Christopher Middleton Essay - Critical Essays


Christopher Middleton’s poems may be understood as poetic tributes to the recurrent possibilities of order. Typically, he subjects an emblem of a conventional and preexistent order (a classical or political theme, a work of art, a still-life on a breakfast table) to linguistic changes that disorder and reorder the given elements in such a way that what emerges is a new and provisional order that contains and signals its own explosive instability. In other words, the poet does not claim to uncover the “real” significance of anything. The uniqueness of Middleton’s poetry-of-process lies at least partly in the fact that the changes that take place in his poems always seem somehow slightly accidental, not fully under control, perhaps not even fully the responsibility of the poet. To lay claim to such control and responsibility would be to defeat the very point of the procedure by undermining the surprising freedom that comes with the startling rediscovery of things long thought familiar. This helps to explain Middleton’s evident lack of interest in “inspiration,” or the creation of order ex nihilo; he chooses rather to subject the available material of an imperfectly ordered world to sensational transformations, performing a trick that, as one critic put it, “makes the things hover in the air like a mirage.” For Middleton, creation is recreational re-creation, and his poems have much in common both with translations and with collages. By merging classical elements (images of order) with modernist techniques (procedures of disorder), Middleton is able to avoid both the chill stasis of a sterile classicism and the self-defeating absurdity of an all-too-radical modernism; in his sensitive hands, old forms of order become as disquieting as the marble torsos of Giorgio de Chirico or René Magritte, or as radiant as Paul Cézanne’s weighty apples.

Reviewers are often quick to mention Middleton’s open allegiance to the traditions of European modernism, and they often praise his accuracy of detail, together with his “fine sense of the absurd.” They frequently notice a certain obliquity—not to say obscurity—in Middleton’s approach; one reviewer observed that Middleton “handles his insights with great finesse, but always from a distance as though with tweezers.” In a similar vein, others have regretted in his works “the quick change from style to style,” “the absence of any unifying personal pressure,” and “something constrictingly intellectual.” These problems are often regarded as endemic to a self-conscious postmodernism. In fact, these same poetic peccadilloes of flexibility and distance would be praised as virtues in a translator, while “intellectual” references to what one critic called “the disjecta membra of a scholar’s workshop” can be seen simply as the natural expression of a modus vivendi operating between the creative and the professional life. In short, Middleton views poetry as a form of translation, translation as a form of creation, and both as legitimate and important subjects and objects for academic study. In a world plagued with divided loyalties and petty territorial rivalries, this example is indeed a major achievement.

Middleton’s modernized classicism is evident even in the titles of most of his volumes of poetry, titles that he always takes care to explain. Nonsequences/Selfpoems is chosen for its echoes of nonsenses and consequences, and because “the poems are always consequent-nonsequent.” Such self-negating hyphenated compounds are posted in Middleton’s explanations like warning signs; he mentions elsewhere the “lucky-unlucky” publication of his first two volumes of poetry, or his preference for a “stark-ambiguous” style. The title of Pataxanadu, and Other Prose blends Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s exotic dream-poem with Alfred Jarry’s “pataphysics,” the “science of imaginary solutions.” Carminalenia merges two words from a line of Propertius to convey both a literal Latin sense of “Softsongs” and, as Middleton notes, a latent suggestion of something “criminal.”

The world of Middleton’s poems is steeped in a kind of all-pervasive “or-elseness,” and his most rewarding works are those in which this quality is directly enlisted in the service of the poem’s patterned destruction-and-transfiguration. The latent “or-elseness” of a given work is also opened up by translation, which uncovers new possibilities of order in the mediating language. Middleton has described the task of the poet and translator as a matter of “astonishing speech into incandescence,” but it is this same incandescence of unstable matter that also astonishes the poet into speech.

Torse Three

The title Torse Three refers to one of the meanings of the word “torse,” a certain kind of geometrical surface; its etymological cousins include “torsion,” “tortuous,” and “torture.” The final twist in this collection is a poem about order, the fifth and last of “Five Psalms for Common Man,” which may be taken as Middleton’s most direct statement about the subject. Here the first definitive assertion—“Order imagined against fear is not order”—breaks the logical rule of identity, as “order” quickly becomes plural, a dialectic of order and disorder: “Out of a rumbling of hollows an order is born/ to negate another existing order of fear.” A few lines later, the Psalmist sings that “Another order of fear is chaos,” while throughout the poem, things either happen or they do not happen: Fear “only negates or does not negate existing order,” while “images of chaos . . . accord or do not accord.” Out of this logical-sounding but ambiguous tangle emerges the final statement: “The orders revolve as improvisations against fear,/ changed images of chaos. Without fear, nothing.” Thus the circle of transformation is complete: Order against fear cannot be order, but without “orders of fear” (or chaos—which has no plural) there can be no order at all. Other writers have described this dilemma in terms of the creator’s struggle against entropy; but Middleton seems to suggest that order is only the obverse of entropy, undifferentiation momentarily disguised.


Nonsequences/Selfpoems introduces the “Texan theme” into Middleton’s work, where it immediately takes up permanent residence. Images of politics—of social order—also occupy more territory here than in Torse Three, as Middleton develops methods for integrating political material into his vision of the poet’s dangerous game. In “Difficulties of a Revisionist,” a political extension is added to the notion of the poet as translator or maker of kaleidoscopic collages:

All day fighting for a poem. Fighting against what?And for what? What? being its own danger, wants to get rescued, but from its rescuer?

Which side is the poet to be on in the struggle for a new revisionary vision, if the poem—its own danger—is struggling to be saved from its poet? Danger lurks also in “Dangers of Waking,” in which the “reports and messages” brought by children to the recumbent narrator are progressively magnified into the nightmare news of barbed wire, prison cells, and “the killing of this or that/ man, thousand, or million.” This poem appears rather late in the volume, and serves as a counterbalance to an earlier description of “Navajo Children” accepting lollipops from tourists in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.

Repressions past and future stalk the pages of Nonsequences/Selfpoems, which shows Middleton at his bleakest. Even the more pastoral and private images of order appear as if at the mercy of angry mobs just over the distant horizon. The natural-unnatural world harbors savages and phantoms: Cats crunch the head bones of mice, the Cyclops’s broken eye clings like a slug on a carrot, houses are haunted by shaggy monsters and street-crossings by “this unknown thing.” All the poet’s combinatory gifts are helpless to rectify or mitigate the horrors of the past; “January 1919” begins with one of Middleton’s bitterest lines—“What if I know, Liebknecht, who shot you dead”—and ends with an appeal to “Look upon our children, they are mutilated.” In the final poem, “An Englishman in Texas,” the poet presents himself as a kind of sky-struck survivor eager to shed the shreds of past identity to exist fully in the present; this last nonsequence voices his wish to “drop character,/ its greed for old presences, its dirt” in order to “move once,/ free, of himself, into some few things.”

Our Flowers and Nice Bones

Our Flowers and Nice Bones, Middleton’s next volume of poetry, takes its title from a letter by Kurt Schwitters and represents Middleton’s most sustained Dadaistic sortie into such experimental forms as concrete poetry, “found” poems, and works in which sound is invited to take precedence over sense. The poet’s quest for order seeks its method either in the visual effect of letters on the page (“Birth of Venus,” “Milk Sonnet”) or in the shock of finding an unintentional poem ready-made, or a poetic possibility in the merging of two or more such “finds” (such as “Found Poem with Grafts,” a true poetic collage). He also organizes poems in terms of sound, either by inventing a mock language of suggestive nonsense (like the Teutonic Latin Finneganese of “Lausdeo Teutonicus” or the Mexican yodeling of “Armadillo Cello Solo”) or by taking existing words through transformations based on their sounds (as in the jazzy...

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