A sort of public thank-you to Douglas Oliver

Alan Hay

I imagine Douglas Oliver standing behind me and to the right. Where he in turn imagines the deer standing, and who stands behind the deer? And whenever anyone turns to look it all blinks and disappears. Since my first proper encounter with this singular and compelling man's poetry I've felt myself haunted by his example. Bob Dylan said of Johnny Cash "You could steer your ship by him." I'm in no kind of a boat, Oliver is no constellation, no Orion wheeling across skies of myth and deep time, no Olson, and there in that refusal of the star-crown, handing it always back and back, that ruthless and constant attention to the quivering valencies of justice, to the click of spittle in the human muzzle, tapping the dream barometers, there among the news and mournings and seascapes lie some of the best clues left us as to how we might live, in what world, and who are these poets, how can they help. . .

I first came across Doug Oliver doing a cameo in Iain Sinclair's novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. In an early example of Sinclair's self-ironising (his books recently have been clogged by un-navigable thickets of self-deprecation), Oliver appears, dressed in a long leather coat, to warn Sinclair against meddling with darkness, pointing out the fallaciousness of Eliphas Levi's axiom that it takes a great soul to do great evil. Oliver utters the gnomic injunction to "...fold the bridge, find the cave." The bridge being Sinclair's Suicide Bridge, the cave Oliver's The Cave of Suicession, the real cave in Derbyshire that he nominated as an oracle, crawled into and interrogated about death.

At the time (late 80's) I was a hog for marginalia, liminalia, sweating out a fever stew of post-structuralism and counter-culture occultism, affecting dread in the deep pit of the tory years. Sinclair's formulation of society's engines as malign, hot, in debt to darknesses of the past and somehow printed onto actual urbes as well as civitas, struck me as compelling. I saw Thatcher's Orcs wheeling in the fields of Orgreave, did my pilgrimage to our King Lud, Blake, in Bunhill Fields, the final deferral of whose burial site (his stone says "Near here is buried...") seemed to confirm all my undigested Derrida. Oliver looked to me like a plausible, reasonable post-hippy teacher. Not hot enough, or cool enough.

In these days of print-to-order, abebooks, Salt Publishing, where for the price of a CD you can get everything Tom Raworth ever wrote (well, almost) it's already getting difficult to recall just how tough it was to get hold of material fifteen or more years ago. As a recent graduate, I considered myself pretty au fait. All you had to do, it seemed to me, was hang around in second-hand bookshops, and the stuff you needed virtually levitated off the shelves into your hands. Of course what this actually meant was that I was subsisting almost entirely on Burroughs, Ballard, Ginsberg, what you might call the high-water-mark flotsam of the counterculture. The deeper currents, the stranger stuff, lay outside my view, and may well have done so to this day were it not for the late lamented Compendium Books of Camden. There, like a great confluence of leys, all the hidden tracks broke ground together. The place hummed and crackled with information. I'd gone there on a tip-off looking for Anna Kavan's "Ice" I think (possibly in a leather coat, possibly in sunglasses, shudder...), and was astounded to find that I was in the Library at Alexandria. It was all here. So I bought, and bought. I moved to Islington (when such a thing was still possible for a public sector employee) and spent hours and hours there. And slowly, I began to understand the history that I suspected (paranoia being very much de rigeur) had been actively hidden from me. The first thing to really hit me was Tim Longville and Andrew Crozier's A Various Art anthology. I bought it because I recognised Sinclair's name. And as I sat in the George at the top of Essex Road pissing away my weekday afternoons I became fascinated. Prynne and Peter Riley were my favourites. I don't think I quite got Oliver at that point. The excerpts from "The Diagram Poems" seemed weirdly unbalanced, and the intrusion of the sentimental (to my eye) biographical detail seemed out of kilter with what I took to be the rules of the game. I'd read somewhere that Eric Mottram had described autobiography as 'unsanitary'. I liked this phrase and began to say it a lot, not realising that I was using it as a way of avoiding talking about real people, their histories and actions.

I think I bought Three Variations on the Theme of Harm around then, also from Compendium, and was knocked sideways by two different things. Firstly by "The Infant and the Pearl" which made all my occult political attitudinising seem childishly weak. I stopped it (best I could - still occasional lapses) and tried to follow Oliver's thought through the long poem. Or rather his thinking, its enactment. There was a lot of fuss in later years about Penniless Politics and how it supposedly made possible a new kind of political poetry, but it's all there in Infant. It wittingly placed itself in a tradition of long-form didactic-visionary poetry back through Shelley and Langland to the Pearl poet, but rather than calling on this tradition to underwrite his poem, he makes it earn its keep, forces the alliterative, iterative structure of Pearl to enact the slow, accretive structure of his argument for Socialism. The structure provides a loose and flexible sort of music, but is still sturdy enough to allow this to be readable:

"...the Second World War for a moment had taught
my nation to know that Conservative negligence
of poverty weakened the purpose fought
In isolation it looks like the kind of All-Bran for the mind that did pass muster in some quarters in the late eighties, but it's half-hidden alliterations and approximate four-stress line give it a feeling of something underneath the level of utterance that links it as a type of knowledge to this:

In an interval of fulgurous light, in an
instant when the baby gurgled, all the glass
scythed sideways. I had glimpses of spun
barley-sugar passages studded with sapphires

Almost always that first person, declarative tone, full of strong active verb clauses. Very little of the complex and occasionally vague second person plural that so marked a generation of Prynne imitators. Things are busily happening in these poems, and happening to, in and around the poet.

Oliver was an outsider, a mature student, an asker of tough questions at the party. Conscious always of his singularity, his biography seems to strain towards exile - he ventriloquises the Tupamaro guerillas, maps the psychogeography of his Paris arrondissement according to the willed presences of Heine and Celan, leaves England for Paris for England for New York for Paris. That combination of political poetry and outsider power struck a chord with me. I could see that there was a way of making poetry do a real job here. That meaning might, after all, be got from this odd lot.

The second thing that struck me in a slomo combination punch that still rings in my ears was For Kind. This short poem, in metaphysical 'what-is-abstract-quality-x' style has stayed partially digested in my gullet for years. I've never been able properly to parse its deceptively complex structure. Like Beddoes' 'Dream Pedlary' it has the power to stay in the throat and never dissolve. It takes as its perimeter a set of special definitions (kind, kindness, harm, naturalness) whose complex relations cannot be resolved. Its components hang in the air, each vector of referral pointing a Chagall loop round and under - never quite providing enough information to balance the equation, but small enough that you can swallow it whole like an astronaut gulping a zero-g jello-shot. It's what you always knew was the truth about poetry, and an absolute refutation of the new-criticism I'd grown up with, but also a challenge to the crossword-puzzle dessications of some experimental poetry.

So I became a fan. I went back over all the stuff I could find, hummed and hawed over an overpriced (ten pounds!) copy of Oppo Hectic in a bookshop in Greenwich, and tried to find (still haven't) his linguistics / prosody work. I don't say it has been all roses - there's lots we'd disagree about I'm sure. I find his formulation of 'spirit' risky, and there's a little bit of goading of materialists (he breaks cover and does this overtly in Whisper 'Louise') in his resolute insistence on the empirical supernatural. No amount of vague appeals to quantum theory can ameliorate a belief in ghosts, or in phantasms of the living (which belief sunk and brought to suicide the 19th century philosopher and spiritualist Edmund Gurney - no space here to go into this; google it). But every step of the way I knew I was accompanying a real poet. One whose thought was brought right up and out to here through a maze of concentrated attention, of jewel-bright and wax-soft gentleness and strength of moral purpose - that purpose being one of tracking through the maze of wax and mica and forcing speech to make its map and what is that?

Where does the wing beat begin? Mark the sheer beauty of his conception of the beat, the clairvoyant hinge in the growl and peep of speech, a conception built out of a clear-eyed vision of Sonny Liston peeling time apart in parts of seconds and acting between them, left, left, of the syllabic harmless hum of the all-sanctifying filthy jain, of the heron, grey wing turning time over and over, and the equally beautiful fact of his following this up in the actual laboratory - microphones and charts and all - this alone is a considerable achievement, and a thing of use.

Useful to consider, but difficult to talk about, because Oliver imports all difficulties into his handling of it, feints again and again at the impossible no at the centre, is Tom, Oliver's son, born with Down's Syndrome, and who died horribly young. The death of a child is traditionally the end of the parent. It could certainly do for you as an artist. Think of Samuel Palmer, whose son's death reduces him to vacantly painting again and again the stars in their configuration at the time of death, needle jumping in the trauma groove. (But then think of Mallarme, of Tomb for Anatole.) Is Oliver's conception of his son as a kind of dumb saint (with Kerouackian connotations of holy fool) a little sentimental, dubious in its surrogate piety, a little too close to the special case of private grief to be poetry? But then what would a poetry with no place for a father's grief be worth? And why is the dread trouble of death a special case? Another transmissible insight afforded by these poems is this: an understanding that death needs to be found, that it hides in our lives these days, and the truth about it might be the missing term, and a reminder of what I still find tough to follow: his conviction that ceremony isn't gauche, or anti-materialist, rather it's a kind of physical mnemonic of death.

Oliver pours wine into glasses for dead poets as a fearless rite, makes the challenge to us, and what do we do? Do we pour the wine into an extra glass for Doug Oliver? And do we drink it down? Or pour it on the slabs in the garden and half look away for the deer to come and sniff, touch it with a little pink tongue? Or do we only write it down and never do it? Because when he says, in a heart-freezing moment in the Diagram poems, speaking of bloody revolution and its danger to the defenceless,

"...but my Tom's in a frightener cell..."
I still feel my throat close around the indigestible little stone of the poem, grit in the oyster, and know that the place Oliver made there for me to look out from is extremely valuable to me. I use it a lot.

Alan Hay, July 2006

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