If you are impatient with amateur philosophy, I’d recommend skipping to the second paragraph of this review; I’m including some initial pondering because my admiration of Flint – An Elegy and a Book of Dreams, an e-pamphlet by the Mexican poet and translator Adriana Díaz Enciso, takes me back to some fundamentals about my own thoughts on language, which I would like to sketch out but which may seem unnecessary, especially to anyone better versed in the philosophies of language and literature than I am – I know this kind of self-indulgence can be frustrating in a blog review; so don’t get irritated, move on.
One of the most basic elements of language, as many have said before me, is that it puts one thing beside and in place of another. A word sits beside a real-world object or action, and for the purposes of communication replaces it, their proximity allowing understanding to be carried over to the former from the latter. Once a system based on this metaphorical connection has been established, abstraction can follow; and human (as opposed to animal) thought can begin. It is also then that a line between pure functionality and pure aesthetic beauty can be drawn and discourses can be set out along such a line. All uttered or written language exists on this line. Text messages, screamed curses, romantic novels, pop songs, conversations about the purchase of office stationary, and prayers, are all overlapping categories on this same line. There are many types of category, some tightly defined and others vague; and two of the vaguest categories, ones which between them stretch the full length of the line between pure functionality and pure beauty, are prose and poetry. Where (and whether) we see these two overlapping is both a personal matter and a moot point, but if all language is metaphorical then one way of distinguishing between poetry and prose might be to notice that poetry tends to centralise, emphasise, and problematise the metaphor; while prose tends not to, preferring to keep metaphor as part of its inner communicative workings. This is not a hard and fast rule, there is richly metaphorical prose and prosaic poetry, but considering where a piece of writing lies on the function/beauty line, along with the extent to which its use of metaphor is, let’s say, surprising and complex, might help sometimes when you’re looking at prose that feels like poetry (Ali Smith’s work is an example of this for me, as is Olga Tokarczuck’s) or poetry which feels like, as the saying goes, chopped-up prose.
The reason I’ve started this review with the above prelude is that Díaz Enciso describes Flint in its brief introduction as ‘genreless’ and while I can see why she does so, I disagree: Flint is prose poetry. Though it takes many of the features of prose, and as a rather beautiful expression of death, grief, and hope for life it may lie about halfway along the function/beauty line, its use of metaphor (what it puts beside and in place of what) is pure poetry.
Flint takes as its focal point a dream in which the poet (and we know it is the poet and not a constructed ‘speaker’ in this case because Díaz Enciso takes the trouble to include a prose essay after the prose poem describing the events leading up to and surrounding its creation) meets and walks along “some passage with all semblance of light dulled” hand in hand with the lead singer of The Prodigy, Keith Flint. This leads on to other vivid dreams which, as Díaz Enciso is a Blakeian, we might even call visions. Flint had, shortly beforehand, committed suicide by hanging (although the coroner’s verdict remained open), and, though the poet knew very little about him, the barely contained insanity of his performances and his carefully constructed modern-devil persona (“imp, infernal dervish, entrancing in your dance of rage, though polished, raw”) work as a conduit for her contemplation of the deaths of two of her own friends – most poignantly the Mexican musician Armando Vega Gil who, very shortly afterwards, committed suicide in the same way as Flint. The tunnel from the Firestarter video becomes the passage in the dreams – a link between life and death, sorrow and joy, friends and strangers, and ultimately between what is said and what cannot be said. One of the glories of this work is the way it takes away the menacing, claustrophobic tunnel to hell gently (temporarily perhaps) from The Prodigy and replaces it with a ‘passage’ which takes the reader, through the movement in its etymology, towards hope, not hell.
The metaphorical power of Keith Flint himself and the tunnel/passage is intense. And this iconic figure of nineties youth-angst is juxtaposed with the poet, a literary woman whose age is not mentioned but who we assume from context and, if you like, from googled photos, is middle-to-late-middle-aged. In life, Flint tapped the figurative potential of his name to create a metaphor of himself (instability: rage, insanity, frustration etc), and I think one of the things that I like about this work is that Díaz Enciso respects that, builds on it and reciprocates by turning herself into an opposing – or perhaps I should say complimentary – metaphor (stability: quiet reflection, contained grief, ageing and acceptance).
Alongside these two unlikely companions a third surprising metaphor is developed, and eventually becomes the binding force of the whole piece – “Look – Spring blossoms. Dots of white and gentle pink swaying in the harsh wind beneath leaden storm clouds”. In a sense, this traditional symbolism of renewal and hope should not work simply because it is so, for want of a better word, unoriginal. But it does work, in my view, because it is originally used: startlingly positioned beside (and therefore in place of) the two already startlingly-positioned metaphors of Keith Flint and the poet. The imagery of springtime blossom grows naturally from the words spoken about Flint in tribute after his death, which are in stark contrast to the ‘firestarter’ image: “Generous. Beautiful. So kind.” In fact, the only section of the piece to be presented in what might be seen as a ‘poem’ format is a collection of such words, which describe the man himself. But the blossom is also problematised when Flint is called “(a) dangerous artist: he who holds in bare hands the many-edged flower” – so the hope offered here does not necessarily come without cost. Flint at times appears to personify a redemption of which he himself can have no part, Christ-like he is “offered up: self-inflicted, scream in flesh” to a “snarled humanity in its thousands” who “sway as one”. And so as a simultaneous embodiment of both Christ and the Devil, Flint stands as a public symbol of human strength and human frailty. How far this can be extended to include a private symbolism of the poet’s friends and family is hard to tell; Díaz Enciso mentions her own father only in order to categorically deny the existence of any such extension (“No: I have nothing whatever to say to him”) and there is nothing to suggest we should not take her at her word here; although we may pause long enough to acknowledge that the music of poetry echoes in wells deeper than any of us can know.
Flint is built around a central question, one that is at the heart of grief and at the heart of life: “How do we give hope to the dead?” Because we are all, in the end, ‘the dead’, and because we are all strangers to each other (it is only a matter of degree), this extended prose poem is about finding the passages that lead us towards each other, so that we might “commune”, or (to use a noun phrase which carries more specifically religious connotations), so that we might partake of “communion”: a wonderful word, which Díaz Enciso uses in relation to the crowd at a rock concert which later becomes the crowd at a funeral. It is in this communion (which, more than a coming together, is a sharing of intimacies) that hope in the form of Spring is found. Not for nothing does the poet comment at Flint’s funeral “The world is, today, an orchard”.
I suspect, because of its unusual form and perhaps because of its use of a real-life deceased individual with relatives and presumably an estate, that this may be a pamphlet which continues to find full publication elusive, but I hope I am wrong because it is a profoundly moving piece of work which deserves a wide readership. Anyone who has a mind open to the creative and generative potential of placing one thing beside and in place of another, should take a look at what this e-pamphlet has on offer.
Flint – An Elegy and a Book of Dreams is available from Adriana Díaz Enciso’s website, here.
The poet will donate one third of any proceeds to the National Suicide Prevention Alliance and another third to the NHS.