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Life Itself

   Plain men in plain towns
Are not precise about the appeasement they need.

They only know a savage assuagement cries
With a savage voice; and in that cry they hear
Themselves transposed, muted and comforted

In a savage and subtle and simple harmony.

If it is his stinted childhood that presses Enright into savage (and subtle) simplicity, it is the exotic that brings out his ornamental side. Off he goes to the Far East and begins to produce the poetry of culture shock. In one intricate 1960 instance (“Sightseeing in Siam”) it is shock at Asian art and its demons. Enright reproduces, in his own elaborate symmetries, the “beautiful” symmetries and concentricities of a Thai demon-painting horrible in content. Yet his imagination compels him to insert himself within it:

Along the long wide temple wall
Extends a large and detailed painting.

A demon’s head, its mouth square open,
Inside the mouth a room of people squatting.

Its fangs the polished pillars of the room,
The crimson carpet of the floor its tongue.

Inside this room a painting on the wall,
A demon’s head, its mouth square open.

Inside the mouth a room of people squatting,
Their faces blank, the artist did not care.

Inside that room a painting on the wall,
A demon’s head, its mouth square open.

Somewhere you are squatting, somewhere there.
Imagination, like the eyes that strain

Against the wall, is happily too weak
To number all the jaws there are to slip.

Exotic though this is, we can see, behind this adult observer who is aware of “all the jaws there are to slip,” the fearful child who knew that “shame was always possible.” Yet the perception is now stylized, ornamentally, into the painting within the room, the room within the painting, and the demon in the painting in whose jaws you are enclosed.

Enright’s ornamental imagination appears again in one of the poems written in Farouk’s Egypt. (Behind the adult self under surveillance here, there lies the child brought up—as we know from one poem in “The Terrible Shears”—to think of the police as THEY.) “Appearances” (from a 1985 autobiographical sequence called “Instant Chronicles”) describes, through a wonderful set of metamorphoses, how the untoward presence of Egyptian secret police (in plain clothes, deceiving nobody except the poet) changes the atmosphere in the bars where Enright is accustomed to drink:

Like high priests disguised as shepherds, there they were, tall
figures in immaculate robes, bearing staffs
They sat in the harbour bars, undrinking, unspeaking, like pharaohs
disguised as high priests
Wherever he went they were there, imposing, impassive, like
archangels disguised as pharaohs
Coffees were hastily ordered, a hush fell, they sat there in state,
like gods disguised as archangels
A friendly drunk avouched in a whisper: their staffs were loaded,
they were secret police in disguise
The bars were sweetness and light, as there they tarried, like hefty
humans with knobsticks disguised as gods
Till they decided at last that he wasn’t a Zionist agent disguised
as a teacher of English
And they faded away from men’s eyes, like guardian angels
disguised as optical illusionsThen petty crime revived in the bars, disguise was discarded,
unfriendly drunks threatened to knife him.

As the mysterious visitors mutate in the poet’s eyes from high priests to shepherds to pharoahs to archangels to gods to secret police to hefty humans to guardian angels to optical illusions, we see the poem tracking—in a highly ornamental and perpetually dissolving way—the disorientation and suspicion that arise in the poet as he tries to “read” a foreign culture, and that arise equally when an alien culture tries to “read” him as foreigner: harmless English teacher or “Zionist agent”?

Although I like the elaborately staged poems of the exotic, I think the best poems in this collection are the stark ones. Enright observes authoritarian regimes with the dispassionate (and enraged, and fearful) gaze with which he had analyzed the hindering circumstances of his own youth. He is not a “historical” or “political” poet in the more ordinary meanings of those words; he rarely mentions historical events, and he advocates no specific political position (except that of humane relations between persons and states). But he is certainly a political poet in the sense that he records, in the foreign countries in which he has lived, political circumstances (or their human fallout) more than literary, geographical, or domestic ones. One finishes the Collected Poems knowing, of course, Enright himself—his intelligence, his level tone, his curiosity about the world, his humorous self-deprecation, his visual acuity, his imaginative resourcefulness. But even more, one absorbs from his lifework a sense of man’s inhumanity to man.

Enright is never more sardonic than when being epigrammatic on that subject, as in a 1981 body-count candid-camera poem in which we hear in alternation the voice of a soldier (on leave from Vietnam) and the voice of the poet (recalling the prototype of all body counts—the two hundred foreskins of slain Philistines brought to Saul as battle trophies by the young David):


You could get anything there
You could get laid or opium or beer
You could catch your death

Once the dead were tallied in foreskins
Later in hands
(You could get laid, you could get hand-jobs)
Then in percentages
(Members of the body politic)

The wonder is the place has lasted
Has it lasted, is it there still?
You could get some stunning pictures.

The sheer vulgarity of war (“You could get laid, you could get hand-jobs”) and the hard-heartedness required to survive it (“You could get some stunning pictures”) fall into a ritual chant of the military young, unconscious of their own exploitation.

When does Enright not succeed? To my mind it is in the long ironic sequences rewriting Genesis (“Paradise Illustrated,” 1978) and Faust (“A Faust Book,” 1979). Tethered to their illustrious sources, these sequences sometimes weary and falter, though they have, given Enright’s humor, their gifted moments. One such moment occurs in “Paradise Illustrated” as Adam lets his original talent for naming run away with him after the fall, becoming—as he eats the apple—the first word-intoxicated (and prophetic) poet. Eve has heard the earth groan after the fall, and asks, “What’s that strange noise?”

Nothing to worry about,’ said Adam.
‘Just cataclysms, convulsions, calamities—’

‘Don’t talk with your mouth full,’ said Eve.

‘Donner-und-Blitzen, coups-de-foudre, infernos,
Avalanches, defoliation, earthquakes, eruptions,
Tempests, turbulence, typhoons and torrents,’
Said Adam airily.

To this rewriting of Genesis we can add the 1991 prose poem “In a Corner,” which offers an altogether more somber glimpse of two unnamed figures:

Hunched in a corner of the garden, behind an innocent tree, the two of them tickling the back of their throats with blades of grass. Both of them bent over, side by side, retching, heaving, hoping, despairing. It is the eleventh hour, they must clear themselves of the deed. Coughing, spluttering, hiccuping. Trying to disgorge their last meal, trying to spew up the apple.

The myth of the fall preoccupies Enright as the ur-tale of human moral failure, as if it—along with the later myth of Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles—could tell us why we are so evil to each other. Or to tell us why even sustained human effort—such as the young Enright’s own in getting to Cambridge, for instance—achieves so few results, as the poet suggests in Mephistopheles’s prophecy to Faust’s working-class parents:

And your children’s children
Shall learn how to spell correctly
How to pen a neat and legible hand
And to read good books

They shall be granted scholarships
And shall suffer therefrom
But they shall succeed in their time
Where their forefathers might not try

And they shall then discover
That correct spelling is held cheap
That the best people hire scriveners
And books are no longer read

I prefer, to these long and somewhat programmatic rewritings of Miltonic and Goethean human failure, Enright’s short takes on life and death. Many of these are winningly sar-donic: but even the satirists among us sometimes take off their motley and write something where irony would be out of place. I want to quote one of Enright’s poems of this sort, a 1975 elegy for those who, following Keats’s advice, have viewed this world as a vale of soul-making. In Keats’s view, we are born as blank Intelligences, without individual identity. Our task is to realize our identity by making our soul, and this is done as we are schooled by experience: “Do you not see,” writes Keats, “how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?” Enright’s poem on this subject is called “In Cemeteries”: it is organized as a series of questions, and does not forget that some of us—such as Enright’s baby sister—die young, and never get a chance to make a soul at all. What good is a soul, at the end of the day, even if you do succeed in the arduous task of making one?

This world a vale of soul-making—
To what intent the finished wares?

Is the ore enforced and fired through
Harsh mills, only to fall aside?

Who is this soulmaster? What say
Do souls have in their made futures?

We mourn the untried young, unmade
In small coffins. What of grown graves?

After these questions, there comes an observation:

At times in cemeteries, you hear
Their voices, sad and even-toned,

Almost see the made souls, in their
Curious glory. If you are old.

It is a relief to see, in the New Age world of instant “spirituality,” a poem that admits how long and painful a process it is to extract the gold of the spirit from its human ore.

A poem composed of questions provokes in its readers a thirst foranswers. And yet when the answer comes, in this moving poem, it is not an answer to the questions asked. Does the made soul fall aside? We are not told. Who is the soulmaster? We do not know. Do graves “grow”? Who can tell? Do we see any point in devoting attention to “soul-making?” Perhaps not, when we are young. But—Enright’s comment adds—when we are old, when all the dead we have known surround us and are finally “placed” in our estimation, then we know which of them created within themselves a soul, and which did not. “At times, in cemeteries, you hear/ Their voices.” The voices are sad from harsh experience; and yet they are even-toned, because they have not succumbed to hatred, envy, anger, despair, vengeance, or hysteria. “You…/Almost see the made souls, in their/Curious glory.” Why “curious?” Because their glory is not that of the Christian soul, haloed, immortal. These “made souls” have nothing to look forward to, no resurrection awaiting them. Their glory is that they were exemplary, and that they can be seen—at least by the old visiting the cemetery—as human beings who allowed themselves to be schooled into a rare completion.

To judge by his earliest verse, Enright began as a poet under the modernist wings of Auden and Eliot, but he rebelled at first (as he makes clear in a vehement review written in his thirties) against their ironic presentation of their fellow human beings:

We need only look at the pasteboard figures of The Waste Land which, with or without their creator’s approval, are passed off as representative human beings, or at Auden’s shabby caricatures of the little man in the street.

Although Enright later found affinities with “the Movement”—a loosely grouped school of poets that advocated terseness and public subjects in verse—he had come to consciousness under the spell of the Romantics. At school, he tells us in “The Poets,” he was too stunned by oppressive circumstance to reflect on what the writers he read were saying. The child in difficulties opens his soul, rather than his mind, to the emotional revelations of poetry:

Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley—
How to picture what they meant then?
(Or the meaning that we lent them)
The critics do not tell me—
And I’m not eager to remember.
‘The words on the page’ came later,
When one could afford them
When one was stronger.

In his first novel, Academic Year, Enright described—in words he would perhaps now find too explicit—his own perplexed interrogation (when he “was stronger”) of the values in which he was raised and the values he discovered in the intellectual world:

First, then, all the years of unlearning—in a most conscientious and even scholarly way—everything he had absorbed along with his mother’s milk, along with the hissing of the gas mantles, the deliberately careful and muffled tread of boots and slippers on shared staircases, the margarine that was always on the point of being finished up and the crusts of bread that had to be.

And then, the years of testing the contraries which, sometimes without thinking, he had let himself in for: of finding out what, in this brave new world into which he had clawed and buffeted and scraped his way, had any significance over and above that of being the opposite of something in the world out of which he had so painfully dug and ripped his way…. And consequently trying to re-learn some part of what he had un-learned: like a Prodigal Son who hesitates in the middle distance, while at his back the swine make merry on his husks and in front of him stands his father coldly proffering—for all the world as if he had never noticed his son’s absence—a plate of bread and margarine.

The inner quarrel described here between the analyst and the sufferer is the source of Enright’s best poetry: the astringency of the one draws taut the sympathy of the other. “Poetry,” says Enright, “even at its most amenable eschews ingratiation,” and in his youth he argued fiercely against the ingratiations both of sentimentality (which he found in some Japanese poets) and of cynicism (as he saw it in Eliot):

The world is neither white nor black—it is grey…. The poets of our century seem incurably one-sided: either they write exclusively about pagodas and hermits’ caves and sunsets, or else they write exclusively about “rats’ alley” and prostitutes and dust-bins. We do not want a “new romanticism” or a “new classicism”—we want a new humanism, and we want it desperately.

In writing the poetry of “a new humanism,” Enright did not have the advantage of Eliot’s formal inventiveness or Auden’s ambitious range. But his poems are original in a different way: they are hybrids in which the social idealism he inherited from the Romantics is crossed with the irony of a comic eye.

The Collected Poems is best seen, perhaps, as the painful—but also entertaining—autobiography of a life invented at the point of twentieth-century mobility between classes, a life led at the vanishing borders of the British Empire. It is also a collection of memorable protest poems preserving in art the unspeakably inventive violations of human dignity—from petty authoritarian oppressions to the Holocaust—recorded in the twentieth century. Enright mentions, in Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor, seeing in Japan what must be a victim of the atomic bomb: “another figure, which I met on a cold dark night in 1955, swathed from head to ankles in straw, the hands too, with a hood of sacking over the head and face.” Enright adds that he has “tried to exorcise [this figure] by means of poems written at intervals ever since, but without success.” The first of these poems printed by Enright is the 1960 “Written Off,” which begins:

There is no shame in looking at him,
If you like, if ‘him’ it is.
He will not see you looking at it;
It knows no pride that’s ‘his’.

And it ends:

The shame would be to write of such a thing.
A little money, if you like, you may—
If you can find his hand.
That’s perfectly all right. As you might pay
The entrance fee to some museum.
Not Art, though. Natural History, say.

A second, 1965, attempt by Enright to treat the haunting figure is harsher, divesting itself of irony in the effort to describe something human that entirely veils its human self:

It was a foreign horror.
A cold and lonely hour,
A place waste and littered,
And this figure standing there.

Like at first a prized
Cherry sapling swathed in straw.
It was no tree. It was enclosed
In a straw cocoon, and

Wore a hood of sacking
Over the might-be head
And the should-be shoulders.
It seemed to be looking….

Some inner motion stirred the straw.
My stomach turned, I waited
For its—what?—its rustling claw
Or something I could not conceive.

Enright is recalling here the appearance in Paradise Lost of Milton’s figure of Death:

   The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either; black it stood as night; …what seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.

As he suspects the unspeakable deformity hidden by the straw shroud, Enright finds, in this second, Miltonic formulation, the nothing-ness each of us will be. The poem offers a way into the political which abjures explicit harangue in the presence of “something I could not conceive.”

It is a shame that such a wide-ranging book as Enright’s should lack, following its 508 pages, that most elementary aid for the reader, an index. Oxford is pleased to honor its poet by proclaiming on the jacket copy that he has received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry; but a better honor would have been to enable his interested readers to find, by means of an index, that elusive poem they would like to read again.

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