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Review - "The Trusty Servant" by Andrew Jordan

 Steve Spence

“The Trusty Servant” by Andrew Jordan, pub. Shearsman Books. 70pp. £12.95

The starting point for this intriguing new collection from Andrew Jordan seems to be the long, chapter-length review of Jordan’s last book Hegemonick, by Andrew Duncan in A Poetry Boom 1990-2010.  Despite Duncan’s dismissal of Jordan’s work – ‘No one is more malcontent than Jordan….’ the fact that he needed to expend so much energy in making his point might suggest that he takes him more seriously than might be apparent from the concluding paragraphs of the review. Jordan has quoted eight lines of Duncan’s review on the back cover of The Trusty Servant where it’s sandwiched between two paragraphs of Jordan’s own prose, a lightly coated defence of his own work which manages to be both oblique and suggestive while hinting at both tradition and the future in terms of both a political outlook and the function of poetry. The Trusty Servant is both a poem translated from the Latin and a wall painting by John Hoskins which hangs on the kitchen of Winchester College, so we are in Jordan’s ‘home territory’ so to speak. The image is that of a composite animal, part porker, part deer, part donkey and the pig’s mouth is padlocked so we have the suggestion perhaps of repressed speech and thought. At one level I can’t help thinking that the unusual title and cover image is an aid to giving the collection some colour and Jordan is a past master at shenanigans and stirring things up (the debate around ‘nonism’ for example) but there are also suggestions of class identity, land ownership and the whole nature of ‘the servant’ in the context of power relations and the nature of employment. Who is the trusty servant? Is this in fact a term you can trust? It’s worth doing a little research before encountering this book but it’s probably best to avoid getting too embroiled.

 

This is a collection filled with classical quotes and allusions, from Gawain and the Green Knight and the author of The Pearl, through to Chaucer, Pope and more obscure sources:

 

          Earwitness

 

          And lately the tendency has been for Art to enable repression.

          Through Art sensibility and conscience are negated.

          Despite the fawning this renders makers respectable.

          Und frische Nahrung, neues Blut sang ich aus freier Welt.

          Pretending artistry may ransom debts but anyone can falsify,

          forget, evade obscured relations otherwise hard to embody.

          So, why censorship? Is it to cover shame?

 

          When Art replaces nature as an image of the primal state

          it is shown with nature’s virtues like a puppet on its knee.

          Thus the lovely Artist, ventriloquizing Nature,

          hears itself in everything it sees , Redeemed as producer,

          means of production and product, the Artist, self consuming,

          is a kind of Ponzi scheme. Filled with narcissistic awe,

          this creature swindles Nature of the law to get its justness.

 

                    (‘And I suck nourishment, new blood, out of untrammelled nature: how gracious and generous is Nature, who                          

                    holds me to her bosom’ – translation from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s ‘On the Lake.’)

 

It’s been said elsewhere that Jordan’s satire often resembles the thing he is satirising, the context being landscape poetry and in particular the work of Jeremy Hooker, a poet Jordan appears to admire. In the above we can see a critique of contemporary mores reframed within a classical context, a mixing of past and present. I can’t help thinking that the phrase ‘narcissistic awe’ refers to social media and some of the horrors generated in its name. Jordan’s response to Duncan seems to be one of ‘an upholder of tradition’ but whose tradition are we talking about? The prefacing quotation from Job 41:1-4 includes the final lines ‘Will he make a covenant with thee? / wilt though take him for a servant forever?’ This again suggests the master/servant (slave?) relationship which is obviously central to the book.

         

          The Sea

    

          Identifying with a force that no-one then could articulate,

          I concealed myself amongst mysterious coercive things;

          a slab of sombre fish, the cracked quartz of bloody ice

          and slit belly of what lay cold. A rubbery, dissociated head.

          Dazzled at the door, I paused and then, as always,

          checked for reactions and cues that might imply rewards.

 

          Now everyone agrees that beauty overlies an unknown power.

          We all accede to love’s ambivalence. And yet there was a time

          when ideals, fully realised, did not imply regrets. Inscrutable sea,

          I found my compromise in the love conditional, its dark and

          fathomless complexities, commands and signs, and thus

          immersed in it from early on, grew gills and fins and spines.

 

This is strange stuff, there’s lyricism, there’s an argument, there’s complexity of feeling and thought and there’s a hint in the last line of an evolutionary development. To some extent I’m reminded of Helen’s Macdonald’s poetry where the ‘meaning’ is elusive but I don’t find the above as satisfying to read and engage with. I feel I’m looking for a literal reading because this is what is being implied yet this is inevitably frustrated. There’s something about the quality of the writing that is impressive though despite my doubts.

 

The final, long poem ‘Grandeur’ sets out as an exposition of ‘now’ and ‘then,’ utopia and dystopia as expressed through myth and history and I’m reminded to some degree of Aidan Dunn’s ambitious but ultimately puzzling poem Vale Royale from some years ago: Here is Jordan’s opening paragraph:

 

          I sing this lament to mark the way that they might come back.

          Although there seems to be no chance of restoration, this country

          in being lost is known directly, not through the melancholy remnants

          of the past, nor through songs and evocations, but in these last days,

          where borders, buckled by storms, dissolve in shades that come

          to let us know that whilst we persist, what we had is lost.

 

If the language is somewhat apocalyptic it’s appropriate to the times and we are very much back in Jordan’s ‘home territory’ where landscape and its appropriation together with the mythology surrounding it is to the fore. This is at once the land of Brexit and also something more archaic where the past fuses with the present. Andrew Duncan’s argument that the ‘British Underground’ of the sixties and seventies transformed into something more conversational and at ease with itself as a degree of artistic success created a new level, less oppositional and more convivial, is being challenged by Jordan’s suggestion of something darker and disordered. Is this the voice of ‘a malcontent’ or something more appropriate to the here and now?

 

          In the reception centre refugees sign for wealth, indicate permits,

          recount lost hoards, plunder. They say they seek fixed benefits,

          bonuses, a house not too far from the underworld. The speculator,

          recounting his vision, mentioned risks internalised, a path down

          into a deep unstable trough; the occult seer saw volatility, hedged

          futures, lost holdings, the darkness engulfing Cornwall and Gaul.

          We watched traffic slow to a halt. Money faltered. A false coinage

          is no true reminder, the image hangs loose on its hinges.

 

It feels as though Jordan runs the romantic together with the satirical, an aspiration for the good life perpetually dogged by hard reality and terrible leadership. Again we are both in the here and now and also in some distant past where questions of kinship, nationhood and a fairer, more just society are at the heart of things, the good beleaguered on all sides by criminal forces and corrupt politicians. The final stanza in this poem refers back to its opening where lament is the prevailing element and any sense of resistance is blocked out:

 

          Beauty will not force a way through me, but I can still

          describe its absences, knowing loveliness by the crude

          lines of my face and tenderness by my rough hand.

          I shelter in this place, graven in black stone, my hand

          always close to my mouth; my dog captured in

          its turning to a movement quite close by. Loyal and true,

          he turns his head to snarl at those who chance to look

          where I lie, long since forgotten, in this vast futurity.

 

The title of the poem may be intended satirically (it’s not always easy to detect the tone in Andrew Jordan’s work) but it certainly has an ambitious, almost epic magnificence even when the reader can’t always follow the drift. There‘s a lyrical aspect to Jordan’s work, you could almost call it ‘high poetry’ even where there is ambivalence or possible undermining. Elsewhere we have shorter line pieces as in ‘Grotesqueries’ with its repeated refrain:

 

          Two heads cupped by leaves,

          each gagging on a fruited stalk;

          a gargoyle, upside down,

          disgorging ornamental folds;

          rain blown between trees which,

          dipping and twisting, map

          the chaos inside of me

          upon which memory depends.

          Grotesques bring back

          The instant of the Fall.

 

There is Hardy here and a hint towards the gothic and much of this substantial collection is colourful and to do with creating an impact. Yet there’s something at the heart of Jordan’s writing which I find attractive and in response to Andrew Duncan who says ‘I don’t like this poetry. It’s full of bad feelings and it takes you nowhere.’ I can only say that it takes me somewhere though I couldn’t easily articulate what or where that somewhere is. It’s arguable that Andrew Jordan is well gone but his voice remains an intriguing one in a current scene where genuine difference is rarely applauded and his new book, although remaining true to a past vision is certainly adding something to the mix.

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2022.

  

 

 

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