The Peter Redgrove Library

by Michael Peverett

Peter Redgrove: The Colour of Radio (ed. Neil Roberts), Stride Books
Peter Redgrove: The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist,
Stride Books

Besides his vast profusion of poetry Peter Redgrove also wrote books in prose. The most important, I think, are the books about life matters, especially The Wise Wound (with Penelope Shuttle, 1976) and The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense (1987). Stride's new series, The Peter Redgrove Library, reprints the seven novels: the one I've got here is The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist, first published in 1979. It also features an eighth volume called The Colour of Radio, which is a collection of Redgrove's essays and interviews edited by Neil Roberts.

The Colour of Radio will be an essential volume for Redgrove students; I think of it as crowded concourse thick with signposts that you want to follow up; but since I am not a student I would always rather read a book that was meant as a book and I won't linger too long over it. About half the book is interviews and Redgrove is a brilliant interviewee, but in the mass these are wearing. You can't really get stuck in to pages that skitter so quickly from topic to topic. Here's a flavour of it, from a 1987 interview ("The Science of the Subjective") with Roberts himself:

Contemporary poetry has a very strange fate in England I think as compared to America and possibly on the European continent. We seem to be party-going poets. [...] I think one of the reasons for the loss of nerve at the present time is that the scientists have given us a picture of nature which is competitive, alien, empty, mechanical, and a universe in which we are complete strangers, and in which – talking about continuums – there is no continuum between ourselves and nature. This is the great romantic quest, that a continuum between nature and mankind should be proved ... Science still proceeds on behaviouristic principles. Scientists, for instance, have to be very careful in testing drugs, or in doing any psychological experiment, not to allow suggestion to enter into it, no suggestion of the result, no placebo effect must be allowed in. But the placebo effect is a very wonderful thing indeed. It means you can take a sugar pill believing it will do you good and it will do you good. This is worth looking into I would have thought, but it's the very thing that science keeps out: the power here – the Romantic idea – of the mind over the body, that the material world is responsive to the energies of the mind, or to immaterial energies. We live in a situation where these things are systematically undervalued. The Enlightenment was concerned to display everything visibly, with every factor controlled – and this is when the idea of the scientific controlled experiment came in. The Romantics were in contradiction to this. They wanted to know what was invisible. They protested against 'the tyranny of the eye'. There is so much in Romantic poetry about weather for instance. Weather influences us profoundly. It is an invisible and visible series of changes which alter our moods and alter our access to ourselves. We are inspired or depressed by the weather. It is both objective and subjective in its effects. Thirty per cent of the population are intensely weather-sensitive. There is a kind of feeling-knowledge of the world which arises from meteorological changes. There is a response, an invisible response which is not accounted for in medical science. The facts are that very many diseases, very many sicknesses and illnesses, are intensified by the processes of storm. Heart palpitations sometimes synchronize with radio static from storms. You can watch, on a computer, the meteorological pattern say over the city of New York, and superimpose the deaths from heart attacks, and you can see that these two patterns follow each other, and there is a causal connection which appears to be electrical. We know that many people suffer from weather-sensitivity to a psychiatric extent – you get this very much in Cornwall, which has a great deal of weather as they say. But what happens? How are these people treated? Well, of course, the tranquillizer and antidepressant. There is no study of medical climatology, there is no school of it in this country as far as I know. There is no school of bio-meteorology. This romantic thing, the weather, this daily demonstration of our response to the whole situation of the earth and the atmosphere, the temperature of it, the humidity of it and the electricity of it – we can't deny this any more – is just ignored, because of course, to adjust this, to treat weather-sickness – well, there are certainly herbal and homeopathic remedies for it, and another solution is to move, which may not be viable economically. What is viable economically and which props up our system is to prescribe another of these invented drugs, at great cost. The alternative is to seek union with the invisible but actual world, as the Romantics did.
I quote this, repetitions and all, because I think that way it reveals so much more about the speaker. We can pick up his missionary zeal, his perfect confidence in the importance of his poetic aspirations and how they are completely identified with his experiences and interests beyond poetry, his jouissance, his profoundly democratic idea that poetry is all of a piece with what everyone is doing the whole time. We can grasp the age and background of the speaker; both his old-fashionedness and his modernity. We can register the peculiar distinctiveness of his use of the word "which", a means of giving impressively assured answers, not instantly testable, to questions we might not have thought to ask. (That discursive structure underlies the poems too, which may truly be called which-craft – but I see I've caught the manner...)

To understand this passage more fully it's helpful to know that Redgrove's own involvement with psychoanalysis arose in part from severe weather-induced depressions; also, that during his unhappy period in advertising he had written (unused) promotional material for the new wonder-drug, Thalidomide. Some of the most worthwhile pieces in The Colour of Radio are autobiographical: the best is "The Alchemical Marriage of Redgrove and Shuttle", about what was creatively the most important event in Redgrove's life, his second marriage. There are also a few pieces about other writers, but only a few, and it's easy to see why: Redgrove was an acute and ardent reader (as the rest of the collection sufficiently demonstrates), but being so engaged with his own vast experiment he really lacked the patience, the odd sort of self-abnegation, that becomes interested in registering something like the totality of someone else's vision.

What comes across from The Colour of Radio as a whole is the seriousness of Redgrove's project: it will not lend much support to the blurb-writers' untroubling placement of the poetry as "tumultuous imaginative flights, exhilarating, glittering epiphanies" (I'm making a collage from the jacket of the Selected Poems). Gentleness and good humour came naturally to the poet, he knew they were positives, but you can only go so far with the poetry before you have to grapple with fundamental challenges to our belief-systems.


The other principal thing that I took from it, personally, was a consciousness that it's impossible to come to grips adequately with Redgrove's work while continuing to neglect Penelope Shuttle's; I mean her own work, not just the collaborations, which include The Wise Wound, Alchemy for Women (1997), and two of the novels in this series.

The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist isn't one of these, though. It's a novel about hypnotism, and it was written in ten days under self-hypnosis.

To the outsider hypnotism connotes two rather ill-matched ideas: a medium for various clinically-effective healing therapies, and a sensational kind of stage-performance. Though neither of these is exactly like Redgrove's own idea of "(with pun intended) trance-formation" (which identifies a continuum between hypnotism and such other consciousness-altering activities as having sex, switching on a TV, reading a poem, and feeling a cloud pass overhead), both leave their mark on the book for good and ill. With the therapeutic aspect one might associate the long expository passages, informatively nutritious but barely made fictional by the interposition of such phrases as "she realized", "she had heard, too" and "John explained". With the theatrical aspect one might associate the wild comedy and the various scenes of public performance; a lecture, a conjuror, a clairvoyant, the televised showdown; but also a sort of cheapness about the execution: such hand-to-mouth scene-setting as "Speaking Water was called John Ismay then, having taken the surname of the people who had adopted him after his rescue from the tenement fire in which his parents had perished"; or the representation of rising excitement by long sequences cobbled together with "and"s and "then"s. In as much as The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist reminds me of other novels, they tend to be genre novels: Mills & Boon, whodunnits and sf.

Yet all this is more artful than it may at first appear. The book is economically structured as a flow of selected scenes connected without comment. It is hinged into two halves, the first part focussed on the hypnotist father and the second part on his daughter; around the midway point both break through in the first person. Here is the daughter speaking:

I recall another time when I was frightened of a thunderstorm, and my father spoke comforting words to me, and I saw kind faces in the clouds uttering the loud words, and when the lightning came it came slowly, or so I saw it, and it was a jagged slice into a sweet fruit whose juice was light which I could taste. Later, I heard of the magical use of fires, that 'opened the doors of distance'.
This jagged slice, both comforting and violent, is beguiling on the surface, but there isn't much of that sort of writing: most of what the book is doing waits just beneath the surface. It takes a while to grasp that hypnotism is not a simple positive here but an ambiguous medium for the father's manipulation as well as comfort, that the episodes are not just clunkily joined together but carry on a continuous "subvocalized" conversation with each other. There's a dark-mirror reflection of this passage in the apparently casual words of the dying father, putting his daughter into deep trance:

Do you remember the chain store magnate? I cured him of premature ejaculation. I couldn't stop him from coming in two minutes, but at least I could make it seem longer when I had taught him hypnosis with my Oscilloscope! It may be the dead live faster than we do, streaking from molecule to molecule in their flux of changes. It may be that they live very slowly, like a mountain range. Hypnosis will enable you to travel these deeps, these accelerations in your human form. Set up the machine.
It takes a while for the tranced author to locate his real centres of interest. The hoofbeats that rattle through the book spring from this odd image of Eden in the sketchy early pages: "Here I am, the Lord God, walking in my garden in the evening, and I've got an itchy skin, like a horse or a deer has an itchy skin in the autumn, when the hair gets all dry, the pelt is dusty, the reddish-brown pelt of the Lord God...". These hooves get into the Oscilloscope and keep coming out of it again (it only slowly renews its materials, thus after the Hypnotist's death his face at first keeps reappearing on the screen). And the book itself acts rather like the Oscilloscope. At the party where he meets his future wife, she takes off his shoe and taps his be-socked foot: it looks the wrong shape and it returns a hollow sound. Later, the daughter drops herself into a dream while the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss still capers outside her hotel. The dream is of the 'Oss:

As he swings, blood flies from his mouth and blooms on the white clothes of the dancers. The celebration moves closer and Angela sees George Frederick Pfoundes in his black psychiatrist's jacket and pinstriped trousers dancing in the place of the 'Oss, his mouth full of blood, his eyes glaring with hypnotism. His buttons glitter, and his brilliantined hair is swept up into tall plumes. [...] There is a parson in the surrounding crowd. He reaches into his white linen jacket and takes a circular white biscuit from his pocket and munches it slowly. Blood runs down his chin over his dog-collar. [...] the Teazer with a decisive gesture points his sceptre downwards towards the ground. With a dreadful hacking cough blood pours from her father's mouth, his legs crumple and he falls forward onto his hands, blood vomiting in a pool in front of him. [...] His face curls like burning paper and his clothes empty as the lapping pool grows. It steams a little, and his papery, empty eyes settle into it, their lids closing. The sun must now be directly overhead, because the long street suddenly turns golden. Angela steps into the blood, which has turned golden as sunlight.
This is an afternoon dream and a menstrual dream; when she wakes up, "the late red sunlight is on her counterpane". Most of the dream's other elements, for example the communion wafer, are transformations of the morning's sights and thoughts in Padstow. But as the elements snap together we can appreciate the dream's revelatory over-determination. When the father makes love he goes for a ride on his penis, "this hollow charger or hobby-horse of an organ". When the daughter exorcises him in sex the hooves are briefly stilled: "The Oscilloscope speakers were beating out silence". But afterwards, combined with the promise of a child is "A faint rushing, as of distant horses' hooves galloping nearer but still very fast and faint...". Her lover is an older man who happens to be a medium. Like the recurrent deaths of the 'Obby 'Oss, this story can never really come to an end, it is cyclical. Beneath the surface of cheap, perky entertainment, the "trance-formed" reader is summoned into a depth-novel.

The Peter Redgrove Library is published by Stride Books

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