The Shearsman Review
Ken Edwards - Down With Beauty
(Reality Street, Hastings, 2013. Paperback, 240pp, £10.50)
Reviewed by Richard Parker
Ken Edwards’s Down With Beauty was published in 2013 through the poet’s Reality Street imprint. It’s a generically indeterminate work, comprised of (as the back cover states) ‘a series of linked dialogues, dramatic monologues and short fictions’—a list that does not suggest the variety of different techniques and tonalities exampled within.
Edwards is one of UK poetry’s most productive veteran writers and publishers, with Reality Street maintaining a stream of necessary publications of which many of the best come from Edwards’s own pen. Like all of Edwards’s recent work (including the 2011’s excellent Bardo: Forty-Nine Prose Pieces Over Seven Days), Down With Beauty is made up of texts left-justified and run on as ‘prose’, but which exhibit a stylistic self-consciousness and openness to linguistic difficulty and disorder that we might associate with poetry. And one of the things that is most distinctive about the reading experience of Down With Beauty is the variety of gradations of this difficulty and disorder between the work’s sections Thus at some points sentences jut up against one another like Language Poetry’s New Sentences, though in other sections conform more closely to (never quite) ‘conventional’ narrative prose—in fact more so in this volume than in Bardo and Nostalgia for Unknown Cities.
The structure of the book works across its constituent elements, tying its sections together loosely but with the suggestion of a deeper, semi-submerged narrative. Two clearly connected segments that demonstrate this, as well as the variety of Edwards’s approaches, are ‘A Memoir of Our Father’ and ‘Our Mother’s House’. Both stories exist in the non-specific—perhaps Balkan, perhaps middle-eastern—war-torn society that is Edwards’s primary locale. Yet the manner in which Edwards presents this place in both pieces is stylistically significantly different. Thus ‘A Memoir of Our Father’ is made up of a collage-like, free-associative list of indirectly linked sentences:
All his life, he had a recurring dream in which he was a little boy in a city at night. This took place within the hidden compartment. Saw a lamb in the midst of the abandoned race-course, and the little buff aeroplanes turning in the sky, just before he fell off his bicycle. The remnants of a goose touched it. Tops nestled in hay. You can’t really blame him for not having a childhood: black angels hounded him all the way to Christmas. Soldiers marched past. The village was later burned down. As a student, he ate baby birds. Night after night, he would be engrossed in the theory of bundles. Gradually, he became less interested in doing further research in genetics, as an enthusiasm for administration developed, culminating in his being appointed as the Secretary-General of the University. It is little known that he was the author of books on normalcy, obsession, and genetics. It is believed he lost a testicle when injured on the battlefield in 1916, the same years that the future Nazi leader is said to have suffered his own, much mocked, loss. There was that later business with the pole dancer. (30-31)
In contrast, the section’s partner-piece, ‘Our Mother’s House’, is made up of ‘straight’ narrative, though the setting is the recognisably similar to ‘A Memoir of Our Father’:
Nobody is happy, not in these times. But what do you know about it? How long is it since we heard her voice, speaking or singing? I disremember. The verdigris on the columns intervenes. The rust, the corrosion that is normal. So many years have intervened. I don’t even have the photographs now. I remember that one showed a group of children who gathered or dispersed, with a view of water beyond the covers and of the empty wastes and pumps that no longer worked in the fields that were no longer our refuge. (40)
This is a damaged society, broken through mysterious, corrosive nightmares that tones of both conventional narrative and of language in disarray fail to quite explicate. The inability of language, in any of its forms, to provide closure or solace for such a world offers Down With Beauty its formal argument.
Down With Beauty is really about its constituent sentences. Edwards’s talent for writing clear, simple and yet evocative sentences in great quantities is evidenced throughout this volume. Such sentences appear in great variety, with a great deal of different timbres, yet always sounding distinctively like the poet. The desolation of Edwards’s core locales is thus complemented by the public tongues of modern Britain, with the poet including pastiches of the tourist brochure, email SPAM, the sputtering persuasion / protection of Britain’s PPI political world, as well as other indefinable modern monstrosities.
Music is the only positive, possibly transcendent, counter to the grindingly negative atmosphere. ‘Free Improvisation’ offers the most extended alternative to the misery of Edwards’s book, its central character Jack losing some iteration of his self in the anarchic abstraction of improvised music:
every so often he seems to pose another question, with a rising intonation, but by now, inevitably, there is no satisfactory reply, for there is no-one there to reply, so onward he goes on, on and on, without rest, without further reflection, into areas of pleasure that morph into pain and back again, almost bursting his sides in a show of abandon, for minutes, hours, centuries, epochs, until at last his energy levels show signs of beginning to flag, he becomes aware of himself again, and of his surroundings, in this bizarre ballroom that it seems no-one will ever enter, as if it were all an immense joke of which he was the intended butt, except that he has turned the tables, he’s given more than he got, he’d given everything and he’s still got more. (119)
Jack’s space for transcendence is limited, its profundity and authenticity is underlined throughout ‘Free Improvisation’, and yet this moment, one of only a very few interventions regarding artistic creation, at least appears to vouchsafe an alternative to the miserablism of the rest of the book, though it doesn’t finally counter it.
Edwards’s is a collapsed society, both not and clearly our own—the sense of emptiness and ill-defined anxiety, lack of posterity and regret over an indeterminate and inglorious past all apply well to a particular understanding of contemporary Britain, to contemporary British poetry and to its marginal existence on the peripheries of British culture. This is where Edwards is based, on the edge of the British Academic-Poetic Complex, in Hastings, publishing himself and, one gets the impression, without too much of a concern about the extent or identity of his readership. Down With Beauty, in all its misery, is nonetheless liberatory it its anarchic organisation—the book is a grand improvisation, played out in dark solitude like Jack’s in ‘Free Improvisation’. The book is down, but with beauty.
Nostalgia for Unknown Cities, published separately by Reality Street in 2007, is also reprinted with this text. It approaches, in more extended form, the same concerns with exile, war and those emptied landscapes explored in Down With Beauty—and this new collection can be read as a more than satisfactorily cankerous outgrowth from the earlier work.
6 August 2014