‘As Far as Dimming’, PN Review 193, May-June 2010 by James Keery

About Bloody Time is a ‘debut’ collection, from his own intermittently prolific Waterloo Press, by a poet who has ‘come as far as dimming’, which means, amongst other things, that he needs glasses and won’t see forty again. At fifty not out, Simon Jenner is a poet in mid-career, whose work, for some funny reason, has just begun to see the light of day. About Bloody Time, too!
Yet, as with so much in this absorbing book, the title opens onto other, more painful and more puzzling perspectives. The upper half of the cover field is the colour of congealed blood, whilst the lower half reproduces one of Jenner’s own paintings, entitled Puzzlement (1979), a surreal but far from frivolous depiction of a Bloody Time. The foreground of a First World War battle-field is shared between the bloodstained body of a medic, the triangular prow of a tank and the 
figures of Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet. Tigger, bounding towards Eeyore, can just be made out below a devastated skyline, whilst in a red glare a mechanical owl dives like a hawk and a beach umbrella soars on white wings. Pooh is putting a paw to his cheek, as HUNNY spills from a jar.
Touch and taste, history and healing, are thematic in Jenner’s poetry, which is ultimately about (im)mortality and bloody Time itself, of which the modernist century is the brilliant but appalling epitome. Having served as an officer at the front, A.A. Milne christened his creation after a regimental mascot, a Canadian black bear cub named Winnipeg; he also wrote a pacifist polemic, Peace with Honour (1934), and War with Honour (1940), a grim retraction: ‘If anybody reads Peace with Honour now, he must read it with that one word “HITLER” scrawled across every page’. His face turned towards the past, Benjamin’s angel of history can see only the wreckage on wreckage of a single catastrophe. Accordingly, ‘Complicity in ’01’ refracts the new century, in which one of the most terrible events of the whole third millennium AD has already occurred.
Yet Jenner’s complicity is enigmatic. There can be no simple equivocation, or ‘Janus face-off’ (‘Hymn to Mercury’), between epochs, visions or interpretations of history, but his ‘sounding’ of the millennial New Year is as subtle as it is compassionate. ‘Peace builds a complex echo’, at the height of the adrenalin rush to war. The image of the ‘ruined aisles’ of the twin towers might be interpreted as a dark irony, but in context the suggestion is less of the Trade Centre as a glorified supermarket or capitalist shrine than of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by bombs and derelict for a decade, but reconstructed in the imagination long before anything took its place. Jenner revisits the same ‘European moment’ in several of his best poems, including ‘The Hölderlin Revival, 1942’, in which a V2 just misses his father, but German ‘kultur’ scores a direct hit; meanwhile, a friend’s mother reads the new ‘white National Edition’ throughout the firebombing of Augsburg. The poem commemorates their survival, but also their deaths, alongside that of David Gascoyne, with a poignant image of grieving children as ‘readers’ by the light of incendiary translations:

  this slantwise gift from the night flares of the dead
  to readers touched by the surprise of their deaths.

According to Jenner’s note, his father’s text was Gascoyne’s Hölderlin’s Madness (1938), not the Editions Poetry London volume of 1943, translated by an infantryman at Maidstone Barracks – with such amazing success that he found himself under orders to give a reading at the Poetry Society of the enemy poet’s work. Jenner will also have noted the ‘almost uncanny coincidence’ of his death, in 2007, on the anniversary of ‘that of the German poet to whom he devoted so much of his lifework …: Friedrich Hölderlin’ (obituary of Michael Hamburger by Iain Galbraith).
Hour, date, month and year are constantly invoked in these poems, notations of complicity in time at its most literal. So are season, birthday, age and horoscope, all the phenomena of time at its most personal. ‘Halley’s Cambridge’ is a memorable negotiation between the eternal cosmic returns of ‘comet time’ and the experience of time as lived. It begins with the witty ‘indifference’ of a supercilious academic who had seen it all before, ‘seventy six years’ before, to be precise:

  ‘No – saw it last time’. The nonagenarian
  Trinity don of Halley’s ’86 –
  he’d been a gazing freshman of 1910.
  A glancing magnificence in the gulf
  of seventy six years, light years of pale
  achievement in a shallow field, a
  Milky Way of glittering prizes –
  blood flowers in his port glass aspect
  vision; a young calm of 1910.

As predicted by Halley, the comet he saw in 1682 returned in 1758, in 1834, and again in 1910, its appearances more than a biblical lifetime apart. Born around 1892, the ‘freshman of 1910’ is himself a portent in his ‘loss of wonder’, during his own transit. As he drains symbolic ‘dregs’ of vintage port, his ‘glittering prizes’ pale into insignificance. A fine satirical portrait, certainly. Yet the poet’s reflections go far ‘beyond that’, in a vertiginous evocation of mortality that steadies into a profound acceptance, and even restores an interior life to the stale astronomer:

  Halley haunts me like a thing
  I shouldn’t look for twice, like seeing a universe’s
  clockwork, those verdigris brass
  school models of 1910,
  stars steely ferrules, pointing the storm-eye
  of a change of iron gear.
  Some compass rose unravelling of the self
  reckoned in the mockery of comet time
  that with such worldly portents
  I might end where I began
  if I look blinding on them too long;
  see the shudder of a glass of eighteen
  means I’ve come as far as dimming
  and now, as then
  trembling to hold the port
  like a measure of achieved innocence.

The disorientation of the protagonist is beautifully imagined in terms of a regression from the intricacies of Edwardian clockwork to the spinning of a medieval ‘compass rose’ (suggested by the ‘blood flowers’ in the glass of port), and even perhaps to the earlier portolan charts, whose name means to do with ports in Italian. The penultimate line is another ‘complex echo’, holding in equilibrium different meanings for each ‘aspect’ of ‘the self’ comprised by the speaker: the undergraduate, holding his ‘glass of eighteen’, vintage port of 1818 as well as that of his own age, but also a nautical ‘glass’ or telescope, at the beginning of his ‘long glaucoma’d voyage’; the narrator, named in a note as the historian David Crankshaw, in 1986 a PhD student ‘with an incredible knack for accessing (and living off) obscure Tudor bursaries’; and the poet, whose ‘theft’ of the scenario extends to identity fraud and whose own musings are of more recent date.
The ‘port’ is both wine and harbour, a ‘port’ in a storm amid ‘worldly portents’, but also, as in Stevens’s expression, ‘of a port in air’ (The Jar), meaning bearing, importance (the genuine, not the portentous kind). Finally, it suggests a destination to be reached. It is indeed ‘a measure of achieved innocence’ that the speaking voice should be able to regain its bearings and ‘hold’ its course towards death, avoiding either ‘indifference’ or dread. I was reminded by these lines of Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees’: ‘Now, of my three score years and ten,/ Twenty will not come again …’ A Pascalian ‘shudder’ at the mathematical eternity of the ‘light years’ between the stars is the paradoxical inspiration of a sense of our mortal span as proper and proportionate, of three score years and ten, of which fifty will not come again – which, poignant as it is, is as it should be. For what is it that, according to the poem, we ‘shouldn’t look for twice’, but life itself?