Rage & Suspense

R. F. Langley, Journals, Shearsman, October 2006

Paperback, 144pp, 9x6ins, £9.95 / $17
ISBN-13 9781905700004; ISBN-10 1905700008

Reviewed by Edmund Hardy


This is a record of particulars, "For instance, the nose of an aardvark. The nostrils and the little mobile mouth on the end of the snout." Not things but the seeing of things (to paraphrase a Langley poem), sharply registered. The entries extracted for this book span 1970 to 1995 - in his preface Langley notes that the practice of description in this manner may be considered with scorn or as futile, "but it lit up my life." The lighting there is not incidental, I think. "Usually I would give myself a short time in the morning to write about the day before, if it seemed likely to be worth it, so the whole affair was necessarily impromptu." It is figured as a stripping bare, a process which, and this is the sting, chimes with a cold morning light which "takes away the comfort of things, the acceptability of them, so they stand stark as nothing much at all." An intensity of attention is necessary for this, and that intensity is, returning to that "lit up my life", a form of fire which shows because it burns not things but expected relations, or, as Langley puts it on 17th June 2004, an intensity which "is the only way to eliminate the incongruities between objective depersonalised transcendent views of the state of things and the subjective self-absorbed view which they belittle, but which you need to keep close at hand."

Colours, surfaces, spiders, statues, paintings, leaves, driving in a car. The way plates balance in the dish-rack. The entries usually recall details from a still position, a kind of still life prose - "Time should be a swift collection of light, clear empty glasses on a biscuit coloured shelf" - and Langley mentions several times those moments when outside feels like inside:

Very, very gentle shadows. Amazingly unemphatic and gradual, and the bracken so still it must be behind glass. All this is indoors, to judge by the feel of it, and the smell, too, seems to have accumulated in a room. When wind comes, slightly, the curved twigs give a single jig, each its own way, perfunctorily - a gesture to show that they move like that, that twigs move like that, the account of how a wind might move them.

The emphasis here, in August 1979, is on "gesture" and "account", how everything is already narrative despite the anti-narrative of stillness; the consequence for the recall of writing is to be a pile of these moments of arrival and loss fallen there because "One can always manage the falling cadence. A journal is a pile of such."

The idea is developed in the seeing, continually the occurrence and slipping away bound together; 26 years later it's articulated directly again, merging with another Langley theme, the distancing of being close ("Nothing is more distant than the sunlit hairs on the back of my hand"). The experience of seeing the head of a drake scaup is described, "But it loses the quality it had before it seemed possible to write about it, which was that it was not close, that it was not coming closer, that it was, all the time you were aware of it, coming away."

This world of particulars refuses the glitz of purpose, giving it the capacity to haunt. Another reader of the book mentions, in an email, how the following passage had done just that:

A nameless insect, one I know I can't name and won't be able to, walks across the bricks. It is the size and general shape of an aphid, but has, I think, something of a short, pointed tail, and I don't notice any cornicles, nor any wings. It could be a mirid bug. Long, slow-moving, hair-thin legs. Curved, long antennae. A black, shining hump on its back. It walks steadily westwards along the top of the wall. It catches my attention because it moves. When it arrives at a moss tuft it struggles over it, or goes round. But it keeps on going in the same direction along the wall. It avoids craters in the bricks. It crosses mortar without a change of pace. In five minnutes it has traversed four bricks. At one moment a diesel train, one coach, roars under the bridge, heading for Halesworth, its black roof is there and gone, under the bridge, the bricks, the insect, in an altogether different world of sound, speed, size, purpose and agitation. The insect is not receptive to it, and never changes its pace. Where is this insect going, and for what? It will take an hour to cross the rest of this bridge and make it to the hedge, and by then it will be dusk. It cannot ever have been over there before, or have any sort of home or destination over there. If it rains it will be knocked off. When it is dark . . . will it still walk on? It is the end of the season. There is nothing for it to look forward to. It will never be seen by anyone who has words again.

It's a question of not knowing any wider horizon, only this engrossment which is a kind of ignorance or, indeed, a thread - earlier, a sanguine Langley, after an uncontrollable spin off an icy road into a snow-drift and hedge, comments that, to drive on, "I assume ignorance, with dread".

As reader, a good many of Langley's descriptions did light up as his preface suggests. It is a pursuit of a seen "complexity in perfectly unpredictable and obviously uninventable ways", consciousness bared to a degree, attention spent on "so much noticing" that you feel a rage for the world which "must matter".


[#] Langley reads his poems
[#] Peter Larkin - Being Seen for Seeing: a tribute to R F Langley's Journals
[#] Matthew Welton reviews Langley's Collected Poems

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