Portsmouth, Hampshire, England
On Ken Jones' Gone Away
Gone Away by Ken Jones. Uxbridge, United Kingdom: Alba Publishing, 2015. Paperback, 52 pp., £8, €10, $12. ISBN 978-1-910185-223.
Mortality is a great subject and we will all have to face it in our own ways, which will test us morally and poetically. Gone Away is an anthology of the haibun Ken Jones wrote concerning his illness and approaching death, from his cancer diagnosis in 2001 to the end of the path, in this year of 2015. Many of these pieces have been previously published elsewhere. Collecting them like this gives us a variety of responses to the fear of death, from the jokey to the sombre, the frivolous to the profound—all of which are perhaps the same things when seen with an all encompassing irony. Certainly Ken Jones is at ease with that paradox. The book takes us through a strange combination of attitudes from Buddhist acceptance to ingenious schemes for dodging the bullet. The pieces were written with no plan of collecting them together, but the theme is strong, and the book moves forward towards the inevitable as a fascinating self portrait, alive with Ken’s domestic tasks and wittily observed range of interests, making it a most effective unity. His publisher must be congratulated on creating a whole that is greater than the parts, but with one reservation: a haibun called "Laughing Gas" has been omitted. More of that later.
The book starts with biopsy results in "Spirit Level," a wonderful firework display of Ken Jones’ literary range, sliding with elegance from the concrete everyday (mixing mortar, hospital coffee in a styrofoam cup) to the sublime (“To where the world shrinks to a thin line between sky and fen”) to the mythic (“Yama, the bug-eyed Lord of Death, turns out to be a breezy fellow”) to a beautiful concluding haiku: "Into the sadness/ a pair of mating ducks/ alighting on our pond."
Our hero is reassured by his oncologist-Yama that he will probably have a decade or more to live, so he rejoins “the throng who feel they are immortal.” Among the haibun of the next years are jokey satires poking fun at “Mr Charon, the crematorium manager,” the guys on the Urology Ward ("Catheter holstered/ in his boxer shorts/ he swaggers down the ward"), and tourists of the “Costa Geriatrica” (“Electrically propelled ancients whizz about like pond-skaters”).
There is a subtle mastery of tone that develops. Grandiose flights of fancy are balanced by the down-to-earth realism of, “There is something reassuring about the sheer suchness of a slice of turkey pie.” The meditative wisdom Ken achieved was indeed a lucid suchness: "Winter twilight/ cutting timber by the Rheidol/ all there is to know." He found resonant imagery for the human condition everywhere around him, in the landscape, an address book, rusting tools, small creatures, files of old documents, the language of pharmacy, waiting rooms. And he loved to play with the mythological grandeur of names like Charon, Yama, The Ferryman and the Isles of the Blessed, with both inspiring and bathetic effect. As Stuart Quine has eloquently written of these haibun, “Naturally there are moments of anxiety and fear, but they are never mawkish or woeful, are often peppered with a wry or dark humour, and sometimes are almost breezy. Not the evasive breeziness of denial, the breeziness of acceptance and thus the possibility of liberation . . . .”
A different note enters the solemn music of life and death in 2006, with a haibun called "Going Nowhere," which introduces us to his Gentle Exit Machine, or GEM. The new note jars. The haibun is wintry, set at New Year when news comes of the deaths of two friends. The details are full of pity: his blood red urine on the snow, finding a dead mouse, weeping for a blackbird in the hardest month, walking a white “featureless plateau” of hilltop wilderness which he calls Nowhere, and returning to the slice of turkey pie with cranberry sauce. These are sonorous chords in a minor key. And in the middle is the tinny sound of optimism: an Apparatus which will solve the problem and cure us of suffering! “Arrival at Dontknowwhere guaranteed in fifteen seconds,” he chirps.
Ken Jones is revealed in these haibun, from this time forward, divided against himself. He is both tempted by the easy way out, and aware that he thereby cheats on the depth of acceptance required to reconcile oneself with the great theme of mortality. He echoes Issa’s haiku written after a daughter’s death, "This dewdrop world/ Is a dewdrop world,/ And yet, and yet . . ." (trans. Mackenzie) when he first presents his strong argument for evasion, and then sees that it is just an argument: he asserts that the Gentle Exit would be, “More heroic than being a morphine doped antelope eaten alive, hindquarters first, by that hungry lion. And yet . . . And yet . . .”
Both sides of this divided self are in evidence from this time forwards: the profound poet who is sympathetically amused by the pretentions of people and savours the flavours and textures of this mysterious dewdrop world; and the “needy self,” as he called it, hoping unconvincingly that it is “more heroic” to be consumerist and choose for oneself just how to end with a flourish. In 2011 Ken wrote "Laughing Gas," a light and amusing account of a meeting of the campaigning society EXIT (they must have hired a PR consultant since because they are now called Dignity in Dying) at which an “avuncular Instructor” cheerfully explained to the group how to assemble “an elegant helium gas suicide machine.” This haibun has been omitted from Gone Away, which allows us to avoid facing the unpalatable fact that Ken joined an organisation arguing for a change in the law to permit assisted suicide and euthanasia, and was himself actively campaigning, lobbying and letter-writing in that cause. As he faced impermanence he blanched. He wanted to change the rules so that he could have it his way. That is understandable enough, and planning one’s own suicide is a choice most would accept is one’s right. But the United Kingdom parliament has this week, as I write, decisively rejected, on a free vote, and not for the first time, any change in the fundamental law prohibiting the killing of others, and rightly so.
Northrop Frye, the structuralist critic, categorises literary characters into two broad types. The eiron is a low-profile, humble, realistic, pragmatic person, named after irony, who is the young hero in comedy (who wants to marry the blocking character’s daughter), and the ‘agent of catastrophe’ in tragedy. The alazon is a high-profile, highly-defined strong character with a ruling passion or powerful idea, and absolute determination, who is the hero in tragedy and the blocking character or villain in comedy, and the source of the laughs. Think of the obstinacy of Antigone, Oedipus and Lear, and the monstrous, obsessed blocking characters of Molière’s comedies. Ken was the most alazon person I have met in real life. He was strongly opinionated and always chose a stance contrary to mainstream opinion. He loved to throw himself into controversy, and was immoveable once he had decided. It made him a highly distinctive and stimulating person to be with. He was brilliantly eloquent and warmly friendly as he spun his improbable views into elaborate arguments, and we loved him for it. He was exciting company. Nevertheless, it was surely a misjudgement—and contrary to all his communitarian political principles—to campaign for weakening the protections defending millions of very vulnerable elderly people, who often feel a burden to others, from the pressure to hurry along there, all in one’s own selfish interest, fearing that palliative pain relief would not be comfortable enough. Getting doctors to fudge the clear line between care and murder because one feels choosy for oneself is not the wisdom of acceptance, and I argued this point with Ken at the time, without success.
So does Ken’s attitude to suicide and assisted suicide vitiate the great literary project of facing up to death in a grand sequence of haibun? Oddly enough, not really. There are a couple of GEM duds, but then in Ken’s last year there was a flourishing of late creativity and it is splendidly represented here in Gone Away. The complexity returns. The human warmth is even more moving. There is wonderful tenderness in his writing about his marriage. He was too good a poet and too sensitive a person to reduce himself to just a one dimensional campaigner (though his boyish enthusiasm for the helium toy reminds one of Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme and does make one smile).
His haibun "A Symphonic Death in Three Movements," envisioning his end whilst listening to music, is thin stuff. It entirely avoids facing up to the real Yama, or what he calls in a better haibun, “My Death/ my unfamiliar/ feral beast.” The poetic image he chooses for his passing is a wishful sentimental purity: "Across the rain lashed terrace/ and the restless sea/ a snow white gull comes gliding."
Having got that out of the way, however, Ken returns to form, very funny and sharp: when there is a bit more remission from the cancer, “it’s worth phoning my chiropodist for a more serviceable pair of feet.” The ironic reality is characterised: “My fading routines of must and should. Is this really how Inconceivable Liberation feels!” He appreciates the kindness of strangers to an old man, including one helpful chap who, “picks me up/ and bores me stiff.” And what could be finer to end on than this superb haiku?
My much loved widow
her long skirt
teasing the brambles.