A Guide to the Perplexed?
At Maimonides Table Philip Kuhn (Shearsman 2009)
Philip Kuhn, a late-starter, at least in terms of his published work, is beginning to build up an impressive body of material, largely so far via beautifully-produced limited edition, self-published books. This collection from Tony Frazer's Shearsman (a serious player by anyone's standards in a fragmenting and currently vulnerable publishing scene) is the first exception to this 'rule' and I for one hope it won't be the last. Another book I know Kuhn has in preparation is entitled Radical Pamphlets. I think it's worth making a brief comparative survey of the two projects by way of introduction, as this may highlight some of the difficulties I experienced while grappling with maimonides. In Radical Pamphlets, the cultural references are wide-ranging, from the works of Marx, suggested by the title, and the utilitarian project of the 19th century thinker/factory owner Jeremy Bentham. There are also subjects more likely to be associated with epic and lyric notions of 'the poetic', the story of Abelard and Heloise (spelling), for example, which runs as a sort of parallel leitmotif throughout the work. Kuhn's method, as suggested by the end notes of maimonides, is to mix different forms of discourse, to juxtapose the poetry with the commentary and to create an overall text which can be read, interpreted or validated in a variety of ways. Further to this, his consistent obsession with the sound aspect of poetry (I don't intend this as a negative comment) is an addition to the mix and an aspect which, I think, produces some of the more lyrically effective and beautiful moments in both collections.
The difficulty I have with maimonides, is that to the degree that it's a book engaged with the death of the author's father, it's an extremely personal statement, but one inevitably 'loaded down' with the literary echoes of such a perennial subject. If this sounds a little like an adaptation of the 'anxiety of influence' argument then I'm not going to apologise because I still think there's something in that argument even though it's not THE determining factor. The other key difficulty I experienced however is to do with Kuhn's direct and unrelenting engagement with the Jewish tradition, an engagement he rightly defines as necessary but one which I, as a non-Jewish reader, find less easy to penetrate or cast light on. This is likely to be a fault in my lack of reading in this rich and important field but it's where I'm at so I simply have to come at this book with my own baggage as an 'outsider' to this tradition. That said, I hope I've got one or two things to say which may just be worth listening to.
at maimonides table is split into four books. Its structure, and to an extent, its concerns, have something in common with the Eliot of The Wasteland and The Four Quartets. According to the footnotes, Maimonides was a relatively obscure (to me) twelfth century scholar who wrote a work entitled The Guide of the Perplexed. This may turn out to be a salient title, in more ways than one. More recent and more widely-known Jewish scholars such as Walter Benjamin provide an access route to this work in that his (Benjamin's) use of quotation and of forming a 'whole' from fragments is a key building block of the modernist project while also harking back to an earlier, more archaic and therefore more mysterious tradition. This brings us clearly back to T.S. Eliot. In the first book of maimonides there is a passage laid out in 'justified prose' (Kuhn is also a stickler when it comes to layout and visual aesthetics) which clearly harks back to The Four Quartets and which I think is a marvellous example of Kuhn's poetic voice 'overcoming' a tendency to be didactic or to teach:
once upon a time I stepped into a dream
that drew me inexplicably towards a circuitous
passage leading inevitably to an impassable street
near by an old wooden gate built into a wall
surrounding a garden overgrown with a single
briar-rose draining the purling well of sound
You could have hours of fun doing a literary-critical interpretation of this passage alone. It has the 'vagueness and clarity' of the perceived dream state, the perpetually deferred pleasure or solution (perhaps the deferral is an acknowledgement of the fear of a solution, an avoidance tactic to stay in the pleasure zone of the dream state where all may or may not be explained). The images are powerfully evocative, suggestive, sensual, have resonance yet also provoke thought. What exactly is 'the briar-rose draining the purling well of sound'? The rose attracts yet repels, has great beauty yet has prickles and how do we take this action of 'draining', leaving aside the magical, soothing suggestion of the line itself. Is sound, like memory, something we can only 'bear so much of?' If we could truly hear the sound of the sea would we go mad and what would a world without sound be like, John Cage-type experimenting aside?
Elsewhere the tone is more clearly sceptical, almost mocking, as in the section on page seventy three which comments on the non-appearance of the messiah, an 'event' which recurs repeatedly in the Jewish canon:
but let not this secret reproof prevail
for rabbi torta has already revealed
how akiba s cheeks sprouted grass
long after the messiah
There are multiple occasions in maimonides where it is difficult to distinguish the tone of the writing although this could possibly be because I'm not paying enough attention to the end notes, which are plentiful. These give an initial reference point but not always a context, unless that is you're already familiar with a wide range of Jewish historical writing, which I'm not. I guess what I'm questioning here is the overall 'integration' of the source materials into the text, given that there is no overall argument or leading question. There are repeating themes, or motifs, such as an apparent questioning of the notion of 'the law' and of ritual in relation to this, a topic which is inevitably linked to the dark side of human history, one which is particularly fraught in this arena due to the catastrophic fact of totalitarianism and the concentration camps of the twentieth century. In the after- ward Kuhn himself declares the difficulty of dealing with such a topic but one which he felt forced to revisit due to the death of his father and the burial practices within Jewish tradition related to this.
As a trained historian, Kuhn is clearly concerned with developing an argument, contesting facts, discovering the (a version of) truth and of rational thinking in general. As a poet, he has an inspired lyric gift which could be said to work at odds with the above imperative. His guiding interest in the 'sound' aspect of language, what we might call its more abstract quality, complicates this mixture but perhaps it's the tension between the three that creates his rich textures and flights of quite gorgeous poetic statement. One of the key themes which is often fore-grounded is the sense of loss as related to religious (dis)belief, what Frank Kermode in an attempt at 'literary secularisation' once referred to in a book title as The Sense of an Ending:
i will set me a lamp at my feet
in the absence of your glory
in the shadow
of your inalienable allegory
that indivisible other of the self
i will stand upon my watch and set me upon the tower
the eternal stutterer of laws
This seems to combine angst with humour, loss with rant and 'high art' with bathos. I find the half-rhyming of 'glory' and 'allegory' quite hilarious. This may be a peculiarly Jewish approach, I'm not sure, but it translates across the boundaries very effectively in passages like this. Elsewhere the wordplay is derived from the ritual writing (numbers are often a key component here) which sometimes reads like a 'Monty Python' parody while also managing to retain something of the exalted, highly pronounced language of the original:
& then he
his body curved & ringed around
the wheel within the wheel
the seventh heaven churned
spurned rebellions eternal brute noise lengthened
Perhaps, given the 'archaic' nature of much of the source material, the reader is right to trust an instinct to 'go' primarily for the 'sound aspect' of the writing, as experienced in its modern setting (how else can we possibly 'experience it', one might ask). Such a tactic will inevitably push the 'content' into the background and while we can't avoid the resonance and occasional references to actual events - often catastrophic - it does perhaps mean we can trust the poetry, rather than a hopelessly fractured 'narrative' first and foremost. Any research the reader may want to carry out in discovering source materials is highly facilitated by the copious endnotes, a fact which the author makes clear in his Afterward.
I can remember when I first decided to read all of Paradise Lost (a task I've yet to complete, I'm afraid to say) that the main difficulty I experienced, apart from not having enough classical/biblical learning, was in the obvious clash between the sound aspect of the poetry and its meaning -all those Latinate phrases, no doubt - and the way I sort of overcame this was by listening to an admittedly pared-down BBC broadcast of the work. By focussing on the meaning separately from the aesthetic of the sound (at least to a degree) I came to have a better understanding of the text and to actually enjoy it more. The difficulty I experience with Philip Kuhn's poetry isn't quite the same but there are similarities. What I feel sure of is that this is a work I will revisit although I'm also unlikely to be persuaded to become a biblical scholar. I'm very much looking forward to the publication of Radical Pamphlets though. Incidentally, Philip Kuhn is a fantastic reader of his poetry - if you get the chance to hear him, don't miss it.
© Steve Spence 2009