Middleton in Asia Minor
Levin, Gabriel, Chicago Review
Some years ago, scrambling up a canyon that winds through Jabel Rumm in southern Jordan, I heard a muezzin's call to prayer carried by the wind, amplified and distorted into a low rumble by the sheer sandstone rockface that towered above me. The sound was acutely disorienting as I had been hiking for some time in the eerie silence unique to a desert landscape, and it took me several moments before I realized that the recurring, undulating waves of sound were in fact a man's voice and that that voice had traveled a considerable distance and in so doing had seemingly detached itself from its body and acquired a timbre and identity of its own. Or had it? The echoing call, which by now had turned in my mind into song, lasted for some twenty minutes and allowed me to retrace my steps to the canyon's entrance from where I could clearly hear the modulated voice of the muezzin sucked back into the simple, squat minaret rising above the mud brick Bedouin village of Rumm.
What I would like to propose in the following pages is that a certain kind of writing--of which Christopher Middleton is one of our keenest practitioners--is inherently in pursuit of its own echo. In order to find or actualize its voice, such "configural" poetry (formal if not necessarily metrical poems, which, according to Middleton, "enshrine and radiate poetic space") must establish the proper ground, measure and silence in which its echo may resound.
The diverse provenance of Middleton's own poetry is so great--we have, after all, poems from his native Cornwall and his adopted Texas, as well as from France, Germany, Mexico, Japan, Turkey--that speaking of one locus may be unjustly reductive; but I would nevertheless like to suggest that the numerous poems written in or about Turkey--the Asia Minor of Middleton's imagination--are the numinous center of his work, and that it is from such a grounding that the poet "tracks" most effectively his own echo:
Friction of woof against My warp and the whole creaking fabric Woven through starlit Shores I do not forget, if only Echo, my nymph, in the deep flow Parades her limbs ...
If Echo is bodied forth as a nymph midway in "Tussock Moth," it is precisely in her role as a figure in Greek mythology that we may better grasp the dual nature of the poet's quest. Echo, whose "speech was cut" by Juno in a fit of anger, is reduced to repeating the tail end of sounds that she hears. Catching sight of Narcissus wandering in the forest, she is fired by love, yearns to lure him into her arms, but must wait helplessly for Narcissus to speak before she can repeat his words in her own voice. "Is anybody here," "Here," "Come," "Come," "Why run from me?" "Run from me," "Here we shall meet," "Meet." Slipping out of the shadows, Echo runs up to her lover--"To coll the lovely necke for which she longed had so much," in Arthur Golding's sixteenth century rendition--only to be cruelly repulsed. Disenchanted, she retreats into the forest and slowly wastes away: "Hir bodie pynes to skinne and bone, and waketh wonderous bare. / The bloud doth vanish into ayre from out of all hir veynes, / And nought is left but voice and bones: the voice yet still remaynes."
Middleton, not unlike Echo, is acutely aware of the interstices, the slippages and frictions, between sound and meaningful speech--poetry's "this prolonged hesitation," as Valery wrote, "between sound and sense." The poet's task is to recapture a voice that is there to be heard provided that he is licked by the flames of memory and desire. A tongue can deceive, as Echo's initial prattle distracted Juno, but it can also in its pure, disembodied form summon the self to all "that doth remayne alive above the ground." In Middleton's case this is "the whole creaking fabric / woven through starlit / shores I do not forget."
"Tussock Moth" opens rather ominously with the poet's careful inspection of a dead moth, "The feelers erectile, / Forelegs cradle an ellipse. …