POET AND CRITIC: Ian Gregson, Postmodern Literature (Arnold) and Call Centre Love Song (Salt Publishing)
Postmodern Literature begins by explaining how the concept of the postmodern is a way of understanding our experience of living at the present time: ‘The historical presence of the postmodern constantly imposes the knowledge that we are surrounded by representations rather than truth, that what we are told has been pre-packaged by ideological distortion – this makes deconstruction a constant and inevitable mental habit…“mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising” are so omnipresent that is it impossible to function mentally without deconstructing their claims.’ The refreshing aim of Postmodern Literature is to ‘celebrate the variety of writing that has been produced in the postmodern period…there is a deadening fastidiousness found in academic circles which fences off thoroughly postmodernist texts from others which are contemporary with them, but which do not sufficiently match up to the postmodern script.’ In fact, Gregson is less interested in ‘thoroughly postmodern literature’. Instead, his preference is for writers who, he argues, combine postmodern techniques with realism in order to write about life in postmodern times: ‘it is part of the business of a writer to want to say something about actual experience, and often this is what drives a writer to write in the first place…much of the most powerful literature in the period draw[s] upon traditional realist techniques at the same time as it calls them into question with postmodernist techniques.’ For example, there is an excellent discussion of Raymond Carver, who, though he invented ‘a fictive idiom which is entirely at odds with postmodernist fictive idioms’ nevertheless ‘depicts its corner of the postmodern condition with at least as much vividness as more obviously postmodernist writing.’ Gregson’s preference for this kind of writing accounts, at least in part, for the book’s omissions. For example, although American poets are well-represented, the only poets from Britain and Ireland discussed, apart from Edwin Morgan and Paul Muldoon, are Hughes and Heaney (for their un-postmodern ‘gendered view of Nature’). There is no mention, for example, of, say, Lee Harwood or Roy Fisher, whose achievements, discussed in terms of Gregson’s argument, are particularly interesting. The book is structured thematically, which means that writers are discussed in terms of the way in which their work reflects particular concerns. This leads to the presentation of thought-provoking and illuminating parallels between a diversity of writers. For example the central chapter on ‘the postmodern self’ (‘a social and ideological construct which is endlessly in process…constituted peformatively, by what the self does’) discusses Plath, Berryman, O’Hara, Ashbery and Angela Carter. Postmodern Literature is readable, provocative and excellent in its account of particular writers. It also provides a fascinating introduction to Gregson’s own poems. Indeed, the unmistakeable conviction behind his statement on ‘the business of a writer’ suggests that, here, Gregson is speaking as a writer (I am adopting his implicit distinction between the writer and the critic): he is outlining his own poetic. This overlap between the critical and the creative (an overlap which, incidentally, Postmodern Literature discusses in terms of the work of Adrienne Rich) gives Gregson’s criticism, I would suggest, its particular strength. Which brings me to the poems.
Call Centre Love Song certainly has a postmodern feel to it, for example in the titles: ‘My Husband is an Alien’; ‘The Adman’s Breakdown’, ‘Phallic Shit’, ‘Deconstructionists on Fast Forward’, ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon (U.S. 1952)’, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine Reaches Puberty’, ‘Superman and Lois’. Furthermore, Gregson’s critical preoccupations gain direct expression, for example in ‘Hughes & Heaney & Sons’: ‘In poems by Hughes and Heaney, boys / are linked to bodies in the mud, / for Nature gives the male no choice / but do as he’s told by his blood’. Where the collection is most effective, however, is in its combination of ‘realism’ and postmodernism. One of Gregson’s most compelling preoccupations, apart from notions of masculinity, appears to be with the postmodern notion of the incoherent self, and what happens when the self is experienced as a construct, so that its stability is undermined. The context of this experience is often a particular situation in which identity is challenged or compromised. A character employed to shadow someone, for example, finds himself taking on his subject’s identity. Although the poems, generally speaking, start out with a stable sense of the self (they use ‘realist techniques’) they explore, interrogate and disrupt this stability. Some of the most memorable lines in the collection are those where the rug is pulled from under our feet:
‘And when the film ends, I’m like / A frogman waiting to rise, / Treading water just below the surface, learning / To breathe again at a lower pressure’ (‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon (U.S. 1952)’
‘and the next morning // rain was falling through me’ (‘The Roof’)
‘I step out of a future mirror / wondering what I want. / I walk towards me like a threat / and wear myself back to front’ (‘A Foreign Body’)
‘She must have confused her husband with the sea – / Its brief identities shuffled together’ (‘The Breakwater’).
‘bound / tight inside himself where he’s concealed / like condoms inside a globe’ (‘My Husband is an Alien’).
The experience of self-disruption is disorientating. It can provide a kind of dubious freedom from the confines of an old self, as in ‘Saturday Night Revisited’: ‘where it’s all as changeable / as a store-window display…as if I could uncover / from inside myself another person, / keep shopping for another version / of myself and another lover, / seat myself on a store-window settee / hand in hand with a mannequin, keep swapping my identity / and all I’ve been’ (‘Saturday Night Revisited’). In the ‘Superman and Lois’ sequence, on the other hand, the effect is entirely negative: Superman comes to a bad end, his ‘supersenses’ on overload, so that he suffers from a dissipation of identity which leads to entrapment: ‘I can’t escape / until I wall up in my arctic bunker / wanting not to help or understand / but be alone and sleep inside my cape / like any other wanker’. Call Centre Love Song is a little uneven: there is an occasional awkwardness, for example where form appears to get its own way at the expense of the poem: ‘I’m edgy now with looming blame. / To fall in love with just a voice! / You asked for me again by name / And boggled my poise like secret vice’ (‘Call Centre Love Song’). Nevertheless this is an ambitious, generous collection, and there is an energy and excitement that makes the book a pleasure to read. The penultimate section ‘Sick Room’, contains some of the most powerful work. For example, this description of the effect of a stroke: ‘and by the time that she came back / she leant to one side and was slack. // My stutter joined with hers / so when we spoke // our words lay broken all over the house’ (‘In the New House’). The last poem in the book, ‘Sultry’, effortlessly and memorably touches on the collection’s most insistent themes:
‘I’m thoroughly empty and dozing
and the drone of your vibrator
is a light aircraft circling
high on a thundery afternoon
where the parched view from its window
to where the sea rippling
is a troubled unreachable shimmer’
It will be interesting to see where Gregson goes from here.
First published in The North