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“A poet of modern Paris has to write about more than the river mists …,” Douglas Oliver states in his preface. “More than mid-way through my life I have begun writing Arrondissements, a series of books or long sequences in poetry and prose, designed to reflect the world at large through the prism of Paris.”
Oliver, a British poet known for his international conscience as well as for his mastery of language and technique, assembled the present volume containing three works from Arrondissements – corresponding to three districts of Paris – shortly before his fatal illness. The editing of the volume has been finalized by his wife, the American poet Alice Notley.
The intial sequence, The Shattered Crystal, well-known in poetry circles since the mid-90’s, deals with Oliver’s own arrondissement, the 10th. It takes up the poetic heritages of Paul Celan, whose widow, the artist Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, had lived nearby, and Heinrich Heine, who also had once resided in the neighborhood. What is the weight of Celan’s burden/beauty in this old Jewish crystal quarter? What was the value of Heine’s different, assimilated Jewishness, as he endured his painful spinal malady? Oliver asks these questions aided oracularly by the paintings of Joan Mitchell, their colors and mysterious shapes.
In the short second sequence, China Blue, Oliver presents a set of “Chinese” poems, based on the explosion of Assian immigration in the 13th arrondissement. Questions of family, commercialism, the Cambodian genocide are raised in these highly accessible poems.
The final work in the book, The Video House of Fame, is a tour-de-force, a long poem in the form of a video game called REGENDER, played by a narrator very like the author, in a video parlor in the 2nd arrondissement. The narrator grapples with his own past and present, with postmodern philosophy, with global capitalism, with gender roles, and finally fails to win at REGENDER.
Oliver’s poetry is humorous, beautiful, often naked. It is served by both light-of-day reasonableness and a willful subconscious which knows the dark but can’t stop playing with language. The return of his voice in Arrondissements will be a pleasure for both old and new readers.
‘In this posthumous volume, edited by his widow Alice Notley, Douglas takes fresh inspiration from the fantastical labyrinth of the French capital. The result is a teeming and panoramic book that rises at its best to the genuinely visionary... It is a poignant loss to British poetry that there will be no new game-playing from the noble nomadic spirit that was Douglas Oliver.’ —David Wheatley, The Times Literary Supplement