A review of Ha Ha by Jeremy Hooker

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Margaret Lloyd, A Moment in the Field (Plinth Books) $12
Andrew Jordan, Ha Ha (Shearsman Books) £8.95

Ancient matters, located in British landscapes, inform both Margaret Lloyd's new book and Andrew Jordan's. They treat them in quite different ways. What they have in common, however, is renewal both of the materials and of pastoral poetry. As the subtitle, 'Voices from Arthurian Legend', indicates, 'voice' is a key feature of Margaret Lloyd's book, which is a sequence of poems giving expression to a number of figures. Most of these are women, such as Igraine, Isolde, Morgan, and Guinivere, although the experiences of male figures, including Merlin and Arthur, are represented, too. The landscapes in and of which they speak are elemental and mythological, like the ancient British landscapes of The Mabinogi. Andrew Jordan's book, which is in four parts, also has the character of linked sequences. Its landscapes are those of southern England, strongly marked by history and myth, and its 'figures', as well as the male speaker and his female companion, are landscape features, such as enclosures, barrows, stone circles, chalk hill-figures, and weapons establishments and cold war bunkers - all symbols of power.

The power with which Margaret Lloyd's figures are chiefly concerned is the power of love. 'Love can bury us alive and still we follow it' ('Merlin Speaks of Nineve'). Elaine of Corben'fc expesses a similar sentiment: 'How close we are to love and madness every day'. Emotional intensity characterises the voices generally. The Maid of Astolat addresses the reader ('How has word come down of me?'):

aaaaaaaaaaaaAnd how do you love?
You who forget you are dying, who think
you are not floating every day down
the cold river. What are you asked
to live with and to live without?

Emotional intensity and fraught sexual relationships are part of the original Arthurian materials, which Margaret Lloyd has researched thoroughly. But her poems are not antiquarian revivals, but express modem concerns in voices that bridge the centuries. Above all, the question of love they ask is a question of living, and of meaning. Thus, 'Arthur's Doubt' begins:

What I fear most is that inside the coiled force of my body
is a void, not even as much as the life of a frightened bird
desperate for seeds in the circling storm.

At once a modem existential anguish is linked to the recurring bird imagery, which is part of the natural world belonging both to Arthurian landscape and wild Wales as it exists today. And this is a landscape of longing. As Margaret Lloyd says in her Afterword: 'the beauty of nature does not answer one's longing for meaning'. Her achievement in A Moment in the Field is to create a world of powerful men and women whom love renders powerless. The range of concrete emotion their voices express reaches towards fundamental questions of meaning.

Andrew Jordan is also concerned with power and meaning, but in quite different ways. His southern English landscapes, in both their ancient and modem phases, have been constructed to speak of power and to symbolize national identity. The sense of human construction deploying ideas and stories as well as material forces is strong in his poetry: 'There is nothing of nature, the land is made'. In consequence he is ironic, and analytic:

These ancient barrows, placed bureaucracies,
are forged within a myth of nationhood,
enclosed within the chancel of the state,
its mysteries, its theatre and its map.

He is highly conscious that the landscapes of which he writes are poetic landscapes, that they are the staple of a lyric pastoral for which they abound in atmosphere and mystery, and which identifies them with groundedness. This is poetry of identity, both national and personal. And this is precisely what Andrew Jordan's mission is to subvert. He brings a radical politics to bear on the power of myths of place. His is thus a poetry of suspicion which uses post-modem strategies, deploying quotation marks and italics, juxtaposing romantic and ironic perspectives, and subverting narratives of identity. The play of an acute sceptical intelligence pervades Ha Ha.

This makes it an uncomfortable book, but it does not make it a cold one. For one thing, humour is integral to Jordan's intelligence. Take the book's title, for example. This is at once a laugh and a reference to tricks of perspective - the sunk fence forming a boundary, which enables the usual extensive (or romantic) view, and becomes visible only when one has practically fallen over it. For another thing, Jordan's knowledge in depth of southern landscapes and places is a product of love. In this sense, he cannot help being a poet of place - one who increases our knowledge of the world through close engagement with specific locations. He turns pastoral inside out, but in doing so he retains something of the very lyricism he problematizes. One way in which he does this is by using myth to expose myth. A recurring image in Ha Ha occurs early on as 'a piece of landscape placed on stilts/or a scaffolding of light', in 'Idealisation', and 'some/forged artefact lifted on a wedge of light', in 'Form'. This is a way of exposing the artifice of landscape as both material and visionary construct: 'a narrative, a rumour, an ideology'. At the same time, it is an imagery in which the beauty of the landscape shines. It is not analysis or scepticism alone that makes Andrew Jordan an original poet, but the combination of intellect and lyricism.


Andrew Jordan index . . .