Sunday, April 23, 2006

Whisper "Louise"

Douglas Oliver: Whisper ‘Louise’: A double historical memoir and meditation, with photographs by Steve Hayes and Jacques Lebar. Reality Street Editions, 2005. £15

Poet and one-time Cambridge journalist Douglas Oliver has written a remarkable book, interweaving recollections of his own life with accounts of episodes from the life of the legendary anarchist Louise Michel. But it is far, far more than a simple exercise in biography, as Oliver uses the coincidences and disonances of the two lives as a way of exploring memory and meaning, the construction of self, and the nature of revolutionary action.

A school-teacher who ran her own schools, Louise Michel played an active part in the Paris Commune – fighting on the barricades and falling in love with fellow communard Theophile Ferré. After the fall of the Commune Ferré was shot by firing squad, and although Louise challenged the Judges at her own trial to shoot her as well, she was sent the prison colony on the island of New Caledonia. On the voyage over she was introduced to anarchism in conversation with other women prisoners. While a prisoner on the island she learnt the language of the indigenous Kanaks, and actively supported them during their insurrection against the French. She also devoted much of her time to studying the natural history of the island, and its folklore.

Returned to France after 10 years, she organised demonstrations by the poor, and was imprisoned for taking bread from bakers’ shops and giving it to the hungry. On one occasion when she was shot by a royalist sympathiser, she refused to testify against her attacker and instead gave evidence for the defence. In order to avoid further imprisonment she moved to London and briefly ran a school for the children of anarchist refugees in London’s Fitzroy Street. The school closed within two years, after a key member of the staff was exposed as a spy in the pay of the police. When she died in 1905 more than one hundred thousand people followed her body through the streets of Paris to the grave.

Louise Michel’s life was rich enough for several biographies, but in her own writings she frequently mythologized significant events, and was silent about others, including her relationship with Victor Hugo. Like Oliver she was a poet, although her poetic sensibilities are best experienced through her prose. Often over-romanticised, occasionally declamatory and florid, the core of her poetry can resonate with emotion and meaning.

Douglas Oliver died in the year 2000, shortly after completing the manuscript for Whisper ‘Louise’. He was a clerk in the RAF during his national service, and on completion he became a newspaper reporter in Coventry then in Cambridge, before moving to Paris to work as a translator for Agence France-Presse. He returned to England in 1972 and read literature at the University of Essex, eventually teaching there for five years. In 1979 he published The Diagram Poems. Based on news reports of the activities of Uruguay’s Robin Hood-styled urban guerillas, the Tupamaros, the poems sympathetically explored the nature of revolutionary violence and the counter-revolutionary barbarism of the state, a subject taken up again in Whisper ‘Louise’.

His best known work is Penniless Politics (1991) originally published in an edition of 150 photostated copies by Iain Sinclair, that Howard Brenton compared to The Wasteland in terms of the impact that it made: “Penniless Politics sets the literary agenda for the next twenty years”. During the last few years of his life Douglas lived in Paris again with his partner Alice Notley, teaching English language and literature at the British Institute. Inspired by the diversity of life in Paris he began work on Arrondissements “a series of books or long sequences in poetry and prose, designed to reflect the world at large through the prism of Paris.” Whisper ‘Louise’ forms part of this project.

Although Oliver identifies with Michel: “Both Louise and I myself have a silliness in us, a wish to end political complications by imposing our naïve compassion on them. Perhaps that’s another reason why I can match memoirs with her” Whisper ‘Louise’ is also critical of the paradoxical flaw in her character – a personal compassion that compelled her to give away everything she had to those in greater need than she was herself, while retaining an unrelenting belief in revolutionary violence as the only effective means of social transformation. Yet at the end of the book it is this character trait which he picks out for final praise.

This is an intensely personal book that raises important questions about ethics, commitment and social action. The death of his son Tom, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and died before he was two years old, haunts Oliver’s work. Less than three years after Tom’s death he worked and slept in Derbyshire’s “Suicide Cave”, an abandoned lead mine. The cave’s dark isolation took him closer to his dead son, and helped him write In the Cave of Suicession (1974). His thoughts about Tom form a counterpoint to the reflections on revolutionary action in The Diagram Poems, and make a similar appearance in Whisper ‘Louise’. Not so much that the “personal is political” as rather the personal is the litmus test against which political action must always be judged.

The rich and colourful accounts of Michel’s life, reflections on episodes from his own life, the tragedy of Tom’s death, descriptions of Paris, discourses on contemporary politics and the implications of revolutionary action frequently impart a sense of breathless urgency to the text. With some reason as while he was working on the last chapters he became aware of the seriousness of his cancer. Within months of finalising the manuscript Douglas Oliver was dead, leaving Whisper ‘Louise’ as a final testament to a rich poetic sensibility, a carefully honed technical ability, and his own underlying humanity.

Martyn Everett.

Reviewed in CCCP 16 (Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry) April 2006