Ravenna Diagram by Henry Gould: A Review

Ravenna Diagram, Henry Gould, Dos Madres, 2018, ISBN 978-1-939929-92-1, $25.00ravenna-diagram-cover-428x642

Henry Gould’s Ravenna Diagram is, to quote the introduction,

‘a long poem which follows in the vein of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ ‘The Bridge,’ ‘Paterson,’ ‘The Cantos,’ ‘A,’ and ‘The Maximus Poems.’ It is an attempt to come to new terms with old epic and visionary traditions, epitomized by Dante and Milton, and carried on by Hart Crane, H.D., Louis Zukofsky, Jay Wright and others. The poet aims to take up the primordial challenge of bridging heaven and earth, the spiritual and temporal, in a new voice. There is a special affinity with the Acmeist movement of Russian poetry and Osip Mandelstam—tracing to Dante, toward the end of his life, in Ravenna, completing his Divina Commedia under the clear shadows of Eastern Orthodox mosaics. But this is an American poem, and a work-in-progress—juxtaposing Dante’s spiritual “vertical” with the vast “horizontal” of colloquial, pilgrim American time and space.’

Well, there’s an ambitions statement of intent, if ever you saw one.

Unlike most of his cited American antecedents, Gould’s method is formalist, with the poems in this 400+ page series being written in quatrains, mostly seven quatrains per poem, but with some of 14 or 21, and an occasional aberration from the rule of seven. For the most part, the quatrains rhyme, more or less fully, ABBA, although again this is fluid. In fact, fluid is an apt enough adjective for Gould’s formalism.

Metrical variation is also the order of the day, with a disjointed syntax driving line length and stress patterns, including lots of cross-line and cross-stanza enjambment. The result is a rich, sometimes challenging, always delightful verbal music. A typical passage, if such a thing exists, might go like this, from about a third of the way in:

……………………….. This great nation

 

that wum nursed wim fingerpainting

– “Dang George’s fault – that bad,

mad King – we all been had!”

squished into gouache, wid fingerpointing.

 

Like a rain-map by John the Daubist

of Ethiopia,

the cornucopia’s

lost tramp-vein – 50 states list

 

overboard

Gould’s wordplay reads like a cross between late Joyce and even later Zukofsky, and is in deadly earnest, like all good fun. Puns and other verbal echoes serve to weave themes and motifs into each other, as in this early passage:

A sort of green eye on Green

Island (bordered by sand

and ocean). Unmanned

bee, beneath ziggurat (unseen,

 

see) – this mound (sounding beyond

Ursa Minor). By Jimini!

(cracked the barrelly,

garrulous wheedler) – yer mind?

 

–  ‘s gone!

Where images of America as both Dante’s Eden transplanted weave into Old World splendours, with ziggurat and mound representing a continuity of habitation with hints of the funerary, where we shall unmanned be(e) under the eye(land) of the green-eyed god. And one of the poem’s great figures, Ezra Pound, sneaks in the door (the truncated stanza at the end contains a reference to Cathay).

In fact, Pound is an almost ever-present presence, frequently paired with Apollinaire, whose name suggests an Apollonian counterpoint to Ezra’s Bacchanalian madness. Of course, in Gould’s fluidity, nothing remains the same, and at almost the exact mid-point they swap roles, when on facing pages (210/211) we read ‘Apollinaire’s//the latest Dionysus’ and Pound’s Apollonian, paradisiacal ‘Don’t move,/let the wind speak’.

These poets are just one among the poems multiple pairings, axes on the graph that plots ‘heaven and earth, the spiritual and temporal’. Another such pairing is Dante and Henry, the latter being the poet himself, John Berryman’s anti-hero and Dante’s great failed hope, the emperor Henry VII, whose ‘rocky throne/stands empty now’, as does his golden one in Dante’s vision.

Another crucial pairing starts with a cousin glimpsed in childhood via some old Super-8 film:

you hop off the see-saw, Juliet

 

sans warning – take me by surprise.

I land on my little ass

Whose suicide by drowning links her to Hart Crane, and whose proximity to a ‘brilliant golden spider’ pairs her with another recurring figure, Ariadne/Arachne, weaver goddess and wife of Bacchus, as it happens, and so round we go, all things connected.

An inchworm dangles calmly

from green thread; she

might be Ariadne’s cousin, gone

 

to ground

At the heart of Gould’s explorations is an imminent move from Providence, where he lived for many years, back to his home town of Minneapolis. This pulls together an interest in American place names as marker of the disjoint between the world views of the First Peoples and the Christian settlers, the latter sometimes lending names that reflected their utopian projects, sometimes borrowing the older names, and sometimes, as In Minneapolis (the town of water) combining the two.

And the two cities have much in common. Both live on and by water and both were established by a process of fair dealing with the aboriginal inhabitants. Indeed, Roger Williams, the religious free-thinker who established Providence is among Gould’s heroes, again often paired with Coke and Blackstone, jurists, in a distinctly Pounding grounding of the ideal city in the rule of law.

immaculate origin of Providence.

 

I see her hero stepping through the gate

of stone, one hand held out

on a wave of love. Light

scout, scouring the root of hate –

 

defanging that lamprey of predatory

malice, hostile cruelty –

injustice clamped on history.

With Coke & Blackstone whispers: Now be free.

There are a lot more threads that run through this weave: The figure of Olson’s Maximus; the Old Testament and Jewishness; the goddess Isis (with attendant, more recent echoes); Venn diagrams and catenary curves; Eeyore; the Matter of Britain and matters of Ireland. There is one remaining pairing that remains absolutely central; the raven, bird of ill omen, whose name echoes Ravenna and whose symbolism includes the picking over of dead bodies, and its complement, the dove, bird of peace. These are Noah’s birds, harbingers of the promised land, whose physical manifestation is repeatedly the American landscape:

The soft Bruegelish colors here

at India Point, at the end

of October. Moist diamond

apex of the bay, calm mirror

 

of gray sky… jade, orange.

Moss, oak leaves, quiet

water. Still boats, nets.

Strange silver vortex…

The dove recalls, memory being key to all things, Cavalcanti’s great canzone ‘Donna me prega’, with its insistence that love resides ‘dove sta memoria’, where memory is.

And so, we return to Cavalcanti’s friend Dante in Ravenna, hell and purgatory behind him and heaven almost completed, building to the great final silence:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

 

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

In the love that moves everything, which is also the final goal of Gould’s extraordinary poem, driven by memories of a dead cousin, Juliet, by Pound’s prompting to make things cohere, by the riven, unfinished history of America, a vision of justice not fully achieved, Ravenna Diagram finds a resolution. Unlike the Cantos or Maximus, and Like ‘A’, this is not an open-ended epic. But unlike Zukofsky, Gould does not close with a grand chorale, but on a quieter, but no less satisfying note:

The King of Milk is by the riverside.

He washes memories

like Papa’s hand – a breeze

murmuring. Everything’s OK. I sighed.

 

A child is comforted. The Earth

will be. Like Magdalen

or Beatrice – when the sun

colors a morning cave (in Nazareth).

 

 

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Heavy Years, by Augustus Young: A Review

Heavy Years, Augustus Young, Quartet, 2018, ISBN 9780704374478, £20.00

Heavy Years is Augustus Young’s most recent volume of autofiction, or fictionalised memoir, following from his highly praised Light Years and the more recent Brazilian Tequila. In this book, the unnamed narrator is a medical graduate, not quite a doctor, from Cork who moves to London to work for the NHS as a freelance researcher/process improver. He’s an idealist whose philosophy is summed up in a quote from Rudolf Virchow that serves as an epigraph to the book: ‘Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on a larger scale.’ The arc of the book describes the journey from this belief that the NHS and the politicians whose role it is to fund and nurture it should be focused in health rather than illness, prevention before cure, through a slow absorption into the status quo to a kind of resignation and the ‘redemption by default’ of early retirement.

Our narrator is employed on the recommendation of a senior consultant called Mal Combes whose intention is to use his protégé as a constructive disruptor who will challenge established patterns of behaviour within the health service to the benefit of patients. It’s a job he takes on with initial enthusiasm, and in the process he constructs a map of the NHS hierarchy, from ’the mandarins’ at one end to ‘the humans’ at the other, and decides to focus his efforts on the front-line staff who, he feels, are most likely to share his view of the proper role of medicine and less likely to be involved in politics for its own sake. All of this is accompanied by a Greek chorus consisting of the talking in his head.

He decides to use his outsider status as an Irishman to his advantage:

What could be seen as a disadvantage was an asset. I could use my Irishness, and English colleagues couldn’t. at least not directly. I did not disguise my accent, but spoke very distinctly (like my mother on the phone). I decided it was a magical weapon like Fionn MacCool’s gae-bolg (spear). It entered my enemies like a javelin and its barbs opened up inside.

[It hardly detracts from this to point out that the gae-bolg was Cuchulain’s spear.]

On balance, things go pretty well at first, until the election as Prime Minister of the woman he calls Mrs Sybil, known in the real world as Mrs Thatcher. The new, market driven, politics before health means he has two options, unemployment or compromise, and he settles for the latter. He had, in any case, begun to have doubts about Virchow’s ‘big idea’, having come to the conclusion that sickness, at a certain point, is inevitable as we grow older and that the inevitable outcome of a health-focused policy would be an aging, ill population. And so, he moves on to the ‘little idea’ of removing the patently incompetent from the system through a series of disciplinary proceedings. This, while generally effective, is unpopular and ultimately induces a kind of paranoia in the unnamed one as the higher powers in his hierarchical tree begin to take more interest in his actions. It also leads to a sense of change without progress, and as he moves closer to the higher powers in the system, his idealism is further diluted.

In a sense, this is close to the character of another Young doctor, Pedrinho Diaz, whose transformation from idealistic young medico to corrupt politician is at the heart of Brazilian Tequila. This, of course, leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the NHS jungle is very much like the Brazilian rainforest, at least where the integrity of medical administration is concerned. It’s a conflict that also resonates through another recent book by Young, The Invalidity of all Guarantees: A Conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, where Brecht’s pragmatism is set against the purity of Benjamin.

Alongside this tale of woe, we see glimpses of the Irish wing of literary London, the scene of Young’s earlier autofiction Light Years. This mostly revolving around pubs, with some interesting sightings of the near-legendary figure of Donegal poet and aspirant bag-lady Madge Herron. It is in these low relief passages that Young’s characteristically rambunctious style is most in evidence:

She was built like a chick albatross, and her vocal range was that of a starling, calls varying from chortled warbles to alarming squawks with tender little trills in between.

It is also here that the elements of the Venn diagram that links the narrator, his inventor Augustus Young, and Young’s inventor, Dr James Hogan fully overlap, bringing the nature of the autofiction into focus. Hogan, after all, was a consultant epidemiologist in the NHS and, unlike the lone bachelor narrator, a married man. And so, the story takes on something of the nature of that most particular genre of fictional distortion, the fable. But what, if any, is the moral? Here is the tale of an Irish doctor working for the NHS in London inspired by the work of a German thinker and, in real life, whatever that is, retiring to writerly seclusion in the South of France. It is, in short, a European fable. Given the post-Brexit prospects for the NHS, the following passage seems particularly prescient, whether intentionally or otherwise (I suspect the former):

Newly formed companies were scrambling for consultancy work. Interest in the American health system included exchanges of visits by professionals. I could see on the horizon competitive tendering by multinationals for service takeovers. The talking shook its head sadly, ‘How long, O Lord, how full of cant you are. A nation of shopkeepers is never going to go global.’

Which is, of course, exactly what said shopkeepers and their customers, behind a tattered banner unfurled on the playing fields of Eton, now intend to attempt.

And so, for all its playful poking of fun at human and organisation foibles, Heavy Years is, in the end, a deeply serious book, a story of idealism broken on the wheel of power, but also a finger pointing at the anti-moon of a post-Brexit privatised health ‘service’ whose reality draws ever closer. It may be too late to undo the referendum, but the moral of this fable is that the NHS must be defended at all costs.

Poetry after Brexit; some recent reading

The Soil Never Sleeps, Adam Horovitz, Palewell Press, 2018, ISBN 978-1-911587-05-7, £9.99

Twitters for a Lark, Robert Sheppard (ed), Shearsman, 2017, ISBN 978-1-84861-565-6, £9.95

Dear Mary, Rupert Loydell, Shearsman, 2017, ISBN 9781848615199, £9.95

Burdlife, Kevin Reid, Tapsalteerie, 2018, £3.00

Romanesco, Andrew Fentham, Eyewear, 2018, £6.00

All the Relevant Gods, Robin Houghton, Cinnamon Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-1910836958, £4.99

TSNS-Front CoverOne of the minor oddities of the bizarre post-Brexit UK landscape was seeing a photograph of arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove holding a copy of AdamHorovitz’s The Soil Never Sleeps taken at the launch of the book. Horovitz rationalises the photo by talking about the book’s balancing of conflicting points of view as a necessary condition of its faithfulness to its matter, but seen from Ireland, where the prevailing view is that the Brexit vote and process represent a kind of collective insanity on the part of our nearest neighbours, and one with potentially catastrophic consequences for the people of this island, it is difficult to take quite such a sanguine view.

Horovitz spent a year and a quarter as poet in residence for the Pasture-fed Livestock Association, and the book explores the various ways in which farmers across England and Wales are working to restore more traditional, ecologically sustainable ways of farming. Unfortunately, he was unable to include views from Scotland and Northern Ireland, the two regions most opposed to Brexit, which somewhat limits the perspectives available to him. In his introduction, Horovitz expresses regret about the absence of Scotland, meaning that the ‘book does not cover the entire island’; an interesting reminder of the fact that Northern Ireland is excluded from the category ‘British’.

The book is constructed as something of a seasonal poem, with the first four of its five sections taking their titles form the seasons, but in the odd order spring, autumn, winter, summer. The fifth section, which shares its title with the book as a whole, ‘investigates the ethics, politics and future of farming’ and is, inevitably, concerned with the impact of Brexit.

The irregular ordering of the seasons seems to be a device to reflect the rhythms of the working year, with the lambing/calving of spring linking to the fatted, market ready livestock, feasts of windfall apples and cider-making of autumn, as the two busiest seasons of the farm year, while the relative stasis of winter and summer mirror each other; the seasons of doing followed by the seasons of tending.

In their nature, the poems tend to the documentary and narrative, with a momentum often built around the relationship between the clumsy but willing vegetarian outsider learning to fit with a way of life that is alien but attractive, a narrative of learning, of challenging preconceptions, as in a poem marking a visit to an abattoir:

There are always choices to be made. To eat,

or not. To live. To help each other do the same.

[from ‘The Abattoir’, in the final section]

But Horovitz is a fine poet, capable of producing delightful verbal music that lift the stories onto another level:

A green shimmering of germinating oats

hangs over a raised lip

of ploughed earth, heavy

with the last weight of a well-timed rain.

[from ‘Feeding the Pigs’ in the spring section]

There’s a lot going on in lines like these, from the obvious alliteration (g/g, h/h, w/w/w) to the spine of murmuring ‘m’ sounds that links the first and last lines of the stanza. The two long runs of unstressed syllable in the first line (SHIM|mer|ing |of |GERM|in|a|ting OATS) contribute to the sense of expectancy while the clustering of stress in the final line enact the ‘well-timed’ weather.

This poet’s ear for the detail of language is evident throughout:

True hunger begins at the roots

of want. I have felt its brief touch,

elusive as the rasp of soil on my teeth.

[from ‘The Abattoir’]

The Kind of farming celebrated in the book is, of course, the kind that would be most under threat form a post hard Brexit deregulated Britain, with floods of cheap, additive-laden imported meat from the Americas and elsewhere, and the poems, especially in the final section, reflect this reality and Horovitz’ clear discomfort with the aftermath of the June 2016 referendum:

Everything’s an experiment in these

discordant, Brexit-weighted times.

The world seems stranger than it’s ever been

on the surface. It moves so fast that soil

is an irrelevance, in certain circles.

Unworthy of complicated thought.

[from ‘The Abattoir’]

Those circles must include Michael Gove, who clearly hadn’t read the book he was holding in that photograph. Or perhaps he had; who can tell the depths of duplicity a politician is capable of?

Twitters larkTwitters for a Lark, the latest volume of Robert Sheppard’s world of invented European poets represented in the European Union of Imagined Authors (EUIA), is, if anything, even more explicitly engaged with Brexit. This is an anthology of imaginary poetry from the 28 member states of the EU, with the UK represented by a made-up Robert Sheppard. The ‘poems’ are collaborations between Sheppard and a number of collaborators (he is involved in all 28 collaborations) and, as with the rest of the EUIA work, it is a plea for the recognition of a unified European literary culture, particularly as expressed in poetry. And the full range of that tradition is hinted at, with work that is romantic, classical, modernist, formalist and concrete on display.

It is, in places, almost too successful as a fictional multilingual anthology, with some of the work included teetering, intentionally or otherwise, into a kind of translatorese:

Invincible dust shakes most furiously from flesh

because no one is to be born after.

But then again, readability almost isn’t the point in this book, as I see it; this is a kind of conceptual work, an object more than a book. Of course, all books are objects, but objects intended to be read. Twitters for a Lark does its work without being read at all, the idea of what it is, what it stands for, takes precedence over the contents.

And what it stands for, I think, is resistance to the nonsense idea that the UK is, or can be, anything other than European. The main theme that emerges is an interwoven history, from the classical world through the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Greek bailout, and it is fitting that the final country represent ed is the UK, the country that proposes to turn its back on that shared history, the ‘fictive cartography’ that is all too real, and that binds us all together.

You’d need a reviewer with a far broader and deeper knowledge of European languages and literature than I have, so I’ll just comment on two of the virtual contributors. Spain is represented by the bilingual Catalan/Spanish poet Cristòfol Subira, whose very readable contributions, written by RS in collaboration with Alys Conran are possibly an echo of the real-world Joan Margarit. The ‘Irish’ poet has the ludicrous name of Sean Eoghan (John John) and his ‘poetry’, a bastard child of late Joyce and early Yeats, seems inspired by Father Ted more than anything else.

But, as I said, the contents of the book matter less than its being. Nonetheless, I can’t but wonder if it’s getting near time for the EUIA to disband.

Rupert Loydell’s Dear Mary is a set of ekphrastic poems on the Annunciation in European Dear Marypainting. Although there is no reference to Brexit and many of the poems were written before the referendum, we are again reminded of our common European religious and artistic traditions. At the core of the work is the, often exasperating, relationship between visual and verbal art:

How does paint speak

down the centuries,

flaking from a forgotten wall

or crumbling in a shadowed chapel,

overlooked by tourists and guides?

[from ‘Hidden’]

and

we have names for only a few

of the thousands of colours

around us. We improvise and

negotiate, compare and group,

neatly divide the spectrum up

[from ‘Between’]

But then again, if your subject the invisible, the not yet present, then perhaps it’s fair to say that your language should be inadequate, your poems a series of graspings after articulation. Annunciations concern both immanence and absence, that which is perpetually about to be, and the task of both painter and poet is to suggest what lies outside the frame. In this context, it’s interesting that Loydell frequently writes about paintings he failed to see; the locked church or museum under repair is another form of annunciation.

He also adapts the language of other contexts to approach his subject, giving us prose poems and lyrics, collage and/or parody, the annunciation as a UFO sighting and as online dating:

When he disrobed, it was a bit of a shock to see what he’s kept hidden. He folded his wings around me and we made love all afternoon. I’ve never been so fulfilled, so satisfied. It was heavenly. Then he departed from me.

What an angel! I long to see him again.

[from ‘Online Dating Annunciation’]

The question arises as to what these paintings mean to those of us for whom they are simply works of art and not objects that lead us to religious meditation; they have no more ‘spiritual’ content than, say, ‘The Birth of Aphrodite’ and perhaps less than ‘Guernica. For many of Loydell’s readers, annunciations are no longer doorways into the numinous, unless we redefine the numinous as a purely aesthetic experience.

This question is addressed in ‘Evidence’, the final poem in the book:

Here, I commandeer the patio table,

despite the morning mist,

and wonder what David meant

in his surprise email this morning

about whether or not it is possible

to write about faith today.

To which the immediate response is ‘well, I’ve just finished a book on the subject’. It isn’t, of course, that simple, and David, whoever he be, has a point. Loydell is writing in a context where the same science that makes emails and print on demand books possible, also leads us to question, and in many cases reject, angels and virgin births. It’s not surprising, although it may be disappointing, to find him address science later in the same poem:

Our explanations are to do with science

and how things were first made, what

they will become. There is no room

for wonder or any sense of doubt;

the grey that fills the valley

is just moisture, not an obscuring veil,

and if we get a rainbow it is water

acting as a prism, not a sign from God.

Disappointing because he misrepresents what science is. Science is full of wonder, full of doubt, an arena of provisional, improvable models of the world, in contrast to the certainty of religion. And the facts of how droplets of moisture form a mist or a rainbow are no less full of wonder for being explicable; if anything, the opposite.

That said, Dear Mary is a book of great interest, perhaps Loydell’s finest to date, and one well worth reading.

Cover-Burdlife-Kevin-ReidMeanwhile, Brexit or not, the unbusiness-like business of small independent presses producing more or less tiny chapbooks of poetry goes on, as it must. Kevin Reid’s ‘limited-edition micro-pamphlet’ Burdlife takes as its starting point Ivor Cutler’s ‘Birdswing’ and is a short set of equally short burst of dialect birdsong. These are poems that are a delight to read but are almost impossible to write about, so the best thing to do is to give you one and send you off to buy and read the rest:

 

Scunnert

 

whityioptae?

 

sameolshite

sameolshite

 

me tae

Cover_fenthamAndrew Fentham’s Romanesco, from the always interesting Eyewear imprint, is somewhat more substantial and varied than Reid’s little book. In fact, it has the appearance of a young poet playing with form, ranging from concrete poetry to the sestina. It’s refreshing to see such an experimental approach from a new (to me at least) writer, and it should be said that the experiments are invariably interesting and, for the most part, successful. The two longest poems in the book, ‘Supplément au Voyage de Gauguin’ and ‘Au Hasard Pantomime’ are the most successful. The latter is a kind of reworking of the story of Balaam’s ass in the style of Beckett, the former uses extracts from the artist’s letters in English translation;

fentham

relevant_godsRobin Houghton is a blogger and co-founder of the Telltale Press, whose books I have previously reviewer, so she knows a thing or two about small press production. All the Relevant Gods is her second pamphlet. The poems here are tinged with gentle surrealism, sometimes veering into a kind of magic realism.

 

Sagra’s office walls flare chilli and lime.

To enter is to firewalk:

my dry skin reddens.

[from the title poem]

Her main subjects are places and the mundane world of daily work; the places include offices, hotels, conferences, commuter trains and the kind of displaced activity they entail:

Our wheels sharpen on a drawn-out mass

of points and then we’re stationary, our heaving

 

carriage balanced over Union Street arches,

hearts beating up out of sleeping bags below

 

where once packers and platers lit their fags,

off to the Rose & Crown, after the factory closed.

[from ‘London Bridge to Waterloo East’]

Gap Gardening by Rosmarie Waldrop: a review

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, Rosmarie Waldrop, New Direction, 2016, ISBN-gap_gardening_cover13: 978-0811225144

 

If the eye were a living creature, says Aristotle, its soul would be its ability to see.

[p. 172]

Which, by a process of parallel reasoning leads to the conclusion that the soul of Rosmarie Waldrop is her ability to make things out of language that please an illuminate in equal measure. This selected poems, which I am very belatedly reviewing, serves as a comprehensive introduction to her work for those who don’t already know it and as a confirmation and reminder of her exceptional abilities for those of us who do.

The arc of her technical development is, broadly, from verse poetry to prose poetry, and this is evident here; of the first 70 pages or so, about three quarters is in verse, and for the remainder of the book a similar majority consists of prose texts which have, in appearance on the page, something of the quality of a series of propositions a la Aristotle or Wittgenstein, but here the exploration of language, the world and the relationships between them is worked out in terms that are poetic rather than philosophical.

Many of Waldrop’s essential themes and concerns are laid down in the early verse books. For instance, the insertion of graphic road signs in The Road is Everywhere, or Stop this Body prefigures the emphasis on sign and sight that runs through the book while the sequences from When They Have Senses included are early statements of the essential I/you/we or she/he/they relationship that is the essential geometry of much of Waldrop’s work.

her knees crossed

over the manner of

his undressing her

[p.35]

This triangle, which can be either personal or public, concerned with the possibility of love or of a functioning social order, is laid over a background of the life of an outsider coming to terms with American society and language with an eye for the telling detail that may lie invisible to the insider. The gaps between these figures in the Waldrop landscapes are, on one level, those that she is cultivating, but this is also true of the space between the world and the text, a text that remains constantly aware of its own textuality:

Voices, planted on the page, do not ripen or bear fruit. Here placement does not explain, but cultivates the vacancy between them. The voices pause, start over. Gap gardening which, moved inward from the right margin, suspends time.

[p. 90]

There is a repeated questioning of the verb ‘to know’; what can be known, how it can be known, if it can be known are refrains that run through the pages of this selection. The gaps are epistemological challenges, the space between the I/she and you/he means that the emerging we is limited by the impossibility of truly shared experience, the we being a product of this impossibility:

Intermittent, she says, as if a space of time, too, could not be occupied by two bodies. Even bodies of experience and memory. As if we had no history, only a past purloined by nothing to show for it.

[p. 101]

And so the work turns, in the volume Reluctant Gravities to a sceptical investigation of knowledge, with section headings that echo the titles of Montaigne’s essays (‘On Vertigo’, ‘On Place’ for example). These poems, from which the quotation just preceding this paragraph is taken, are meditations on the epistemology of each other, of the necessary, but unknowable ‘we’. And in the books that follow, with their focus on American history and on language, this ‘we’ becomes increasingly social rather than personal, so that in A Key into the Language of America, which also uses the essay-title device, reflections on Native American language and culture (via a 17th century book on Narragansett), are folded into the text in ways that illuminate the role of language in excluding the Other from the socio-political ‘we’. The same radical scepticism was previously applied to reworkings of key texts in America’s story about itself in Shorter American Memory:

We hold these trysts to be self-exiled that all manatees are credited equidistant, that they are endured by their Creator with cervical answerable rims, that among these are lightning, lice and the pushcart of harakiri.

[p. 106]

After the density of these prose sequences, Waldrop turns, in a verse sequence called ‘Pre & Con, or Positions & Conjunctions’ to a Zukofskian focus on extra-semantic language in a set of finely honed poems driven by grammar words, the prepositions and conjunctions of the title:

If a bird if

up into the air

if cold if

 

we must adhere if

a road if renamed by

if each if travelling

[p146]

From this point, say 1998, onwards, all the elements of Waldrop’s mature writing are in place, and in the books that follow, her concerns fold into each other in ever new, ever invigorating ways:

A different relation to knowing, the pursuit cannot define the object of pursuit even if the road is lit by a crystal cage, lighthouse, bright red plumage, high noon. I was not surprised to be alone.

[p. 186].

The book closes with a substantial selection from the 2010 volume Driven to Abstraction, and a sustained meditation on that most problematic of signifiers, zero. Here Waldrop’s sceptical interrogation of language reaches its ultimate conclusion, a delicate balance between the destructive and generative powers of the word:

The word’s power to kill – I’m not thinking of white-gloved White House memos – its violence against what it names, what it can name only by taking away its materiality, destroying its presence. Is death itself speaking.

 

Or is it? If the word both kills and shows “a certain slant of light on winter afternoons” that we’d search in vain anywhere else? If the word “horse” boils the animal down to the concept, and yet, in the way of hunger, hallucinates four legs, a mane, and folds of flesh? Then maybe this death is not a simple matter. And must hold a kind of life the way fog holds light?

[p.226]

Here, more than anywhere else, Waldrop refers overtly to a literary tradition to support her ultimate belief in the efficacy of language as a creative medium, the visionary power of the Dickinson overcoming the Gradgrindian utilitarian epistemology of those who would use it as a destructive force.

*

I’ve been wondering how to close this all too brief review of what is an exceptionally important book, and have decided that it’s best to leave the last word to Rosmarie Waldrop herself, to close the circle, at least temporarily:

Out at the sea I stare. As if it were the universe. Could pull the infinite into my eye. Without the rational lines of perspective. With absent wavelengths represented as imagination. Slow the eye I brought with me from Germany. And does not leave its body. Nor change the stance of distance.

[p.174]

 

 

 

The Magic Door, by Chris Torrance: A Review

The Magic Door, Chris Torrance, Test Centre, 2017, ISBN: 978-0-9935693-4-0, £30.00

Chris-Torrance_Magic-Door_frontBy way of setting the scene, The Magic Door is an ongoing long poem-cycle centring around Torrance’s life in rural isolation in the Neath valley since the early 1970s and published in more or less impossible to find small press booklets over the period 1975 to 1996. Under the editorship of Will Shutes and with an introduction by poet and long-time friend of Torrance Phil Maillard, Test Centre have done poetry a considerable service by gathering them together in a substantial (400+ pages) and handsome paperback edition. The book contains six ‘canonical’ parts of the series, The Magic Door (TMD, as distinct from the full title used to refer to the cycle as a whole or this complete edition), Citrinas (Cit), The Diary of Palug’s Cat (Palug), The Book of Brychan (BoB), The Slim Book/Wet Pulp (SB/WP) and Southerly Vector (SV). Torrance’s 1973 volume of Neath poems, Acrospirical Meanderings In A Tongue Of The Time (AM), as a ‘portal’ and inserts the unnumbered interlude Cylinder Fragments of the Twentieth Century (CF) chronologically placed between BoB and SB/WP. but not The Book of Heat, originally published together with SV as ‘two further books’ of the cycle. The omission is, presumably, a result of Maillard’s stated editorial decision to exclude work originally written for performance.

It is impossible to do full justice to what is, in my view, probably the most important ‘poem of some length’ by any British poet since Bunting’s Briggflatts, so what follows is an indication of some ‘ways in’ to the cycle that have occurred to me over several decades of familiarity with The Magic Door as it appeared in print.

*

One of the crucial questions facing Torrance’s readers is ‘just what is the magic door?’ It’s not a question with a single answer; the door is many-faceted, but perhaps one answer is that the magic door is a point of entry into a ‘purer’ life, a means of discovering the ‘true’ self. It’s interesting to compare Torrance’s move with the better-known case of William Wordsworth. To begin with, for Wordsworth moving to the Lakes was not a retreat from the city, where he never really lived, it was much more a homecoming and his quest was really for a return to a personal, rather than a general, state of innocence, his own childhood. It was also a move towards creating a literary community in the surrounding area.

Torrance, Edinburgh born and London bred, was actually travelling the classic pastoral route from city to country (together with Val Torrance, who illustrated much of the early work in this book) and in the process was potentially leaving behind a fairly extensive literary community; his movement was towards a future self-discovery, not a recovery of a personal past. He sought ‘a life of no more deception, of no more lies!’

Of course, as Maillard points out in his introduction, things are rarely that simple. Indeed, in an interview with Peter Hodgkiss in Poetry Information 18 published in 1978, Torrance is at pains to reject the notion of Arcadia, explain that as a writer he depended on the company of other writers, especially poet visitors to his Neath home, as input into his work, a fact that is evident in the earlier volumes of the cycle where individual pieces are frequently dedicated to fellow writers. This new, transient community took on greater stability when he started teaching extra-mural creative writing evening classes in Cardiff and then performing as part of the music and poetry group Poetheat.

The great, deflating realisation that besets the true Arcadian dreamer who sets out to live the dream is that the life of the country entails a considerable amount of hard work. It’s a realisation that comes early to Torrance, and that is central to his realistic appreciation of his new life. It’s also an understanding that unfolds and develops across time, and comes to encompass an understanding of politics and economics that some readers may find surprising:

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and quite another kind of work:

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and finally reaches a kind of provisional resolution in a passage that reads both as a statement of absorption into the process and an expression of futility.

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*

Meanwhile, Torrance’s friend and publisher Iain Sinclair had made the opposite journey, fleeing Wild Wales to explore the dark glamour of the capital. At the same time that Torrance was writing the early volumes of the cycle, Sinclair wrote Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, a pair of books that delineated a kind of mythic geography of London and its environs, drawing largely on Alfred Watkins’ theory of leys as reimagined by John Michell.

Michell’s The Flying Saucer Vision: the Holy Grail Restored and The View Over Atlantis reimagined were part of the zeitgeist of late 1960s and 1970s British counterculture, serving something of the same role as Native American earth wisdom did in the American equivalent. Michell reconfigured Watkins’ system of ‘old straight tracks’ used as a network of trade routes, into a grid of mystical ‘energy’ aligning with the supposed flight paths of flying saucers which, in common with other Ufologists, he thought of as being, in the words of Erich von Däniken, ‘the chariots of the gods’. His ideas were as influential as they were fanciful, particularly in the revival of leys in contemporary British land art, especially Richard Long and Hamish Fulton who both studied Watkins’ writings and, via Sinclair, on much British place writing and psychogeography since Lud Heat.

In the Poetry Information interview, Torrance discusses the role of leys in The Magic Door:

‘In looking at ley lines I’ve discovered I’m looking at a decayed system, but one with still some latent energy in it, which could be tapped, which I perhaps try to tap, but which is perhaps also perverted in some ways…The Ley lines are helping and hindering: they’re sometimes shining with white light and telling me to go on, and they’re sometimes corrupt and discharging foul and noxious forces.’

In fact, there are actually remarkably few overt references to leys in the poem, but there is one fairly evident allusion to Michell:

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As I read it, leys serve as lines of enquiry, some fruitful, others less so, that Torrance pursues as ways in to the Neath landscape, and one such line leads him to a literal ‘magic door, when he stumbles across the stone entranceway at Glan Yr Afon in Cit.

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And almost immediately, Torrance’s suspicion is evident:

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And ultimately he comes to see Glan Yr Afon in a very negative light:

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*

And Bendigeid Vran commanded them that they should cut off his head. “And take you my head,” said he, “and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body. And at Gwales in Penvro you will be fourscore years, and you may remain there, and the head with you uncorrupted, until you open the door that looks towards Aber Henvelen, and towards Cornwall. And after you have opened that door, there you may longer tarry, set forth then to London to bury the head, and go straight forward.”

One day said Heilyn the son of Gwynn, “Evil betide me, if I do not open the door to know if that is true which is said concerning it.” So he opened the door and looked towards Cornwall and Aber Henvelen. And when they had looked, they were as conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost, and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot; and especially of the fate of their lord. And because of their perturbation they could not rest, but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, inasmuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.

The Mabinogion, specifically in the translation by Lady Charlotte Guest, was yet another strand in that zeitgeist, and it is hard to imagine that Torrance wouldn’t have known of this most striking instance of a magic door in Welsh literature. The taboo nature of the door, the fact that it opens on to a sad restlessness, and, of course, the pull Torrance must have felt from time to time (a number of early pieces in AM and TMD refer to visits back to the city) make it relevant to many sections of the cycle, given Torrance’s scrupulous honesty about the difficulties of his chosen life and occasional bouts of depression. The most extended treatment of this is the narrative that flows across the final section of Cit and all of Palug.

This chronicles the end of Torrance’s marriage to Val and his failed attempt to build a relationship with a much younger and deeply troubled woman called Sue, followed by a brief, but happy, third relationship. There is much interest in the triptychal form that unfolds: forgetting how to love; failing to be loved, finding a mutual love.

There is what I take to be a reference to The Mabinogion in the final section:

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The echo is from the following passage, again in the Guest translation

At that time, Math the son of Mathonwy could not exist unless his feet were in the lap of a maiden, except only when he was prevented by the tumult of war. Now the maiden who was with him was Goewin, the daughter of Pebin of Dôl Pebin, in Arvon, and she was the fairest maiden of her time who was known there.

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves discusses this passage in the context of his notion of the lame god, a solar deity who dies annually. Math is, it is worth remembering, the magician who creates the flower-woman Blodeuwedd in defiance of a taboo against love. Interestingly, Torrance reverses the genders of lord and lap holder, promoting the woman to the position of power. Nevertheless, on the whole I think that Palug is the least satisfying section of the work to date, largely because Torrance’s attempt to get inside the head of another person is hindered by his tendency to revert to a bitch/goddess view of her role in their relationship.

*

The door at Glan Yr Afon is described in terms that reveal Torrance’s autodidactic knowledge of geology, and Cit as a whole is saturated in scientific terminology from that field, just as the earlier books are laden with Latin nomenclature from botany, and especially mycology. The confluence of scientific and mythological ways in to the landscape are integral to Torrance’s position as a poet of the ecosphere and of the long view:

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This is the earliest use of the word ecosystem in British poetry that I’m aware of and it announces a thread that runs through entire weave of The Magic Door.

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and:

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and again:

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I has been said, including by me in a piece on Torrance I wrote for The Guardian a few years back, that Torrance is a British Beat, but that bald statement is in need of some qualification. The Beat figure he is closest to is Gary Snyder, whose concern with how to be in the world and insistence on taking the long view, to think in terms of geological and/or mythical rather than human time, are close to Torrance’s concerns.

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Torrance’s close attention to the minutiae of the world around him, both human and ‘natural’ and his integration of scientific language into his writing practice mark him out as one of the key figures in British ecopoetic writing, and I suspect that his influence in this area far exceeds his wider reputation. An instance to illustrate this aspect of the cycle is the way it is saturated in weather, and that these observations are not decorative, but are folded into the wider socio-political strands already mentioned.

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*

In both the interview and a note at the end of this book, Torrance explains that his great theme is transformation, and in the early sections this is evident in his use of terminology from of alchemy. However, the single most important act of transformation in any poem is the act of turning language into poetry, the alchemy that actually works, and it is Torrance’s ability as a poet that is the true basis of the importance of The Magic Door.

In his conversation with Hodgkiss, Torrance discussed his poetic influences at some length, and these include the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, especially Olson, and some of his British contemporaries, notably Lee Harwood. He also cites the example of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson as a model of how an extended poem about place might be structured. It is clear that Williams integration of prose into his poetic structure and his willingness to discuss the difficulty of writing the poem within the poem, the work of the poet taking its place in the broader spectrum of work that Torrance acknowledges, are reflected in The Magic Door:

Blocked.

(Make a song out of that: concretely)

By whom?

(Paterson, Book Two)

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Torrance also retracts an interjection in TMD in which he expresses a preference for David Jones over the ‘elite uptightness’ of Ezra Pound, telling Hodgkiss ‘I think differently now. I’ve had some tremendous experiences with The Cantos since then, and if you ask me now what I think about that comment, I’d say yes it’s wrong, but the excuse is that it’s true evidence of a state of mind.’

This change of heart is evident from early in BoB:

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The reference is to the preface to Nennius’s Historia Brittonum: ‘Ego autem coacervavi omne quod inveni’, generally translated as ‘I have made a heap of all I could find’. The phrase was something of a motto for Jones, but could equally serve to describe The Cantos. This passage is almost immediately followed by an aptly misremembered quote from Pound:

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The versification from here right through to the end of SV shows Torrance to be one of very few British (or any) poets to really get what Pound achieved in the late Cantos:

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Right from the beginning of the cycle, Torrance’s interest in Egyptian myth is evident, especially through his identification of Neath with the goddess Neith, the first and prime creator and Opener of Paths for the souls of the dead. In the later books, the figure of Ma’at gains equal prominence.

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The concept here is Poundian, but gains extra specificity when you learn that Ma’at uses her feathers to weigh the souls of the dead to decide if they would be successful in their journey to the afterlife, and still more by the knowledge that in her role as guardian of morality she is responsible for ensuring proper treatment of the environment. The convergence between Ma’at and Neith is completed in the great ‘Praise Poem to Neith’ that ends SV and, thus, the cycle as it stands.

*

There are, of course, any number of other ‘ways in that, if I were writing a book, I would discuss: drugs, including alcohol, as ‘doors of perception’, important in the earlier books, but diminishing as we go on; Torrance’s Jungian interest in recording his dreams; the vital importance of the gathering and consumption of firewood.

For now, suffice it to say that this is a vital poem, and that Test Centre have served it, Torrance and readers of poetry hugely by the care and attention they have put into bringing it together for the first time in this handsome, hefty volume. In his Afterword, Torrance refers to ‘at least 3 more books, taking The Magic Door into the 21st century’. I can only urge you to buy the current volume so that they might publish these outstanding volumes with the same diligence.