Jeffrey Wainwright's new collection, The Reasoner, is a study of epistemology and ontology, of how we know and the relationship between knowing and being. It makes these fundamental concerns concrete through the voice of 'the reasoner' in a series of 95 mainly short poems.
Unlike most contemporary poetry, it is concerned with knoweldge, thought and understanding. In a contemporary scene that is dumbing down and becoming more homogenised, this collection is an important example of what poetry can do.
Wainwright's style is painstaking, words from the world around us, from the mundane and familiar, are rolled around the poems, often in lists, gaining weight and significance:
the crucial kitchen-drawer always has
the wrong batteries, withered elastic bands.
Wainwright prefers a sort of hardness in the sound of his verse to soaring melody:
nothing rich like persimmon or lavender
(no sightless pansy or brash lorikeet)
but - a spade chunk of marl perhaps
And his frequent humour is ironic, even Northern and blunt:
Lucky fuck. That's me I mean. Fucking lucky.
but always with an underlying seriousness.
Think of the crab's outrage when it insists
'I am not a crustacean
I am a crab, and myself'.
I can't do justice to this collection without reading it closely ten times and producing a detailed academic review, and that's not the purpose of this blog - which is to share opinions and enjoyment, and encourage you to read the work itself. So I intend to begin at the beginning, go on a short way making comments and then stop.
The first poem introduces the reasoner, an unprepossessing bookish eccentric, who is also a kind of mediocre everyman, searching for a revelation of persistent reality:
I am one who would know,
and thus be happy
The seond poem questions the nature of a specific phenomena (a spiders web illuminated by a ray of light) and the problem of language, or more particularly, simile.
By looking at one thing am I missing another?
The third poem is a witty meditation on belief and life, which it is suggested is a struggle between doubt 'and so on/ and so on and so on'. There is something Beckettian in this painful vision of human life, trapped in the skull trying to make sense of things with faulty apparatus. At this point, Wainwright's style is heavily indebted to Geoffrey Hill, to the extent that a simulacra of Hill's voice is in danger of overtaking Wainwright's own very distinctive tone and set of registers. For instance, he uses abbreviations like Hill does 'circs.' for 'circumstances'. Its a mannerism that could be easily lost with no prejudice to the integrity of the poems.
The fourth poem touches on utopian hope: perfect understanding, both in the abstract and in a memory of Wainwright's youth in leftist circles in the North Midland potteries, when internationalists were keen on promoting esperanto. Wainwright suggests gently that beneath their pious idealism these internationalists were in fact Little Englanders out to spread the gospel of tea (and maybe teetotalerism) and cricket.
The fifth poem doesn't really hold just at this moment but I suspect the sixth is a comment on The Waste Land, as it partly concerns 'house agents' clerks'.
Poems six, seven and eight, all of which begin, as did four and five, with the phrase 'is our language complete?' play with the effects of language and question the relationship between signified and signifier, before returning to the spiders web, in a final metaphor which links expression with our species being: 'our creature tongue'.
The reasoner is at once trying to dispense with language and to use it to unload/ and exalt the mind'.
Exalt your mind by reading this collection several times.