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Yet More Shots of Mister Simpson.

TEN SHOTS OF MISTER SIMPSON is the least well-known of the longer poems in W. S. Graham's last collection, Implements in Their Places (1977). Like the title sequence and the opening poem, WHAT IS THE LANGUAGE USING US FOR?, it presents an extended meditation on language, representation, and the relationship between reader and writer, through a series of discrete numbered stanzas set at angles to each other. What holds them together is the conceit of a man, Mister Simpson, who is being posed for a photograph somewhere under Zennor Hill, a familiar landmark in Graham's corner of southwest Cornwall (in the Implements volume, MISTER SIMPSON is preceded by TWO POEMS ON ZENNOR HILL, and the same landscape returns shortly afterwards as the setting of ENTER A CLOUD). Unusually for Graham's work, it offers a relatively direct response to recent history: "Mister Simpson," it emerges, is the English alias of a man with an "unpronounceable" name who seems to be a survivor of an Eastern European concentration camp (NCP, 211). The poem is also distinguished by the menacing attitude of the speaker-photographer, who is a portrait of the poet as murderous aesthete, in the tradition of dramatic monologues such as Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess." Unlike Implements' s celebrated elegies for the painters Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton, or the tender master-pupil relationship of JOHANN JOACHIM QUANTZ'S FIVE LESSONS, in TEN SHOTS OF MISTER SIMPSON Graham adopts a sinister and aggressive artistic persona, which may be why it has not appealed to readers as readily as the more playful and tentative poems that have come to represent Graham's typical poetic self.

Graham, however, seems to have regarded MISTER SIMPSON as among his best work, placing it third in the American Selected Poems published by Ecco Press in 1979 (after WHAT IS THE LANGUAGE USING US FOR? and THE CONSTRUCTED SPACE). Michael Hofmann retains it in his recent selection for American readers, published by NYRB Classics, but it is not included in either the posthumous Faber Selected Poems (1996) or the New Selected Poems (2018), edited by Matthew Francis. The most sustained critical discussion of the poem that I have been able to find--in the The Poetry of W. S. Graham by Tony Lopez (1989)--is slightly less than two pages long. Lopez proposes that the "germ" of MISTER SIMPSON was the last stanza of the first version of IMPLEMENTS IN THEIR PLACES, which appeared in the Malahat Review in 1972 (the lines were deleted when the poem was reprinted in the 1977 volume):
    At your signal I dress in my best
   Gear of language and stand to the post.
   I refuse absolution a cigarette
   And the dirty blindfold. Shoot.
   I die for words I don't agree with
   Which told me nothing. Now my blood
   Hums on the common ground. They topple
   Me into the pit where I am special.

The poet-figure here, Lopez notes, is presented as the victim of a military execution. But in MISTER SIMPSON, he continues, the situation is more complex: "'Simpson' in some sense represents the poet, but the executioner-photographer also represents the poet, and the latter is the stronger case." Unlike Albert Strick in ENTER A CLOUD--who, we are told, is "a real man" (he was a friend and neighbor of Graham in Cornwall)--no biographical original for Mister Simpson has been identified. Lopez believes that the details picked out to evoke his living room in the poem, such as "a white-rigged ship bottled sailing," are self-consciously Grahamian "signatures, things which represent his life and work" (NCP, 212) (compare "the rigged ship in its walls of glass" in part six of THE NIGHTFISHING [NCP, 118]). (1) But there are other details--most chillingly, the "photograph of five young gassed / Nephews and nieces," the number on Simpson's forearm, and the mention of "Hut K"--that frame him as a concentration camp survivor, who has had a life quite different to the photographer of Zennor Hill, with his coolly calculating concern for the "execution" of Simpson's portrait with the perfect "shot."

As photographic subjects, there may be some degree of identification between the fictional Mister Simpson and Graham the "real man," who was himself increasingly exposed to the camera's gaze in the early seventies. In a letter to Bryan Wynter from November 1971, he reports that the London Magazine had accepted MISTER SIMPSON for publication, and follows this with the news that a director "has begun the machinery to make a film (not TV) about WSG, poet" (NF, 261). But the poem is ultimately more concerned with measuring the distance between its own "machinery"--as represented by the speaker hidden behind his old-fashioned view camera, in a "black tent"--and the silent man, who in the opening shot sheds a single tear "like a travelling rat" (NCP, 210). Like Geoffrey Hill's "September Song," an oblique elegy for an unknown Holocaust victim published in King Log (1968), it is a poem that finds something horrifying in the presumption of intimacy with one who has known such horror: "(I have made / an elegy for myself it / is true)," writes Hill, allowing the line break to equivocate over the question of who "it is true" to. (2) Looking at Simpson through his lens, Graham's creepy speaker is "close enough / For comfort," casually twisting the idiom that commonly expresses the opposite idea (NCP, 210).

Both poems, of course, are implicitly in dialogue with Adorno's 1949 statement that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," which was regularly (mis)quoted in British literary criticism in the 1960s. (3) But where Hill's poem seems to express a kind of formal penitence by its brevity (concluding "This is plenty. This is more than enough."), Graham heightens the tacit sadism of his scenario by drawing it out into ten scenes in which Mister Simpson is commanded to perform, like the slave-servant Lucky in Samuel Beckett's Waitingfor Godot (1953). The poet-photographer--like the lordly Pozzo, Lucky's master--switches abruptly between directly addressing Mister Simpson and discussing him in the third person with an audience:
    Mister Simpson, stand still.
   Look at him standing sillily
   For our sake and for the sake
   Of preservation.

The reader's complicity in the scene becomes part of the ethical question that the poem poses: Are there any innocent bystanders in the aesthetici-zation of suffering? Does "preservation" imply the life or death of the living subject? "Shall I snap him now?" Graham asks, with the grim wordplay that insinuates a casual violence into the poem's chatty manner: "No, you take him and get the number / Now that he's rolled up his sleeves" (NCP, 211).

"To have someone's number," in colloquial English, is to know their true nature. Yet the poem also leaves us with a fundamental uncertainty about the identity of Mister Simpson, who never speaks to confirm any of the characterizations that the photographer puts upon him. Offering to sell the worksheets of both IMPLEMENTS and MISTER SIMPSON to Robin Skelton in June 1972, Graham reflected that the drafts of the latter "illustrate an interesting journey from conception to the finished poem" (NF, 262). The two draft fragments that Skelton published in the posthumous Aimed at Nobody (1999) as [MORE SHOTS OF MISTER SIMPSON] did not shed much more light on this observation, other than to reveal that Graham at some point decided to move the poem's Cornish hillscape a few miles west, from the village of Nancledra to Zennor. The [DRAFT SHOTS OF MISTER SIMPSON] published here, however, offer significant insights into the way that the drafting process blurred or deleted certain identifying details (see pp. 137-42).

The scene, for example, in an abandoned version of shot nine, which has the speaker commanding Simpson, Pozzo-and-Lucky-style, to "jump" over the prickly gorse bushes growing on the hillside, and ends "I have / You now middle-aged Polish jumping" (p. 139), seems to confirm Nessie Dunsmuir's remark to Margaret Snow, years later, that the poem was about a "Polish refugee." (4) This may only indicate that Graham had in mind a representative figure of Britain's postwar European immigrant population, among whom Poles figured significantly as a result of The Polish Resettlement Act of 1947. But Simpson's nationality cannot be so clearly inferred from the final version of the poem, which only hints at an Eastern European origin in the description of his kitchen where, in the corner, "A narrow Kiev light makes an ikon" (NCP, 212; a "Kiev light" seems to be Graham's shorthand for a kerosene lamp, which was invented in Poland/Ukraine). Mention of an "ikon" also connotes an Eastern Orthodox background--and the possibility that Simpson suffered at the hands of Soviet Russia rather than Nazi Germany--but in Graham's drafts it is more strongly intimated that Simpson is Jewish. In the same passage that he is identified as Polish he is also imagined "flying over a synagogue," as if in a Marc Chagall painting; elsewhere he is told to "Think of yourself / Resigned like an old jew to the slotted / Roofed chambers with still your hat on," and Graham experiments with addressing him as "Silas," a Biblical name of possible Hebraic origin (a handwritten query on the typescript also considers the most common and anonymous of English male forenames, "John") (pp. 139,141).

By downplaying such identifying features, Graham makes Mister Simpson (and MISTER SIMPSON) more resistant to interpretive simplification. This is not only an "Auschwitz" poem. Other details of these drafts suggest that Graham's staging of the antagonistic meeting between photographer and subject is in fact a response to a midcentury theory of poetry that proposed the "barbaric" as the ancient condition of lyric: Robert Graves's The White Goddess (1948). Writing to Sven Berlin in 1949, Graham recommended Graves's eccentric anthropological study of the origins of poetry--which had been published by his editor at Faber and Faber, T. S. Eliot--as "the most stimulating book I've come across for years" (NF, 84). The most direct suggestion that Graves's myth was on Graham's mind in MISTER SIMPSON comes in the draft stanza number IV, which plays with another pun on the apparatus of the professional photographer:
    We must catch each other in a flash.
   I'll have to use a flash. At least
   The terrible goddess is dazzle-proof
   And you, drenched Silas, are also.
                                                     (p. 142)

Graves's vision of the goddess who inspires poetry emphasizes her supernatural whiteness (hence her symbolic association with the moon), which is experienced by the poet as a vision of sublime or "terrible" beauty, like a flash of lightning, as in his 1951 poem, "The White Goddess":
    But we are gifted, even in November
   Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
   Of her nakedly worn magnificence
   We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
   Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall. [5]

Graham evokes a goddess who is "dazzle-proof," presumably because her brightness outshines any mortal flash (cf. the lines in draft stanza II: "Who was it looking from behind / The black window glass shouting / With a white face" [p. 141]). The abject figure of "drenched Silas," though, suggests a man defeated by the "raw" and stormy weather of November, a month that Graham mentions more than once in both the draft and final versions of the poem (p. 142). According to Graves's pagan cult of the moon goddess, November was the month that ushers in the death of the "sacred king" at the "winter solstice." (6) Its insistent specificity in MISTER SIMPSON offers a clue to how the poem performs a restaging of what Graves calls "the Theme" of The White Goddess:
    The Theme, briefly, is the antique story, which falls into thirteen
   chapters and an epilogue, of the birth, life, death and
   resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year; the central chapters
   concern the God's losing battle with the God of the Waning Year
   love of the capricious and all-powerful Threefold Goddess, their
   mother, bride and layer-out. The poet identifies himself with the
   God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is
   his blood-brother, his other self, his weird. All true poetry ...
   celebrates some incident or scene in this very ancient story. (7)

Like the "unclassical / Goats" sighted in one of the draft conclusions to the poem, the mythological aspects of Graves's "Theme" are self-consciously naturalized in [DRAFT SHOTS OF MISTER SIMPSON] (p. 138). Casual details such as the passing mention of Simpson's dead wife touch on the animosity between the gods of the year ("Freeze and hate me even because/Your wife is gone" [p. 138]), while the colloquialism "Mum's the word," in the same stanza, suggests a jokey allusion to Graves's "mother, bride and layer-out." In the final version of the poem, however, these Gravesian touches are toned down, so that reference to Simpson's widowerhood is reduced to the laconic half line "His wife is gone," and the draft's repeated framing of their meeting against a spectacular sunset--in which a thundercloud like molten rock ("solid as bubbling jet" [p. 137]) is variously figured as a dungeon and a dragon--has been excised entirely. The idea of a primal confrontation is retained most explicitly in shot seven, where Graham writes of how a stone "carn" (or cairn) on the high Cornish moor "moves / So slowly down to anciently / Remember men looking at men / As uneasily as us" (NCP, 213).

Uncovering the mythology of the rival brothers in the final version of the poem illuminates its antagonistic dynamic, which figures the poetic process as a splitting of the self. The dialectic of intimacy and estrangement between lyric poet and poem is a recurring theme of Graham's later poetry: see, for example, THE BEAST IN THE SPACE, which tells how "The beast that lives on silence takes / Its bite out of either side. / It pads and sniffs between us." (NCP, 157). Here it informs the jump cuts in narrative position that put Simpson at a distance, then suddenly bring him close ("He knows I am not here to listen / To the best he would ever say. / It would be me anyhow" [p. 138]). The lyric text is ultimately only a printed record of living speech, which, like a camera, renders its fleshy subjects "dead / And negative in the narrative box" (p. 138) (compare THE CONSTRUCTED SPACE: "we know what we are saying / Only when it is said and fixed and dead," [NCP, 162]). When the speaker tells Simpson "This flash is impersonal" (p. 140), the phrasing recalls Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) and its "Impersonal theory of poetry," which depends on the separation of "the man who suffers and the mind which creates." (8)

"I have killed you" ends the ninth shot of the finished version of the poem (NCP, 214). But the last shot finds both men still alive. In one version of shot ten in Graham's drafts, dated 16 July 1971, the speaker sadistically imagines Simpson standing without clothes ("the texture of the goose quivering / Your refined foreign limbs" [p. 139]), and commands:
   Now in the rhetoric of the last
   Day under Zennor Hill and spectate
   Me and you in our November.
   I see you through my focused eye.
   I see the reader through my eye.
   The eye ground from the language looks
   At me and sees me dead and finished
   Having looked and looking at its best.
                                                  (pp. 139-40)

The lines seem to be trying to work out how to reconcile "Me and you" in some wider statement about the "eye" of language (a handwritten addition on the typescript suggests, more specifically, this is a manmade "glass eye"), as though the poem has become an uncannily independent prosthesis of the poet. But the tone is unconvincingly cold, the image a bathetic, throwaway transformation of the lyric poem as camera lens. The final version of shot ten works to resolve this by modulating into a more vulnerable mood of exclamation and lament ("Ah"), which returns us to Graham's signature notion of the poem as a space of mediated encounter. As Calvin Bedient notes, the "heightening of the drama" that brings other long poems by Graham to conclusion is replaced here with "a sudden widening of perspective": (9)
    Ah Mister Simpson, Ah Reader, Ah
   Myself, our pictures are being taken.
   We stand still. Zennor Hill,
   Language and light begin to go
   To leave us looking at each other.

The va-et-vient of gentleness and menace that Graham's dramatic monologue has played out before "the gentle reader's deadly face" (NCP, 213) is here brought to a suspended conclusion, as at the end of a Beckett play: the actors "stand still" and silent as the lights go down. A poem that has been concerned with lyric poetry as an impersonal process of pretended intimacy, which works with language as photography works with light, ends by leaving us "looking at each other" directly for the first time, but in the dark (NCP, 214).


(1/) Tony Lopez, The Poetry of W. S. Graham (Edinburgh University Press, 1989), 120-21. The first version of IMPLEMENTS appeared in Malahat Review 22 (April 1972): 9-24.

(2/) Geoffrey Hill, Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (Oxford University Press, 2013), 44.

(3/) Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (MIT Press, 1981), 34. The passage continues: "And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today." For a typical citation from the late sixties, see "Commentary," Times Literary Supplement (October 10, 1968): "the German critical scene has been dominated by sweeping over-statements like Adornos assertion that one cannot write poetry after Auschwitz" (1157).

(4/) Margaret Snow, "W. S. Graham and 'Terrible Times': Conversations with Nessie Graham," PN Review 168 (2006): 47.

(5/) Robert Graves, The Centenary Selected Poems, ed. Patrick Quinn (Carcanet, 1995), 121.

(6/) Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, 2nd ed. (Faber and Faber, 1999), 186.

(7/) Graves, The White Goddess, 24.

(8/) T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (Methuen, 1920), 42-53.

(9/) Calvin Bedient, "Absentist Poetry: Kinsella, Hill, Graham, Hughes," PN Review 1 (1977): 23.
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Author:Noel-Tod, Jeremy
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2019

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