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Alan Baker

"Remains to be Seen" by David Rushmer, pub. Shearsman Books. 156 pages. £10.95

The poetry in "Remains to be Seen" is compressed, abstract and intense, and has a wide-ranging scope. The poetry is philosophical, and it grapples with recent thinkers, most notably Maurice Blanchot, the  French philosopher, novelist and essayist, who declared in his work "The Space of Literature", that "To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking, and since it cannot, in order to become its echo, I have in a way to silence it. I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence." Rushmer’s beautifully-wrought poetry attempts, with craft and a sense of the sound and rhythm of poetry, to negotiate between speech and silence. The best a reviewer can do in a short review like this is to give an impression of what it’s like to encounter this work and to note its unusual, possibly unique, position in contemporary British poetry.

The book is billed as a first collection (and it is a remarkable debut), but at the same time, it appears to be a selected, or maybe even collected poems; it contains work written over a twenty-year period and is divided into sections, some of which have appeared as chapbooks. There are stylistic differences between these sections – the first one, “Remains to be Seen”, is more sparse than the others – but overall, the style is consistent, and Rushmer is faithful to his austere mode of expression. Rushmer's poetry seems to more affinities with recent French poetry than anything Anglo-American. I'm most reminded of the work of Anne-Marie Albiach, and in Rushmer's poetry one can see the same abstraction, minimalism and focus on philosophical concerns.

It’s hard to think of other British writer who shares Rushmer’s poetic project; some Americans possibly, like Gustav Sobin, who, significantly, spent much of his life in France (he died in 2005).

Rushmer chooses to use a restricted mode of address and a limited vocabulary, and he places words very deliberately on the page. The visual element is crucial; in some poems phrases - or rather, little blocks of language - are juxtaposed so that each is seen in the light of the other, without necessarily having a direct connection - at one point, on an otherwise blank page there is the single phrase

      there is solitude

Another poem consists of only five words. Rushmer uses the constraints of this poetic mode to create linguistic objects of great beauty. Here is the poem "The Possibility" in full:

      for a moment, the possibility

                  a horizon,

             a place

      where the image of passion

      the heart most pure

           does not escape the other

Note the lack of comma after "possibility", perhaps suggesting that it is bounded ("possibility is a horizon" or "possibility of a horizon"), that we have "the image of passion" and not passion itself, and the the last line is ambivalent about the heart being somehow captured by "the other" ("does not escape"). The diction may also suggest Emily Dickinson ("I dwell in Possibility...") with "horizon" standing in for her "circumference". When read aloud, this poem seems perfectly balanced in terms of its sound-structure. With so much encompassed by one short poem, you can see why, as a reviewer, it's difficult to do justice to the range of this substantial book. One further example: the  poem "The Translation" is one the facing page to "The Possibility". Here it is in full:

      The Translation

      with the subtlest

      music                  the flourish

      of words,

 

              gesturing in the text. "The Experience

                           a sentence

 

 

                       to stretch between

             white blossoms

                    & fault lines

 

                 after all forms of

 

 

 

                                           path

                              disappearing

 

        snowfall

      to bury my tongue

This embodies the experience of translation, whether it’s linguistic, or whether it’s metaphorical, as in a transformation of some kind. It starts with music and ends with "burying my tongue, as if music (of words?) had overcome the speaker. White blossom has translated into snowfall, and "the flourish of words" gestures "in the text" to experience. The phrase "all forms / of path / disappearing" might be a description of giving in to a transformative experience. But writing this paraphrase make clear that these poems can't be paraphrased, while also making apparent their subtlety and lightness of touch.

"Sand Writings", which was published as a chapbook in 1991, is a poem from the first section of the book, which seems to be more spare and minimalist than the other sections. The poem suggests the sand or gravel of a Zen garden, and has an appropriate meditative quality. In this poem, things half-said may be completed by the reader in different ways during different readings:

      utter silence,

      or, to utter it

 

,       language

      speaks me

 

 

 

 

      this habit

      or ritual

The pronouns "I" and "you" suggest a dialogue or even a narrative, but they remain no more than suggestions:

      entering you

      I am lost

 

 

      voice leaks

      page mists

 

      white spittle

This short sequence, like much of the book, suggests a barren, empty landscape, which is unclear, like the landscape of a dream; at other times, it's an emptiness:

      tongue laps

      the sand

 

 

      your voice stings

 

 

      the breeze

      against my face

I've mentioned that there are stylistic differences between the different sections of the book. In the fourth section, "Another Tongue", the poems are more expansive in comparison to the earlier, pared-down pieces, and have a genuine eeriness, and otherworldly, almost gothic feel. At the same time, some of these poems have a sensuality about them, a reveling in the body:

      pale kindling flushed heart

             dark-blooded mists

                    of hanging light

      there are ghosts after music

             tomb

             black silence beyond sleep

      websoft the opening body

             it slips

             and falls away

      to a shimmering breath

      (from "Ghosts After Music")

This poetry may not be to everyone’s taste. It omits things which many people consider staples of contemporary poetry - narrative, anecdote, overt politics and many aspects of quotidian existence. Reviewing the poetry of André du Bouchet, another poet who could well be an influence on Rushmer, Peter Riley says that “it eludes identification from start to finish and you’re liable to end up speaking entirely in negatives.” This is because the language works within such tight constraints. But, like du Bouchet, Rushmer can, within these limits, create a linguistic theatre of great richness and depth, leading to a poetry that can embody some of our most pressing philosophical and existential questions.
Peter Hughes remarks, on the cover, that the title of the book "manages to hint at a devastated landscape consisting of nothing but remains, as well as a glimmer of hope in the other sense of the phrase 'it remains to be seen'." Hughes here is pointing up a whole new aspect of the work - outside the scope of this short review; it comes out of a literature that can be traced to mid-twentieth century disillusionment in post-war Europe, and connects with the contemporary equivalent in the form of the various ecological and other crises hovering over us. And then there's the spirituality implied in this poetry, and the fact that it can encompass moving love poetry, as in "Holding Your Breath (to Wang Bang)". I hope the reader of this brief review will have at least appreciated that this book is a wide-ranging and rich collection of poems, which asks time and attention of the reader, but will repay it abundantly.

 

References:
“The Space of Literature” by Maurice Blanchot, tr. Ann Smock.
Peter Riley “The apophatic poetry of André du Bouchet”. Fortnightly review

 

 
Copyright © Alan Baker, 2018