Friday, 8 June 2018

On the Margins of Great Empires


On the Margins of Great Empires

Selected Poems
Andrew Duncan
Published in June 2018 by Shearsman Books

Seeing this sequence as a large, articulated work, put into its sections and with the culminations of a sustained amplitude, I esteem its achievement very highly. It is strong and active with the questions of power which underlie the strength; the instrumentalism of language is put under sustained pressure, both of invention and expression, and the outcome is negotiated closely across a wide range of historical predicament and moral passion. The method is conspicuously unoriginal, but its uses are strikingly productive and grand. – J.H. Prynne (1982)

Peter Porter, in a letter to Simon Jenner, 2003:

We talked on the phone about Eratica a little. .... But this letter is really about one thing, namely Andrew Duncan's Skeleton looking at Chinese Pictures, which I have been reading at intervals now for some time. I think that certainly it is a remarkable book and I also recognize that I must inhabit a shamefully restricted part of the literary world for me not to have encountered his poetry before this[.] …
What I admire most in Duncan's work is his willingness (indeed enthusiasm) for not confining things to any sort of ghetto. He likes as much history and mediaevalism as Pound but he also aspires to a contemporary concern for life in our modern mercantile mess. His chief fault, it seems to me, is a sort of verbal vertigo: too many words spin round and round[.] It's excellent the way he refuses to be cowed by any sort of notion of appropriateness or decorum, so that runic and traditional poetics mix with the city of London and sexual turpitude in modern life.[…] There are many properly 'big' poems  – something which doesn't get attempted sufficiently these days, presumably because it gives hostages to fortune.
if I say that I am reminded at times of Peter Redgrove, Lawrence Durrell, and even David Jones, with a touch of a more unbuttoned Geoffrey Hill, I am not implying any kind of influence ... It is certainly a rich book and now that I have marinaded my mind in it, I expect to return to individual poems with greater pleasure and understanding.

(AD) So this replaces the 2001 volume which is out of print. A lot of the poems post-date 2001.
The title comes from a book by Mircea Eliade, adapted. It is, directly, a line from “When history becomes myth”, a poem which uses themes from L’éternel retour. The reference is to folk cultures untouched by metropolitan literary systems.
Eliade says so many peoples were doomed to suffering and disappearance “because they live in the neighbourhood of empires perpetually striving to expand”. This phrase became “on the margins of great empires”.
There is a sentence in that 1982 Prynne letter “the displaced feeling corresponds to the Randgebiete and Randsprachen of an internalised but hostile imperium”. The German words are in the title of a book by Wolfram Eberhard, which approached the history of Chinese society through an idea of highly different regional components which contributed different things to the rising farming/ urban/ State complex. I was studying Chinese briefly, for about six months, in 1976, I spent time in the Oriental Studies library at Cambridge, and they had Eberhard’s book. The words mean marginal regions and marginal languages, and the phrase on the margins of great empires refers also to that Letter. I changed subject to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, and these really were Randsprachen.
The margins I am thinking of are not doomed to disappearance, I don’t think, just quiet under the huge din of megalopolitan cultures.

In the margins of the great empires
provincial cultures turning slowly on themselves,
a self-locking aggregate crossing the rim
of recurring. The abiding, the filling. Tales
in the prison where Campanella was held.

at the place where nothing is altered, the bottom
of a great lake.
Let us enter the greater forgetting
far from the decay of forms
mere laggards in the march of high ideas.
Disposed in the likeness of goodness
descend in the likeness of companionship.

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