Louise Gluck’s Poetry: Whole But Not Final

Lots of hits in the last 24 hours on my earlier blog post about Louise Gluck. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature tends to have that effect… She’s a fascinating writer, always experimenting, but Anne Carson or Claudia Rankine would have come before her on my list. But given the obvious interest in her work, I’m posting here the text of the review I wrote for Poetry London in 2014 of Gluck’s last (ie. latest, though 6 years old now) book, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet). The review was paired with Michael Longley’s The Stairwell (Cape, 2014).

Louise Gluck’s comments on George Oppen remain one of the best ways into her own poetry. In praising Oppen, she declares her own hand: “I love white space, love the telling omission [. . .] find oddly depressing that which seems to have left out nothing. Such poetry seems to love completion too much, and like a thoroughly cleaned room, it paralyses activity” (Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1994). The homely metaphor here is also characteristic. She shares with Oppen (and surprisingly with Longley) a preference for what is singular, common, small, for “solid nouns”, a language restored “to natural health [. . .] for common use”, rather than a Stevensian “hermetic patois” (‘On George Oppen’ ). So her style has been variously called spare, stripped down, deflated, thinned (especially so since Ararat (1990)). Yet the miraculous paradox her poems evoke is suggested by a further observation from 1994, that “precision is not the opposite of mystery”. Gluck’s dreamlike, enigmatic narratives are all the more powerful – convincing one might say – precisely because of the directness, plainness of her language.

It’s appropriate then that in her new book one of the protagonists paints canvases which are “immense and entirely white” (‘The White Series’). There is mystery enough in this new collection which (as often with Gluck) gestures towards a narrative but whose narrators switch gender, are much concerned with parents (who have perhaps died in a car crash), a caring aunt, a brother (perhaps a sister). These are scenes from (at least one) life. The dominant voice is that of a male artist who, after a career interruption, begins to paint white on a visit to America. He takes on a nephew as a companion as he approaches death. In ‘A Summer Garden’, he discovers a photo of his mother slipped into a translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and a studied, fin de siècle fastidiousness over language surfaces in many poems. Gluck’s novelistic skills in drawing a world in a few strokes and character in even fewer are evident, though once again action is missing; Gluck’s characters, whether male or female, are passive.

Like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, Gluck’s figures contemplate mortality while turning over their past. Though less obviously personal and less contented, as with Longley, the term nunc dimittis seems appropriate. The loss of parental figures is a recurrent trope and in ‘An Adventure’ love too is stripped away in a vain hope of “profound discoveries”. Poetry is lost too, again anticipating “the vast territory / opening to us with each valediction”. In A Village Life (2009), such a via negativa was doubted as “illumination / of the kind [that] destroys / creatures who depend on things” (‘Bats’) and here too it seems ineffectual. The quasi-Victorian cosiness evoked by the book’s title is exposed as false as remembered days “become unstable”, time leaps to and fro, seemingly at random and, if the soul travels at all, the puzzle remains that it always returns “empty-handed”:

[. . .] there is no perfect ending.

Indeed, there are infinite endings.

Or perhaps, once one begins,

there are only endings.

                                                                        ‘Faithful and Virtuous Night’

This is a bleak world not unfamiliar to readers of Gluck. In 1985 she asked, “Why love what you will lose?” only to answer, “There is nothing else to love” (From the Japanese’). Here, her real subject is the way we create our own meanings. ‘Afterword’ reflects on an earlier poem in the collection, suspicious of the “instinct / [to] discern a shape, the artist in me / intervening to stop traffic, as it were”. A meeting with an old woman yields the anticipation “that some important secret / was about to be entrusted” but on reflection her words are “pointless” (‘A Sharply Worded Silence’). Gluck (again like Longley) has used Homeric and Greek mythic material to ironise her more contemporary subjects. Faithful and Virtuous Night instead makes reference to T H White’s The Sword in the Stone to evoke the same kind of focused, watershed moment, indubitably saturated with meaning that the events of her narrator’s lives lack. Even the analyst’s couch offers nothing more than “my ingenuity versus / his evasiveness: our little game” (’The Sword in the Stone’).

In recent years, the Italian settings of Averno (2006) and A Village Life have seemed to warm Gluck’s empathy, developing a more dramatic quality to her work in portraits less obviously autobiographical. This new collection perhaps reverts, but still she engages and moves her readers and there do seem to be eventual gains along this apparently bleak road. These lie in the poems’ openness, the way they seem capable of encompassing such varieties of experience, of saying ‘yes’. Of Oppen, she wrote that his work had the power to seem “simultaneously, whole and not final, the power to generate, not annul, energy”. As in sitting before a Samuel Beckett drama, the paradox is we are not drained of energy by the apparently fruitless search for meaning, but are thrown back onto the road all the more attuned to the clues, to the activity demanded of us. In his last days, Gluck’s artist has his nephew sing Jacques Brel’s ‘The Old Folks’ (“The little cat is dead and no more do they sing“) as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Hills are Alive’. The insight is that “we do not, in the main, need to choose between them” (‘The White Series’).

To end at the beginning, Faithful and Virtuous Night opens with ‘Parable’ in which, “as St. Francis teaches”, a group of people divest themselves of worldly goods, better to focus on their goals, better to move unencumbered towards them. But the direction of travel is unclear, as is their purpose. Much debate ensues; time passes. In the background, perhaps we hear Brel’s “old silver clock” ticking. The group grows old in debate and their ageing (some believe) is their true purpose, while others believe the passage of time is the truth they hoped to be revealed. Both seem satisfied and perhaps we need not choose between them, only admire Gluck’s precise evocation of the mystery.

Quickdraw Review of Robert Selby’s ‘The Coming-Down Time’

41kqq0VBdRLRobert Selby’s debut collection is fronted by a wood cut engraving by Clare Leighton, titled ‘Planting Trees’. Two flat-capped workmen labour to bed in a sapling. A wind-bent tree stands nearby; on the gusty skyline, at the top of a hill, a dark copse. It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy poem, or an Edward Thomas one, and it’s well-chosen as these are the forebears The Coming-Down Time often explicitly acknowledges. Launched into a poetry world dominated by so many books addressing environmental, gender, race and identity issues, this collection (depending on your viewpoint) is either timeless or behind the times. Selby’s careful organisation of the poems makes it clear he knows what he’s doing and he will do it his way.

His main subjects are historical time, England and romantic love. The first of three sections, ‘East of Ipswich’, is a tribute to his grandparents, George and Lea Gissing. George “came from a long line of men who worked / now-extinct equine trades”. These are true ‘salt of the earth’ Englishmen. Enquiries as to who they were (questions of identity, we might now say) are answered with confidence, if not belligerence: “We’re Orford men, and that’s enough”. But time passes even on the edges of Suffolk. The concluding lines of ‘The End of the Horse Age’ catch a glimpse of encroaching change in the shape of a tractor:

 

. . . he sees an unblinkered beast

braying smoke in the top field, light

from its side-lamps shining off makers’ plates

cast from melted down horse brasses.

 

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Robert Selby

If this is sounding like a man’s world, well, it was and Selby rolls with that. In marriage, Lea sheds her given, christian name for Doll and her maiden name also, “was gone”. There is no obvious meta-comment; Selby’s poem is more intent on celebrating the marriage of his grandparents than exploring Lea’s thoughts on these matters of gender and nomenclature. Perhaps they were not questioned at the time, but I’m uneasy at the silence surrounding such moments, given the poem is a contemporary one. Selby has perhaps inherited the “Suffolk reserve” of his grandfather, for whom “words are weeds that don’t fall to the hoe”. The wish not to (over-)dramatize seems very strong; the end of the Second World War is marked by the grandfather in terms of the cigarettes, chocolate and tea cakes at the NAAFI more than its global import.

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The Brig o’Turk sycamore – handlebars embedded!

Indeed, like Edward Thomas’ work, these are poems about small things. The evocation of the (seldom used) front room at his grandparents’ house is vivid and (for those of us of a certain vintage) very familiar. The sequence takes us to the funerals of the older generation via the understanding that their children (Selby’s father specifically) have already moved away from traditional lives. The father is “one of the suited men / who’ll step off the evening train”. The tone is mostly one of gentle regret at the passing of a way of life (part of which was a closeness to the environment). “How easily people forget things”, opens ‘The Winter Wood’. That same poem ends as a sort of “testament to the losing habit”. The sycamore at Brig o’Turk, in the Trossachs, which has grown around a bicycle once leant against it, is a good image for Selby’s concerns: the past remains but is inevitably absorbed and changed.

graffiti-on-shop-shuttersSelby’s use of language and form is likewise pretty traditional. It’s not just a result of the subject matter that the book is frequented by words such as smithy, shire, lambkin, deer-stalker, and lush-toned phrases such as “blossom-moted”. The flip side of this is that details of 2020 UK are often treated with a distaste, an alienated distance. Later in the book, a friend returns from the dust and pollen of the English countryside into London: “its tagged shutters and sick-flecked stops, / its scaffolding like the lies / propping up your peeling hopes”. The friend is female and (I think) Canadian. Another poem’s narrator tries to persuade her that “[t]his is the real England [. . .] It’s a place of trees; of apple, pear, cherry and plum”. There is more to be said here about the meaning of ‘real’ and it’s hard to tell if the narrator’s invitation is meant to have a deathly ring to it. He asks, “Do you want to reset your watch to the toll of here?”

brain-compass-e1552934724594The import of this question forms the emotional and dramatic context of the later poems in the collection which trace an on/off relationship. The narrator is left wondering: “I must wait for the needle / of your heart’s compass to unspin, / and see where it stops”. In reading that I’m reminded of Lea and – what seemed to be – her relative lack of choice in the earlier years of the twentieth century. There is a good deal of unalloyed nostalgia in The Coming-Down Time for an England of the mind, if it was ever part of any actual century. I find the female figures in the book suffer because of this: most of them do not achieve a specific, particular life in the poems. I’d like Selby to go on to explore the irony in two images: the masculine arms in “rolled up sleeves” that may or may not be “strong enough” and the closing lines just quoted, in which the desired woman bides her time, knowingly possessed of strength, of the agency of decision.

Quickdraw Review: ‘Counting Clouds’ – poems by Peter Robinson, paintings by David Inshaw

This is how reviews are supposed to work. I recently read James Harpur’s comments on Bonjour Mr Inshaw, published by Two Rivers Press (poems by Peter Robinson, paintings by David Inshaw) in the Spring 2020 issue of Agenda, ‘Pound Reconsidered’. I went out and bought the book.

I’ve long thought of writing poems about David Inshaw’s paintings, drawn to what Harpur calls his ability to “invest landscapes with spiritual light and energy, balancing realism with a sense of the mythic, of penetrating a noumenal sphere”. The other personal draw to his work has been that Inshaw’s home (and home ground as an artist) is that part of Wiltshire to the west of where I grew up. Inshaw’s home is in Devizes and many of his paintings are of the landscape just a bit further west, of Silbury Hill, Avebury, the barrows and downs of that area. The drive from the M4 turn-off at Hungerford, on the Bath Road, through Marlborough and the A361 to Devizes has long figured in my personal list of favourite drives (not wholly because it was for years the route to my childhood home in Hilperton, Wiltshire). And now Peter Robinson has beaten me to it with this beautiful book of full colour images and 19 poems, though his approach is not simply ekphrastic (merely descriptive of the images) but often launches out from the pictures into concerns shared by the two artists.

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Image and Text from ‘Bonjour Mr Inshaw’

Robinson and Inshaw in fact met at Cambridge in the 1970s. That moment is uncertainly recalled in the poem ‘In the Seventies’ (a title borrowed from Thomas Hardy’s poem in Moments of Vision – a sub-theme of this whole book is how both poet and artist respond to Hardy’s work). Various chance meetings over 50 years then occurred including a visit to Devizes in January 2019 during which the project of this book was agreed upon.

Inshaw’s ‘Tree and Moon’

The word ‘haunted’ seems to have been designed to be applied to Inshaw’s landscapes. There is a hyper-real quality to the painting which makes the viewer re-see our own surroundings but also takes us through the surface. Harpur’s Agenda review suggested a “Platonic vision” but I’d object to losing the surface of the real so readily. Inshaw was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists (here is an old BBC documentary on them – a brilliant example of ‘slow’ TV before it had been thought of) and his landscapes are usually peopled and the trees and downs and ancient memorials are therefore always ‘seen’. Inshaw’s work is about time and memory (Hardy again) and the way moments of vision or perception can feel heightened. The poem ‘Haunting Landscapes’ alludes to Inshaw’s ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’ (another quote from Hardy, his poem ‘After a Journey’). A woman in black stands in a graveyard but has turned as if being called to from beyond the frame (by a memory, a ghost).

Inshaw in front of ‘The Badminton Game’

As in so many memories, there is a heightened particularity to Inshaw’s paintings. There is a Rilkean focus on what ‘The Kennet’ calls “being here”. Look at Inshaw’s ‘Tree and Moon’, for example, and Robinson’s accompanying poem, ‘At Slader’s Yard’, associates the two artists (and their art forms) in the quality of their ‘noticing’: “I’m a counter of clouds / come over the hills like this one / ‘salmoning’ in a ‘deepening blue’”. Hardy’s poem ‘Afterwards’ describes himself as a “man who . . . noticed things”. Robinson’s concluding poem, ‘After a Visit’, suggests how Inshaw’s precision of observation (“the starkness of those winter branches’ / black against a glowing skyline”) manages to inculcate a sense of something other than mere perception of colour and shape: “it brings back the sense of some design, / and a meaning to this scene”. The root and pattern of design is unclear. The value of such a comprehending vision is heightened by the precise historical context in which many of these poems were written. The divisions and confusions of Brexit and the world of Covid infection and lockdowns keeps breaking through the surface of this book. The parliamentary “palaver”, hypocritically urging us to “come together as a nation” and a certain politician, “pre-disgraced”, indicate that neither poet nor painter look upon the landscape of southern England with their heads in the clouds, nor with any narrowly nostalgic gaze.

Peter Robinson

 

 

 

 

Quickdraw Review – Eoghan Walls’ ‘Pigeon Songs’

Dear Readers,

As I said in my last blog – before we were all locked down – I’ve always enjoyed using this space as an experimental play area, a sand pit in which I can think through ideas about poetry, teaching and translation. In the last couple of years, a lot of this thinking aloud has been done through reviews of new poetry collections. And I have always wanted to give myself (and the book) enough space (usually over 1000 words). But several recent conversations with other writers about how very few poetry books get critical notice these days has persuaded me there is also a place here for shorter reviews – quick drawing in the sense of a rapid sketch of a book, a shooting from the hip. Here’s my second go at this sort of thing.

Eoghan Walls, Pigeon Songs (Seren Books, 2019).

Eoghan Walls’ second collection from Seren Books will make you think hard about how poets use rhyme. As in his earlier The Salt Harvest (2011), Walls reaches as it were by default-setting for rhymes, full, half and oblique, in pretty much every poem. Though the overt forms vary – couplets, triplets, quatrains – he favours longish, driven, consonant-heavy lines and the rhythms of the poems are more about the arrival of the rhyme words than anything else. The overall effect for me is rather double-edged. The achieved musicality is more about a sustained ground bass, a pedal note, or drone (I think sometimes of MacNeice’s 1937 poem ‘Bagpipe Music’) than subtle variations in the reader’s anticipation of harmony, counterpoint or disharmony, of the kind of dynamism and flight that rhyme can evoke.

There is instead a sort of digging-in, a very deliberate gaining of traction which is also reflected in a lot of the subject matters. This may be also reflected in Walls’ bird of choice: the humble pigeon, at once capable of flight (and often rapid flight too) but also the ‘rat of the air’, the urban dweller and scavenger. In a parody of Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century paean to his cat Jeoffrey, Walls’ ‘Jubilate Columbidae’ praises the pigeon’s flight, shit, panic and feeding habits. The subject matter of Pigeon Songs likewise ranges from touching and gentle poems about the poet’s children to far more brutalist pieces on sex and death, a range matched by a characteristic shifting of perspectives from up-close details to observations on a more cosmic scale. ‘The Principles of Collision’ probably suggests what lies behind these techniques in Walls’ mind: “Once there is a collision you can have an event. / Two things bumping is the way change happens”.

Many of the child-focused poems are excellent: father and daughter fascinated and appalled at the relics in a church; the trials (for both parents and child – I remember it well) of swimming lessons in the local pool; the father carrying the child on his shoulders. ‘To Half-Inchling’ is startling in addressing a miscarried child, imagining a world where she might have grown to “[her] full potential”, a world in which it would have been more “legitimate to mourn”. The use of the rhymed sonnet form here feels very apt, the whole carrying a powerful emotional thrust that is often absent elsewhere. And such dark emotions are never far distant. On holiday in Sardinia, father and daughter cook calamari but later the child wakes “screaming about the dead squid, / whether it hurts to be dead, and if she really has to die”. Part of the father’s response is to point to the stars: “I tell her life is massive”. I don’t know how effective a parenting manoeuvre this proved to be, but it reflects a great deal about this collection: the massive scope and range of life is always present and the shifting of perspectives is an instrument used to try to make sense of what happens.

Which also means that thoughts of death are seldom far away. In ‘De Pneuma’, routine jogging leads to thoughts of car accidents or heart failure, the body, damaged irrevocably is brutally evoked: “the whole meat could be cast like a coat in the ditch”. Walls is drawn to such high dramatic stakes. ‘The Law of the Galapagos’ sees the culling of goats on the island from the poor goat’s perspective, bullets whizzing and splintering until the creature’s “jelled electrics go clinically dead”.

There are strong poems about the poet’s mother and father too. The book is interspersed with right-justified ‘pigeon’ poems and other birds and creatures make regular appearances. But – a bit like Wall’s insistence on rhyme which can dull the ear through a collection of over 60 pages – there is something rather willed about the connections this creates as in ‘The Early Days’ which records a relationship’s beginnings in half-rhyming couplets, each of which includes some allusion to bees. So raindrops falling on a shirt are shoe-horned in by being described as “bee-large”. Despite the blunt factuality of a lot of Wall’s lines, there is often also a poetical effortfulness which I do find distracting.

Quickdraw Review – Damian Walford Davies, ‘Docklands’ (Seren)

Dears Readers,

I’ve always enjoyed using this blog as my own experimental play area, a sand pit in which I can think through ideas about poetry, teaching and translation. In the last couple of years, a lot of this thinking aloud has been done through reviews of new poetry collections. And I have always wanted to give myself (and the book) enough space (usually over 1000 words). But several recent conversations with other writers about the very few poetry books that get critical notice these days has persuaded me there is also a place here for shorter reviews – quick drawing in the sense of a rapid sketch of a book, a shooting from the hip. Here’s my first try at this sort of thing.

Damian Walford Davies, Docklands: A Ghost Story (Seren Books, 2019).

Docklands-–-Damian-Walford-Davies-1This is Walford Davies’ fourth book from Seren and it is an ambitious project, combining narrative and lyric form (every poem is 16 lines long, in unrhymed couplets, most in four beat lines). It’s also a dramatic monologue, in effect, as the speaker is a thoroughly unpleasant, arrogant, but haunted architect engaged in several large urban projects in Cardiff between the years 1890 and 1982. Talk about the male gaze, this man epitomizes it. He and his wife have recently buried a child lost in stillbirth (“they wrapped it in a pall // not bigger than my handkerchief”) and while she mourns the loss, he gets on with his work and frequents bars and prostitutes in Cardiff’s docklands. The sympathetic reader is probably going to try to read this man’s cruel and dismissive treatment of his wife (and his exploitative relationships with other women) as his own rather twisted way of dealing with grief. But it’s hard to maintain that view, as Walford Davies is often shockingly good at catching his loathsome attitudes, especially towards women: “This quarter grows on me. / In shabby rooms in Stuart Street // my new friend swears // she’ll tackle anything for oranges”.

 The ghost story element arises when the architect starts to see a young girl on the streets of Cardiff. She is initially a haunting – but probably real – presence (perhaps somehow also related to the lost child?) but it eventually emerges that she is “Dead Em Foley”, an abused girl, murdered by her father a few years before. This narrative device yields up brief thrills for the reader, inexplicable sightings, eventually moments of dialogue between the two (it’s not clear if he tries to take the relationship any further). But through the five sections of the book, the architect’s wife seems to surface from her grief, returning to polite society (“Ah, Eleanor! So good to see you // out”) and there are signs of a warming of the marital relationship too. These indications seem to parallel the disappearance of Em Foley’s ghost too, though the architect memorialises her in a statue for a municipal fountain. The man sounds pleased that the local people “came out / to recognise a dead girl risen” when the statue is unveiled though it’s not clear if Walford Davies intends this as a more profound recognition of those marginalised by bourgeois Cardiff or whether it is a more personal and erotic tribute to the girl by the architect.

thWalford Davies, in an end note, talks of the ambiguity of the female figures – wife, prostitutes, dead girl – who do tend to float without clear identity, disembodied, through the text. It adds something to the ghost-like quality of the book, but the loss is any more powerful evocation of them. Also, the choice of brief lyrics to develop what could well have been a novel, gives the reader some powerful moments but few prolonged engagements with any of the characters. And the nature of the central male figure is problematic because of his downright unpleasantness (though, I suppose, Browning managed it in ‘My Last Duchess’) and in 2020 there will be plenty of readers who find such a portrayal an absolute bar to reading. I don’t think Walford Davies ironises and critiques his male figure enough, or clearly enough.