Under/ground: a partial commentary on Oli Hazzard’s Within Habit

Within Habit cover illustration by Simon Hantaï, Etude, 1971. Courtesy of the Estate of Simon Hantaï and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Dan Eltringham


Within Habit is an immediately arresting book. Produced by excellent London-based publisher and record label Test Centre, it is handsomely big – tall and wide, a problem for booksellers. Its striking expanses of white space are broken on each page by two blue blocks or paragraphs of verse, divided internally by upright vertical bars that, like conventional metrical breaks, don’t respect syntactical units but fracture sentences with irregularity. The two blocks are also joined by a single word or phrase hanging in empty space between each dense structure, in suspended and ambiguous relation to both.

The book’s complex and idiosyncratic form and structure, and the simple scale of the reading experience, recalls J. H. Prynne’s slightly larger Sub Songs (Barque, 2010), and its monumentality is also redolent of a neolithic earthwork or other landscape intervention. This second inference is allowed by one of its two epigraphs (the other is from Emily Dickinson), from Archeological Theory: An Introduction, which frames the sequence with the suggestive idea that ‘the density of archeological sites in the British landscape is so great that a line drawn through virtually anywhere will “clip” a number of sites’. A formal understanding of the text tablets is therefore proposed as extremely dense fields of semantic information, the crossing of which results in chance connections and layered historical data that are ‘clipped’ at random. The blocks are also then perhaps ancient burial plots, or palimpsestic tablets, inscribed and re-inscribed like the land itself.

Such a record of succeeding cultures is mirrored by more abstract layerings, as when ‘A grid is applied to the | field which dissolves into | the screen’. These mutations of the field by geometric grid, suggesting order and coercion, and by its dissolution into a screen, then become: ‘other expressions | of space before choice under an ornamental plain’; the ‘location of paradise’ (‘roughly that of Japan’) determined by ‘a grid […] applied | to the image from which the object had been extracted’ (i.e. a map?); then a legal document and a canvas that may be


————————————————————————–folded in on

itself 7 times. A sheet of melinex is | laid over the area of loss on

the landscape

(p. 13)


Repeated foldings offer the ‘page’ as a complicated analogy for the recording of knowledge and power throughout history. Melinex is a brand of polyester sheet used in archival conservation: its transparent surface is ‘laid over the area of loss on the landscape’, suggesting the process whereby the sheet or field of a ‘real’ landscape, with the foldings of its relief peaks and troughs, is preserved in the archive and the losses played out on its surface are overlaid, visible but epistemologically fixed and untouchable.

Within Habit interior. Test Centre, 2014.
Within Habit interior. Test Centre, 2014.

Within these prehistoric or abstract variations of the page’s field, historical and fictive personages offer anchors for the reader to get a purchase on the kinds of language being woven together, and for what ends. ‘Monmouth’ is presumably Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the Arthurian chronicle History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), and thus one of the Middle Ages’ preeminent guides to ‘the ground | beneath | the ground beneath our feet’ which we are cautioned for reading too much into in the book’s first line, while ‘Christopher Newman’ is identified as ‘(a character | in Henry James’s The American)’. Another is ‘Meliboeus’, exiled shepherd of Virgil’s pastoral Eclogues. Meliboeus opens Virgil’s text in dialogue with Tityrus, another shepherd whose lands Rome’s first-century BC internecine conflict did not threaten, and who enjoys instead the fruits of the country’s god-given leisure, while Meliboeus is forced to flee his family fields. The presence of Virgilian pastoral’s two contradictory world-views, of exile and otium, and their corresponding relations to the other, non-human inhabitants of ‘the ground beneath our feet’ – greedy abundance and marginal scarcity – frames this reading. Like Meliboeus, we are separated from an organic condition of ‘natural’ reading that is filtered through a screen or Melinex sheet and kept at a distance by layers of parallel phrasing, so that it moves tantalizingly away and ‘floats in the form of a menu | to laugh | behind the depictions of | depictions of | leave on the skin’ (p. 10).

The habit of cleverly inverted cliché is carried over from Hazzard’s first collection Between Two Windows (Carcanet, 2012), but fractured further, prevented from arriving at a phrase’s habitual conclusion before it is torqued into another configuration, running on the metaphor:


———————————————————————–As Paul Nash

implied | perhaps to distinguish the trees | from the wood, its bark

is worse than | as Lee Harwood might say | all you do, my | is

appropriate. You mine | my mine | with yours. Steel yourself | for

an act of originality



that feeds it.

(p. 1)


An initial act of division, overcoming the idiomatic failure to see the wood for the trees (itself claiming its visual ‘act of originality’ in the ‘implication’ of a painter, mixing further the media at play) translates briefly to the materiality of the trees’ bark before moving back into the language’s reserves of non-original, common phrasing (‘its bark is worse than [its bite]’). The ‘bite’ bitten off the end of this phrase resurfaces as the page’s connecting word, itself implying ingratitude for the receipt of a gift, mining ‘my mine’ to extract raw materials or acts of originality from the soil of linguistic sediment. The block continues:


——————-The divisions | undivided | all the sweeter. I was

intimated across the threshold | of a margin | of a centre | moved

by the accents of a margin | a kind of latent relief.

(p. 1)


Again, a phrasal parallelism spans these divisions, which enacts a meta-discursive commentary on its own disruptions, while carrying the sentence over the breaks with the momentum of its repetition. But while divisions undivided may be possible in the ‘location of paradise’ (itself a walled garden since the idea’s Persian origins) or pastoral idyll, they do not obtain here; the vertical bars (or ‘pipes’ in some tech-communities) seem to be an ordering manifestation of the ‘improvised field of | security’ (p. 14) that is draped ‘High over the | wild lawn | of the land’ (p. 10). Earlier in the book it is an entire bioregion, an ‘area of rainforest’, which is divided as


———————–partition calls back the candelabra-form espalier

called a palmette verrier | from which falls | at close intervals a

downpour of | stops. High over | an area of rainforest | makeshift

barricades are erected | to distinguish the trees | from the wood to

form a thick, impenetrable | paywall against environs.



The idiomatic confusion of not seeing the wood for the trees is reactivated and reversed, but this time from an elevated vantage ‘High over | an area of rainforest’. From this height it appears that barricades – ‘makeshift’ suggesting street protest – nonetheless divide the knowledge world, separate the individual from the being able to think membership of a collective (‘the wood’), and in doing so are able to ‘form a thick, impenetrable | paywall against environs.’ Nothing of ‘environs’ gets through, or if it does, it pays the toll.

‘Forming the Palmette Verrier’

A ‘palmette verrier’ is indeed a ‘candelabra-form espalier’, a flat structure something like a trellis on which fruit-producing plants are tied, controlling the direction and speed of their growth and encouraging them to grow in accordance with a particular formal pattern. In the case of the palmette verrier variety, the branches are ‘trained’ to grow in a shape suggestive of the ritual candelabra. The religious connotation is accurate in as much as the point may be that the kind of globalised ecological manipulation of a large ‘area of rainforest’ has roots in such ancient practices of botanical domestication that are at once ornamental and designed to increase yield. The relation to nature always incorporated forms of technology and management, as Meliboeus, even while on the run, knew better than the idle swain Tityrus. Instead of being, as he claims, vouchsafed to him by a benevolent deity, his ease is premised on hidden oppression and the kinds of agricultural innovation presented by Virgil in his Georgics. In this successor to the Eclogues, Virgil deals with the practicalities of husbandry and crop management (‘georgic’ means ‘agricultural (things)’), and humans are shown to be much more ‘Bound by the usable | parts of animals’ (p. 4), as Within Habit has it, than the pastoral idyll admits.

Within Habit‘s sustained play around the difference between an individual tree and the wood’s uncountable collective of many trees brings to mind a similar perceptual distinction made by William Wordsworth at the beginning of the nineteenth century:


But there’s a tree, of many, one,

A single field which I have looked upon,

Both of them speak of something that is gone [1]


The steadiness of Wordsworth’s observation of a single tree and a single field is only to focus more intently on absence, pastoral’s pathos of the impossibly desired return. To select a field or tree from the many possible and concentrate on it is, as the poet Peter Larkin has argued about the mysteriously mourned ‘Lucy’ in Wordsworth’s ‘She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways’, to ‘extol[s] Lucy’s scarceness as rarity, to the extent that reduced presence takes on a bearing in its own right.’[2] Larkin’s distinctive figuration of singularity or absence as the rare or scarce is partly derived from the value scales of natural history, partly from ideas of seasonal shortage and demand, and yet is the ‘concomitant of a theoretically infinite desire for consumption’, negotiating between economic production and the replenishment or substitution of resources.[3] Wordsworth’s reduction is also an inversion of the idiom usually indicating an inability to see a general pattern due to obstructive individual detail; the detail is all Wordsworth wants and all he can see, in a kind of perceptual coppicing or thinning out. Is the single tree a metonym or metaphor for the forest, standing for or instead of it, or is this a taxonomic delineation of species? One is reminded of Wordsworth’s antithetical feelings in his Guide to the Lakes towards larch trees, a plantation species and at the time a recent import. ‘Larch and fir plantations have been spread’, he writes, ‘not merely with a view to profit, but in many instances for the sake of ornament. To those who plant for profit, and are thrusting every other tree out of the way, to make room for their favourite, the larch, I would utter first a regret that they should have selected these lovely vales for their vegetable manufactory’.[4] Plantation trees reflected for Wordsworth the changing, more baldly yield-driven attitudes towards landownership and productivity of the period, and the singularity of ‘a tree’, with its individualised and embedded communal functions such as the marking of boundaries and meeting-places, cantankerously resists such alterations.[5]

Larkin also provides a rather different gloss for the woodland management Wordsworth’s selection of ‘a tree, of many, one’ implies. Commenting on the reasons for his interest in plantations rather than wildwood (practically non-existent in the UK), Larkin writes:

[plantations] encourage a swerve from the forest of the avant-garde, towards something more like the cares of an encumbered yet conscientious settlement—or rather emplacement, however unsettled may be the chafing and condensing of bounds […] A plantation is not a garden feature, but a naturalised outdoor resource, perhaps ready to become a constructed confider of sources, a delegate (from primal forest) impoverished enough to refer to the human appetite for shelter.[6]

Larkin sees such artificially ‘greened enclosures, manufactured as grids or reserves’ as indications of ‘the stickiness of fragments of reserve, those intermittent micro-bombardments combining as ‘repertoires’ of local cover’. Within Habit avails itself of such ‘naturalised outdoor resource[s]’, but also emphasises their textual existence, through which paper can be folded and torn like the earth’s crust. Hands, which ‘we extend’ to ‘form enclosures’, seem to be obeying imperatives to form the landscape as though it were origami:


——————————————————Valley fold | the top left

corner over to the right as shown. Crease well. Unfold the paper,

then repeat the last fold on the other side of the | palmette verrier.

Do a mountain fold horizontally through the intersection | of the

crease marks | to make a diagonal lattice | alongside the things | it

shows to be dependent upon



Such (inter)dependency forms part of a sceptical post-pastoral awareness that the single tree or collective wood is only ever a ‘delegate (from primal forest)’ and yet is more intermeshed with human need and a ‘sense of dependency […] mediated (so often now) through patterns of dominance and environmental oppression. But by such means (we have scarce ends) we trace the patterns of holding upon earth we still aspire to as the things which cover us.’[7] Attempts to trace patterns of holding or to ‘satisfy the human appetite for shelter’ within the compromising frame of ‘dominance and environmental oppression’ must be made without withdrawing from it to an unobtainable yet endlessly plentiful ‘nature’. No one now believes in Tityrus’ repose, if they ever did. What this perhaps amounts to is the reformulation of polis as scarce dwelling that avoids, if possible, the infliction of harm, proceeding from what Larkin has elsewhere called ‘mild’ or ‘conservative’ radicalism.[8] ‘No things were made | in the harming | of this settlement’, the last page of Within Habit begins, occupying this ground of social and environmental damage before asserting that such acts are carried out because


—————————————The civic nothing is | desired by all, a

statuette hemmed by | lakes, weekend knots within | pasture.

(p. 20)


To end at the beginning: Within Habit‘s title comes from American poet Peter Cole, who commented in interview that he is interested in ‘Vividness. Awareness of connective tissue on and across multiple planes. Sensuality. Susceptibility. Trees and flowers. Absorption of the music of ordinary instants and hours and registers of speech, and of the extraordinary. Alertness to comedy.’[9] These concerns, discrete yet related, are indeed woven into the ‘connective tissue’ of Within Habit ‘across multiple plains’, with disorientating shifts of constriction and expansion whose movement feels politicised yet undetermined or unfixed, knots of troubling weekend leisure within wider pastures, or ‘other expressions | of space before choice under an ornamental plain’.


1 William Wordsworth, ‘Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ (composed between 27 March1802 and 6 March 1804, in Poems in Two Volumes (1807), in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. by Duncan Wu (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p. 539. (ll. 51-53).

2 Peter Larkin, ‘Scarcity by Gift: Horizons of the “Lucy” Poems’, The Coleridge Bulletin, New Series, No. 23 (Spring 2004), 49-62 (54).

3 Larkin, ‘Scarcity by Gift’, p. 50.

4 William Wordsworth, Guide to the Lakes (London: Frances Lincoln, 2004), p. 86.

5 Fiona Stafford made this point in a lecture entitled ‘Wordsworth and the Meaning of Trees’, given at Senate House Library, University of London, 15.10.14.

6 Peter Larkin, ‘Preface’, Parallels Plantations Apart (Kenilworth: Prest Roots Press, 1998), pp. 7-11 (p. 7).

7 Larkin, Parallels Plantations Apart, p. 7.

8 Hardy, Edmund, ‘Less than, more at: an Interview with Peter Larkin’, Intercapillary Space <>.

9 Bookslut, ‘An Interview with Peter Cole’ <>.

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