For the fans of the poet Christopher Middleton (1926-2015), Serpentine (2018) is a welcome addition to his body of work, which includes Loose Cannons: Selected Prose (2014), Collected Poems (2008), and Faint Harps and Silver Voices (Selected Translations). Originally published by Oasis Books in 1985, Serpentine appeared in what Tony Frazer, the publisher of this edition by Shearsman, called “a slightly shoddy, if serviceable production.” While a few of the pieces in Serpentine are also in Loose Cannons: Selected Prose, this reprinting fills a gap in Middleton’s prose. A member of the generation of poets that includes John Ashbery (1927-2017) and Robert Creeley (1926-2005), like them, Middleton wrote in many styles, from the classifiable to the unclassifiable. Serpentine belongs to the latter.
The collection consists of 20 untitled pieces, 18 of which are in prose and titled in lower case on the Contents page, along with “a provisional postscript” and “publisher’s note” by Tony Frazer. According to Frazer, the original edition “was reviewed only once, received scant distribution, and was never republished.” This is a common fate for many poetry books, which, unlike the Titanic, sink without notice, all the words gone with nary a ripple. Frazer, who has been the editor and publisher of Shearsman Books since 1981, is to be commended for bringing Serpentine back into print.
This is what many people would call a book of experimental prose — an unfortunate description. According to a note on the back of this edition, Middleton is said to have “forbade such a definition from appearing anywhere in the first edition for fear of frightening off potential readers,” which it seemed to do, anyway. In his exercise, “How to Start a Drawing,” Paul Klee famously said, “Drawing is taking a line for a walk.” Something similar happens in Middleton’s prose. It pivots to reveal a narrative that is discovered as it goes along, creating a state of shifting consciousness in which to register its realizations. In “wittenbergplatz” he writes:
Something he said about the poem before getting into the 60 bus at Wittenbergplatz with five minutes to spare noticed the iron frame with place names across it like rungs of a ladder and could not see very well go closer they were the names of places like Auschwitz Bergen-Belsen Buchenwald Theresienstadt in alphabetical order and off the square on the corner he could see looking beyond the frame Sexpool a window and in the window a wax dummy woman wearing a black leather corselet chains a steel studded collar and on her head jauntily a military cap with several squat fir trees planted to commemorate the great undulant plains and forests […]
At this point, Middleton starts another block of prose. Later, in “How to Start a Drawing,” Klee suggests: “Let the Drawing Appear ‘By Itself.’” This seems to most closely describe what Middleton does in Serpentine, which touches upon all kinds of subjects, from the hero eating a chicken he just cooked to “moving day in momnpopville after a trip to church.” Each piece of writing takes the reader for a walk that is full of surprises, interesting detours, unsettling encounters, and much more. The prose can be crystalline, opaque, and sonorous. It is the prose of a cultivated man who seems to always be in touch with a reservoir of feelings, associations, and scholarship. And yet, in “wittenbergplatz,” he is a person about to board a bus in Berlin. There is, in that sense, nothing special about him.
In thinking about Serpentine, Middleton’s review of John Ashbery’s A WAVE (1984), which appeared in The New York Times on June 17, 1984, came to mind. Middleton could be writing about himself in the opening paragraph:
Reading John Ashbery’s poems is a bit like playing hide-and-seek in a sprawling mansion designed by M. C. Escher. The mansion is located in midcity and midcountry at the same time (or at least from its pinnacles one can see across open country). Just as abrupt shifts occur between levels in the buildings Escher drew, abrupt semantic shifts occur in Mr. Ashbery’s poems. Non sequiturs spin off in various directions; phrasings of inspired concision telescope with prolix, prosier ones. Yet the reader has to concede, perhaps ruefully, that bewilderment on his part must be his own problem, for the poems have an air of sovereign intelligence. Whatever else may happen to shiver the linguistic timbers, the syntax and the voice are coherent, cool, levelheaded.
When people take a walk, some always like to know exactly where they are. Others don’t mind being lost because what they encounter is the real substance of their wanderings. The prose in Serpentine has “an air of sovereign intelligence.” Any reader who does not mind adventure, vertiginous moments, and getting temporarily lost should want to go on a stroll with Middleton in whatever landscape he explores. As the hermit poet Basho wrote: “The Journey itself is the home.”