Music & Complexity: Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten by Oisín Breen

breen

grasp

Oisín Breen’s debut volume (‘collection’ really being the wrong word for this 95-page, three-act meditation on memory, love and loss) presents the reader with an extremely enjoyable and sometimes profound series of reflections, cogitations, lyrical flourishes and interpretive frustrations. It is hard not to be impressed with Breen’s utter rejection of contemporary poetic trends and the skill with which he maintains what might be described as a High Romantic diction. It could easily come across as pastiche yet finds a voice of its own as much through bloody-mindedness as anything else; the poet relentlessly works his fulsome descriptions (“Memories, stilled and muted harmonia, / silk-heavy in the russet wind, / like sinuous leaves with ice-cracked spines, / and a timbre of slowness”) alongside moments of tender simplicity (“Tending your grave, / I find it as pretty as ever”), surprising and effective similes (“What maker stretched out melancholy, / like a fattened pig’s skin, / into a parchment of minor regrets?”) and disarmingly open revelations of past cruelties and misdemeanors (“I hid because there was a kid nearby I knew. / We all called him retarded. / I was bullied too, but hating him was a guilty treat. / I was happy to feel like everyone else.”) to create an idiom that is very much his own. It is an idiom that will put some off immediately and lose others along the way, but it is one which I find rewards a patient and sympathetic reading – or to give that a more metaphorical twist: you’ve got to allow yourself to be pulled along in the wake of Breen’s language or you’ll sink. 

 While the diction may be romantic the overall tone of Breen’s project is modernist, and as we move through the narrative triptych we encounter myriad literary, religious and folkloric allusions juxtaposed with shifts of register and scenes of contemporary Irish/Scottish life (which we are surely intended to assume are the poet’s own memories – this is how I take them at least) and all of this of course echoes with Joyce and Eliot – the pub scene at closing time deliberately conflates famous scenes from Ulysses and The Wasteland I think, and it is impossible not to relate the central voice to Leopold Bloom (the speaker even has a friend called Stephen!). But the density of allusion and religious reference is such that it was David Jones who kept coming to mind as I read this collection; and it was back to Jones’ not-always-unproblematic writings on poetry that my mind wondered as I read Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten. This, from his preface to The Anathemata, is worth reading with Breen’s poetics in mind:

…one of the efficient causes of which the effect called poetry is a dependent involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves that employment at an especially heightened tension. The means or agent is a veritable torcular, squeezing every drain of evocation from the word-forms of that language or languages. And that involves a bagful of mythus before you’ve said Jack Robinson – or immediately after.

If you are disinclined to agree with Jones on this, or to accept his idea that the language of the past exists in the present as ‘deposits’ which are there to be mined or collected (I’m not sure what verb Jones would use here) by poets, who can thereby access truths deeper than they will find on the surface alone, then you will be likely to run out of patience with Breen quite quickly. I have sympathy with this modernist view of poetry, although as I say it is not without problems and has a tendency to lead towards the political right of insular breeds with shared heritages and ethno-exclusivity. Breen’s work, I should be clear, shows no signs of taking any such sinister turn, but suffice to say the reader looking for succinct nuggets of pared-back poetry should look elsewhere.

As the title alone illustrates, Breen’s work is as much about the sound of words as their semantic value; in fact it might not be far off to say that the book is a re-balancing of words’ meaning with their musicality: in prose, the former is given primacy, in poetry the latter gains ground, but as to how much, that is the business of the poet, and it’s arguable that part of Breen’s project is to bring these two aspects of language into equilibrium – or even to position musicality as dominant. This resonates with the continual references to song throughout the book; the speaker refers to words and the stories they tell as a “brutal song”, “vital song”, “one song”, “song of meaning”, and “song of understanding”. And it is possible that in listening to the book read out loud (the hard copy apparently comes with a CD of Breen’s own reading) it would be possible to discern melodies and motifs which I have missed with my internal readings, and which may carry meanings in the same way that Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte carry meaning for musicologists.

Breen, according to an online biography, is also a student of Narratology, and one way to read Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten is as an experiment in narration. How far, Breen seems to ask, can I take readers out of the prosaic world of the text’s events (the story, or diegesis – i.e. a youngish man visits his father’s grave,  and goes drinking with his pals) and into the protagonist’s poeticised, stream-of-consciousness (the narrative – i.e. a youngish man mulls on life, experience, memory and grief, journeying towards some form of self-reconciliation and understanding) before the work’s sense of meaning starts to fall apart? To this extent, the work is an intriguing failure, in part because the momentum of the external story never builds sufficiently to carry the weight of the internal narrative, and partly because the characters (the deceased father, particularly, but also the friends, and the ‘she’ of the final movement) are all lost in the complexities and music of the narrator’s inner voice. We learn nothing about the narrator’s father, and the placing of flowers on his grave (though full of delightful irony – bringing to the dead the ‘life’ of cut flowers which will then wilt and die) is in the end just a stimulus for the narrator’s memories and musings – much like Proust’s madeleine. It would have been lovely to hear more about who this man was, and why he stimulates such intense rumination in his son. Is there some deeper unexpressed secret lying at the heart of the piece? That we do not learn the answer to this question was likely part of the poet’s plan, and now, as always with poetry, I dislike judgmental readings and am suspicious of the dictum that a work should be judged even ‘on its own terms’, because every critic (every reader) brings their own terms with them. But I will say this: I came away exhausted. Yes, exhilarated with the language, but also worn down by what reads like a 95-page Joycean epiphany.

But if Breen’s reach ultimately exceeds his grasp within these pages, it is because his aims are so lofty – I am reminded of Julian Barnes’ comment on the Michel Houellebecq novel Atomised, which, he said “hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbits”. Much the same could be said of this volume, I think, and that Breen does not ultimately bag everything he aims for, does not detract from the great deal there is to enjoy and ponder in this book – and to look forward to with respect to this poet in the future.

You can buy Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten from Hybrid Press, here.

A Glimpse of What Hovers: Just a Moment by Ian House

house sunflowers

I’m sometimes a little suspicious of ekphrasis. I’m not sure why but I think it is related to a feeling I get that it is used for one of two reasons: either because the poet has run out of ideas of their own or they are showing off their knowledge and understanding of another artist’s work. A third reason might be that they are practising their own craft by tapping into the craft of another – there is nothing wrong with that of course, although it would seem more appropriate in a creative writing workshop than a published collection. I have similar suspicions about the use of extensive epigraphs and in-text allusion. A little cynical? Maybe. And I should say that as a poet I use ekphrasis, epigraphs and allusion as much as the next person, so it’s hypocritical too. Furthermore, there are countless examples of wonderful ekphrastic (and art- or artist-inspired) poetry online and in print, some of which I have blogged about before, for example this piece I wrote on Sasha Dugdale’s incredible ‘Welfare Handbook’ towards the end of last year. I mention my suspicions here only to acknowledge some of the prejudices I brought to my reading of Ian House’s New and Selected Poems, recently published by Two Rivers Press, and to add emphasis to the delight I found in having my suspicions in this case blown to smithereens.

To say that House’s poetry embraces ekphrasis does not do justice to what has clearly been a life’s project for him. His work, I think, transcends the very idea of ekphrastic poetry and finds instead an expression of the symbiosis of life and art. Yes, he describes visual works of art, as traditional ekphrasis would, and he does so beautfully, as in his central sequence of seven poems based on the paintings of Paul Nash ‘It Must Change’: e.g. “blazing yellows and oranges / intenser than all imagining / fierce as a fusion reactor / self-unsparing self-consuming / the sunflower hurtles downhill” from the sixth poem in the sequence (‘It Must Burn’). But many of his poems are not descriptions as much as contemplations and digressions, as in ‘Now You See It’, inspired by Ai Weiwei’s 1995 triptych ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ in which House recreates the heartbreaking descent towards the ground of a priceless work of art before questioning our reaction as viewers (“Couldn’t you admire the man / who had the balls…?”) and then proposing a way of understanding the problems surrounding Weiwei’s paradoxically iconoclastic artwork (“We… / wanted someone to tell us / … / that we share no genes with the millions / who’ve shattered statues, burned books.”). On other occasions, the artwork is used as a point of departure from which to bury into a moment or a relationship from the poet’s (perhaps I should say the speaker’s) past: “When I came across Magritte’s L’histoire centrale, / the long, dumb wail,” he writes in a poem called ‘L’histoire centrale’, “there was no reason on earth it reminded me / of you”. The irony here of course is that the painting clearly does remind the speaker of the ‘you’ and their perhaps brief moments together outside the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague, and so Magritte’s depiction of a “woman with the grey cloth over her head” and her suitcase which may or may not contain “louche / camisoles, canaries, cinnamon (and an) odour / of excitable gunpowder” becomes charged with the unspoken sexuality of a ‘brief encounter’ and a certain film-noiresque danger (via German Expresionism) which allows House to suggest a depth to the speaker’s relationship – however brief – with his interlocuter, and a profundity to his regret, that could not have been achieved without his use of allusion and ekphrasis.

Even when casting back to his childhood in ‘The Harbingers’ the first of the ‘new’ poems (which take up a good two-thirds of this ‘new and selected’) House recalls an early experience at an outside performance of ‘As You Like It’ in which his ten-year-old self is alert to the “shiver of leaves” which anticipates Orlando’s arrival through the “twilight and greenwood”. He takes this moment as representative (at least “a hint of a sense”) of the engagement with art as a way of understanding the world which has, it seems, remained with him throughout his life. He describes it succinctly and beautifully as “a glimpse of what hovers, / of what’s beyond presence”; but then takes it further with a stanza which I think goes to the heart of his poetic project: “and may be disclosed / in the unforeseen moment / by a tree or a smile or a chair”. It is this movement from ‘tree’ (natural/non-human) to ‘smile’ (natural/human) to ‘chair’ (a combination of the natural/non-human with the natural/human resulting in something non-natural/non-human but paradoxically both natural and human, i.e. art) which I think speaks to a complexity in man’s relationship with art which, were it not so precisely described by House, would approach the Spiritual. He concludes the poem with a stanza that captures the purity and peace he finds in art which many might turn to religion in order to locate (“a glass of water, say, / simply that, a volume / limpid and still.”) The double-meaning of “volume”, of course, is not lost here.

Elsewhere, House engages with the life and work of artists as diverse as Baudelaire, Wallace Stevens, Ovid, Kazimir Malevich, Djambawa Marawili and Gogol. And what a pleasure it is to be introduced in some cases to creative minds you have never heard of before, and in others to be reintroduced as though for the first time.

As ever when writing a review it is more difficult to decide what to leave out than what to include, but there are two further aspects of House’s work I would be very remiss not to mention.

The first is that, for all this talk of art and ekphrasis, House also writes beautifully about nature, and often surprisingly aswell, particularly in the selection from 2014’s Nothing’s Lost (“How sexy bream are” he declares in ‘Silver Bream’, “industrious lap dancers / in slinky chainmail”!). This is illustrated also in the following stanza from ‘Peregrine’, which also displays the poet’s abilty to bring that viscral and startling vision of nature back to his central artistic theme, leaving us with a heightened sense of both:

Not for her the hawk’s swerve
to the tossed gobbet. She’ll biff
a rook like a bullet, grab and rip
like a machine, strip life
to the bone, like poetry.

The colloquial and dated ‘biff’ is the surprise here, but paired with the more traditional ‘bullet’ it evokes perfectly the precision and blunt power of a falcon’s mid-air attack, and a further surprise is to have the violence of this attack compared to poetry, “strip(ping) life / to the bone”; but that really is what poetry does, isn’t it?

My second point will probably already be clear from what I have said above, but it is worth stating overtly: these are poems of great technical skill which balance form and content extremely thoughtfully. To illustrate this I will return to ‘L’histoire centrale’ from Cutting the Quick (2005). The content I have already mentioned, but it is worth pausing over the way the rhyme scheme forms a sort of vertical bracket around the poem’s ‘central story’ i.e. the “me” and “you” which end the lines of the fifth (of ten) couplets. The “head” of line one is reflected back in the “lead” of line twenty, as the “tuba” of line two returns in the “rubber” of line nineteen; and then the ‘almost’ semi-rhyme (suitcase/louche) in the second couplet is set against the ‘almost’ visual rhyme (Prague/rouge) in the penultimate. Between these rhymes the cetral protagonists are cushioned on either side by lovely and imaginative slant-rhyming: odour/powder, centrale/wail, mine/rain, hall/swell, and Don Giovanni/alchemy. I submit that the rhyme structure of the poem protects a valued memory as though it were encased in the heart’s india-rubber, as “whispered” by the speaker’s partner by the “twinkly Vltava” in the final couplet.

And I would furthemore submit this poem (see in full below) as evidence that in taking a lifelong engagement with visual and literary art as inspiration, Ian House has created his own, quite astonishing, works of art.

L’histoire centrale

The woman with the grey cloth over her head,
one hand behind a tuba,

has no need of the reticent suitcase
and its cargo of, let’s say, louche

camisoles, canaries, cinnamon, its odour
of excitable gunpowder.

When I came across Magritte’s L’histoire centrale,
the long, dumb wail,

there was no reason on earth it reminded me
of you

plaiting your words with mine
as we watched the skirmishing rain

from the door of the Rudolfinum concert hall
while Brahms and Mahler’s swell

drained through talk of Don Giovanni,
Arcimboldo, Rosicrucian alchemy

to beer and the backstreets of Prague.
The streetlights splotched your rouge.

You whispered that the heart was india-rubber.
The twinkly Vltava was sheeted lead.

You can buy Just A Moment from Two Rivers Press, here.

Small Hopes: Island of Towers by Clarissa Aykroyd

lighthouse1

There is a short poem towards the middle of Clarissa Aykroyd’s debut pamphlet Island of Towers which is called ‘Lighthouse’ and in which an island and its lighthouse are metaphors for a person sighing and sobbing in their sleep. In three brief couplets (the third separated from the first two by a couplet-sized blank space, perhaps indicating the eclipse between flashes from the lighthouse) we get a powerful impression that the sleeper is lost in their own darkness, one more profound than the dark of night or sleep. “Morning hasn’t come” we are told, as though it should be here by now but has failed to arrive. Whatever this sleeper’s darkness is, it remains despite the fact that “the lighthouse lifts so high, (and) the island / streams with light”.
This image of an island with a tower sending its searching light out into the unknown is not only towards the centre of the collection in terms of sequencing; it feels, in fact, as though each poem exists while briefly lit by some central illuminating force (the reader’s eyes? the poet’s pen?) before disappearing back into the mystery of the unknown. That is not to say that the poems are unmemorable, the opposite is true and some of the images are wonderfully startling, such as the “green-eyed cat /…crossing no-man’s land to me/delicately carrying a fish.” (“Leningrad Spy Story”), but that there is much in Island of Towers to imply a search for some kind of light (I read this, in line with the lighthouse metaphor, as the reflected light of the poet’s ruminations – I don’t find anything to imply that it is the Light of religion; the searched-for light seems more likely to stand for ‘tranquillity’ if not quite ‘understanding’). With each poem failing to reflect the desired light, the poet moves on to the next, until the final two poems ‘Stained Glass’ and ‘Wicklow Mountains After Rain’, which both shine vividly, glaringly almost, with “white gold light” and “brushstrokes of gold”. But there is, it seems, no revelatory sense of ‘seeing the light’ because even in these final poems the light is either illusory (“this is fire that lulls to sleep”) or overwhelming (“I tried to grasp it, ran out but lost it”). Light is also blinding (“light blinds dark in fathoms” – ‘An Eye, Open’) and possibly damaging, like a stain on the retina (“And this is leaving, carrying the flash/behind my eyes, into the dark outside.” – ‘Dakar’). And so ultimately, a sense of mystery remains. It may be that the short sequence of Sherlock Holmes poems (and I happen to know that Aykroyd is an enthusiastic Holmesian) are a nod towards the sense of joy and adventure inherent in trying to solve a possibly unsolvable mystery.
I said above that each poem fails to reflect the desired light, but this is not a failing of the poems as much as the effect of each one being part of an ongoing journey (and perhaps a circular one, as in the sad and dizzying ‘Carousel’). Indeed, almost all of the poems are inspired by, named after, or contain references to specific locations around the world but this could not be described as a Poetry of Place because the places described are shrouded in darkness, internalised as ‘dream-worlds’, or expressed in terms of the ‘not-quite-arrived’ or the ‘just-leaving’ (“island to island, stone to stone” – Night on Cook Street’) – and usually all of these at the same time. Looked at from one angle, the titular “island of towers” is Cairo (from the poem of that name), but it could equally stand for any of the cities, ancient and modern, that this pamphlet ‘visits’. It does not take too great a leap of imagination to see the buildings of a city as an island rising out of the surrounding flatness, and every city sends out its own light streaming into the darkness – both actual electric light and the metaphorical light of life and culture. But in a sense, and more interesting to me, every poem in the pamphlet is a little island in itself, each with its own faint source of light, and the poet/reader becomes like the ‘he’ of the first poem, ‘As though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul’ (presumably the poem’s dedicatee Ivo Machado), who “…had to fly into the storm because there was nothing but storm”, but who still found and expressed a sense of positivity for the future in all the darkness and despair, “small hopes, each a distant light” – these distant lights are stars, island towers, and poems.
To conclude this brief review, Island of Towers is a pamphlet which finds space, in its twenty-three short poems, to mystify and beguile with the beautiful surrealism of an “invisible rainforest” in a London Underground station where “a girl in a long black dress / has one hand uplifted” and on her finger a jewel, or “a ladybird/…stars her finger” while “Her green eyes bloom like gardens” (‘Northern Line’), and elsewhere to guide the reader, through exquisite word-choice over just seven lines, towards the life, work and tragic suicide of Paul Celan, in a poem which unostentatiously displays a profound connection with Celan and ends with the unforgettable image of an “…impossible bone spur on my heart” (‘In Paris’).
But I would recommend this pamphlet above all, in these months during which we are overwhelmed by COVID-19, for the distant lights it provides, the small hopes.

Island of Towers is available from Broken Sleep Books, here.

Clarissa Aykroyd blogs on various poetry matters, here, at The Stone and the Star.

Disclosure: I know the poet a little through Twitter and we have found that we agree on a number of poetry-related issues. If this affects any of the above review, I am unaware of it.

White Poets & ‘Usefulness’

white & useful

Part One

Danez Smith recently said something in the Guardian which caught my attention. They said: “I want my work to be useful”.

This is hardly controversial and is, I have always presumed, what many poets and artists in general feel about their work, but what struck me immediately was how rarely I have actually heard anyone express it. The only other example I could think of was Denise Riley speaking about how her work in Time Lived, Without its Flow seemed “needed”. As I ruminated on this, and as I thought about the poetry I have read over the years, I started to question my original presumption. A lot of poetry discusses complex issues, holds difficult emotions and situations in unusual lights to help us see them and begin to understand how to deal with them, it allows us new ‘ways of seeing’ to use the old phrase, so I suppose to that extent it is useful. But do poets write to be useful? Or do they write to help themselves through something, or simply to express something they feel the need to express? Or (less generously) to hit the right topics, the ones that will get them published and be popular with the poetry reading public? Or to display their skill, their craft? Or to consolidate their position in the ‘Canon’ (whatever that is) and be remembered by future generations? ‘All, some, or none of these’ is the obvious and not particularly helpful answer. And perhaps motivation is not the point anyway – poetry written for all the above reasons might still be useful to any given reader. But if I’m writing poetry, I also want to be able to say it is useful, and I want to write it to be useful, actively useful in real sense.

So this brings me back to Danez Smith, a black poet writing for black people in their new book Homie, but for a wider, whiter audience in their award-winning Don’t Call Us Dead. Smith’s work is clearly useful in giving voice to an uncompromising and clear-sighted black anger that white audiences need to hear, to rattle the bars of institutional racism. In the US, Smith’s voice is not alone: Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes, Jericho Brown, Ocean Vuong, Don Mee Choi are just the names which come immediately to mind. All of them writers of colour writing ugently and ‘usefully’. Their voices are useful not only because of their individual talent, power and beauty, but because of the minority perspective they bring to the majority, dominant – let’s face it, white – culture. They challenge traditional and patriarchal forms (what Audre Lorde called “the word games of the white fathers”), they oppose the white male gaze, they extend what the culture of a white-dominant country is capable of encapsulating and expressing, and for all these reasons and more their poetry might actively make a difference to society. There are voices in the UK about which we could say the same: Jay Bernard, Vahni Capildeo, Sarah Howe, Kei Miller, Mary Jean Chan, again these are just the first names that pop into my head.

These are dynamic, vital voices. ‘Useful’ ones. But could a white poet write usefully about race? I don’t know of any who have tried, or at least who have tried and been published. It would clearly be a risky endeavour (see Part Two below) not least because if too many white poets did try and did get published on race, they would ultimately be likely to drown out the voices of colour and end up working to uphold the very structures that the work of their BAME peers challenges. But there are compelling reasons why a white poetry of race (a genuinely self-reflecting one) could have a ‘useful’ role to play. To provide a background on why I think this is the case, I would recommend two American texts in the first instance, White Fragility by sociologist Robin DiAngelo, and this thoughtful piece from The American Poetry Review by poet Joy Katz ‘Awake In The Scratchy Dark: On Writing Whiteness’. These texts are focused on American experience, but I haven’t found any specific to the UK (which is interesting in itself) and although there are differences, I think the similarities are sufficient to make them relevant here aswell. Part Two of this blog is about how difficult, as well as potentially risky, it is for a white person to write about race and – because I’m writing from the UK – about empire (from which British structural racism is inseparable).

Part Two

I’ve spent the last year and more attempting to write poems about race and the legacy of empire in the UK. Some of these have been okay, some pretty good, some terrible; all of them remain unpublished at the time of writing, and I’ve never posted any of them on my blog. Without looking for an “Aww, you poor lamb”, I must say, it’s not easy for a white person to write honestly about race and empire in the UK. I’m sure it’s not easy for anyone, but I’m white and so that is what I’m qualified to talk about. Why isn’t it easy? Well, on one level of course it’s obvious to say that published white poets, or white poets who want to get published, are nervous about saying the wrong thing and ending up actually getting something published which then prompts a career-ending twitterstorm and blaze of publicity. This is true – and I imagine editors have similar nerves around any white-written, race-based submissions they may have received (not all publicity is good publicity, if that myth was not debunked before social media came along, it surely is now) but it’s a bit poor, isn’t it? I mean, the nerves are understandable, there really is a lot of senstivity and anger around this issue, but let’s not be cowardly: white attitudes to race and empire matter, if only because those voices which represent and constitute the hegemon need to change if anything is going to change. There’s another obvious reason, too, this: white liberal/left poets (I’m not sure I need the slashed adjectives here – pretty much all UK poets fall somewhere on that spectrum, don’t they?) are likely to feel that white voices should not be cluttering up the spaces where voices of colour need to be heard more. They (I should say we) are quite right about this, but again I don’t think it will quite do. As Reni Eddo-Lodge pointed out in ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’, white people will never be ready to talk to people of colour about race and ongoing structural racism – and therefore begin addressing social change – until they are able to talk to each other about it openly and honestly. It seems to me that poetry, with its capacity for concise and acute self-reflection is the ideal place to start doing this. A third reason might be that white poets genuinely don’t think we have anything to add on this issue, that we should step back and allow poets of colour to say what needs to be said because racism happens to them, not us. For a third time: this is not good enough. As DiAngelo says, thinking that racism is only an issue for people of colour is a classic internalised strategy for deflecting responsibilty. Beneficiaries of power rarely notice that they are beneficiaries at all, and those who have always stood at the podium cannot always see that they have been artificially elevated above the crowd. Until the present generation of black and Asian and mixed-race voices came of age and began speaking with clarity and strength, voices of colour, although they were there (and strong, clearly, you only need to think of Benjamin Zephaniah), they were relatively easy for the ‘85%’ to ignore, simply because they were not present in any numbers. This, I think, is no longer the case. Demographics are changing. We, white people, have to think through who we are and how we got here – and to talk it through.

But there is another difficulty for the white poet, a more profound one, and that is the fact that genuine self-reflection, which engages with a diversity of voices on national history, and which takes in all the many and deep ramifications of skin colour, family history, cultural memory and social structures, and which listens to and believes experiences which might seem peripheral to one’s own, and which sees the connections between all these things and is able to relate them back to the self, all this is likely to be painful. It will be easier for the white poet, no doubt, to feel (or perhaps to appropriate) the anger felt by many people of colour, and to aim that anger outwards, self-righteously positioning ourselves as ‘in-solidarity-with’. That is one response. No one wants to align themselves with the oppressor. But more difficult is looking inwards and being prepared to find and accept various levels of privilege, ingrained racism, denial and, yes, fragility. That a white poet will find these is almost beyond doubt, and when we do (this is the really tricky part) we will need to decide what to do about it.

Activism is not the purpose of this blog, poetry is, but I feel increasingly convinced that there is an area – not in the anthem (“Rise, like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number”), and not necessarily in the poetry of protest (“The furious young/ran towards her through the fields of wheat”) – but somewhere less defined where these two, activism and poetry, cross. I believe the arts can act most effectively at a level below that of protest and anthem, at a level of collective cultural awareness and ultimately memory, where it can operate to either strengthen existing social structures or question and challenge them. I am far from an expert on Cultural Theory and so I would be surprised if this is anything revolutionary, but it is where I come back to what I said in Part One about being actively useful – I am advocating poetry as activism at the level of cultural memory.

I wouldn’t normally post my own poems as part of an essay on my blog, but in Part Three I will, in order to illustrate ways in which poetry might at least try to self-reflect on the legacy of race and empire. I’m not arguing for the quality of the poems, just for their attempt, in the ways described above, to be useful:

Part Three

Three Poems

white & useful poem 1

 

white & useful poem 2

 

white & useful poem 3

*

Some reading/listening that has informed this post:

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala
Capitalism and Slavery – Eric Williams
The Anarchy – William Dalrymple
We Need to Talk About the British Empire – Afua Hirsch (6-part Audible series)
Your Silence Will Not Protect You – Audre Lorde
Awake In The Scratchy Dark: On Writing Whiteness – Joy Katz (article, in The American Poetry Review)

Guilt and Symbols: I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen by Steve Ely

 

3426957-satan-fall-milton

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.

The sea is like this: Odyssey Calling by Vahni Capildeo

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More than anything, Vahni Capildeo’s rich and diverse writing embraces plurality and togetherness; and their new pamphlet from SAD Press, Odyssey Calling, takes the ocean as its central metaphor for the expansive indivisibility of an unknowable, experiential world. I’m not sure if ‘together’ can be verbed (why not!), but togethering seems to be the best way to express Capildeo’s apparent project in this pamphlet, as it was previously and most conspicuously in their most recent full collection Skin Can Hold from Carcanet. There is no segmenting, bordering or othering in the great liquid oneness which covers two thirds of the globe – no single authority in the “flow of blue capillaries” (‘Spindrift Silences’) where there can only be “you” in the “dark room”, but an “only you” who cries “a thousand treasurable cries” and who sometimes finds, in “deeper water” and “emptier silences” that “outsider status drops expected but absent barriers”. “How can you be territorial about the sea?” the speaker asks in part three of the sequence ‘Odyssey Response’ (called, appropriately, ‘The Sea’) and set against this of course is the by-definition-territorial land, where there are both divisions and power relations (“people / who have power of health and employment over us”) but over which Capildeo invokes language as powerful transformative and levelling force (“as if lawyers were angels…as if death / were…an infinite set of paper doll kings / of terror, cancelled by a gentle fiery sword”). Words bring with them the same togethering that water brings, thus in part one of ‘Odyssey Response’ these lines, extending the Homeric metaphor of ‘winged words’ to unifying effect: “Words, take wing, fly commonly among all people / who share vulnerability on a trembling earth; / who drink, or hope to drink, sweetly, cool water.”

Elsewhere Capildeo sings an appreciation of birds at length in the glorious ‘In Praise of Birds’ and the reader recalls the previous alignment of words with birds and understands that this is also a hymn to language. ‘In Praise of Birds’ offers stanza after stanza celebrating their diversity, metaphorical ubiquity and general oddness (sometimes, in true Capildeo fashion, just revelling in simple birdy wordplay – “In praise of a good turn of cluck”).

As in Skin Can Hold, there is in Odyssey Calling a prose section explaining a group project approaching poetry in an innovative way. This time (perhaps evolving the ‘syntax poem’ reworking of Martin Carter – although I don’t know which came first) the new approach, “Azure Noise and Kinetic Syntax” makes use of a performance space carefully to reduce the pressure of interpretation (especially academic interpretation) on the audience and even discourage any active search for meaning at all – instead creating what Capildeo calls an “active silence”. Layered recordings of contemporary texts contribute, we’re told, to a soundscape that interacts with an audience moving in and out of various zones and multiple performances in a room including “swathes of fabric”, mattresses and sheets and stalls of marbles and other “simple lustrous things”. At the same time Capildeo reads “water poems” (an example of which presumably is what follows the prose section, quoted earlier, the beautiful ‘Spindrift Silences’), they read “softly, so the audience could choose their level of engagement”. All of this reflects the pamphlet’s overall sense of togethering: the individual here (poet, audience) does not exist in isolation either from the poetry or from the rest of the world, poetry is not me and mine, but us and ours.

As always in Capildeo, nothing is entirely straightforward, and the richly metaphorical ocean contains far more than a single simple reading, it also “covers over” and conceals, causes us to forget – history for example (“Memory is no good / to triumphant civilizations.”), and acts as a highway for Empire-builders and oppressors (“By Zeus, / Time Traveller, if you see Columbus, shoot on sight”) but it is also vulnerable (“The sea needs teeth. – How can there be freedom of the sea without protection?”).

The second of the pamphlet’s two central sequences (the first being ‘Odyssey Response’) is ‘Windrush Reflections’, which places modern and historical voices in two centos alongside the poet’s own voice to work towards a critique of empire, slavery, colonialism, immigration and their relationship to identity. Again, the ocean across which so many have journeyed in hope of a better life is the key metaphor of the piece (its traffic, economy, islands) with a disorientation, confusion, and the betrayal of British colonial subjects reflected in the woozily choppy waters of lines like:

“ …The finish
of those ships overlapping
as ships ineluctably do
with others, keening the curled
wake with a forward-looking wave.
The sea is like this.
What you expect nobody
can expect. What you accept
nobody can’t accept.”

Again, in this sequence it is a plurality of voices, overlapping like the wakes of boats – and perhaps presented in the poem like exhibits at the ‘Songs in a Strange Land’ exhibition in Leeds which prompted one of the poems in the sequence – that seems to concern Capildeo (“these shelves and these selves”). And by bringing them together the poet provides a sense that they are more than the sum of their parts. Maybe it is this discovery of something more in the togetherness of identities than exists in each individual identity that leads us so close, particularly at the end of the pamphlet, to prayer and praise. Birds, coffee (“which crosses the sea”) and the sea itself all come in for special thanks and admiration in this way – and the suggestion of something approaching apotheosis takes us back to both the Greek deities and heroes of ‘Odyssey Response’ and also the first poem in the pamphlet, almost Janet-and-John-like in its charming simplicity, ‘Holy Island’, which asks us, of the seals which have “gone to the other islands”: “What do they sound like? / They sound like ghosts”. There is no God or gods in this holy place – but if you join such ambiguous figures as these absent seals (simultaneously there and not there) in Capildeo’s mysterious and powerful ocean, who knows what you will find.

I say dive in.

You can buy Odyssey Calling from SAD Press, here.