History Held Together with String

As Reviewed By: J. K. Halligan

The Invasion Handbook by Tom Paulin. Faber & Faber, 2002.

In the poem “Surveillances”, from his second collection, The Strange Museum (1980), Tom Paulin addressed the anonymous inhabitants of Northern Ireland who made their homes near a prison-

And if you would swop its functions
For a culture of bungalows
And light verse,
You know this is one
Of the places you belong in,
And that its public uniform
Has claimed your service.

[private]Paulin has a talent for saeva indignatio, and in The Invasion Handbook, the first part of a trilogy concerning the Second World War and its causes, he broadens the scope of his accusations to take in a range of individuals whose weaknesses and complicity contributed to the war.

There has always been something of the street-fighter’s toss-and-run strategy at work in Paulin’s poems; as a member of the Generation of 68, he holds state oppression and war-mongering, particularly of the fascist or empire-building variety, in contempt, and The Invasion Handbook fingers a number of culprits who acted as ideological water-bearers. In the lengthy set-piece ‘Locarno’, and in the dramatic soliloquy ‘Briand’, he re-creates respectively a forgotten peace conference through the eyes of Jerome K. Jerome, the comic novelist and journalist who “sits in the hotel room / -blue blazer glinty brass buttons / he knows he has two years to live,” and the rarified musings of a senior French statesman working to improve a peace that his superiors undermine. This new collection, like history itself, is a motley bag of coincidences, near-misses, ideas and individuals both famous and obscure, all of them beholden to what J. M. Keynes called “the influence of some long dead philosopher.”

Paulin calls himself a failed historian, but at its best this is history with a dramatic and tangible presence that brings the period to life in a way that is unlike anything conventional historians could attempt and is much more like, say, a superior thriller whose protagonists are exclusively politicians, philosophers and journalists possessed of higher degrees and sensibilities. There is often a sense in Paulin’s poetry that pronunciation, appearances, or the cut of a cloth accurately betray a person’s allegiances; in the fascinating poem ‘Schwarzwald oder Bauhaus’, for example, this focus on appearances and their ideological connotations expands to include a schema of the aesthetics that define fascism. A sigh of disgust at modernity escapes the lips of Martin Heidegger, puffing a pipe in his black forest retreat as he considers whether to accept the Nazis’ invitation:

the standardization of our needs is manifest
the derby hat the bobbed hairdo
the tango jazz
coop products
presized stationery
and Liebig’s meat products

And in the poem ‘Gellhorn’s Story’, Paulin reconstructs the moment in which the fellow-travelling writer was dining with her husband, Ernest Hemingway, and succumbed to the charms of another man:

Koltzov was Stalin’s ears and eyes
I like him yes
-so confident so drole
his talk witty and masterful
his blue suit beautifully
cut like his curly hair
his brown eyes quick but not cold
-for a moment they catch me
and then I feel E’s
watching and angry

The tendentious ambition of Paulin’s reach has in the past been saved by an eye for lexical oddities and his interest in demotic speech and rhythm. There has lately been something dashed off and impatient about his work, as if he eschewed rhyme and structure because they were somehow politically suspect, and so it is appropriate that he has found a canvas on which smaller pieces-the seemingly nugatory ‘Ethiopia’ for instance (“i hope the orgenmen gas them to buggery / love evelyn”)-can be carried along by the more ragged and extended pieces while still contributing to the overall picture of cultural history.

Yet for all the momentum that Paulin succeeds in harnessing from the flow of events, the question arises: is this poetry? T. S. Eliot, both an historical and interstitial presence in this work, had the gift of alchemy. Paulin, in his turn, has a gift for innuendo and invective. They are not the same thing. Moreover, Paulin has learned more than a little from Eliot’s talent for caricature and compression, but the detachment, allusiveness and unimpeachable craft that we associate with the Pope of Russell Square are rarely achieved in The Invasion Handbook. Eliot appears as something of a lost leader to Paulin, who floated the theory, some years ago, that Eliot’s supposed anti-Semitism owed its origins to his distaste for his parents’ religion, Unitarianism. This was a novel if reductive speculation and not implausibly yoked Freud to Eliot, with perhaps a nod to Harold Bloom.

The analogy thus drawn between Unitarianism and Judaism acquires a further parallel, in Paulin’s case, in the radical Unionism of Northern Ireland that he knows first-hand and so vocally detests. The fundamentalism of Ian Paisley (or, in Eliot’s time, a figure such as Colonel Orde Wingate, the eccentric protestant Zionist who wore a flowing beard into combat in the jungles of Burma) has long been a formidable ‘obstacle to peace’ in Paulin’s and others’ estimation. Similarly, his remarks about the Brooklyn settlers (“Nazis… I think they should be shot”), may be read as the obverse of the righteous fury of the Unionists. That this anger should have found, perhaps perversely, an outlet in the West Bank, in those settlers whom Paulin excoriated, is nevertheless of a piece with his sectarian background.

These political sympathies were pushed into the limelight last year when faculty and students agitated for the cancellation of Paulin’s poetry reading at Harvard University. In light of the protests, the English Department claimed that it consulted with the poet, and that he voluntarily decided not to speak at the engagement. The official webpage of the department carried a statement regretting “the widespread consternation that has arisen as a result of this invitation, which had been originally decided on last winter solely on the basis of Mr. Paulin’s lifetime accomplishment as a poet.” The whole affair turned into a media circus for a short time, as advocates of free-speech sparred with pro-Israeli spokesmen over the particulars of the case. Paulin, for his part, seemed not to relish the fight for once-and has said little publicly about the Harvard incident, preferring instead to publish a poem entitled “On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card” in the January 2003 issue of the London Review of Books.

Technique and polemics apart, there is necessarily more than a trace of the research library about this work. The cryptic manner in which the discoveries are presented, with barely a minimum of explanatory footnotes, seems oddly in keeping with the ‘cunning corridors’ where history’s secrets lie in ironic proximity to each other:

Sir William Crocker
like his chum the governor-
Montagu Norman-of the Bank of England
has a secret line to Ribbentrop
who coos to the Queen of England

Even some of the more recherché pieces have the ring of truth about them, a nauseating whiff of the real:

Scruffy shadows dirty shadows
From out of the slink of a ditch
-except the only ditch
is a grey latrine
they’re wrapped in torn rags
held together with string.

Where the poems in A State of Justice (1977) and The Strange Museum were screeds against oppression and English complacency couched partly in the language of street protest, Paulin’s more recent collection, The Wind Dog, trawled the depths where pre-conscious utterance and vatic expression cross. The Invasion Handbook sees him returning to the fray, accelerating and building on the scholarly and rhetorical side of his scrappy polemical talent. Indeed, there is something garrulously, if not quite so megalomaniacally and insanely, Poundian about this enterprise, and just as it does in The Cantos, the poetry plays subaltern to another, obscurely didactic, agenda. Pound is Paulin’s ideological opposite, yet both are fascinated in a Dantescan fashion with the living personalities that haunt the “cunning corridors” of history. We know where this led Pound and Hitler in their search for a scape-goat. Paulin, on the other hand, despite his detractors’ hasty and ignorant mis-estimation, is no anti-Semite, but neither is he a lyricist of Pound’s caliber: there is nothing remotely like the passages of virtuosity to be found in The Cantos. As often as not, the poetry simply goes missing from The Invasion Handbook.

When Pound visited America on the eve of war in 1939, he went out of his way to provoke a debate at Hamilton College, his alma mater, to which he had been invited for the commencement ceremonies. A certain Mr Kaltenborn, nonplussed by the ferocity of Pound’s defence of fascism, remarked simply, “Praise God that in America people of varying points of view can still speak out.”[/private]

About JKHalligan

J. K. Halligan is the author of Blossom Street and other poems (2001), available online through Amazon UK. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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