Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Adam Foulds, The Broken Word (2008)

This is one of the 2008 Costa Book Award shortlisted titles, and worthily so I'd say. It is Good Poetry: a verse tale of a young Englishman’s experience of Kenya during the Mau Mau rising, full of impressive and often upsetting moments. Tom, between school and university, travels to his family’s African farm. Some nasty Mau Mau violence is described, but the real emphasis in the poem is on the disproportionate savagery of the English reaction. Tom is recruited into a band of colonial irregulars—farmers and colonists going round with guns killing Kenyans—and later becomes a guard at an internment camp. The torture facility of this place—Compound 9—is an especially nasty place; and the African section of the poem ends with Tom taking a malign sort of pity on an impressive young Mau Mau, about to be taken off there, by shooting him through the head. Then the poem jump-cuts to England, Tom at Cambridge (I take it) reading Classics, and suffering a complex of post-traumatic unhappinesses. He courts a fellow undergraduate, but it looks like he scares her off with his twitchy manner and blurting inappropriatenesses. At the very end, though, she effectively asks him to ask her to marry him. I didn’t take this to be a happy ending. Fould has practiced up, and is pretty effective with, a sort of diluted Martian poetic idiom, and he manages some very striking lines of poetry and vivid images; but by far the most vivid and striking are the most horrible ones—the murder of a couple of Englishmen, a properly revolting description of the rape of a Kenyan woman, the horrible torturing and dismemberments in Compound 9. You can believe that living through these sorts of experiences is bound to fuck a lad up pretty comprehensively, and you finish reading the poem doubting that anybody so fucked-up could be in any sense a good husband or father. I’d feel sorry for the woman (Eleanor, she is called). Or I would have done, had she been in any meaningful sense a character.

There are some lovely lines. Here’s Tom, besotted with Eleanor:
He’d seen her before at lectures
and now sat deliberately behind her
to look down onto her tender nape,
the blue threads of ink from her fountain pen
she tied into beautiful knots. [52]
Those last two lines are superb. Here’s a fly, with a bit of the context of the description:
Tom watched for a bit. He’d grown a connoisseur
of beatings: the first blows stunning and accurate,
with feints or not, and large, like sculpture.
But quickly the prisoner couldn’t focus,
looked ridiculous, bewildered, lonely
before they blacked out completely and lay there.

(The black flies, soft as hair
as they landed on you,
shivered half an inch
in any direction, bristly bodies throbbing,
before setting down the delicate leg
of their mouthparts …
There was no way to get rid of them,
you just waved at their persistence
for hours, until you fell asleep.) [34-5]

'The delicate leg of their mouthparts' is striking as description in its own right, but here, with its hint of dislocated limbs, the tangle-together of feeding and dismemberment, it's particularly memorable. Sometimes, although only occasionally, Fould strains a little (‘the fragrant blue acid/of a gin and tonic’ 7; ‘a walnut-sized/tuft of bread’ 15; a night ‘fur-trimmed with moths’ 31) but generally his poetry is a supple and effective instrument.

There is, though, something anticlimactic about the book; and I don’t think it’s deliberately so. There’s a Craig Raine-ish (a Rainey) flavour to the poetry—chapter 9 is called ‘Rain;’—which is fine; Raine is a major contemporary poet, and his is an idiom worth copying. Foulds thanks Raine in his acknowledgements, and Raine provides a backcover blurb praising the poem as ‘first-class, word-perfect, brilliant’ and adding:

The long poem is the most testing of poetic forms but Adam Foulds passes the test triumphantly.
I confess I read that as a typically oblique, suggestive Raine sentence. What it is saying, amongst other things, is: ‘I wrote History: the Home Movie, you know.’ And the truth is that compared with that long poem, The Broken Word feels a little … thin. It is a short story in verse, not a novel. But the problem with that (and I spent a while thinking: is there a problem with that, actually?) is that any poem worth its salt is a short-story in verse; and that most poems that are worth their salt achieve that effect in a few lines, rather than 61 pages. Another way of putting this, if it doesn’t seem to contradict what I’m saying, is that The Broken Word needs to be longer. It needs more heft. History: the Home Movie is sometimes overcompressed, and gristly, but there’s no denying the enormous momentum and weight it accumulates as it goes on. Other contemporary long poems of significance—Les Murray’s glorious Fredy Neptune, for instance—succeed with a kind of formal excess. The Broken Word feels filigree by comparison. Some scenes—Tom’s sister in the bath, and peering at her teeth, or the goings-on of the vile colonial officer Prior—set themselves up to be followed up, but then aren’t. In fact the poem quickly settles wholly on to Tom’s p.o.v. which turns early departures from that perspective, like these, into hang-nails. It was a poem that hasn’t quite made up its mind about whether it is just about Tom’s slightly feeble emotional journey, or about something larger: early scenes hint that it was planned on a larger scale, but that this scale falls away before the end of the African scene, and the final English chapters feel if not inconsequential then certainly an underemphatic coda.

What am I saying? I think I’m saying that Rainese, as a poetic idiom, is very good at isolating moments of intensity: vivid imagery, striking or emphatic emotional or physical states. The best Rainey images strike the mind with great force. This makes his idiom less effective at other things; even (it sounds counterintuitive to say this, in a way) nuance. In Fould’s hands this means that the Mau Mau rebellion becomes a series of forceful and often upsetting details, memorably expressed, and nothing else; and it means that his second section is almost bound to seem anticlimactic.


John Self said...

"It is a short story in verse, not a novel. But the problem with that ... is that any poem worth its salt is a short-story in verse; and that most poems that are worth their salt achieve that effect in a few lines, rather than 61 pages."

A very good point, and a very good review. The book felt to me not so much a short story in verse as a short film in verse: so addicted is Foulds to his Raineian/Martian imagery. But he does do it very well. Though I must admit there is a part of me which holds a certian cynicism toward a writer who seems to have such facility in different fields (award-winning first novel; award-winning first book of poetry; second novel hot on the heels). Maybe that's just envy, as he's about my age...

Adam Roberts said...

Thanks, John. (I like your blog, by the way).

I agree with you on the danger of envy, compounded in this case by the fact that he's got my first name ...