Sunday, August 12, 2012


Howard Mingham's Waters on the Night: Collected Poems, 1974-84 (Caparison 2012) arrived today. Hugh MacDiarmid came excitedly, if somewhat lazily, to mind (today is his birthday). At least the two poets share the same initials, and the same active affection for class politics (Mingham was, in the years prior to his early death, a committed member of the Workers Revolutionary Party). According to poet and activist David Kessel, founder of the support organization Friends of East End Loonies (FEEL), Mingham was diagnosed sometime during the seventies with schizophrenia and formally admitted as an in-patient to "F Block," a psychiatric unit at Hackney Hospital in London where in 1976 Kessel first met him. In his foreword to Mingham's poems, Kessel notes that "F Block," a famously dilapidated facility, was also the site where one of the earliest unions for psychiatric patients, the Hackney Union of Mental Patients, was organized, a fact worth noting here if only for its clear articulation of the relation between mental illness, healthcare and market systems.

As one might suspect, many of Mingham's poems directly address his experiences with the mental health system while others do not, but most all of them are startling constructions that repeatedly twist and jerk within otherwise exhausted poetic forms and they do so in the most tightly controlled way. Take the following two stanzas from "On Molwyn Beach," a poem that offers itself as a strong well-built commonness remarkable in its unremarkability:

Shallow are the prints of any man
Who in this sullen heat
Clambers the rocks of this sheep-nibbled land
Seeking to plant his feet,
If only for a wind-bit minute stand
To see a piece of land not in rocked or brambled chaos
But in accidental beauty lie
And in that accidental range find friendliness.
But all the white sky with blank purpose
Hoist from green refection's pool
A squirm uneasiness.  
Where the stuttering sheep by hunger led
And the stammering collie followed,
Here the mountain reared its head
And all its slow, green tears
Its cheekbones hollowed.
And high, the parched stones cracked with grief
As all the white sky with blank purpose
Out-stared belief and disbelief
And stared with blank purpose.      

The end rhymes, which appear willful and strategically placed, follow no discernible pattern from stanza to stanza but occur instead as unanticipated jolts, at once stable and unstable, and this seems to be a regular feature throughout the book. Mingham's usage of the word refection in the first stanza of this poem is particularly exciting. Bracketing out the possibility that this may be nothing more than a typo, the l from the word reflection somehow dropped, at least two meanings of the word are operative here: 1) refection as form of material and/or spiritual nourishment; 2) refection as a form of nourishment derived from eating one's own fecal matter. Qualifying the word refection with "green" seems to support such a reading, as does "squirm uneasiness." And the human warmth, the "friendliness," the narrator finds in "accidental beauty" is here quickly undermined, if not completely negated, by the "squirm uneasiness" pulled up by the sky from "green refection's pool." Incredible really.     

In the poem "From Ward 5," one of a small handful where Mingham responds directly to his time at Hackney Hospital, there is the immediate sense that he has carefully retooled O'Hara's "Why I am Not a Painter" from within the confines of a mental health clinic. In the opening lines of the poem he extends what seems a gentle but piercing critique of art therapy and, more broadly, the treatment of psychiatric patients in general:

I shall draw a glorious
and most mysterious picture of orange.
It shall be my long howl of despair
in the face of dawn.
It shall be round
and its centre hollow.
It shall be drawn so that when it is struck,
it shall sound as a drum.
And a red howl of agony
shall pour from its middle,
its soul.
It shall be incurable, this picture.
No doctor would dare come near it.
He would be engulfed
by its large and magnificent disease.

The opening lines instantly remind us of O'Hara, the whole of that well known stanza ("There should be | so much more, not of orange, of | words, of how terrible orange is | and life"). Engaged in drawing, presumably as a form of therapy, the narrator insists throughout "From Ward 5" that he is not a visual artist: "I am a pig | and pigs cannot draw. | I am a writer | and writers cannot draw. | I am impotent with pain and pen in hand | and a marvellous agony in my head." Mingham likewise identifies linguistic modes of expression  confession, testimony, documentation  as grossly inadequate: "I am a writer | who cannot express himself | in anything but words. | This is his agony | and they are encouraging it."

Back in May, at the Poetry and Revolution conference organized through Birkbeck University's Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, I had the good fortune of participating on a panel with David Kessel, who devoted a considerable amount of the time allotted him to addressing the poetry of Howard Mingham. He ended his talk with "Broken Water," a Mingham poem:

Beneath your feet an essence is running,
thick as oil, thick as drumming, an early
dark madness we had forgotten:
the sewers are swollen,
boxes and cardboard and cartons of water,
all that is used, undone
kept by habits that tremble underground,
all effort to contain exhausted
are vomiting sound, vomiting sound.
All the parts are leaving,
clocks and daylight,
shops, factory, obedience, girls;
a bull of water swells,
boxes and cardboard and cartons of water,
wet symbols like bells
clatter in a flow of water and loss,
decay itself, removing us.        

Peter Riley recently commented on Mingham's Collected at The Fortnightly Review, remarking: "There is no strong realisation of his mental condition (or his Marxism) and he appears more as a thoughtful writer of uncomfortable, sometimes anguished poems, with a facility for precise metaphors and irregularly disposed rhymes and half-rhymes which keep the verse moving." Although, I might gently disagree with part of this claim  that is, I think Mingham's commitment to class politics bears itself out in almost every poem  Riley's assertion that the poems offer little if any trace of Mingham's psychiatric condition seems an incredibly vital one that militates against reading these poems symptomatically as exemplary manifestations of schizophrenic fragmentation under capitalism (various readings of Hannah Weiner come to mind). Nor do the poems invite any predatory temptation to scavenge through the writing for traces of an emergent, novel poetics somehow informed by Mingham's condition.

NB: written 11 Aug 2012.