Dec 3 2022
Poetry review – NOTES ON THE WASTE LAND: Edmund Prestwich considers the relationship between Tim Dooley’s new sequence and the Eliot poem which inspired it
Notes on The Waste Land Tim Dooley With further notes by Chris McCabe And illustrated with paintings by Jock McFadyen Hercules Editions https://www.herculeseditions.com/ ISBN 9780957273887 48pp £10
Physically, the Hercules Editions publication of Tim Dooley’s Notes on The Waste Land is a little gem. Its forty-eight 125×140 mm pages splice together the five sections of Dooley’s poem; eight bleak but hauntingly beautiful paintings by Jock McFadyen; and a series of notes by Chris McCabe. The book’s blurb calls the latter ‘shrewd and entertaining’, though I didn’t find much in them that went beyond a parody of academic discourse.
I’ve very much enjoyed my engagement with Dooley’s poem. It’s easy to read in some ways, and difficult to get a clear fix on in others. I should say straight away that at this point I don’t know whether this difficulty will ultimately come to seem like a strength or a limitation, whether successive readings will reveal a deep-seated imaginative coherence or whether the whole assemblage will ultimately seem rather random, thought-provoking, moving or entertaining in detail but lacking the cumulative force of a major work. I’m going to leave that question aside and simply comment on particulars.
The self-deprecating word ‘notes’ in the title saves Dooley from seeming to challenge a comparison no poem could stand, even aside from the revolutionary moment in the history of writing that Eliot’s original represents. Now that Geoffrey Hill is dead, who writes with the density Eliot achieved in what many think his greatest work, or can create such steep, abrupt contrasts between ugly emptiness and fleeting beauty, or can create such a diverse range of compelling voices as Eliot achieved, with the help of Ezra Pound and Eliot’s wife Vivien?
The opening lines show Dooley’s easy metrical control and how it underpins the clarity with which he presents individual scenes and images. At the same time, they suggest how much this is a poem of erudition and indirection, in a way some readers will find off-putting, and others, including me, immediately engaging:
1. APRIL WAS LONG AGO A whiff of something forgotten as he sits reading Benjamin on Baudelaire. A cat is purring on another afternoon free from rain. With each bulletin cruelty becomes more acceptable. In a Berlin café, preparing crushed avocado on sourdough toast for drifters and freelanced professionals , she has to switch off her phone. The sponsored feeds remind her of the Amazon burning, her oxygen gradually used up. Water dripping onto rock makes just so small a difference. What are the routes to venture on? What baggage shall we clutch?
The oblique relation between statements requires the reader to fill in gaps in the movement of ideas. How far to pursue real and possible allusions seems to me an immediate issue here. I’ve never read Benjamin on Baudelaire and am happy to take that reference in my stride as a way of establishing the intellectual interests of the person described. There’s a little metrical felicity that encourages this: the line end pause after ‘Benjamin’ suggests that Baudelaire is mentioned hesitantly, as if anticipating the reader’s unfamiliarity with Benjamin’s writing on him. However, in view of the title I feel I am being asked to notice and think about allusions to Eliot’s poem – among other things, to reflect on how ‘April was long ago’ changes, softens and ruefully reinterprets Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’; to relate ‘free from rain’ to Eliot’s recurrent imagery of rain and drought, the Berlin café to Eliot’s Hofgarten, the lines ‘What are the routes to venture on? / What baggage shall we clutch?’ to ‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / out of this stony rubbish?’ This first section of Dooley’s poem is specifically parallel to the first section of The Waste Land, but it seems clear that ‘Water dripping onto rock’ is meant to evoke and perhaps play against the imagery of waterless rock and the water-dripping song of the thrush in section five, ‘What the Thunder Said’. And does ‘venture’ play more distantly on the ‘DA / Datta’ passage in that section, on the idea of ‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age or prudence can never retract’ and which, Eliot’s poem says, is the only thing we have existed by? It seems to me that these and other connections with Eliot’s poem are things to hold in the imagination over time, gradually finding some to be blind alleys as far as one’s own reading is concerned, others to lead the mind in fruitful directions. In terms of broad impact, though, taking them together rather than separately, I have a sense of Eliot’s intense personal and social despair in the period after the First World War being brought into play to suggest both the scale of threat faced by our world (the environmental collapse touched on in lines 11 – 13) and our inability to engage fully with it. In this context, the ‘routes’ / ‘roots’ pun might suggests affluent frivolity or evasiveness born of despair.
The whole poem is in five parts, corresponding and alluding to the different sections of Eliot’s original. The section I find least successful – at least on current reading – is the fourth, ‘Consider this’, whose title alludes to Eliot’s instruction to us to ‘Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.’ The fifth and final one, ‘The Song of the Hermit Thrush’, is very fine, though sometimes very abstract. Like Eliot’s poem, it interweaves and counterpoints glimpses of historical and contemporary things. The progress of the disastrous Franklin expedition to Antarctica is vividly evoked, for example:
three masts glimpsed at Baffin Bay; three grave-markers on Beechy’s grey scree shore; three winters’ dark isolation in the ice; cap badges, kettles, scattered bodies in the drifting snow.
The idea of Franklin’s voyage evolves in a clearly discursive way out of an imagined walk near the remains of the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich where his ships were fitted out; but in what follows my last quotation we have a more collage-like jumping from idea to idea: first a quotation from the ballad ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament for her Husband’, then a meditation on the hermit thrush’s song, then the enigmatic comment ‘An old song of errors made / and suffering following on’ that seems to refer both back to Lady Franklin’s and the thrush’s song and forward to the next two paragraphs, which distil elements of an ancient Irish tale, ‘The Adventures of Art, Son of Conn’. This is explicitly related to the ‘waste land’ motif by Dooley’s note: ‘This version of the Waste Land theme follows a familiar pattern, with a people suffering as a result of wrongdoing by its leaders.’
Rhythmically, the narrative passages up to this point in the section can seem a little lacking in tension, but Dooley’s lingering, meditative flow comes into its own in subsequent passages evoking the life force of nature, music, religious feeling, the visionary imagination of William Blake and ordinary human sympathy and companionship. Woven into an intricate but elusive web of glancing connections, these things seem to be contemplated as possible ways of grasping
A most strange something glimpsed in the ice and snow. Something interwoven deep in the life of things. Something misplaced, in the air, in your mind. An occasion for speaking. An opening in the conversation.
Further, they seem to offer glimpses of possible ways out of the waste land or ways of making life in the waste land more bearable. How tentatively these ideas are contemplated is suggested by the way they’re advanced as a series of questions only implicitly related to the quest to escape the waste land or the prison of solitude: ‘Where is …?’, ‘When will …?’, ‘Shall we…?’, ‘You could…’, ‘Perhaps we were…’ Much more emphatic is the suggestion of a relation to the fifth section of Eliot’s poem. The thunder speaks in Dooley’s poem as it does in Eliot’s, though in Dooley’s thunder is presented in a more purely acoustic and less vatic way. When Dooley writes of shattered vases in the penultimate stanza, ‘we have made a mosaic / of the fragments’ we think of Eliot’s ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’. In the ‘DA / Dayadhvam’ passage Eliot answers the thunder’s instruction to ‘sympathise’ (the meaning of ‘dayadhvam’) very obliquely with
I have heard the key Turn in the door once and turn once only We think of the key, each in his prison Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Dooley, alluding to this and to Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, gives the idea of sympathy a more human embodiment:
In his unchosen cell, the prisoner finds a little tent of blue to build a dream on. And circling the exercise yard the light touch of a hand on his shoulder is like a burden lifted.
For a reader who enjoys exploring intertextual links, there’s an intrinsic pleasure in Dooley’s echoes of Eliot’s poem and other literature (like the references to Blake and Wilde, or the glimmer of Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ in the quotation starting ‘A most strange something’). How much more is involved than sophisticated, graceful and locally thought-provoking literary play seems to me to be something only time and rereading will tell.