In 1992, a book—Landlocked—was published in England that contained remarkable and immensely likable poems by Mark Ford. I wanted to write on it, but the journal I was writing for wouldn’t review a book not published in America. Frustrated, I wrote to its unknown author instead, so that my delight at the book would reach him at least privately, if not publicly. The poems in Landlocked were neither decorous (in conventional lyric ways), nor tightly tacit (Philip Larkin), nor historical (Geoffrey Hill), nor demotic (Tony Harrison), nor sensual (Seamus Heaney). They were idiosyncratic and wildly imaginative, and—to use Ford’s own words—“funny peculiar.”
The author was able to do without the long sigh for the European past that had animated modern poetry after World War I; he did not imitate the theatrical tones of Berryman and Plath; he prized (for all his outrageous comedy) a linguistic equanimity both intellectual and fine-grained. Ford is not nostalgic for a lost England, nor does he lament contemporary morals. Instead, he simply acknowledges the modern situation as the inescapable form of life; it is what we are living, and he describes it with dark comedy. Modern existence in modern circumstances cannot be argued with; it simply is, as in the poem “Funny Peculiar”:
I sit down here drinking hemlock
While terrible things go on upstairs.
Sweat creeps like moss outward to the palms,
And time itself seems a strange, gauze-like medium.
Sleep will leave still newer scars each night, or,
Infuriatingly, is a curtain that refuses to close.
On the horizon, bizarre consolations make themselves
Known—a full fridge, a silent telephone,
The television quiet in its corner.
Everything and nothing have become a circular
Geometrical figure, seamlessly joined,
To be wrestled innocently this way and that
Into the most peculiar almost whimsical shapes.
The opening is dégagé in the Frank O’Hara manner—“I do this, I do that”—but sardonic, not joyful. The baffled imagination is charged to include “everything” and “nothing,” objects equally impregnable, seamlessly joined in a perfect figure offering no point of entrance. Yet the resistant circular contour vaguely hovering in the writer’s mind demands to be “wrestled” into new topological forms, the agon of wrestling countered only by the happy whim of making.
The “I” of a poem such as “Funny Peculiar” is a cartoon creation, with his hemlock in hand, and his wrestling in prospect. However, his speech is adult, and intriguing, and funny. (Poetic form is silently present, declaring itself not by rhyme but by resemblances in syntax or rhetoric or sound.) After several other accounts of his circumstances, all in the present tense, the insomniac speaker generates a prophetic imperative: the enigmatic “circular/Geometrical figure” is to be forced, against its own resistance, into peculiar shapes. True of writing, the obligation is as true of life; the genetically given must be insistently wrestled into a self. This is a more athletic conception of “soul-making” than Keats’s claim that the Intelligence is “schooled” into a Soul by “a world of pains and troubles,” but Ford is a latter-day Keats in his certainty that “pains and troubles” are the sure subjects of art and life.
Because Ford’s poems are almost all undergirded by a narrative (however surreal), they need to be quoted whole, in full spate—a difficulty here, where excerpts from their inspired stories will have to do in most cases. In some of the autobiographical narratives, Ford’s cosmopolitan past flickers on the page. He was born in Nairobi where his father, a BOAC executive, was temporarily posted; other postings took the family to Sri Lanka, Canada, and the United States. As Ford puts it in “Signs of the Times”:
Were born in the forward-
Thinking sixties, and grew up in various capital cities in Africa
And Asia—wherever, that is, the British Overseas Airways Corporation
(BOAC, for short) saw fit.
And although Ford was sent back to England at the age of eight for schooling, the family travel made his “Englishness” uneasy (“After Africa, Surbiton”). He went to Oxford, gained a First, was a Kennedy Fellow at Harvard, and taught for two years at the University of Kyoto before returning to England, where he wrote his D.Phil. dissertation on the poetry of John Ashbery. He is now Professor of English at University College, London. Unlike most poets, he has had a sustained career as a critic (essays collected in two volumes), biographer (of Raymond Roussel, the French Surrealist), translator (of Roussel’s forbidding Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique), editor (of John Ashbery’s poems in the Library of America), and anthologist (London: A History in Verse).
The current Selected Poems includes (along with some new work) poems from Ford’s three previous volumes—Landlocked, Soft Sift, and Six Children. Deeply literary and teasingly allusive, the poems can yet be read with pleasure by readers unaware of the references, because Ford bases his work on seductive instances of everyday happenings, however fanciful or surreal.
Ford’s restlessness in experimentation, evident in his resort to taxing forms (the sestina, the pantoum), is less patent, but more ingenious, in the internal structures of the poems. He presents the new poem “In Loco Parentis” in two halves, in itself not an unusual arrangement: the first half shows him as a child in an English public school, with unlovable people (to say the least) serving in loco parentis, as the phrase goes. As Ford begins with realistic images of the “creepy” staff, the title seeps into the first line:
In Loco Parentis
were some quite creepy men—one
used to lie down
on the dayroom floor, then get us all
to pile on top of him—and a basilisk-
eyed matron in a blue uniform with a watch
beneath her right
collarbone. Thump thump
thump went her footsteps, making
the asbestos ceiling tiles shiver, and me
want to hide, or run like a rabbit
in a fire…
The poet’s will to render the school is not satisfied with this “realistic” first half, in which we have indeed seen the pile-up of the boys summarized in the pile-up of the opening four lines, and have equally glimpsed the watch of the matron in its imitative one-word vertical “dangling.”
For Ford, the poem must not only describe the repellent dramatic personae of the school; it must also invent a symbolic equivalent for the feeling and the tone of the child’s sense of impotence. And so Ford does the poem over again in the second half, this time as a symbolic Lewis Carroll chess game in which malice, “a minor/devil,” forces the boys into ignorant moves in complex games they cannot possibly win: the chess pieces, under devilish command, “levitate/and hover, flourishing swords, in midair.” As an adult, the child wishes he could replay the game, this time to win, but the childhood loss is permanent. In Ford’s symbolic reprise, the creepy man becomes “the stealthy/knight,” the intimidating matron “the all-/knowing queen”:
What we lost, we lost
forever. A minor
devil played at chess
with us, forcing
the pieces to levitate
and hover, flourishing swords, in midair. I’d grasp
them now, the orotund bishop, the stealthy
knight, the all-
but they dissolve
in my fingers, refuse
to return to the board, to their squares.
The evaporation of the threatening ogres of childhood means that one cannot ever be revenged on them, and Ford’s tense drama replays, in its brief enjambed lines, the frightened boys’ forward-halting rhythms in the failed encounter.
Wordsworth perfected the sort of poem in which a childhood “then” is reflected upon in the adult “now,” but Ford’s school game–war offers no Wordsworthian compensation for the child’s suffering. In Ford’s “now,” which denies any consolatory wish fulfillment by present conquest, the puppets of the symbolic imagination refuse the will of their own conceiver as they dissolve into thin air. The game pieces are not to be retrieved; the game itself has become unplayable. And although traditional reprises usually retain the same setting as the original one, and end on an upward curve, Ford’s move from dormitory to chessboard abandons the realistic sketch of the school and replaces it with chess, the better to convey, by abstraction, the universality of adult oppression of children.
Poets of any era feel they must imagine, and make palpable in feeling, what the age needs to hear: in Ford’s case, his colonial childhood leads his poetry into postcolonial reconsideration. What feelings will a colonial childhood such as his own call up in a retrospective scan? Nostalgia? Anti-imperial sentiment? Guilt? All of these, and more: But how is the poet to embody them without becoming sententious or maudlin or pious? An ambitious recent poem, “World Enough,” offers Ford’s childhood house as a microcosm of colonial life; it pictures an incident in which a native servant, dismissed for cause, returns to the house, humiliated and “red-/eyed, to retrieve a cushion/he’d forgotten.” Ford begins “World Enough” in his satiric vein, jeering at late colonialism as a form of piracy:
was flummoxed, and dissolving
fast when we
set sail on the Seven Seas, late, late
buccaneers in quest
of whatever booty
The “booty” sequestered by the colonizers consisted of “a retinue of ‘bearers,’” a gardener, a chauffeur, and drinks on the veranda. So far, a cliché of colonial complacency. But “real life” suddenly and chillingly intrudes upon the life of the booty-amassing colonials (the ellipses below are Ford’s):
wept when “David,” an aging, impassive servant
dismissed for getting “filthy drunk”
on arak, returned, red-
eyed, to retrieve a cushion
he’d forgotten…I watched
his bundle, rise, then stagger off again, his wispy
gray hair coming loose
from its bun…
The servant “David” had, among his duties, the dusting, one by one, of the family’s ever-accumulating hoard of souvenirs. These are inventoried in the last brilliant movement of Ford’s narrative. How, poets must often ask, is a long list to be fitted stylistically into a poem without boring the reader? With “David” gone, says the speaker, there will be
dusting of ebony heads
from Nigeria, onyx elephants, sphinxes carved
out of soapstone; our gaudy, bug-eyed
demon masks, or the glass
saffron-robed Masai warriors leaning
on their spears in a clearing
at midnight; a moon-
landing souvenir mug, a slab
of agate on a Chinese chest, my pen-
from the hide
of a lion.
At first glance the list reads innocently enough, but on inquiry it breaks down into repellent and redundant multiples of objects and materials: heads, elephants, sphinxes, masks; ebony, onyx, soapstone, something “gaudy.” “David” unwillingly dusts these herds of things, but he then turns to dust a different sort of object, a framed photograph, on which the poem surprisingly pauses for five lines. To “David,” the photograph of the Masai, unlike the commercial knickknacks, represents something real, familiar, and authentic.
After that pause, the list explodes into a pointless heterogeneity—moon-mug, slab of agate, Chinese chest, pen-holder—exemplifying the indiscriminate gluttony of the family for the “exotic.” Ford closes the list on his boyhood lion-hide pen-holder because it brings into view a different sort of “booty”: the lions shot for sport by the “civilized” colonials. The king of beasts is commercially diminished to a child’s ornamental possession, in the past no doubt a source of pride (it is the climax of the list), but now a source of guilt. Yet the repudiation of the family collection is not strident, not audience-directed, as in too many “protest poems”; it remains, convincingly, an inward and personal shame, dryly proffered.
A list in a poem must be bound together by something other than the categories of its contents; it must (said Yeats) “articulate sweet sounds together.” In Ford’s list, the words “masks,” “glass,” “seven,” “saffron,” “spears,” and “clearing” make up a characteristic sound chain linked by alliteration, internal vowels, and final consonants. There are several other such chains: “midnight,” “moon,” “mug,” for example, or “protecting,” “leaning,” “clearing,” “landing.” Ford’s unobtrusive but careful tending to his sound chains—audible everywhere in these poems—makes his lines cohere, attract each other magnetically, no matter their content. Again, as in the items of his list, Ford is unobtrusive, avoiding the virtuoso sound links of Hopkins or Thomas or Heaney; his articulations lurk, do not dominate.
What can Ford do besides find good subjects—the unnerving boarding school; the colonial discourse exemplified in the reference to a servant as “filthy drunk”; the acquisitive amassing of “booty”? Ford said, in an off-the-cuff interview, that he writes two kinds of poems, the “concept poem” and the rest:
I divide poems up when I’m writing into concept poems, which have a kind of donnée or a concept like “Hart Crane’s alive” or “Whitman had six children.” …You get a concept poem like that and they’re very appealing because they’re easy to do whereas the other poems are a lot more agonising to write for me, they’re a bit like spinning it all out in your insides like a spider and inching from—not even line to line but from word to word—you’re making it all up out of nothing. Recently these poems have taken me months and months, even a year, to get them….
The “concept poem” plays variations on some aspect of culture recognizable to any reader. The most giddy one in the Selected Poems takes its inspiration from a recent phenomenon—the mendacious letter or e-mail from a foreign place announcing that the writer desperately needs money. Ford’s five absurd variations in the new poem “Adrift” imagine the scamming requests arriving (always from malign dictators or their associates) via every contemporary means of communication:
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s wife, or rather
widow, recently wrote to me asking for help in transferring
some important financial assets from a secret location: only I,
she insisted, had the expertise to perform this complex operation.
Is there a more ferocious texter than General Pinochet’s
A minor ex-mistress of Laurent Gbagbo’s tweets practically
I’m just too tired to think of replying to this e-mail
inviting me to go trekking in the Himalayas with a distant “cousin”
of Perez Musharraf….
“You have reached 0207…” my machine was intoning….
To write, to text, to tweet, to e-mail, to phone: as this ironic testimony of progress provokes a “What next?,” we drift into imagining the scam-by-quantum-motions, the scam-by-telepathy…
In his “concept poems” Ford also likes curiosa: one poem, “John Hall,” arises from Hall’s sixteenth-century compendium Select Observations on English Bodies. That book seems at first to consist only of outlandish remedies recommended by Hall:
He cured, he records, Michael Drayton of a tertian
Fever with a spoonful of
syrup of violets, and
Hemorrhoids with a pigeon he cut open alive, then
Applied to his feet….
Only toward the end of the grotesquerie do we learn that John Hall was Shakespeare’s son-in-law. But “None of the cases…mentions his father-in-law’s afflictions//Or demise”—the very facts we yearn to know.
In spite of the humorous appeal of such “concept poems” it is the webs spun out of the poet’s insides, those pieces composed out of nothing but the ear’s instinct and the heart’s imagination, that are Ford’s most rewarding successes, finding, as they unerringly do, unusual language for the usual. The autobiographical poems are of that sort, but so are some of the allegorical pieces. Of those, my favorite is still “The Long Man.” In it Ford becomes “The Long Man of Wilmington,” an outline in white of a 227-foot-tall male figure cut into the grass of a hill in East Sussex, and first credibly mentioned in the seventeenth century. And how does the insomniac Long Man feel out on his damp hill?
The Long Man
of Wilmington winces with the dawn; he has just
endured yet another mythical, pointless, starry
vigil. His ankles ache, and the weather looks
irksome and moody….
Across the damp fields a distant
siren pleads for attention; he cannot
move, nor, like a martyr, disprove the lie of the land.
This is the aubade of a poet who has drunk the dangerous potion of his native language and literature, and finds in consequence “a stream of curious tags and sayings” flowing through his veins. The giant Long Man wakes to the disconsolate weather of England:
I woke up feeling cold and distended,
my feet pointing east, my head in low-hanging
clouds. A stream of curious tags and sayings
flowed like a potion through my veins.
He is disoriented, floating among “invisible obstacles,” attempting to create a self out of nothing: a bewildering and paradoxical exercise but necessary, since to create selfhood by imitating traditional literary precedents is to collapse into cliché. The poet is furious at his predicament:
senses struggled to respond, then bewailed
the absence of detailed, all-powerful
There is nothing to do but to investigate and explore, yet again, the huge if psychologically repetitive dimensions of one’s own origins and existence:
I kept picturing someone tracing
a figure on the turf, and wearing this outline
into a path by walking and walking around
the hollow head, immobile limbs, and cavernous torso.
In an interview, Ford mentioned something once said to him by his friend the poet Mick Imlah (who is recalled in a touching elegy, “Ravished,” in the Selected Poems):
I remember talking with Mick and him saying that [the unity of one’s poetry] takes care of itself, in that your psychological flaws or configurations emerge again and again. So in terms of finding a unity, your own problems surface in poem after poem, just in different styles. It’s like putting together a bit of music, just getting a thing so that it works.
Ford’s poems, elaborated from a witty and sinister imagination, “work” in that instinctual way, allowing details to rise into salient being and beautiful formal shape for the reader as for the poet.
In this Selected Poems, Ford has included several translations from the Latin (Tacitus, Apuleius, Lucretius, Catullus, and Pliny the Elder), rescuing electrifying stories and scenes (the castration of Attis, the death of Petronius) from the translatorese of earlier versions. All are worth reading for Ford’s vigorous and idiomatic staging as he keeps ancient “spots of time” alive in our Latinless age.