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Letters from the Underworld, Alan Baker

The Red Ceilings Press, 2018  £6.00 A6 jacket. A two inch black band at the top contains the name of the pamphlet, in lowercase italics, and beneath this the name of the author bold lowercase. This text is right justified and white. The whole of the rest of the jacket is an illustration with a kind of red/sepia effect. Two men in long robes on a ledge are watching a long line of people with lowered heads and hoods troop past them. This apparently draws on a Dore illustration of the Inferno.

Letters

Letters from friends are intimate. They arrive addressed to you, stamped with the writer’s individuality. Handwriting, paper, the way they’re folded — all speak of the personality behind them. They reach out towards you. They bring news — and ask about yours; they explore your shared pasts and the questions around the present. Each one is unique.

Alan Baker’s twenty epistles, written as prose poems each less than a page in length, have this degree of closeness. They’re printed, of course, as opposed to manuscript, but they reach into you, the reader, as though yours is a long-established friendship.

‘Let me know your views’ ends the first letter. ‘Since your last letter I’ve been living in some kind of altered state, some semblance of life’ begins the third. It’s the reader’s attention that creates the idea of a reply.

The cover image from Doré’s illustrations to Dante’s L’Inferno, and the ‘Underworld’ of the title, suggest these are letters from the far side of death — but this is not a literal death. The writer is moving around in a world whose bleakness is much like ours, troubled as we are —

— How can I continue doing this job is another passing thought, frequenting airports, taxis, hotels, wandering emptily and alone round the Old Towns of so many cities. (Letter 4)

— Do you remember the old footpaths and drovers’ tracks, when wandering was a pleasure? But the strangers who arrive by night tell a different story; they take detours, through underground caverns, follow their GPS through deprived areas of provincial cities, are denied access to places of safety, sleep in bus stations, where the stars are erased. (Letter 14)

Unspecific: we can read ourselves and today’s news into this. Half-quotations from familiar poets slide in, something else we share. The small (A6) format reinforces the intimacy; it’s a book to keep in a pocket, to travel with. Like letters, it does what the best poetry does — it connects us.

D A Prince