Polymath Qualities

About Bloody Time
, Simon Jenner
(8.00, Waterloo Press)

Simon Jenner's poetry is rich and complex but it's the kind of work which is usually worth persevering with even if you don't always pick up every reference or follow every tangential thought. His punning style often flits across a wealth of subject matter and is not always easily explicable in terms of obvious meaning, even where a narrative is being suggested. Yet there's a playfulness which makes his work enjoyable, as well as frequent forays into the dark side of things.
If there is a satirical streak to his writing this is echoed by the cover painting (his own) which refers obliquely to the poetry and reminds me of Steve Bell's acid wit and technique in the If

Among his key interests are an (implied) fascination with psychoanalysis and an involvement with music, particularly the serious music of the first half of the 20th century. In Xenakis
, he celebrates the Greek composer and architect, steeped in modernism, who fought both the Nazis and then the British in the conflict between left and right which followed WW2. Jenner demonstrates his polymath qualities in this poem which touches politics, classical literature, music, mathematics, popular culture and an ability to take on the big historical issues with a wide-ranging brief which suggests rather than prescribes:

     Comrade Xenakis, architect
     with a yen for music
     fled with a face wound to Paris,
     Cyclops eye sliced as a talisman
     refusing cosmetic surgery, cradled betrayal -
     British schooling -
     the education of partisan warfare
     and the fire-stepped harmony of Beethoven.

It's a neatly paced poem which includes a mass of information in a form which is digestible yet rich with reference points and pleasurable to read - a minor epic which should be widely anthologised.

The title poem hints at painful childhood memories, the author's illness, a reference to his father's tin leg (almost a leitmotif in this collection) and a general sense of malady which is created by mood-setting rather than storytelling:

     And time admits no breakages,
     clean in deliverance, sends
     shudders through checks, broken heirloom china;
     storm warnings, now a son's jumpy prophesy,

Jenner also has an interest in astronomy and astrology, the latter not exactly a predilection of mine, but the way he seems to use it - as a system of rules which can be used to explore, rather than a belief-system which is closed and dogmatic and open to abuse by charlatans - is akin to Walter Benjamin's method of utilising the dialectic by juxtaposing the modern and the technological with the archaic and the prophetic. I'm not entirely convinced by this method but it seems to work here and certainly adds to the richness of Jenner's material.

Religion and politics are also topics touched upon, both perceived, I think, as being inevitable as well as potentially disastrous in their dogmatic, simplistic certainties:

     In a time of God eat God
     the god-simple answers are bitter
     as black coffee, unsweetened
     adrenalin rushes to breakfast war

     Peace builds a complex echo. Choose either,
     I'm caught leaning half aside
     in the ruined aisles of my own
     sounding over who or what must die.

     Keep mum. As, married to all-sided
     serial killers, Rosemary, Primrose,
     crush their fragrant names
     over the stench of victims.

          ('Complicity in '01')

The title of this piece also suggests events prior to and after September 11th but you need to refer to the endnote to realise it's as much to do with the war in Afghanistan as anything else. Jenner makes a statement about the use (and abuse) of footnotes in poetry and sees himself as following in the tradition of Eliot and Empson, not a bad thing in this particular case.

These coded musings are followed by the poem First Bread
which develops his thinking through a commentary on leftist politics which suggests that the 'old left' are still arguing about the past in a way which is irrelevant and, in its time, tragic:

     My neat scar aches because they're
     still alive, kicking dead isms into play
     singing with blood in their mouths.

Harsh stuff perhaps, but I'm painfully reminded, at this moment, of Adrian Mitchell's humanism, which pointed out the dangers of dogmatism and 'certainty' in poems such as Quit stalling, Call in Stalin
, and whose own socialism started with a love of other people and of the world. Mitchell will be sadly missed by a lot of people.

In Bonnie and Rhett in London
, Jenner's technique of mixing themes to create an overall mood, a sense of something significant beneath the surface, is allied to a surprisingly wide lexicon to produce a poem which is puzzling but memorable. The poem obviously refers to Gone with the Wind:
     Tomorrow's another scene-change
     the make-up of distance too caked
     to breathe in with give-a-damn skins

     the fire rose glow Atlanta lends -
     facades of history swallowed in real flames
     stair-swept from their incendiary living

     their celluloid of yellowed fate

yet there also seems to be a hidden autobiographical element, something common in Jenner's work, as well as a possible reference via the title to another cinema epic Bonnie and Clyde
. His use of ellipsis and a general condensing of material is skilful, the triplets are taut and energetic and the puzzling, Empsonian quality of the writing is intriguing.

is another poem which brings in autobiographical material with a traumatic historical event - in this case the sinking of the Marchioness in 1989 - to produce a poem which is part narrative, part reflection, a musing on mortality which is only partly in-focus, a penumbral vision which is chill and deliberately confused.

Jenner's techniques are often those of the avant-garde he often champions but he's also a storyteller whose narratives are never entirely clear or explicit. As he himself puts it in the endnote: I'm always revising towards clarity from dark matter I don't have much control overt and sometimes resent.' I've only recently become acquainted with his poetry which I find intriguing, if at times impenetrable and I love his punning style, something which also seems to be central to his critical writing and which offsets his somewhat (at times) overly scholarly approach. For me there are essentially two kinds of 'difficult poetry' - the material I find worth engaging with - sometimes struggling with - and that which I don't. Simon Jenner's work is very clearly in the first category.

       Steve Spence 2009