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