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Though British poet Mark Ford’s credits as author and editor have been piling up—an edition of Frank O’Hara’s selected poetry for Knopf, an edition of John Ashbery’s collected poetry for The Library of America, and a biography of Raymond Roussel, among other books—the poetry portion of his corpus remains relatively modest: he has penned three volumes spaced evenly over three decades. Now from a leading American independent publisher, Coffee House Press, comes Selected Poems, which also includes a handful of new work. But considering how generously it incorporates the past three volumes, and how slim an oeuvre three volumes is from which to select in the first place, the aim of this new volume seems less to select and more to introduce. Indeed, despite Ford’s affinities for echt American poets such as O’Hara and Ashbery, the British professor and poet born in Kenya has gone largely uncelebrated in this country. This book is a fine bid to change that situation.
The United States, in fact, is a prominent theme in Ford’s first volume, Landlocked (1992). When an interviewer noted as much, Ford responded that “the America of those early poems is an America of the mind.” The comment deserves some explanation. Though Ford studied at Harvard as a Kennedy scholar, he is no American. He sees the country as an expatriate does. Recall the quintessentially British Thom Gunn landing stateside, donning his leather jacket, and turning on, tuning in, and dropping out to Jefferson Airplane. Like Gunn, Ford taps into an America of the mind that non-Americans prove themselves more capable of accessing; he recovers the iconic power of those symbols that for most of us born here are encrusted in cliché. In Landlocked’s title poem, for example, an unspecified “she” sends Ford “a postcard from somewhere / In Missouri, and then again from Amarillo, / Texas. She said she thought she’d make it / All the way to sunshine California.” Selected Poems also reprints “General Knowledge,” where
Atlanta emerged from the ribbed, red soilOf Georgia; it now hasOne of the busiest airports in AmericaFrom there we flew to the cradling armsOf New Orleans; here, where the MississippiEnds, perspiring jazz musicians like bulls lock horns.
What is notable here is not only the distinctive geographical and climactic features—red soil, sunshine, the great branching river—but also the melodic litany of place names the poems delight in unfurling. The expanses evoked by the south and west are paired with the rolling expanses of the words themselves. (“Vermont” just wouldn’t work.) In this way, Ford has taken a line from Wallace Stevens—“I placed a jar in Tennessee”—and pushed its effect to the most extreme limits. To Stevens, the Harvard-educated Hartford insurance lawyer, Tennessee may as well have been a foreign country, too: he likely chose the state not just because he visited it but also because its name has a musical rurality—the unstressed valley in the middle of it—that contrasts perfectly with the artifice of the manmade monosyllabic “jar.” Ford helps American readers take pleasure in seeing with fresh eyes a country they know too well to notice.
Excluding “A Swimming Pool Full of Peanuts” from Selected Poems would have been an obvious omission of Ford’s best-known poem. But it also makes for a strange inclusion, sticking out more than ever as Ford’s work has drifted further from it stylistically. Readers have admired the poem for the immediate pleasure of its wonderful absurdity—a traveling salesman comes across a swimming pool full of peanuts, dives in after some inspection, then hacks away at it with a nine iron—but this same quality has caused more than one critic (including Allen Ginsberg, apparently) to dismiss it. In any case, both the attraction and censure seem misplaced. The poem works so well not for how surreal but for how real it is. Though in narrative it progresses from the real to the absurd, the language itself pulls in the opposite direction. At the start of the poem, the salesman is moseying round the back of a house to return to his idling car, relating that “the grass is all stiff / and the plastic tress are all lifeless and there’s no shade / nothing stirring.” The density of absolutes—all, all, no, nothing—creates a scene that is more artificial than it seems. If readers take a step back from the poem, they might ask, “Really? All the trees are lifeless, and nothing is stirring?” Not likely. But after the salesman stumbles upon the swimming pool full of peanuts, the poet’s language becomes more precise and, in that way at least, more believable: the salesman dips his finger into the pool to discover “small grainy nuggets / sand-coated and a bit greasy some whole some in / half.” This incredible accumulation of adjectives captures layers of texture and size, effectively reversing the exaggerated unreality of “the grass is all stiff.” No poet but Elizabeth Bishop (whom Ford wrote about in his book of essays, A Driftwood Altar) could match Ford’s painstaking description in this poem. Its real accomplishment is not whimsy but the reminder that sometimes what is not the case can be made to seem more real than what is.
More and more of Ford’s poems have come to depart from the technique of “A Swimming Pool Full of Peanuts.” That is, they take reality and make it uncanny, too strange to be believed. Quite often these poems draw on scraps of the past found in literary and historical texts and traditions. Ford has cheekily commented that he wrote “Early to Bed, Early to Rise,” from Soft Sift (2001), his second book, because he realized his first book didn’t contain any allusions and, looking at the work of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, he’d need some if he wanted to get anywhere. The resulting poem is even cheekier than this justification, if we are to believe it (the book’s title, it should be noted, is borrowed from Gerard Manley Hopkins). The poem opens:
It was in Berlin you mixed up John and J. J. Cale,And we found ourselves watching Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past yet again.I, on the other hand, confused Teniers the elder and Teniers the youngerIn Amsterdam, where I saw Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys on my own.
And the poem goes on like this: delightful, even if it doesn’t amount to much or try to. The sense of play that buoys up this poem no doubt also inspired poems from his third volume, Six Children (2011), such as “The Death of Hart Crane” and the book’s title poem. In the former, which takes the form of an anonymous letter, an individual claims to have met Hart Crane, or a gaggle of Hart Cranes, in the 1970s in Greenwich Village, long after the poet’s death. The latter poem, in the voice (if not the style) of Walt Whitman, is a defense of that poet’s spurious claim that “Though unmarried I have had six children.” It comprises six statements, one for each child, each more or less like the first: “The first woman I ever got with child wore calico / In Carolina. She was hoeing beans; as a languorous breeze / I caressed her loins, until her hoe lay abandoned in the furrow.” It is in contrast to this levity that a more recent strand of poems, still allusive but of a far different mood, takes shape—sober and wild grapplings with reality inspired, for example, by Gregory of Nazianzus, Pliny the Elder, and the Münster Rebellion. “The Münster Anabaptists” takes root in the sixteenth-century story of Jan Matthys’s christening Münster the “New Jerusalem.” There he briefly established anabaptist rule and instituted adult baptism before being driven out, decapitated, and castrated thanks to bishop Franz von Waldeck. The details and dates are hard to keep straight, but Ford turns them into terrifying and passionately voiced verse:
We saw it—a cloud in the shape of an angry bishopLooming over us, dwarfing us; and we gasped as a bladeOf lightning tore apart the cloud, and it dissolved as the sun set.So we drove the unclean from Münster, laughingAs they fled, unbaptised and naked, into knifing windsAnd frenzied snow; and Jan Matthys, our bony prophet, was content.
The poem ends in blurring pronouns as Jan Matthys and his band ride out of the city, alive, optimistic, and convinced for a moment longer:
Encased in armor, lo! our own Gideon rides forth through the city gatesLeading his tiny band of chosen followers; and we, from the walls of Münster, watchThe bishop’s Landsknechte quail, and brace themselves for slaughter.
Though this is history, it ascends to fantasy, reveling in the allegorical cast of images such as the “cloud in the shape of an angry bishop,” the “knifing winds,” and the “bony prophet.”
Ford’s personal history has recently received this type of treatment, too. “Show Time” is one of the new pieces in Selected Poems, and it narrates a Halloween night in Boston when Ford was (actually) mugged. Ford begins to tell the reader of the incident in a calm voice and linear fashion:
As ifI had conjured them, oneHalloween two hooded figures loomedabove meon a bridge I was dawdling across. . .
But the composure soon shatters:
I layprone awhile . . . then, springingto life, into action,I fled. Something—my heart—boomedand echoed like pursuingfootsteps on asphalt. Leeeeeft, a voice shoutedin a comic French accent, erpp yer aass. Laughter.Don’t stop don’t stoptill you get enough! “Are you,” I recalldemanding of a friendlyparamedic as he shone his pencil torchdeep into my eyes, “an electric light bulb, andif so,what wattage?” No oneI met seemed to knowabout soldier ants, about howtheir jaws, or maybe their claws, are used in Africato stitch up wounds.
“As if / I had conjured them,” as the poem says at the beginning of this episode, the “as if” hanging at the line break. As if. And yet poetry this strange, felt, terrifying, physical, cerebral, and real is indeed a conjuring act.
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