The Tea-Brown Light Of Kindness

Pierre Joris

   (Notes on the work of Douglas Oliver)

§ Paris, 3 July 2006 — Sitting in a Paris café, reading Douglas Oliver's work. Am in the sixth arrondissement, this specific poem set in the first, in the rue Montorgueil. A meridian we shared: that's where Gisèle Celan-Lestrange lived, a friend we shared (though never met together) and whose husband Paul Celan's work was core to our understanding of late twentieth century poetry. I am reading in a series of poems that speak to Celan and his widow, gathered in the sequence "The Shattered Crystal" in his book Arrondissements:
Shocked by unsuspected absence,
return on the straight road
past Heine's lodgings
to my fishcarter's faubourg.
Gisèle calls me from the outerworld
—once the call was real,
but this is the haunting—
and I half-hear her lovely reply
to a chance remark at dinner
on the Montorgueil. I'd told her:
"A poet's suicide may
for a moment cut the path
of the past to the future."

As I am shocked by this other absence today, Doug's, and now want to replace the word "suicide" with "death" in what he told Gisèle. For certainly the result is the same, as I read his explanation for what he said:
(because there is no bridge
across its dreadful river banks,
though the path one day reforms
after so great a life
as an Iris bridge, yet of stone too.)

Tomorrow I'll cross the river Seine, from my arrondissements to his, a zigzag through Paris, haunted by years of nomadic dérives through this city of dérives (from Baudelaire to the surrealists, from the surrealists to the Situationists, from the hippie soixante-huitards to the s.d.f.'s (sans domicile fixe = homeless) of all nations, for whom Doug had such care, a care he mapped in Arrondissements.

§ Paris, 4 July 2006 — Couldn't cross the Seine today, that will have to wait a day or so. But happy anyway not to have noticed until late in the day that I had escaped the American National Holiday. How useful not to buy the Herald Tribune!

Thinking about Oliver's work I realized that I couldn't write about it without writing, thinking, feeling through the relations of friendship with the man who wrote the works. Here the personal is prime — lit crit comes a distant second — or maybe third, as the personal is invariably crisscrossed by the poetics of the political and the politics of the poetical.

§ Paris, 5 July 2006 — Still with Doug's Celan poems. Odd how their poetics seem to develop on an opposite time-line: Celan's from early near-narrative (in a surrealist-imagist way — just think of what is ultimately a straightforward telling in the Todesfuge) to the compact, near-hermetic, "dunkel" fragments of the work from Atemwende on, gaining a reputation that still today — 36 years after his death — situates him in the avant-garde of the avant-garde. While Oliver's move is from an early avant-gardish formal complexity (linked to the poetics of the Cambridge group, and especially that of JH Prynne) to a more plain, though image-rich, narrative / expository mode. And yet, maybe these two superficially contrary moves arise from the same need, the same push born from the urgency to say what needs to be said in such a way as not to be misunderstood, i.e. the push for clarity, the need to be read exactly literally. And the nature of the need is profoundly political — in the widest meaning of that word; and in the sense of the politics of poetics as well. See Celan's rewriting of the "Todesfuge" (after its misuses in Germany) in the poem "Engführung / Stretto." Oliver retains both modes, somehow, though throughout the last years the push of the work was toward ever clearer statement — a crystal clarity, even if that Celan word has to be cracked because of "its perfection and terror", can't stay, if it is to be of use, in the fixed realm of the geological. Doug has no truck with such fixities, eternities; he believes in mutabilities, and thus the image has to be moved into the changing realms of the organic, be it plant, animal or human — become maybe, as in these poems it does, the walnut cracked open to reveal its diploid kernel. The irritation is with the ease with which misreading can happen. He qualifies the traditional critical verbiage at a Celan conference that can only speak of such work in terms of "the void, the silence, the space inside the word," as "a crock, this time, of shit," and somewhat further in the poem ("Walnut and Lily") he writes:
……….Still half-dreaming.
I'm by a lake rescuing walnuts from the flood
(just a few last cornflakes in the bowl) and am
obscurely angry. Suppose our words cracked open
to another kind of light, not "white void";
crack open Celan's hard-won "thought scarab";
crack open "animal-bloodblooming";
crack open "Net-nerved skyleaf".

And then sees a similar possibility for misreading his own words, and insists that they are not "that well-gnawed English despair," are not "a return to a middle-class Parnassus," no, "these words are angry, in a flood of lyric feeling."

§ Paris, 8 July 2006 — Couldn't find the small late-night café where Doug and I spent the late-late hours sipping calvados. It was his spot, somewhere on the north-east flank of Montmartre, and he would guide me there, so much talking while walking (this is a walking and talking city), that the several occasions that brought us there did not get accurate mappings in my brain. But this was long ago, and anyway the café may also have closed. Others did: the St-Claude on Boulevard St-Germain, the Petit Bar and the Polly Magoo on rue St-Jacques. The Café de la Mairie on Place St-Sulpice is no longer the same pleasant place I used for quiet afternoon writing and literary rendezvous' for so many years. So I sit just across from our tiny studio apartment in the Café Six on rue des Cannettes, a place Doug didn't know — but would have liked: it is affordable for a café in the sixth arrondissement, has a marvelously mixed clientele (it is here that I meet my Maghrebian writer and painter friends) and a friendly, forthcoming staff. I sit and read and write and now order two glasses of calvados, and drink the one to Doug and the other to Celan, remembering Celan's line "Ich trinke Wein aus zwei Gläsern" and Doug's marvelous poem-excursus "Trink" on that line. A poem in which there are three glasses, one for Heine (who in the same poem is cited and, prophetically, gives Doug "le droit de moribondage, the right of being mortally ill") and two for Celan. Characteristically, Doug drinks the Heine glass in admiration for the poet's ability to deal with pain, and pays homage to "Celan's integrity" by pouring his two glasses away. The poem ends:
Someone's God's tongue
licks all three glasses clean.

§ Paris, 9 July 2006 — One of the great Paris pleasure when young was to stay up all night, eating, drinking, talking and carousing, and have breakfast while watching the sun come up, before finally going to bed when everyone else was hurrying to the subway to get to work. The last time I did this — and it was no nostalgic middle-aged slumming — was with Doug one night in the middle eighties, way past nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. We met after a long day's work in the brasserie on the Boulevard de Clichy once the site for the weekly meetings of the post-war Surrealist group, not far from where Doug lived in those days. The pleasure of planning, over an apéritif, the evening's trail. First we would go to a new Maghrebian restaurant I had tried and found excellent between Place de la République (near where I lived) and Bastille, then we would go and have a drink in Peppo's bar behind Bastille to see if maybe friend Tom Raworth had found his way over from Cambridge. After that the night would be open to drift — though we knew that we would no doubt spend time in the Calvados bar, and cross over to les Halles to soothe my cravings for 3 a.m. shellfish. And watch the sun rise on another café terrace, facing east.

Which is what happened. Our all-night pleasures mitigated by our talk on the disastrous situations of the Third World. I had at that time just finished a stint as editor for a short-lived radical Third World weekly in London, (which I left in disagreement over the ways in which exiled Palestinians were mistreated by the Arab country that financed the paper), after having spent three years teaching in Algeria. Doug, who had worked a good part of his life as a journalist, and whose close friends in Paris were foreign correspondents covering Third World events, had been to Haiti and had come back deeply moved and upset about what he had seen. Our talk would inevitably turn to our responsibility (both as privileged white northern citizens of neo-colonial countries and in terms of — in Robert Duncan's phrase — our ability-to-respond as poets). If it can, how should the issue of North-South politics enter the work? What right did we have to do this anyway, we who didn't live in Africa or Haiti, who hadn't experienced the famine, jails, diseases, repressions on our own well-nourished bodies? Was it, in fact, necessary to do so? To this last question we both emphatically answered in the affirmative. If our work as writers was to have the political dimension which intellectually and emotionally we wanted it to have, then the world that had to enter the writing needed very consciously to include that world too.

These were questions and issues that had haunted Oliver for a long time. It was finally in 1993 — i.e. after he had written his long political satire on the reign of Margaret Thatcher, and thus dealt with the politics of his home country England, and the American-focused political satirutopia Penniless Politics — that he found a satisfactory way to speak of his Third World concerns and gathered the results in the poetry and prose book A Salvo for Africa.

§ Paris, 10 July 2006 — Rereading A Salvo for Africa since yesterday. What struck me immediately was the accuracy with which Oliver chose the epigraph that opens the book. It is a long quote from Martin Buber's I and Thou, and a very lucid analysis of the poet (or here "speechmaker")'s situation in relation to the state. It begins, "Speechmaker, you speak too late." A despairing line, if you will, and one that from the start questions the possibility of the poem being efficacious in a direct way (for to speak too late is to speak after the event, the inevitable has already happened, when the words can no longer direct, or at least effect the event). But can words and events ever be in such a simple cause-and-effect relation? We always speak too late — or too early, too fast. Word and event thus always at a certain distance from, or against each other, never coinciding (except possibly as the ultimate vision of the poem as limit-event, as process of transformation of the reader, an actual event of becoming for the writer/reader — but that's going elsewhere.) And yet it is also exactly such cold knowledge that is required if we are not to lure ourselves into some romantic vision of writings (revolutionary) effectiveness. The Buber quote is worth citing here in more detail; it goes on after that initial statement:
Just a little time ago you would have been able to believe in your speech, now you no longer can. For, a moment ago, you saw as I did, that the State is no longer led; the stokers still pile in the coal, but the leaders have now only the semblance of control over the madly racing machines. And in this moment, as you speak, you can hear as I do that the levers of economics are beginning to sound in an unusual way; the masters smile at you with superior assurance, but death is in their hearts…

So whom do we address in our speaking? The masters are no longer the masters, they are but the foils put up by the economic machines (read: multinational corporations) that run the show to fool us. And you can't address the machines — they are impermeable to argument, discussion, conviction. Words do not change machines. It may be good to have come to realize that the poet can longer be (if he ever had been) the scribe by the side of the ruler who by his wise words could affect the latter's decisions. A trap Ezra Pound, malgré his enormous powers as a poet, fell into. That romantic inheritance of the poet as legislator finally laid to rest. But then who does the poet speak to, whom do the poems address with the hope of changing of not (yet) events, then at least minds? For that desire, hope remains, has to remain; as Jerome Rothenberg put it in one of his early poetic manifestos, which reads in part: "Personal Manifesto / 1) I will change your mind. 2) Any means (=methods) to that end. 3) to oppose the "devourers" = bureaucrats, system-makers, priests, etc. (W. Blake);" Oliver is straightforward on this issue, and answers the question "who am I left talking to, or on behalf of?" as follows: "Theoretically, millions of ordinary citizens in Europe and America —more than the population of Africa itself." The hope is still that in those imperfect (to say the least) democracies, the citizens, if well-informed and convinced could by voting alter the governments and thus the politics. A slim hope, given what was said above, but one it would be irresponsible to abandon. The hope resides in the fact that, unlike the byte-sized and skewed TV news, the poem, demanding a slow read and a deeper engagement may indeed change minds. His approach in these poems is thus "an emotional engagement from the only places emotions come from: our hearts, their local history, and our imperfect knowledges."

§ Paris, 11 July 2006 — From the prose-&-poems in Salvo, these extracts:

Then I take your arm again and remark, 'I have risked prose,
a walking measure, to explain why I've written these poems.


Through the telescope's smoking lens
I see a woman rising in her heat of limbs
from the red desert of Ethiopia;
a priest above her holds a cross
and reads from a dark book: she doesn't
think of me though I think of her intently
and watch the bitter smoke of her sweet fires
making haze round a claystack chimney lodged
in thatch on her circular house of stones.


You must come along. Whether you're a
Caribbean in Brixton able to instruct me,
or white middle-class in Surrey,
or an elderly person on welfare in Consett,
or a blurty-eyed young person,
whether you ever read poetry or not,
all our paradoxes meet in Chilembwe's life.


Where's Malawi?
The question returns me
to a modern time of writing.
In my mind this past survives
as a more-then-memory.
Not even Chilembwe's religious myths
pass away, though in my own beliefs
no man was resurrected
after any Calvary except in the strange survivals
of all this time as a haunting
of our sadly avaricious, racist British lives,
survivals as shadows outside a cosy hose
where we sit eating goats and chickens
grabbed from Africa via foreign loans,
money thrown on the ground.


An Africa the size of a British park
cracked like a white map,
a manageable terrain,
or coloured in with adventures
for boyhood dreams in the bush,
brown and sere, gazelles,
scouted by cheetahs on their hills,
streaming over the high plateaux
of Kenya beneath the fuselage
of a plane that lands long ago, lightly,
into history. In present time
it could only land tourists,
and it's worse than that.


. . .
Below under Paris moonshine a ferris wheel
comes suddenly alight by the river and starts turning,
and dot men in suits are running for their lives
in 1961 while men in battledress
slowly take those lives. I'm not seeing this;
it's seeing me though the soldiers don't look at my hill.
There flashes into mind the bloody pout of a beaten man
manhandled by Tschombe's soldiers;
it's Lumumba; he's passed out of history, oh-oh.

I have quoted only from the poems; these are interspersed with information and meditation-rich prose sections the combination of which turn this book into a poetic teaching event of the first order.

The heat over Paris and Europe is not African; it is of our own Northern making — the price we are beginning to pay for the reckless misuse of our environment (& the second "our" here encompasses all of the peoples on the globe — no one will escape this planetary warming.) It is "payback time" as Doug has entitled one of the last prose-sections of A Salvo. Sluggishly I open Whisper 'Louise'. More tomorrow, if the weather permits. Tonight I will go look for the Dogon restaurant near Place de la République to eat some yam dish with very hot sauce — hotter than this Parisian sun, to put the heat inside and make the outside cooler.

§ Paris, 12 July 2006 — Driving south today, all the way to the Pyrenees. Oliver's books are with me, but not sure when I'll get back to them. As Paris disappears in back of me, Doug stays with me. Again I cannot separate the man from his work, and the best way I have to speak of them is to say that core to both is a practice of ethics that with great courage, integrity and lucidity refuses all (either old-fashioned conservative humanistic or new-fangled modish hip) strategies and solutions. This means, for both the politics of his poetics and the poetics of his politics, a continual self-scrutiny and an assiduous involvement in and analysis of the world around him. As he wrote in Whisper 'Louise', "It will be seen eventually that this whole memoir, with its talk of communes and revolutions, will be about integrity, that is political, philosophical, social, poetic and spiritual integrity, for they are all intertwined, and all will have to incorporate a vivid sense of what our own death will mean to our ideals — how rich a story it makes." How rich indeed! He entitled an early novel The Harmless Building, and a Selected Poems Kind: these are core concept with which he queried his actions and the world. The aim is to remain kind despite the anger and frustration that drives one's desire to change the harmful aspects of this world. How to effect radical yet harmless change. This is not easy, for even kindness is unnatural, as Oliver meditates on the matter in the poem "For Kind:"

Kindness acts idly or unnaturally,
leads us into fear. Act in kindness.
Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.
Don't be afraid of the darkness of kind;
for it's the birth darkness, vertical twist
of opening lips in the night: life that follows
belongs to you in kind.

Doug had a helping angel (terrible as all angels are) that he returns to again and again: his son Tom, with Down syndrome, who died before the age of two in a crib accident. And who comes back, or is present in his last book as a deer spirit, gentle animal, incarnation of kindness and harmlessness. From this figure emanates what in Whisper 'Louise' he calls "the tea-brown light of kindness." A halo I feel suffusing the poems and the man I knew, a light of dawn or dusk, not of the high-noon sun of Cartesian false-clarity or revolutionary absoluteness.

§ Luchon, 18 July 2006 — Bombs tear apart Beirut and the Gaza strip. Harmless civilians killed by the hundreds. Another Mid-east war in progress. As if this species was incapable of kindness, caught in an unending spiral of harm upon harm inflicted on its own kind. I feel like screaming under this harsh and scorching sun. Turning for the time being away from Douglas Oliver and his work, let me end these notes with the poem I wrote shortly after Doug's death in 2000:


           toward a poem for Douglas

finally, though it starts

                       last Calvados tear

                       cried embracing you

                       knowing, knowing

                       this was the

                       long good-bye

           tiers of Calvary

no more dawn on Pont Neuf

the new bridge now the oldest

over a river that is a scene insane

           as I run

                       as I hold

the last


of Calva, poured out

           now on Paris ground,

                       sop for some imaginary big dog

& yet, Lady Lethe didn't get it all

as "dark switches on the light" title

           of the last poem, Feb 10, 2000

"snow lying like a private drift of death"

"my interest is in the form that death gives to our lives"

"a public heart" he was, in John Donne's phrase quoted by Denise Riley

and the master of a most demanding poetics: "How shall I write this?

By living it; that rule has not changed. You have children. Lose yourself in them."

even now, when

"death, our richest humour, fills with lights."

           a stress            born in time

                       stands outside

a minor, eternal present, a

                       trembling instant

partly resisting           the flow

               the line           creates it

its very great fascination.

arrived at this . at that

           bouche d'ombre

the descent beckons

                       into memory's hollows &

gulphs — metropolitan or -tain

           through it rebirth of sorts, e-

merge elsewhere, come up

for breath, even if

myth your identity not safe

           above or under-ground

the grind, the grind

           I groan in dejection

                       poor Calvados

pour calm vademecum dose

           pour Calvary

go with me

calamitous vagrant ryme

           we sat & smoked Cuba

                       sighed Africa

           sited America

vaude-willed Haiti

           wept the Maghreb

set the world neither aright nor afire nor akimbo

recrossed Pont Neuf

had coffee & croissants at Le Petit Bar

embraced at metro gate

shot up the veins of another new morning

will meet again just there

I mean here

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