Friday, January 08, 2016

Christopher Middleton's briefcase

Christopher Middleton, who died last week at the age of eighty-nine, was one of the great outsiders of twentieth century English poetry. In the 1950s, when Philip Larkin and his cohorts were writing verses full of dour and sour realism, the young Middleton turned away from England towards the Dadaists and Surrealists and Expressionists of continental Europe. He travelled through Europe and the Middle East, translating and imitating German, French, Turkish and Arabic poetry, before eventually settling in Texas, where he taught German literature and published books with beguiling titles like The Lonely Suppers of WV Balloon and Twenty Tropes for Doctor Dark.

When I hear news reports about planes falling out of the sky and men exploding in crowded rooms I sometimes think of Middleton's elliptical and eerie poem 'Briefcase History'.

Briefcase History

This briefcase was made on the Baltic coast
in 1946
some prize pig was flayed for the leather
metal strippedf rom a seaplane
silk for the stitching picked from parachute cord

People say where did you get that singular briefcase
and then I notice it
people ask how much did it cost
and when I say fifty cigarettes not many understand
once the leather was flying wrapped
around seaplane fuel tanks the space between
wadded with two inches of rubber
this briefcase might stop a bullet I wonder

For twenty-five years I have carried in it
books of poems battered or new
cosmic mountain notebooks plays with broken spines
bread and cheese a visiting card from Bratislava
and a pliable cranny for anything to be pocketed
at the last moment

The handle ribbed with stitches of parachute silk
anchored by clasps of seaplane metal
is worn shiny and dark with sweat
the whole thing has an unspeakable grey colour
running a finger over a surface
leprous one might say
various tones of grey flickering mould green
the scored leather looks to me like the footsole
of an old aboriginal bowman earth in a space photo
nerve webs of a bat's wing

The two side pockets have their seams intact
two straps happily slip through buckles and hold there

Furthermore this briefcase has contained
a dynasty of shirts mostly now extinct nothing to declare
my Venus relics old stones believed
animal figures carved back of beyond in France

this briefcase has been with me somehow
I find reason to celebrate it today

Briefcase helping friend
ploughshare beaten from the sword
briefcase bag of tricks peaceful seaplane spirit
ocean wanderer
you have never contained an explosive device
never have you contained an explosive device


Blogger Richard said...

He died! I parted with a copy of Pataxanadu but have a photocopied version of most of it. Great poet of course. Genius.

He was one of the originals, there were a number in England and other parts. I wonder if Paul Muldoon was influenced by him. There is a brilliant women poet Denise Riley that Sarah Broom wrote about. And Raworth, Hill, and others. Even the present poet Laureate, Carol Anne Duffy, is a great poet.

I thought that Anne Carson was Irish or North country but she is in the US, she is an original: also a Classics scholar.

I suppose Ashbery will be the next to go, he's had a pretty good innings for sure.

Larkin was a good poet also, his Aubade that Jack quoted when Leicester died is quite eerie and very moving...

But that Briefcase poem is a classic, something of Browning's complex musings on people and things, and a mix of the surreal and the real, a dash of Smithyman there also...(because Smithyman had read everything, or almost!)

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