fullest in the volume’s leading poem, ‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist,’ loosely based on the journey of Russian Sinologist V.M. Alekseev to China in 1907 and his subsequent reflections in Leningrad. His thoughts are prompted by ‘the granite banks/of the breaking Neva’ and the Peter and Paul Fortress on the far bank, and interrupted by ghosts from Gogol as the scholar is ‘Chased by noses, haunted by overcoats’ through the Institute library.
Bringing together the cultural histories of two nations whose futures will be defined by Communism, the analysis is careful and partial and unfolded through non-sequential narrative. Temporal anchors loosened, the poem moves in its later part into what appears to be a land and language afflicted by the bureaucratic corruption of language that anticipates both nations’ futures. Alekseev protests that he went to China with the object of trying to ‘win back/the sovereignty of meaning/from missionaries and diplomats’, with only ‘knowledge my prospective loot’. Some questions tease but are left un-asked: is knowledge always innocent, especially when it is removed from one place to another? The acquisition of knowledge has historically been, more often than not, a material process in which tangible objects travel along with the intellectual understanding they help bring about. And doesn’t scholarship sometimes precede the bureaucrats and a regulatory state where ‘Dictionaries detailed the fine/and ignored the profane’?
Lyrical moods, used sparingly, are not for descriptive purposes only, but to emphasise through differently calibrated reiteration the perceptual mobility of a scene that, looked at otherwise, might have appeared static:
In the violet nights all structures alter
their colour, as if reglazed.
In those purple nights, all eyes falter
as the buildings’ light is rephrased.
What is the difference between a ‘violet’ and a ‘purple’ night? Two seconds of looking as the light shifts? And is that difference the rephrasing and reglazing? Action and description are joined, as when a ‘squall/suddens across the dry sand’ of the Neva, adverb wrenched into service as a verb and retaining the connotations of its more usual employment, with a little alliterative play on the side. In most places these poems stand up to such close reading. Deliberate use of clearly thought-through verb and tense is coupled with precise diction, sometimes dabbling in semantic fields that send one not versed in, say, geology to the internet. ‘Voodoo China (Slight Return)’ draws on a landscape print of ‘A hazy lake. Small figures punting’ in which ‘Karst protrudes.’ Karst turns out to be those spiky rock formations shaped by water dissolving limestone, among whose evocative results are sink holes, disappearing streams and underground cave systems. Arguably the point of this is that it refutes the poem’s claim that ‘Print and image claim/the ground and all its contours’ – the implied presence of the opposite of those protrusions, features of the hidden landscape, resists the claim to ownership. Instead a dimension at once technical and mysterious is projected onto the picture, confirmed by its conclusion as the speaker finds himself within the landscape, transposed from viewer to actor, uncertain in the face of possible routes (and confirming the type of rock):
Which flight of limestone stairs
to the temple might I climb?
Speculative interrogatives like this abound in Some Questions: I count 32 in all, in a 30-page book. They are not, ordinarily, answered, but nor are they exactly rhetorical. Sometimes they come in humorous bouts of twos or threes, as in ‘To a Friend in Iron Tree City’:
Is the punk still drumming? Is Fivewinds
grumpy and devising dangerous blogs?
Do American quake-simulation bands
still flip when the fans don’t clap?
As the questions promised by the title accumulate, this odd way of scanning the book’s textualities increasingly makes sense. Perhaps most significant is the question which begins the brief, enigmatic title poem:
Which way up should I hold
this tube of clear liquid, red stars,
and tumbling, miniature tinsel?
The couched, modal uncertainty of perspective seems to be a metaphor for the collection. Perceptual mobility is again an important theme, particularly emphasised by the seven train poems with which Some Questions concludes. Senses rush to keep up with the train’s motion in ‘The Moving Landscape,’ ‘Like a flower for a platform, a name/flashes, as morning repaints the soil.’ Repainting here is possibly a referral to the previously rephrased and reglazed buildings in ‘Memoirs’. Seeing something again and differently is indistinguishable from doing it again, or commenting on it.
Published by Davidson and Corocoan, both on the experimental side of the poetry ‘divide’, the situation of these poems as such is a pleasant reminder of the arbitrariness of the battle lines: they are often metered with lovely but not unexpected phonological effects and paired rhymes. Perhaps it would have been satisfying to see these rich themes fractured by formal disruptiveness, treated more aggressively even. But that would not have suited the chapbook’s prevailing mood of half-detached curiosity, of a quest for knowledge, like the sinologist, ‘finding the land in its language’.