How We Created ‘O. at the Edge of the Gorge’ (Guillemot Press)

These two pieces on the writing and illustrating of my new chapbook, O. at the Edge of the Gorge, first appeared on the Guillemot Press website. Thanks to the Press and Phyllida Bluemel for permission to re-post them here.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART ONE by Martyn Crucefix

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The scraps and scribbles that eventually became O. at the Edge of the Gorge are contained in a notebook dating from March 2014. The first words that made it into the finished sequence record my sighting of “6 white doves / on the boundary wall / looking away”. I’m pretty sure I spotted the birds on the drive to one of the airports north of London as, on the same page, sits a note recording a tannoy announcement calling a customer back to one of the shops in the Duty Free zone: “please return /  to Glorious Britain / for a forgotten item”. These are the sorts of strange happenstances that get thrown down in a writer’s notebook; happily, it was the dove image that stayed with me.

The landscape of the poem is the destination of my flight that day, the Marche in central, eastern Italy. I was staying in a house close to the edge of a deep gorge, looking out to distant hillsides, several hilltop villages, their church spires, clumps of dark trees. The roots of the poems – any poem, of course – spread much deeper than is immediately visible. So earlier in the same notebook, I find I had noted a quotation from Schopenhauer (itself quoted by Dannie Abse in the May 2014 issue of the magazine Acumen): “Envy builds the wall between Thee and Me thicker and stronger; sympathy makes it slight and transparent – nay, sometimes it pulls down the wall altogether and then the distinction between self and not-self vanishes”.

A little earlier, there was another note. This was from a piece by Ed Hirsch in the magazine The Dark Horse. Hirsch quoted Simone Weil’s observation that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”. He went on to urge our attention ought be paid to the earth, not looking for something atemporal and divine. We need to cherish the fleeting and the transient, even in its disappearance. This is the particular project of poetry, he argued, and these are recognisably Rilkean ideas that were always likely to attract my interest. I have spent many years translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. The Orpheus link took a while to re-surface in my mind in relation to the new poems.

One other notebook entry stands out. I seem to have been reading Bruce Bawer’s book, Prophets and Professors (Storyline Press, 1995), and in a chapter on Wallace Stevens he quotes Mallarme: “To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object”. It’s not necessary for a writer to fully grasp such scattered sources; they tend to be ripped out of context and appropriated for use. In retrospect, I seemed to be thinking, over a period of weeks, about the relation between self and other, the paying of attention to the transient world and the difficulty of maintaining such attention through the medium of language. All of this re-appears in the poems that make up O. at the Edge of the Gorge.

Also by this time – probably July 2014 – there were two strong poetic voices chanting in my head. One was from poems I was trying to translate by Peter Huchel, poems written in the highly censored context of the GDR in the mid 20th century. I find I’d scribbled down “his vision is up-rooted, deracinated in the extreme – a world where meaning has withdrawn (the jugglers have long gone) what’s left is iron, winter, suspicion – spies, the Stasi, meaninglessness – but the natural world persists”. The other voice was from the Ancient Chinese texts of the Daodejing which I had also been versioning for quite a few months previously and were eventually to be published in 2016 by Enitharmon Press.

In complete contrast to Huchel, the Daodejing’s vision is one of ultimate unity and wholeness achieved through such an intense attentiveness as to extinguish the self and all barriers. These two extremes seem to form a key part of the sequence of poems that emerged in the next few weeks, my narrative voice moving from a Huchel-like sense of division and isolation to a more Dao-like sense of potential oneness.

Besides all this, I was playing in the notebook with the idea of ‘off’’. The point was, rather than focusing where the ‘frame’ directs us, we gain more from attending to what lies beyond it; the peripheral, I suppose, in a kind of revolt. I was muttering to myself “locus not focus”. I was thinking of the lovely word ‘pleroma’, a word associated with the Gnostics and referring to the aggregation of all Divine powers – though, as with Ed Hirsch, I was not so much interested in the Divine. Pleroma is the totality of all things; something like the Daoist’s intuition of the One. I think such ideas gave rise – quite unconsciously – to the several swarms, and flocks, the “snufflings the squeals and scratchings” that recur in the poems. These represent the fecund variousness of the (natural) world to which we might be paying more attention.

The hilly landscape and the plunging gorge itself also seem to suggest (at first) a divided vision. The carpenter bees act as intermediaries – at first alien, later to be emulated. As the first rapid drafts of individual poems came, there was a plain lyric voice – an ‘I’ – in a sort of reportage, revelling in the landscape, its creatures, colours and sounds till eventually I had 12 sonnet-like pieces. One of the poems seemed already to allude to the Orpheus myth, the moment when he looks back to Eurydice and she is returned forever to the underworld. His mistake, in this version, was that he was seeking an over-determined, “comprehending grip on earth” as opposed to a more passive openness to the phenomena of the world (which Eurydice seemed now to represent).

At some stage, the narrating ‘I’ was switched to a ‘he’ and the ‘he’ began to feel more and more like a version of Orpheus himself (hence O. at the Edge of the Gorge). The change from first to third person also gave me more distance from the materials. It was on a later visit to read my own work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in the Spring of the following year that I heard Angela France reading a crown of sonnets. I blogged about it at the time and coming home it struck me that my sequence ought to take the same highly interconnected form. The 10th of my sonnets – precisely that moment where the Orpheus/Eurydice separation occurred – was expanded into two poems, absorbing some details about a parked car on a hill and others, also focused on transience, from Dante’s Paradiso Book 16. The final sonnet to appear picked up on some notes I’d made long before about seeing a hunting hawk rise up from the roadside clutching a mouse or rat in its talons. By this stage, the gorge, in its representation of the Other, had also come to be associated with life’s most apparent Other, death. The whim, or wish, or risky flight of my narrator to include or encompass the gorge itself became the poems’ hoped for goal.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART TWO by designer and illustrator Phyllida Bluemel

I have a print-out of O at the Edge of the Gorge covered in pencil scribbles and tiny indecipherable thumbnails of visual ideas. Putting images to poetry can be daunting. I find that, armed with a pencil, a close reading of the text and lots of doodling is a good place to start. I thought a lot about the point of illustrating poetry – what the images can bring. I want the illustrations to be in conversation with the poem, rather than just replicating images already present in the words. Starting with an intuitive visual response is a nice way to get the conversation started.image1

For me the poems read like an unforced train of thought – a notebook in the pocket of a traveller, a sun-drenched jotting of linked observations and associations and memories – the kind of meandering thoughts that are particular to a slow and hot afternoon. They are very evocative of place.

I was taken with the formal playfulness of the poems – the crown of sonnets – where emphasis repeats and changes and each poem flows effortlessly into the next. An enacting of Martyn Crucefix’s line “he snaps them sketches then revises again”. It seemed appropriate to echo that in the imagery. The folded and interrupted illustrations bind each poem to the next. I wanted to give myself some of the constraints that the poet had set himself – and nearly every image contains an element of the one before, re-appropriated and carried forward – a visual game of Chinese whispers.

22071074_225079284691665_7698907406985592832_nThe poems move from one image to the next but there are the same preoccupations – the specks and the flocks and movements alongside monuments and geology – contrasting contexts of time, and the sense (especially given the form) of something trying to be ordered or sorted out, but not quite complying – “dicing segments of counted time…” The diagrammatic, map-like – but not-quite scrutable imagery is a response to this – an attempt to make sense of forms and information, or grasp a particular memory and note it down. Not quite successfully. We are left with a string of related thoughts and a measuring or structuring impulse.

The imagery itself takes its leave from the words – an outlined lavender stem becomes a cross-section, a contoured landscape, which in turn ends up as the outline of a branch, twisting into the form of the river at the bottom of the gorge. I had a lot of fun playing with scale and the way in which lines taken from nature mimic each other. This felt right because of the shifts in perspective in the poetry – from the raptor’s eye view, to the ‘snufflings’ and ‘scratchings’ of detail. The buzzard’s diving and ‘zooming-in’ of the landscape. 22158675_355445834881295_4436376972506955776_n(1)

The use of newsprint for the folded pages is as much an act of ‘illustration’ for me as the lines. Maps and diagrams and lines interrupted by folds and the edge of the pages make it feel as if they are part of something else – ephemera or a dog-eared map folded, or a napkin sketch ­ – tucked between the pages of a notebook. I also think it’s OK to want to make a beautiful object for the sake of a beautiful object – the tactility of different paper stocks, the small and pocketable size of the book – all I hope lend themselves to a thoughtful reading of the poem.

Beyond Caravaggio and an old ekphrastic poem

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Two things dove-tailing this week . . . My thoughts way ahead of time about ekphrastic poems (poems stimulated by visual art) in relation to the workshop I am scheduled to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath in February 2017. The particular exhibition was in the news this last week as they will be showing, amongst many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. Also I went to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at The National Gallery a couple of days ago. There, though the numbers of Carravaggios per square metre of wall space is relatively low, much of what’s on display by those who came under his influence is well worth seeing.

At the end of the 16th century Caravaggio brought an almost photographic precision to painting, mixing elements of still life with portraits and religious subjects. His people are caught (again almost photographically) in realistic seeming mid-gesture, twisting, stooping, hands wide or aloft. Then there’s the light: powerful light sources cast illumination and correspondingly deep shadows across the figures, darkening the brows of a face, across a hand at a card game, on exposed flesh. One of the ‘followers’ turns out to be Gerrit van Honthorst whose towering ‘Christ before the High Priest’ is displayed in the final room. As I came across it I had one of those moments of recognition. The picture has been in the National Gallery collection for many years and it provided the (ekphrastic) stimulation for one of my earliest poems.

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The poem eventually appeared in my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990) and I’ve always had a soft spot for it as Dannie Abse chose to include it in the plush, coffee-table anthology called Voices in the Gallery (Tate Gallery Publications) he edited 1986 with Joan, his wife and art historian. For a wannabe poet with no book yet it was a dizzying moment – a not-to-be repeated moment – being sandwiched between Zbigniew Herbert, W. H. Auden and Thomas Hardy! Year later I got Dannie to sign my original copy of it.

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The voice in my poem is naïve and unknowing, an art historian ignoramus (close to the autobiographical truth). But he looks hard, starting with a bewildered rationalism as he tries to get to grips with the stylised, stiff religious images of the “early galleries”. He understands he’s nothing more than one of the “casual visitors” who prefer to gaze at something familiar, the “recognisable gesture”, the more simply realistic and identifiable images contained in later works. But gradually he recognises the thorough-going empiricism of “dimension, distance and the need for accuracy” has its own limits (I still like the dig against my own gender’s devotion of facts, though the portrayal of the too submissive female partner I’d not let through these days).

The Expressionistic distortions of Van Gogh (“inconsistent with the camera”) begin to appeal to him as he understands the impossibility of a truly objective view (“eyes jaundiced / only with being human and limited”) which – he seems to be on a circular walk round the National Gallery – then allows him to re-assess the earlier images. With the passage of time and the loss of religious faith (I was sure of it then, back in the 1980s), these pictures also openly admit their distortions. Their “dogma is laughable now, or / almost so”. They obviously possess no camera-like claim to objectivity or all-inclusiveness. Rather they now seem to him to admit “in all self-consciousness, / other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame”. It’s at that point the image of Honthorst’s ‘Christ before the High Priest’ comes to mind. It seemed to me then an image that was interesting and powerful at least as much for what lies just out of sight as for what the casual visitor can see plainly.

Years later, in different poetic modes, I’m still intrigued by what lies just beyond our reach – the Daoist’s uncarved block of wood – still think it has as much power as what we plainly see. Here’s the old poem in full:

 

At The National Gallery

 

What am I to do with these angels’ wings,

with the literalness of these gaping heavens

and haloes in the early galleries?

No-one believes them. Beyond meaning,

they are absurd – mannered and posed figures

as unlikely as the nude’s fig-leaf, the wooden

gestures of saints staring straight through you:

uncomfortable attitudes, seeming content

with their fantasies of transfiguration and myth.

 

Yet casual visitors walk right past. They’re drawn

to quotidian scenes, the scruffy breeches, old hats

in later pictures where they scribble notes,

trying to capture the vanishing feelings

of viewing these captured moments

of vanishing things – the recognisable gesture

at an execution, on the river, in the boudoir.

And I with them, yet always end uncomfortably

tracing holiday strolls through Canaletto’s

Venice or impatient somehow with men

who explain to their quiet partners about

dimension, distance and the need for accuracy.

 

But Van Gogh’s crippled chair confounds them,

restores a sense of things perceived in ways

inconsistent with the camera, eyes jaundiced

only with being human and limited which is

other than the capture of fleeting things,

the stunned insect, and like verse that must

struggle to avoid its final stop: another fairy-tale

though there are no haloes, no heaven here.

And I go back to those old pictures to find

their appeal, uncovered, is the honesty, almost

innocence, time has forced upon them,

for what was then dogma is laughable now, or

almost so. Uncameralike, their contentment admits,

rather asserts in all self-consciousness,

other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame:

 

like the one candle, illuminating a room,

the gleaming tabletop, across which one detailed,

serious face confronts another, unnaturally

bound in by a darkness in which we make out

nothing, yet know someone moves inches beyond

vision, rising, strained forward and demanding:

Give me some light, I say, lights! Now! A taper!

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Dannie Abse’s Memorial Celebration – 25.03.15

He remains a man who it feels impossible to confine to the past tense. So said Jeremy Robson, one of the speakers at Dannie Abse’s celebratory memorial event held in Kings College Great Hall on Wednesday evening this week. Indeed more than a few of those who had come to remember him, confessed they half expected Abse to be there himself, still large as life. Carol Ann Duffy imagined he’d want to “get outta here” – too much poker-faced reverence – and, yes, it was easy to imagine him somewhere still working away at his set goals – 5 or 6 publishable poems a year and every 5 years a collection of his marvellously accessible, witty and moving poems. How often did he achieve his own expectations of a good poem: that the reader should enter it sober, but leave it drunk.

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Beneath a projection of this marvellous photo of Abse, Paul Gogarty oversaw the readings and recollections, immediately plotting the four compass points of the poet’s life: poetry, family, chess and Cardiff City FC. Lynne Hjelmgaard (Abse’s partner for the last 6 years) read the mysterious, life-changing visitation recorded in ‘The Uninvited’ (the only poem he would re-publish from his first book, After Every Green Thing) as well as her own moving poem in tribute to him. Alan Brownjohn, recalled his friendship with Abse and his direct acquaintance with the source materials of the two powerfully dark poems he chose to read: ‘Three Street Musicians’ and ‘A Night Out’ (the latter discussed in my earlier blog).

Tony Curtis alluded to another of Abse’s much quoted poetic observations: “I start with the visible and am startled by the visible”. He argued that, though not conventionally religious, the poet was a deeply spiritual man who could perceive the invisible through the visible. This was demonstrated in Owen Sheers’ reading of the extraordinary ‘In the Theatre’ in which a surgeon incompetently meddles with a patient’s brain (this was around 1938, only a local anaesthetic) only for the dying man to cry out hauntingly, ‘Leave my soul alone’. Sheers said this was the first Abse poem he ever heard – on a tape playing in his parents’ car apparently. Imagine the quiet drone of the engine after lines like these: “that voice so arctic and that cry so odd . . . to cease at last when something other died./ And silence matched the silence under snow”. A memorable moment, leading Sheers to dispute the reading of this particular poem with Andrew Motion, who gracefully withdrew (the English rightly ceding to the Welsh on this occasion, Motion observed) and chose instead to read ‘Apology’. Motion also recalled meeting Abse at an early Eric Gregory do and asking him (as a judge of competitions) how he approached the task of whittling down the thousands of entries. Easy, Abse apparently replied, throw out every poem containing the word ‘myriad’.

Abse’s daughter Susanna painted a more domestic picture of husband and father, a lover of all sorts of games including quizzes, board games, sing-songs on long car journeys, casting spells on recalcitrant traffic lights and pretending to talk to John Lennon on the family phone. She also recalled his “visceral” sense of loss when Joan was killed in the car accident in 2005. Only through the act of writing his memoir, The Presence (2008), and the poems later published in Two For Joy (2010) did he slowly return to something like a normal life. Elaine Feinstein read ‘White Balloon’ (“Auschwitz made me / more of a Jew than ever Moses did”) and ‘St Valentine’s Night’, the latter reminding us of Abse’s achievement as a poet of both erotic and uxorious love. Carol Ann Duffy had earlier read ‘A New Diary’ and Gillian Clarke chose the much-anthologised, neo-Romantic ‘Epithalamium’ (“Singing, today I married my white girl / beautiful in a barley field”) which she followed with her own response to it, ‘Barley’.

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Perhaps most movingly there were several clips of Abse reading his own work (mostly from Ian Michael Jones BBC film series Great Welsh Writers). So the poet himself completed the evening with his reading of ‘The Presence’, the heart-rending lament for his wife, Joan, which surely everybody assembled in Kings Great Hall, beneath its classical white pillars trimmed with gold leaf, felt should now be addressed to the author himself:

It’s when I’m most myself, most alone

with all the clamour of my senses dumb,

then, in the confusion of Time’s deletion

by Eternity, I welcome you and you return

improbably close, though of course you cannot come.

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Teaching Dannie Abse’s ‘Two For Joy’ (2010)

I first became aware of Dannie Abse’s work in 1986 when he and his wife, Joan, were editing Voices in the Gallery,  a sumptuous anthology of poems about paintings for the Tate Gallery. To my astonished delight, they accepted ‘At The National Gallery’, an early poem of mine about Gerrit van Honthorst’s ‘Christ Before the High Priest’ which later appeared in Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). Our paths continued to cross around the London poetry scene, especially at (usually fraught) Poetry Society Council meetings in the 1990s. A couple of years ago he visited the College where I work and happily discussed his poems with students. His death in September 2014 was such a sad loss.

With the New Year we are again teaching Dannie Abse’s collection Two for Joy (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0091931177/karelsoftw-21). But with the changes to A Levels being hurried in from September 2015, this will be the last time we work on this book (for AS Level Coursework) though it has proved a joy to teach. This is perhaps a surprise given its subject matter.

The book is a compilation of work from several years focused on Abse’s relationship with Joan, his wife (herself a writer, editor and acclaimed art historian). It was published a couple of years after The Presence (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0099531860/karelsoftw-21), a memoir completed in response to Joan’s tragic death in a car accident in 2005. ‘Two for Joy’, of course, alludes to the old country saying, cited on seeing magpies: one for sorrow, two for joy. The poems in the collection evoke both sides of this cryptic saw, from the early joys of young love to the sorrowing widower more than 50 years later.

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In terms of teaching and coursework the book’s focus is so intense, powerful and yet varied that the material always goes down very well with students and enables them to write confidently about ‘the collection’ (one of the Assessment Objectives). We might start with the simplicity of ‘Condensation on a Windowpane’ where the aging narrator inscribes his and his lover’s names on the wet windowpane because he wants to write “something simple as pure water”. Yet even water, further considered, is complicated, “like steam, like ice, like clouds”. This plainness of address and nakedness of emotion is immediately engaging but Abse is really flagging up the collection’s main themes of love and time as, eventually, the words fade, dribbling down the glass: “They weep as they vanish”.

Or what better way (I mean appalling way) to gain students’ attention than this opening quatrain of ‘Lachrymae’:

I crawled from the noise of the upturned car

And the silence in the dark began to grow.

I called out her name again and again

To where neither words nor love could go.

This little sequence of poems like tear drops is set after Joan’s death and delicately re-visits a few scenes from married life, only to end with the narrator walking in solitude beside the Hampstead ponds, “where a lone swan sings / without a sound”.

An earlier poem ‘A Night Out’ records a visit the couple made to the Academy cinema in Oxford Street in the 1950s. As a Welsh Jew in London, courting and marrying a gentile, there are plenty of moments in these poems where the unconventional couple have to confront the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the 1950s and early 1960s: anti-Semitism in ‘A Marriage’; general moral strictures in ‘Two for Joy’. On the occasion of the cinema visit, Abse’s cultural background is significant as they watch a fictionalised account of the Holocaust: “images of Auschwitz, almost authentic, the human obscenity in close-up” so much that “we forgot the barbed wire / was but a prop [. . . ] those striped victims merely actors”. Afterwards, the couple are stunned by what they have seen, sitting in a “bored espresso bar”. Gathering themselves at last, they return home to a German au pair girl, their own children safely asleep upstairs:

Reassured, together we climbed the stairs,

undressed together, and naked together,

in the dark, in the marital bed, made love.

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Abse’s technical skill with plain language is on full show in such lines and the class might have debates about how far individual love is shown to counter, compensate, or merely distract from world horrors. In a 1980 essay called ‘Rhyme’ (collected in Dannie Abse: a Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1854115073/karelsoftw-21) Abse has commented on this poem and presenting students with his observations has often proved to be a moment when sceptics about the deliberateness of a writer’s choices can be converted. He compares ‘A Night Out’ with ‘In Llandough Hospital’ arguing that the charge of emotion from the film was so powerful that he “did not want to make any pretty artifice out of it. I did not want to be lyrical about such a theme. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, to avoid all kinds of artificiality, to say what I felt and to say it plainly. I wanted the verisimilitude of prose”.

The period of the Cold War is briefly evoked at the end of ‘A Scene from Married Life’ in contrast to the “few and brief” cold wars of the couple’s marital rows. Set in Abse’s beloved Ogmore-by-the-Sea in South Glamorgan, after a petty squabble, the narrator metamorphoses into a monster of self-pity and suicidal thoughts. The poem cleverly balances the two perspectives of the over-dramatising, younger self with a more ironic, mature judgment. It’s only at the end with the appearance of Joan on the cliff top (surely an echo Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Voice, with Emma in her ‘sky blue gown’) that the faux-suicide relents:

On the high cliff my wife dressed in blue and all

The best of the world true and desirable.

With surrendering waves I crawled back to the shore.

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Such humour, often in self-mockery is never far from Abse’s work. The darker side of grief is evoked in the image of blood-stained petals falling in ‘Magnolia’ (“bridal branches slowly violated”) but most powerfully in ‘The Revisit’ which again works the rich seam of two periods of life knotted together. A beautiful lake scene enjoyed together is re-vised by the lonely widower into an apocalyptic vision, with the sun-set now evocative of “Angel wars. Such April bloodshed!” Though there are more consolatory poems in the book, where time the healer is seen to begin its work, ‘The Revisit’ shocks in its blunt confrontation with grief and on this occasion Abse’s use of poetical devices, the abundant skill of the artist, only serves to emphasise the helplessness of the man:

The gradual distance between two stars is night.

Ago, love, we made love till dark was bright.

Now without you dark is darker still and infinite

It would be a shame indeed if, in the mean-spirited, ever-narrowing criteria of the new A Level specifications, a collection such as this one could not continue to find a place. Dannie Abse’s website is at: http://www.dannieabse.com/.

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