Mar 6 2023
Poetry review – THE TESSERAE: John Forth weighs the merits of Oliver Tearle’s game-playing with “The Waste Land” and reckons up the final score
I’d be among those who say you can’t ‘do’ another Waste Land a hundred years on, even if it’s laced with cadences from Four Quartets – trying to reprise ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ on a train that has moved on to the next stop in the underworld. But bravery, even recklessness, could prove me wrong. Citing The Battle of Frogs & Mice and its attempted demolition of The Iliad, Oliver Tearle reveals elsewhere that ‘Right from the start, Western literature was sending itself up’ (‘The Secret Library’, pub Michael O’Mara 2016). The history of The Waste Land is a minefield littered with brilliant and not so brilliant imitations and parodies. Tearle knows, this because he has written extensively about The Waste Land. He probably also knows that those of us taught to love the resolution of puzzles and riddles in that place will latch on to ‘The Tesserae’, especially if it is sure-footed in such a treacherous landscape. The city that is not a city… here turns out to be Milton Keynes (a long way from Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London) so he’s unlikely to be caught out there, especially if he has also visited ‘The Ruin’ – the least-known of the great Anglo-Saxon stations – in what is probably the Roman precursor to Bath in North Somerset and one of the earliest ‘waste lands’. For this reason alone this 33 page four-part poem (+ 9 pages of very learned Notes) may be declared a monster, like his model a hundred years ago. And, like its predecessor, ‘The Tesserae’ is mostly very well written. And often funny. How about this for the opening to Part I of ‘ Distancing’:
The lines are cut; the winds are praying in the city this evening as the light is going down. And all the souls that never travelled home they now must travel home, but in the mind of thwarted thoughts they never go the distance and cannot carry more than half of nothing at the best of times (which this is not)….
‘Home’ will immediately have a range of meanings and the landscape will of course be partly a mental one. We’re reminded of souls before the feet of those on London Bridge. It might be thought to creak by the time it reaches stanza 2, except that sestinas often look like that, twisting around and back to where they began. Even before then ‘the mind of thwarted thoughts’ is a pretty suspect phrase, though not fatal. And the lines are indeed ‘cut’ from a number of wildly disparate sources in order to make a scrapbook for 2020 and lock-down. It’s still too early to draw conclusions about whether this period is best tackled head-on or indirectly, but the writing we’ve seen in the first two ‘post-covid’ years is scarcely conclusive. ‘Distancing’ brings together modern MK and the ancient city of Uruk, which predates Homer by a thousand years before introducing a very respectable villanelle with the lines ‘I sing of laundry men / and an owl, not arms and a man’. Must be a joke, and indeed the note tells us that it is: ‘Roman graffiti, scrawled on a wall in Pompeii… as a riposte to Virgil’s opening words of The Aeneid’. Then suddenly we’re plunged into the pages of John Evelyn’s Diary for June, 1665, and on to where the wicked play on an emperor’s new clothes lets us know about fake news and fake art:
I spake with Monsieur Cominges: the Emperor’s dirty laundry on spin dry has been book of the month for years…
The use of surprise and dislocation feels familiar. So now we’re hooked in the land of clever, and no longer care if it’s having us on. If I don’t know where I’m going…, as the Cheshire Cat said. Quoting the nearly forgotten ‘Night Thoughts’ of Edward Young, a precursor to the early Romantics, the section finishes with a lament for England’s ‘disjoint’ with the mainland. It is one more reminder that there’s much to be found among the waste lands propping up The Waste Land. The scholarship as well as the verse (even blips) are too plausible to be dismissed.
So, when is a parody more than a parody? When it’s too good? When it laughs at itself? Surely ‘Madame Sosostris had a bad cold’ was meant to be funny? Or even the famous ‘Hurry up please, it’s time’ pub scene? So maybe it’s best when it doesn’t laugh at itself? No. That won’t do either – there are loads of good imitations that don’t do that. Even so, we must be wary of laughing at things invisible to the naked eye even of those with a sense of humour. Tearle knows about unusual or unconventional books and the countless attempts to ‘reply’ to them, and deserves credit for taking a risk of failure with this one, managing to pluck success from the flames.