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Aled Ganobcsik-Williams

Alan Baker ‘Letters from the Underworld’ (New Mills, Derbyshire: Red Ceilings Press, 2018)

‘Letters from the Underworld’ is a small pamphlet of twenty prose poems, one to a page, each presented as a paragraph of roughly 200 words. The poems take the form of a series of letters in which a first-person writer addresses a correspondent, a personal acquaintance. The identity of writer and recipient of the letters are not specified (hence the ‘you’ involves the reader), but do seem to be the same throughout the occasionally a ‘we’ implies an earlier intimacy or proximity, now interrupted. The letters are not manifestly continuous, nor do they necessarily follow a linear chronology. Instead we seem to be presented with snapshots from one side of an ongoing epistolary relationship: the first letter begins ’Thank you for your letter; it was good to hear from you’ (page 1). Although the letter-poems are written as prose, they are not within the narrative conventions of story-telling, suspension and resolution characterisation—or explication. The absence of narrative momentum permits and encourages the reader to attend more closely to the words themselves and to the formal construction of the poems, and this is what makes the units of prose ‘poetic’ and what has drawn me to re-read them many times.

In content, the letters contain fragmented information about daily life in a dystopian city or state that taken together creates an overwhelming sense of impending crises that are social, political, economic, and ecological. The city is not named, but many of the details could refer to our current predicament: political tyranny and persecution, the displacement and forced movement of populations, a paranoid policing of borders, financial instability, homelessness and destitution, moral dogmatism, pollution, rising sea levels, loneliness and separation, rootlessness, political apathy, and the distractions and consolations of TV and consumerism. Bleakness is offset, however, by the writer’s recourse to a lyrical language through which other possible worlds (and means of escape) become available: ‘I could move with the world, as a Wild Swimmer moves with the current, conserving her energy, relaxed enough to be able to enjoy the play of sunlight and spray on the cliffs, to hear the seabirds cry, to move in harmony with the deep’ (page 11). Throughout, the intimations of an approaching catastrophe are juxtaposed with passages that describe a better world, one recalled or imagined.

  ‘In former times we wandered wide in search of pasture, setting out each morning into the green hills. Such freedom! Do you remember the old footpaths and drover’s tracks, when wandering was a pleasure? But the strangers who arrive by night tell a different story; they take detours through underground caverns, follow their GPS through deprived areas of provincial cities, are denied access to places of safety, sleep in bus stations where stars are erased’ (page 14).

‘Wandering’ is a word that appears several times in this brief collection, taking on new meanings as it recurs. In the passage just quoted, it encapsulates both a pastoral freedom and alienation or exile from that idyllic state. Different possible meanings of ‘wandering’ seem to collide in several of the poems—

          ‘My dreams are increasingly of exile and wandering’ (page 3)

—a point to which I will return.

As suggested by the title and the image on the front cover of this small pamphlet, Dante’s ‘Inferno’ is one source for the idea of this collection, though it is not the only one. The title alludes to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella Notes from Underground (also translated as Letters from the Underworld) and the mood and form of the poems owe something to the fragmented, unsettling presentation of urban scenes in Charles Baudelaire’s poems in prose form, Petits Poèmes en prose begun in 1855 and published posthumously in 1869. Many more allusions can be identified and, as a result, the pamphlet seems invested in the idea of the ‘literary.’  There are quotations or borrowings from John Donne’s ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,’ Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden,’ Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses,’ and Matthew Arnold ‘Dover Beach’. Peter Reading’s Perduta Gente (1989), another very ‘literary’ collection of poems on the indigent and homeless that draws on ‘The Inferno’ for its title, also suggests itself as a significant poetic precursor.

Undoubtedly I will have missed allusions and borrowings that were intended; in an email, Alan Baker pointed to John Ashbery’s “Three Poems” as another text in the background of his own. Then again, I may have uncovered textual references which were not consciously made. For example, one of my favourite of the poems in Letters from the Underworld is the second, which begins with the writer haunted by a voice whose provenance he does not know.

  ‘Whose voice she took, I do not know. Whose hand she took, I know; it was mine, for sure, but is that OK? A strange child leading me into the night? Nature is the world’s playground she said, but led me into the town, where people whispered and pointed.’

Here, I am reminded of Blake's illustration to his poem 'London ('I wander thro' each chartered street'), in which a child leads an old man. Blake’s apocalyptic poem views urban wandering as an activity that exposes injustice; the poem’s narrator presents the human misery it witnesses through its affective response to the physical environment. Again in correspondence, Alan Baker assured me that the allusion was not deliberate: but that it was relevant nevertheless: ‘it's appropriate, as Blake did illustrations for The Divine Comedy (definitely an important text for the Letters).’  Intertextuality might be a more useful term than allusion for this patchwork of deliberate and unintended echoes.

In their incorporation of other voices and of language from other sources, Baker’s poems are by no means purely literary in aspiration. As Ian Seed’s blurb on the jacket cover observes, the ‘poetic’ language in this collection exists alongside ‘many different kinds of language—the political, the spiritual, the scientific, the commercial’. This co-occurrence, this rubbing together of different texts and discourses accounts for the ‘strange language’ of the poems, for their freshness. Interestingly, it may be constitutive, too, of the prose poem as a genre. According Michel Delville, one of the best critical writers on the prose poem, the prose poem as genre is ‘inherently intertextual and heteroglot’ – something that follows from its ‘ambivalent status as a genre writing across other genres’ (Delville page 8). Hence, in Baker’s textual collage, the ‘I’ who writes the letters is not so much a source from which the language issues as a point at which the various borrowing and filchings from other discourses and texts (‘a magpie language’) mingle or merge. The poems themselves gesture self-referentially to the way they are constructed from already existing language:

  ‘We are lacking neologisms to delineate our plight [ . . .] The multiple lives of the forgotten inhabit my tongue, my eye socket, my nerves and frontal cortex, and engage in feuds with their neighbours’ (page 8).

Although the language is not wholly his own (I will assume for now that the writer is male, though this is not given), the letter writer is not able to detach himself from the political and social injustices he records. Whereas he is not one of those destitute refugees forced to wander in search of safety--‘shaken world, wide with wanderers displaced and dispossessed, seeking refuge and finding razor wire and shipwreck’ (Letter 7)--the letter writer is subject nevertheless to a wandering, a restless and not-freely-chosen movement, of a different kind: ‘How long I can continue doing this job is another passing thought, frequenting airports, taxis, hotels, wandering emptily and alone round the Old Towns of so many cities’ (Letter 4). The writer’s recognition of and dissatisfaction with the cultural conditions that  underlie his own relative safety and privilege points towards the possibility of something like empathy and solidarity with the wandering exiles and a necessary step towards the overcoming of melancholy and indifference. Political torpor and lack of concern may be the dangers (‘plaque or pandemic’) against which the letters warn most urgently. In the third canto of the ‘Inferno’, one which seems especially relevant to ‘Letters from the Underworld,’ Dante’s pilgrim enters the vestibule of hell; there, before he is ferried by Charon across the Acheron into hell itself, he witnesses the suffering of those souls of those who took no action or stance, made no commitment during life. Of them Virgil says they ‘lived a life/ but lived it with no blame and no praise/ [ . . .] The world will not record their being there’ (Cantos 3, lines 37-49).

 

 

References
Michel Delville, The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998).
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy Vol. 1: The Inferno, trans Mark Musa (London: Penguin Books 1984).

For Delville, furthermore, the generic hybirdity of the prose poem is an ‘indication of poetry’s capacity to challenge the power of genre as a gesture of authority and to transgress accepted rules and boundaries for the purpose of forcing us to contemplate those rules and boundaries’ (x).

 

Copyright © Aled Ganobcsik-Williams, 2019