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Life Itself

Dennis Joseph Enright, a British poet born in 1920 and still writing, spent his active life as a professor of English literature, mostly abroad. Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor* is his witty and often appalling account of that life, its title derived from the official reproof he received in 1960 from the minis-ter for labor in Singapore. Enright, during his inaugural university lecture on Robert Graves, had called for freedom of cultural expression, and criticized confected displays of governmentally acceptable “culture.” The ministerial document reads in part:

Your duties were to supervise the teaching of English at the University….

You have arrogated to yourself functions and duties which are reserved only for citizens of this country and not visitors, including mendicant professors….

We have no time for asinine sneers by passing aliens about the futility of “sarong culture complete with pantun competitions” particularly when it comes from beatnik professors….

You will be packing your bags and seeking green pastures elsewhere if your gratuitous advice on these matters should land us in a mess.

The controversy made the front page of the Singapore newspaper, and became known as “The Enright Affair,” but it was by no means the only such run-in that Enright had had. Earlier, when he was teaching in Egypt, the university registrar had called him in and objected to his answer, on a personnel form, to the question “Religion”:

I had declared myself a Wesleyan Methodist. Not entirely facetiously, for such had been my last religious affiliation. Wesleyan Methodism, I contended, was an eminently respectable sort of religion. “Yes, yes,” he said sorrowfully, “But you see, They thought it might be something…something Jewish…. Please Mr. Enright, if you don’t mind, would you cross it out and write in something else?” “What?” I asked, “Church of England?” “Oh yes,” he replied, “that would be very good!” Feeling like an apostate I made the change, and the Secret Police at once lost all interest in me.

Interrogations, nights in jail, interpolations by soldiers—these incidents make Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor uneasy, if amusing, reading. Some of these sinister (if in retrospect comic) moments appear as well in Enright’s novels such as Academic Year (1955) and Figures of Speech (1965), which turn on the misunderstandings possible between East and West. Moments of culture shock also turn up in his poetry, as I shall have occasion to say below.

In spite of professorial duties in Egypt, Japan, Germany, Thailand, and Singapore, and in spite of giving lectures, writing books (novels, reviews, literary criticism), and editing various anthologies (among them, The Oxford Book of Death and The Faber Book of Fevers and Frets), Enright continued to pour forth the poems now collected in this Oxford volume. His wit remains undimmed, his bleakness uncompromised, his self-irony ever-present, down to the last page of this book, where one finds the poet—in a 1997 group of poems called “A Hospital Journal”—lying in a postoperative ward among his fellow patients. One of them is driving everyone crazy:

Where’s my missus?’ he bawls.
She was at his side for hours;
He ignored her.

“ave yer got a motor?’ he asks.
He’ll give you a pound
To take him home.
‘Anybody ‘ere lend me a pound?
I’ll pay it back.’

‘I want the languages,’ he says.
One knows the feeling.
No, he wants the sandwiches.

The nurses search for his pyjama trousers.
He’s hidden them in a cupboard,
They’re stained with blood.

‘I wanna go home.’
He gropes for his boots,
Someone’s pinched them.

At one a.m. a nurse arrives,
A bundle of stickers under her arm:
‘NIL BY MOUTH’.
‘Yer got the Standard?’ he shouts.

At two a.m. you are sleeping.
He’s been on crawlabout,
And lands on your bed, on you.
An orderly restores order.

Later a voice is mumbling,
‘I wanna go home.’ Your voice.
It’s OK, no one else has heard.

Many characteristics of D.J. Enright as a poet are revealed in this small vignette. He likes to tell a story, but aims to reduce it to its essential Beckettian skeleton (showing him to be a lyric poet, vowed to compression, rather than primarily a narrative one). He can assume at first a describer’s Olympian distance from the object of description—but sooner or later he himself becomes the hapless object, and distance is dissolved (as it is here when his own utterance “I wanna go home” repeats exactly the “I wanna go home” of the unbearably disruptive other). Enright is inventive: the bumptious Australian word “walkabout” becomes, in the hospital, a “crawlabout”; the janitorial “orderly” is pressed into service to restore, as if by magical etymology, “order”; the impersonal “a voice” turns horribly and abjectly into “your voice”; and—in the best linguistic moment of all—the double thump of the demented patient is rhythmically made to land “on your bed, on you.”

At the same time, Enright makes the pain and fear of the hospitalized body inhabit the poem along with the wit: we see pyjamas stained with blood, a regression to infantile yelling, professorial diction giving way to the mumbled “I wanna go home.” And the authorial intelligence silently constructing the stages of the poem is willing to give houseroom to the desperate British demotic, as the terrified patient bawls and shouts: “Yer got the Standard?” Enright is that rare thing—a poet both light and heavy, light with comedy and wordplay, heavy with the grief of living. He does not spare himself but neither does he tell us all about himself; rather, he tells us about the world as he has seen it.

Enright belongs to the last generation of British expatriates who lived under the Empire. He is one of those, that is, who saw the Empire dismantled. And, as a university teacher, mostly in the Far East, he helped to train in English those who would oust the English. His irony is based on cultural dislocation, in part, but even more on class: Enright came from the working class in Leamington, won scholarships to grammar school and Cambridge (where he was a pupil of F.R. Leavis, and contributed to Scrutiny), and entered the professorial class. His mind looks at both classes with distrust, and keeps him, poet that he is, an outsider in both. The most moving autobiographical sequence in the Collected Poems is one that Enright waited to write until he was in his fifties: it is called “The Terrible Shears: Scenes from a Twenties Childhood.” Twenty years later, he writes the poem “Memory” about his mother’s response to “The Terrible Shears”:

When she read what I’d written,
Verses about those early years,
I saw my mother’s lips tighten.
‘It’s dedicated to you,’ I started to plead,
But that was no excuse.
‘You’ve got a good memory,’ at last she said.
Something, but not exactly praise.

To have good memories was pleasant,
Not so to have a good memory.
There was something faintly indecent
About it, it got you a bad name.

One feels that Enright could have been more “indecent,” had he wished, in recalling scenes from his Dickensian childhood. As we learn from “The Terrible Shears,” the family lived in a tenement in Leamington (“We had to keep our coal out at the back;/They wouldn’t give us a bath”); the Irish father (“Mick”), who had fought at the Somme, was a postman who died prematurely of lung cancer, complicated by infection from teeth unrepaired out of poverty (“The Certificate…remarked/That a Contributory Cause of Death was Septic Teeth”); there was a baby sister who died shortly after birth, and the poet remembers his mother “bending over the kitchen sink,/Milk, warm and unwanted, draining away”; and over everyone hung the threat of “the Workhouse”:

How many remember that nightmare word
The Workhouse? It was like a black canal
Running through our lives.

‘Old Mrs Povey has gone to the Workhouse.’
‘You’ll end in the Workhouse if you go on like that.’

It was shameful to end in the Workhouse.
Shameful to have a relative in the Workhouse,
The worst shame of all.
Such shame was always possible.

It is characteristic of Enright, when he lands on a patch of acute feeling, to explore it repetitively, as a tongue touches over and over an ulcer in the mouth. The last stanza just quoted traces the successive deductions of the child through the mind of the adult he has become: from the angry parental accusation “You’ll end in the Workhouse” the child deduces the abstract shame of that place; but then he becomes aware of its social shame, since any family with a relative in the Workhouse is ostracized, shamed—in this “worst shame of all”—beyond any of the usual social shames (elsewhere recollected by Enright as “public drunkenness, fighting in the street, failure to pay the rent, or defaulting on hire-purchase”). And because “such shame was always possible” the Workhouse seems like a “black canal,” comparable to “the cut” (or channel) in which the most shamed in Leamington drowned themselves, to the reproach of their neighbors:

To drown yourself in the cut
You would have to loathe yourself.
A person with any self-respect
Made use of the river. The town
Was named after the river.

After Enright’s father’s death, his mother—with only a military widow’s pension for support—takes in a lodger, who installs his girlfriend, imperiling the respectability of the house. “No more lodgers, said my mother,” and, taking her children, she goes to keep house for her father, till he drops dead; she next keeps house for the headmaster of her son’s school (when she falls ill her daughter has to take him his boiled eggs). Nobody is left to care for young Dennis’s paternal grandmother (“Her husband was dead,/So was my father”) so she is packed off—there being nowhere else—to the Workhouse:

As the car was moving off, I heard her
Shout with a dreadful new voice:
‘I know where you’re sending me,
You’re sending me to the Workhouse!’

She was found to be deranged on arrival,
And they sent her on to another place.
So she didn’t go to the Workhouse after all.
She died soon after.

It is undergoing this “worst shame of all” that pushes the young Dennis into writing poetry as a frantic form of “Early Therapy”:

Granma doddered a bit,
But she was my friend.
Perhaps it had to be done,
Did it have to be done like that?

It started me writing poems,
Unpleasant and enigmatic,
Which quite rightly no one liked,
But were thought to be ‘modern’.

These poems of disruption seen through a child’s “good memory” adopt the plainest of plain speech, as though, by his fifties, the poet had ceased to find acceptable his earlier “unpleasant and enigmatic” routes to expression. “The plainness of plain things is savagery,” says Wallace Stevens; and the savagery of life lived on elementary terms of survival demands a fittingly elemental language. Stevens, in this passage so relevant to Enright’s “The Terrible Shears,” continues:

   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):

COMBAT CAMERA

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.

  1. *

    London: Chatto and Windus, 1969.

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