When I tell people that I work on Crabbe, one of the standard responses is a joke about crustaceans. It’s a fairly well-worn routine, one of the first examples being a vignette created in 1827 by Thomas Bewick. It depicts a crab’s claw and palette, presumably a response to Byron’s line that Crabbe was ‘nature’s sternest painter’:
But I’ve just come upon this from an issue of the Commonwealth in July 1880 – proof, perhaps, that the very obvious jokes never get old:
LITERARY young man at party: “Miss Jones, have you seen Crabbe’s Tales?” Young lady scornfully: “I was not aware that crabs had tails.” Literary young man covered with confusion: “I beg your pardon, ma’am, I should have said read Crabbe’s Tales?” Young lady, angrily scornful: “And I was not aware that red crabs had tails, either.” Exit young man.
As it’s the 50th anniversary of Tessimond’s death today, I wanted to post one more poem. I’ve been writing about him today, particularly about his somewhat unlikely love life. Biographically, it’d be easy to suggest that Tessimond didn’t understand relationships at all – this is a man who thought nothing of buying a plane ticket to Jamaica in order to find a woman he had never met, that he had fallen in love with, after seeing a poster for bananas; that the long succession of sexless relationships with prostitutes and nightclub hostesses seemed unlikely ever to have worked.
But I think this misses the point entirely. Tessimond understood love better than many people; understood the slow process by which we get to know another person. We do him, and indeed the nightclub hostesses, a disservice if we think that these relationships were not meaningful, important, tender.
‘Meeting, first published in the 1934 collection ‘The Walls of Glass’, describes just that. It appears at first to be comic anthropomorphism, though Tessimond set little store by that (‘A smiling dog’s the illusion | And wish-fulfilment of it’s owner’ – ‘Saving Grace’) but what it reaches is something powerful and wonderfully real.
Dogs take new friends abruptly and by smell.
Cats’ meetings are neat, tactual, caressive.
Monkeys exchange their fleas before they speak.
Snakes, no doubt, coil by coil reach mutual knowledge.
We then, at first encounter, should be silent;
Not court the cortex but the epidermis;
Not work from the inside out but outside in;
Discover each other’s flesh, its scent and texture;
Familiarize the sinews and the nerve-ends,
The hands, the hair–before the inept lips open.
Instead of which we are resonant, explicit.
Our words like windows intercept our meaning.
Our four eyes fence and flinch and awkwardly
Wince into shadow, slide oblique to ambush.
Hands stir, retract. The pulse is insulated.
Blood is turned inwards, lonely; skin unhappy…
While always under all, but interrupted,
Antennæ stretch… waver… and almost… touch.
I’m supposed to be writing about Tessimond this morning (and I have been doing, honest!) but have been distracted by Dawson Jackson again. He has a staggering ability to turn out very simple-seeming phrases that just flaw me, and this morning it is this from the poem ‘To his wife: A scent of hyacinth’:
And she takes on the
What she loves: the beauty that her
Eye perceives, she
It’s that dropped ‘Is’ between the two stanzas that gets me in the guts. There’s an important truth there, I feel, that what we are – the quality of what we are – is formed from what we love.
Copies of a lot of Jackson’s correspondence pertaining to Tessimond arrived from America last week. I’ve been reading through those, mainly just scanning for references to Tessimond. Jackson is an uncommonly good letter-writer and a series of them from the early 1980s really caught me. He is concerned in these with the state of the world – with the wickedness of Thatcher’s government and the fear gripping everyone – but what is striking from someone who feels all of that is that his response is not anger, but love. He describes, very movingly, a CND march in 1983 – of telling the policemen marshalling it how glad he is that they were ‘invited to the party’. It’s not to wind them up, he actually means it. I’m sure that he was angry, but there is a sense that anger has brought all of this about. The only thing that will prevail, is love.
Which brings me to something that I keep writing out on my whiteboard in my office. Years ago, I did my masters on Martin Heidegger, and ‘Being’ has a residual draw for me, but this is much more human than that – it’s the contents page from Jackson’s Primer of Necessary Belief (London: Victor Gollancz, 1957). Contents pages don’t tend to get much attention, I suppose. They’re perfunctory text not given to much analysis, but this particular one has its own beauty:
Summary of sections—
(a) I am
(b) Being, I love
(c) Others are
(d) And love also
(e) Each, without exception, throughout mankind
(f) And the hierarchies of nature
Summary of forthcoming parts
“A Person Come to Look at Pictures”: Tessimond at the Walker
Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL
Dr James Bainbridge
Thursday 17 May 2012, 1-2 pm [Revised date]
In this fiftieth anniversary year of the death of the Birkenhead-born poet A.S.J. Tessimond we will explore his work revealing his friendship and collaboration with the artist Ceri Richards. Looking at Richards’ Mother and Child in the Walker collection and an unpublished long poem An A to Z of Advertising, this lecture presents a vivid portrait of the poet’s later years. CRN 16909
To book a place at these lectures, phone 0151 794 6900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org quoting the course reference number.
Sunday 13th May, 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond.
The fact that you are reading this page, probably suggests that you have some awareness of Tessimond’s work – though the fact that your chosen search engine has led you here, is also an indication of how little is now known about the poet. In those fifty years since his death, almost all trace of A.S.J. Tessimond has disappeared.
Tessimond has joined the ranks of the lesser-known poets. A poet who certainly deserves our attention – who in his own lifetime was hugely popular – but who now is perhaps only known to a few. I want to briefly explore how that might have come about…