Book review / Not the same but simile
CLAY: WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN by Craig Raine Penguin pounds 7.99
Sunday 16 June 1996
This lordly note in the opening lines of Craig Raine's new collection probably derives from Joyce, and so does the desire to inventory every last amazing sight that meets the eye and ear, from human genitalia - an old Raine obsession - and various bodily ills to the hushed vibrancy of the sickroom when "the soul brushed past / like a wind taking its time" ("Death Bed").
Composed during the decade when he was writing History: The Home Movie, this latest look at the worst is slim (54 pages plus three of Notes), grim, and written in a mixture of familiar and experimental modes. It opens with a sequence called "The Prophetic Book", first published in a limited edition in Poland in 1988, and moves on to a series of elegies for dead relatives and friends, including Richard Ellmann, Hans Keller, and "an old love, Kitty Mrosovsky", who died of Aids.
There are "applique smiles" and "a golf course appliqued with bunkers"; "the Roquefort marble of the font"; a dog walking "with anxious anapaests"; ballet tights "as tight as a Durex, / stiff little tutus / cut like an Eton crop", etcetera. The hectic Martianism often hits but sometimes misses (eg that rubber johnny above). Here it is married, however, not so much to itself as to the "dead beloved bodies" of the book's last line. Some of the best poems in History were the elegiac ones, and Raine approaches those triumphs here in poems such as "Limbo" and "A Chest of Drawers", which mourns the death of a friend's mother, and perhaps of all our mothers. "Out of oblivion, death, / and the gaze of a mother's mouth / looking beyond us forever. / Out of oblivion, breath, / and the absence of breath, / the long look we lived in / fixed at last on a chest of drawers".
The notes on "shamanism", intended to gloss a poem of the same name, are a bit of a puzzle, since the verse tells us more about "the mind on the trail / of the murdering mind / that masturbates with everything" than the scholarly quotations do. But those on "Sheol" - about a mother and baby forced to take part in one of Mengele's experiments in Birkenau - are genuinely helpful. It's one of those poems where the facts cry aloud to heaven, and the poet's only job is not to get in their way.
From there it's an enormous distance to such joyous things as "Heaven on Earth" (the world new-made every morning) and "Redmond's Hare", but Raine's tough-tender lyricism is equal to the task. "I taste everything / because I have no taste" says "Muse"; "I am too deep in detail / too deep to divine / your identity ... / or catch all that stuff you keep singing about sunsets". Beneath the word-play is a Romantic aesthetic of wide- eyed wonder. Never mind the guardians of good taste, you have to find your own intimations of immortality as you go along, whether in the dirt between floorboards or the salt stains on a plaster wall. "Trained to be a bas-relief, / the undertaker's men stick out, / they overact invisibility". "I am moved by being moved / as the coffin crawls to the fire".
Critics complain that his means become ends, and would probably pounce on that phrase about the masturbatory mind above. The provocation, we can be sure, is deliberate, and as ever compulsively readable.
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