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The Poet at War

Benjamin Paloff

The Invasion Handbook
Tom Paulin
Faber and Faber, $22 (cloth)

8Tom Paulin has recently sparked more national press than poets—especially those living abroad—can usually hope for, though hardly any of it has burdened itself with a discussion of his poems. Rather, this past November the Irish poet found himself at the center of a free-speech debate at Harvard when the university cancelled his reading there after learning of Paulin’s extremely hostile anti-Israeli remarks in a Cairo newspaper. Then, in a swift about-face, Harvard reinvited him when it appeared that they were stifling his views. No new date has been set for the reading, but the story lives on in countless articles, Internet chat rooms, and a January feature in the New Yorker. If and when he makes it to Boston, Paulin will likely find that his audience has a great deal to say about him, though they may have little to say about his work. Indeed, both his outspoken politics and the controversy they have sparked have fostered an atmosphere in which many who haven’t read Paulin’s poems show no hesitation in protesting what they believe they stand for. This is not surprising; most of us on this side of the pond feel more comfortable talking politics than poetry.

But Paulin, who lectures at Oxford, would be wary about making such a distinction. As he says in Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, his 1992 collection of essays, he is constantly hounded by “the desperate sleeplessness of the historical sense and a belief that it is criminal to try to banish it from the discussion of art.” The union of poetry and politics is evident on almost every page of The Invasion Handbook, his new collection of poems themed tightly around the events leading up to the Second World War. Though smart, monumental and austere, poetry and politics endure an often loveless marriage.

Paulin’s politics are straightforwardly humanist, sometimes to the point of being both reductive and bullheaded. His work comes off as a sustained rant against the us-versus-them tribalism that makes up much of the international news, and while many readers may object outright that this hardly makes for good lyric poetry, Paulin insists that it does, from the hot ideological undercurrents of modernist verse to the brilliantly subtle ironies of late Soviet-era writing. He believes that it is the charge of poetry to speak for history, to point out its iniquities, and to lend a voice to its victims. Most recently, Paulin has gotten himself into hot water for his vitriolic statements opposing Israel and its illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Consistent with his humanism, he believes that one person should not assume an arbitrary right to someone else’s land, a position that does not make its adherent an anti-Semite, nor does it make him a “thug,” as the New York Times suggested in January. But the manner in which Paulin has expressed this attitude (he told the Cairo newspaper that Israel was a “historical obscenity” and that the settlers were “Nazis” who “should be shot dead”) betrays the poet’s failure to question himself rigorously about what he thinks and says, to eschew overstatement and cheap verbal shocks, and attain to a maximally precise, engaging, and ultimately enlightening articulation—in short, a failure to do the things that make a poet a poet. For a writer who seldom employs meter, Paulin spends an awful lot of time chewing his foot.

These contextual details provide an appropriate entry into any treatment of The Invasion Handbook, in which the reader is by turns enthralled by Paulin’s erudition and verbal skill and appalled at his lack of judgment and restraint. Some degree of buckling might be expected in a book that reaches far beyond what is normally meant by the word “ambitious” in the reviewer’s parlance; at just over two hundred pages, these 81 poems represent the first installment of what their author has suggested will be a much larger work. Moving from the Treaty of Versailles (what else?) to the Battle of Britain, Paulin barrages us with so astounding an array of facts and figures, names and dates, excerpts, translations, visual-linguistic experiments, and word games that one is bound to get a bit dizzy, even with the guidance of occasional footnotes. In a sense, the author is the architect of his project’s greatest hindrance, an over-inclusiveness that shows off formidable intelligence but makes it all the more difficult to find truly worthwhile poetic artifacts.

Paulin’s best poems are often his most perplexing, and it is to the poet’s credit when he does not provide us with rhetorical escape hatches as readily as he passes historical judgment. There are many instances throughout the book when the cultural and political allusions (another distinction this poet deconstructs) are so dense as to make it all but impossible to orient ourselves; three poems on the 1925 Locarno treaties alone could warrant a hefty commentary. It is when Paulin deploys the best of his aural arsenal that such disorientation matters little, as in the opening lines of “Merz”:

must be Schmerz
of course I twitter am
– I Schwitters am
in this – let’s call it tin -
mirror to the which
I’ve stuck a tram ticket
for my Fahrscheinbild. . . .

The poem continues for some time in this vein, interspersing erotic with industrial imagery, feces with stained glass, French with English, and scrawling into the margin a particularly offensive quote from Kant. Yet Paulin somehow circumnavigates any sense of contrivance or misspent theatricality, all because the self-interruptions and unsettling echoes we hear in these first lines quickly unfold into a marvelously orchestrated fugue. Given that one will likely have to look up the sources of so many quotes and references, it is encouraging that the reader’s first investment is in the poems’ sonic pleasure.

Just as Paulin’s impressive ear can pull us deeper into perplexing territory than we might otherwise be willing to go, it works to even greater effect when it obscures the obvious. In “Vladimir Ilyich,” we make what would be a rather silly step-by-step pilgrimage (“it’s not a pilgrimage”) to Lenin’s tomb were it not for the diversionary tactics built into the language:

this terrible tunnel
is stuffed with zeks
drained and invisible
all heading down to
the lacu nigro
nemorumque tenebris
and what is laid out on this table
is one version of Frankenstein’s monster
that’s both institution and rebel
a bit of dreck
in an ordinary oddly civilian suit
a piece of ash fruit
– in what happens to happen
who or what makes the mistakes?

The swift movement of these modestly punctuated two- or three-stress lines, the collision of simple visual detail with less penetrable Latin, and the almost childish rhyme of “suit” and “fruit” earn an otherwise unimaginative historical potshot (“a bit of dreck”) some dimension in both sound and sense. The real “Frankenstein’s monster” is Paulin’s hodgepodge of high rhetoric and the vernacular, holding back any hint of the question we discover—and it feels like discovery—at the end.

Unfortunately, we cannot say as much for any number of the poems in The Invasion Handbook, especially those that deal most directly with the injustices and genocides Paulin is so keen to explore. In a poem like “Kristallnacht,” one of several that deal somewhat clumsily with the Holocaust, the poet claws after the most convenient, self-indulgent truths in talking about a survivor-turned combatant, “bashed but not broken / by all that history / oh God I share his anger / but how could I ever share it?” This is not an instance of blistering self-awareness in which the writer accedes to the fundamental inadequacy of literature to connect us to the unimaginable. Quite the contrary: anger may or may not be the right word for what the Other feels, but throughout this collection, it is what the poet himself brings to the table, ascribing it to various personae where he can, throwing it in haphazardly when he cannot. In the weakest poems (like the portentous “Nostalgia for the Future?”, “Shirking the Camps,” and “Chaos Theory,” where Paulin shares with us that very bad things keep happening in Sarajevo), we are subject to the poet’s frustration with history more than with any genuinely felt, personal apperception. When Paulin falls into a rut, his poetry sounds like a lecture.

We discover this, in part, by contrast. The most moving pieces are loose translations of Verlaine (“The Skeleton”) and especially Akhmatova (“Voronezh” and “My Name”), poets whose personal investment in their subject matter is simultaneously imaginative, inquisitive, and uncontrived. It is not a question of language, which Paulin commands excellently, but of the angle of attack, as in the closing lines of “Voronezh”:

Judas and the Word
are stalking each other
through this scroggy town
where every line has three stresses
and only the one word dark. . . .

The image is muted, the conclusion breathtaking. It is as far from a literal rendering of Akhmatova’s verse as it is from the book’s dominant temperament. Collaborating with his Russian predecessor, Paulin discovers a sensitivity for history where, alone, he has only a surfeit of verdicts.

Finally, toward the end of The Invasion Handbook Paulin gives us a poem in which he achieves this sensitivity on his own. In “Wear White Gloves in the Blackout” the speaker’s attitude is neither vehement nor accusatory, but curious. He wants to know what it looked like when the public moved through pitch-black London streets wearing white gloves to hail taxis, an image that is arresting enough without the poet trying to squeeze himself into it. Instead, Paulin asks questions, ventures guesses as to what these mysterious shapes might be:

–doves or white rabbits
              coming out
       from the conjuror’s hat
               or are they his own
               soft gloves laid on
               its black brim?

This is the kind of poem Paulin has been trying to write for the entire project: pleasing to the ear, personally invested, and historically intriguing even in its inevitable condemnation when the poet concludes that these “doves” belong “in or on the immense abîme / that Monsieur Clemenceau dreamed / then stuffed us in.” Despite a musician’s sense of phrasing, Paulin is not nearly as tonally agile as his range of masks would require, and while the poet dares to make every character in The Invasion Handbook his own in what is essentially his voice, it is refreshing to see the masks fall down and to be left alone with a fine poet simply trying to make sense of it all. How Paulin balances this with his polemics will determine whether he ultimately wins this war. <

Benjamin Paloff, a frequent contributor to Boston Review and Harvard Review, has poems forthcoming in Paris Review, Partisan Review, and elsewhere.

Originally published in the April/May 2003 issue of Boston Review




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