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Review - "Cloud. A coffee cantata" by Martin Thom

 Andrew Duncan

Martin Thom, Cloud. A coffee cantata. A5, 48pp (price £5.00). details at equipagepress.weebly.com

The title of the first section is “London, 6 September 2019. At the DSEI Arms Fair. Climate Justice Day”, but we have already had the initial quotations, which deal respectively with a creation myth from the pre-Columbian Mayan text Popol Vuh, from a biography about Swedenborg's coffee-drinking habits, and a Guatemalan saying (expressing fatalism). There follows by an illustration from one of Swedenborg's books. The latter, a wood-cut, shows a Machina Sclopetaria, which we can translate (from the Latin caption) as a machine-gun: multiple barrels fired alternately by the rotation of a cog-wheel, in a carriage on wheels. (It has a set of blades like a windmill and was supposed to work ope aeris, by the energy of the air.) By this time we know we have a story about interconnection: different planes of reality are being lit up to show how they are inter-related. The title gives us coffee as the theme. Perhaps the proposal is that Guatemala (inhabited by former Mayans) has coffee as its main export, and its politics derive from that; whereas Britain’s main export is arms, and its politics, equally, derive from that–and the absence of other exports. Swedenborg’s predilection for coffee, and arms design, during his life in England, is the link, and he is the character we are following for much of the poem. (The Swedenborg book is Daedalus hyperboreus, or “the Swedish inventor”, 1716.)

The text consists of 140 9-line stanzas, rhyming ABABCBCC. This exit from free verse into regular metre is a sign of coming out of a private poetic world into a public language, where the statements apply to the world we live in, so that the poet is accountable in the same way as an enterprise. The poem contains a narrative: and this is partly surreal, because this is the nature of an allegory, to animate abstract and hidden relations. The metrical pattern is always incomplete and (from its visibility) always suggesting an arriving completion; this leads us to detect a pattern at the level of argument. But, let’s hear some of it:

    I saw
    Behind his back affinity groups gathering for their action, raw
    And pale at the thought of dreadful war outstared.
    My comrades they had stepped trepidant across
    The ribbon of their risk, and on that footing feared
    The dire distress attends all leaping into loss
    Yet leap they did to disrupt la machine atroce
    As through the lines and dreaming there came the three locked-on.
    Three sleepers lay down on the road, glistening still with frost
    The good thief to the bad thief changed, the bad thief to the son,
    A threefold cord withstanding artic or pantechnicon.

This passage about a protest, about DSEI, has solidarity as one of its main subjects, and this persists, as for instance several stanzas deal with the staff brewing and serving at a cafe, where they are sharing labour and help. The design of the poem is one of continuous action, characters going through rapid physical movement. If I had to sum up Cloud I would point to its ceaseless discovery of new elements of the real world, its finding of unfamiliarity and dazzling precision in the shifting banks of economy and technology, the things which we share and can examine. It is unusually rich in objects, institutions, and economic relations.

There was a fact circulated, a few years ago, telling us that if you paid £2.50 for your oversize coffee at a brand cafe only 1p of that actually went to the primary producer, the farmer tending the bush and picking the bean. This was a brilliant piece of education: you could get it in a second, and yet it opened up a real complexity, the story of where the money goes –a transcontinental tangled flow. It was also a unifier – even people who read the Daily Telegraph did not at all think that that penny to the Third World peasants actually doing the work was the right sum, or that we, self-regarding English consumers, were not benefiting from the whole ripple of rip-off. It wasn’t all that hard to go on to think that the merchant, commodity trading, interest needed local governments to repress attempts at self-assertion by the peasants, rapaciously claiming three pennies from the global two pounds fifty pence, and that arms deals might be a way of supporting that sort of top-down grip. Or, that debt might be a way of exacting compliance – and represented luxuries (as well as arms) for local elites, rather than past benefits to the peasants.

I want to cite another passage, which I think is mainly decorative, and not part of the political argument:

    I was much impressed by the Sami coat he wore
    In honour of Linnaeus, Lapland and the trance
    But also by the carl-staf of polished bronze he bore
    A measuring device to make the volumes dance.
    With embroidered chanticleer he’d wave that gleaming lance
    At market, in the warehouse or in a Stockholm hold
    To gauge the perfect packing a sack or barrel wants
    When saving peas or cabbages, salted for the cold,
    Or stacking cannonball and shot, against the shipboard pitch and roll.

Thom also names Swedenborg as a figure of the Enlightenment, so that this metrical staff is also a yardstick, representing the idea of justice which we all have and which is offended by the rich battening on the poor. But I think the link to the Lapps is there because they are the only European example of shamanism, and that is something which anthropologists like to talk about; Swedenborg's habitual intercourse with speaking spirits is like what shamans do, even if he was a baron and an engineer. (Some folklorists find other traces of shamanism, in Hungary I believe.)

It is worth mentioning that Thom was a Seventies poet, publishing the absolutely extraordinary The Bloodshed the Shaking House with X-Press in 1977, and that he studied archaeology and anthropology – a project of which the headline is, virtually, that you are going to have to forget everything about being from the 20th-century West in order to write a good essay. This helps us to get his interest in the Mayan culture, which bequeathed its language and genes to the upland farmers of Guatemala, the ones who actually cultivate the coffee.

    ‘Your cart it cannot catch’, I said, ‘the chill rain sheeting down,
    Nor your eyes retain, by canny cones and rods,
    That manifold descending in drop and dreep to town
    Of the fleeting hailstones, the maize seed of the gods,
    That presage by their rattle the coronated clods.’
    ‘There are braided words’, the risen man replied,
    ‘Combed out by the wind and despite the odds
    Entered into wisdom books upon the mountainside,
    Memorials to the Mayan Ixil innocents who died.
    From giddy heights a thread leads me out and through
    Blocks inert and Sartrean in their certain places,
    Yet with my cart, with scripture and the Popol Vuh
    I walk a gull-swept line where Maya Ixil faces
    Are shaped from banks of sand and silted river traces.

Quoting the Popol Vuh is a provocation – you can put it into English words but you can't really think that you understand it, that you can explain why the parts are there and how they connect. This is a window through which we can see our own inability to understand the global world – a moment of wonder, I hope. If you think about the Popol Vuh in relation to the modern Maya-speaking communities, the ones you can visit and talk to about folklore, you come slap up against the impact of imperialism. The Maya who are left are submerged by Hispanic culture. The continuity between primary imperialism and global capitalism is blatant in Latin America, where the withdrawal of Spain still left creole-dominated, racially unequal, regimes in power, but this just leads us towards recognising the regime of globalisation as the legacy of imperialism, a re-branding rather than a reform.

If I am not mistaken, the passage about pots and pans acting on their own (in the Popol Vuh quotation) is echoed at stanzas 136-9, the poem literally incorporating the mysterious and non-European. I understand from a glance at the source that the pots rose up because they were tired of being burnt in the fire, and the grindstones rose and ground up their masters because they were tired of being ground down themselves. Popol Vuh was a psychedelic-era rock band from Munich, which leads Thom to the even better CAN, from Darmstadt, with their astonishing percussionist Jaki Liebezeit (he cites ‘Mother Sky’, it’s on You-Tube) and moves swiftly on to the anthropologist Rodney Needham and his book on the use of drumming. Thom returned to the poetry stage with Fair, in 2018 – which was also about an arms fair. This is, I suppose, where he sees poetry blossoming. I react to Nigel Wheale and Ewan Smith publishing Fair (with infernal methods), and Rod Mengham publishing Cloud (with Equipage). They are trace indicators of a sort of group, of Corbyn’s generation, whom I became aware of, at latest, in 1981, with Equofinality, and who have persisted and who show no sign of cease and desisting.

As for the title – the cover photograph shows an 1875 photograph of people working at a coffee plantation in Guatemala. The credit says the estate was “Las Nubes” – the clouds. Coffee grows high on hills. Could also be a cloud of steam from or even inside a coffee-maker.

 

 

Copyright ©  Andrew Duncan, 2021


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