For me, the city of Florence means the Renaissance. For Simon Barraclough, it means Hannibal. In his debut collection, Los Alamos Mon Amour, culture as we know it has been annihilated by an atom bomb, specifically one designed at the eponymous US laboratory. What remains is a whirlwind of culture and entertainment: Buffy the Vampire Slayer stabs Ezra Pound with a stake, Ted Hughes has imdb in a headlock and suddenly here’s Einstein (who started all of this off) flattening them all with his Principle of Relativity…
Half a century after CP Snow’s famous The Two Cultures speech, Barraclough writes a collection which at first looks to have bridged the gap between science and art. Indeed, he achieves this in ‘The Hands’, in which the hands of a clock serve as a metaphor for man and wife:
for love can coax the chaos to a stop:
both hands on the noon and midnight clock.
Science sits comfortably in this particular poem because it is dealt with obliquely. The hands are bywords for the steely progression of entropy, but this isn’t all that threatening within the confines of a Shakespearian sonnet. The title of the collection very earnestly juxtaposes science (Los Alamos) and art (Mon Amour). There’s an obvious but fundamental problem: they’re speaking different languages. Barraclough can bring the two halves of our culture to the table, but he can’t make them talk.
But then that’s the point – negotiation long ago ceased to be possible. This collection was born in the first nuclear test in 1945, and, according to Barraclough, life has been a string of explosions ever since: the Falklands war, 9/11 and memorably, Seroxat®. The message is clear. Culture is fissile stuff, and with every watershed it gets blasted into smaller and still more disparate fragments. We can either try to make sense of the pieces or embrace the swirling madness.
Barraclough chooses the latter. Antitheses like old and new, male and female, even ‘Nato e Morto’ no longer make any sense for him. From his great nuclear melting pot comes the title poem bearing an image suffused with passion:
So I must be happy your cells have been flung through mine
and your fingers are plaiting my DNA;
my chromosomes whisper you’re here to stay.
This transcends the erotic; that outmoded response to the allure of the other. This is sameness and disconcertingly, it’s radical. There are many other examples of Barraclough’s sure but unorthodox poetic touch. Yet I sense that he is most assured when describing his personal rights of passage, like when he folds up his cardboard cutout of Sarah Michelle Gellar and decides it’s time they both moved on. This endearing sense of the smallness of things is behind his most striking linguistic innovations: ‘The blades of the Milky Way / Moulinex through space’ must be one of the sharpest anti-climaxes in poetry. Yet, it perhaps belies a trepidation that is ill at ease with the ambitious project this collection wants to be.
No single poet could honestly be blamed for the relativism that is currently plaguing the arts, but Barraclough certainly supplies some textbook examples of it. Calling Coronation Street ‘the Shakespeare o’t soaps’ is innocent enough, but in ‘The Open Road’ relativism gets dangerous. Barraclough asks ‘What if colour film came first’ and our eyes yearned for something new like
‘the charcoal sheen of a peacock’s tail,
a seascape rolling in drab grayscale’.
However aesthetically interesting, the world Barraclough imagines is one devoid of fixed concepts. In this world the universe would be a grey area. Needless to say nothing of any value would rise out of his cultural desert. Moreover, I can’t be help thinking that the ‘reds and greens’ that Barraclough derides in this poem encompass every stimulating poetic image ever conceived.
Reading Los Alamos Mon Amour, you might begin to think that we’re on the verge of some sort of end-of-civilisation apocalypse. The challenges raised by contemporary society are not unique, and it is either arrogant or very naïve to suggest that they are. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land responded to the Great War, an event which puts the current threat of Islamist terrorism in context. Eliot used the numerous classical allusions in his work to place modern despair in a classical context, taking strength from the civilisations that did culture before the bomb went off, as it were.* Having witnessed the First World War, Eliot didn’t despair utterly, but instead took stock of our common cultural heritage and set about remaking the human condition. His poetry serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the relative failure of contemporary poetry.
The subjects of the second section of The Waste Land, ‘A Game of Chess’ - ‘common’ working class people - are the very people Eliot wanted to appreciate the poem. This is why he bothered to include notes explaining his allusions. By contrast, the allusions in Los Alamos Mon Amour need no explanation. There is little to be found here outside the frame of everyday reference. Eliot wrote his poem with respect for, but without deference to his reader. In Barraclough’s take on The Waste Land, ‘The Approach’ is a modern day ‘Game of Chess’, though there is little Eliot would recognise beyond the setting. Drunks in a pub are discussing pop culture. 2001: A Space Odyssey becomes “‘2001: A Space Holiday” to murmurs of cautious approval.’ Barraclough, sitting at their table, leaves his response unspoken, but speaks volumes:
I leave George, Harris and Montmorency struggling
with canvas and close my eyes, my palm around my pint.
The final poem of the collection is called ‘Outlook Good’. As far as modern poetry is concerned, forgive me for reserving judgment.
*The merits of the culture of the classical civilisations, which drew little distinction between the arts and the sciences, are eloquently discussed in Peter James’ essay A Look Around, A Look Back, At Critics and Poets on this website.