John Wilkinson and Waqas Khwaja: A review

My Reef My Manifest Array, John Wilkinson, Carcanet, 2019, ISBN: 978 1 784106 91 1, £11.69

Hold Your Breath, Waqas Khwaja, Onslaught Press, ISBN: 978-1-912111-72-5, 2017, £10.00

John Wilkinson’s most recent book consists of five longish poem sequences or cycles plus a set of individual poems that we might call lyrics, for want of a better word, gathered together under the heading ‘Fugitive Sheets’. The publisher’s note on the back cover tells us that the poems are informed by a return to the Cornish landscape of Wilkinson’s youth in the wake of the death of his sister, and certainly themes of settlement and flux, the transitory and the fixed, run through the work.

The opening sequence, ‘’On the Destruction of Temples’ is built around fragments of disjunctive language, little tesserae that form a kind of abstract mimesis of destruction:

What of the silica cues

forwarding to their devices

fingers catch on winking stars –

what of graphite grass square

 

or storms of bells crossing slate

and clay tablets, aggressive

trees and virulent entabled

mosses?

Against the destruction we get glimpses of nature, invasive and quietly triumphant, the indestructible temple:

A yellow butterfly visits heavy blossom.

Bees rise and fall on airy

plummets. Tables of law flit cancelled.

The second cycle, ‘To Coralize’, takes its title and epigraph from Richard Crashaw’s ‘An Elegy upon the death of Mr Stanninow fellow of Queenes Colledge’:

What more than winter hath that dire art found,

These purple currents edg’d with violets round

To corralize, which softly wont to slide

In crimson wavelets, and in scarlet tide?

The Crashaw is apt, both because the poem referenced is an elegy, as befits the underlying tone of this book and because as you read on, it becomes increasingly apparent that Wilkinson’s method in here is essentially Metaphysical, a poetry of paradox, complex, subtle and ‘difficult’, but rewarding, exploring philosophical concerns through controlled Baroque language games, with elaborate simile to the fore.

Much as a limpet glued with single foot slyly hops

one to another square, stakes a claim on shiny clinker

taps too for energy, gone to ground they don and doff,

 

out of devilment…

 

…Now electronic

tags report a break in parole, gluing them by ankle.

These opening sequences read somewhat like a tentative prelude, and the book really comes into its own with the third cycle, ‘Chysauster in Mist’. Chysauster is the site of an Iron Age/Romano-British village in Cornwall, and, as such, a kind of substratum of the poet’s childhood home. The poem circles around the idea that, on the appropriate timescale, all human settlement is temporary, everything is flux and we are all, in the end, travellers. We live among past, present and future ruins, and nothing is really built to last.:

Somewhere between the ring-road and inner circle wrecked tenements fill with bobbing gulls and oystercatchers

 

Limpet-like amid the falling plaster, children practice hand-stands as security services talk you through the steps

The return of sorts to Cornwall continues through ‘Bodrugan’s Leap’. As the back cover again helpfully notes ‘[i]n 1487 Sir Henry Bodrugan, pursued for treason, leapt from a Cornish clifftop into a waiting boat and fled to France. Bodrugan’s Leap, as the clifftop has come to be known, lies close to John Wilkinson’s childhood home’; so the return is also a movement towards exile. The writing proceeds from a classic ‘linguistically innovative’ method of paradigmatic disruption (‘Green sticks to its functional, mindless sexual spur’) where articulation is implied but must be earned by the diligent reader towards a more tentatively conventional articulate sentence structure, under the pressure of emotion, as in these lines from a section called ‘Facing Chesil Beach’:

Wind heavies, waves lean into sloped

ledges, under-

tow of pebbles

growls shaking sprung bed and turf,

 

noisy shingle warps banks of filters,

bass-traps shape

barest meaning –

winds mantle dragged off the ocean.

The last cycle, ‘Birth Pangs’ continues in this more explicit vein, with a set of poems that drawn on flower and colour imagery, flowers that are colours, colours that are flowers, the lyric, speaking ‘I’ apparently as much the thing as the poet, in explorations of birth, death and the pain of self-discovery between those twin poles.

This is followed by ‘Fugitive Sheets’, a selection of individual poems that circle around much the same themes and approaches as the longer cycles.

When we shall be indigenous,

bitumen sanctioned, rhinoceros horn, horn of

stag beetle,

indigenous to an airport with

all resident arrivals

fanning out boarding cards with priority access

keeping our place

so we can state with assurance

This is our place. This is it.

Whatever wherever.

The idea of being indigenous to a state of being transitory, to something like an airport, is the fundamental paradox of Wilkinson’s Metaphysics in this book. The airport lounge is our Chysauster, only more so, as it is built, as is so much of our ‘modern’ world, on no longer being here. My Reef My Manifest Array makes no pretence at being an easy read, because the questions it wants to ask are not easy questions, but they are necessary ones.

One of the great pleasures of reviewing is that you get to encounter work that you might never have otherwise come across, as happened when Waqas Khwaja kindly sent me two of his books, the 2007 No One Waits for the Train (a bit too old to review) and Hold your Breath. The former is a very moving exploration of the enormous disruption caused by the 1947 Partition of India which resulted in the creation of Khwaja’s native Pakistan, a country he left to live and work in the USA. This great rift is, I think, at the root of much of the writing in the latter, too.

Which is to say that, like John Wilkinson, Khwaja is concerned with exile and displacement, though he writes within a very different set of conventions to those behind Wilkinson’s work. Chiefly, I think, these are the conventions of Urdu poetry (Urdu phrases run through many of the poems in both books), especially, to my untrained and uneducated mind, the Nazm, a genre of argument poems, and of Sufi mysticism, a practice of self-perfection that has produced much of the very finest Islamic poetry down the ages. There are poems that evoke the spirit and sound of classical Urdu singers and poets, poems of childhood memory, and one, ‘Kughu Kohrray’ (Clay Toys) ostensibly about the clay toys and utensils of the poet’s childhood that is really an ecological hymn to the idea that the earth provides what we need, if only we let it.

Khawaja’s religion is inclusive and aware of the world as it is, and many of the poems here embrace struggles for LGBT rights and women’s reproductive and other freedoms, and the fight against racism and political oppression. Both the book itself and the closing title poem ‘a breath, a word’ are dedicated to Eric Garner, and the interfolding of Garner’s last words (which the dedication describe as ‘the most potent metaphor for our age’) with Urdu phrases that echo them is typical of Khwaja’s way of looking at the world as continuous, not separate:

ek saans hae

ek lafz

aap kay saath baantnay kay liyay

 

I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe

 

ek lafz jo lay na saka

 

I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe

 

[the Urdu seems to translate as: ‘I can’t breathe/a word/to share with you’ and ‘a word that can’t be taken’]

Of course, working primarily in English and living in America, Khwaja’s poetry is also engaged with the western tradition. At times the writing has the copious bagginess of a Whitman, but with the American’s optimism flipped to a darker tone in the face of the realities of the world seen by an outsider:

I was born an enemy, but I did not know it then

The Sandman came and shut my eyes

The Clatterer lurked in dark corners waiting to pounce

And only a sacred verse kept it at bay

In the morning I was the sparrow and its mate

In the afternoon a dog looking for shade

Come evening, a woman whose glimpsed hair flashed in the sun’s dying light

As she flung it back bathing in a stall without a roof

At night a mouse pretending to be a lion’s companion

Sometimes a prince dispossessed of his State

[from ‘I Was Born an Enemy’]

At times the poems in this mode seem a bit too copious, a bit too wordy, but against that you have the mantra-like complex simplicity of ‘Primer’, in which sacred names from a range of religions are plaited into each other in a thin column down the middle of the page, or several pages, more accurately. The first few lines give some idea of the effect achieved:

N

am

mu

A

nu

Nin

mah

Brah

ma

Brah

man

Rah

man

Bra

ham

Ab

ra

ham

Bra

Heem

Even a secular reader cannot fail to be impressed by the way the language enacts the idea that all religions are fundamentally one religion, how the idea of the sacred is interwoven with the way language is used to express it, and with the poet’s determination to include, to give equal weight, to diversity, here as elsewhere. Crucially, the varying strands of the culture of the Indian subcontinent are brought together in the kind of imagined unity that has, unfortunately, proven more difficult in the real world. Khwaja’s central concern, it seems to me, is not just to give voice to the ‘Other’, but to de-other, to give quiet expression to the fundamental humanity of those who suffer in this most unequal of words. It’s an admirable project, admirably executed.

British Poetry of the 1940s: Some Twitter Thoughts

Ravenna Diagram II by Henry Gould: A Review

Ravenna Diagram II, Henry Gould, Dos Madres Press, Nov 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1948017145, $25 (I think these details are correct, not yet listed on publisher’s website)

And so, it seems I was wrong. In my review of the first volume of Henry Gould’s long, and as it turns out, ongoing epic Ravenna Diagram I wrote that ‘[u]nlike the Cantos or Maximus, and like ‘A’, this is not an open-ended epic’, but the sense of resolution I found in that book was actually a transitory condition, and now Gould has produced another book-long episode. What’s more, as we will see, it’s not over yet.

Formally, Gould continues with his fluid ABBA quatrain, mainly in units of 14 verses, with seven and 14-verse variations. The same rich variation of metre and syntax allows for a surprisingly rich range of musical variation in this superficially restricted form, as it did in the first volume, so I will refrain from looking at that aspect of Gould’s achievement here.

Again, the individual poems in this volume are dated, and the book covers the period from late August 2016 to mid-November the following year, which results in it having something of the nature of a seasonal poem. It certainly opens with images of the season:

Autumn already in the air. The lace

net lifts slightly in the window

breeze. Down the road

a train thunders steadily across

 

the iron bridge.

As well as temporal, this placing is spatial. We are in Minneapolis, looking back to Providence, a reversal of the geographic axis of the first book.

New characters appear, or move more to the fore: JFK, MLK, Abe Lincoln, the Narragansett creator divinity Cautantowwit, Melville’s Queequeg (whose casket is a type of Dante’s ‘little boat’) and the figure of the Hobo Henry, a type of American Odysseus/Theseus who follows Ariadne’s thread, trailing after knowledge. Ariadne’s tread weaves into Gould’s balance of Apollonian and Dionysian forces throughout the two volumes, with Theseus, founder of a City on a Hill, representing the former, but remembering that Ariadne ended up marrying Dionysus in the end. Central to this is the idea that the original thread enabled the overthrow of a tyrant, and Gould increasingly rejects the Dionysian Pound because of his support of tyranny.

Polly

Pound says so, the mystical
Apologist of Tyranny; she’ll

sow you Uncle Ez’s grapes – see

 

how they make great yappy whine!

(& his chinoise Confusion

still bakes a mean Rune

Cake.)  He not the Way, sez Hen.

And yet, whenever Gould’s Semi-Secular Comedy hovers on the brink of the paradisiacal, it’s mediated through the Poundian image of the child in her basilica. And Pound, too, built his vision of the ideal political order on much the same aspects of American history and jurisprudence that Gould draws on.
Speaking of tyranny, the timespan of the book covers the period of the 2016 election and 2017 inauguration of Trump, which gives rise to one very rare moment of anger:

one footloose soul, one rambler

who would be gone from jail

before the frozen hail

of Hitler-Stalin-Xi-Putin (& gambler

 

Kim Jong-un) congeals into one

mammoth concrete hulk

of tearful despot-sulk –

one massive Man of Unknown

 

Snowjobs – Don the Golden Duck-

&-Coverling, the Beast

who gives offense the most

& smears the human face with muck.

Against the figure of Trump, Gould sets JFK and MLK, symbols of the new political promise of his young youth that has petered out in Mar-a-Lago, and, especially, the first Republican president, Lincoln, whose integrity is the measure of his party’s descent into Antenora in the Ninth Circle of Dante’s hell.
And hell is, in a sense, the Minotaur’s labyrinth, with Ariadne’s thread blending with Apollinaire’s one-stringed instrument:

An infinitely tiny bronze

french horn accompanies

trompette marine – Willie’s

gauzy smoke-signal de Paris

a reference to the French poet’s monostich from Alcools that repeats regularly through the book:

Chantre

Et l’unique cordeau des trompettes marines

[Bard/singer/cantor

And the single string of marine trumpets] (my translation)

Apollonian music from a single string that imitates the distinctly Dionysian tuba.

The burden of Gould’s song remains that the law, correctly understood, produces justice and that justice, tempered by love, is the real basis of providence (Providence), and that the achievement of this desirable state requires balance, the reintegration of Dionysian frenzy with Apollonian reason:

That legend of Thanksgiving Day

(tables for everyone,

Pilgrim & Indian)

echoes via dream-song roundelay –

 

Henry, Hobo – Hart, John Berryman –

Dante, at Ravenn –

Black Elk, Martin…

reeling in Psyche-Restoration;

 

bright Rhodos-Imogen of Liberty

harbored in moss-green

robes of copper sheen;

the rippling well of Lincoln penny

 

radiating hopeful trust (humility).

An arc out of river water

sparkles like dancing laughter –

morning dew splashing basilica (for free).

So that: yet again we reach a conclusion of sorts, with so much left out of this review that I could write a book: the importance of the early-flowering, virginal almond; Maximus the Confessor writing in his cage, imprisoned for defying what he considered to be an unjust law; The Tempest and Prospero’s cell; the relevance of Piers Plowman to all of this; Queequeg’s casket and the possibility of homecoming; Cautantowwit and the Native American culture of the area now known as Rhode Island.

And Cautantowwit, the Raven lord, brings us back full circle to Dante in Ravenna contemplating his creator god, as Gould collapses the world to a unifying vision:

For we are one.  A multitude,

personified.  Benevolent

Ancient of Days bent

each into the mirror’s flood,

 

together – riverflow of heart-

veins from the earth

welling to fiery hearth –

lenticular sunset, plangent cloud-art.

 

So spinning from primordial rose

the golden maize of Chartres

guides you to its Artist…

Daedalus, not Minotaur; Grace

 

Ravlin, not some puppet-master

in the Kremlin.  Shadow

of Mona Lisa grin… you

rise before the fall (Easter).

And Cautantowwit points us forward, to Ravenna Diagram III perhaps, a volume already taking form on Gould’s blog:

The Geneva Drive is in Ravenna.

Its clock ticks in a circle…

twin circles… minuscule

mosaic tesserae resolve into Divina

 

Paradiso.  So Jesus-Orpheus the shepherd

pipes Eurydice

free of that ceremony –

Flee, Morning Star, into thy molten Word!

 

So Raven-Cautantowwit mounts up

like chunk of cave-shade

out of Narragansett glade.

History will halt here (full-stop).

Gould’s exposition of love continues; the only thing I can say is that if you’re interested in the possibilities of poetry you really should read it.