Review: Zigzag

A light shone through the darkness


By Anthony Rudolf
Carcanet, £9.95

The painting on the cover of Tony Rudolf's new collection of verse and poetic prose shows an artist in the process of producing a self-portrait. To the left is the artist's image in a looking-glass, to the right is the work-in-progress itself. Between them stands the painter, his back to the viewer. But the puzzle is not yet complete, for the composition implies a second artist, who has captured the scene for posterity (he needed to, for the man in the picture died in the same year as its composition, aged only 20). As in a 1973 poem of Rudolf's: "In bed, to die young/ like an early night".

But in common with (at least some of) The Who, Rudolf has grown older, and now stands in for that invisible (but implied) other artist. Though, needless to say, his instrument is the pen, not the brush. The object, however, remains the same: to send a telegram to the future.

Zigzag is divided into five sections. In the one called Scenes from Childhood: after Schumann, Rudolf describes another going down of the sun: "I raise up my eyes./ The lowly sun/ Has disappeared./ This place is called/ The headland". This cerebral terrain is Rudolf's home turf; a place where intellect rules, and words are the only legal currency.

But this book houses two remarkable figures whose example ensures that Rudolf's tweezer-picked words are not only thought but felt. The first of these exceptional guides is Franz Kafka. The story Rudolf tells of him - called Kafka's Doll - demonstrates how the ailing writer was able to both calm and enrapture a girl whose doll had gone missing. This he did by producing - on a daily basis - letters supposedly sent by the doll from her new home. Not only is the tale elegantly done, but it is also moving; heartfelt in both construction and receipt.

The other exemplary figure is Rudolf's own Zeide, whom he taped in 1975, when the old man was well into his 90s.

Following the method of his hero, Charles Reznikoff, Rudolf has transformed the transcript into free verse. The voice leaps from the page. At some point Zeide Josef decides to write poetry, but discovers that he cannot sleep if he thinks too much. So a doctor advises him to give it up, which he does.

His grandson, however, has decided to risk insomnia in order to salvage what he can from Lethe's rising tide. As a result a light shines from that headland, illuminating the darkness.

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