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Farewell to Douglas Dunlop Oliver

OUR GENERATION (for Steve Carey)

I hear the birds of Kenya singing as I write this
for Steve Carey who liked recorded bird song
as I do, the cassette shrill, a door falling-to
on squeaky hinges. Steve: a grating laugh
of one who was buff-crested, sulphur chested,
lost like me in distant islands of sound
in sonophilia for Kenyas and Britains and native
American woode, with its double-toned wood thrush.
Our own generation as its song.
Calls of "Will be!", "Will be!", like a Wilbye
madrigal, every generation in hope
of its many-coloured men and women.
And the fish-eagle's magical feet snatch silver fish
from gold-breeding lakes at all dawns,
as we snatch syllables from standstill moments
and lift that sound, a moment isolated, into sunlight.

Douglas Oliver
1937 - 2000

Douglas Dunlop Oliver, writer: born Southampton 14 September 1937; married 1962 Janet Hughes (two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1987), 1988 Alice Notley; died Paris 21 April 2000.


THE WORK of the poet Douglas Oliver remains an anomaly in late 20th-century English poetry. Spanning 35 years, it reveals a contrary nature; erudite, self-taught and dignified, defiantly old-fashioned if not Blimpish. He was a poet, but no less a novelist; lecturer, journalist and translator - exilic researcher, inventor of forms. His writings investigated the instability of language, pitched against the language of political and social upheaval, grief and human vulnerability. While possessing an English register, often formal, his poetry works in larger contexts. The Infant and the Pearl (1985), his most celebrated poem, satirised the reductive values of Thatcherism. She was wearing a pearly suit, not silver-rose pink, since sadly we seemed to be sharing a black and white world. But the bearing of the front passenger meant a man for the media to deal with delicately: a Joseph for dreaming and descrying dreams in the eye of his leader. Oliver was born in 1937, in Southampton, and brought up in Branksome, next to Bournemouth, the youngest of three children. His Glaswegian father was an insurance manager. Home was Browning Avenue, a dilapidated 19th-century cliffside estate built for Sir Percy Shelley, son of the poet. Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Bournemouth in the 1880s, became one of Oliver's heroes, an instructor in "how to wrestle with the presbyterian background in a way which restores honour to the parents." Stevenson's house (Shelley's manor), King's Park, where Douglas and his brother Brian watched boxing matches, and Christchurch harbour, where he studied sea and shore birds, were childhood haunts. The immediacy of childhood never left one, he believed, and was used by boxers, priests and politicians to gain power over their opponents" identity. He researched such vocations avidly; they were his prey but he was also subject to them. Bournemouth School, a grammar, was not happy for him and he did not stay beyond O levels. Following National Service as an RAF accountant, he went into journalism, first in Coventry, then in Cambridge, where he became a staff reporter on the Cambridge Evening News. His first wife, Janet Hughes, a primary schoolteacher, whom he married in 1962, is memorialised in the opening phrase of his collected poems, "You know I"m working Jan." They had three children, Kate, Tom and Bonamy. The poet J.H. Prynne, responding to Oliver's review of his second book, Kitchen Poems (1968), welcomed Oliver in Cambridge to a new clan, poets with shared empathies and raucous night lives. Oliver is remembered as a ferocious and unprincipled player of the board game Diplomacy; sharp at poker too. He researched in philosophy, witchcraft and theology, but remained a journalist, with a privately disturbing family life. Oppo Hectic (1969; from "o poetique"),his first book, was published by Andrew Crozier's Ferry Press. Ferry would consistently publish Oliver between 1969 and 1985. Oppo Hectic's 24 poems and discrete pieces fused Pop Art, post-Victoriana ("Flesh-blue birds / two men sit on / khaki rocks / eating birds gannets . . . Guillemot fry-up / with guano and dry seaweed fuel. How long a feast? dodo bell-name remorse / laughter peals / more guillemot guillemot") and domestic poem into something both erudite and witty. The wit verged on satire, came naturally and was not played for laughs. So my word, love, attaches to the lining of his oyster mouth; we"ll let him prosper it. Then Tom will announce, one day: My father's dead. You're my father? Tom, who was born with Down's Syndrome, died before his second birthday in 1969. His presence became a constant motif, centring around the notion of "harmlessness" in many of his father's subsequent books. In the Cave of Suicession (1974) was set in Suicide Cave, an abandoned lead mine in Derbyshire's Peak District. Oliver slept there for many nights over a period of months to achieve proximity to his subject, which drew in his dead son. Cave was reproduced as he had typed it in the dark, mistyped, the typos subverting a razor-sharp narrative, creating working contrasts between surfaces and their durability. A Now write for me the story of a man who acts so badly that I cannot be his oracle, who lives with these failures w don continually reminding him of what he cannot do; and then write me the tale of how he yet does something worthy of me. Q How shall I write this? A By living it; that rule has not changed. Oliver's first novel, The Harmless Building (1973), was set in a town on the south coast of England, one late August afternoon, the twin objects of Donald's ambition were both asleep, the baby in the carrycot upstairs in a room of that Georgian museum building, and Uncle Richard in an armchair in his Victorian house only a mile or two away. A train crashes. The idiosyncrasies of a dysfunctional family are portrayed through bereavement and catastrophe. This colourful work, its frequent incidents owing more to concepts of sixth sense and premonition than the subconscious, also deferred to French Structuralism. Oliver was fluent in French, having left Cambridge for Paris to work as translator for Agence France-Presse in the late Sixties. Stylistically, The Harmless Building prefigured the early films of Peter Greenaway: In the park, late-abed seagulls circled overhead, calling ?Jacques Lacan, Jacques Lacan?, without giving further details. Oliver returned to England in 1972, to Brightlingsea, where he read Literature at Essex University. He was offered a post there on his graduation day having achieved the most distinguished BA in the university's history. He taught part-time for five years, becoming close to the critic Herbie Butterfield and, important to the latter part of his life, two poets from New York, Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley. He composed The Diagram Poems (1979) in Essex from syndicated reports on the Tupamaros guerrillas in Uruguay, empathising with the Robin-Hood-style bandits. He cast a searching light on the indistinct politics of revolutionary violence and its barbaric suppression. The early 1980s were marked by nervous illness, of which psoriasis was only one manifestation. This period saw a rekindled interest in boxing, in counterpoint to Jainism (the respect of every living creature, a belief to which he devoutly kept). Peter Ackroyd, when at The Spectator, would despatch him to Italy to review boxing matches. In 1982 he took a lectureship at the British Institute in Paris, teaching French pupils. Exhausting ferry crossings each weekend back to England and further work that took him as far as Haiti and Grenada strained his marriage and separation ensued. The Infant and the Pearl was based on the 14th-century alliterative poem Pearl. He created a somnambulist voyage in a car with Margaret Thatcher and various cabinet ministers. Melancholy, deftly rhymed, seeing further ahead than the drive, Infant is more than an allegory on power: The hills, though, were free, free of disorder, hills of privilege, of prerogative governance, a regime arising from the ruins of order: lording it over the lean shires; once the same Britain, now they were Britain's border. In 1987 Kind, his collected poems, was published, dedicated to his son. In the same year his correspondence featured in Iain Sinclair's novel White Chapel, Scarlet Tracings. Earlier published work featured in A Various Art (also 1987), an unusually precise anthology which paved the way for a new readership, and, three years later through Sinclair, his editor at Paladin, Three Variations on the Theme of Harm. Nineteen eighty-seven was significant, too, for his renewing his friendship with Alice Notley. Her husband, Ted Berrigan, had died four years earlier. Oliver and Notley married. They settled in New York. His later work evokes the friendship with her sons Edmund and Anselm Berrigan, today also poets. Oliver worked as a computer programmer in a cancer hospital and as a contact tracer for HIV patients. "Penniless Politics" (1991), set in New York, was a photocopied text Sinclair, as "Hoarse Commerce", published in 150 copies and received unusual attention for a fugitive publication. "What was the shock like," asked Howard Brenton in The Guardian, reading T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land when it was published in 1922? I think I know. I've just read Douglas Oliver's epoch-making long poem ""Penniless Politics"." I never thought I would read anything like it in the 1990s. "Penniless Politics" sets the literary agenda for the next 20 years. Further media coverage followed, and Bloodaxe, not known in 20 years for recognising experimental poetry, reissued the book in 1994. In 1992 Notley and Oliver settled in Paris, where Oliver resumed teaching at the British Institute. Three years later they both read at Mike Goldmark's 'return of the Reforgotten" event at the Royal Albert Hall in London alongside Allen Ginsberg, Sorley MacLean and Denise Riley. From 1996 to 1998 Penguin, Talisman in the United States and Etruscan Books published variants on Oliver's ongoing projects. The Shattered Crystal, still to be published in full, partly derives from his friendship with Gisèle Celan - Estrange, the Romanian poet Paul Celan's widow. Oliver read this on his final visit to England at the London festival For the Locker and the Steerer in March last year. A handful of rich, yet sparse, works like "Well of Sorrows in Purple Tinctures", "The Oracle of the Drowned", "The Heron" and the sequence "What Fades Will Be" also retain an evanescent quality where phrases and cadences flicker much like the ghosts Oliver became increasingly haunted by. Douglas Oliver was emotionally telepathic, gentle and almost devout. He was generous with his time and his advice; he did not believe there were no answers, but neither did he insist upon them. He was publicly supportive of writers half his age like D.S. Marriot and Helen Macdonald. He researched the run-down banlieues of Paris for his novel cum autobiography Whisper Louise, a dialogue with the 'red Virgin" of the Paris Commune of 1871, Louise Michel. Last month Brian Oliver proofread Whisper Louise's final chapter, while his brother's body gave way to cancer. His last walks in the city he loved were walks to stave off pain. His last four months showed courage and concern for others, as he lay in bed in his and Alice's one room unable to stand because so much of his spine had been cut away. I retain an abiding image of Doug Oliver, when I last saw him in December, psoriasis bleached out of his face by chemotherapy, ever blackbird-like; surrounded by books, papers, collages and coins. His last book, A Salvo for Africa, reflecting from a purely European perspective on the future of Africa, some 10 years in the gestation, was published four weeks ago.

Lament for Douglas Oliver

by Ian Ayres

you were this man in a bed this man dying man dying and it seemed youd go on dying for a lifetime and it just took some getting used to but i never thought youd really die though you glimpsed a deer waiting to take you home on its back you glimpsed a deer no you couldnt die because you were a friend to me and i cared about you and how can anyone i care about die? you left me yet when you did yeah i know you left others too you left others who were much closer to you, but i am selfish and disturbed i laugh remembering what you said the last time when it was about Time that you spoke of wanting to write two more books before you go you told me you couldnt help me untwist my twisted mind but would help with my writing but only on occasion because now is precious time time is running out you had three weeks left exactly three weeks to the two-thousandth not so good Good Friday when at about nine-thirty pm you shed your Douglas Oliver skin. did you rise out of your body and witness all of your suffering rise up in your loved-ones helplessly watching tears drop down from their beautiful eyes? did the hospital ceiling open up into a tunnel of light where the deer awaited you? will your little son be on the deer with you for the funeral the flames the scattering of your ashes in Paris? there are so many questions i want to ask, so many questions i wanted to ask you Doug but your generous knowledge mesmerized me each time we met and i"d forget i"d forget to ask what cancer felt like the pain the pain i saw on your face the pain that morphine could only put spaces between the pain what was the pain? had it the bite of tooth decay except the nerves being eaten away all over the body? no it was your lower back back back in August wasnt it? when did it start i forget i forget but i wont forget you because you took time for me when you had so little time left you cared you actually cared enough about me to take my work seriously and that touched my heart Doug. you told me that all your friends are kind kooky not in those words but that was your point and you made the point that i too was of your kooky friends and that was the moment that was the moment that people find embarrassing to mention that was the moment where you expressed what makes this life worth living if only you were living now but i know youre here standing next to me as i get this out though ive got to admit i had no intention of letting your death get to me i made up my mind that if you didnt appreciate my visits enough to want them everyday what an ego i have then youd never see me again no i wasnt going for this once every two months routine to discuss my writing i wanted to hear you speak and speak man you could speak and the words youd speak fascinated me i wanted to spend as much time as i could with you because of because and that leads right into the brilliance of your mind the thoughts youd share so freely though you were in pain and making an effort to stay clear on foggy morphine. Now i dont know if im pretending or not but i feel your presence your hand on my shoulder i know youre still with us oh oh Doug i remember i remember when i asked you if you were scared and you said not really but tears came to your eyes when you told me the hardest part the real pain worse than the lower back worse than anything at all was having to leave the people you love its the parting its the finality the no hope of postcard communication send a postcard Doug wherever you are from wherever you are send a picture postcard of you on the deer with your little son telling us its okay youre okay we"ll be okay.


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