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Steve Spence

"The Best of All Possible Worlds" by Damian Furniss, pub. Shearsman 131 pages. ISBN 9781848614444. £9.95

 

Damian Furniss knows a few things. In fact this is about the most erudite poetry collection I’ve come across for ages and given the clarity of the writing and also its value as ‘entertainment’ I’m thoroughly surprised that it hasn’t been more written about. Furniss has produced a poem for every year from the outbreak of WW1 to 2015 with an underlying theme of war and dictatorship, as the end commentary suggests in a chilling statistic: ‘It is estimated over 200 million people died as a result of human conflict in the last 100 years of war’. There are other themes and concerns but conflict is the keynote and Furniss’s research into this subject is far-ranging in terms of its global reach and exemplary in its grasp of detail. This is poetry which combines compassion with cynicism and often a sort of skewed surrealism which brings up moments of repressed consciousness from the uneasy depths. Take this extract from ‘Bugs Does Dallas’ (1963) which picks up on a little noticed aspect of the conspiracy theory mythology related to a convention of clowns held in Dallas on that fateful day:

          Another day on the campaign trail
          when even blue seems grey
          but for the clowns on the grassy knoll
          juggling Korea and Vietnam, North and South,
          while Mafia dons fall about laughing.

Sinister and suggestive! There is some common ground here with Giles Goodland’s collection A Spy in the House of Years which takes in every year of the twentieth century via a series of montaged existing texts although the methods are very different and whereas Furniss includes the use of cut-up at certain points he also employs a variety of formal and less-formal forms including the Pantoum and the Villanelle. The book’s title, lifted from Voltaire, is obviously intended in an ironic fashion.

The opening poem, ‘The Black Hand Gang’, imagines an alternative historical path from the outset if the ‘motorcade of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand / had never taken that wrong turn, / braked, backed up, stalled, etc.’ ‘Preserving Lenin’ (1924) almost revels in the gory business of ‘extending the dictator’s life’ via the use of formaldehyde and throws up a whole load of unpleasant thoughts relating to the ‘secular religiosity’ of relic-making as an adjunct to power and its maintenance. Furniss’ tactic of ranging across the globe holds out no political favour or ideological perspective and is all the better for this even where it leads to a degree of ambiguity or puzzling ambivalence, most notably in ‘Che’s Hands’ (1967), a poem also included in his previous collection, Chocolate Che:

          And if you say Che
          lives, then Che lives, although he
          doesn’t live, and isn’t Che. And if
          I say Che never lived, then that
          Is all I have to say about Che.

In ‘The McCarthy Kitchen’ (1950) we are in the realm of the cold war where domestic consumption, fuelled by the bright glamour of the advertising industry, was perceived as being anti-Communist. This piece is a cut-up, in fact, and Furniss could have added to this artistic commentary by pointing out that the ‘abstract expressionist movement’, for example, was also used in Western propaganda, as the American arm of the modernist art movement. Russian artists were way ahead of the game in the early years of the twentieth century although both countries also had their ‘social realist’ genres if with differing emphases: ‘in the heart of your home / enjoy perfect control / and night time privacy.’

Another poem which deals with the fall of a dictator in an almost ‘biblical’ form is ‘The Passion’ which approaches the end of Colonel Gadaffi in suitably theatrical terms, replete with sordid detail and media interventions. It’s a poem worth quoting in full here as it’s indicative of Furniss’ distancing method, a camera reporting events, with an additional flourish which suggests an epic gone wrong. Damian Furniss is a writer who has obviously ‘knocked around the world’ a bit and while he avoids any notion of judgement or critique in his poetry, has clearly seen and experienced things which give cause for reflection. As I’ve said before the uneasy mix of compassion and cynicism this experience has engendered has a very human aspect which avoids easy answers and sees complexity and messiness at the heart of things. At least that’s what I take from these poems after having read them carefully for the third time:

          The Passion

          Had Mel Gibson shot The Passion
          on mobile phones,
          cast Herod as Christ,
          armed the Romans with Kalashnikovs,
          dressed angels up as drones,
          and had the protagonist
          dragged and beaten with shoes
          from station to station
          he couldn’t have entertained us less.

          They filmed this way of sorrows
          as it happened, on location:
          nailed him on the bonnet
          of a pickup truck:
          sodomy with knife was an innovation,
          the wounds in each temple
          made-up a face of several mouths
          one of which opened
          to question right from wrong.

          Three days in that meat store of a tomb,
          becoming the world’s
          most photographed corpse,
          then disappeared
          to wander the desert,
          skin flapping from his bones,
          hair a burning bush,
          summoning the devil on his satellite phone
          as if he’s the last man on earth.

The last line of the first stanza ‘couldn’t have entertained us less’ is telling, suggesting disgust but giving little more than a hint of real emotion.

In ‘Tea Party’ (1999) we are projected into a meeting between General Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher when the Chilean dictator was living in his Surrey home. The scenario is ‘civilised and ceremonial’ as the couple discuss ‘the films of Jean-Claude / Van Damme, the campaigns of Napoleon’ and ‘their least favourite grandchildren,’, a chilling encounter between reader and poem, yet one which maintains its distance and is all the more effective for doing so. ‘Mr President’ (2008) while having Vladimir Putin as its subject, almost certainly hints at Marilyn Monroe’s tribute to President Kennedy via its title, and creates a wholly unpleasant caricature of the Russian leader while once again maintaining a sense of balance by use of reportage technique:

          Here in the Kremlin I’m spread on his bedstead
          on the skin of a bear he trapped, skinned and tanned.
          he wears silk and lace, skimpy and red,
          my lips mouthing Genghis, his head in my hand.

There’s much more in this superb collection of poems than I’m able to suggest here – including a piece on Nelson Mandela and on ‘The End of History’ –
and it’s a book which I’m sure you’ll want to read and refer to more than once, despite its rather gloomy conclusions. It’s a major achievement in terms of its reach, both geographically and poetically and I’m looking forward to Damian’s next book with some anticipation. I know this gets said a lot about writers we wish to advocate but Damian Furniss’ work really ought to be much better known than it is. Hopefully his next book will break through into serious critical acclaim.

 

 

 

 
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2017