A few years ago, in an essay called “Why I Am a Member of the Christopher Middleton Fan Club” (The Brooklyn Rail, October 2010), I stated the need for “a selected prose that brings together all the different kinds of writing he has done.” Loose Cannons: Selected Prose (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2014), which includes an insightful foreword by one of Middleton’s most vocal and articulate champions, August Kleinzahler, is pretty close to the book I had in mind.
The thirty-three unclassifiable pieces, some no longer than three pages, were selected from prose written between Flowers & Nice Bones (1969) and Depictions of Blaff (2010), a span of forty-one years, a period during which the prose poem became an increasingly popular form. Middleton’s short pieces are not prose poems, however. As Kleinzahler states at the beginning of his “Foreword,” “what Middleton “would refer to as ‘short prose’ are certainly [his] wildest, most accessible, and most entertaining work and count as some of his very finest writing.” I suspect that one reason why they are not better known is because they are not short tales with a beginning, middle and end.
In other words, Middleton’s short prose pieces are not prose poems as that term is conventionally understood, and they have little to do with the beloved Francophile tradition spawned by the posthumous publication of Paris Spleen (1869), Charles Baudelaire’s book of fifty-one prose poems. Middleton’s imaginative prose pieces are not motivated by disgust, nor do they, in opposition to prose poems by Charles Simic and Russell Edson, for example, seem to have an overriding theme, recognizable style or tic holding them together. If anything, they are in a league of their own, just as those pieces found in the astonishing book, Tatlin! (1974), by Guy Davenport, his friend and classmate at Merton College, Oxford (1948–52). As I see it, the imaginative prose of Davenport and Middleton constitute two of the more singular achievements in American letters.
Like Davenport, Middleton’s erudition is unrivaled in its grasp and comprehension of many sources. A prolific, innovative translator, he started translating Robert Walser’s fiction in the 1950s, in postwar, non-German- loving England, long before this unique writer was on anyone’s radar. In 1957, Middleton published his eye-opening translation of Walser’s The Walk and Other Stories. He has also translated the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Christa Wolf, Elias Canetti, Georg Trakl, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Lars Gustafsson. Along with his interest in Dada, Surrealist, and Expressionist writing, all of which were largely rejected in England, Middleton was a devotee of the experimental work of his own time and became friends with some of the most radically innovative poets of the century, such as Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop; the multilingual Romanian-born German poet and honorary member of OULIPO, Oskar Pastior (1927-2006); and the Austrian poets Ernst Jandl (1925-2000) and Friedrike Mayröcker (1924-). The other difference that sets Middleton apart from his peers is that, in addition to not aligning himself with the French tradition, Middleton doesn’t see himself as an heir to Ezra Pound, as did Davenport. Rather, as Gabriel Levin advances in his essay, “Middleton in Asia Minor”:
The stratification of languages and cultures—Hittite, Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman, Turkish—is, I believe, what has lured Middleton repeatedly since the early ’80s to this vast stretch of land which once comprised the northern arm of the Levant. It has been for the poet a quest in awe of revelation. (Chicago Review, 51: 1/2, Spring 2005, p. 119).
One of the memorable moments I spent with Middleton was sitting with him in the mid-90s in a café in Austin, Texas, where he has lived since 1966, listening to his enthusiasm, anticipation and excitement as he talked about his forthcoming trip to Yemen to learn more about Arabic. He was then in his early 70s and, as far as I could see, still an eager and curious student, someone who believes that learning never ends. Instead of claiming authority, he yearned to gain more knowledge.
Imagine prose that is neither anecdotal nor confessional, and you begin to get a sense of Middleton’s unclassifiable writing. Add to this his resistance to arriving at predictable poetic revelations, moments that appear to be blessed by a sudden universal insight, and you get a sense of why his writing has never quite gained the attention it deserves. We want revelations, however cliché, because they promise us comfort. Middleton comes from another tradition, which counts Herodotus, Plutarch and Thucydides among its originators. He is not in the habit of providing solace to the reader.
Inspired by these ancient classical writers, Middleton is simultaneously contemporary and mysterious rather than nostalgic and soothing, In “The Birth of the Smile,” within a span of less than two pages, Middleton goes from “the Sumerians” to “the smile inserted at the corners of Che Guevara’s mouth by the thumbs of his murderers.” Here, as elsewhere, Middleton is able to braid together different kinds of prose, ranging from history, myth and fable to a description gleaned from the mass media, without anything seeming forced or contrived. I cannot explain why it feels right that the author ends with Che Guevera’s post-mortem smile, but it does. At the very least, he is reminding us that a smile and cruelty are linked often enough to be unsettling. The fact that he refuses to step back and moralize after reaching this insight is just one of the many powerful things he does.
In “The Turkish Rooftops,” Middleton starts with the observation that “Turkish people like to sleep on rooftops,’ and then goes on to list the various things one might see on these rooftops (“Buckets, parts of cooking stoves, donkey saddles, lengths of rope, piping, sinks, scythes”), as well as to comment on “how, in Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire, the mountain changes its clothes, sky its diagonals that shine or rain down upon the roof of the mountain.” What interests Middleton is the threshold between one order of objects and another. He is both scholarly and innocent and doesn’t privilege one above the other. Each of the thirty-three pieces in Loose Cannons contains something marvelous. Each of his sentences is a seamless synthesis of perception, information and music.
Perhaps Loose Cannons will help change our perception of Middleton’s considerable achievement. Instead of offering us easy reassurance, his prose (as does all his writing) seems motivated by what he states at the end of his “Prologue”: “Beauty is exuberance.” Here we might be reminded that the one lesson Middleton might have gotten from translating Walser or from reading Baudelaire is the latter’s observation: “The Beautiful is always strange.” The strangeness that Middleton leads the willing reader to is well worth beholding.
Christopher Middleton, Loose Canons: Selected Prose (2014) is published by University of New Mexico Press.
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