Thursday, 7 May 2020

Keith Jafrate, a brilliant 80s poet

Keith Jafrate

I have been reading poems by Keith Jafrate recently and I have to concede that this is a major omission from my critical work on the period (1960-97) and that I don’t understand why I didn’t know about him. I guess my dependence on anthologies was always a weak spot, but given how abundant the oral record is in interested circles, and how many people I hang out with, you would think that the gaps would get filled in. At least for vigorous and exciting poetry, which this is.

Jafrate is an original writer. He doesn’t fit into any of the self-promoting groups (the phrase is unkind but poets do enter public consciousness as human rafts, they cling together and give each other buoyancy). I am reasonably sure that he was part of the cultural thing of the 1970s, which implies that he was born somewhere around 1950. He seems to have made a career mainly as a jazz musician. This leads to two guesses (valid at this point). First, his creativity was based on something outside poetry and not on learning/buying into the verbal projects of contemporary poets. Secondly, his poetry is led by a sense of emotional identity, a cultural style, rather than one internal to literary history. His base seems to have been Huddersfield and its region and he helped run a literature festival at Huddersfield (at some point). If I am right (bad memory), there was some kind of link with a publisher named Smith/Doorstop (in Sheffield) which also runs a magazine called The North. A note says that he comes from London but has lived in Yorkshire since 1980.

Based on a second-hand books catalogue, I have identified some books by Jafrate.
Finding Space, Published by Rivelin Press, Bradford, West Yorkshire (1982, 31 pp.); In Heaven, Published by Stride, Crewe (1984, 64 pp.); War Poems, Published by Slow Dancer Press, Nottingham (1987); Jump, Published by Nottingham, Slow Dancer Press (1988); Timeless Postcard, Published by Smith/Doorstop Books, Huddersfield (1994, 79 pp.); Letter from home (Word Hoard, 2011, 20 pp.).
The main work which converted me and impressed me is Songs for Eurydice, which came out from Stride in 2004. A note inside the book credits part of the ‘Song of Orpheus’ section (part 7 of the book) to a commission in 1994, and this may correspond to a publication listed by the British Library catalogue as The song of Orpheus, London : Slow Dancer, [1996?]. (The town should be Nottingham! This is a cataloguing error!)
The Amazon list shows two other publications, not available and with no details listed. Keep walking, by Robert Furze and Keith Jafrate | 1 Dec 2000 Currently unavailable.; Birdsong, by Keith Jafrate and David Pitt | 1 Jul 1997 Currently unavailable. As an aside, the BL catalogue omits several publications, and should not be taken as a definitive record for small press poets. No, you have to go on searching.
I started reading his work because of a poem I saw (in 2019) in an issue of Tears In the Fence. (David Caddy gave me an armful of back issues when I visited Stourpaine. So I have lots lying around, which I read constantly, and if you want recent Jafrate poetry it may be in TITF. This issue was no. 32, summer 2002.)
I have seen three of his books. Finding Space is self-possessed but not intense. It is an autobiographical moment about an English person living in New York for a year or so. This may actually be the debut, stylistically, but that may be just because I haven't found any earlier work. Timeless Postcard is much more developed, it is still autobiographical but it has that urgency and lack of inhibition, it’s not so cautious. It is organised as ten long sections about living, maybe living in a place. One part recalls life in London:

mauve, mauve orange, umber, the sky’s flat darkness over London, bleach-grey streets, houses, their minute idiosyncrasies wiped out under the tall lights, their gardens without tallness, their versions of gate, none of this observed except as a flatness to pass by like a fox, searching for the waste of these lives hidden in thousands, lives that have retreated from the empty stadium of night, where we wait outside the Baptist church which resembles a huge bungalow in liver coloured brick
(from the poem ‘Timeless Postcard’)

I think one key feature of this is how it is organised to keep the eye moving, how it doesn't want to reach flatness (a dead halt) or the equivalent of that, in a generalisation. The goal is not knowledge, as an asset, but to seize the next moment of experience, the next frame. It follows that this poetry is not interested in the educational assets of abiding knowledge, theories about culture and sociology; rather its goal is within itself and its centre is within itself. Studying sociology may reduce the pain of living in a healing or protecting way, but minimising the value of what we suffer personally; but also makes poetry impossible, because it dismisses what is atypical.
Eurydice is a long poem (135 pages) with a remarkable sweep.

here is a body without language
weaker than a bird
colder than a bell
the body pretends to wait
somebody moves it
the body dances
shivering and waiting
dead names the size of buses
pass the body travelling
from continent to continent
take a Tom Cruise
use a Madonna
smoke The Whales
Coke washes whiter

the body rolls in fire
execrating curtains
gates and climbing plants
telephones the talking clock
and curses it
the body saves cities
writhing like a fish in the dust
somebody locks it up
somebody finds its language
to sentence it

What I think has the jazz touch is its serenity – the writer is perfectly at ease and the poem generates its own time. There is no feel that we are moving towards an end, but there is never a sense of time being short. This is what a musician in unscripted music has, I guess, that the music always is in the present and cannot run out. This is the feeling of freedom, I think, it pushes you into uncertainty, perhaps risk, but also into being liberated from behavioural structures, and from authority, and verbal or psychological routines which constrain your freedom. I find this more to concentrate on than anything structural, the poem doesn't so much have a plot or an argument. Having pointed to this serenity, I have to qualify that by saying that it contains an instability, that Jafrate is deeply discontented with the society around him and its compromises of experience of organic life, and the natural reaction of the poet is dissidence and revolt. The title page kicks off with a quote from Buenaventura Durruti, not a poet but an Anarchist military leader (in Valencia) during the Spanish Civil War. What I like about work like Timeless Postcard is that the political dissent isn't based on abstraction, on books consumed in solitude, but on life being lived, and on the contrast between authentic existence and the compromised version which he sees around him. Eurydice says:

madness of numbers
madness of tongues
un stylo the children whisper
m’sieur un stylo
give me a pen
to unlock the stone
the builder imprisoned by percentages
the house on wave’s hill
your face its lamp

in this poison land
on a humpback bridge
alone with the cooling towers
sieved acres
coffee-dark and black
gulls and bulldozers
chunks of water left in pits

If political change is going to debouch into a new life, it has to start with knowledge of a life that we can actually lead (and not an abstruse book by Adorno). One problem with writers is that their political imagination tends to devise more books rather than a new life, one that you can inhabit.

I am depressed that I began studying modern British poetry seriously in 1992 and didn’t read Jafrate until 2019. There is a conversation of the committed (the converted?), and you wait for the conversation to bring you information. It is like walking out on a beach every morning and picking up driftwood. Or bits of plastic, I suppose. Jafrate's publishers have mainly been in a tight geographical space: so Huddersfield, Bradford, Sheffield, Nottingham. This suggests that face to face interaction is a key, and there is a geographical aspect to taste because waves of formation & identification attenuate as they spread. So I didn’t hear about Jafrate (even though I live in Nottingham now) because I was in a different network. I searched so many anthologies but none of them had Jafrate. Actually, he may be in Northern anthologies, from Smith/Doorstop for example, which I didn’t read. I am unused to thinking about writers I don’t know – usually going to a reading by someone is a key moment, it means I know who that person is, in some undefined way. I guess I am not strong on abstraction but am strong on empathy; I don’t get the crucial things just from the printed page. I don’t feel ready to sum Jafrate up, not now.

The poetry is mainly paratactic – it does not use syntax to make plain an argument, a set of relationships, which are nonetheless present in the fabric of the text. He does not draw conclusions at the end of poems. Emotions are also not signalled, for the most part – they are implicit. These features of technique link Jafrate to a number of poets who wrote in the 80s, and many who debuted in the 70s. It is reasonable to think that you can guess when he was born by the way he writes. I don’t want to make too much of this, because it is the affective and subjective contents of the poems which count. Actually, it is because so many people in the Seventies, or in the 15 years after 1968 (if you like), felt in a certain way about politics, alienation through work, the distribution of wealth, etc., that Jafrate does not have to explain himself formally - he participates in a collective sensibility, so in “solidarity within dissidence”. If he dissolves causality, that may be because he wants to go to a place at the edge of socially agreed coding & overlay, where there is no knowledge. Freed from finished explanations, we can start to construct new causal patterns, which would also allow us to fulfil our desires more directly – with fewer institutional hindrances and entanglements. The less the poet offers categories and judgements, the more space there is to think about how society came to be. I don't have direct confirmation that this is why Jafrate writes the way he does, but it does seem like a possibility. Again, it is easy for us to take in this kind of poetry, because other poets also shared these ideas (and shared in their development). I guess "Fox Running" might be somewhere in the prehistory of "Songs for Eurydice".

I am going to quote from the piece in Tears in the Fence 32, which may not be in any book:

how to push sun along these hills
that is trapped in tiny chambers used
to hammer levers that turn gears in
tiny repetitious detonations
of wealth
like mountains of pennies of energy
burnt to gas to
tiny grey
unseen clouds erased shadows
hoards we cannot gather
cannot spend
how to unravel the meadow of work
woven into any machine
how to begin again
life for life
to each according
to need
from each
according to ability

a boy passes through the graveyard walking two greyhounds
the high trees fill and seethe
clashing dancers armoured with fish
the wind wants to shift everything
lift everything
(title is ‘neither created nor destroyed’, which is presumably a definition of ‘energy’)
Apologies for not reproducing offsets from the margin, which this text editor silently removes. One section of Eurydice is titled ‘Cerne Abbas’ a reference certainly to the Chalk Giant, whose image is reproduced on the cover of his 1994 book (Timeless Postcards). This giant hillside figure is the subject of a book by Jeremy Hooker, Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant. The interest is possibly that of facing a post-Christian cultural landscape and wanting it to be full rather than "empty", as Christian ideologues wished it to be. Recovering what Christians had destroyed was part of populating a new land, one full of myth rather than just sociology. We have no idea what the narratives around the Giant were, in the Iron Age, so you can invent any myth for him to go through, and no-one can fault you.

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