Victoria Moul reviews Heritage Aesthetics by Anthony Anaxagorou (Granta, 2022)
This audacious collection is an enjoyable, even rollicking read. Heritage Aesthetics is a rhetorical roller-coaster, with genuine surprises of language and imagery on almost every page. Anaxagorou has an extraordinary way with a phrase and a seemingly limitless ability to come up with them: reading him makes a lot of equally earnest but comparatively underpowered contemporary poetry seem forgettably insipid. There is an exuberance to the whole thing which is distinctive and impressive but which, ultimately, tends to prompt the reservations traditionally associated with any example of the high baroque. Is this just effect for its own sake? Can you have too much of a good thing? What does it actually mean? (Or as Anaxagorou himself puts it, no slouch he, ‘at the bottom of your rhetoric semantics crawl’ (‘Now My Ego Wants Better Things’).)
There are four prominent characters in this collection – the authorial persona (very much to the fore); his father; his mother; his young child. The other main topics are Cyprus, its landscape and history of occupation; London, especially East London; and loss, whether by bereavement or departure. Amidst the relentlessly inventive and various imagery, flesh and fluid (water, blood, honey) are the most dominant. There’s no question that Anaxagorou is a lavishly gifted writer. Almost every sentence reminds us just how well, how strikingly, he can put words together. He has all the smaller-scale rhetorical tricks fully under command and switches from one to the other with dazzling frequency and no shortage of self-consciousness:
“I found myself governed by newts / and assumptions. the house I was born under refused to cut me a key.” (‘At the Centre a House’)
“I started life as a dead currency.” (‘Squib’)
“arranging baby photos & fallen teeth like rows of sweet garlic” (‘Mother Myth’)
“a mouth like a seahorse before dawn” (‘Circuitry’)
“my MP digs burnt strawberries from out his neckbone” (‘Text Message’)
“honeyed blood carrying a coffin towards a pulse” (’15 x 22′)
“evenings shoulder into the jasmine. fouler than a fatted cock.” (‘Now My Ego Wants Better Things’)
Nevertheless, I find I am not always sure what such phrases mean. Or rather, I usually have a clear sense of what a given poem as a whole is about – many of them, indeed, are about much the same thing: the collection is thematically and emotionally coherent almost to the point of repetition – but I am often much less sure what a specific phrase, however delicious in its own right, might mean; or – if we take its force to be primarily metaphorical or associative – what this particular image adds to the poem at this point, beyond its element of surprise.
Heritage Aesthetics is a rhetorical roller-coaster, with genuine surprises of language and imagery on almost every page
Visually, the collection is marked by variety and apparent experiment, a restless transition between prose poems and poems with short lines, with long lines, or in varied free verse. There are a handful of slightly timid experiments with visual poetry. (There’s also a partially ‘found poem’ and one sestina.) But from a purely aural perspective there doesn’t, to my ear, seem to be much difference between these various forms: however different they look on the page, they all sound much the same. Anaxagorou has a background in performance poetry and perhaps the differences are more marked in performance: I am commenting here just on the reader’s experience. As a result, the collection as a whole feels formally underpowered, especially in comparison with its rhetorical fireworks: I find it difficult to determine why he has chosen one form over another or what those forms are intended to convey.
Intellectually, Heritage Aesthetics is ambitious, even challenging, but markedly undigested (perhaps intentionally so). There is an obvious political element to the collection and various glimpses of personal and family life and other kinds of ordinary experience: this combination strikes me as pretty typical of a contemporary British poetry collection. Alongside this, more unusually, there are quite a large number of references to and quotations from various works of philosophy, history and critical theory: this is especially the case in the title poem ‘Heritage Aesthetics’, and the later sequence ‘Quotidian Theory’, though it is reflected also in the titling and more minor elements of some other poems (such as ‘Structuralism’ and ‘Endgame’, the latter of which features an unnamed ‘professor’). ‘Heritage Aesthetics’, for instance, begins “I’m close to finishing The Ending of Time / where J. Krishnamurti & Dr David Bohm / discuss the nature of existence” and goes on to interleave further quotations from this work with memories of violence, of a boy’s life cut short, and a family vignette including the poet’s own young son, with which the poem ends. This self-consciously intellectual element to the collection doesn’t seem to cohere entirely successfully with the rest, but perhaps this is part of the point: the unmediated and sometimes jarring voices of other scholars and thinkers interrupt and even lecture the reader in a way that remains intentionally unresolved. One theme of the book is the violence and erasure of authorities upon those they oppress. But for the reader there is something interestingly oppressive, too, about this kind of heavy-handed use of authoritative sources.
The collection as a whole feels formally underpowered, especially in comparison with its rhetorical fireworks: I find it difficult to determine why he has chosen one form over another or what those forms are intended to convey
Perhaps the most engaging theme of the collection is a kind of counterpoint both to the assurance of academic writing, and to the florid fluency of the poet’s metaphors: many of the poems return to the theme of speech itself, to the difficulties and failures of articulation, to acts of silencing and interruption. The final page of the collection reads:
a family settle around a
continent next door the odour
is like a grave hurled through
through the window becoming a throat
living inside the noise
it attempted to make
I found one passage on this theme particularly moving:
the day he returned
father left my mouth differently. I started to declare
words no longer mine, catchphrases dead inside their box
the meaning of father never looked back to check
I was still there; […]
(‘Across from Here’)
For such an astonishingly eloquent poet, with catchphrases always to hand, wielded indeed almost as a weapon, this struck me as a touching but also a revealing passage. We sense the vulnerability behind and beyond eloquence. Anaxagorou’s authorial persona is nothing if not, at least in one respect, ostentatiously self-confident: but I finished this collection wondering what such a gifted writer might produce if he found a way to move beyond the fireworks.
Victoria Moul is a poet, translator and scholar living in Paris. Recent publications include A Literary History of Latin and English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2022) and C. H. Sisson Reconsidered (with John Talbot, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan). Recent poems, reviews and verse translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Dark Horse, Amethyst Review, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Bad Lilies, Modern Poetry in Translation, Ancient Exchanges and the anthology Outer Space (CUP, 2022).