Ian Seed's Anonymous Intruder

reviewed by Peter Hughes

IAN SEED, Anonymous Intruder (Shearsman), £8.95

It’s good to see Ian Seed’s new Shearsman book, Anonymous Intruder. Good to see, because it’s a very attractive book – and good to see because it is Seed’s first full-length collection (he was born in 1956) and therefore well overdue.

The cover image, by John Woodcock, is deeply ambiguous in its suggestion of multiple horizons created by the colours of blood and ink seeping into the distances of perception, or consciousness. Turner on acid. Is it a beginning or an end; a flowering or a wound? And is the central form a giant torso – some neglected earth god come to eat its children? Or is she a strong and tender presence, glancing down benignly? Well, the image is all and none of these things because its a non-figurative exploration of paint on a flat surface. But the simplicity and effectiveness of its range of colours and gestures makes it a powerful entrance to the texts.

Ian Seed’s lean meditations on relationships and (usually urban) landscapes do not attempt to dodge the presence of an “I” or a “you”. It is the relationships which vivify the settings, and the language. And it is interesting that the language which settles over and on these indeterminate settings and interactions is not necessarily at home there, because it is English. And English may not be the local language, or the language in which the subjects of his pronouns communicate, or fail to.

Ian Seed spent many years away from the UK, notably in Italy and Poland, and this makes the vertigo-inducing relationships between experience and language even more piquant than usual. Does this translocation into another language make one even more alienated? Does it, perhaps, make one’s sense of being alive more vivid and ‘real’? These poems are not about ‘being in another country’, but this particularity with reference to the settings and personae seem to me to make the writing even more resonant, by amplifying its themes of identity and belonging. Or not-belonging. ‘The work is ours.

The poems in the first part of the book are, on the whole, more straightforward than those to come later. The syntax and punctuation are not problematic. What is memorable about the first poems is images which are keenly observed and traced, but which ripple out with symbolic overtones. For example, Section 4 of the opening sequence ‘The Familiar Dead’, remembers a casual encounter and concludes thus:
her goose-pimpled skin, the stocking
with holes, the scattering
of dead matches by the bed.

(The Familiar Dead, p.14)
That last line accomplishes a lot of effortless work to do with brief illumination, heat of passion, unsuccessful connection and futile repetition.
And the end of Section 5 goes like this:
we went through endless backstreets
in search of what was missing.
The summer rain steamed.

You grew tearful at the barefooted
children who dropped stones
into the bowl of a blind man.

(The Familiar Dead, p.15)
There is a sense of moving into less-familiar neighbourhoods and, at a certain point, the meeting with the less-familiar becomes characterised by an increased linguistic dislocation. The writing is harder to read, and allows for increased abstraction. The complexities of feeling incompletely here are not just described, but enacted. Things move in opposite directions. Contradictory impulses co-exist uneasily. Words don’t fit – they twist and gape like a cuckoo in a warbler’s nest.

This starts on page 41, with ‘Notices’. ‘Notices’, perhaps, the dry enough substantive, the displayed words of these published poems. But the word also buzzes like a faulty switch with the third-person singular of the verb – fragments of active perception grabbed from the flux, arranged on the page to teem, rather than to settle.
bending seems the first
string of barely illicit
themselves blue city
start tremendous eyes
only flow a moment draw
what you have built
yet capture the stem
of unmistakeable face
to signal it’s better

(Notices, p.45)
That tension between the static and the dynamic is exemplified in ‘Recount’.
To recount, in this piece, is also to effect a recount – a check, a re-examination. It’s as if the writing and the self resist being accounted for in any one simple narrative. ‘You question that ‘finally’ once more... The work is ours.’ And those concluding words perhaps lead back around to the title, this time representing it as a ringing imperative: Recount! Tell your own stories in your own ways and see what they add up to.

This more adventurous style of writing sometimes surfaces in the 28 prose poems which constitute the final section of the book. Yet often the most effective moments come from relatively conventional syntax. For example, in ‘All Kinds of Dust’ we get:
One day we were drawn to a tavern by the sound of singing. A fatal error.
(All Kinds of Dust, p.53).
The passion and intensity of the music suddenly illuminate disturbingly barren stretches of life. And in ‘Attitudes’, the last line rocks backwards and forwards in its fertile ambiguity long after the reading has stopped:
The tale unfolds, a far cry from what we expected.

(Attitudes, p.61).
‘A far cry’ means ‘distant’ but it also means a cry – a cry of disappointment or despair that is a product of our inadequate expectations of ourselves and each other. The cry of despair may also be related to a fear that as we travel through the complex immediacies of our perceptions, they may simply dissolve behind us adding nothing to our selves or worlds:
The city disappears street by street as you enter it.

(Having Just Breathed, p.63)
That’s not to say that this is a depressing book. The movement of the book and of its constituent pieces is towards the music and the light, and away from the apparent security of the closed, the static and the fossilised:
That’s a career with prospects while the song remains unheard.

(A Cry Permitted, p.74)
And so the song of the yet-to-be-known becomes the touchstone of value:

finding the thread in another language
nothing resolved, everything enriched.

(Seemingly Hesitating, p.24)
The book ends, in fact, with a celebration of the next word, the next rhythm, and the next step away from the familiar:
It seemed an odd miracle that my feet were moving, taking me from one side of the road to the other.

(Almost, p.78)

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