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This article is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

on Toby Martinez de las Rivas Henry King
On Toby Martinez de las Rivas and Dave Coates

BECAUSE ONE OF THE THINGS I admire about the reviews Dave Coates posts on his blog is how scrupulously he acknowledges his personal connections, let me start by explaining that I don’t know him, but I do know Toby Martinez de las Rivas. Not intimately: we’ve never met, only exchanged a few emails; I approached him to write an essay for the centenary celebration of C. H. Sisson in PNR 217, and I chose to place his contribution first in that feature. So when Coates draws on that essay to attack Martinez de las Rivas (‘On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas’,, 13 September 2018), I have a stake in mounting a defence. But if that doesn’t put me beyond the pale, I want to argue two things: firstly, that Coates is wrong about Martinez de las Rivas and Black Sun being fascist; secondly, and in a way more importantly, that Coates is wrong about argument. But before getting to the detail of Coates’s attack, let’s note some prima facie evidence. Back in 2009 when his Faber New Poets pamphlet came out, Martinez de las Rivas was described as living ‘in Gateshead where he teaches English to asylum seekers and refugees’. A cunning disguise for a fascist intent on ‘erasing the poor and outcast’! Coates seems unaware of, or simply ignores, such facts.

Coming to the essay, the problem is that Coates consistently reads into Martinez de las Rivas’s words the most nefarious possible meanings. When Martinez de las Rivas states that the image of a black sun stands in one poem as ‘a symbol of vengeance rising over London’, Coates takes this as a plea for ‘divine retribution against the country’s biggest and most racially diverse city’. That’s one possible interpretation, but there are other reasons to feel ‘[h]ostile to the metropolis’: there is the Square Mile, the centre of a reckless financial culture that caused a recession and provided the pretext for a decade of austerity; luxury homes bought solely as investments, driving up property prices and rents beyond what working people can afford; the vanity of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty; and the fact that London’s air quality is so poor it broke the legal limit for the year one month into 2018. London, like a black sun, can stand for many things; hostility towards it doesn’t necessarily mean hatred of other cultures and races.

Citing the interview again, Coates emphasises the comment that, ‘Other poems are concerned with the larger body of the state, and the importance to me of the coherence of that body, so readers might detect positions that are, perhaps, monarchist, Unionist, and Anglican.’ Apparently it’s bizarre, ‘given the anti­imperial, anti-establishment consistencies in Jesus of Nazareth’s thinking, [that] Martinez de las Rivas draws a straight line between the physical body of the holy individual and the symbolic body of a national culture and State.’ Coates may find it bizarre, but it’s actually a longstanding tradition within Christian thought. Saint Paul writes that ‘just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body’ (1 Corinthians 12:12–13). He was in turn borrowing from a common allegory of the state as a body, as in Menenius’s speech to the citizens in Coriolanus: ‘There was a time when all the body’s members / Rebelled against the belly’ (I.i.88–9). Saint Augustine synthesised these in his ideal City of God, which I take to be ‘the State that is only / an image of the body inviolate, / the nation that extends through all time & space’ – a spiritual ‘nation’ that includes England, but isn’t identical with or reducible to it. So there is an intellectual tradition besides fascism for linking the individual body and the body politic – a conservative tradition, yes; but not all forms of conservatism are fascist.

As for concern with the coherence of that body, that too can mean different things. The Brexit vote revealed a form of incoherence that should concern people on both the left and the right: a polarised polity in which many cannot understand the other side except in apocalyptic terms, for instance as ‘people who destroy a country because their passports aren’t blue’. Coates’s implication, there, that Martinez de las Rivas is an ardent Leave supporter is strange, given that in the LARB interview he explains how precarious Brexit has made his residence in Europe. Later, referring back to the passage from the interview, Coates says, ‘I detect his monarchism, Unionism and Anglicanism quite distinctly… I have no reason to believe he has lied about all his other beliefs about the necessary purity of the body politic.’ But Martinez de las Rivas did not say ‘purity’, he said ‘coherence’; one term, with a range of meanings that includes a functional democracy, has been swapped out for another with more ominous implications. I don’t think Coates has made this change in bad faith; no doubt he sees this as a decoding of what Martinez de las Rivas really means. But this kind of subtle rewording makes me uneasy.

My unease grows when Coates turns to the poetry. As I’ve said, I admire his reviews a great deal; he’s normally an excellent critic. So I’m surprised that, to my ear, his readings here seem tone-deaf. In ‘At Lullington Church: To My Daughter’, Coates hears a ‘ham-fisted reference to the historical falconry of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, another poem written by a high church Protestant with dreams of pure nationhood ruled by aristocracy, who also gravely feared the unclean, unholy masses “slouching toward Bethlehem”.’ Maybe; but Coates misses or ignores allusions to the medieval Corpus Christi Carol, in which ‘the falcon has borne my mate away’. Martinez de las Rivas goes to such lengths to make this allusion plain that he mars the sonnet form by tagging on the Carol’s ululating refrain, ‘Lully, Lulley, Lully, Lulley’, brought to mind by the similarity to Lullington. Medievalism is conservative in some senses, but not necessarily fascistic. Near the end of his album Grace, Jeff Buckley segues from the Carol into the noisy anti-racist song ‘Eternal Life’. William Morris was a socialist who loved medieval art and the English countryside. Allusions to falconry don’t spell the ‘dream of a white nation’ unless one reads that in.

These are small but cumulative points about interpretation; I want to turn now to argumentation, and Martinez de las Rivas’s essay on Clemo and Sisson. Coates quotes the first sentence:

In the last few years, ‘radical’ as an epithet in poetry has come to be shorthand for a very particular kind of writing: politically submissive to Marxist dogma, syntactically committed to what is now termed the ‘interrupted lyric’, historically associated in the UK with the Cambridge School, and metaphysically derived from a range of post-structuralist continental thinkers.

Coates claims that this lacks a ‘solid referent’ (as if language works as simply as that!) and any account of the following issues:

who uses ‘radical’ in this way, who is writing this kind of poetry, what evidence he has that they are Marxist, what being ‘politically submissive’ to Marxism means in practice, which Marxist ‘dogma’ in particular they are submissive to, what it means to be ‘syntactically committed’ to anything, who has used the term ‘interrupted lyric’ and about whom…

The full list of questions goes on for almost the same length again; the answers – which could be adduced – would add up to a monograph. Coates’s main complaint, though, is that ‘you, and most certainly subscribers to PN Review, probably know exactly who he’s talking about’, and that ‘[w]hile I sit here puzzling through his word salad, he and those sympathic [sic] to his airy generalities have already won’. Basically, that Martinez de las Rivas is using rhetorical skulduggery.

Was Martinez de las Rivas underhand in not giving us the book-length account of the avant-garde Coates desires? Was I, as his editor, remiss in not putting to him similar questions? I think not. He was doing what people always do: arguing from premises the audience will, at least provisionally, agree with. Aristotle called this the enthymeme, and made it central to his theory of rhetoric (used non­pejoratively). When I say that people always do this, I include myself and Coates, as when he jokes, ‘I keenly await critiques from those conservative critics who complain of there being excessive “politics” in the poetry of marginalised authors denouncing Martinez de las Rivas’ explicitly ideological agenda.’ No names need be named; the gesture is enough because his readers ‘probably know exactly who he’s talking about’. Let me be clear: I am not saying this is illegitimate; it is the normal way of working with one’s audience. But as a consequence, I think it’s wrong to find evidence there of bad faith and the naked will to power. Coates may find Martinez de las Rivas’ argumentation ‘wild’, but it strikes me as no less wild than his identification of ‘a committed neo-Georgian ruralism’ with outright fascism.

I’ll grant Coates a point when he asks of Martinez de las Rivas, ‘if desiring right-wing politics in art is an unbreakable taboo, how did you just break it?’ The tactic is weak because it withstands so little scrutiny. But I find it less worrisome than Coates’s closing gambit. He concludes, ‘There will almost certainly be people who read this essay and see nothing but conspiracy theory and speculation, rather than a series of red flags, the visible residue of a totalising ideology. That is fine. If that is where you are right now, I was never going to convince you.’ In a nutshell, this means ‘if you don’t agree with me, you are already beyond redemption’. For all his appeals to ‘messiness and compromise’, this manoeuvre is itself totalising: it excludes the possibility of reasoned, respectful disagreement, which democracy relies on and which I’ve tried to articulate. (I’m not claiming left-wing ideology is ‘totalising’ in the sense he means it, or that socialists are the real Nazis; I’m saying that, just there, Coates betrays himself into totalising rhetoric.)

Martinez de las Rivas clearly has some conservative tendencies, and I don’t question Coates’s right to criticise that ideology – in fact I applaud the work he’s done, for instance, in highlighting the imbalance of representation in poetry reviewing. But he has not convinced me that Martinez de las Rivas is a fascist whose ‘vision would necessarily entail… cultural cleansing, mass deportation, [and] genocide’, and it doesn’t serve democracy, or poetry, to paint him as one.

This article is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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