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Recommended Reads: Jeffrey Wainwright, Clarity or Death

Written by jen, 16th October 2008

Jeffrey Wainwright, Clarity or Death!

Carcanet, £9.95, ISBN 978 1 85754 9126


In a curious way, poetry that is up to date or of its time joins the tradition more surely than past-yearning poetry that turns its back on such as cagoules and quantum physics. Jeffrey Wainwright’s Clarity or Death! has both these things and offers an exhilarating sense of the ordinary fabric coming apart. Throughout the ages poets have struggled to come to terms with the cosmology of their time, making space and time in verse to encounter illimitable thoughts and fears, and Wainwright joins this group with poems that at least stand up to the ambition.

On the face of it, his new collection is not an easy read. The clarity and death of the title derive from a letter of Wittgenstein’s where he says: ‘I wish to God that I were more intelligent and everything would finally become clear to me – or else that I didn’t live much longer’. But mental struggle, defeat and death wish are not wholly how the poems read. There is horror here, it’s true, and a sort of precision that frays at the edges through the sheer excess of clarity, but Wainwright keeps getting hold of the world of everyday stuff that we continue to live in despite Heisenberg’s great uncertainty – as in the poem about Mr Cooksey’s Technical Drawing class (‘a point is never alone’). Narrow lines, compass and projection together produce ‘a table-lamp we can take home’. Man’s charting of the world seems serviceable and may even provide a code by which you can do well or worse: ‘Draw like that and your tea-tray will be wonky’. That’s the first phase of the poem. In the second phase, however, we see precision without its clothing, the deep down fundamental quantum version of the narrow line:


but there are still hikers afoot

across the finest line:

on and on, (or up and down)

the point descends,

a sea-stack of the hardest lead,

within it the same magnitudes

as of the universe to Earth,

Earth to atom, nucleus to whatever,

are vibrating there and on to wherever gravity

is seeping to, to whatever is happening to time


– When are we stopping sir?

Please, Mr Cooksey, we cannot believe in nothing.


That last question and protest are serious if humorously given, and completely meaningless in the quantum perspective of ‘wherever’ and ‘whatever’ – it’s as if human failure (what we cannot do, what we cannot believe in) would provide the sturdy limit against which imagination and physics and limitlessness will fail. And they do too, for the most part. We don’t live in a tremble. Wainwright’s book is not a plea for science to turn its back on these disturbing invisibles though. One of the most invigorating things about this book is the energy of imagination that goes into the description of the quantum processes (the descent of the point here). And there is Wainwright’s questioning use of concepts such as ‘purity’ in the context of inevitable loss:


at length

the housekeeping goes awry, the heronry

is deserted, the ground unlit, untenantable,

and always the measurable tendency is outward –

a feather lost and blowing away,

every star passing to the same consistency –

a purity it might be called in some quarters.

(from ‘all the ordered forms of energy in the universe would ultimately find themselves degraded’)


The attitude of the poet towards this purity or desertion is hard to ascertain, and a significant part of the poetry itself. The flash of regret (unmeasurable) that comes with ‘untenantable’ makes ‘purity’ a difficult word, but is he saying that purists are indifferent to the suffering of body or consciousness, or is it that those who mourn the loss of the nest and certainty fail to face up to the real? It’s almost as if the collection were a novel in which Wainwright is a recognisable but not fully disclosed character. And that is intriguing too. Good to have the ordinary imprecisions in place alongside ‘the quantum shudder’.

If you’ve got a book group, why not get hold of this collection and share the poems together? In the space of a year, a whole stack of poetry books will be published and most will fall from view unread. I’d like to think that this one will gather enough attention and weight to stay around for future readers.

Posted by Sarah Coley




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