Ben Borek's Donjong Heights


Limited Edition Hardback: 160 pages
RRP 12.99, 16 Oct 2007
Egg Box Publishing
ISBN-10: 0954392027

Reviewed by Melissa Flores-Bórquez


Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry shows how a new thinking of poetry involves a regrounding of and re-selection from the archive. Virginia Woolf (in her diaries) argues that Byron's Don Juan presents "an elastic shape which will hold whatever you choose to put into it"; she is thinking about how to experiment with narrative, and commending a form-content: "the springy random haphazard nature of its method". Woolf probably didn't anticipate the same galloping form encompassing a Japanese baseball player and the rest of Koch's Ko, or a Season on Earth, but the comment about elasticity is also echoed by Ashbery's statements on an elastic poetry which will fit many feet like a pair of socks. This is a way of thinking seriously about long (and short) stretchy forms, and what Ben Borek has done is a grasping of the sonnet narrative of Pushkin / Seth in order to imbue it with a renewal of the Byronic digressive spirit (rather than taking Byron at second hand through Seth as a weaker exemplar).

The Onegin sonnet has the ottava rima elasticity but a more stately movement – its epistolary outbreaks rest on such a sense of this being a more considered rush, reading as spliced couplets stepping forwards. Donjong Heights is, then, a "novel in verse", and it is set in south London, in and around a council block which gives its name to the title. It is beautifully published by Egg Box in hardback, with an illustration for each chapter. A prologue directs the scene as for a movie (an update on the satirical instructions-to-a-painter genre),

South London has its reputation:
No tube, a multitude of guns,
And hence this Johnsonesque quotation:
“When Peckham tires one simply runs
On up to Hoxton and carouses
In trendy nouveau-cool warehouses
And listens to Electro Funk
Affecting toned down retro-punk.”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Soweto
Down south, it’s not all crack and pillage –
Just take a look at Dulwich Village –
But for the common man it’s Netto
Not Conran, tea not mochaccino
And Asda jeans, not Valentino.

Now reader, focus on a room;
Mix cinematic metaphors
With bookish ones, engage your zoom
And speed up pockmarked streets, through doors
That open for the lens politely,
Skim rooftops high above the nightly
Dramatics in the streets below
(The pubs call time, the usual show
Of fights and mawkish “au revoirs!”),
Then hurtle up, the revellers melt
And fade behind, Orion’s belt
Is slalomed briskly and the stars
Are left to their portentous glowing
As, reader, look, the camera’s slowing…
and then our hero narrates the bulk of the poem - a plaint, as his aorta is faulty and he has not long to live: his heart is hieratic as it beats out its last epic. (There are also interruptions from an omniscient narrator who berates and has an awful lisp). There is one thing our hero wants to do: have a Christmas party, where he can hopefully express his love for Catherine, his ex-girlfriend (they were separated over a mix-up). That expression however only comes in an exchange of letters – which rather reminded me of those comments on Romeo and Juliet that it is essentially a tragedy of the postal system.

But all the preparations for the party occupy the chapters as we spin towards that bright ending – buying a suit from a downstairs mafia style tailor, meeting up with John and 'Lord Byron' in the pub –

Oh, when our Lordship has his whinges
I just switch off. The fact he thinks
The Greeks are still at war with Turkey
Suggests he has a rather murky
Conception of the current map
– and a series of other comic persons, and of course writing the invites. This turns out to involve one of my favourite set pieces in the book, a burlesque nativity:

"To top it all you must endure,
(The consequence of not prebooking)
Delivery amid manure
With rows of bovine eyes all looking.
It doesn't stop there either, friends –
Poor Mary's ill luck never ends.
Her son turns out a firebrand
Who never lends his dad a hand
At work (he sees himself as higher
Than mundane work, feels nails and saws
And joining shelving, whittling doors,
Malapropos for a messiah
And hangs out with his unwashed clique
Of followers and wows the meek)."
The narrative feels compact (unlike The Golden Gate or the picaresque Don Juan), whether it diverts into graffiti from a south London wall, how hip-hop got started, an invitation to sexual love, a thought on modern over-exposure to music (rhyming porno with Adorno) or whatever. In the convergence of the drive to death and the comic details of our fussy, prim narrator's preparations, there is a circuit which makes us laugh the more; a burlesque truth in a spin towards death.

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