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).

 

 

Advertisements

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’]