J. S. Harry
Not Finding Wittgenstein: Peter Lepus Poems
244pp., Bloodaxe, £10.95
Wittgenstein once wrote that ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’. In Not Finding Wittgenstein, J. S. Harry gives a probing, intellectual and sometimes arch voice to a rabbit who bears more than a passing resemblance to those of Beatrix Potter lore. This unlikely hero, Peter Henry Lepus, is also well-read in Cambridge philosophy, counting himself an acolyte of Russell and Wittgenstein; in his quest to research the pre-Socratic philosophers whom he believes to have been rabbits, he gets drawn into modern-day warfare in Iraq. The book-length sequence is laid out as a picaresque narrative, in which the title character, joined by other dispossessed animals, insects and humans, goes through great danger in the search for answers – often sparked by the simplest of wants, a need for food. Recalling the plight of Wittgenstein’s lion, the poems sometimes get lost in their philosophical convolutions about the pitfalls of language and communication. A spectral Wittgenstein is to be found in Peter’s dreams – but much like Clifta, the Huntsman spider, whose quest is to find out about the great Huntsman of the Rubaiyat, the wanderers’ searches are all in vain, and it is what is revealed by chance during the process of wandering that really powers the poems.
Peter is the innocent abroad, straying from Russia to Iraq and often finding himself wrapped up in events and issues far beyond his control or comprehension. He is a figure of witnessing and rumination, not action. For instance, when Peter and Clifta are traversing the Tigris-Euphrates Delta, they stumble upon a discarded backpack containing documents, the contents of which are revealed in later poems. They prove to be the papers of a murdered Iraqi scientist who was involved in the ‘Iraqi Government’s WATER CONTROL PROJECTS’. Behind the technical language – a jargon of ‘desertification’ and ‘salination’ – Peter finds out that all these plans were designed to:
Punish the Ma’dan
Who’d risen against Saddam
During the Gulf War, in anticipation
Of a Saddam-free Iraq.
Although humans are often portrayed in a negative light in this sequence and seen as antipathetic to animals, often it is the collaboration or sharing of ideas between species that yields the most convincing answers. Underlying such dialogues is the idea that philosophy, morality – and even thinking itself – are human constructs which interfere with the natural order, and which make spiders, camels and rabbits aware of (and doubtful about) their own instincts. Peter, an educated and humanised rabbit, is repelled by the idea that Clifta’s ‘kind’ of spider might be cannibalistic. While he is something of an ingénue, Peter has an endless capacity to learn which allows J. S. Harry to pace the horrific discoveries of the poems effectively. They are presented as slowly unfolding realisations – but Peter’s emotions and language are inescapably human, linking him to the same species that has ravaged Iraq and Baghdad (and killed their own ‘kind’). While these poems oscillate between the humorous and the cerebral, making them accessible, they are in the end a series of firm moral statements hidden behind Peter’s innocent and often uncertain perspective. Humour, satire and irony all help to move the work away from being simply a long jeremiad against human wickedness and war, but there is still something too didactic to these poems, from the indirect display of erudition to undisguised moralising:
It is difficult to imagine any potential reader who would not agree with Peter, but the anti-fur point is one of the more unsubtle in the collection. While the grim legacy of Saddam Hussein’s regime is approached in a fresh way, through the eyes of a bright rabbit, it nonetheless confirms what we already know: that he was a murderous tyrant. Yet the detail of the lives of people and animals existing in the regime’s fall-out elevates the collection beyond mere denunciation.
In ‘Two Days After They Arrive In Baghdad’, Peter and his retinue, who have found a body on their travels, are seeking to ensure that the dead man is afforded his exequies. Peter notices that the visceral shock on the face of his friend Max, confronted with body-parts in the morgue, is one he has seen before – ‘on a philosopher’s face’. Philosophy is not the preserve of abstracted academics, but something that connected with the capacity to feel acutely. The poems centred around the mysterious dead man are some of the most important in the sequence, as they use one death to represent the drive for truth and reconciliation in war-torn areas. In ‘Dilemma?’, a character called Hamid insists that the dead man’s family should be found and told:
So they & those who know him
can come to the mosque & watch him washed,
in the washing room; there are customs
to be observed. We have special rites & prayers.
Although this final token act of reconciliation proves futile when the dead man is too decomposed to be washed, it reveals Peter’s philosophy as a deeply humane and practical one, attuned to all of the difficulties and suffering of his surroundings. While there are some poems in this collection that stand alone, such as the linguistically clever and dextrous ‘They’, this sequence is best read in its entirety, as many poems segue into each other or carry on threads and recurring themes. Not Finding Wittgenstein is a vast and adventurous sequence which deals with the ‘philosophy gone astray’ which, for Theodore Adorno, constitutes ‘the sole reason why it can go forward’. Peter and his entourage of knowledge-hungry drifters never find the answers they initially sought, but they discover something else by getting lost.
Richie McCaffery, born in Newcastle in 1986, is a Carnegie scholar at the University of Glasgow researching the Scottish poets of World War Two towards a PhD in Scottish Literature. His first collection of poetry was recently published by HappenStance Press, entitled Spinning Plates. He has been both a recipient of an Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary and a Hawthornden Fellowship, and in August 2012 will take up a writer's retreat at Brownsbank Cottage in Biggar. His poems have appeared in magazines such as The Rialto, Stand and The Reader as well as the anthologies Lung Jazz and The Best British Poetry 2012. He has reviewed for The Edinburgh Review.