Alan Morrison on
Smokestack Books, 2010 (312pp)
Translated and introduced by Alan Dent
Preface by John Berger
Common Cause is an ambitious translation from the French by Penniless Press editor and poet Alan Dent of a comprehensive selection from the oeuvre of French countercultural poet Francis Combes. Combes is also the ‘contradistinguished’ (to borrow from one of Dent’s own terms in his Introduction) editor of radical publishing co-operative Le Temps de Cerises. As already said, this is a truly ambitious publication, and both the sheer range of Combes’ material and the enormous undertaking by Dent in translating it so sympathetically into English, are hugely impressive.
Before looking at the poems in translation, also of note is a fascinating and succinct Introduction by Dent, which argues - among other things - with a true intellectual authenticity that essentially ‘Mind is one hundred per cent social’ – ‘mind’, that is, as opposed to ‘brain’. This is a hugely contentious – though in my view, incontrovertible – but sublime sociological deduction to come at the reader right from the outset, before any of the actual poems by Combes have been encountered; but it sets up the book at a profound footing, with an instant debunking of practically everything we are taught to believe from our school days onwards in capitalist society: that the individual can achieve whatever it wishes to – a libertarian maxim limited by its own lack of imagination, its naive dismissal of context, circumstance, and the possibility of its own external shaping: that the individual can only achieve what it is taught to believe it wishes to from a finite number of options or choices made on its behalf by its social context, or which is possible, within the social policing of its particular society, would convey more hint of truth than the flimsy verisimilitude we’re shovelled in capitalist western ‘democracies’.
Dent’s controversial trope is no doubt the kind of assertion that would send the average conservative thinker into a full-tilt existential panic, suddenly made to doubt the invincibility of the individual identity, and glimpse the futility of measuring one’s self-worth purely in material terms, including in terms of what one produces; it would also send shudders through many creative personalities, at the ego-shunning horror of the impossibility of originality, or genius – since Dent also sculpts out the further irrefutable assertion: ‘However great the contributions of individuals of genius, talent is worthless outside a social context which permits it to be realised’. Such a trope is the ultimate antidote to artistic egoism and accompanying solipsism – or would be, if it weren’t that most probably many poets, writers and artists secretly enjoy a sense of possessing a supreme gift whose fruits are corroborated and justified by their own self-appreciation: producing art for themselves, as it were. But this is never enough, since the artist always desires their work to be admired by others; to subvert Sartre’s famous trope, for a creative person, ‘Hell is no other people’ (or even, in the case of some of the most competitive poets, 'Hell is other poets').
But there is something deeply reassuring in Dent’s deceptively clinical assertions: the thrust here seems to be that what is created by any one individual only has significance, indeed is only even recognised, through its affect on and responses from others, and in this sense belongs to others as much as to the creator, since their responses, reflections, reciprocation of the created thing back to the creator define its significance and value; define, indeed, its very 'artistic-ness'. Art then is a kind of human currency, its value dependent entirely on its exchange.
One thinks of terms such as the ‘body politic’, or in this case perhaps more appropriate, the 'soul politic', and in this sense too, art, poetry, that which is created, is an intrinsically political entity; no matter how consciously subjective or distinctive to one’s projected personality it might be, it is always unavoidably relevant to everyone else, as much as to the person who produced it; art, in this particular case, poetry, is for other people, not for some spuriously extrapolated notion of one self-influenced individual personality.
Dent indeed talks of how everything has its blueprint, its pre-decided genes and DNA, language being no exception; and many poets secretly dwell at times on the fact that their occupation, ultimately, is just the colourful rearrangement of a lexicon created/evolved over centuries prior to their births, and they are thus perpetually borrowing the creations of others – a collective of individuals, a race, who mutually evolved certain speech sounds and patterns and visual characters to represent them; they are in effect rearranging language on the page in an attempt to stamp their own distinct signature on something that belongs to all of us, not to themselves alone; some may claim to be reinventing language through the ingenuity of ever more inventive verbal combinations, which has validity, and in a sense the poet is the propellor of language, driving it forward through imaginative variation. The poet creates through language, has not created that language, but vitally redeploys it.
Dent also alludes to the historical blueprints for communist and socialist societal concepts; the inescapable paradox of a form of social ideal which has proven more frequently than not unrealisable in reality through botched attempts to literally administer it on national scales – as in Soviet Russia, China etc. – but at the same time the un-dimmable insistence in countless human minds, in spite of perennial failure, to hanker after its realisation on earth. Some socialist optimists, perhaps more spiritually inclined than many, will continue to believe that socialist concepts are projections of a future trans-material evolutionary possibility for humankind; that in a sense we are, in our presently still materially-preoccupied and under-developed moral, ethical and creative capacities, trying to catch up with an ideology for which we are not yet ready, or even deserving. Such concepts are akin to Christian soteriological thought, but more pertinently here, link in with the notions of eventual evolution into literal bodies of thought (living thought-forms) - which even the great social-realist writer Gorky toyed with, and which surrounded the secular proto-mystification of our ontology; the projected idea of the body’s caterpillar one day hatching into an earthly psychic stage of human consciousness, not the ‘mind’ surviving the death of body and translating to an ethereal afterlife, but the ‘mind’ transcending the need for the body to maintain it, and continuing to exist on earth in the material realm (such metaphysical concepts subliminally, and contradictorily, surrounded the Pharaohic embalming of the corpse of Lenin, for instance).
Coincidentally, I’m also currently reading a curious old Corgi paperback, Life in the World Unseen, allegedly dictated through a spirit medium by a deceased Catholic priest who describes as best as he can in human diction the incommunicable colour and scope of the afterlife; significantly, and uncomfortably for any conservative libertarian thinkers, ‘heaven’ is inescapably egalitarian, each of equal and imperishable importance both to one another and to the collective spiritual purpose of moral improvement; a celestial communism. Creativity in the afterlife is purely motivated by the sense of giving and sharing, though unlike mortal artistry, is devoid of all sense of ego or proprietorship. Perhaps mortal notions of socialism, communism, both in their ways secular versions of original Christian aspirations, are implanted glimpses of what is to come after our bodies die? (For it's the perennial burden of satisfying hunger and thirst that fundamentally drives all coporeal civilization; as one Buddhist writer once put it, humanity is tyrannised by the oligarchy of two bottomless holes: the mouth and the stomach).
But Dent’s chief thesis here is that circumstance ultimately shapes, even dictates, the parameters of an individual’s conception of self-consciousness and their capacity to fully develop a distinct personal identity, is inextricably caught up with the extra-ego forces of society; until we come to the paradox that in spite of there being some intrinsic traits prescribed us at birth, without other peoples’ perceptions of us, we would never recognise them: as Dent puts it, ‘We are all born with a unique genetic endowment, but nothing can be made of it without society’.
Disturbing, or comforting, and such concepts to my mind have a mingling of both, there is an underlying, almost Buddhistic logic to Dent’s argument, which he would naturally further assert is not his own assertion, but has already been made countless times before his re-articulation of it. This Introduction is a brilliant exposition of what one might term dialectical ontology, rather than purely dialectical materialism; and in many ways it reminds me in its clipped style and probing tone of parts to Christopher Caudwell’s classic polemic, Illusion and Reality.
After discussion of Darwinian principles in regards the actual physical affect on the shaping of the human brain by the agencies of the society it is a part of, Dent also picks up on Einstein’s powerful point – his own ‘social relativity’ theory if you like – seldom made elsewhere, that post-welfare state capitalist society ‘cripples’ its more deprived individuals invisibly: ‘If the crippling were obvious, if the poor all had rickets ... we would act; but the crippling is to identity so we can claim it’s nothing to do with us’. Potent polemic, especially for our new anti-welfare Con-Dem Britain.
Now, to the poetry of Francis Combes, courtesy of Dent’s sensitive translations. Combes’ intellectual ambition is immediately noticeable since the poems are arranged not in terms of compositional chronology, but of chronology of historical subject, this book basically comprising a sort of dialectical materialist testament in verse scanning the past two thousand or so years, epoch by epoch, with a breathtaking ideological gusto. The book is set out like a Selected Poems, but with section titles denoting thematic sections rather than titles of individual collections (I assume so anyhow, there is no note to elucidate this structure). Due to the considerable scope of this volume, nothing short of a full Critical Companion to Combes would do his oeuvre justice, and so I will chronologically comment on those poems I have been most struck by, excerpting appropriately as I go.
‘Questions about human nature’ is a startlingly lucid Socratic polemical poem (although most of Combes’s poems are polemical) which poses some perennial questions about the contradictions of human nature; two particular tropes stand out for me, the first particularly emotive:
That man often displays a kindness
Which costs his fellows dearly
(because he hesitates to fight his enemies) –
Is that human nature?
Note the choice of the word hesitates: this word alone speaks volumes as to the moral distinction of human nature, its ability to pause and pre-consider, or imagine the results of a choice of actions, a fount of doubt and indecision from which has arisen, arguably, the fundamental ethical principles of all humanitarian and socialistic thought, as well as philosophy and democratic ideals; and timeless leitmotifs, from Christ’s doubt-ridden agony in the garden of the Gethsemane, through literature and Hamlet’s famous hesitation on the brink of suicide or violent revenge (‘To be or not to be...’); this is a core theme to the development of human consciousness, without which, we would have no doubt been obliterated by the atomic bomb by now. It is arguably in the grey area of human hesitation that our greatest achievements have come about, as well as some solecisms. There is then the more political distillation of this theme:
That the majority lets itself be dominated by the minority
and that the progress of some
is at the cost of others’ misery –
is this an immutable social law?
‘In defence of didactic poetry’ is a brave title in a period where any informative verse is invariably misperceived as sermonizing – the hollow voice’s continuing excuse for ever-emptier and un-opinionated poetics, which often serves merely to bore the reader by its un-daring blandness – as Combes pertinently observes with irony:
These days it’s widely held
That poets should watch out
Not to say too much.
In many cases, not to say anything much at all. This is no sophistry, but urgent gnomic utterance. Combes’ didacticism is frequently on a morally rhetorical level, but a sublime one, leavened as it is with sometimes astonishing aphorisms:
To write, is to allow
A mouth to speak from the shadows
Such didactic tropes abound throughout this relatively short poem:
Because to teach and to learn are the same thing.
Only the person who won’t learn refuses to teach.
Masterly. The poem concludes on a striking note, a true dialectical payoff:
So we still have much to learn:
let’s not be afraid to teach.
Teach, that is, not preach – there’s the crucial distinction which contemporary poets need to take note of.
‘Eulogy and condemnation of work’ is one my favourite (prose-)poems here, simply because it contains some startling aphorisms echoing the Lawrentian school of labour theory:
For thousands of years we have advanced like a procession of
dockhands, to erect new pyramids.
A trope such as ‘We do our best to make our home/ uninhabitable’ are indeed worthy of D.H. Lawrence or William Morris.
‘The achievements of capitalism’, symbolically threadbare in its exposition, concludes with this ringing condemnation of our long-discredited economic system: ‘all that remains .../ is to produce commodities/ and to cultivate ugliness’ – a kind of anti-phrase to Morris’s ‘fill your homes with what is beautiful and useful’.
‘Navvie’s song’ concludes with this beautifully utopian prayer:
Dig the foundations
for the new houses where our children will live
and let their rooms be bigger and more airy
and let everyone have his right to a bit of light.
The second section, The Precursor’s Book, kicks off with a charmingly satirical piece, ‘The ages of humanity’, wherein Combes goes through the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron ages, and then stalls on our present tacit one: ‘When will we finally leave behind the age of brass?’
‘The tall grasses’ includes some beguiling phrases such as ‘the trees were great ancestors who watched over/ the village’. ‘Orpheus’s initiates’ is even more fruitful in this regard, which tropes such as:
(In the beginning was the word
– that too was an augury –
because man was born in man’s song.
The sheer breadth of Combes’ didacticism is startling throughout this book; most notably in terms of macrocosmic historical detail, which, in ‘Spartacus’, produces some tantalising lines:
‘Varinius Glaber and Publius Valerius,
Held out for three years
And made Rome tremble.
‘The parable of Jesus and Caesar’ is an atheistic tour-de-force of polemic against the compromise of Christianity’s eventual merge with imperial power (though perhaps it would have been more accurate and fairer to title it ‘The parable of Pope and Caesar’) and concludes with a powerful trope, uncomfortable for any Christian readers:
And finally Constantine established Christianity as the
official Roman religion.
But by conquering the Rome of the Caesars,
of course God lost his soul.
But irrespective of one’s beliefs, this last trope in particular is chillingly sublime, albeit gnomically hyperbolic and deliberately geared to provoke contention. At this point I would note that many of Combes’s pieces read at times like prose-poems as opposed to strict poems, though their lyricism and lightness of phrasal touch lift them significantly above the mere prosaic; it is ambiguous as to whether this is partly a tilt of translation, but one suspects Combes’ poems, if read in the French, are probably of similar form, since these forms seem to fit the tones and topics.
‘San Francesco, il Poverello’ continues this poetic critique of Christianity, focusing on St. Francis of Assisi’s life and work, seeming to highlight tacit masochistic attitudes in early Catholicism as to the spiritual virtues in privation:
he loved them because he loved their poverty.
(in the centuries which followed
many who fought the arrogance of wealth
in search of salvation went astray in the same way).
This is a fascinating argument, distinctly Marxist, and something for Christian socialists to ponder on. The phraseology here, as previously touched on regards other poems, can tend slightly too much towards the linguistically prosaic perhaps, but nevertheless, the urgency of the message arguably justifies this on occasions. This poem has some striking phrasal flashes:
Everywhere, Francesco, the little bearded man,
whose enthusiasm is catching,
sings the glory of Christ.
One of the most ingenious poems in the book is ‘Account of Thomas More’s earthly journey’, which brilliantly turns the narrative from More’s extrapolated Utopia to an objectified study of the land he actually lived in himself:
Thomas More lived on an island which wasn’t called Utopia
it was one of the strangest places where wealth in common had been destroyed.
the fine arable lands no longer served the common good.
The nobles ‘as lazy as drones’ and hungry for luxury and money
drove the peasants from their lands,
stealing the clothes from their backs...
This is brilliant satire on the real-world feudal land-grab, and is all the more interesting for the fact that it is written by a French and not English poet; perhaps something of a hereditary Norman apostasy speaks here?
‘The Mayar’s revolution’ contains its fair share of sublime aphorisms:
(So, all religions
which start by pushing believers towards sacrifice
end by sacrificing all unbelievers).
according to the law of universal rotation
everything passes over the horizon and all stars die.
Heady teleology, with figurative irony:
And it happens in a village in Chiapas
under the watch of the zapatista rifles,
ready to sacrifice so that life may flourish
‘The lost tribe’ provides a pithy retrospective of the discovery, conquest and corruption of the Americas:
When the Europeans discovered America
The Indians discovered trade.
And concludes on speaking of those Indian tribes who went to settle among the white men:
No-one came back.
Victims, among others, of the discovery of capitalism.
The Book of Revolutionary Days pumps up the political muscle of Combes’ oeuvre. ‘14th July 1789, crowd scene’ begins with a stunning first line: ‘History is an engraving hung in a classroom’, then continues symbolically, ‘the Bastille takes up most of the scene’; it then launches into some beautifully descriptive period detail:
their arms outstretched, in a fit pose for posterity,
in tricolore suits, striped trousers, jackets with tails
and their heads, tricornes of boiled leather, scarves
or bonnets phrygiens...
The startling aphorisms keep coming thick and fast:
And everything must stay like this frozen on the wall
and in memory so the revolution can remain dutifully tidy
in the drawers of history
Combes sardonically comments on how change takes time with the quip, ‘(the middle-class itself needed a century)’ – then perhaps my favourite Combes trope of all, wonderfully phrased:
without the scuffle amongst those storming a ghost prison,
who would have given the decisive push of the shoulder against
the monotonous heap of days?
who could have made the entire house of cards fall into the stream
or dug the wheels of the chariot of history
out of the pothole?
‘The Saint Denis-Basilica’ takes a swipe at the sanctification of royal bones, restored post-Revolution through a later Restoration in tradition, but not as diligently since, at least in the figurative:
...have no fear,
despite their scruples,
the bones of royals were mixed
with the hoi polloi.
‘The death of the Incorruptible’ tackles the thorny figure of Robespierre, though not implicitly; it takes an empathetic line, comparing him favourably to his less scrupulous associate Danton, in an ambiguous appraisal of the notorious revolutionary:
The recourse to Terror wasn’t enough
To purify what had become corrupt.
‘Evocation of Jean-Paul Marat’ begins with a striking image:
Stretched out in my bath, I think of Marat
(his neck bent ra
like a rabbit in a stew pot
There is a clipped, moralistic, and strongly aphorismic style to this didactic poem which stylistically echoes T.S. Eliot:
The future is becoming bloodless in the blue of the lagoon
Nivea for the bathtub.
Marat the ill-loved will he be forgiven
his sins by publicity?
This arm which hangs out of the bath is mine.
Standing by is the virgin
a knife in her hand
her lips reddened
eternally linked to her victim
(a woman in love sings in the shower).
Yesterday the fops through his ashes into the gutter
A police dog roams the landing.
It isn’t good to be right.
The strong, climactic ending to Combes’ poems is one of the most bald examples of how didactic and polemical poetry rises to the kind of crescendos once thought part and parcel of constructing a strong and lasting piece of poetry but which in the past couple of decades have considerably gone out of fashion among poetry apparatchiks (though debatably not their potential reading publics), substituted less memorably with the petering-out faux epiphany, or conscious understatement; these can sometimes provide their own strengths, but have to be pretty exceptional. To my own tastes however, the strong memorable concluding lines to a poem are still just as essential today in stamping a piece of poetry in the mind. ‘Inscription for Gracchus Babeuf’ gives another pounding ending:
When they heard they’d been condemned
Babeuf and Darthé stabbed themselves
– like Marcus Porcius Cato
enemy of Caesar and Pompey –
and their corpses, so they say, were taken to the scaffold.
Because, at that time, anyone who attacked the sacred rights
was robbed of his life
and of his death.
Tragically, such materialist moral dogmas are still in place today in capitalist societies, where invariably financial ‘crimes’ are perceived to be every bit as reprehensible, in some cases even worse, than strictly moral felonies, such as violence to another person – unless of course it is corporate malversation, the banking speculators being a recent example of the softly, softly approach to the offenses of the rich and powerful.
‘The journey to Icaria’ charts the fascinating story of the French Utopian movement founded by Étienne Cabet, which formed egalitarian communities throughout America in the 19th century (not the half-forgotten Free State of the Greek island Icaria, which coincidentally embraced communal living for five months before being absorbed back into the Greek nation and which is still known as Kokkinos Vrahos (‘Red Rock’) for its leaning towards communism; though possibly there is a titular connection between the two). Combes’ homage is a bittersweet retelling of the rise and fall of this defiant movement. ‘On 3rd February 1848, the avant-garde left le Havre’ provides a nicely alliterative trope. Cabet himself is later seen to become corrupted by his paternalistic power and is ‘sidelined and expelled by his disciples’. Combes uses the motif of Icarus to full effect throughout the poem, which culminates thus:
They who hadn’t known
socialism in one country
its glory and tragedy
were familiar all the same
with the days of enthusiasm,
discipline and sacrifice,
followed by realism, disillusion
today, mothballed in the hangar of prototypes
in our history’s attics
for another go.
‘Blanqui, the Prisoner’, in spite of its lapse into biographical – even hagiographical – prose exposition, still comes up trumps by its end:
The Conspirator, forced into meditation
Became passionate about the stars
And wrote Eternity According to the Stars
then he came back among men,
Their hopes and their prisons).
A candid and unflinching couple of poems on Karl Marx, beginning with ‘Marx, a caricature’, focus as much on the man as the economic colossus, and throw up some thought-provoking perspectives on this very driven figure; but the tone is largely hagiographical, and the end of ‘Portrait of Marx as Prometheus’ almost depicts the godfather of modern socialism as a messianic figure:
...if he lived in chains
it wasn’t because of a decree from some hephaestus
but by his own volition.
(and it was to set humanity free
that he enchained himself.
‘Sketch for a portrait of Bakunin’ recounts another revolutionary’s career a little prosaically, but is punctuated all the more noticeably by some striking tropes:
he criss-crossed Europe
to set the spark to the gunpowder dormant in soporific minds.
The next poem, ‘18th March 1871’, however, trips on its course with a more descriptive and rhythmic verve:
It was dawn in the Butte, just as Paris was rousing
when the milkman’s churns clink in women’s hands
and the carriers go down to the wine merchants,
it was at dawn on the 18th that the handiwork was found out.
‘Varlin’s watch’ is one of the most strikingly written poems in the book, charting the 1848 wave of revolutions in France, which, among other things, established the principle of the ‘right to work’ and national workshops for the unemployed. The first part of this poem gallop down the page with a verbalistic energy reminiscent of Dylan Thomas:
In the streets of Paris the heart beats thirteen to the dozen
The cobbles are black, treacherous and slippery.
It’s the stalking hour, the time of crime and blood
The time to hide if you’re innocent.
Paris is no longer itself and people are strangers,
Suddenly doors and shutters slam,
Alleyways shut like mousetraps
There follows an astonishingly good trope, recalling Alun Lewis’s sharply figurative lyricism, almost a small poem in itself:
The hands of the clock
On the living-room sideboard
Are scissor blades,
Combes employs very physical, descriptive language throughout with lines like ‘It’s time for arrests, spatchcock executions’ and ‘It’s time for the knackers to sharpen their knives’. There is an almost holy quality to how Combes speaks of Varlin:
Varlin the bookbinder who wanted all workers
To be able to read and improve their minds,
Varlin who set up restaurants of solidarity
This is powerful homage of authentic sentiment. As is ‘Marx’s tomb’, where the poet fills the posthumous economic prophet in on how western society has turned since he died, with emotive phrases such as ‘poverty is as old as ever’, and ‘we’ve known the heaven of ideas/ hides backyards and dirty kitchens/ where poorly paid angels are kept busy’. Combes puts emphasis on the relative obscurity in which Marx lived, worked and died as he looks at his posthumous plinth:
A mausoleum was never built in his honour.
He wasn’t driven around in a black limousine.
‘Remembering Paul and Laura Lafarge’ pays tribute to the ‘unrepentant worker’ who wrote the profoundly progressive pamphlet, The Right to Idleness (or, to be Lazy), which argued for the sanity of an eight hour working day (later titularly echoed in Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness). This poem ends with a touchingly poetic flourish after recounting the suicides of Paul and Laura Lafarge:
It was the gardener who found them,
two motionless carnations laid out on the soil.
‘Epitaph for the First World War’ is possibly the most beautifully descriptive poem in the book, beginning with the stunning phrase, ‘The poplars – a blue line of infantry – collapse/ on the horizon’. This passage also stood out to me in this regard:
In the black Chemin des Dames, those who will have had
no entitlement to the gentleness of women lie in
the muddy bed of the trenches
the poppies and the lilacs and their loves
in the slaughterhouse.
‘Lenin in Prison’ provides some fascinating snippets of the latter’s incarceration:
To keep in touch with his comrades
He wrote, in invisible ink, made from milk
Which had to be cut into strips
And soaked in tea...
It was at this time he began to write
The Development of Capitalism in Russia
(because prison is the university of revolutionaries).
set free, he regretted
not having been there a little longer,
long enough to finish his book.
(Unfortunately for us it would seem Hitler was in prison long enough to finish dictating his diatribe Mein Kampf). ‘October 17’ surrounds the crucial turning point in the Russian revolution when the defecting ‘red soldiers’ of the Tsar’s army began to realise on which side their bread clearly wasn’t buttered: ‘Their great rifles are placed upright on the ground beside them,/ crossed like ears of wheat’. This is another of the poems in which the didacticism is carried more effectively through evocation and descriptive image:
The whole country has come together for peace, bread and land;
in the workshop, amidst the machines, on the bridges of ships or circus rings,
there is Vassya with his wispy student’s beard, a young refugee christ
victor, the metalworker, in his leather jacket, who
always has a story to tell,
good-hearted Sacha, the sailor who plays the accordion,
old Fyodor who rotates cigarettes between his yellow fingers
and doesn’t dare smoke,
Olga, the telephone girl and her friend Tania
Then a profound evocation of the collective consciousness built up through the new ‘soviet’ mentality, the breaking down of the old partitions of class and private property:
From Brest to Archangelsk, empire has given away to Federation
and the entire country has become a soviet,
pressed against the others, in the crowd which masses
and climbs onto the stands
everyone feels they’ll never again be alone;
from now on they’re part of the huge and muscular body of the proletariat
This imagistic, figurative quality adds an urgency to the common purpose of this new Russia awoken from the old one, ‘asleep on its sand heap, between its tender green birches/its church, its drunkards and its wooden isbas/ with flowers painted on black lacquer.)’;
Little sour green apple which rolls and becomes red
turning in the electric fire of the sparks of the future
the Revolution sets off on the world’s pathways.
There is a similarly rousing tone to the following poem, ‘Lenin dances’:
When Lenin learned the Bolshevik revolution
had held out for seventy-two days,
one more than the Paris Commune,
he came out of the Kremlin and danced in the snow.
no doubt, he didn’t imagine,
with the enemy at the gates
and there where he danced while blowing into his hands
that the union would hold out for seventy-two years
by iron, blood and roses
‘The emblem’ is an ingenious little poem in which Lenin requests that the sword on the original hammer and sickle design for the Soviet Union be removed, since: ‘(Ends mustn’t be confused with means.’). While ‘The present’ offers some rare insights into what could either be Lenin’s ironic sense of humour or his distinctly un-ironic cynicism, after having told the weavers of Klintz who have brought him a gift that there’s ‘no need to send’ him presents’:
And I’d be grateful if you could spread this secret
as widely as possible
among the workers.’
Perhaps he was ironic, as ‘The statue’ suggests:
The portly little man in the worker’s cap
with crow’s feet and an ironic smile,
full of life, simple, direct,
who hated pomp.
‘That’, the visitor could say to himself,
‘Is what you call abstract art’.
Amusing though these very human takes on Lenin are, I can’t help being slightly distracted by the more ruthless qualities known about this leader. However, by humanising Lenin more, Combes in a way succeeds in both praising his better qualities while also bringing him down to earth as very much one of the common people and not the secular prophet some of his embalming followers tried to define him as. This aspect is touched on more graphically in ‘Lenin’s brain’, but in this scenario, it is the atheist Lenin himself who gets the last laugh in a posthumous King Canute moment:
At the height of the re-establishment
of capitalism in Russia
a doctor was given the right to carry out a post-mortem
on Lenin’s brain.
Once done, he declared it was the normal brain
of a normal man.
Thinking he was putting him down
he had paid him a compliment.
Combes touches poignantly on the posthumous ironies surrounding the preservation of Lenin’s body and the building of a mausoleum in which to house it:
... the habits of the Pharoahs
Were revived for him,
The sworn enemy of Empires.
And to keep the symbol alive
The Revolution was embalmed.
So, he who believed in no god
Became the object of a new cult,
Laid out in his dark crypt,
In his suit, small, ginger, his features a bit stretched
Combes then takes this theme to its ironic conclusion, in ‘Tomb for a mausoleum’, by juxtaposing communism with Christianity, but to the end that it is depicted as no more nor less unintentionally flawed and corrupted in time than the established church:
That’s how it was because communism
conceived by scientific minds
(which placed doubt above all things)
was also a faith and religion.
come from the catacombs to change the world,
the religion of communism accomplished miracles,
defied Caesars and built new kingdoms on Earth.
This religion had its saints, its martyrs,
its interrogators, its corrupt popes,
its executioners, its victims,
its revelations and its mysteries
which will survive to speak of its glory,
its collapse and its execution.
In my own view, as established/orthodox Christianity became corrupted by its move away from the communist aspect to its original practice, communism was eventually bound to become corrupted by its scientific materialist outlook, abolition of religion and dismissal of the spiritual needs inherent in humankind.
Some fascinating portraits of figures caught up at the vanguard of the revolutionary fluxes of their times follow. ‘Nikolai Bukharin, the treasured child’ conveys so much in a line such as ‘but the years to come will be blacker and more bitter/ than the tea he allowed to go cold at the bottom of his cup’. ‘Notes for a portrait of Rosa Lux’ is a beautifully described tribute to this madam comrade who ‘felt closer’ to the ‘blue-tit than her comrades’, and who ‘spoke in smoke-filled rooms/ and wrote while under fire’. ‘Rosa’s Revenge’ provides a brilliant bit of sprung rhyme:
With a blow of a rifle butt, a soldier smashed her jaw.
(Thus, even with her executioners
she could converse no more).
Rosa Luxemburg seems to have been very much a compassionate and moral voice for the best heartfelt traits of socialism: ‘To be good, quite simply. That’s what embraces everything/ and counts more than intelligence than the claim/ to be right,’ she wrote in a letter.’ Here Luxemburg emphasizes the roots of socialism in Pelagnianism, the Christian doctrine that preached salvation could be attained through good acts; ipso facto, the flipside, capitalism, is rooted in Calvinism and the notion of predestination (a predetermined spiritual elect unaffected by earthly moral behaviour or ‘good acts’). But did Lenin the pragmatist take note of such noble sentiments?
‘Gramsci climbs the hills’ pays tribute to the Italian Marxist imprisoned by Mussolini, ending beguilingly, almost religiously:
Mussolini had him locked in a tomb
but he didn’t manage to deprive him of light
nor to prevent that light reaching us.
The rather specific didactically titled ‘Mayakovsky and the revolution’s conservatives’ is laced with beautiful descriptions:
There on the wooden table were the tools you need
to write a poem.
Newspapers, cigarettes and even an umbrella.
I imagine you seated, your thick, sulky lips,
your sombre eyes sunk in their sockets,
sentimental and unhappy as a young pup
...boots creaking with pleasure
over this patch of earth which is our planet;
so they might be at home amongst the stars
masters and owners, god’s equals,
you wanted the heart’s sack to grow
to the size of the universe.
that’s when you rang the tocsin of words
calling the oppressed, en masse across the world.
Images such as ‘the Court of History’’s ‘voluminous dossier’, and the following tropes, are impressively composed with a subtle bounce of alliteration and well-mined half-rhyme:
There are still some distinguished poets of course
who will consign you to limbo
with a moist rubber stamp.
Your poetry’s shoulders are too wide,
they won’t fit the doorways
of the Academies.
Two poems relating to the life and death of Leon Davidovitch Bronstein, or ‘Trotsky’ as a prison guard apparently named him, a ‘contradiction’ noted by Combes, or possibly more of an irony; ‘Trotsky on Prinkipo’ takes us up to his notorious assassination with ice-pick; later in the book, there’s a figurative mention of Stalin having Trotskyism symbolically crushed with its namesake’s skull – at the end of ‘Report on the death of Lev Davidovitch’:
They thought they were saving the revolution: they sent it awry.
By destroying a man’s brain
it was the spirit of the revolution they fatally wounded
and also its heart.
Interestingly, and tapping in to the subject of communism and spiritualism I touched on earlier, Combes does address this dimension in ‘On the nature of a famous perversion’, where he offers an illuminating dialectic:
The very danger haunting any organisation
Which allows authority to flow from function.
– The problem then is this: to hang on to faith
but to have done with church hierarchy.
– Or rather: to have done with church hierarchy
in order to keep faith alive.
As per my previous argument, a spiritually inclined social egalitarianism, or Christian socialism, tends to be my own preferred option of thought; crucially, also sans hierarchies. Combes appears commendably open to such quandaries, detectably more agnostic than atheist, with a definite Hegelian (metaphysical idealism) leaning which sporadically asserts itself through an ongoing dialectic which betrays the religion-style trappings of communism in history when at its most absolutist and statist (e.g. juxtapositions of popes with despots).
This might be seen as its own essential Combesian contradiction; since only pages on, we get more materialist-oriented poems again such as ‘What are communists made of?’, which focuses on Stalin’s mystification of the ‘special stuff’ that makes communists; and ends on a consciously nuts-and-bolts trope that communists are made not of some ‘faultless fabric’ spun after ‘the old rags, tinsel of the aged world’ are thrown off, but are made of their action, their labour – as Combe phrases it, ‘the simple fact of rolling up their sleeves’ (very different to the Cameronian notion of course).
The Spanish Civil War is tackled with a Lorca-esque lyricism in ‘Spain in blood and jasmine’, starting with:
Spain, land of beaten leather
the men wear scarves round their necks
and carry heavy rifles.
And further on, producing such beguilingly figurative tropes as:
The olive groves
silver-tipped look like martyrs’ bodies
put to the test
but they are woods of justice
of the people’s pain.
‘Willi Wünzenberg’ describes the man ‘with the good, jovial smile of a Thuringian workman’ who could be taken, with his ‘leather briefcase’ as a ‘commercial traveller of the Revolution’. Wünzenberg achieved the epithet: ‘Red eminence, as his enemies called him’. Here Combes slightly satirises dialectical materialism: ‘...our best dialecticians/ did not always tolerate dialectics’. Another, veritably proletarian figure of (East) German communism crops up in ‘Hans, the Hamburg docker’, which includes some sublimely figurative industrial images:
In the early morning mist
the cranes overlooking the port
stretch out their arms like despairing mothers.
An image made all the more powerful by the cranes’ eventual transfiguration into suggestive ‘gallows’. ‘The flag on the Reichstag’ is a buoyantly alliterative poem, but which threads through it the brooding motif of ‘shadows in the picture’ of photos taken of the Soviet troops hoisting the red flag in Berlin, symbolising the adumbrations of future ethical corruptions of the Soviet purpose; it ends chillingly by saying that eventually those ‘shadows’ caught up with the Soviet photographer himself, ‘because he was a Jew’; a disturbing reminder of the German anti-Semitism only ostensibly deposed by an anti-Semitic Stalinism.
Combes has a particular gift for sanctifying communism in arguably a similar way to the historical examples of this which he elsewhere highlights as ideological contradictions. However, with Combes, the emphasis is on egalitarianism, humility and hope; in many ways, sentiments echoing those of original Christianity. ‘Man, the most precious capital’ is an anti-utilitarian parable – though legion of Combes’ poems serve as figurative proverbs – seeming to challenge the saying that makes the title, which I presume was said by Stalin. The poem then can be seen as anti-Satlinist, forcibly against his materialist pragmatism which ended up reducing the people of the Soviet Union to mere numbers on a production-line – a far cry from true communist ideals of course, and Combes points here towards a progressive – even visionary – definition of a more deeply humanistic communism. Combes’ gnomic powers are uncanny, reminiscent of Buddhist and Christian proverbs, and even some of the poems of Mao Zedong:
But the tree that shoots up in the forest
does it do so
to produce good planks?
It has to be said that the time
was prone to see in the forest nothing but timber
because the lag in productivity
had to be overcome.
But little by little, we are leaving behind this phase of human life
where man, instead of being his own end,
is a means.
‘Letter to comrade Brecht on the uses of goodness’ is a fascinating dialectic on communist ethics, which is rich with riddling moral logic:
But rather than the comfort of a moral position
the moralist preferred the discomfort of politics.
It concludes with an italicised passage which is presumably a ‘P.S.’ from a letter of Brecht’s, it’s not totally clear and it’s possible I’ve slightly missed the point here (forgivable however, since this is an intellectually demanding book, being muscularly didactic throughout):
you taught the hard laws of class struggle
and weren’t by all accounts too holy
though of kindness as the supreme quality.
That’s also why
you remain necessary.
The ingenious overlap here between an idealistic recognition of moral goodness while emphasizing – un-ironically? though Combes is of course using it ironically – that it is ‘necessary’, confronts us with a possible ethical contradiction, where goodness itself is described in rather chilled utilitarian terms, which smacks of a temporary pragmatism, but a possible future expendability. The Maoist – or rather, Zedongian, to avoid other connotations – aphorismic gift of Combes again employs images of forests for egalitarian metaphor, suggesting an organic communism, something green, life-affirming and full of growth – even if in the opening trope of ‘Metamorphosis of the human forest’, the image is used in the negative: ‘We don’t dream of a forest/ where all the trees will be the same size’. It concludes, sublimely, that what makes for the ‘beauty of the forest’ ‘are the pathways and the clearings/ and the daylight striking through the foliage’ – beauty and truth emphasized by contrast.
‘The portrait of Stalin’ plays again with contrasts, through the motif of a painting of the younger Stalin by Picasso (also a communist), which Combes’ uses as the wasted Soviet promise:
...perhaps because by painting him so young
Picasso depicted an unrealised dream,
an iconic view of revolution
when everything was still possible?
Chairman Mao is tackled empathetically though critically in a series of shorter poems. ‘Morning snow’ relates how he ordered the snow not to be swept off his doorstep with the telling trope: (‘Beneath snow, the world is without contradictions’). Arguably ‘Under snow’ rather than ‘Beneath’ might have worked better here to emphasize what I assume is being hinted at, that Mao is alluding to the necessary expediency of covering up the flaws and occasional atrocities of his pseudo-despotic form of communism, which, ironically for what is fundamentally intended as a philanthropic social model, in the case of those such as Mao and Stalin, was actually more misanthropic in its implementation. Another China-set parable on what could be Combes’ faint assertion that such an ideal as communism is in a sense non-falsifiable since in its true extrapolated model, it has arguably never actually been existent. Combes employs again his figurative powers, where a painter asks his master what the ‘easiest thing in the world’ to paint is, and his master says, ‘Dragons’ because ‘No-one’s ever seen one’. This figurative ingenuity never tires due to Combes’ imaginative abilities.
‘The water’s parabola’ is a beautiful proverb, its core trope being, ‘Rain water, baptismal water, washing-up water/ water which cleans and purifies never stays pure’ – ambiguous but irresistibly purposeful, as all good aphorisms, my own interpretation being that, if symbolising communism for instance, there are no good ends without the pollution of compromised means.
Aspects of futility to the inextricable inter-mingling between the agencies of the social and commercial are symbolised in ‘A picture of former times’:
The red flags have been taken out of the cupboards
along with the official banners on which
slogans have been carefully painted by the enterprise
which specialises in the production of calico.
‘Father Tu’ is a witty little piece, shot through with strikingly alliterative descriptions such as ‘with his rattan suitcase and typewriter’ and ‘corn chowder and bamboo shoots’. Its ending is paradoxically comical:
In his happy moments
His tracts become poems.
(he has little time for poetry
because all his time is taken up
‘Ho Chi Minh’s tool’ is another gnomic gem:
(He who made the iron tigers of colonialism
(You could say too
that by coming down to the level of the smallest
‘The ring’ is similarly garnished with beautifully figurative phrases:
The next day,
very skilled hands
cut, from the aluminium body of the Phantom bomber,
a comb and a ring.
‘Elegy for Che’ has a lyrical sharpness with tropes such as ‘You never knew/ the ashen taste/ of resignation’.
One Combesian leitmotif is ‘tulip’ – I may be unaware of the precise symbolic significance here but apparently it has a part function in modern usage as what's known as a 'dead metaphor' being an old-fashioned/out-of-use term for the 'turban'. But even if this is unconscious in its use by Combes, it is nevertheless a beautiful noun associated with images of colour, swelling, something budding, full of promise; perhaps that is the figurative intention. In ‘May-June ‘68’ we get the beguiling, almost Rimbaudian, lyrical phrase: ‘In our hearts is a conspiracy of tulips!’
The penultimate section of this book, The World’s Song, continues in more lyrical intensity – not only ‘tulips’ but ‘poplars’ also seem to abound as leitmotifs, the latter always reminding me of the interminable poem which Gordon Comstock is unable to finish in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying!, the poet being forever stuck on an opening line describing poplars. ‘At the ‘Sylvia Villa’’ is a discursive piece which coins the inescapable epithet, ‘‘poets will never be cured/ of their obscurity...’’). ‘Letter to Chilean friends’ subtly depicts a kind of proletarian Last Supper; no wine, but ‘the bluish joy of a glass of milk’, and for food:
She sat at the table
broke the bread
and said to us: ‘Eat
this belongs to us’.
Tulips crop up again in ‘In Bucharest a sentry sleeps’, with a beautiful trope:
A butchered guilty tulip in a glass
wonders who stole her colours.
Combes’ almost phantasmagorical talent at description gives us the following faintly surreal image:
...behind bearded witches who
offer you an apple and eat your ear
in the morning float unharnessed horses.
Snow appears again too: ‘the Future has been sacked/ and the present is this arrested snow...’ ‘Muddy Sofia’ tugs us back to grittier imagery:
Has been turned into a urinal.
The town is sinking into cold and mud.
Post-revolutionary spring, now into pragmatic winter, the poet of the title asking: ‘Is the only future left for all of us/ to become shopkeepers?’ Similarly blunt in tone is ‘Four postcards from Yugoslavia’, in which a character observes, ‘war/ is just a particular way/ of privatising the economy’; while by its end, a peasant has ‘written/ with big stones/ the name of Tito’. One of the more contentious poems in this book is the grimly empathetic, though not uncritical ‘The trial of Pol Pot’; in fact, after the verisimilitude of its leftfield angle on the corrupted idealist-turned-despot, Combes subtly exposes how Pol Pot got off quite lightly in real terms after his trial, though for someone of his undoubtedly macrocosmic ego, possibly not, being not condemned to death ‘but to live, without any role’. Despots fear unemployment more than death itself. The forest leitmotif crops up again, when referring to the fate of the Khmer Rouge: ‘isolated and beaten, they took refuge in the forest/ and the forest devoured them’.
‘The Fifth International’ alternates between the blunter phrase, ‘in very modern and democratic/ capitalist societies - / men and women are sleeping under cardboard; and the more descriptive:
from the pockets of smoking jackets on the tarmac of towns
like pinches of tobacco
Combes’ descriptive feel for London is admirably authentic, and it is refreshing to see the city through French eyes:
is the umbrella pointing towards the sky
of the ghost of a colonel from the Indian army
who can’t retreat.
His walrus moustache
is lying on a flea market stall
in Petticoat Lane
Here Combes also touches on the pseudo-religiosity of communist thought: ‘we too/ we believe/ in spirits/ and in the life/ (eternal or almost)’.
From London to New York in the brilliantly figurative ‘NY.NY.9.11’ which begins:
A plane in the sky, which banks on its wings with the slowness of a shark
in the middle of the blue sky of the telly screen.
Motifs such as ‘Olympus’ and images of ‘swimming pools full of clouds’ give the poem a hauntingly mythical quality; Combes comes up with one of the most startling faux similes/metaphors relating to 9/11 that I’ve yet read (only rivalled by the twin towers ‘crumbling to their knees’, which I think I’ve read by another poet):
...Manhattan disappeared in a cloud of smoke
like an octopus which hides in its cloud of ink.
The final section in this epic collection is Poems for a New Dawn. ‘On contemplative Marxists’ produces yet another stunning Combes aphorism:
There are those who
(if you listen to their speeches
and watch what they do)
find the tree of theory green
and that of action grey.
‘A short history of the red flag’ is a fascinating colouristic poem which juxtaposes the ‘red’ with ‘emergency’, and speaks of ‘the black flag of anger’ with startling assonantal impact. It too, like so many of Combes’ poems, concludes on a memorable aphorism:
without the power of the clenched fist
the life of the future will never be able
nor find its heartbeat.
The latter image is of particular significance to Combes’ very compassionate, slightly romantic, even sentimental communism. This colouristic focus is echoed again in ‘Women and revolution (an allegory)’ with ‘the scarlet banner/ of rebellion’. Yet again, a striking conclusion:
Beneath the tarnished inscription appears the watchword
Of this old new time:
(Perhaps a potential motto for the Con-Dem government?) – and ends rousingly, almost reminding me of a speech Stephen Daedalus makes in James Joyce’s Ulysses when he asserts passionately, something along the lines of, ‘There is God: the sound of children in the street’:
As for the Revolution, it’s reported lost.
If you’re looking for it, be aware
It’s lost its toga and its capital letter.
But it still runs freely in the streets.
‘Thoughts about happiness near a pond in summer’ is something of a transcendent reverie, as the poet meditates whilst swimming on his back in a pool, looking up at the sky: ‘From up there, no love ever fell. // Love rises and doesn’t fall’ and closes by talking of ‘the happiness yet to be invented’.
The mythical feel to this section infuses ‘The trial of Prometheus’: ‘Every poet, every seeker/ and every revolutionary/ is a thief of sparks’ – the message here is a little obscure, but my sense is it is a critique of both transcendent idealism (religion) and of unsuccessful materialist idealism – it ends, lingeringly: ‘Let the day arrive/ when every creature/ will be its creator’.
‘Towards the summits’ is one of the sparsest lyrical pieces in the book, four stanzas of two lines each; the final trope suggests again a distrust of religion as a distracting obstacle to human improvement, or simply a parable against the corruption of power: ‘At a certain height, the air becomes rarefied/ What threatens you then, is the intoxication of pinnacles’. ‘The red sun’ is another colouristic meditation on communism:
Above the factory road rises a red sun
(not the dirty red of bricks
but the clear, translucent red of the flesh of cherries)
a modest and courageous sun,
a working sun.
Again, some hugely memorable aphorisms here: ‘Every class gets the symbols it deserves’. It ends with the slightly romanticised lines:
But the red sun of revolutions
always rises in the morning.
‘Against resignation’ continues the aphorismic flourish: ‘To live is to refuse to anticipate/ your destiny as dust’. ‘Life is disobedient’ contains some fascinating dialectic:
the main means of transformation
(or breeding in a direct line)
but competition between lateral branches.
Evolution is bushy.
the weakest link will break
and the margin is in the centre.
It ends with a perennial socialist aspiration:
After freedom without equality
and equality without freedom
perhaps we have a go
at equality with freedom.
Yes, that would be nice. ‘We are the new proletariat’ is one of the most powerful polemical poems on the nature of industrial employment in capitalist society I’ve read, and echoes much of the Lawrentian sentiments regarding ‘work’:
Our factories have been closed; we have been freed from
but, always looking for a job, for work
we aren’t free.
As for those of us who leave school and never get
a job nor real wage
there’s job experience at menial tasks for next to nothing
so we’re never out of work.
This is far from the Hegelian geist or communist gestalt/collective/soviet ideal, but more simply absorption into the utilitarian capitalist Leviathan:
Not now just our hands but our brains and
our nerves which become extensions of the machine.
Using more direct language in this poem, less figurative, but equally didactic on an ethical level, Combes makes some obvious but nevertheless rarely voiced and profound points on the insanity of a modern labour market which maintains its protagonists as wage-slaves and perpetually dispossesses them of any control over their material destinies; that it is not the folk-devil of ‘the big state’ spun by Tories and capitalists that threatens our individual flowering, but that of the capitalist octopus, that squirts only phony notions of individualism at us, clouding out the real truth, that the very existence of employment implies bondage to those who ‘employ’ us:
Workers, employees, unemployed or on the brink
we are the new proletariat.
In this universe where only property matters
we don’t even own
The ultimate dispossession: for one’s very labour to be ‘owned’ by others. But Combes then counters the further ringing irony, followed by a warning to the exploiters:
Owning nothing, we count for nothing.
But we are the most numerous
without us nothing, gets done.
And those who own everything
must reckon with us.
One of the most profound poems in the book for me is ‘Psalm’, an anti-Beatitudes, which replaces ‘Blessed are’ with ‘Happy are’ throughout:
Happy are they who struggle.
(There are too many today who don’t fight
simply out of fear of defeat.
They are defeated without having fought.)
The bracketed dialectical asides after each ‘Happy are...’ seem to be socialist counter-arguments against what is possibly intended as a capitalist Beatitudes.
‘On elevation’ continues the sentiments of ‘Ho Chi Minh’s tool’: ‘a levelling of the world/ which at the same time might be/ a raising of everyone’s level’. ‘Of love and contradiction’ reaches for a more compromising social goal for humanity in a figurative guise:
A day will arrive when these sweet laws
Of the dialectic of friendly contradictions
Practised by lovers every day
Will also govern the lives of nations.
One could think such aspiration might have once inspired the ancient Greeks to create democracy, or rather social democracy.
‘What is communism?’ returns the nuts-and-bolts of revolutionary aspiration, with some more of Combes’ alliterative buoyancy (or should that be Dent’s, through translation?): ‘Instead of the royalty of bosses, the republic/ of co-operative producers’. Combes appears to aspire to distinctly moral and non-scientific socialism, with which I also sympathise: ‘Ethics taking precedence over economics/ and politics/ Communism is the people of the world/ in permanent session’. The poem ends with the triumphant definition:
Communism is when the governed
become their own rulers
and when producers are at last creators.
‘On the love of absolute purity’ can be read as a critique on any form of moral absolutism, and the unbloodied impossibility of such, whether religious or purely political in nature:
Now we understand to what extent the love
of absolute purity can be murderous
because, purified, the world becomes bloodless,
and many fall by the wayside.
‘In the vicinity of absolute power, prowls madness’.
What colour is whiter than white?
And what colour are winding-sheets?
(The love of absolute purity is grubby.)
The poem continues to pour forth aphorisms with urgency: ‘Does the risk of absolute purity/ make filth acceptable?’ and ‘We have to see the dark in ourselves/ and pull it into the light’.
‘When our lot finally...’ is a brilliant anti-capitalist poem, switching from ‘property’ to its flipside, ‘poverty’, as leitmotif:
When our lot finally is no longer poverty
let’s spare a thought for old times
when men could hardly show their generosity
Because if they didn’t possess everything
they possessed nothing.
(Setting his face against the community suggested by Plato
Aristotle said: ‘Only he who has can give’.
It’s often those who have the least however
who give the most.)
Combes seems to argue here in a manner which some communists might be uncomfortable with, but he certainly has a point: ‘it’s not property we must abolish/ but poverty’.
‘The gardener’s lessons’ concludes the book in a more figurative way, again, with naturalistic metaphor for the indefinable, almost unearthly nature of communist egalitarianism:
In the plots the asparagus point to the sky
all different from one another
and all alike. So it is with men.
Here Combes ingeniously employs a similar ambiguity, even impenetrable paradox which characterises much of the proverbs and aphorisms of Christ, in order to convey an ideal state of perfection which is in itself, incommunicable in nhuman terms. The last lines end just as intriguingly, on a lingering figurative peak:
(Liberal or reformist laisser-faire inevitably
leads to the cruel disorder of untamed nature.)
Every gardener acts as an organiser of metamorphoses.
And thus spake Francis Combes, a demonstrably important, even vital poetic voice of our time, now brought to wider attention this side of the Channel through the essential auspices of Andy Croft's Smokestack. Alan Dent is to be highly commended for translating such a formidable quantity of Combes’ superbly ‘didactic’ poetry and poetic prose so sensitively and comprehensively; it should be read implicitly throughout my review that many of the prosodic and linguistic flashpoints throughout the book are no doubt in part due to Dent’s own poetic interpretation – though I do not pretend to be knowledgeable of the true mechanics and nuances of poetry in translation. Nevertheless, translating, and on such a breathtaking scale, the poetry of such a figuratively brilliant, philosophically and dialectically challenging poet as Combes, must have been no mean feat. Common Cause is a triumph for both poet and translator, and publisher, the book having been funded through hard-won subscription; textually and collaboratively it is a testament to the enduring spirit of common purpose, a combined achievement of Franco-Anglo poetic and political co-operation, and deserves far wider exposure and hopefully further deservedly applauding reviews. The historical and political scope of Combes’ output is prodigious; his gnomic gifts and aphorismic mastery are of the first order; but ultimately, what is so wonderful about this book, is that once one has read it – and I mean read it: it deserves full and thorough engagement – they come away not simply with a sense of having further informed and replenished the mind, but also the heart and the spirit; the defiant spirit of socialist aspiration, muddied but un-dimmable. I couldn't recommend this book more: it is essential reading.
Alan Morrison © 2011