This is the third and final attempt to get my small brain around ‘Lessons and Carols’ from last year’s ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. There is no guarantee that I’ll get to the bottom of this remarkable poem in terms of all that it has to say but it’s probably time to move on. What follows, as ever, is entirely provisional and I reserve the right to change my mind.
I occasionally get brief flashes of recognition or (even) insight into what things might be trying to say but I need to be careful because these often lead me into imposing the meanings that I may agree with rather than what is actually there. As I finished the second piece on this poem such a flash flickered across my brain and it’s still lingering around , it relates to these lines:
knowing at once in these spiritual tunes the sound of what comes straight from the other world, straight from enchantment and straight from the terrible kingdom of non-love, of freedom and absence and longing, so do these presents stand vigilant there at the window. The spirits are fictions, the gifts are their counter-fictions.
The flicker was sparked by the vigilance of the presents which took me into social policy mode. I spent far too many years of my professional life dealing with aspects of the British underclass and was very aware that the main function of this group is to act as central plank of social control. One of the main reasons that we economically conform and play the material/status game is that we don’t want to fall into the chaotic and seemingly cursed world of the Undeserving Poor. The other aspect of crass materialism is that we use objects to reassure ourselves and others that we are far removed from that kind of deprivation.
So, I’m provisionally reading this kingdom of non-love as the sink estates where these difficult and dangerous souls eke out a hand-to-mouth existence and the vigilant presents as fictive or illusory guards against falling into this realm of freedom and absence and longing.
This is probably far too neat but I can discern something of Adorno’s reference to thought having become its own watchdog although his inherent pessimism takes the above to a more extreme and bleak place.
I wasn’t going to do this but it probably needs to be noted that the fictive but compelling lures and snares of late capital have occurred in previous poems. This is from ‘At Home with Paul Burrell’ which was published in 2007:
(You’re going to have to scroll off the screen for this but I think it’s important to preserve line length and the shape of this material.)
Yes my daughter everywhere false immediacy glints at a lure or pastes this slip of null now back over everywhere. Yes everywhere mediation curls up into the no less false shape of a blind trust.
And this is from the brilliant and ground-breaking and generally wonderful ‘Dionysus Crucified’ published in 2011:
Spirit-seducingly all the kind wives & the mothers: every one of us has a face made of cash Every one of us now wears the mask of sold labour and each time I look in a face All that comes back is the answer of cash and of freedom from love turned up in a picture of ideal & absolute * perfectly perceptless sex All that comes back is the light not light but elicited twinkles of lusterous sold simulacra of faces, the person I wear to the bank.
Of course, it can (and should) be argued that I’m attempting to prop up this tottering edifice by ripping lines out of their original context/meaning. I’m guilty as charged but this ‘lesson’ as to the fictive and increasingly mindless nature of our passive existence is at least a bit of thread.
You’e delighted to know that I’m going to glide over perceptless sex and return to the spirits. I think it’s reasonable consider at least a few possible meanings for this tricky noun. The common factor in most of these would appear to be the absence of the physical or tangible. There’s the various religious and theological meanings, there’s the distinctly Hegelian ‘geist’ as in the force or thrust of progress, there’s spirit as a characterising feature or essence, there’s spirit as soul and as the thing that lives on after death.
All or any of these throws up number of challenges to the above – we are told that these spirits are ‘fictions’ but that doesn’t quite equate with the very real function that they undertake. The desire to play the status game and the fear of a slide into poverty and deprivation are very real for most of us, it can be argued these are merely illusory barriers but they aren’t fictive- they are very real and effective devices that are at least in part responsible for the cultural and social blandification that we see around us.
I hope these three attempts give some indication of the quality and depth of ‘Lessons and Carols’ – am now torn between moving on to ‘Night Office’ or paying some more attention to Burrell and the remarkable Dionysus.