Alan Baker is
perhaps more familiar to us as the editor of Leafe Press and Litter magazine than as a poet. I have admired
those poems of his that I have read in publications such as Great Works, Shearsman and Stride, but that was all I knew of his work until
Variations on Painting a Room gathers together poems from separate pamphlets. Nevertheless, one has
the impression of a collection which very much coheres and creates a single
complete work. I was going to say 'the man', but it would be accurate to
speak of a sense of 'the poems' themselves making a kind of post-modern
pilgrimage. If John Bunyan were writing today, perhaps this is the book he
would write. Indeed, Alan Baker quotes from Bunyan, and the quotation is
aptly given near the beginning of the book:
it then, that thou art so quickly
aside, for thou
out of the way
The different voices are all aware that they are 'out of the way' and would
seek - like Bunyan, or Blake, or Eliot - a return to that way. But this is
now the twenty-first century where we live in a distracted and fragmented
world without God or 'truth' - or at least without a fixed definition of God
or truth - and this is the world that Baker, or the voices he adopts, must
navigate without the fraudulent fiction of a 'grand narrative'.
The core of the book is perhaps contained in the 64-section sequence of prose
poems. The voices here are both philosophical and lyrical. They are
fractured, and make use of many different kinds of text (which are all listed
conscientiously in notes at the end of the book) alongside Baker's 'own
words'. The prose poems make up what Baker calls 'The Book of Random Access'.
Yet, although Baker may have used 'chance operations' as an initial
foundation in order to lay himself open, to prevent his 'poet's ego' from
getting in the way of what language can say through him, one has the
impression of anything but 'random'. This is painstakingly honed work.
The various voices speak both to one another and to us. Each creates its own
momentary light to shine on the path they are travelling on. Baker's sense of
strict form helps to bind them into a shifting whole. Each of the 64 prose
poems is 256 words long. As Baker explains, 64 is the number of hexagrams in
the I Ching, and both 64
and 256 are significant numbers in computing. Why should we care about this?
Perhaps the best answer is to read the poems themselves. Here I can point out
that there is no feeling of strain or artificial forcing in the prose poems.
They seem 'natural'. Baker has perhaps used this structure as the best way
not only of providing a discipline to hold the different voices together, but
also to allow the form to offer its own 'chances', to keep the poet open to
the possibilities of language which will suggest themselves to him only if,
paradoxically, he stays true to the limitations he has freely chosen.
What is especially appealing is the way the prose poems search and yet at the
same time undermine their own seeking, as if aware of the transitory nature
of any discovery that may be made. They are relentlessly questioning, but not
in a manner that wants to prise open the truth as if it were a tied-up
package containing something to be consumed. Rather, the questioning is
gently self-mocking and makes no assumptions, and is conveyed in captivating
language, for example:
sound of the rain on the leaves is exact and
meaning [É] It comes
that is no place other than this one'
watching a man across the park. In and out of
streetlight-pools he goes, and I wonder if I'm that man
This may have gravitas, but Baker is quite prepared to poke fun at himself
and his quest. He has a great sense of silliness, which he uses to expose the
all-too human frailties he shares with the rest of us, and to subvert his own
search lest at any time it becomes too presumptuous. This is frequently
achieved through absurd juxtapositions, reminiscent of the New York poets:
'When crossing a river, don't get your tail wet (the sixty-fourth hexagram
warns against this). It's usually cheaper to book flight and accommodation
I realise that I have been speaking almost exclusively of the prose poems,
but there is much to savour besides in Baker's lineated poems. From the
beginning of the book, we are drawn in and hypnotised. Each poem is beautifully crafted, but not stiflingly so - there is
always a great sense of space and play:
Today the snow, tomorrow
I will save you from the rest of your life,
or is it mine?
('Today the Snow', p76).
As Baker concludes at the end of his book, 'much is fluid, shifting and
uneasy' (p184). And perhaps all the more to be celebrated for that. The
search remains as much that of everyman as it is his.
© Ian Seed 2011