Review

From the Notebooks by Harry Fainlight

Iconoclast Press
Price £5 + postage

Poetry is the Czechoslovakia for the telepathic marching column, an outbreak at herd level, which chooses the most defenceless area for its first strike and most certainly promises a similar career of megalomania before it is cut down to its real dimension

Harry Fainlight (1935-82) legendary brother of the more famous Ruth is a missing link of English poetry. His life-story is tragic; but, salacious as it sounds, the unhappy childhood, illegal homosexuality, drug experiments, schizophrenia, incarcerations and suicide coming on top of a complex Jewish sensibility all add up to a fascinating vista of the poet's struggle for existence. He is an exotic figure: an English poète maudit

His dual UK/US citizenship allowed for a brilliant grammar school education, Cambridge scholarship and friendship with Ted Hughes, but also gave him access to the American avant-garde and a somewhat Verlainean/Rimbaldien relationship with Allen Ginsberg. (He later renounced both passports).

While the UK was importing American poetics, Fainlight ventured to the new Orphic underworld to learn first-hand from the master magicians. There, Poetry at the Metro touted him as the 'new Shelley' and Ginsberg hailed him as the most gifted English poet of his generation . He contributed to such publications as Fuck You-A Magazine of the Arts , had a cameo in Andy Warhol's film Harlot, and even woke up one morning with William Burroughs.

Though he was naturally prone to nervous crises, Fainlight's heavy usage of amphetamines and various other substances in 60's NY probably contributed to his later breakdowns. One of the productions of his American sojourn is entitled Mescalin Notes , indicating he may have participated in Timothy Leary's research projects.

In London, Bernard Stone's Turret Books published the only collection to come out in England in his lifetime, the 12-page pamphlet Sussicran ('narcissus' backwards). He was associated with the radical magazine International Times (IT), and more famously was one of the poets who read at the Albert Hall in 1965. The film Wholly Communion captures Fainlight struggling to communicate his epic description of an L.S.D. trip The Spider to the 7000-strong audience, who simply were not ready for such a vision, one which prophetically heralds the dark side of the psychedelic era to come:

So is my spiderhood a whole new mythology a cavern full of wicked sisters, a whole new breed of them mutated by this new hallucogenic vitamin which I hereby christen SPIRITLECT

He also features as a character in Neil Oram's 'as-it-happened' 24-hour play The Warp , the mercurial Marty Mission. One of the most poignant scenes depicts Fainlight as a patient in a Scottish mental hospital where his superfine mind has been "reduced to a cinder" by ECT. Always capable of transforming paranoia-cum-persecution into mordant wit, one of his funniest lines is:

Fuck the Labour Party! You're just a big astral grub! And you try to rub me out! You're all so jealous of anyone who's capable of experiencing a mental event!

Tales From The Embassy , a trilogy of stories by Dave Tomlin (the guiding spirit behind the new publication) features Fainlight as poet Harry Flame. The narrator recalls smiling at Flame on a beautiful morning, the latter replying with a grimace: I'll get you for that!.

Though he's never on any 'official list', Fainlight has left too many traces on the cutting edge of the art-world (both sides of Atlantic) to be airbrushed out of existence. Not that 'the establishment' can be cast as villains here. The most amazing story about Fainlight is that when Faber tipped off by Ted Hughes agreed to publish a collection, he responded by dousing a rag in petrol, lighting it, and pushing it through the letterbox in Queen Square. The offer was withdrawn.

Hughes later wrote an elegy, To Be Harry , which must rank among his best poems about humans:

Whatever you hung onto it has all
Abandoned you, quite faithless. Nothing has changed.
Even your poems - careless of how you died
They will now take up a strenuous career.
(The true book of your silence was burned with you).
They will have the suspect air
Of talkative survivors
They will tell all that happened and more, except
How, in your worst moment, they failed you and forsook you

Ruth Fainlight's edition of his Selected Poems in 1984 was deluxe but underwhelming. Very fine poems such as Seventy Sarsons , Spider Song , and The Jew appeared with more sketchy, unfinished work. Much of it was pastoral. Where was the urban Fainlight who had roamed the city religiously all night every night, making notes? Where were the gay-sex-in-toilets poems or the out-of-it-on-drugs poems? Perhaps it's understandable that a family member would not want to publish them, but such themes were crucial to Fainlight's development. The esteemed Thom Gunn treads similar ground, but Fainlight's handling of these issues is more experimental, more gnostic, more subversive, and without the academic safety-net.

From the Notebooks is a unique tribute to a unique poet. A cassette of a lecture he gave at the Cambodian Embassy (an art-squat in the 70's), talking and reading from his notebooks, has been transcribed and published. Prose-poems? Philosophy? Political rants? These writings are all and more; they reveal Fainlight as a true original. The city poet is here, analysing the machine as a master ironist. His heresies are delightful. From an authentic out-there vantage point he is able to look in and shed light on the collective human struggle. He sympathizes with us even as he is crucified by us.

The definition of a politician is an amateur criminal, one still hampered by the bourgeois ethic. The politician who has overcome this disadvantage is the military commander

It's difficult to gauge Fainlight's achievement until we see more work. His finest poems are the adagios of a concert pianist, serene in mid-torment, prayers of healing. As such they are mystical poems for a modern era and an antidote to the tongue-in-cheek/comedic poetry that is the current vogue. He is more than an English Beat, because much less populist. Spider Song is not only a fabulous lyric, but a prophecy of the world-wide-web/internet culture he did not live to see:

Deity of the antenna
She sits there at its center
Radiating back
The message she receives from all space

The prose in From The Notebooks is that of an apocalyptic 'British-Israelite' savant. The voice is exquisite, the intellect is colossal. He indulges his humour. It's cryptic but inspirational, and sublimely sardonic. Trapped inside the suitcase full of writings he left behind is a magician trying to get out:

The sound of a plane gives the sky a kind of halitosis; a breath overhung with many nights of bombing, foul as the witches and alchemists down to the present day. It's a vibration inimical to any other spiritual life above the level of the orgone, its own vibrational level, and as such it is the kinetic enemy in the Armageddon in which the silent craft of the light will destroy the dragon's thunderflee

Niall McDevitt

From the Notebooks by Harry Fainlight costs £5 plus postage via Iconoclast Press davetomlin1@hotmail.com

 

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