Dec 16 2011

A Company of Ghosts by Christopher Middleton

Laura Kolbe

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Christopher Middleton is a poet for our moment: angry, denunciatory, fed up with the status quo. But he's not a young Occupier or Tea Party supporter. Middleton is an eighty-five-year-old Englishman living in Texas, and his most recent volume, A Company of Ghosts, is approximately his twenty-fourth book of poems. (Sometimes he publishes poetry and prose in the same volume, or publishes translations of other writers' work alongside his own.) Middleton is a master of distinctly adult anger, free of clamor or whine, and the steady flame of it flares up repeatedly in A Company of Ghosts.

While Middleton writes with bitter indignation about his military experiences in World War II, even a poem like "The Game of Conkers," a bucolic poem on boyhood, is colored not just by the benign savagery of children, but also by an absent, threatening event. After recalling what the clouds overhead might have looked like to boys trying to crack each others' "conkers," or chestnuts tied with string, the poem ends

There and then not a cloud reminded us
of a mushroom.

The first time one reads the poem, Middleton's referral to what isn't there—a mushroom cloud—feels abrupt, unearned, even irritating. But the poem's brilliance is its persuasiveness upon re-reading: knowing how it will end, one is disquieted by how naturally the children take to games of power and force, "skewer[ing]… nut meat" and fighting for "conquest." This denunciation is aimed not at the boys, but the unfolding twentieth century, which offered an instinctively violent species the opportunity to play conkers at the most grotesque scale.

Middleton's positioning of himself at the edge of his era's culture is mirrored in his choice of foreign writers to champion: he was one of the first to translate Friedrich Hölderlin for an English-speaking audience, the very first to translate Robert Walser, and a great and early admirer of Bruno Schulz. Characteristic of Middleton's sometimes brutal bluntness is the ending of "The Pendulum Stilled," his "homage to Bruno Schulz": "Typically for his worst of times / point blank SS-man Günther shot him."

Most often, Middleton's targets are the people and technologies that replace rigorous thought and direct apprehension with packaged answers and entertainments: "every twittering vandal of speech," "the sweet-talker / Whose voice curdles with money and hate," the "little black pod" of a cell phone, and "the goggle box, ravings / of commerce …" To achieve his outrage, the two tones he most frequently deploys are serious dismay and serious rapture. Elizabeth Bishop's quiet reproval of her dead friend Robert Lowell in "North Haven" ("'Fun'—it always seemed to leave you at a loss…") could be leveled at Middleton as well. His poems sometimes edge in the direction of fun, but they usually stop en route at either wryness or amusement. A poem called "Promenade" imagines the poet as a dog being walked by his "master" and concludes with a fusion of the moralizing and the mildly scandalous: "Soul of mine, take every chance, / Lift your leg, piss on dreariness."

Animals recur again and again in Middleton's work, and birds are frequently invoked as metaphors for human, and particularly artistic, behavior. In his great, sometimes maddeningly contrarian essay "The Pursuit of the Kingfisher: Writing as Expression" (1976), Middleton writes of poetic structures and birds' structures (their nests and their songs):

For the poet, as for birds, what is expressed has validity and interest only
insofar as it initiates, elaborates, and projects a distinct structure. An
appropriate structure … which delivers from bondage the inchoate dark
thing that insists on being said.

Middleton never lets poetry wander far from utility, and by hewing to the metaphor of birds, he makes clear that the poet must do the thing he/she sets out to do, workmanlike, birdlike. Freedom is not immediately in evidence, but at the same time, Middleton understands that the impossibility of doing perfect justice to either inward and outward demands means that poets have to approximate.

In one of the most arresting poems in A Company of Ghosts, "For the Birthday of John Keats in 1795," the speaker observes a sparrow at a feeder and argues with himself whether their behavior is edifying or horrible. The former position is akin to the gospel injunction to emulate the birds of the air, "who neither sow nor reap nor gather in barns," instead trusting in providence. As Middleton puts it,

Never in cool consideration do they form a line
or come to believe that seed is really being…

… Why need any bird
with air its element conceptualize,
as we keep doing, up and down?

By not thinking, the birds ensure that they will never waste time overthinking simple problems. This is not a particularly convincing argument for the joys of insentience, though Middleton doesn't intend it to be. He goes on to say that birds are nonetheless needlessly awful to each other, the satiated "glutted ones" still blocking others from feeder perches even when they can eat no more. Meanwhile the humans hunker inside the house, "concealing / jars where all the seeds are stored." Birds' thoughtless greed versus our own hoarding: which is worse? Unlike other targets of Middleton's ire (technology, war), which are theoretically correctable social ills, the innate brutishness that Middleton finds in animals and humans is presented as inevitable. This pessimism spares the poem from becoming preachy, because Middleton has no solution to preach.

"For the Birthday" has the "appropriate structure" stripped of "inessentials" that Middleton prescribed in "Pursuit of the Kingfisher." But the two sides of the argument—instinctive cruelty versus calculated miserliness—are balanced so that neither can really win, granting the poem the freedom to flit in between. In a world Middleton finds overtaken with goggle boxes and sweet-talkers, this restlessness of thought functions as an evasion, a vital squirming before we forget to care.

With his harsh pessimism, Middleton often comes dangerously close to expending readers' patience. Whenever he writes about great poetry and great beauty, however—which he does frequently—he wins back our loyalty and affection. After all, who can resist a writer who embodies the imperative that writing be, as he says in "Pursuit of the Kingfisher," "loving, deliberate, desperate, impulsive"?

Laura Kolbe works in clinical research at a hospital in New York City.

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