Advent by Brian Coffey: A Review

Advent, by Brian Coffey, Etruscan Books, 2014, ISBN: 9781901538878, $25.00       Advent

Advent is the most ambitious in the series of long poems and sequences published between 1961 and 1985 that mark Brian Coffey’s late flowering and that, along with Third Person (1938), are the works on which his reputation rests. I have already written at some length about this poem in my review of his Poems and Versions 1929-1990, and so the bulk of this review will consist of additional and second thoughts that have accumulated over the intervening quarter century or so of living with Advent and with Coffey’s work in general.

The first thing to be said is that Advent is a fundamentally religious, and profoundly Roman Catholic poem. The occasion of its writing was the death of a son, its basic premise is that all consolations other than simple Christian faith are insubstantial, and its resolution is acceptance of the inevitable outcome of its own logic, a resolution that is enacted by the poem through Coffey’s mastery of technique. My earlier criticisms of this ending were, I now realise, based on extra-literary grounds, my inability to share Coffey’s theological position. I still can’t, but to reject what he wrote for this reason is akin to rejecting Donne’s later works or Bach’s Matthew Passion. Given what goes before it, the final section of Advent simply couldn’t be anything other than it is.

To understand how Advent works, it is necessary to examine the technical means Coffey deployed in the making of the poem. As J.C.C. Mays points out in his invaluable introduction to the Irish University Review Brian Coffey special issue in which it first became widely available, the fundamental unit of composition is the line, and the basic line used is a long, six stress one, which is both tightly controlled and relatively free. The control stems from the way Coffey manages to keep the line from breaking up under its own weight across relatively long passages; the freedom from flexibility in the number and placement of the unstressed syllables in each line. Iambs, dactyls, anapaests and spondees are all deployed to considerable effect:

what have they done to Klio what have they done to our Muse

of History Muse Klio of Memory daughter and set
out of place and time on a plinth to reign of silence queen

As if in opened bunker one faced numberless supplicant bones
and awed by that silent thunder wanted words

What would we call on you for Klio if your style
were finger on lip to crawl through cunning corridors
fumbling behind the arras for what was not there

In addition, a non-standard syntax and elision that Coffey developed through translating French verse are woven through these long lines, along with a high incidence of hyphenated compound terms. The tone achieved is meditative, contemplative, philosophical. Coffey deploys this long line to explore the ‘false Advent idols’ of the first four sections of the poem. These are, in turn: the isolated individual human (drawing on both Beckett and the late Pound) which results in selfish solipsistic unfulfilment; the worship of nature which ends in its exploitation and therefore innately corrupt; political activism (the abuse of history for narrow ends); and the longing for aliens to come and relieve us of our responsibilities, a variant of the longing for ‘strong leadership’. This last draws on Coffey’s interest in science fiction and was probably more widespread at the time he was writing the poem than it is now.

There are extended passages in the first half of the poem where the dominant line gives way to a shorter, variable two to four stress one. The first is in section III when Coffey relates the story of the fall of the House of Atreus in a fractured narrative and links it to modern Irish history and politics. At the core of this is the phrase ‘Wisdom is won through woe’, one possible ‘lesson of history’, which in this context is something of a philosophy of despair.

This short ‘narrative’ line then reappears in the imagined story of the ‘unkin others’ and their journey to earth in section VI. At the moment that this fantasy is discarded as apostasy, the poem reverts instantly to the six-stressed line:

Sterile the seed that drops in sand dry as mummy queen

Habit’s world unbid to witness blind in daylight
when stomping boot tramples on blameless face

After this final negation, the poem moves towards affirmation. Section V returns to the world as is, the ground of our experience and, in Coffey’s view, the divinely created theatre in which we must work out our redemption. With this return to the poems’ foreground of the meditative voice, the long line becomes the norm again. Section VI examines our ‘natural’ end, death after a life well and fully lived. The figures of the dying mother and absent son call to mind Joyce’s Portrait, but Coffey discounts questions of guilt or anger; the mother understands that her children have their own ways to make in the world and is content enough that she ‘bore them reared them sent them out to live’.

With section VII, we come to the emotional core of the poem, an exposition of an ‘unnatural’ end, the death of a young son and the difficulties it raises for the faith of the surviving parents. In part, the section is an attempt to understand the macho biker culture that was responsible for the son’s death, another false idol of sorts. The roles of mother and son are reversed from the previous section.

What they had done had been done again by him
until youth’s grand display induced forgiveness
while on ahead it still surged supposing admiring crowd
joy to share with H for Hero outdated classic style

Mothers know of us all from memorable point of growth
One such will say of her early-dead “He was strange
from start went in his dream leading not led
choosing and doing outside of rules in deathwards race”

The text of this section is punctuated at beginning, middle and end by an unfolding and folding word butterfly, consisting in the most part of what might be thought of, in Dylan Thomas terms, as ‘process words’: willow, water, glass, white, fir, bee, shell, hazel and so on. The imagery is both obvious and complex.

The final section of the poem, the final, true Advent awakening, is written almost entirely in short lines, and the syntax approaches something more like conventional English. It is as if the intellectual seeking for understanding that is embodied in the long line has become one last false idol to be set aside and replaced with faith, a simple acceptance of the divine will. At this stage, ‘wisdom is won through woe’ is recast and rejected in favour of love and acceptance:

in poverty wealth
sickness health
on the better tack
or the worser
between womb and grave
face to polar cold
right in storm of fire

for us surely
where friend gives greatest gift

so be it

I may disagree with Coffey’s position here, but there can be no doubting the technical skill with which he brings the poem home to what is, given all that has gone before and the theological position that informs it, the only possible conclusion.

*

Advent is a poem full of other writers, but it would be inaccurate to think of them as influences in the conventional sense. Rather these engagements with his peers are, as Harry Gilonis pointed out in his Mapping Half of Advent, Widerruf, refutations of the positions the other writers represent. Both the defiant individualism of Pound and the more long-suffering variety documented by Beckett are referenced and rejected in section I. In III and VI, Yeats’ political position is rejected, his ‘all changed changed utterly’ linked to the alien invasion in the latter section and recalling references to famine and civil war in the former. This conjunction recalls Coffey’s assertion in ‘Concerning Making’ that the ‘political use of words kills the capacity to use words to make poems’.

Mallarme is a constant presence, as has already been noted, through the lessons Coffey learned about creative ambiguity of syntax and punctuation through translating his late works, but also as another Widerruf; Coffey is at pains to examine and reject notions of chance and a dice-playing divinity. Other poets to appear include Shakespeare, Lucretius, Aeschylus, Blake, Rilke and Eliot; in each case, Coffey uses what comes to hand from his reading to advance his own position in contrast to his fellow writers.

*

This is the fifth appearance of Advent to appear. The first was a foolscap edition of 25 copies published by Coffey’s own Advent Press in 1975 and not for sale. The second was in the Irish University Review Coffey special issue that same year. It’s a clean text, easy to read and with the benefit of line numbering and only one long line is wrapped to fit on the page. Next was the Menard Press trade paperback edition in 1986; similar to the IUR edition, with the same wrapped line, it suffers somewhat from somewhat smaller font and page sizes and slightly less careful editing. Most recently, the poem was included in the Dedalus Press Poems and Versions 1929–1990 in 1991. This book suffered from an unfortunate choice of typeface which is hard to read and results in large numbers of wrapped lines and a mangling of relative spacing, despite a page size almost exactly the same as the IUR printing.

This new edition is printed on a very large 240 by 335 mm page size. In a note to the reader, the publisher points out that ‘in this generous format, there is room to lay out the poem so that no verse runs over the end of a page. Some of the clusters of verses separated by larger spaces coincide with the end of a page. In such cases the beginning of a new cluster has been indicated by lowering the top line by 3 spaces.’

As all the previous ‘for sale’ printings are bedevilled by widows and orphans, this is a very welcome development. However, much of the good is undone by the choice of typeface, which lacks crispness and is too big. As a consequence, despite the large size, there is relatively less white space around the text than there is in the IUR and Menard printings, and the relative spacing of the ‘butterfly’ is thrown completely off. Also, the triple line spacing between the clusters is extremely variable in size, which is more than unfortunate as these are a key element in the scoring of the poem.

Despite these reservations, it’s important that Coffey’s work is being made available to a new generation of readers thanks to the efforts of Etruscan Books’ editor Nicholas Johnson. A selected poems is forthcoming; done well, it could be a major step towards finally establishing Coffey’s proper place in the history of 20th century Irish verse.

Elizabeth Willoughby Varian: Irish Woman Poet

Elizabeth Willoughby Varian (1830c – 1896), born Treacy probably in Antrim she married the poet and editor Ralph Varian in 1871. An early socialist, she contributed to The Nation, under the name Finola, which she continued to use for all her poetry. ‘Proudly we Stand in the People’s Ranks’ is taken from her 1874 collection ever Forsake the Ship and Other Poems.

 
Proudly we Stand in the People’s Ranks
 
Proudly we stand in the people’s ranks, to war with the people’s wrong —
Though not always the race be to the swift, the battle to the strong;
We dare to preach forth the branded creed of equal rights to all —
On the evil and just will the fruitful rain and the cheering sunbeams fall.
 
Our weapons — true thought and fearless speech — with these we will overthrow
Each low device and base pretence, each aim of the crafty foe;
We laugh at their hollow sophistry, their station, rank, and caste,
Their senseless barricade of words our arms will soon lay waste.
 
‘Tis idle to prate of rank and class — nay, urge not the shallow plea —
Remember who sat in the fisherman’s boat on Gallilee’s purple sea!
Rend the tyrant chains that custom forged, and recant the impious creed
That a separate law for rich and poor by God’s wisdom was decreed.
 
Remember who sat at the publican’s feast I — was there peer or noble there?
What jewelled garter, or diamond star, did those guests, so honoured, wear?
Ah, men, arise from delusion’s sleep, fling off the coils that bind
The free-born soul’s exalted strength, the heaven-endowed mind,
 
And proudly stand in the people’s ranks, to war with fraud and wrong:
Oh, pass not by — ye have stood apart, ye have held aloof too long;
Fear not to utter the glorious faith of equal rights to all:
On the evil and just will the fruitful rain and the cheering sunbeams fall.

Written 1976-2013, by P. Inman: A Review

Written 1976-2013, by P. Inman, if p then q, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-9571827-3-8, inman€26.30

which side of that/pronunciation are you on

The craft of poetry reviewing, like any other, has a set of tools and techniques on which it relies. The reviewer can discuss questions of style, form and structure, the deployment of literary devices and tropes, and the explication of themes, as a matter of course. They might also want to set a context for the reader by highlighting any influences and other bodies of work to which the book under review bears similarities. Finally, in a large ‘collected poems’ like Written, the poet’s development over time will generally form an important part of the review.

So, what does the reviewer do when confronted by a body of work that sets out to undermine poetry’s very dependence on any and all of these factors? The same thing differently, I suppose.

To begin with, this is a big book but not exactly a Collected, as Inman’s first two collections are not included. In addition, it appears that much of what is included has been rewritten completely since first book publication. We must take it that the book represents all of Inman’s poetry that he feels still stands presented in the form in which he now wants it to be read. There is also a very useful introductory essay by Craig Dworkin.

In an attempt to reproduce as much as possible of the look of the original books in which the work appeared, a mono-typeface has been used for any work that set like that originally, while Verdana has been used throughout to fill in for those works that were set using proportional typefaces. The result is an interesting and not unpleasing contrast, bringing some welcome variety to the look of such a big book. In particular, the mono-typeface sections allow for some exact geometric shaping on the page.

: tern : talk : ogham

What is written can be read, and the reading mind seeks to impose order on even the most cryptic markings. In the early work collected here, Inman worked at disrupting this sense-making instinct through the deployment of disjunctive syntax and a high proportion of invented words:

throa, marge.

facilt. mimless ,                 flacce

a kime could breen

perucc, thick (…tworviv)

(‘lotioning #4-7’)

The reader’s share in creating both the poetry and the meaning in this early work is great indeed, but the process is not an impossible one. However, Inman came to realise that use of such invented lexical items was something of a dead end, a way of creating what could easily become a set of technical tics as the nonce inventions became recurring lexical items, and from the mid-1980s the balance in his work swung towards a more conventional vocabulary (although the use of invented words never fully disappeared).

Another favoured device is the use of punctuation to slow down the process of reading. Sometimes this is word-by-word:

the. principal. objective. of. action.
far. against. what. i’d. meant.

backdrop. of. the. Shakers. in. dreams.

(‘n.b. for Tom DeLio’)

At other times the reader is slowed to letter pace:

n   n   o   I   r  .
e   r   I   o   c s.
anabaptistlaughtrack
p e r b o l i s m s.
s    t    i    l   .

(‘minus, for Doug Lang’)

But mostly the reader is kept on their linguistic toes through the moment-by-moment confounding of paradigmatic and syntagmatic expectation:

night into inkwell speech,
weather gone brown another
to bone structure, “on-paper
porkpie” (how she paused
in stretch thick of cardboard
name of pink money bunch,
work poured through, the
facts she missed, broken by
capital (the paint straightens
to nothing, sea as mane golf.
(amagansett again in memoriam Leslie Scalapion)

As the focus on typefaces indicates, the look of the text on the page is an important organisational factor in Inmans’s work. It’s not so much that this is visual or concrete poetry as that it’s poetry with a strong sense of visual form. The late 80s poem ‘waver’ does exactly that, across several pages. A couple of years earlier, ‘nimr’ consists of seven iterations of a set of paired stanzas, two to a page, lettered, and separated by a line. In the first iteration each stanza consists of seven lines and there are seven pairs

A B C D E F G

N M L K J I H

In each subsequent iteration, each stanza reduces by one line and the sequence loses a pair, so that the seventh section is simply:

G:                                                           belong Crashaw’s hairline by half

______________________________________

H:                                                            one off its gray

the whole giving the impression of a great pair of wings folding. Similar examples of formal experimentation feature across the entire span of this work. For example, the recent uncollected ‘summa for Ron Silliman’ has, for this reader at least, the same visual impact as a scroll down Silliman’s well-known blog.

blackboard communism

As well as being a poet, Inman is a union activist at the Library of Congress, where he works, and a committed Socialist. Although his work is a very far remove from the kind of social realism one might associate with this political position, there is no question that his politics informs his writing. Indeed, there is hardly a poem or sequence in the book where some reference to labour politics is absent, but ‘dust bowl’, from the 1986 collection think of one is probably the most explicitly political poem in the book. It is dedicated to fellow union activist Wally Reed, a gardener at the U.S. Botanic Garden, and is an oblique exploration of Depression America in the context of world events, including the rise of European totalitarianism, and of contemporary US politics. The result is one of the most immediately satisfying works in this book.

Police riot at Flint: celled Paulist: orange paint marks

capital decline: applause side, minutes not quite right:

Floyd Burroughs, the depth thought put.

(As an aside, Burroughs was the subject of some of Walker Evans’ famous Dust Bowl photographs.)

the name of the thing the verb was

One of the most striking aspects of Inman’s work is the preponderance of proper names in writing that is, in many respects, non-representational. These act as landmarks in the defamiliarised verbal terrain of the poems, hooks for the order-making mind to gain a hold on that which is written.

There are multiple references to geographical features, with a preponderance of rivers. The Hudson, Charles, Shenandoah, Erie, Rhine, Thames, Shannon and Liffey all appear, with the Dublin river being named more often than any, interestingly. This river cluster is appropriate for a body of work that demands that readers immerse themselves and ‘go with the flow’.

Musicians and composers named or referred to include Monk, Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Luigi Nono and Morton Feldman. Many important figures from Socialist and labour history also appear, as do a number of painters, the most frequent being the Dutch American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

However, the largest category, appropriately enough, is other writers. In addition to Inman’s contemporaries, many of whom have poems dedicated to them, the names and/or works of Stein, Gorky, Gide, Henry James, Hawthorn, Pinter, Beckett, Balzac and Coleridge, Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams are woven through the texture of the work.

Given the undoubted influence of the Objectivists, especially Zukofsky, on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, it is interesting to ponder the roles that he and Williams play. Interestingly, Williams appears long before his younger colleague and strikes me as being actually the greater influence. This might seem odd, as William’s idiomatic style is very different to the opaque surface of Inman’s verse. It is Williams’ insistence on the materiality of language that seems to most matter here. Specifically, Inman draws on Spring and All, a work whose primary focus is the power of language to create rather than describe the world. Williams’ ‘The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation’ could serve as epigraph to this book.

Zukofsky is first explicitly referenced in the late 1990s. His second appearance, in ‘w, d, z.’ (2000), is as a meditation on the materiality of the poem itself:

what, did, Zukofsky.
mean, by, objects.
 
his, own, limpse.
rue, of, age, its.
 
many, cement, inches.
years, later, under.
 
where, parishioners.
illness, then, follows.

 
each others’s handwriting
 
Although Inman is closely associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, that loose-knit group that emerged in the early 1970s and went on to dominate the American avant garde, he was something of a latecomer to the party and the early work not collected here would appear to have been somewhat closer to the New York school. Some of the early mono-typeface work recalls early Robert Grenier, and there are ‘exploded’ texts that look at first glance as if they fell from the pages of a Susan Howe book. However, Inman seems to have remained more faithful to the original assault on the sentence than many of his peers, and there is a consistency of approach across the full body of his ouvre.

Inman’s work as gathered here is among the most thorough workings-out of the original impetus behind L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E by a single poet currently available in print. It’s a big book, in every sense, with the inevitable unevenness that such a project implies, but at its best, it’s a stimulating body of writing, challenging to the reader, but with its own peculiar rewards, and if p then q are to be saluted for publishing it.

Marguerite A. Power: Irish Woman Poet

Marguerite A. Power (1815?–1867) was a poet, novelist and travel writer. She also wrote a memoir of her aunt, Marguerite, countess of Blessington. Virginia’s Hand was a book-length poem that was influenced by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.

from Virginia’s Hand

 

Book I.

 

Canto I – Opening

 

In one who worships Beauty in all forms

The sight is quickened, learns to penetrate

Through all disguises, sees the self-same soul

Pervading, more or less, a million types

Oft varied in their semblance, as the shapes

Of Aphrodite and the loathsome hag,

The laidly Ladye of the chronicle.

 

Thence spring great joys, wondrous discoveries,

Strong sympathies, rare instincts, hints as strange,

Analogies, suggestions, liftings up

Though for a moment only, of the veil

Between the known and the yet unrevealed.

 

Would this were all — the only consequence

Of quickened vision; but in this wide world,

This wondrous world, where everything begins

And nothing ends, — this workshop, where we all

Must serve a stern apprenticeship to God,

Or else to Satan — which requires less pains, —

The good and evil are as closely mixt

As were the grains the jealous Paphian queen

Bid Psyche separate ere Hesper rose.