Dipping into ‘The Unconditional’

Regular readers will know that I have a complex relationship with the above poem by Simon Jarvis which was published by Barque in 2005. This complexity has the following components:

  • the poem is 236 pages in length
  • I really like long poems
  • the poem is defiantly metrical and this may have something to do with the Jarvis view that philosophical poetry is best done within some kind of constraint;
  • the poem is almost obsessively digressive as if it wants to leave nothing out;
  • I really like digression but found the length of the digressions and the detail that they contain very difficult to carry in my small brain;
  • Jarvis is very good on traffic;
  • I think more serious poetry should be written about traffic;
  • it took me ten attempts and many months for me to read all of it;
  • I’ve read it again and am now of the view that it is an important and subversive piece of work that should be more widely read.

In the past I have considered it heretical to dip into long poems because there are so many things that will be missed if you only read a section. So, for many years I’ve read and re-read ‘The Faerie Queene’ and ‘Paradise Lost’ all the way through, except for the rivers and genealogy sections in FQ and have found this to be enjoyable even though there are bits of both that are quite tedious. Recently however, I’ve begun to just read sections or even parts of sections so as to give specific aspects more attention and this doesn’t seem to be problematic, in fact I’ve noticed more things this way than I would with an end-to-end reading.

‘The unconditional’ is a long poem but it is also a poem that requires a degree of sustained concentration that I’ve found to be quite demanding even though the second reading was much less arduous than the first. I’ve therefore embarked on a series of dips and these have proved surprisingly fruitful. I’d like to use pp130-1 to show what I mean. One of the poem’s main characters is Jobless whose life has been crushed by the cruel realities of contemporary life. This is Jarvis on despair:

          Jobless too listlessly allowed his eye
to drift like unheld cursor to the top
whereas a thin strip of evening sky
3 inches long by one deep suddenly
glimmered a lit mass of illumined cloud
at corner of the screen but half concealed
by a corona off the anglepoise

Pausing here for a moment, there’s a couple of things that I only noticed when dipping. The first observation is that the words make sense in that there isn’t any of the distorted syntax so common in the modernist vein and that the words are everyday words. Closer reading would suggest that there’s a bit of a problem with ‘whereas’ which seems to be used to mean ‘where’ when its common definition is ‘on the other hand….’. I have tried the rest of the definitions in the OED and none of these make sense here either which leaves me with a sneaking suspicion that it is being used simply to keep up the syllable count for the sake of the metrical constraint. I may be completely wrong on this but I can’t think of any other reasonable explanation.

The next two items may be the result of over-reading or putting three and three together to make eleven but it seems to me that there are a couple of echoes from Wordsworth here. It may be that “three inches long by one deep” is an allusion to “‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.” from the original version of ‘The Thorn’. I only know about this because it features in Keston Sutherland’s essay on ‘Wrong Poetry’ which uses the line as the epitome of wrongness. The final item is this glimmering lit mass mularkey which seems to be the way the sky is described in bits of ‘The Prelude’ although I haven’t sought out particular lines/phrases and may therefore be completely wrong. In my defence, Jarvis does know his Wordsworth, having written ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ which I still haven’t read (it’s very long, I won’t agree with it, life’s too short etc).

The poem continues with:

hitting the screen too mirrorwise to see
could none the less not blank out every note
of the four letters which his anxious eye
made out from several dot of cathode ray
causing a painful tightening at the chest
or then a lurch up from the lower spine
pushing the head out with its brace of eyes
to stare down at the flooring which he then
just as the blood arrested in his vein
slowly began at that to understand
or feel as though he understood that this
widely disparaged carpet was a map
of every message which he had to get

In the above we aren’t given any hint of what those four letters may be even though looking at them seems to bring on some kind of cardiac event. In this poem and several others Jarvis pays close attention to aspects of male self-loathing and here we have an astute description of where such feelings can lead. I particularly like the lurch from the spine which cause the head and its eyes to jut forward as if to some kind of attention.

Other aspects of this are a bit laboured- ‘too mirrorwise’ is probably trying too hard and either one of ‘to understand’ or ‘feel as though he understood’ is superfluous as we all only feel as if we understand- don’t we?

I’m taking ‘dot’ as a typo for ‘dots’ but I don’t understand why “or then a lurch….” is used instead of ‘and then’ because ‘or’ doesn’t make sense because I’m reading this as a sequence- chest tightening- lurching up- blood arresting until we get to the carpet.

The penultimate section of the brilliant ‘Dionysus Crucified’ has a carpet which causes some distress/consternation and is described in detail but it isn’t a map. Now, Jarvis is a committed late modernist but there is something oddly continental about other things acting as maps but it is Jobless that’s having this delusion and not our poet. Nevertheless, the poem proceeds:

          the next ten years or seconds of his life
nothing outside the textile ever spoke
more forcibly of this than clementine
or muck skip ochres fading to a brown
then zipped to primrose at occasional
points of most import like the words of Christ
printed in rubric for the hard of mind
in presentation copies of the word
distributed at prizegivings but here
shrilling alone a sheer bright lemon thrill

I read Jarvis because he makes passages like this, he can devise the idea of nothing being external to the fabric of the carpet and make it both credible and startling, he can come up with phrases like the ‘hard of mind’ that cause me to think about what exactly that might mean or refer to and why it isn’t in common usage. Most of all, this kind of thing is easy to do badly, to get carried away with the delusional and thus lose that which is believable and he manages to avoid this by staying just on the right side of bizarre and the last line is stunning.

I completely missed about 80% of the above in the first two readings, so perhaps ‘dipping’ isn’t so heretical after all…

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