Kate Middleton: Passage

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 117pp.

Kate Middleton’s first book, Fire Season, contained, spread throughout the book, a group of poems built out of the biographies of Hollywood actresses interwoven with other, often personal, material. As a group these poems tend to progress towards more self-conscious “essays” so that Doris Day becomes part of an essay on purity, Judy Garland an essay on absence, and Clara Bow an essay on erasure. I begin with these not to tease out their meanings but to show that the model of poems in a particular mode spread throughout a book – which is how this new book, Passage, is constructed – is something that is present from the beginning. A writer should always avoid contemporary critical cant but this does seem a case where the word, “braiding”, is unavoidable. You can apply it to the methods of the construction of individual poems like the actress ones, or even, in the case of Middleton’s second book, Ephemeral Waters, to a single, hundred page poem which follows the course of the Colorado River and thus mimics the interlaced flow of the water.

Passage twines together both modal and thematic threads. There are, for example, a series of centos spaced throughout the book and also a series of “erasures” – a mode which, technically, can be said to make a poem by erasing slabs of an existing text but which more accurately makes a poem by selecting words and phrases always in the order in which they appear in the original. Centos always seem to me to be more work than the results are worth and erasures rarely produce anything compelling though they have the advantage over centos that, whereas centos really almost always endorse their original, erasures can have a complex relationship to their parent text, summarising and compressing but also critiquing and distorting. Although the centos of Passage derive from a number of texts (works by Mark Strand, Eliot Weinberger, Roland Barthes and James Schuyler but also non-fictional, “scientific” texts) the erasures are an extended engagement with a single book, S.P.B. Mais’s This Unknown Island, a 1933 collection of avuncular travel pieces devoted to various sites in England, Wales and Scotland.

I’m very taken with the poems that result from this. The titles allow themselves to operate at the level of syllables so that Mais’s “North Wales: Anglesey and the Mountains” becomes “Nor Angle In”, for example, and “Lancashire: Pendle and the Trough of Bowland” becomes “Ash and Rough”. But this degree of freedom doesn’t extend to the body of the poems: there only words and phrases are selected. And the selecting is very sparse: it takes a hundred and seventy words at the opening of “Haworth: The Bronte Country” to produce the first sentence of the erasure, “Haw Count”: “Have you ever played a hillsman away from bleak, brooding freedom?” Although it’s difficult to generalise entirely confidently, the poems usually convey the atmospherics of place that the essays focus on but do so in compressed and sometimes distorting ways. “Peat Lea” is derived from “The Peak District: Grouse-Moors and Lead Mines” an interesting essay on Derbyshire which first situates that county metonymically (and horizontally) as “a sort of Lilliput England, enshrined in the very heart of England, with all England’s most characteristic beauties reproduced in miniature . . .” and then gets to work with the image of descent (here into ancient and still operating lead mines) as a journey back into the past. Much of this is preserved in Middleton’s poem:

Think of home. The home of your ancestors. Of sun
and a child’s alphabet. A Lilliput of words and meadows.
          Blast it with dynamite.

Quarry the veneer of candour, misleading not in size
but symmetry. Say “starving”. Mean “cold”. Our ancestors
                     - blue, vast – have been lost.

But underfoot the telegraph wires can be revived
if they keep to the open moor.

.  . . . .
                   Put on a cap. Bend down. Descend
through solid, wet rock; distant light. A black hole above.
               An odd smell everywhere. Surface.

          ( - This business of separation is
a lantern guaranteed not to fail.)

It’s hard to determine Middleton’s exact stake in this entire process. At one extreme you can imagine her setting out to retrace Mais’s book by visiting all its carefully mapped sites and for all I know she might have done so. At any rate it must be significant that this chapter on Derbyshire – its delights and its mines – includes a reference to a gorge called Middleton Dale. It’s also worth noting that, unlike the series of poems which derive from the TV Science Fiction series, Fringe, this series of erasures appears in Passage in exactly the same order as they appear in Mais’s book. This begins to make the idea of interlacing vertiginously complicated. The erasures look not so much like a coloured thread that emerges into the surface of the material at intervals so much as a set of pieces spliced into a film. There is a big difference between splicing and weaving but “spliced” is a word which occurs in one of the more conventionally produced poems, “Lighthouse, Cape Otway”, where the lighthouse on the Great Ocean Road is imagined to be a scar sealing the “gash made by human / loss” and its light “spliced a safe path / through the shipwreck coast, a line through // slur of water, jag of rock . . .”

It’s hard to know whether the six poems based on the series, Fringe, should be categorised modally or thematically. Perhaps the correct answer is both since, modally, they operate as glosses on their television originals, momentarily inhabiting that world. They are often intense compressions of telling images of a sort that is not uncommon in poems that have their origins in films (David McCooey’s Kubrick sequence comes to mind as do Carmen Leigh Keates’s poems deriving from Tarkovsky and Bergman). But they also exploit the series’ premise about alternate realities and the perspective this gives on both personality and place. This presumably accounts for the fact that the ordering of these poems doesn’t match that of the series. They begin with a poem based on a late episode in which the central character doesn’t know whether she is in her own reality or “over there”:

Before memory takes the graft, the stasis of the past

the real past – if there is real anymore – plays like the engine

of a fear whose source is lost . . .

a reminder that the overall pattern of the interweavings of this book is one not simply concerned with passage as a movement between places (a poem in Middleton’s first book began with the dangerously quotable line, “I want to find a poetry of place and object”) or passages of text that give rise to the centos and erasures but also with the passage of time. And one of the interests in time is the way in which speculative fictions, located in the past, create alternative realities (alternative, at least when judged by the way history has turned out). So a cento, “Dispatches from Earth”, based on the imaginary Sir John Mandeville’s book of equally imaginary travels (widely accepted as accurate in the late middle ages) presents it as a kind of work of science fiction. There are also a series of charms spread throughout Passage which probably should be categorised modally since that have that instructional, imperative quality of actions with magical properties, and there are also a number of poems based on paintings which might form their own group or might be associated with the science-fiction poems.

Then, finally, there are the lyric poems which occupy something like a third of the book and which sound like poems written by the author of the poems of Fire Season. There are personal poems, a number of which are about separation which is, after all, a kind of dislocation in space. One of these, “Intercontinental”, is quite positive in tone:

. . . . . 

     we walk a common metre
     weigh a common kilogram

make of day and night (my
day, your night)
an Esperanto

but reveals in its opening how Middleton’s voice in this lyric mode, along with that of many English language poets, has problems with the complications of the way English uses articles to mark degrees of specificity:

Now sunlight gores the day
autopsy of shadows
makes unlikely myth
of night . . .

“Day” is preceded by a definite article but not “night”. Although this choice makes for better rhythms you feel that the sense demands indefinite articles before “autopsy” and “myth” and a parallel definite article before “night”. It’s a difficult problem for poets to negotiate and English often demands a precision of specificity that a writer doesn’t want or need. It isn’t a problem in other poetries, and you can imagine an English-language poet wishing he or she had been born in China or Japan.

Others of these poems in the lyric mode engage with the themes of the book as a whole. “The Queen’s Ocean” is about Marie Antoinette’s interest in the voyages of Cook and focusses on the way the texts allow her imaginatively to enter a world far from her prison – by creating an ocean she had never seen. And the title poem derives from a news report of the opening of the Northwest Passage for the first time in a century now warming has melted the ice. It contrasts Franklin’s frozen expedition (the north as a site of heroic discovery and failure) with the phenomenon of bowhead whales from the Atlantic and the Pacific meeting up for the first time. There is also a strong interest in two sorts of text: Franklin’s final document is contrasted with the documents the whales bring with them, “the jade, the slate, the ivory / sharps / lodged in blubber . . . / that could not ply through // a full half-metre of chub”, messages of a kind from the whalers of the nineteenth century.

The most important (and most difficult) of these poems in the lyric mode is the first, which stands outside the book’s divisions (Past, Present, Future and again Future). Significantly it is called “Lyric” and, in beginning with a line from Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary – itself a book very much concerned with words and worlds – perhaps forms some sort of bridge to the book’s text-derived centos and erasures.

The whale by the whale’s own light
                    The song by song’s own mesh of I
of we: the zoomorph of lion, man
                    and gentle coo of lullaby

Voice – I, we – dissects this sea
                    and whale carves history from the bone
lions pace the den of sleep
                    and explorer’s ship moors upon

the whaler’s coast          Voices torn,
                    pieced, re-sewn           In lion light,
in whale song, in sleep that follows
                    lullaby, in wakening of lyric night

song stages history’s long speech
                    reads whaler’s voyage, lion’s maw
Opens field of ancient voice
                                        Folds its origami:          Form

That’s quite a formidable portal to a complex book and it gives the impression of having been written last to touch on some of the book’s images (one of the painting poems is based on Ruben’s drawing of a lion). Though unintended, it prepares us for the awkwardness with articles – “in wakening of lyric night”, “opens field of ancient voice” – but it also makes a strong statement about the way in which voice animates an ocean of meaning providing focus, form, and map to what is otherwise an incomprehensible field. In other words, I read this as a powerful assertion of a humanist position whereby it is the human element, discovered in texts and released from them by a process of tearing, piecing and resewing that is paramount. A poetry obsessed by place will also be a poetry obsessed by inhabitants. Most interesting is that, apart from the notion of patchwork resewing, “Lyric” doesn’t speak in terms of weaving or interlacing. Its two terms for the relationships that make up form are “mesh” and “origami”. The former might be an image suggesting woven cloth (though it more likely connects to a net, perhaps even a conceptual net) but the latter is one in which complex folds make up a work of art. In Beachy-Quick’s book, the line “The whale by the whale’s own light” refers to the irony that a book about whales is read under the illumination provided by the oil of whales but in “Lyric” the emphasis seems to be that each creature provides the conceptual net through which it must be seen. “Lyric”, with its intriguing difficulties, is a reminder that Passage is a sophisticated and challenging book looking at the act of being in a place and also the act of writing from a kaleidoscope of interwoven points of view – if kaleidoscopes can be interwoven, that is.