#15: ‘Where’s/the actual carnival?’

Although The Scallop-Shell mostly exists to talk about whole poems, a writer caught my attention this week who has very little short work online. Paul Abbott’s ‘Notting Hill Carnival‘ features in A Tower Miscellany, an anthology of poems by young writers associated with the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize. The playful formalism of this opening extract points towards the concerns of the whole text: it presents both a mass of sensory stimuli, and a mind searching for meaning in them all, with a vivid sense of place which emerges partly from looking in all the wrong ones.

from Notting Hill Carnival

by Paul Abbott

August bank holiday in Notting Hill,
Stuck in a two-thirds empty sushi bar,
I drink the cheapest soup dish on the menu
And discuss tactics: entry points, how far,
To walk or haggle, Who’s Who. Then the bill
Comes, and I pay. Pay cash, says Jimmy, then you
Won’t waste your cash on beer
. We all decide
Vaguely to join the one-way crowd outside,

And it begins, this packed conveyor belt
Of costumes, crowded streets, and creditcards.
Scaffolded billboards boast of low gun-crime,
And the Olympic Games. In strewn frontyards
A hustling local sells canned drinks: a melt
Of watered-down Bacardi, ice, and lime.
Above the press, a greying pigeon skirls
Through the tall air. Indifferent teenage girls

Lounge in the packed heat. We keep walking. Where’s
The actual carnival?
I ask, as out
Of sight, down Portobello Road, a float
Trawls sullenly away through a tired shout
Of casual-clothed spectators. Shrugs and stares
Follow, uselessly. Noise sticks in my throat.
I think the carnival is further down,
Says Jimmy, so we push on further down[…]

*

‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ This line by Yeats (a crucial poet for Tower judge Peter McDonald) seems to hover behind Abbott’s wanderings. The poem’s speaker is a tourist and flaneur, seeking a definitive experience which will transform the ‘packed conveyor belt’ of human lives from a ‘one-way crowd’, an undifferentiated ‘tired shout’, into one singular and tangible event, ‘the actual carnival’. Sticking with the early twentieth century, the plain-spoken, compressed diction (‘strewn frontyards’, ‘casual-clothed spectators’) and conversational enjambments gesture to the lighter side of Auden. But there’s a shade of Eliot in the impulse for this faceless human drift to coalesce into the still point to which all its motion tends, prolonged by the speaker’s own relentless searching: ‘we keep walking.’

From the start, the voice is separate, ‘stuck’ (‘I drink’… ‘I pay’), taking a friend’s advice on proper conduct for an event so novel and enormous it requires the ‘tactics’ and ‘entry points’ of a military campaign. Though technically he’s on the inside looking out (the bar is ‘two-thirds empty’; the crowd is ‘outside’), the sentiment is that of an outsider looking in. When ‘it begins’, a unified event is suggested, but everywhere the speaker goes he encounters plurals: ‘costumes’, ‘girls’, the imprecision of unpalatable noise. There are other ‘spectators’ too, who also shrug and stare (‘uselessly’, though we might ask, to whom?) But even these are ‘out of sight’; the quest appears to be for anyone or anything who stops just looking long enough to be looked at.

Abbott’s early focus on rules and details seems at odds with the emerging desire to blend in, to join a crowd which finds itself reflected in the ‘melt’ of Caribbean punch. Here, too, there’s a tension between general and specific – the ‘hustling local’ is a single figure, but he operates ‘in strewn frontyards’, seemingly everywhere at once. And maybe there’s a comment here on the inherent danger of making an individual an archetype; later Abbott writes: ‘The strangers I ignored/were the whole show.’ And if the strangers are a ‘show’, distinguished partly by their ‘parodies of ethnic food’, then they seem ‘saleable’ as much as the billboards promising the highly-branded Olympic Games. Perhaps the tendency to look for an aesthetic whole is what frustrates the possibility of real connection.

The rarity of end-stopped lines contributes to the feeling of restless exploration – caesuras stop us in mid-line, followed by new sentences which hustle us along, so much that even stanza-breaks aren’t really breaks. The pigeon is the only figure in the poem which manages to exist ‘above the press’, granted the privilege of a comprehensive view – the human characters are always among, between, or just around the corner from the action. Jimmy, with his uncertainty, takes on the attributes of a Virgilian guide, persuading the group to ‘push on further down’, but the identical rhyme declares this change will bring more of the same.

As the poem continues, Abbott moves onwards through a ‘carnival/That isn’t there’ towards a ‘moral’ which is not a moral, followed as it is by the renewed desire to ‘discover something final’. But finality is not the purpose of a carnival; it’s a time of reversal, instability and flux, all things the poem reveals while trying its hardest to avoid them. You can see how it develops here, closing with an image which reminds me of ‘The Whitsun Weddings‘. As in Larkin’s poem, transcendence can’t be sought, and shouldn’t seem hard-won. Its power is in surprise.

*

The Christopher Tower Prize is a themed competition for poets aged 16-18 which since 1999 has offered winners both a palpable sense of achievement and real cash money. They were kind enough, in 2008, to commend one of my own early poems, a slightly gauche collision of Catholicism and oral sex (always good to start as you mean to go on.) This year’s winners, on the theme ‘The Details’, were announced in April. I’m not sure if Paul Abbott was a winner or a Tower summer school participant, and I’m not sure if he’s still writing now, but Clutag Press brought out his debut pamphlet ‘Flood’ in 2008, and I doubt I’m the only person hoping for a second edition.

scallop-shell

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