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Review - "Wintereissen" by Kelvin Corcoran and Alan Halsey

Robert Sheppard

Two Bards with One Stone: a review of Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran, Winterreisen. Newton-le-Willows: Knives Forks and Spoons, 2019. £14.

This collaborative text is a co-authored dialogue. The indicative, but informal Ks or As before each verse or section, tell us who is speaking. However, Kelvin Corcoran and Alan Halsey don’t adopt the practice of their former co-authored volume, A Horse That Runs (2015), where they address one another. Nor is there an attempt to fabricate a ‘third voice’, which is apparently the aim of some literary collaborators; they have no need to. Their exchanges (I assume via email) during the winter months of 2015-18 (the title Winterreisen points us to winter travels) accumulate to create around 80 pages of this ping-pong discourse. By the winter of 2016-17, just halfway through, they establish a formal rule (as they had in A Horse That Runs, which is tellingly subtitled ‘to and fro’): each poet writes an equal number of lines. Of course, they use this allotment individually. Corcoran has a smoother line, with less enjambment, whereas Halsey favours enjambment and irregularity. By the winter of 2017-18, they had added the constraint (or permission) of prefacing each text with a quotation to guide their match. Sporting metaphors come to mind with this contest, although the game is friendly. We do feel (as one doesn’t universally with artistic collaboration) that the co-authors are at ease in each other’s company, or even in each other’s poems. Address outwards (to the reader) avoids chumminess. However, their sense of proprietorship is preserved by letting us know who is responsible for what, in an ethics of signature. Although there is no ‘third voice’, and their lineation varies, they maintain co-operatively assimilated voices. They speak – the writing deliberately takes on the artifice of elevated but intimate speech – not unlike one another, but never merging. Alan Halsey noticeably tones down his characteristic logopoetic wordplay.

Because of the ‘to and fro’ process, the poets don’t treat their subject matter in a focussed way. Reading Winterreisen feels like watching two dancers performing around a set of centre-stage objects. Traversal and transport are implied, of course, in its title. We variously encounter the History of Surrealism (particularly its schisms); one exchange circles around TS Eliot, Tennyson and Hendrix; explorations and extrapolations of the tales and artifacts of antiquity, including Chinese and Middle Eastern shamanism and myth; Roger Casement and Irish history; the murky world of international espionage; the current matter of Britain; the Death of Roland Barthes, and of Theory, which they seem to have a joint contempt for:

The poets shuffle out, bloody-eyed,
back to their caves in the anthologies
half a mile north of Neglect,
watched by Eng. Lit. lads on CCTV.

Those lines are typical of the sardonic humour, which usually jumps out like this, a bolt from the blue, and is one of the pleasures of reading Winterreisen.

One poem is different from the others, and it offers a way into their collaborative method. Corcoran has published his parts of the co-authored section, ‘The Sinking Colony Revisited in the Days of Lee Harwood’, in his Article 50 (Sheffield: Longbarrow Press, 2018). In this showing, it is an elegy for poet Lee Harwood, which begins domestically. The first part tells of a ‘trail of postcards’ from Harwood, ‘found around the house’, and the multiple presences (‘his different faces’) that the revered, missed and mourned poet evokes, ‘in the days of the days of Lee Harwood’, Corcoran writes, as though time is wrapped in itself. Lamentation for ‘Poet more alive living nowhere now’ gives way, in the second section, to the kind of semi-surreal narrative that abounds in Harwood’s own work, full of location shifts and rafts of colonial trappings, less Harwood’s ‘The Sinking Colony’ that is claimed to be ‘revisited’ here, than other less fragmented contemporaneous pieces in The White Room (1968). On ‘the veranda’ we spot ‘the nabobs and salesmen, their butterfly wives’. Local but unexplained (inexplicable even) events occur, as in the style of Harwood. We are not sure we are still in the same locale: ‘a delivery of leather buckets for the collection of Yak milk’. However, this conjuring of that colonial world is not (just) pastiche but occasion for poetical commentary:

Later I learnt Captain Harwood’s reports were correct,
they predicted the whole thing – you just couldn’t tell,
he was so unassuming, gentle in his detachments,
and the reports were filed in Government House,
under the heading of Fanciful Imaginings At Large.

This testifies to the political acuity of Harwood’s writing, his non-coercive minimal rhetoric, and his occasional, deliberate silliness, while borrowing his fictional devices. ‘I suppose the engine of the age can run on,’ the narrator remarks, but knows the people who come after (Harwood) don’t ‘even know the name of this place’. This brilliantly absorbs Harwood’s ‘mythology’, with its confused, sensual heroes consumed by longing, into Corcoran’s mourning.

In the final part we return to the present: Brexit ‘England crouches, its back turned to the continent,/ resentful, effaces history and dreams an America’, not as in John Ashbery’s famous poem ‘They Dream Only of America’, a place as mysterious as Harwood’s own, but in deep yearning for Atlanticist neo-con capitalism. Corcoran jump-cuts to chez Harwood: ‘Despite this you can see the sea from Brunswick Place,’ we are told (at a stretch, of the neck, I’d add!) ‘and poetry leaps at the high windows there’, in Harwoodian transformative magic. No wonder Corcoran evokes ‘the remarkable American miniature stamp watercolourist Donald Evans’, a New York artist of Ashbery’s and Harwood’s era, who ‘was a nomadic traveloguer of a wholly fictional yet unquestionably lush global community’, according to his gallery’s web page. Corcoran runs through some of his fake postage stamp scenarios until he ends the poem with an appropriate image for the mountaineering Harwood: ‘poet scales the final mountain, everything’s there, it’s ok.’ The mountain is ‘final’; the allegory is almost traditional. Harwood is elected to the anti-Parnassus of a New York artist’s modest fictional miniatures.

Given the careful intertextuality, it is tempting to call Harwood a collaborator with Corcoran here, though I think there is a clear difference to that co-authoring interaction deliberately and knowingly undertaken with Alan Halsey. Harwood doesn’t have a say (the object of elegy never does, that’s partly the point), but the transposition of his tropes and scenarios into Corcoran’s sensibility does change our view of them.

We have Alan Halsey’s sensibility to account for, too, which similarly responds to the work of Harwood, but interacts with the writing of Corcoran, in the Winterreisen version. Not party to the mode of composition (‘to and fro’ remains a surmise) I can only respond to the effect of reading two long passages by Halsey positioned in the inter-sectional breaks of the work I have presented as a single poem by Corcoran. (I did indeed read Article 50 before this book.) Once the whole collaboration is read in Winterreisen, it is Halsey’s first passage that plunges us, in a section entitled ‘The Sinking Colony Revisited’, into the Harwoodian colonial milieu that Corcoran picks up so well, bungalows and verandas echoing with deference towards ‘the Raj’ and those ‘departmental reports’ that Corcoran uses metaphorically. Halsey’s narrator is obsessed with inventories, but the poem abruptly jumps location to a meta-level: we see the ‘Pig (logo)’ of Pig Press, which had published Harwood’s work (and, indeed, we literally see it in the visual collage that Halsey has made to illustrate this exchange). The beloved who provides much of the insecurity and passion in Harwood’s colonial fictions is lifted from that poetic world into play-acting absurdity and, finally, into possibility:

 ‘Haven’t we been here before?’ –
my young wife, not in white as in the poem
but in ‘fancy dress’? No, as she was, at another time.

This denial of detail segues into Corcoran’s second passage, which is then followed by Halsey’s second ‘turn’. He presents a Harwood trope with a twist: the question of ‘another time’ when the mysterious woman disappears, perhaps in bizarre circumstances. The disarmingly easeful speaker (‘in that way he had of seeming to belong/ to an age much friendlier than ours’) relates this tale of existential dead end:

   ‘The address she sent him
didn’t exist. He heard later that she’d changed her name.
Bigamy, perhaps. They never met again.’   

It is Halsey’s contribution that introduces the geography of Harwood’s Brighton, which is picked up by Corcoran in his conclusion, with its extraordinary elegiac enthronement of Harwood upon the mountain.

This poem is atypical, but it exposes some of the ways that themes are negotiated between the two poets. Read with Halsey’s sections added, the nature of the poem changes. It is admittedly baggier, but the raising of motifs and their development is clear. It’s tempting to imagine it as a musical development; ‘to and fro’ is movement, not just method. We respond to a dialogic rhythm.

That rhythm is more pronounced in some of the later poems, and I will examine one in detail, and determine some of the ways these two poets’ connective imagination works, and the pleasures of following them. Poem 2.2 of the winter of 2017-18 begins with a contextualising quotation, telling us that number stations (mysterious radio broadcasts of human voices reading numbers) ‘are believed to be the encrypted transmissions of secret services … to their agents in the field’. ‘Believed’ is the operative word here, but our two poets plunge into this possibility, toss it ‘to and fro’, run with it, play with it.             

Corcoran immediately detourns the discourse, from the radio signals to ‘Eurydice’s dark signal’ of cosmic loss and defeat (here and there, the Greek materials of many of his solo poems surface). Halsey then knocks us back to ‘medium wave, the Light Programme’, the old name for Radio 2 (which was never on medium wave). Corcoran responds with a row of the mysterious numbers and a sly glimpse of Britain as ‘Lesser Johnsonia’, which connects, via Russian interference in our elections and referendums, with Vladimir, Prince of Data’, Putin. We are in the world of Cambridge Analytics as well as (still) in the world of the Cambridge Spies: ‘but it’s no use standing by the mirror, fag between fingers,/ as cocksure as Philby just after he’d been cleared’. But ‘the convergence of poetry and espionage is a curious thing’, and we are also implicated in the Cambridge poetry of JH Prynne. To bring all these strands together (‘Cambridge Analytica – it’s not a post-Prynne school, / as if the privileged sons of England would ever trade in betrayal’) aligns privileged Philby with entitled Boris Johnson, Prynne with data mysteries: ‘There once was a city on the eastern edge/ of a failing country where it all came down to numbers.’ Everything connects. I have deliberately stopped indicating who provided the quotations to this (partial) reading of the poem because, as the exchange intensifies, it matters less. There is theme and thrust.    

I’ve always wondered whether poetry-readers are less likely to buy a co-authored poetry volume than a single authored one. I don’t know whether that’s the case, or whether it ever was. Perhaps events such as SJ Fowler’s ‘Enemies Project’ (in which Halsey has taken part) which has staged hundreds of events across Britain, and beyond, and has involved over a thousand writers and artists in the last few years, have changed that. The myth of the lone (and lonely!) genius casts a long shadow over literary reception. If it puts you off buying this handsome and beautifully illustrated book from Knives Forks and Spoons, fight against it.

copyright © Robert Sheppard, 2020

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