The madness of Tristan: Eric Mottram, Local Movement (1973)
The text is 54 pages long, plus some graphics that look like mistakes made by a photocopier. “Resources” are listed at the end, which actually means “sources”. It is an A4 typescript photocopied or mimeographed and stapled. Some words at the end of lines (e.g. pages 38 and 40) have been lost, as the reproduced page does not include all of the original typescript. The initial title is from Santayana: “The human heart is local and finite, it has roots and if the intellect radiates from it, according to its strength, to greater and greater distances, the reports, if they are to be gathered at all, must be gathered at the centre”. The text offers these poem titles: 'Local Movement' at pages 1-20, 'Towards the Heart' , an untitled poem about Tristan (27-8), 'Turning Point' 'A Homage to Hugh MacDiarmid' 'William Harvey' 'Homage to Denis Saurat' 'Flight' 'The Condensation' 'Transfigured Night' 'Chance' 'Art News' 'what he saw then he never saw again', untitled poem with a quote from Wagner, 'For Max Knoll' 'The City as an Image of Man' 'Tristan Comes: A conclusion' 'Definition' and 'The Galen Tradition Unbroken'.
The title poem starts:
the i is dot although it may be at an unconventional
distance the hand performs is basis and pattern
all movement muscles work in hands spirit in muscles
the soul works in its body to his end in perfection
muscles in which not one tiny fibre of sinewy material
of eyes tongue larynx
A description of planting lilies. A passage about a beautiful garden. The dead around, unmoved unmoving. Creatures flee what is desirable and avoid what is harmful. Creatures are animated by flamen, [breath, roughly] a vital force. A revolving movement in heliotrope, hensbill, sponges. Flying, swimming, walking. The activity of semen. Eleven stanzas of disconnected utterances: “I myself an enemy/ makes torrents/ dance lone dance/ of outward/ without a // mirror”. Then “through fibrous creepers to a clearing” where there is no word for snow and they eat maggots from under bark; this seems to be about a tribe somewhere, contacted by an anthropologist. Burnt flesh at your point of production. Where it says this poem it should say a clearing taken by eastward ships. Dawn over flooded fields. Everything moves, new roads let disease travel faster. The Great Herbal of Shen Lang, 3000 BC.
At this point we have reached the fifth page (numbered -7-) and can pause to find orientation. The title seems to be based on a chance resemblance between Santayana talking about the local movement of the heart (in the initial quote) and the title of a 17th C work by the medical researcher William Harvey, a treatise (worked on from 1627 on) called De motu locali animalium, discovered in 1957 and never printed before then. Harvey is famous for his 1627 account of the circulation of the blood and how the heart works. The subject of his unpublished work is the locomotion of animals (so locus, motus), and its title could also be translated as the local movement of animals, so taking us back, however weakly, to the Santayana quote. The treatise is also about sensation. So where the poem talks about movement it is probably a description of attraction – movement as a consequence of appetite –and is probably a “treatment” of Harvey’s work on locomotion. The original is undoubtedly organised in a very local way, complex Latin sentences conducting an argument flowing through multiple points, and Mottram has almost certainly produced the poem by wiping out all the logical structure and leaving tags. These are either essential Imagist high points or tatters, depending on your point of view. We are on page 5, out of 20, and already we have too many extra themes to count. Pages 7 and 8 are clearly about the history of medicine: the plague moves from Central Asia to Italy with the Huns, surgery, medical progress stultified by religious blocks, pulmonary circulation described in Arabic in 1270 but not translated into Latin until 1553, the school at Salerno. In the middle, we have a reference to “the god enters dreams/ on the temple floor”, the practice of autopsy, where the sick person sleeps on a temple floor and expects to see the god in a dream who will explain a cure to him. I know about this because it comes in a poem by Iain Sinclair (and I read Reitzenstein to research something else).
A reference to “a theatre of equal temperament” probably means the starring of glass in the light source for surgery, to avoid highlights, something also used in early cinema studios. The poem is maybe 530 lines long and shoots through possibly 100 themes in that time. On the junction of 8 and 9 we have a description of the dexterity of a musician and the ability of a plant which shuns the sunlight, to move – clearly examples of movement and probably from Harvey’s work, therefore.
Page 9 includes text about Tristan and Isolde (from Beroul’s Tristan, we are told). What about Tristan? how does this link to a poem about the heart? It is affairs of the heart. Tristan and Isolde are the great love story. Their story is also an example of desire as a basic feature of human behaviour, and as the origin of movements. Page 10 is about animals’ movement again. Page 11 is the start of part 2 and this seems to be about sexuality. So we get a compressed or crushed “treatment” of a 12th C Welsh poem about a lovely woman, what may be a robot woman invented by Edison, what may be a silent film diva as “flawless future Eve”, artificial aids to sexual gratification, and then more material about excitement as it affects movement. The “resource” is Cohen’s Human Robots in Myth and Science. Pages 12-13 take us back to Tristan and Isolde, and refers to 'Tantris', an anagram of Tristan, who got close to Isolde disguised as a sick minstrel named “Tantris”. The line to do with robots, featuring possibly as an illustration of the mechanistic view of physiology, what is left when the vitalistic theory of biology has been dispersed. Pages 13-14 are more material from Harvey.
Part 3 moves on to Duchamp, as the poet explains: “’delay in glass’, a title in Marcel Duchamp’s work, begins a number of derivations from his notes for The Bride Stripped Bare[.]”. The themes of desire and movement are still the basis of the pattern, but the imagery has moved on. pages 15-20 are a development from Marcel Duchamp's glass panel work “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”. One can ask how this could connect to Harvey, and while it is certainly an elaborate extension of the theme it follows logically from the Tristan and Isolde story – because the double panel work is certainly about sexual attraction. Duchamp made 93 sheets of notes in the meaning of the work, which were published in 1934. If we see “sieves of dust-glasses” this refers to the dust which had gathered on metal forms set for inclusion in the glass, which Duchamp left in when the panels were actually made. The work shows forms which clearly include a bride in the upper panel and 9 bachelors or suitors in the lower panel. The subtitle is “delay in glass”, and the delay is the delay between desire and fulfilment – a gap crucial in the plot of “Tristan”, which is after all completely about separation and longing. The forms are nothing like human, they look like machine parts, and they stand for drives of humans which impel them towards the opposite sex. This continues an earlier passage about robots, which showed sexual compulsion and reaction, detached from conscious control and the personality. but we get back to the Tristan story at the top of page 17 and again for most of age 19. I believe that the last page, 20, records free additions to the bride story rather than paraphrases of Duchamp's Notes. These 5 pages would be incomprehensible without knowledge of Duchamp's work (which we are at least pointed towards by the Resources) but the verbal material is at least unified, you can get an impression of what it is about. Thus the section starts:
sun of this ship
iron in equilibrium
compass to lodestone
muscles in automata
delay in glass
– is obviously about attraction.
Pages 21 to 26 give us another poem about Harvey, with more material about Tristan. This one has information about Harvey’s biography, drawn from Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Pages 34 to 36 give us another poem about Harvey. Page 39 sees the physician Robert Fludd, a friend of Harvey who was also a Rosicrucian and involved in the kind of occultism which Bruno promulgated. Max Knoll was a researcher into electricity, and co-inventor of the electron microscope. He also lectured regularly at the Eranos gathering, a sort of summer outing for fringe science, in Ascona. The Knoll poem involves the sun and the heart and so fits into the main pattern. Presumably the interest is in periodicity, and the electrical basis for the rate at which the heart beats. Mottram is linking the idea of the heart as a pump, following the laws of physics, to the mechanisation of the world-picture – with organs behaving like machines, within the physical world.
The Resources show us an excerpt from the Gorhoffedd (here 'Delight’) of Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd on p.10 (actually page 11), a poem also translated by John James as one of the 'Welsh Poems'. (The date is quite close to that of the earliest Tristan poems.)
In bright lands of the North
a foam-coloured girl in river meadows
white seagulls and its lovely women
its fastness little clover wilderness
her heather-coloured gown her gift
her choice her voice silence her gentle words
We can compare this with Anthony Conran's 1967 version:
I love, today, England's hatred – open ground
of the North and edging the Lliw, thick woods.
I love [...]
The meads of its waters, and the valleys,
its white gulls and lovely women.
I love its field, their wealth of small clover,
where honour could for sure rejoice.
My choosing, a lovely girl, graceful and slender,
white and tall in her cloak, the colour of heather;
and my chosen wisdom, to wonder at her womanly,
when she barely but speaks the grace of her mind;
The poem appears as one long piece in the manuscript but has now been separated into two poems. Hywel was killed by some of his half-brothers in 1170. Mottram's version is accelerated. It takes about 5% as long as the original. This is like sampling, which didn't exist in 1973. It has been made peculiarly de-authenticated. The insertion into a new context severs the lines of attention and presence which in the great 12th C original gave us a sense of place and presence. This is a key to the texture of Mottram's poem in general – radically de-authentic and accelerated. There is no stability in the poem, no contained time. Mottram was celebrated for his bibliographies, reading lists for eager students; his poems are also like bibliographies, insanely speeded up and stylised. The splicing together of texts degrades both texts, both are miniaturised and the new text seems only to exhibit clashes and echoes and not to be about real things happening to human beings. Mottram seems to have limited interest in his material, and the substance is left in the original texts, which the poem is only a skein of references to. The question of what the point of Mottram's snippet is, beside Hywel ap Owain's original, is fundamental to the question of what Local Movement is for and what it does.
On p. 39 we get another Harvey. This one was a rabbit six foot tall who haunted the alcoholic character played by James Stewart in the film “Harvey”. We never see Harvey but we do see his shadow. He is referred to as a “pookah”, a kind of Irish goblin: “hare form of/ the god pooka friendly Harvey friend of the star”. We started with William Harvey, who was a friend of Robert Fludd, then the Protestant publishers in the Palatinate of the Rhine which printed Fludd’s works (and the Rosicrucian tracts), then a book on America which they also published, then an American rabbit god. Then Harvey the rabbit.
The Harvey material dominates the book and we get many variants on the heart and on stimuli, movement, and appetite. But is the whole book, 54 pages long, part of one extended poem named Local Movement? 'Turning Point' is made entirely of imagery from Malaysia. Mottram was a professor in Malaysia for a few years around 1960. My conclusion is that half these 19 poems belong to a grouping about the history of medicine, and the other half are unrelated (although similar in the paratactic style and the way they are assembled). The labelling is not clear and the effort of trying to find links between all of these poems would really be a headache. The definition of where the boundary of meaning runs is left up to the reader and is one of the things we have to establish. This opens the question of how clear the intention is, or whether we are seeing a manic accumulation of material in which multiple incomplete snips of meaning make many linkages possible but the poet is strewing them around rather than having links in mind. A state before logical argument. It is possible that this expresses a view of the past in which things do not connect intelligibly and instead there is a warehouse of material which mostly does not form any logical order. Whereas the accepted view is made of points that all support each other, the suppressed past is excessive, overflowing, unpatterned. The waste material does not bond to itself.
‘Transformed Night’ is a straightforward and beautiful poem. “Resource” is “source” but has an implication of “recycling” and ecological soundness – re-use not refuse. At p.42 “The Condensation” is another poem about Tristan and Isolde. It starts with the love potion, the ship on which they travelled, the drawn sword in the bed, the killing of the giant Morholt, and has then spiralled off into something unrecognisable. It finishes
emerge in moonlight masked gnomes
a white snake hardens by frozen ripples
blanched shells salt grains stung to his forehead
by invalid copyist endless themes breathing their first
I can’t gloss this or stanza six. The poem has advanced beyond where there are paths. A performance on stage is definitely involved so this may be about Wagner’s opera on the same theme. Maybe this includes gnomes. The title may refer to Ezra Pound’s wrong etymology “dichten = condensare” (making poetry =condensing). By this yardstick, Mottram would be a better poet than Beroul.
At pages 53-4 we have “Tristan comes”, but after nine lines about Tristan that line stops and we get material about American politics in the 1970s. I have no idea how this links to Tristan or the circulation of the blood. The nine lines seem to treat Tristan as a kind of human-deer hybrid rather than a chivalrous hero.
'Homage to Denis Saurat' is actually about Giordano Bruno, the Neoplatonist occultist, and presents his idea of the sun as the center of the universe and source of occult influxes, as analogous to the heart as the center of the body. We get 150 lines about Bruno but his name is never mentioned. We get a lot of material about Bruno getting burnt by the Church, though we are not told what his crime was. I think that the link between Bruno and the circulation of the blood is that Bruno saw the universe as heliocentric. This was part of the Neoplatonist occultist doctrine that the cosmos was a chamber where forms radiated and dominated matter, and the sun was the source of the forms. So this forms a parallel of some kind to the heart as the centre of the body. I could not find any part of the poem which was about local affections so as to bear out the quote on the title page. The detection of the parallel is a high point in the course of reading and is presumably designed to be that by Mottram. Its hidden site is key to its emotional value. It is secondary that the match is arbitrary or at least not very strong. Finding the link is a moment of joy, an aha moment. This is discrete from the weakness of the link. Also, there may be an analogy between the movement of the celestial bodies, i.e. the thing which Galileo was trying to explain, and the movement of animals – these things are not really similar but can be joined by a literary figure. 'The City as an Image of Man' is a quote from Bruno and is part of Neoplatonist thought, actually the idea of a magical city in which various shape lenses channelled benign influences from the cosmos. It is curious to compare Local Movement with the works of Frances Yates, so Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), which cover the same material but were very popular and widely admired. One wonders if these complex ideas are suited to presentation in verse, especially in a style where the connectives have been thoroughly deleted so that no logic is apparent. Why not mention the name of the thinker, so that the reader has some chance of grasping what the poem is all about? It is as if the moment of normalisation were a moment of fear, where the poet loses control of the situation as the conventional truths re-assert themselves.
I am pausing the description there, although obviously the variety of themes is a dimension of the artistic design and there is a case for cataloguing every single theme to capture the impetus of the work, the axis along which the text has advanced towards its purpose. Making an inventory of all the themes in LM would really be a problem. In a sense this is richness of fabric. To some extent the work is unparaphrasable. It is a cloud of fragments, dabs of text which are either moments that shock you into awareness like a dash of cold water or incomplete, cut too quickly, and irretrievable. The speed is wrong. There are no thematic labels, and because it is all paratactic the connections have to be supplied with effort. Every passage is based on sources, complex originals; it is as if the poet were lecturing on images which he has in front of him but which we can’t see. I suspect that I can get the meaning only because I have read Yates and similar works and more or less know the context. Does the book have a thesis? To some extent the multiplicity of directions abolishes that possibility – the multiplicity is the theme.
The artistic syntax reminds me of Life Quest, high points disconnected by sharp cuts but forming a higher argument. Aldington’s poem is calmer, it allows more stability to its moments before the camera moves on to the next high point. You can pinpoint the problem with Aldington simultaneously buying the Imagist idea and being interested in Greek and Romance poetry, the complexity of the past. How do you mix Imagism and complexity? Then the Great War politicises everything and makes cultural criticism the centre of endeavours. He tries to combine panoramas of the contemporary world and radical politics and Imagism and Romance lyrics. Montage comes on stage. So Mottram’s problems go back to the 1920s.
It is hard to imagine how the work could have been released in this state, which seems inaccessible and inarticulate. I feel that what it resembles is brilliant and uninhibited conversation, in which someone extraordinarily erudite and prone to great leaps of association rambles through an assortment of tempting and lost ideas to entertain a company and while an evening away. Mottram’s enthusiasm is the key. He is maximising what he sees as the good stuff and themes we already know about are instantly thrown away.
The point of departure for Mottram is possibly a line of conventional poems where the poet seizes on a moment from history as a way of opening the page out, away from the poet shopping and reading the newspapers. But the problems of describing context are too great and the poet chooses a story which is totally familiar. It is instantly understandable because we already know all about it. It has no impetus left. The mainstream poet fears originality. The riposte is to hunt out something unfamiliar – William Harvey and Giordano Bruno fit the bill. But, to catch that richness of unshared background, the richness of the lost past, you have to field the information somehow. How can you get the richness on stage unless you include 300 pages of technical prose? Eric thinks you can win by delivering at speed. But I find the poem almost wholly obscure. Anyway, if you get the impulse to maximise the wealth of lost ideas PLUS maximise the speed of delivery PLUS maximise the wild leaps of association, you get where Eric is coming from.
The graphics must be the worst ever released. Aha –they are by the publisher. This explains a lot.
Note. This is part of a project on long poems of the 70s which I wrote up in about 2003 and returned to in 2016. The main project will be published but I took this one out. (The original project is on this website but may be removed as a step towards book publication.) With more digging and delving I got up to 100 long poems. Eric also wrote a thing called 'Elegies', a series of maybe 70 poems about culturally admired individuals, so maybe not a single long poem. 'Elegies' is probably even more exhausting than 'local movement'. I took LM out because its quality is problematic. I have never read 'Elegies' at least not entire, and I don't have a copy. The genre of Seventies long poems went deeply into the intricate, the original, and the imaginative, but some poems went too far and became obscure and exclusive.