I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen (New Walk Editions) is my first foray into the work of Steve Ely and I came away from my initial two or three readings feeling as though I had been shoved up against a wall by Tom Hardy in one of his more intense roles. I mean this in a good way. Ely’s pamphlet is an utterly compelling “Improvisation on Luke X” which maintains throughout its thirteen poems the extemporaneous power of a 19th century preacher in full flow. Ely does not preach the Word of God, however, but the bleak, apocalyptic ‘word’ of a guilt-ridden individual reflecting on his feelings and behaviour in relation to the miscarriage, many years previously, of a son he never really wanted. As in any poetry, we should be wary of equating the speaker with the poet himself, although as the pamphlet is dedicated to “a little boy and a little girl” and the surviving children are named as Briony and Elliot in the first poem, I think we are encouraged to assume that Ely is speaking as himself. And as such, these poems are remarkably frank explorations of the male psyche in relation to tensions between parental responsibility and paternal selfishness, and the intense remorse resulting from prioritising the latter over the former (“…I shattered your joy / by proposing you have an abortion: a donkey kick / to the bleating womb, life offered sent bewildered back” ‘Exsultet’). The poet’s guilt is presented as if laid out on a table for dissection – although a better analogy might be a prisoner strapped to a rack for slow torture: the remorse to which the poems give expression is profound to the point of ostentatious. But the accusation of self-flagellation would belittle Ely’s project for two reasons I think. The first is that a genuine study of remorse must engage with both the remorseful and the remorseless, and the disturbing world opened up here lies right at the intersection between the two – like the lightning, that Talmudic “crack between worlds” of the title poem, through which a demon falls. Ely neither spares nor forgives himself (“You cannot / be redeemed” ‘Capernaum’) but forgiveness would be beside the point as coming to terms with his actions and emotions would close the door he has opened on a world so hideous that it is one into which he, with his intense self-loathing, fits perfectly. The second reason is that these poems are not simply a critique of the poet’s own shortcomings as a man and a father, but rather, the world to which his personal sense of guilt allows him access also acts as a surrogate vision of a bleak, violent and soulless wider world (the first two-thirds of the title poem is comprised of a list of tragic and despicable world events that took place in 1995, the year of the miscarriage). To forgive himself, therefore, would be to forgive us all; and that’s not going to happen.
Ely’s particular power comes from the technical dexterity with which he wields a King James biblical register and imagery alongside a cold, scientific vocabulary, the two worlds colliding much as Heaven and Hell might been seen to collide on Earth: “Nothing / begat physics begat chemistry begat biology / begat consciousness begat self-consciousness / begat physics and chemistry and biology / and consciousness and self-consciousness and / Nothing. / The four fundamental forces: / the quintessential fifth – a dark matter. / The haploid cell, a cold spark of soul / awaiting ignition; the diploid cell, the lit pleroma.” (‘A Dog Speculates on the Mind of Newton’ – formatting approximated) This confident and skilful juxtaposing of worlds has an interesting effect, which I would say is in a sense ‘masculine’: there is a fearless facing (or at least the perception of facing) of Truth. These poems stand up and meet both Religion and Science eye-to-eye. To me this is similar to the tough-minded Richard Dawkins-style atheism which also has its own self-perception as ‘combative’ and ‘manly’ (Ely sees this I think and out-Dawkinses Dawkins with the line “Dawkinsian dope / of awe and wonder can’t numb us to the horror” (‘A Dog Speculates on the Mind of Newton’). The speaker of the title poem also sees himself, in his growing mid-1990s political awareness, as some kind of movie or computer-game assassin (“I taped a machete between my shoulder blades”), while the speaker of the final poem, ‘Haec Nox Est’, steps willingly (and bravely?) “from the cliff into the ocean’s / up-thrust, and plummet(s) in the darkness”. All of this is a dry-eyed acceptance of what must be accepted. Like a warrior facing death, the poet must accept the never-ending horror of his own guilt. But that’s not quite all; at two points we see a softening of the hard outer-shell. The first is in the wording of the dedication already quoted: “To a little girl and a little boy”, this is the voice of a loving father: not “To my children” or some other formation – this wording accentuates their smallness and their anonymity (they may after all not be the children in the first poem, despite what I said earlier) the one emphasising their need for protection and the other attempting to provide it. That there is tenderness here is undeniable, and that it comes at the beginning of all the bleak anguish which follows makes it all the more moving. The second moment of shell-softening is in the final stanza of ‘Ego te Absolvo’ where the repetition of the conditional past “wish” acknowledges, for once, the desire for a different outcome, in other words the poet relinquishes his embrace of his own guilt for a short moment before seeming to shake away the thought and returning to the unchangeable reality of the Now: “I wish he had been born / I wish he was twenty-three. I wish I had not hurt / his mother, that she did not know her sadness. / I wished it. It probably made no difference. / I wish it. / It makes no difference.”
The poet draws on an almost obscene range of sources for a mere twenty-two pages of poetry. Apart from the obvious biblical references and immanent spirits of Milton and Blake, whose shades permeate everything, Ely quotes from or alludes to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Talmud, the Nation of Islam, Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, Charles Darwin, Albrecht Dürer, the American TV drama True Detective…and on and on. But they are all helpfully elucidated in the notes at the back, and there is no sense of ‘allusion for allusion’s sake’; the world Ely is conjuring here is one which requires the whole historic weight of western spiritual thought behind it. That is the point I think, that all this symbolism and search for meaning must come together in one man’s single regret: that he wished for his son’s death, and the wish came true. By drenching himself in allusion both he and his son together join their symbolic hosts in the Poetic Eternal (for want of a better phrase): “a flaming man / and a flaming child, with angels falling” (‘Haec Nox Est’). Perhaps if redemption is to be found anywhere in Ely’s dark landscape, it is here.
I should say, it’s not a pamphlet for the faint-hearted, and parts of it might be difficult for someone who has lost a child or suffered a miscarriage; there are lines here which seemed designed if not to shock then to jolt readers out of their slumbers (dogmatic or otherwise). I won’t quote them, not because they are so very horrible, but because I don’t want to take them out of context, and my feeling is that the lines which jolted me were all fully justified by their context – in fact I might say made necessary by their context. I’ll say no more on that partly to keep the review from running away with me and partly in the hope that curiosity compels you to pick up a copy of this excellent pamphlet.
You can buy I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen from New Walk Editions, here.