Versions of Masculinity

Recent reading of  Steve Ely, Geoffrey Hill and Basil Bunting have made me think about the male perspective in poetry and about how different aspects of masculinity are represented in contemporary poetry by men.[1]  I don’t think poetry can be gender neutral, no matter how generous, inclusive or aware of the other the poet attempts to be.  Nor do I think gender can be seen as binary; there must be as many versions of gender in poems as there are in the people who write them.   Nevertheless, there are certain traits in poetry, as in life, which are traditionally regarded as masculine, and may include attitudes to violence and sexuality as well as specific ways of using language.

  1. Simon Armitage      

simon armitage

I used to be very bothered by Simon Armitage.  Is it time I changed my mind?

Some years ago, when I was a teacher, I used to have to teach Simon Armitage’s poem, “I am very bothered” to successive classes of GCSE students. Here is the poem:

I am very bothered when I think

of the bad things I have done in my life.

Not least that time in the chemistry lab

when I held a pair of scissors by the blades

and played the handles

in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;

then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin

as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,

then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,

the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say

that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,

of asking you if you would marry me.

This is a poem which commemorates, or even celebrates, a sick and cruel joke. Apologists for this not even half-hearted apology will make all sort of claims for it. They will argue that the poet is not the persona in the poem but is exploring a particular type of callow youthful behaviour; they will point to the (not very) subtle uses of language and wordplay such as “played”, “eternity”, “branded”.  They will even say that this is a kind of love poem presented in the form of a botched sonnet.  In my view, the poem depicts an act of gross harassment, where the male asserts his right to the female as a piece of property by setting his mark on her, an act which the perpetrator enjoys “the unrivalled stench of branded skin”. It presents a horrifying concept of marriage. The perspective is totally that of the perpetrator; the victim’s shock and pain is not even imagined.  The use of reductive, casual language , “very bothered” –not “deeply ashamed”, “butterfingered”- not “deliberate and sadistic”, seeks to engage our sympathies for the protagonist, to diminish the severity of his action and to exculpate him. The final stanza plays the classic poetic trick of negation, “Don’t believe me, please” in order to excuse both writer and reader from judgement or responsibility.  I don’t understand how this poem has become canonical and why it is considered appropriate to set it before  GCSE students for their admiration. It has prejudiced me against Simon Armitage for twenty years; perhaps it is time for a rethink.

Unlike Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin who are often cited as his forerunners, the figure which Armitage projects through his poetry and other writing is that of Everyman. However, the persona is definitely everyman rather than everyone and what I should like to explore is how this perspective is created and operates in his work.  The first topic to consider is Armitage’s use of a demotic which is peculiarly masculine: “ I have not bummed across America”, “Harold Garfinkel can go fuck himself”, “Batman, bigshot,” “him whose arse I whipped” “Sod it.  We drive to the pub,/ it drinks, so yours truly has to drive home”, “I stuck the boot in”.  This goes along with a subject matter which is often male Middle England; for example, in Paper Aeroplane – Selected Poems 1989-2014,there are poems about cars and driving, football and cricket, homeownership and DIY, male bonding and male competitiveness (including fighting and war).  Even when the topic is not specifically masculine the tone and phrasing are. In “The Present” from The Unaccompanied, a tender poem about climate change, he begins with a robust “I shove” followed by ‘stride out’, verbs suggesting a male heartiness which is supported by the rollicking rhythm of the first stanza:

            Rotten and rusted, a five-bar gate

            lies felled in the mud, letting the fields escape.

The detail is vivid and immediate, in keeping with one meaning of the title; the metaphor describing the larches “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs” is almost too much but perhaps fits in with the idea of quest, again usually a masculine trope, which is present throughout the poem.  The speaker is on a quest to find an icicle to show to his daughter, but the only ones he can find are too insubstantial to survive the journey home and melt in his ‘gloved fist’. This image, almost a cliché, appears in the first two lines of the last stanza which have connotations of male violence and guilt:

            These are brittle and timid and rare, and weep

            in my gloved fist as  I ferry them home.Icicles

We may think of classic episodes such as the rape of the Sabine women; this stanza implies that the destruction of the environment is gendered masculine and leaves nothing to be handed on to future generations, here represented by a girl. Perhaps it is significant also that the daughter in the poem is passive, that she waits at home for the adventurer to bring home the prize, an figure of courtly love which is subverted by the fact that the prize has been destroyed. To push the reading even further, we can say that the male persona has sought for a ‘diamond-like cold’, a certainty which pins the “sense of the world” in place, but has been left with nothing but water which has run through his hand, reflecting feminine fluidity which evades and escapes him. Indeed, we could also point to the phallic symbolism of the ‘six-foot tusk’ icicle of the past, no longer to be found, as another expression of masculinity which has lost confidence in itself.

In “I Kicked a Mushroom” the same self-conscious uneasiness manifests itself. The poem describes an act which is magnified to represent all acts of mindless violence:

            but I stuck in the boot then walked away

            with its white meat caught in my tongue and lace.

The remains of the mushroom lie on the lawn all night , “showing the gods what I am”.  It is as though the poet is discovering and admitting his complicity in the sorts of thoughtless cruelty and vandalism which he has described in third person or in other personas throughout his career, one notable example being  “Hitcher”, where an ordinarily depressed wage slave vents his frustration on a hitchhiker:

            I let him have it

            on the top road out of Harrogate – once

            with the head, then six times with the Krooklok

            in the face –and didn’t even swerve.

Perhaps Armitage is attracted to medieval poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Death of Arthur because they allow for plenty of hacking and hewing as well as a degree of verbosity that would not go unexamined in a contemporary poem.

The concern with sexuality and gender appears again in “You’re Beautiful”, a Mars and Venus poem, which is an uncomfortable exploration of male and female stereotypes. The contrasts between male and female range from the horrific to the trivial. The purpose and context for the poem are not given and are unclear, apart from the fact that the source collection Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid is based on the notion of oppositions and conflicts. Be that as it may, the perspective in this poem is relentlessly masculine, one has to hope, ironically.

            You’re beautiful because you drink a litre of water and eat

                        five pieces of fruit a day.

            I’m ugly for taking the line that a meal without meat is a

                        beautiful woman with one eye.

This piece, like many other Armitage poems, bothers me because of its slightly shabby machismo, its moral ambiguity and the sense it projects of being a try-on.

“You’re beautiful because for you, politeness is instinctive, not a marketing campaign.”  Armitage, for all his bluff, man of the people stance and language, is extremely evasive. His poems often seem to be making a pitch rather than saying something real. This is partly because he often adopts personas which are clearly distant from himself, and because he enjoys dramatization and translation which again take him away from the lyric or confessional “I”.  This is probably a good thing, especially if we view it in Keatsian terms of “negative capability” and the “chameleon poet”. On the other hand, Armitage is an extraordinarily prolific writer who seems to accept an inordinate number of challenges and commissions. Let us hope that this because of inclination rather than necessity:

            I should resist this degrading donkey work in favour of my

                        own writing

            wherein contentment surely lies.

            But A. Smith stares smugly from the reverse of the twenty-

                        pound note,

            and when my bank manager guffaws

            small particles of saliva stream like a meteor shower

            through the infinity of dark space

            between his world and mine.

“An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”

This poem, from The Unaccompanied, is typical in the anxieties about identity which it establishes. Probably, the speaker is not Armitage, if only because no-one really has a bank manager any more. However, if it is a satire of Grub Street hackery, what is the point? It seems primarily to backfire on the poet himself, revealing a consciousness which is perpetually uneasy – uneasy about gender and sexuality, uneasy about social status, uneasy about the very fact of being a writer. In Walking Home, Armitage’s prose account of his journey along the Pennine Way, he describes a conversation with the Pennine Way Ranger assigned to guide him for one part of his journey:

walking home

“What did you think I’d be like?”

“I don’t know, to be honest.”

“Some kind of bespectacled, fragile intellectual in a velvet jacket and unsuitable shoes, right?”

“No”, he says unconvincingly, then a moment later, “OK, yes.”

The exchange reveals some of the inconsistencies and uncertainties which perhaps underlie and fuel Armitage’s work.  He writes about ordinary people and often purports to be just an ordinary bloke.  At the same time, he has intellectual aspirations as evidenced by his choice of career, his forays into Middle English and classical texts as well as, most recently, his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry.  He is resolutely hetero in his work, as though seeking to overthrow the notion of poetry as effeminate. Yet the masculinity he projects is not assertive or arrogant like that of, say, Ted Hughes or more recently, Steve Ely.  Rather, it is awkward, conflicted, representative of everyman in the present day.  This is one reason that he is suited to be the Poet Laureate; he is already writing a lot of public poetry which takes on and explores current issues in a safe and socially acceptable way. An example is “Remains”, another poem which has made it onto the GCSE syllabus. Here, Armitage explores, effectively and sympathetically, the PTSD of a soldier who has taken part in the shooting of a looter while on overseas service, possibly in Iraq.  It is part of The Not Dead, poems originally written to be part of a Channel 4documentary about the experiences of being a soldier in different wars.   Armitage has said, more than once, that he considers poetry to be a form of dissidence, that poets are members of ‘the awkward squad’.  These public poems are not dissident or transgressive but mainstream in the same way as the Help for Heroes charity and Prince Harry.

Where Armitage does transcend his public service role is when he adventures into the surreal.  He has said that his poems often begin with him telling himself stories and many of his pieces do seem like short fictions rather than lyrics. The collection Seeing Stars is made up of a series of prose poems which travel in strange and unsettling directions. One of the best is “I’ll be There to Love and Comfort You” which seems to be about a couple who have lost a child: “And out of the void, slowly but slowly it came: the pulsing starfish of a child’s hand, swimming and swimming and coming to settle on my upturned palm.”  It is a powerful end to a powerful poem, with connotations of evolution, revulsion, hope and responsibility carried by an extraordinary visual and tactile metaphor.

I have read a lot of Armitage in the past couple of weeks but only a small part of what he has written.  I still have not made up my mind. I think The Unaccompanied is a fine collection although I could have done without “To-do List”.  The uncertainty of tone, swithering between genuinely sharp wit and tacky or sometimes offensive punchlines seem to me to reflect an uncertainty of purpose and identity which is perhaps representative of our times.


[1] Since writing this introduction I have come across Kate Clanchy’s review of Gendering Politics by Vicki Bertram.  Bertram analyses poems by male and female poets, including “Snow Joke” by Simon Armitage (PN Review 165, Vol.32, No.1, September-October 2005)

Is Steve Ely like Geoffrey Hill or Basil Bunting?

incendium amoris

When I read a poem by Steve Ely in The London Review of Books, I was intrigued and sought out more of his work. Ely, who lives in Yorkshire, has produced three books: Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013), Englalaland, (2015) and Incendium Amoris (2017), all from Smokestack. The blurbs for these collections compare the poet’s work to Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. I thought it would be interesting to consider how far these comparisons can be sustained.

 

The three most obvious characteristics that come to mind are the autobiographical element, the strong sense of place experienced through time and the fact that all three poets are men. The work of Ely and Hill is also informed by a strong commitment to Christianity, whilst Bunting, reared within Quakerism, though less obviously Christian, arguably has a religious vision. For the purposes of this essay, I shall concentrate mainly on Incendium Amoris, Mercian Hymns and Briggflatts.

 

Incendium Amoris is inspired by the work of the same name by Richard Rolle, a fourteenth century and mystic. Ely uses the life and writings of Rolle to build connections between his own time and the past, in a manner which is “unapologetically inauthentic”, a phrase used by Umberto Eco to describe neomedievalism in its many manifestations from computer games to Dan Brown.[1]

Ely’s collection opens with the section, ‘Officium’, which may refer to the daily prayers or duties of the Catholic Church. It is made up of thirteen 13 line poems, with recurrent phrases and themes. The first poem establishes the link between past and present: ‘Catweazle in cuccula,somehow it’s me’. Catweazle, the poet’s note tells us, was a ‘time-travelling 11th century wizard in the eponymous 1970 LWT children’s TV programme.’ ‘Cuccula’ is a cowl, or monk’s hood, probably signalling the poet’s connection to Rolle, the hermit, and his own commitment to Catholicism. Again in the first poem, Ely refers to ‘Timeslip gleaners on Love Balk stubbles’; Love Balk is a place in the poet’s locality and the gleaners are apparitions in a dream or vision. However, the phrase also suggests the poet’s technique-gleaning fragments of local history over the centuries, perhaps redeeming the stories of the poor and the outsiders of the Yorkshire region where the poem is set. Contemporary characters the poet refers to as his ‘moochers’, Yommer, Joey Bach and Malc Spencer, seem like him, to have set their face against modernity –‘dynamiting windfarms, ‘chopping barbed wire’, deploring the ‘glyphosate sterility’ of commercial agriculture. These characters, like the speaker of the poems, exist on the borders of legality, poaching drinking and engaging in illicit sex, activities which bring them closer to Richard Rolle, who, though long regarded locally as a saint, never had this status ratified by the Church, possibly because of his scandalous relationship with the female nun, and later, anchoress, Margaret of Kirkby. This relationship, ‘Richard and Margret, couchant in bushes’ is celebrated in the sequence, particularly in the poem, ‘Pastoral’:

Dick pats her dry

with her untressed hair and orders her habit.

Her gret papys yet tremble and lift to his touch.

Ely’s identification with Rolle is suggested repeatedly: ‘somehow it’s me…She lay on me like brock-pelt, greasy as weasel./Lips found her nipples, familiar.’

By the end of the sequence, the voice is predominantly Rolle, perhaps a mystic but flawed and conflicted, ‘torrid and incontinent’. In his forest retreat he wakes ‘to the Beast, horned like Cernunnos, and flee[s] to the Name of Jesus.’ He preaches turning ‘your back/on this world’ but himself backslides repeatedly: ‘Seduced, we embrace,/ over and over, heat and sweetness, song.’ The penultimate poem quotes from and justifies Rolle as it reflects the title of the hermit’s treatise and Ely’s poems: ‘The fire of love incinerates sin:/in fullness of flame I am blent in bliss’. In the final poem of the sequence, the writer distances himself from the hermit using a third person perspective, but manages to make his allegiances clear. Sounding quixotic and almost forlorn, he is on the side of the poor, the uncouth, the enlisted men, lining up with the Pilgrimage of Grace, William Blake and the ‘Scrubbers at the lists on horsemeat ponies,/tilting at Zetors,[2] nephilim[3], windmills.’

 

Ely describes himself as a Socialist, a Catholic and a hunter. He is also an expert on Ted Hughes and the Director of the Ted Hughes Network in the English Literature & Creative Writing Subject Area at the University of Huddersfield. The blurb for Incendium Amoris describes the work as ‘peasant’s revolt against the accelerating cultural, social and environmental devastations of globalizing capital, a guerilla-pastoral prophecy of a yeoman-anarchist utopia.’ Ely, like Hughes, has been accused, despite his socialist protestations, of giving succour to the far right. Certainly, the survivalist references to ‘Baikal’ (a type of shotgun) and Realtree (camouflage wear), along with the neo-medieval nostalgia and the clinging to Catholic ritual and terminology have an effect which seems backward- looking and reactionary rather than seriously prophetic. It is hard not to hear Brexit in these poems.[4]

Briggflatts

How accurate, then, is it to compare Ely to Basil Bunting? Certainly, they share some of the same influences. Ely alludes to Pound and Yeats in his first poem, while Bunting was a friend and colleague of Pound, living close to him in Rapallo.

Bunting sees the past as existing still in the present, ‘Then is diffused in Now.’ They share some of the same texts, including the Song of Solomon and they have a shared northernness, Yorkshire for Ely, Cumbria for Bunting. They both like dogs:

I have a yong whippet

            off Baz from Brierley

            much is the mete

            she has brought to me.

                                                Ely

 

fell-born men of precise instep

leading demure dogs

from Tweed and Till and Teviotdale,

with hair combed back from the muzzle,

dogs from Redesdale and Coquetdale

taught by Wilson or Telfer.

Their teeth are white as birch,

slow under black fringe

of silent, accurate lips.

 

Bunting

This is an instructive comparison. Both writers place their poems with exact reference to people and places: ‘Baz from Brierley’, ‘Tweed and Till and Teviotdale’, ‘Wilson and Telfer’. In both there is an element of regional celebration. Both poems make use of alliteration, but for Ely this is a conscious archaism, part of his neo-medieval project where he mimics the poetic forms of middle English and the alliterative lines of pre-Chaucerian verse. In Bunting’s writing, the alliteration is part of the music of the poem which is in free verse, but relies on the sounds of vowels, consonants and syllables as well as the patterning of phrase to build up its complex effect. Moreover, Ely’s dogs are hunting dogs; Bunting’s are sheepdogs. Both writers are very male in their perspectives; both recognise violence as an aspect of masculinity. Bunting, despite his early pacifism, writes

I hear Aneurin number the dead and rejoice,

being adult male of a merciless species

Ely’s poems also refer to ancient battles and atrocities –‘Je te plumerai’, ‘Little Saint Hugh’ and there is a lot of killing, often of animals. The most violent aspect of his poetry is the language; there area lot of taboo words, often, I suppose, of Anglo-Saxon origins and plenty of references to sex and defecation. ‘Wesyll’ is an egregious example:

Stick your fucking wedding ring up your arse.

Sucked a cat’s brain through its orbital socket.

splunk pikejaws of viper, squirmed millipede

ribcage; et out via vulva, the unhinged head.

 

Shit in the hole. See them fall: Chaz, Lou,

Nick, Reza Pahlavi. They never sin

no one like me; stynkand, shrieking: curling

to sleep between hot breasts cold by morning.

With the references to executed kings, this may be the raw voice of the resisting common man, but it is definitely a male voice. It seems to me that Ely is exploring, or perhaps trying to preserve, a particular version of masculinity. He sets his face against modernity in all its forms. Women play a very secondary part to the role of the male; even the presentation of the relationship between Richard Rolle and Margaret Kirkby has a conventionally male perspective. The exceptions are perhaps the love sonnets in the section called ‘Flame’, but even here the male is shown as a hapless ‘man behaving badly’: ‘puking sweet purple/over her shoulder’ in the pub car park. Perhaps we can identify the same sense of guilt and betrayal in the two poets. Ely writes in his second sonnet,’Jacket’:

Gallant I gave her my envied jacket,

a red leather from X-Clothes in Leeds.

I cloaked it over her flowery shoulders

in a rite of debt and devotion. I would have

given her the world and everything in it –

my love, my honey, my harp. I gave her away.

 

The structure of Bunting’s Briggflatts depends on the betrayal of a lost love who is returned to at the end of the poem. “Fifty years a letter unanswered;/a visit postponed for fifty years.//She has been with me fifty years.” Like Ely, he makes use of traditional, almost courtly love language (here, an aubade):

We have eaten and loved and the sun is up,

we have only to sing before parting:

Goodbye, dear love.

Incidentally, in Bunting’s lines, the lovers sing together; in Ely’s, the woman has become a possession, something edible, an instrument.

 

Bunting’s poem starts from and returns to Peggy Greenbank and the hamlet of Brigflatts, but along the way it takes in not only his life and travels through Europe and Asia but the history and culture of the places he has seen. Ely, on the other hand, gives the impression that he would prefer to turn the history of civilization back to a period before the Reformation. His attacks on modernity include a concern for the environment but his ecopolitical view seems indiscriminate, rejecting windfarms along with weedkiller. His poems abound in Church Latin titles, but despite the central character of Richard Rolle, I find more religious reference than religious vision.. There is no overt religion in Briggflatts which could be described as a personal odyssey which offers no answers; in fact, the poem ends with a question mark. We might bear in mind Bunting’s upbringing as a Quaker, an approach to religion antithetical to Ely’s Catholicism; we might also remember Bunting’s own note to the poem:

In silence, having swept dust and litter from our minds, we can detect the pulse of God’s blood in our veins, more persuasive than words, more demonstrative than a diagram. That is what a Quaker meeting tries to be, and that is why the poem is called Briggflatts[5].

Although I imagine Ely is writing in the wake of Bunting and is familiar with his work, it seems to me too glib to consider the poets as similar. Bunting is a modernist, whose writing is located in high culture and a formalist in that he puts the poem before the message; Ely is post-modern, selecting and fabricating from the past, he is overtly political and he seeks to excavate and support his own rather strange notion of the proletarian and the peasant. With every word I write, I am conscious that I am probably being unfair to Ely, but I am put off by his relentless blokishness.

mercian hymns

When we come to consider links between Ely and Geoffrey Hill, some are immediately obvious.

Asiotic[6] night screams horned like Cernunnos-

we like that kind of noise.

These are the last two lines in the first poem of Incendium Amoris, and they seem to echo the last line in the first poem of Mercian Hymns: ‘”I liked that,” said Offa, “sing it again.’ That, along with the reference to Cernunnos, a version of the Green Man, who also appears in Hill’s collection, suggests an acknowledgement of a poetic influence or debt. Both poets are interested in the ancient past of England, before the Reformation, before even the country was a single kingdom. In Mercian Hymns, there is a fusion of past and present, of Geoffrey and Offa, a sort of palimpsest of two different times in the same place. The identification of the poet with the king is indicated in the second poem, where the two names are brought together in a sequence of half-buried puns; ‘curt graffiti’ = eff (Geoff) off (Offa).[7] The poems clearly rely on autobiographical material, although they are no more straightforward autobiography than Briggflatts or Incendium Amoris. Interestingly, the personal details which are worked into Mercian Hymns are mostly episodes from boyhood rather than adolescence and young manhood in the case of Ely and the whole life ‘fifty years’ of Briggflatts. It is not always clear whether Geoffrey or Offa is speaking and it seems to me that the poet makes use of the ancient king to create a figure of selfhood, who develops from the lonely but ‘staggeringly gifted’ boy drawing strength from his natural environment “I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots and endings” to the arrogant adult capable of self-centred brutality. Hilary Davies notes Hill’s insistence ‘upon how much the ignorant egotism of the child lives on in the knowing malice of the adult man.’[8] The casual cruelty of the child who ‘battered a ditchful’ of frogs turns into something more horrifying in the flaying of Ceolred, the friend who lost his toy plane. This mythologised incident which forms poem VII and is titled ‘The Kingdom of Offa’ reverberates with meanings, not least in the appropriation of the name Albion for ‘his private derelict sandlorry’ –now more derelict than ever. The poem acknowledges cruelty and violence, in a way which is different and more horrifying than that in Bunting or Ely. This is violence which is gratuitous and selfish but which is owned by the complex persona of the poem. Offa was a king operating within the paradigm of Christianity and I think Hill is showing us sin and evil as part of man’s unregenerate nature. Later, on Offa’s journey to Rome, callous indifference to the torture of Boethius at Pavia fuses with a modern tourist’s journey:

He wiped his lips and hands. He strolled back to the

car, with discreet souvenirs for consolation and

philosophy.

Although I find the allusion to Boethius’ work rather flippant, it could be argued that this is part of the persona Hill is creating. The acceptance and even indulgence in cruelty is presented to us as a facet of human behaviour, just as Bunting refers to the ‘merciless species’ and Ely shows us violence through the centuries. Bunting clearly stands outside the violence he shows; Hill, and perhaps Ely after him, inhabit the context in which the violence is produced. This is the argument of Andrew Michael Roberts in his study of Geoffrey Hill:

…the poet writes from within the subject matter, inhabiting it and being inhabited by it, using its language to varying degrees, exploring the attitudes, mood and preoccupations of a particular ideology, tradition or historical period. The poem is less the utterance of the poet than something which the poet shapes out of the linguistic and cultural material found to hand within a particular cultural field….Hill sees himself as diagnosing elements of culture, not primarily as expressing his own feelings or views.[9]

 

This begs all sorts of questions. The poet is exculpated, the heresy Offa denounces in VIII, in an abnegation of responsibility which ignores the fact that the writer has chosen and selected the linguistic and cultural elements of which he writes. Moreover, the language Hill has chosen is clearly his own; no matter what the influences, his voice in these poems is distinctive. Ely, on the other hand, is writing in the parallel universe of neo-medievalism, often in an invented language that combines Northern dialects with middle or old English vocabulary, spelling and alliterative phrase-making. Hill has been accused, as Ely could be, of hankering after a ‘traditional, religious England’, in Tom Paulin’s phrase, of being a ‘chthonic nationalist.’ Both would reject charges of being apologists for right wing politics, but as we have seen with Brexit, radical right and radical left can meet up at the back of the hall.

 

It would be true to say that Bunting, Hill and Ely all concern themselves with English landscapes through time, bringing the past into the present or seeing it as co-existing with the present. This is a recurrent theme in English literature and an earlier version can be found in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Bunting, although he starts and ends his poem in Briggflatts, ranges much more widely than the other two poets. All three present a particularly male view of the world and this is linked to the way in which they deal with cruelty and violence, in all three writers shown as an attribute of masculinity. While Ely’s work is undoubtedly written in the shadow of Bunting and Hill, it is unhelpful to conflate the three poets. In writing this post, I have come to have a profound admiration for Briggflatts, for its range, for its generosity of spirit and for its fluid and beautiful language. I have always found Geoffrey Hill’s work difficult and difficult to like and my feelings have not changed. Steve Ely’s poems are still surprising me although I hope he will tone down the made-up medievalism which sometimes obscures rather than promotes his message.

[1] ‘Postmodern (re)constructions of the Middle Ages in contemporary poetry? Neomedievalism in Simon Armitage, Jacob Polley and Steve Ely.’ By Claire Hélie. Études britanniques contemporaines. No. 54/2018

[2] A type of tractor

[3] giants

[4] To be fair to Ely, his range is greater than this suggests and he has challenged racism, Islamophobia and global global capitalism in other work.

[5] Brigflatts was the site of a Quaker meeting house.

[6] ‘Pertaining,’ Ely tells us, ‘to the long-eared owl.’

[7] I find this sort of obscurity annoying rather than instructive, but then I have always found Hill’s poetry inaccessible and rebarbative, although I recognize the passion and level of seriousness which informs his work.

[8] ‘The Castaway of drowned remorse, the world’s atonement on the hill’ History, Language and Theopoetics: Geoffrey Hill’s dialogue with David Jones in Mercian Hymns and Tenebrae, (Revue Études Anglaises,2/2018)

[9] Geoffrey Hill by Andrew Michael Roberts (2004) p.55-56.

In the shadow of Brexit:’Wretched Strangers’ edited byAgnes Lehoczky and J.T.Welsch

wretched strangers

When I went to a launch reading of the anthology, Wretched Strangers, I was a little puzzled by the title. This is a collection, mainly of poetry, of work, mainly in English, by people who have been displaced or who live away from their countries of origin. However, when I looked at the readers, all very estimable poets, I saw people who were far from wretched, mostly with established or budding academic careers, winners of awards, fellowships, university posts. As one of the editors, J.T. Welsch, explained, and I read later in the introduction, the title comes from a speech, apparently by Shakespeare, in which Thomas More makes a plea on behalf of immigrants persecuted by xenophobic Londoners who felt the foreigners threatened their jobs.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise


Hath chid down all the majesty of England;


Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,


Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,


Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,


And that you sit as kings in your desires,


Authority quite silent by your brawl,

And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;


What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught


How insolence and strong hand should prevail,


How order should be quelled; and by this pattern


Not one of you should live an aged man,


For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,


With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,


Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes


Would feed on one another….

http://theshakespeareblog.com/2015/09/shakespeare-sir-thomas-more-and-the-immigrants/

 

The opportune relevance of this speech is irresistible and if you follow the link you will see that Sir Ian McKellan has not resisted it. Nevertheless, I still feel that it misrepresents the nature and quality of this anthology. Although many of the poems draw attention to the plight of those forced to flee their own countries, the overall effect of the collection is to open a window to the world, particularly necessary in these isolationist Brexit days. The book was not originally intended as a reaction to Brexit, but it is impossible to read it now except in that shadow. This writing, which includes contributions from established poets such as Sujata Bhatt, Mimi Khalvati and George Szirtes as well as rising stars like Mary Jean Chan and many others I have never encountered before, ranges from fairly traditional forms to experimental avant-garde work veering between boundary breaking and self-indulgence. Some of the poems are slight, some are unreadable; yet they force the reader to engage with a literary and political reality which fizzes with life and which represents the fluidity and uncertainty of a world beyond national borders.

Borders, in fact, are a recurrent image in the anthology, whether as barriers or in the process of breaking down. For example, Draft 112: Verge by Rachel Blau Duplessis explores the concept and effects of border in a poem which references the borders dividing Cyprus and Palestine but can be recognised as relevant to anywhere such lines have been drawn:

 

Everyone, it seemed, had realigned,

criss-crossed

double-crossed.

Maps had scratches, ridges, edges

that they never before,

it seemed, had.

 

In the right –hand margin of the poem there is a column of significant single words in italics. Close to this extract appear the words borders, atrocities, crossed.

 

Astrid Alben also explores the idea of border in a dream poem where the imagery of flight and migration becomes perhaps the transition between life and death:

 

Across the border one foot easily

Forgets the other but that’s neither here nor there.

It isn’t one thing or the other.

 

Remember

B says

The border is just a line.

 

The notion that borders are a paper-based colonial imposition emerges also in Seni Seneviratne’s poem:

Some maps

            tell us nothing about the lies

of the land or how straight lines

 

came to be drawn in places where

once, contours marked out borders

 

so that the land and its people curved

into each other like sleeping lovers.

 

The challenge of crossing a border carries with it the theme of transition, of moving from one place to the other. This anthology opens our minds to the possibility of transition, of being between places, ‘in transit’ as a mode of being. This is explored wittily in the (I think) slightly tongue-in-cheek essay, The Right to be transplace by Lisa Samuels. She criticises the commonly held assumption that everyone must be from somewhere, and argues that ‘transplace’ people should be thought of as ‘being from movement’: ‘transplace as movement states that when movement happens between one body/place and another, the movement itself is a real condition of being.’ Thus it resists, among other things, nation-state identification. This idea of being ‘transplace’ which must be recognisable to many of the writers in this book, is the very opposite of Theresa May’s assertion that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere.   Moreover, the anthology reveals how this ‘transplace’ identity has become increasingly common. Sometimes, a person may have such a mixed heritage that none seems particularly theirs; sometimes, a person may have travelled around so much in childhood and/ or adulthood that nowhere ever seems to be ‘home’, the place of origin; sometimes, people may have been driven out of their place of origin with no hope of ever returning but with no particular feeling of belonging to the place where they have ended up. These writers are showing us identity in flux, but it is not a flux which should terrify us, or which we should regard as some kind of tabula rasa on which we must impose ‘British values’, as the Government has tried to do in its education and citizenship policies. To be ‘from movement’, ‘transplace’, is a 21st century reality and an enriching reality which is the antithesis of Brexit. However, the recognition of such a ‘transplace’ identity should not be considered to undermine the value of local culture and sense of place, but rather to combat the destructive force of nationalism.

 

Moreover, many of the pieces in the anthology reflect loss of place, the impossibility of return. One of the most horrific contributions comes from Zimbabwean writer, Ethel Maqeda. In a prose piece she describes how a young woman attempts to return home:

I had wanted her [her mother] to say ‘I’m glad you came, my child’ and to erase the last ten years into nothing and make it 1997 again. Instead, she just wrenched the small bag I was carrying, almost ripping my shoulder out of its socket, turned away and marched back into the hut. ‘You have to leave tomorrow, first thing,’ she said, not looking at me.

 

Not only does this demonstrate the Heraclitean impossibility of return, the story goes on to show how reality can become too unbearable to inhabit as it recounts the protagonist’s experience of rape by guerrilla militia men:

They roughly pull me back on the ground. One pulls my legs. The other holds my arms. There is more cheering and clapping. I hear roars of laughter. I hear the screams.

 

This time I am going to do something about it. I decide and start to walk away. I have a sudden urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother. I will pick nhedzi, tsuketsuke and even the rare, sweet chikunguwo. I have the time to search for it despite the thickening fog and the approaching darkness. I hear whimpering after they leave to bring the next woman but I keep walking. The urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother grows stronger still.

 

In other poems, ‘being from movement’ seems to bring about an existence which is hallucinatory and unstable. This is Ana Seferovic:

this city is everywhere

its borders fading into

endless now

A City is a Persistent Desire for a Another City

 

and here is Ariadne Radi Cor, somewhere between London and Venice:

 

‘Don’t fear my love”

Should I get shot on Oxford Street, I wouldn’t die

Because this isn’t my life.

 

I’m still living in a Burano glass globe

I twirl and the snow falls.

L’italie L’ondon

 

This condition of betweenness is often represented through language, as in this title and in Mary Jean Chan’s poem Hybridity which, if you don’t know Chinese, reads like a Cloze exercise where the blanks are filled by Chinese characters. As I have no idea how to type Chinese characters, I have used blanks where they would appear. This poem is overtly post-colonial political, hardly surprising considering the history of Britain and Hong Kong:

 

Did you

 

Think it was by chance that I learnt

your ____ _____ for decades, until I knew

 

it better than the ____ ___ I dream in?

 

The use of direct address as well as the veiled accusation of cultural spoliation draws attention to the role of colonialism in bringing ‘trans-place’ people into existence. Other poems are also overtly political in how they present ‘betweenness’. Luna Montenegro’s poem this country is/is not your home is an imaginative representation of a confrontation between a xenophobe/racist and a child on a 355 bus. This poem comes with reading instructions and is clearly intended for performance like another overtly political poem, David Herd’s Prologue. In fact, Herd’s piece declares repeatedly that it is not a poem:

This prologue is not a poem

It is an act of welcome

 

It was written as an introduction to Refugee Tales, a project in which the writer was co-organiser. The first two lines declare it to be performative, as if it were a counter weight to the type of behaviour shown in Luna Montenegro’s poem. Herd weaves in many quotations from Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as he details the experiences of refugees arriving in the UK. The ambition of this poem is to create an atmosphere of openness and welcome:

And why we walk is

To make a spectacle of welcome

This political carnival

Across the weald of Kent

People circulating

Making music

Listening to stories

People urgently need said.

 

The reference to The Canterbury Tales serves to remind us that people have always been in motion for whatever reason, that the English of Chaucer was created from a multiplicity of languages and that Chaucer, himself a traveller, was influenced by the literatures and culture of the rest of Europe. Agnes Lehoczky suggests, with many qualifications, that language can become a kind of home, polis or place to belong:

I suspect that perhaps bringing together perspectives, bodies of poetries, and encounters to name, document or take notes of our own collective emotion, triggered by such quests for a home or polis (collective inasmuch as it is a place or a country we have never been before, with country signifying less a specific ‘place’ than a zone of time, thought, desire or experience) does ease one’s misery inasmuch it is a collective misery.

 

Her essay or notes, Endnotes: On Paper Citizens, Disobedient Poetries and Other Agoras is illuminating but very academic. It reminds me of the image of a locked door which I used to find at the end of Andrew Laing Fairy Books which was intended to discourage child readers from looking at the scholarly notes. There is a slight whiff of academic cleverness from the whole collection which can become another boundary that needs to be breached. Other things which bothered me slightly, especially at the beginning, were the number of contributions and the decision to order the collection alphabetically rather than thematically. The size of the collection is quite daunting especially when the print is fairly small. There are also a number of proof-reading errors which become significant in the context of so many different linguistic backgrounds and the experimental nature of much of the writing. We need to know that the inclusion or omission of punctuation or transgressions of conventional English grammar are deliberate. I did, however, change my mind about the order feeling that the decision to go with the random and egalitarian alphabetic listing was the most satisfying. I remember The Rattle Bag:

 

We hope that our decision to impose an arbitrary alphabetical order allows the contents to discover themselves as we ourselves gradually discovered them –each poem full of its singular appeal, transmitting its own signals, taking its chances in a big, voluble world.[1]

 

There is much in this anthology that I don’t understand and quite a lot that I don’t particularly like, but it is doing what poetry needs to do –dragging me out of my comfort zone. It is exciting, challenging, politically relevant and against the current. It should be read.

 

 

 

           

 

 

[1] From the Introduction to The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, 1982.

 

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets 4

Little Gidding

I remember being electrified in my O-level year at school when I first read ‘The Hollow Men’. From then on, Eliot’s work became one of the most important presences in my experience of poetry. A few years later, at university, I recognised that this hero had feet of clay and that his political views, particularly as expounded in his critical and cultural writings, were miles apart from mine.

Nevertheless, his work remains a significant element in my mental landscape and I hear his lines in my head, as I hear lines from Shakespeare or from the Bible. (They often are lines from Shakespeare or the Bible, or at least from somewhere else.) I think this is because I recognise his struggle through poetry to deal with modernity and to find ‘right action’, and I think that the poetry still works in the 21st century and for post-modernity because it matches the emotions and confusions we are still experiencing. For example, the passage from Section V of The Dry Salvages with its reference to ‘sortilege’ and ‘tea-leaves’ seems as relevant to the disoriented muddle we are living through after the Brexit vote as effectively as it did the trials of World War II.

 

It is this feeling that Eliot still matters that sent me back to The Four Quartets, not in a spirit of adulation but in an attempt to engage with a work I had read many times but never really got to grips with. Reading it now, I am struck by Eliot’s wrestling with himself and with language and form, and by his compulsion to bring structure, resolution and conformity to a set of poems developed from Burnt Norton, which was originally intended as a single independent long poem. This struggle with form and the wilful drive towards resolution is very evident in Little Gidding and the strain is often apparent, particularly where beautiful, quasi-mystical imagery is employed to paper over the cracks. I find the serenity of tone in the last section beguiling but unconvincing as it asserts a conclusion not actually achieved:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

The predominance of ‘and’, rather than stronger, more syntactically definite conjunctions, reinforces the tone of inevitability and relaxation into acceptance. Moreover, the identity of the fire and the rose, for me, now, is too neat and formulaic

little gidding

However, the beginning of the quartet is more interesting. It has its basis in beautifully observed physical detail of winter: ‘the brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches’, ‘the hedgerow/Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom/Of snow’. The exactitude of the images allows the poet to move towards traditional conceits and paradoxes of ice and fire, darkness and light and to explore once again ideas about time. The metaphor of snow as ‘blossom’ introduces the possibility of two kinds of time, that related to earth and the seasons and metaphorical or spiritual time which is ‘not in time’s covenant’ and which has its ultimate target as ‘the unimaginable/Zero summer.’ Different readers offer different interpretations for this striking phrase; perhaps it is intended to suggest a perfection which is not achievable in earthly life. The ‘unimaginable/Zero’ carries with it connotations of absolute zero which bring us back to the contrasts of heat and cold.

 

The poet pursues ‘the intersection of the timeless moment’ , situating it in Little Gidding, the place where Nicholas Farrar founded a religious community in 1625 and where Charles 1, the ‘broken king’, is said to have prayed after his defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. In the second two paragraphs of Section I, he addresses ‘you’, presumably the reader, but also himself. The tone is instructional, even severe:

You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

The purpose is not intellectual, but devotional; the reward will be communication from the dead whose messages are redeemed through prayer. Eliot refers to the dead being ‘tongued with fire’ a reference to Pentecost, but Pentecostal fire in this quartet is fused with the Purgatorial fire which purifies the soul.

 

Section II opens, as in the other quartets, with a formal poem in three stanzas. This one seems to be an apocalyptic annihilation of all four elements preceding a Dantesque vision set in the London of the Blitz where Eliot was a fire warden. Once again, this passage gains its power from its foundation in the actual. Eliot writes of the ‘dark dove with the flickering tongue’, a terrifying depiction of a bomber plane, which gains extra force through the ironic negative image of a symbol usually used to represent the Holy Ghost, particularly when conferring the Pentecostal gift of tongues. On patrol amidst the fires of the bombed city, the poet, mimicking the figure of Dante, speaks in the first person to a figure he encounters, ‘a familiar compound ghost’; originally, this was to have been Brunetto Latini, Dante’s dead teacher whom he met in the Inferno, but Eliot revised the poem to make it a much more general representation of the voices of the dead. Also, it may make more sense to place this passage in Purgatory as the poet is concerned with purgatorial fire as the path to redemption. Although there is dialogue between ‘I and ‘you’ and most of the passage is in the voice of the poet’s interlocutor, Eliot recognises the fictional nature of this device when he writes:

So I assumed a double part, and cried

And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! Are you here?’

Although we were not. I was still the same,

Knowing myself yet being someone other –

And he a face still forming;

 

Thus the dead do communicate, but only through the voice of the attentive living. The division of the poetic self into two voices reflects Eliot’s predilection for drama or ventriloquism, so noticeable in The Waste Land, but also a force here. It is a device which energises the verse and pays tribute to Dante, but it is also a way of escaping the personal, of donning a mask or masks. The spirit visitant delivers an unpalatable message in a tone of savage irony:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age

To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.

In addition to physical decay as ‘body and soul begin to fall asunder, and the painful sense of powerlessness to affect events, the listener is told to expect the ‘rending pain of re-enactment/Of all that you have done and been’. The displacement of this threat to the voice of the ‘familiar compound ghost’ cannot disguise the emotion of guilt which emanates from these lines.

 

There is one point in Section 2 where the ghost’s address moves from second person into the plural first person, when he identifies a shared purpose:

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us

To purify the dialect of the tribe

It is the ghost who includes the poet in the tradition of the creators and preservers of language and connects this custody over language with the tasks of ‘aftersight and foresight’. This returns the poet to his theme of time as well suggesting a prophetic function to his work. However, the ghost moves fairly quickly away from the consideration of ‘the tribe’ to the future facing the poet, or ‘the exasperated spirit’ which can only be ‘ by that refining fire’. The soul must suffer the fires of purgatory, but must at the same time ‘move in measure, like a dancer’. This image may refer us back to the dancers in East Coker , whose movements, apparently unwittingly reflect divine order; it may be a suggestion that the tortured suffering of the soul in purgatory is beautiful because it leads to redemption and because it is part of the Divine Plan. I cannot help being reminded, when I read this quartet, of the fantasy children’s novel, The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, which employs the images of fire and roses to purify and cleanse animals and humans. MacDonald was a Scottish Victorian clergyman whose stories were enormously popular and influential.

white dead nettle  purpureum02-17-2015 stinging-nettle-pic-1024x768

Section III opens with a botanical image which is very difficult to construe: ‘indifference’ is said to be ‘between two lives –unflowering, between/The live and the dead nettle.’ Richard Mabey, whose Flora Britannica is a comprehensive and definitive guide to British plants, notes in his entry on the stinging nettle, that it ‘marks the sites of many deserted villages, Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire for instance…’. This seems like a sly nod to Eliot but may indicate again that the poet’s imagery stems from observed detail in a specific setting. Stinging nettles do flower, but not so obviously as the dead-nettle which, whether red or white, has a similar leaf. It is unclear whether Eliot is distinguishing these benign plants from the stinging nettle or whether he is making a distinction between different stages in growth of the stinging nettle. The poet is saying something very complicated in this passage but the simile or analogy does not quite work, perhaps because it is not quite sure if it is poetry (simile) or philosophical exposition (analogy). As so often, Eliot reverts to paradox: ‘History may be servitude,/History may be freedom.’ This assertion is followed by an instruction, ‘See’, as if Eliot seeks almost to drag the reader with him into a moment of vision:

See, now they vanish,

The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Reflections on history and the dead are followed by a reiteration of the words of Julian of Norwich which indicate the conclusion towards which the poem is moving:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

By the purification of the motive

In the ground of our beseeching.

 

The ‘ground of our beseeching’ is how Christ described himself to Julian.

julian of norwich

Section IV is made up of two formally condensed and strictly patterned stanzas which bring together Pentecostal and Purgatorial fire and identify pain and terror with Love. The theology is clear but the lines are too neat. Eliot insists on the path to God through suffering, offering us the fires of Hell or the fires of Purgatory

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

Some readers may reject the ‘we’ of these final two lines. The poet is pushing the work to a conclusion, trying to tie up all the ends in the ‘knot’ of the last two lines of Section V.

 

A lot of this final section is a recapitulation of the earlier quartets and begins again with what seems like, but is not, an excursus on the composition of poetry.

 

(where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new.

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Although the prescription sounds slightly prissy, this pursuit of the moving pattern of dance in language reflects Eliot’s apprehension of the divine order as dance and measure, a dance the poet can partake of through language. The dominant pronoun of the last section is ‘we’ and while the reader may not always go along with this inclusiveness, we recognise that the conclusion of the poem posits communion and commonality.

In this series of posts, I have attempted to engage with Eliot’s poem as a lay person, neither academic nor theologian. I recognise that many of the complexities of the poet’s thought have escaped me as have a multiplicity of allusions in a work which is dense with echoes from ‘familiar compound ghosts’.  Nevertheless, I have been rewarded by working towards my own reading of The Four Quartets, which I continue to treasure even as I reject much of what it says.

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets 3

The Dry Salvages

the dry salvages

The Dry Salvages is the quartet devoted to water. The first section is dominated by two aquatic entities: the river and the sea. The river is surely the Mississippi, the river which dominated Eliot’s childhood in St Louis, while the sea is the Atlantic where it meets the coast of Massachusetts:

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite

Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses

Its hints of earlier and other creation:

The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;

This is the most American of the four quartets and has a continental scale and range which is found again in poets as diverse as Charles Olson and Jorie Graham.   While time is a central theme for the entire work, here the emphasis is on historical and geological time:

The tolling bell

Measures time, not our time, rung by the unhurried

Ground swell…

 

The sea-time described here may not be our time, but it is nevertheless time ‘from the beginning’ , not before the beginning; there is no ‘eternal note’, as in the looser language of Matthew Arnold.

 

The ‘I’ which is the first word of the poem confirms the autobiographical context as does the reference to the ‘nursery bedroom’. However, as the poem moves to the relationship between human time and evolutionary time, the poet switches to the plural first person speaking of ‘us’ and ‘our’. ‘The river is within us, the sea is all about us’ suggests that we are both part of nature and apart from nature; the reference to ‘our time’, human time allows him to identify with the ‘anxious worried women’ waiting for morning and the return of their men. The sea, on the other hand, with its ‘different voices’ becomes the sound of that other time, which swallows up and rolls past individual human times and histories. The view of history Eliot presents is extremely bleak. The quasi-sestina which begins section 2 imitates, with its repeated rhyme pattern and stanza form, the repetition of disasters and bad news. The poet asks ‘Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage’, signalling not only that there is no end but also that there is no purpose

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless

Or of an ocean not littered with wastage

Or of a future that is not liable

Like the past, to have no destination.

The ‘we’ indicates the universality of the experience, while the personal detestation of aging is slipped in without any pronouns in the third stanza: ‘failing powers… in a drifting boat with a slow leakage’. There is probably a term for the poetic device of evoking something by declaring its absence, a technique Eliot uses repeatedly: ‘wailing’ is ‘soundless’ and yet we hear it; flowers ‘drop their petals’ but remain ‘motionless’, yet we see the flowers as they wither. Eliot creates a powerful sense of the Atlantic and of the experience of those who go to sea, but at the same time we realise that this is all metaphorical, all a way of thinking: ‘We cannot think…’, ‘We have to think…’ In the fifth stanza, this thinking becomes an effort of will, an attempt to interpret some kind of meaningfulness and certainty which quickly collapses as what we have to think gives way to what we cannot help thinking: the fishermen are ‘making a trip that will be unpayable/ For a haul that will not bear examination.’ Three out of the six stanzas end on the word ‘annunciation’. Only the last of these is capitalised to refer obviously to the Christian concept. Even then it is proffered as the hardly credible, scarcely imaginable hope that can be an answer to death: ‘Only the hardly, barely prayable/Prayer of the one Annunciation.’

 

As the poem proceeds, the gloomy and non-progressive view of history becomes even clearer. Having acknowledged evolution in section 1, here he dismisses it as being in any way connected to progress: ‘development [is] a partial fallacy/Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution’. In Burnt Norton we were told that ‘human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.’ Here it seems that reality is agony, repeated and permanent, the agony the poet recognises in others: ‘We experience this better/In the agony of others, nearly experienced,/ Involving ourselves, than in our own.’ As so often, the plural ‘we’ seems to hide the rawness of personal experience while at the same time aspiring to reach the audience through shared experience. ‘People change, and smile: but the agony abides’. ‘Time is no healer’, we are told in Section III. Rather time preserves or memorialises what it has destroyed and, at this point, without God or faith, nothing is redeemed:

Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows, and chicken coops,

The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.

And the ragged rock in the restless waters,

Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;

On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,

In navigable weather it is always a seamark

To lay a course by: but in the sombre season

Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

 

Despite the prevailing gloom, we cannot help but be carried along by the energy and zest of Eliot’s language, propelled by a strongly marked rhythm underpinned by repeated alliteration. To set against the misery, Eliot offers ‘moments of happiness…’sudden illumination’. These moments are to be seen as qualitatively different from ordinary forms of contentment: ‘the sense of well-being/Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,/Or even a very good dinner’; however, as soon as the poet analyses these moments, whose meaning he implies he missed at the time, he recognises that they have nothing to do with happiness. The suggestion is that they are visionary, intimations of the divine, little annunciations. It is interesting, however, how many of the discarded examples of happiness seem themselves to partake of the divine, or to be connected to our ideas of the divine. ‘Affection, security and a ‘very good dinner’ all suggest love and communion, while ‘fruition’ and ‘fulfilment’ suggest a form of grace where in some way perfection is achieved. [1]

Sadly, we never feel that Eliot is totally convinced by his moments of vision, be they ‘shafts of sunlight’ or ‘bird voices’ or whatever. All the way through his work, I have the impression that he has chosen Christian faith as the least worst option and that he has the greatest of difficulty in believing it. A happy-clappy Evangelical he is not; his faith is effortful, a matter of will and he doggedly pursues his Christian duty through his dramatic works and the struggle with himself in these poems. Thus, when he refers to Krishna, at the beginning of Section III and again towards the end, where he quotes and adapts the words of the Bhagavad-Gita

“on whatever sphere of being

The mind of a man may be intent

At the time of death” – that is the one action

(And the time of death is every moment)

Which shall fructify in the lives of others:

he is asserting the importance of right action, regardless of consequence. The statement that ‘the time of death is every moment’ does not only remind us that we cannot foresee the hour of our deaths and therefore we should live every moment as if it were our last, but also returns to Eliot’s insistence throughout the quartets that time past and time future do not exist, that we have only the present moment. This message is reinforced by the long passage reflecting the words of Heraclitus and his philosophy of change, although Eliot substitutes a train journey for the river of Heraclitus:

You are not the same people who left that station

Or who will arrive at any terminus

After the opening apparently casual allusion to Krishna which is in first person, the whole of this section seems to be addressed to the audience, to you, the other: “You shall not think’ , ‘ You are not those who saw the harbour/ Receding, or those who will disembark’, ’You can receive this’. However, we recognise that in fact these injunctions are not the words of the poet but are in the voice of the sea (or God or time) – ‘a voice descanting (though not to the ear,/The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language’. Indeed, lines 149 -165 are inside quotation marks. Once more, Eliot manages to have his cake and eat it. This voice is displaced from him and he becomes as much part of the listening and instructed audience as we do -‘Fare forward, travellers!’, but at the same time we are told that this is not a real voice, or at least it is not heard and it is not in any language, so it must be a voice which is inner to the persona of the poem. So we seem again to be witnessing the poet’s dialogue with himself.

 

Section IV is very short and, rather unexpectedly, is a petition to the Virgin Mary. The shrine standing ‘on the promontory’ is apparently the Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles, an imposing church with the figure of the Virgin on top presumably looking out to sea. I wonder if Eliot also had in mind the Our Lady of Good Voyage Church built by the Portuguese fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As a boy, Eliot spent his summer holidays in Gloucester where he was a keen sailor. The figure of the Virgin in that Church is shown cradling a fishing trawler instead of the infant Jesus and figures significantly in The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. It is a startling coincidence that this fairly minor city should figure so importantly in the lives of two major but extraordinarily different American poets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Notre Dame de La Garde, Marseilles

lady of good voyage  Our Lady of Good Voyage, Gloucester, Mass.

 

Section V, however, brings us back to London in wartime with an opening passage which satirises but also reflects the deep uncertainties and anxieties of the time. He chooses words from the semantic field of forecasting the future such as ‘haruspicate’, ‘scry’, ‘sortilege’ and refers to various means of foretelling the future in language which is often Latinate or unfamiliar, giving an impression which comes close to contempt: ‘all these are usual/Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press’. However, the air of superiority collapses in the second part of the section when the poet places himself not with the saints, much though he might to aspire to their access to ‘The point of intersection of the timeless/ With time’ but with ‘most of us’ for whom ‘there is only the unattended/ Moment, the moment in and out of time’. Exemplifying these moments, he returns to some old favourites, the ‘shaft of sunlight’ , the ‘wild thyme’ and introduces some new ones including the experience of listening to music: ‘music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts.’ These moments hint at, or are instances of, Incarnation. ‘The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.’ Eliot certainly had a theological understanding of the idea of the concept of incarnation, but that is not what he means; he is speaking of the possibility of an apprehension of Incarnation which is not simply rational, but emotional and spiritual. For someone who, like me, stands to one side of Christianity, it is difficult to see why these moments are not a sufficient joy in themselves; apart from the music, they are all drawn from nature and in that sense they are all incarnate, all material, but all inspire joy and wonder as they are perceived. The example of music is different because it is a human creation with which the writer has found himself totally in sympathy or communion and by the use of ‘you’ –‘you are the music’ has indicated that we, ‘most of us’ will also have had this experience, suggesting the possibility of communication or indeed full communion between humans. For Eliot, though, these moments must do more than transcend the individual, they must give access to the divine, and, specifically, to the Christian Revelation.

 

Eliot gives himself a hard time; he imposes a life of ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.’ However, this hair shirt view of life seems to have answered a psychological need. Yet as he works through his argument he returns to the idea of ‘right action’, the right action to be aimed for in every moment. He concludes in language mostly very simple, very far from the wordiness of the beginning. “Most of us’ …

…are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying;

We, content at the last

If our temporal reversion nourish

(Not too far from the yew-tree)

The life of significant soil.

This commitment to perseverance, particularly in the wartime context, is in itself noble. The identification with a wider society, ‘we’, ‘most of us’ and the recognition of the place of the human in the natural cycle as well as the specific mention of the yew tree[2] with its connotations of the graveyard but also as an indigenous English tree creates an earthly and human resolution to this quartet, perhaps in spite of the writer’s intentions.

[1] Dinah Livingstone discusses the meaning of grace in its theological context and as a human attribute in her forthcoming article, ‘Grace’ which will appear in Sofia 104 (Christmas 2018)She quotes Thomas Aquinas: ‘grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.’

[2] Nevertheless, the yew tree has associations with Christianity from its earliest days in Britain and aside from its longevity and ability to regenerate which gave it symbolic Christian values, it was even associated with the Cross in some folk belief, This verse from a ballad in the oral tradition is quoted by Tim Partridge:

And they went down into yonder town

and sat in the Gallery,

And there they saw sweet Jesus Christ

Hanging from a big Yew tree.

“Yew Trees and their Inter-relationship with Man” – a BSc dissertation in Rural Resources Development (1993) By Tim Partridge, https://www.ancient-yew.org/mi.php/trees-in-mythology/79

 

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets 2

East Coker

 

About five years passed between the publication of Burnt Norton and the second Quartet, East Coker. We can see Eliot using the shape of the first poem as the framework for the second. Like the first, it starts with a statement, this time with a repeated use of the first person: ‘In my beginning is my end’ which is apparently an reversed echo of the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots: ‘En ma fin est mon commencement’. The use of allusion, as well as the placing of the sentence at the beginning of the poem, like the text of a homily, masks the personal nature of this opening. However, the first part of the first section is firmly located in the personal and the particular, in the earth which is the key element of this quartet. Eliot has visited East Coker, a Somerset village and the home of his ancestors. His opening line might convey a belief in determinism, but, in fact, in his life he willed this line to be true, in that he chose to have his ashes buried in this ancestral village. Immediate physical reality is conveyed in lines 14 -23 where the poet describes the ‘open field’ and

the deep lane

Shuttered, with branches, dark in the afternoon,

Where you lean against a bank while a van passes

but the lived experience of this moment is muffled by the introduction of the second person pronoun as a substitute for ‘I’.

east coker lane

However, the section retreats into the literary in its second part, with an evocation of villagers of the past who are presented rather like fairies or little people. These ghostlike figures are condescended to with their ‘weak pipe’ and ‘little drum’ as well as their ‘heavy feet in clumsy shoes’. They are not the ancestors Eliot is looking for and finds instead in Sir Thomas Elyot[1] who is quoted, or paraphrased:

The association of man and woman

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie…[2]

These dancers seem to be enacting a form of pagan fertility rite which the poet presents as part of the natural cycle, the pattern or dance of the seasons and life and death which was introduced in Burnt Norton. However, there is an uncomfortable disjunction between the idea of dance as a metaphor for the order of the universe and the very earthy lumpen quality of these rural bumpkins. In addition, the repeated echoes of Ecclesiastes remind us that life and time are shaped by the cycles of the seasons, by birth and death –‘Dung and death’. Perhaps this is why the last four lines move back to air and water and some kind of retreat from definition:

Out at sea the dawn wind

Wrinkles and slides. I am here

Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.

 

 

The poet has owned the first person but negated it by refusing any fixity, reducing the reader to a confusion that carries forward into the lines at the beginning of the second section.

 

This part of section 2 is chaos confined by rhyme and a tetrameter line; pattern and dance have disappeared as the seasons are disordered and the sidereal harmony of Burnt Norton is replaced with war in the heavens and a threatened apocalypse of fire and ice. Probably, this part of the poem reflects the context of its writing, during the Blitz. It might be better to describe the style as oracular rather than lyrical; as in the other quartets, the second section begins with a passage which is formally poetic, foregrounding the techniques and diction of verse. However, in East Coker, the most startling aspect of Section II is the rapidity with which the writer disowns the opening passage:

That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory:

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

The language here is prosaic and the introduction of the impersonal pronoun ‘one’ in place of ‘me’, ‘us’ or even ‘you’ is notably awkward. If the poetry ‘does not matter’ what or who is all this for? Once again, we get the sense of internal debate, as if Eliot is talking to himself, even as ‘one’ modulates into a generalised ‘we’ and ‘us’. This may be an attempt to include the audience, to suggest that the poet is speaking on behalf of others at a similar age and stage of life –‘mon hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère’ [3] as he had it in The Waste Land. This sense of an even partly external audience breaks down with the phrase ‘it seems to us’ in line 81, where ‘us’ is fairly obviously an evasion of ‘me’.

 

In 1940, Eliot would have been 52, hardly an old man, yet these lines are a meditation on old age. Someone has said that Eliot was born old and certainly, he seems to have been preoccupied with the notion of age from early in his life. ‘Gerontion’, his dramatic monologue in the voice of an old man, was written in 1920. Here Eliot seems to be debating two points of view which he has found attractive but which are to some extent contradictory. The first is the yearning for a conservative, classical, organically ordered society sometimes placed in the pre-Reformation past and given the name of Christendom. In this reading, the ‘quiet-voiced elders’[4] may be a reference to Sir Thomas Elyot and his ilk. Elyot’s views were certainly conservative and classical. T.S. Eliot quickly rejects this ‘serenity’ as ‘hebetude’ and, with a relish in assonance which belies the depressing content, accuses these forebears of ‘Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit’. In his essay, Traditional and the Individual Talent (1919), Eliot wrote:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

In this poem, in 1940, the ‘serenity’ of a tradition constantly renewing itself by the addition of the new has transformed into a radical uncertainty:

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been.

The poem returns to the theme prefigured in the previous quartet, the descent into darkness, but here the abstract negations are replaced by terrifying gothic images, blending Dante and Sherlock Holmes:

But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,

On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,

And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,

Risking enchantment.

The scholar or theologian will pick up on the allusions in the attempt to follow the writer’s argument and spiritual struggle but the imaginative reader will respond to the lexicon of childhood, folktale and nightmare: ‘monsters’, ‘fancy[5] lights’, ‘enchantment’ and feel the terror. Eliot dismisses the idea of wisdom in old age:

Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or others, or to God.

As he advocates humility as the only path to wisdom, the poet reverts to ‘we’ but this terror of self-surrender must be very personal. The section ends with the disappearance of all the evocations of the past: ‘The houses are all gone under the sea.//The dancers are all gone under the hill.’ The last line, like other parts of this poem, remind me of Puck Of Pook’s Hill (1906). Eliot would have been too old for this as a child, and although he went on to edit a collection of Kipling’s poetry in 1957, I have no idea whether he had read the Puck stories. Nevertheless, in his pursuit of Englishness he had something in common with the earlier writer. Both, in different ways, were the children of Empire and colonization.

 

Section III seems finally to confront death, though the nearest the poet comes to mentioning this idea is in the repetition of ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’ and the image of the ‘silent funeral’:

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,

Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

The reader experiences some kind of sleight of pen at this point as the fear of death, apparently too terrifying even to be said, turns into a vision of annihilation, of total nothingness which seems to be the consequence of this fear and the absence of hope, hope perhaps predicated on the existence of, or the belief in, God. “Without faith in a divine providence, isn’t hope for the future just whistling in the dark?’ asks Richard Norman in a recent article, a question which he goes on to answer positively.[6] Here, Eliot seems certainly to be in the dark, not even prepared to whistle. Suddenly, the first person appears but it is a first person whose immediacy is weakened by the sense that the poet is quoting: ‘I said to my soul be still, and let the dark come on you’ which echoes the Lutheran hymn ‘Be still my soul’ and, ultimately the Psalms. Again, Eliot seems to be seeking the dark way towards God. The line is like a reverse of the experience of the shepherds at the Nativity in the Gospel of St. Luke: ‘And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them’(Luke,2, ix) or even like a yearning for some kind of dark annunciation. The key point is the subduing of the will and suggestion that ‘faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting’, gifts to be conferred by God, not achieved through any act of will. However, Eliot explores his idea of an extreme negativity through three analogies from contemporary life which he expects ‘we’ will recognise and share; in all three situations, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ are increasingly passive and powerless, threatened with darkness, first as theatre audience, then as passengers on the underground and finally as patients in the operating theatre. It is difficult not to see this abnegation of the will and the self as also an abdication of or flight from responsibility. The poem then signals the possibility of redemption, not only of the self but also of history as we return to the imagery of Burnt Norton: ‘The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy/Not lost’. However, the poet may be showing us here that his theme has developed because it seems that this redemption can only occur through ‘the agony/Of death and rebirth’ which revalues the ‘dung and death’ of Section II and points to the necessity of the Incarnation. This moment of insight is shortlived as the last verse paragraph of this section declines into prosaic verbosity. ‘You say I am repeating/Something I have said’ before. I shall say it again?/Shall I say it again? This is followed by a decline into a further series of paradoxes admonishing ‘you’ in a rather irritating schoolteacher tone only tolerable if we recognise that Eliot is again addressing himself. Or, if we acknowledge that this passage paraphrases the words of St John of the Cross[7], then we could say that the poet is being instructed by the saint. However, the effect is of second-hand mysticism reduced in power.

 

Section IV is generally recognised to be a Christian allegory. Although he uses a regular form, five rhymed stanzas of five lines, each composed of four tetrameters with a final hexameter, Eliot sticks with the first person, albeit mostly first person plural. The dominant image of the passage is the hospital and we might reflect on how much of his life, Eliot himself was undergoing some kind of medical treatment, whether it was for his teeth or his mental health. Personally, I find this section rather horrible, lurid in the same way as the statues of Christ with electrically lit bleeding hearts found in some Catholic houses. Perhaps the lines have this effect because Eliot, who always seems the most cerebral of writers and who had a known distaste for physicality, is trying here to grapple with the realities of flesh and blood, which have to be accepted if you accept the idea of Christ’s incarnation and passion.

The dripping blood our only drink,

The bloody flesh our only food:

In spite of which we like to think

That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –

Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

I have read that this quartet was first published on Good Friday; I’m not sure if this is apocryphal, but again we see the poet entering into temporality, the here and now of wartime London in 1941.

 

Part V, opens with a first person who is clearly Eliot, despite the odour of Dante which persists throughout the work: ‘So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years – / Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres –‘. It is unclear here whether the tone here is of despair or a sort of arch false modesty. As in Burnt Norton and Little Gidding , the poet uses the final section to address the problems of writing.

And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Striking in this passage are the military semantic field – ‘raid’, ‘shabby equipment’ , ‘undisciplined squads’ and the horror of emotion. Philosophically, this can be attributed to Eliot’s commitment to classicism, which prioritised reason over emotion; personally, it seems to reflect the introverted and repressed nature of the man. The imagery of battle which continues with ‘conquer’, ‘strength and submission’ and ‘fight’ reminds us that this poem was written in time of war, which the poet refers to with prodigious understatement as ‘conditions/That seem unpropitious’. I am not sure what he means when he talks about the ‘fight to recover what has been lost/ And found and lost again and again”. He may mean the desire to redeem the past and the belief that this can only be only possible through faith. The last verse paragraph from line 190 onwards seem to be more mellow, even more optimistic and when he speaks of a ‘lifetime burning in every moment’ he seems more intent on how life is lived on earth than the pursuit of ‘isolated’ moments of vision. The view of old men is also more positive: they may not have ‘wisdom’ but they ‘ought to be explorers’. The poem ends with a reversal of the opening, obviously a reference to death and the life to come, but also a self referential segue to the next quartet where the key element will be ‘water’:

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

            Through the dark cold and empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

[1] A different though not necessarily contradictory reading can be found in A Gloss on `Daunsinge’: Sir Thomas Elyot and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets by Linda Bradley Salamon

ELH, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter, 1973), pp. 584-605. Accessed 16.10.2018 at http://www.academia.edu/642611/A_Gloss_on_Daunsinge_Sir_Thomas_Elyot_and_TS_Eliots_Four_Quartets

[2] See Chapter 22, The Book of the Governor, Sir Thomas Elyot, 1531

[3] The quotation from Baudelaire seems to me to suggest what poets are looking for in a reader: someone who will be completely in tune with them, understanding and appreciating everything they are trying to say. Thus, even for the most extrovert of writers, their first and best audience is themselves.

[4] This suggestion is taken from Salamon, op. cit.

[5] ‘fancy lights’ here means not something really pricy from John Lewis, but lights which are fanciful, or unreal, will-o’-the-wisps, as in Blake’s illustration to ‘The Little Boy Lost’ in Songs of Innocence.

[6] Relevant to this argument is the recent discussion between Richard Norman and Tony Carroll about the possibility of hope, published in the magazine Sofia, no.129, September 2018.

[7] See Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S. Eliot, Chapter 7, p. 168(Faber Paperback, 1949; 1968 this edition)

Diversity from Oxford

The TS Eliot prize drew criticism for the lack of diversity in its short list, although it was won by the only poet of colour included, Ocean Vuong, who also happened to be gay. However, at the level of the smaller presses, diversity thrives and younger poets from a range of ethnicities and sexual orientations are producing exciting and innovative collections. Two recent publications from poets with Oxford links exemplifying this trend are a hurry of english by Mary Jean Chan, published by ignition press, which is part of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, and Five Storms (smith/doorstop) by Theophilus Kwek, who is a former president of the Oxford Poetry Society and, like Chan, a co-editor of Oxford Poetry.

The blurb to Mary Jean Chan’s book describes her as making a ‘significant contribution to poetry and queer writing in the UK’. Certainly, as a young, Hong Kong Chinese, queer woman, she seems to tick all the boxes. However, there is a danger that her PC rating may obscure the power and strength of her poetry. This is a very strong debut collection which explores and exploits some compelling autobiographical detail. In some ways, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which also mines the process of coming-of-age. As Heaney’s book had the presiding figure of the father, so this one is dominated by the presence of the mother, addressed directly in the opening poem, ‘Always’: ‘You are always where I begin’…
Always the lips kissing
they could kiss those mouths
you would approve of.
Throughout the book, the poem addresses the mother’s life as well as her own. Although Chan was brought up in Hong Kong, her mother seems to have lived in mainland China and experienced the tyranny of the Red Guards. The intellectual oppression is presented in the second poem ‘what my mother (a poet) might say’ where she represents her mother’s ideas and feelings in lines which are cancelled, so that the only line which stands is the repeated and italicised ‘that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy’. The respect for her mother is shown through the tentative ‘might’ of the title. Aside from the typographical innovation of using the strike-through function, this poem is formally beautifully arranged in a series of couplets where the first line is devoted to the mother’s thoughts about her own life, the second to her thoughts about her daughter. In contrast to the glib facility of the refrain, these lines are uncomfortable, acknowledging the complexity of the mother’s character and of the relationship she has with her daughter:
that she dreams about seeing her father’s heart in the doctor’s fist
that I must only write about flowers
Another formally innovative poem is ‘At the Castro’ with the dedication ‘for Orlando’ which I choose to read as an allusion to the bisexual, gender-shifting eponymous protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel. Whatever it may be, the poem itself is set out in two columns which may be a visual representation of two lovers, the space down the centre of the page showing the difficulty of same-sex relationships in a hostile society. The poem celebrates the freedom of self-realisation and ‘coming-out’ possible in a gay club:

the first time you stepped into a gay bar
was the first time you danced

The ‘you’ addressed shifts into third person:
the girl who thought she had to sit down
for the rest of her life broke all the rules
became the wind

and then back into second:

you drank
till you became sober enough not to be
ashamed the boy you never were
smiled kissed
another girl

These changes make it unclear whose experience is being addressed in the poem, whether it is the poet, her lover, or both or whether the figures are generic. Celebration changes to horror as ‘a hand pulls a trigger’, destroying the relationship or relationships. Whether this violence is real or metaphorical, it suggests the risks and fears of being gay but nevertheless finishes with a defiant assertion of the importance of love:
skin is never an apology
but always an act of faith

The collection is woven around the relationship with the mother, with the lover and with the desire to reconcile the mother and the lover. Whereas the title phrase for the book is taken from a prose poem where the mother’s influence is felt as oppressive and English is seen as an escape, ‘My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze’, in //, short-listed for the 2017 Forward Prize, a poem which is perhaps the centrepiece of the book, Chan attempts to construct this reconciliation. The title represents chopsticks: ‘To the Chinese,// you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.’ The poem’s starts with an awkward dinner where the non-Chinese lover is entertained by the hostile family, but moves towards a determination not to be defeated by parental or societal pressure:
Tonight, I am dreaming again
of tomorrow: another chance to eat at the feast of the living

The poem ends by rejecting secrecy and suicide:
I have stopped believing that secrets are a beautiful way

to die. You came home with me for three hundred days –
to show my family that dinner together won’t kill us all.

This idea is reprised in “Love for the Living’ near the end of the book, a celebration of society’s recognition and acceptance of same sex love, which is echoed in the changed attitude of the mother, felt as ‘the ache of pleasure when/your mother mentions your lover’s name.’

The final poem, like the first, centres on the poet’s mother, but the balance of power has shifted. Whilst the first poem is addressed directly to the mother, in an agonised plea for approval and acceptance, in this one the mother is spoken of in third person, as if the poet had succeeded in distancing herself and attaining independent adulthood. She speaks here in the first person, as she recognises her mother’s needs and that she must accept the fact that she cannot solve them or make them her burden.
I can only
invite her to the table: Look,

mother, your hands are beautiful.
Look, mother our tea is ready.

Appropriately, the use of pronouns in this last poem is unambiguous and subtle. The “I” of the daughter ‘speaks confidently to the ‘you’ of the mother, bringing them together in the ‘our’ of the closing line.

**********************************************

Theophilus Kwek is both startlingly precocious and astonishingly accomplished. He seems to have published his first book at the age of 17 and this ‘New Poet’s Prize’ Smith/Doorstop pamphlet has appeared when he is still only 24. Kwek is prolific and has the ability to respond to the moment with poems far removed from the agonized moans or enraged rants so often produced after major calamities. At the same time, his style is distinctly reticent or even elliptical and tends to incorporate allusions which may require research. Admittedly, that is not so difficult in the age of Google, but it does impede the first reading, as in ‘The Passenger’ where the references to Izanami and Izanagi enrich the poem if the reader understands them. Incidentally, either Kwek or Wikipedia has got the names of these Japanese gods the wrong way round.

He is particularly skilled at presenting natural and physical detail. The first poem in the collection is written in more-or-less rhymed couplets with some powerful internal sound effects as in the second stanza:
Light sown
As haw, thawed streams like cracks in the bone.
The internal rhyme of ‘haw’ with ‘thawed’ contrasts sharply with the onomatopoeic ‘like cracks’ and is followed by the final shocking long rhyming vowel sound in ‘bone’ which emphasizes the whiteness of the snow. However, I am puzzled by ‘haw’, which should be the red of the hawthorn berry, but seems here to mean something more like the ‘hoar’ of a hoar frost. Nor am I quite sure why the thrush is ‘hurtling’. The mysterious quality of the poem is also apparent in the ambiguity of its setting. It begins as a view ‘From a window’ and this idea is reinforced at the end, ‘That through a window comes’ but we cannot be sure if this is a window which is merely that of an observer, or whether it may be a train window, in which case, the poem’s speaker is also involved in the action. A ‘cabin’ is stirred ‘to praise, or something like praise’ and we are left uncertain of the location of the cabin; is it outside the train, part of the train or a synonym for ‘heart’ in the next line? The many hints that this is more than a nature poem about snow culminate in the portentous last half line ‘The right and the wronged’ –perhaps a little too portentous after the subtle ambiguities of the rest of the poem. Another piece that becomes suddenly and heavily significant at the conclusion is ‘What Follows Deer cull, Wytham Woods, 7th February 2015’.
Again, the observation of natural detail is beautiful and convincing: ‘bounding across seed-rows they are gone,/the cracked frost making an ashen path/to a gap in the horse-wire thorn’. However, the last stanza, which uses multisyllabic and royal rhyme, also becomes suddenly abstract: ‘struck on the flint of that eternity/more alive than in the burnished wood.’ Something very odd is happening: ‘struck on the flint’ has connotations both of shooting and of making light or fire, while the adjective ‘burnished’ transforms the wood from nature into a work of art. The poet is writing about the creation of an image, the image that he missed with his camera, but which has been captured by the eye, memory and the poem.

There is a wide range of subject matter here, with poems based on anything from biblical themes to newspaper stories. Perhaps it is easiest to engage with the poems which give us more to go on or where there seems to be some kind of personal involvement. For example, in ‘Requiem’/ Grandfather, 1936-2015, although we may not understand exactly what is happening in the funeral ritual, nevertheless we grasp that a family has been brought together in mourning, and recognise the poet’s hope that he can maintain his love for his surviving relatives:
Teach me now to love, at their frayed ends
the left-behind, their washed and ashen fingers.

The language of the previous two lines suggests that these relationships have not always been easy, ‘our sifted, falling silences, the plunge//of numbed hands under frigid water.’

The final group of sonnets, for which the collection is named, ‘The First Five Storms’, appears to be a sequence of love poems, but the reticence mentioned earlier, make this a very different kind of poetry from that of Mary Jean Chan.
It may be instructive to explore the use of pronouns in these poems. The first person plural is dominant. ‘We’ is used in every poem except iv, ‘Desmond’, where it splits into ‘you’ and ‘I’, a split heralded in iii, ‘Clodagh’, ‘I had come here/ to make resolutions, taste the grey/Christmas skies you loved’. In the first two poems, the ‘we’ is unproblematic; it may be the speaker and his friends or his lover, more likely a lover, given the imagery in the first sonnet, ‘the rest of our days reach in to join fingers/ with the season’s slow dusk’. ‘We’ provides a sense of assurance, a platform, ‘safety in numbers’. In ii, ‘Barney’, the ‘we’ becomes exclusive, almost smug, as it celebrates itself and its own escape from the ravages of the storm, with the ‘dog outside’ perhaps symbolising social exclusion.
We stood, then went in our cars to church,
And scraped our shoes, and left the dog outside.
Clodagh describes experiencing the storm on a sea-crossing to Ireland. ‘You’ sleeps through ‘the thick/of it’, leaving the ‘I’ in the sestet, on his own to make new and unexpected discoveries, perhaps about love: ‘but found instead/fine rain, and land underfoot; gold and myrrh’. ‘Desmond’, the fourth sonnet, is a beautiful poem which seems to refer back to ‘The Weaver’ at the beginning of the book. There the bird’s nest-building seems to represent the enduring love of a parent; here, it seems to be a lesson learned by the speaker, again as the beloved sleeps –‘you had gone up to bed’ – about the power of love to endure, through adversity, a lesson which he shares by directly addressing the beloved:
I cannot explain, love, but I knew
how different they seemed, and how they sang
all the louder in the rain, and flew.

Lesson learned, the poet returns confidently to ‘we’ in the last poem ‘Eva’, which, like the first poem in the book, is set in snow. Poet and beloved ‘set out early’ and come upon ‘the scent of January’s mowing/fresh on fallen grass’ which I take to be snow or perhaps frost. It is further significantly described as ‘a season’s dowry’. The melting of the frost is seen as the first stage in the renewal of fertility which ‘ would put dry earth to grass, and then in time/turn road to wood, and sky, and bark, and moss.’ This poem , like the whole sequence, is in many ways very conventional, with its use of the sonnet and natural imagery to celebrate love. Kwek demonstrates his mastery of the poetic tradition while at the same time displaying linguistic invention and an ability to innovate by pushing the forms to their limits so that the apparently naturalistic poem resonates with subtle and often ambiguous meaning.