On Craig Raine's A la recherche du temps perdu

A la recherche du temps perdu

by Craig Raine

Picador, 2000. 8 pounds.

 

 

Craig Raine’s poem A la recherche du temps perdu, written in loosely rhymed and half-rhymed couplets, was originally published in his new journal, AretÈ: the Arts Tri-Quarterly, in 1999. Picador has just released it in book form, hard cover at that, possibly giving it an importance that it doesn’t warrant. Apart from my problems with the poem itself, sanctification through book publication lends this supposed genre-busting elegy a weight it simply doesn’t have. It would have worked better in a larger collection, rather than as a centre in itself. It’s a poem that rewarded me far more on a first reading than a second – never a good sign.

People are what we remember of them. Reconstructing a dead lover and close friend from memory, stimulated by the moment of recognising absence and things past; at the funeral – "I sentimentalise/and then revise." – we travel with the poet as he attempts to make the dead "real" – "To make you real./To make you see, to make you feel,//to make you hear.//To make you here." as he concludes the poem. By engaging with the

fleshly, the scatological, the effluvia and wastes of love, the persona reawakens the dead. It’s intended to be a "warts and all" portrayal, and consequently self-critical and "unromantic":

Details that make you cringe

will make the reader see,

see the self you showed me.

There are moments when a concept of how language makes things alive mixes with memory, and the poem does come to life. The opening 17 couplets are quite stunning, and when I began I thought I was in for a treat. At times Baudelaire came to mind. And Auden, of course. And with the evocation of Proust in the title and Shakespeare in the whole concept – "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee" – this elegiac address to the dead ex-lover struggles with the gulfs between life, inspiration, the process of writing, and production of big-L Literature.

But there’s something extremely bourgeois and tidy about the details that are supposed to make us cringe. The poem had me waiting for a line about the supposed fishy smell of a woman’s vagina, and it came. The young man’s sexual learning curve is simply uninteresting. And on a more worrying level, the "black man" lurks as the overwhelming other. This fits with the tradition from which the poem is coming. The death of the woman being celebrated comes via AIDS. Her bi-black ex-lover is already dead, we learn. And there are worrying lines like: "The odd white prole, but black boys on the whole." The removal that persona allows doesn’t distance us enough; and if it does, so what.

The persona’s recounting of memory is fortunately tinged with self-irony. However, the self-mockery comes across as a method of humanising the voice, to create a sense of vulnerability and consequently make the reconstruction seem more authentic. The pain of the poet. The ability to laugh at himself. But still let us know he’s significant. Rather than "unromantic" it seems like a lusty flow of romanticism with the "sordid" details as ornamentation. Lines like the following are why Language Poetry

came into existence:

A year later, we were in Fornello’s

in Southampton Row:

I was having chocolate sponge,

you were having a cold revenge.

1990: the last time I saw you.

A tin sun out in the blue.

I gave you my new book of essays

and asked you what you thought of my play.

Of ‘1953’? You shook your head a bit.

I think Racine a very, very, very, very great poet.

He allows himself to be mocked, and takes it on the chin. But that just encourages us to think he must be telling the truth, that the voice is to be trusted.

This poem is elegy as poetics. It’s more about a world view and modus operandi as literary figure than about engaging with the trauma of loss. Which is not to say such a loss doesn’t inform it. But the light couplets and the "literati" subject matter drop it into the pit of male "muse" poetry. A Beatrice or an Oxbridge version of Baudelaire’s Jeanne Duval, or even a Patricia Avis? Brought to life through memory, but also objectified as muse:

Disjecta membra scattered everywhere,

unrecognisable, through my oeuvre:

complex, trivial, true.

And now I have re-membered you.

The poet is aware of the complexities of the process of evocation and fetishisation. These are good lines of poetry, but as a whole the attitude is unconvincing. The sincerity and the meta-view of self don’t quite gel.

The best moments are the least forced, where a moment of sharing is touched. Moments in time:

For breakfast you ate

chocolate fingers, langues de chat,

waffles with maple syrup,

Chamonix biscuits, doughnuts,

or Petit Suisse

with sugar. Anything sweet.

That’s it, that’s enough. Its familiarity enhances the sense of loss. It’s not trying to prove something to itself as much of the poem seems to. Elegy here is about testing the selective qualities of memory. Reconciliation with loss comes out of staging reconstructions, of defining one’s continued existence against the nature of memory. That moment in time, reanimated.

Raine is an accomplished poet who moves comfortably through social and cultural discourse, through history and language. If all of Raine is in this poem, it’s not a comfortable mix. Maybe because it strives to be sincere, it loses distance and falls apart. The self-admonition, the sense of caring for one’s self more than the person who has died, the reconciliation that follows self-analysis, are all there – "You never stopped reading Proust./Marcel in love with someone he disliked." It goes both ways but the meta-text doesn’t hold up. It’s what a friend of mine recently called "bloke’s poetry pretending to be sensitive." And it shows.