On the Importance of Considering Nothing #2

Last week I blogged the first part of a longer essay first published in the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London. What follows is the second half of it. The whole piece starts and ends with thoughts prompted by my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. Dad has since suffered a series of heart attacks and died on May 24th. I am re-producing the essay unchanged in the hope that it still says something of value about types of ‘confusion’ and in memory of a man who would have had little time for such morbid reflections. Thanks to Tim Dooley who commissioned the essay for Poetry London and published it under the original title: A Straining Eye Catches no Glimpse.

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In Part 1, I linked my father’s forgetfulness and confusion with recurrent references to “nothing” in King Lear and to Anne Carson’s concept of “the dementia of the real”. I suggested this was also a correlative of Yves Bonnefoy’s interest in the “state of indifferentiation” he often refers to as “Presence”. For Bonnefoy, Presence contrasts the conceptual/linguistic world through which we most often move and we take to be real.

Part 2

Yves Bonnefoy’s poem ‘Wind and Smoke’ (from The Wandering Life (1993)) has the abduction of Helen as its nominal subject. But he allows the poem to be taken over by dissenting voices, irritably seeking to “explain, to justify, ten years of war”. Such an expense of men, ships and spirit (argues one such “commentator”) must have been for the sake of something more permanent than the merely human figure of Helen. The poem entertains the suggestion that she herself was never abducted, “only an image: a statue”, something of great beauty to be displayed on the terraces of Troy, a fixed image of Helen, blessed with permanence, “always [. . .] this smile”. The poem is concerned then with the limitedness of the conceptual view which finds worth only in things of assured, definable permanence. In contrast, Part One of the poem ends with a proliferation of images of “spilling”, lovers as “clouds” or “lightning” on an “earthly bed”, so fully involved with time that their pleasures in the moment are “already empty, still full”. [i]

 

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Helen of Troy (Red Figure Vase)

 

There’s that paradox again and Bonnefoy’s versions of it articulate the impossibility of capturing Presence because it encompasses and exists in time (and language wishes to stop time):

 

Every time that a poem,

A statue, even a painted image,

Prefers itself as form, breaks away

From the cloud’s sudden jolts of sparkling light,

Helen vanishes [. . . ][ii]

 

The “jolts” here are akin to Lily Briscoe’s “jar on the nerves” as our paradigms and preconceptions are challenged. The figure of Helen has become that visionary experience – for Bonnefoy usually of beauty, for Carson more often a violent disturbance – that we intuit exists just beyond the range of our usual instruments. Helen, the poem argues, “was only / That intuition which led Homer to bend / Over sounds that come from lower than his strings / In the clumsy lyre of earthly words”.

Part Two of ‘Wind and Smoke’ concludes with a child, an image of the poet, the last person to see the figure of Helen as Troy burns:

 

singing,

He had taken in his hands a little water,

The fire came to drink there, but the water

Leaked out from the imperfect cup, just as time

Ruins dreams and yet redeems them.[iii]

 

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Traditional image of Laozi

 

This same image of water slipping from our human grasp is recurrent in the Ancient Chinese writings that make up Laozi’s 4th/5th century BCE text, the Daodejing. Since they were published earlier this year, I have been reading my versions of these texts up and down the country and the one thing audiences want to say about them is they contain “wisdom”.[iv] It’s an old-fashioned word but it’s also bound up with the nothing that is really a fuller something we seldom manage to grasp. The Daodejing texts use water as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies behind all things. They employ water metaphors in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined. So Chapter 1 deploys water imagery but is clear about the short-comings of all language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through further metaphors: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomenal world can only be gestured towards through figures such as “mould”, “source”, “mystery”. Even then it’s “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains beyond our grasp. Chapter 14 puts it this way:

 

because a straining eye catches no glimpse

it is called elusive

 

as the ear attends but latches onto nothing

it is called rarefied

 

since a hand reaches but clasps only thin air

it is called infinitesimal

 

and these are resistant to further analysis

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The difficulty of grasping this something that seems nothing is revisited in Chapter 4. There, the tenor of the metaphor is reduced to “it”, the context indicating this refers to the Dao itself, the One, that state of wholeness and plenitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource as “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. But the image is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry”, yet this follows four other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects: “fretted edges are smoothed within it / knots untangled all dazzle eased / all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared”. The poem calmly declares its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin or beginning is not adequate to convey the nature of the Dao. But the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – comes close.

That there is wisdom to be gained from such visionary encounters with the mystery of nothing is clear in Chapter 66. It’s no coincidence that these lines can serve as a commentary on Lear, his suffering bringing him low till he realises he has paid too little attention to the “looped and ragged” nature of his own nation:

 

—how do rivers and seas secure mastery

over the hundreds of lesser streams

through lying lower than they do

 

so to govern or teach you must stand

and acknowledge you are beneath the people

to guide them put yourself at the rear

 

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But as Auden suggested and Chinese tradition affirms, such visionary insight cannot be actively sought or taught. This is one of the points of the traditional narrative trope in Chinese poetry of ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’. Don Paterson turned this into a good joke in a poem called ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’.[v] The reader’s eye descends from this lengthy title only to look in vain – it’s a blank page. Perhaps Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu.[vi]  The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. But such poems were never just an excuse for descriptive nature poetry but related to the frequent ‘spirit-journeys’ that Li Po was fond of writing. We are all like that student in Li Po’s poem, seeking out certainties and facts, a something to depend on when true wisdom gently (or violently) deflects us away from shelter towards a world where we glimpse a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with what really is.

 

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Iain McGilchrist

 

I have really been talking about two attitudes to knowledge or to put it more carefully, two contrasting “ways of being”.  This is how Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary (Yale, 2009) expresses it.[vii] McGilchrist argues parts of the human brain deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left brain perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”.[viii] This is the attitude to knowledge and education the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses as well as the place where most of us live amongst Carson’s clichés and Bonnefoy’s conceptual language. In contrast, McGilchrist associates the right brain with the perception of “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”[ix] yet one at risk of being perceived or judged as a mere confusion, a seeming nothing.

This is the view of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the as-yet-uncarved block of wood, who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage, dependent as it is on conceptual thought, is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. Li Po’s teacher is surely hiding somewhere beyond the cherry blossom – and this is part of the student’s lesson. Don Paterson’s blank page represents a rather glib, post-modern joke, a scepticism about language in danger of throwing out the interconnected but bewildering “dementia” of the real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth”[x]. Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battles with the early stirrings of French post-modernism, declared: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us.”[xi] The right brain knows this and it’s from there we want to write poems; the left brain serves to fragment it, utilise it, get it under control, disappear it. And yet . . . there’s no much here suitable for a chat with a forgetful father. His visions are more frightening and may get worse; here, for a while, his son has been imagining ways of seeing that need not be so.

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Notes

[i] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, pp. 197-203.

[ii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 201.

[iii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 203.

[iv] Laozi, Daodejing, versions by Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon, 2016). All quotations are from this version.

[v] Don Paterson, God’s Gift to Women (Faber, 1997).

[vi] Li Po and Tu Fu, selected and translated by Arthur Cooper (Penguin Classics, 1973).

[vii] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (Yale UP, 2009), p. 25.

[viii] McGilchrist, p. 31.

[ix] McGilchrist, p. 31.

[x] McGilchrist, p. 6.

[xi] Yves Bonnefoy, The Tombs of Ravenna, tr. John Naughton (1953; PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015), p. 62).

An Interview with Hilary Davies

In January this year, I posted a review of Hilary Davies’ powerful new collection, Exile and the Kingdom. In what follows, she has been kind enough to answer a few questions which presented themselves as I read the book. In her replies, Davies ranges across poetic influence, the importance to her work of a European perspective, the question of structuring a poetry collection, the relation between the spiritual and the everyday, and the difficulty of writing about grief and loss.

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MC: Could you say a little about the significance of the title of the book, Exile and the Kingdom?

HD: Exile and the Kingdom treats of preoccupations that have been with me all my life.  The collection consists of five distinct but interrelated sequences which all have to do with pilgrimage in some way. Our pilgrimage through life is in a very real sense an exile but how we approach it, are changed by it and by those we meet and love is also how we may approach the kingdom.

MC: The book’s five parts have a clear structure and I found myself wondering how that architectural ordering of poems came about and how it related to the chronological sequence of their being written.

HD: Since my first book of poems, The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop, back in 1991, I have written in all my collections in sequences. This is because I found that discrete lyrics, unconnected to any wider context, were no longer sufficient by themselves to allow me to address the themes I wanted to address. I began to think in terms of a broader architectonic for the poems I wanted to write: each time I have embarked on new subject matter, I have sought a scaffolding, a framework, to give my work the reach I felt my chosen topic needed. Sometimes these have been quite simple, sometimes very complex, requiring a great deal of research in a dizzying variety of areas. This research has been an integral part of the poetic voyage and creative process for me over the years, and I find it exciting and exhilarating.

Exile and the Kingdom is no exception. The eponymous section comes last. It was, however, actually the first to be written.  Finding this particular theme took a long time, over a year; the title, much longer. There were several false starts and considerable frustration. This was in part the normal consequence of having just published my third collection, Imperium. At such moments, there is always a period, first, of satisfaction and repletion, then an insidious feeling of lack of purpose, then increasing anxiety that you may never be able to do it again.

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MC: The use of the liturgical ‘hours’ as the structuring device in the concluding ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ sequence is very powerful. Is this something that formed part of your original thinking about the sequence or a later ‘addition’ that seemed right?

HD: I knew I wanted to write something about the stages in my spiritual life up till then, including my conversion to Catholicism, but couldn’t see how to do it. Slowly, I discovered a structure: the liturgical hours or divine office.  These are amongst the very oldest of Christian prayers, dating back to the time of the apostles and influenced by Jewish practice. They were incorporated, in altered form, into Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and are consequently familiar to Anglicans the world over, in, for example, evensong; they are still observed in monastic communities and in both the Eastern and Catholic churches. What was especially interesting to me was their symbolism, which is a dual one. They mark out the day and the night, and are thus associated with different states of the soul, different spiritual aspirations, different signposts on the journey of life. Traditionally, they have also been attached to different texts in the New Testament, something of which I was not aware initially and which became part of the quest, to see how these passages related to events in my own life. They did, of course, as all great religious texts do, because part of their aim is to explain ourselves and the forces that we encounter to us.

MC: The closeness of the spiritual to the everyday seems to be one of the points of the book’s second sequence, ‘Songs from the Lea Valley’ which strikes a very different note, more personal, urban and multicultural.

HD: My home for the last 25 years has been the Lea valley, on the eastern edge of London. It is of huge importance to the history of the city, and yet remains unknown to many inhabitants in spite of being chosen for the site of the Olympic park in 2012.  In order to celebrate it, I began writing occasional lyrics over a period of years, evoking the river, marshlands, the city, those who have lived here and given it its character way back even into the Stone Age.  It is a hugely cosmopolitan place – more languages are spoken in my constituency than anywhere else in Europe – and that spirit of ‘live and let live’, the melting pot of cultures and the vibrant atmosphere it creates, is what I wanted to convey in the poem ‘In Abney Park’. This is a 19th century cemetery in Stoke Newington, now a nature reserve beloved of walkers and mothers with babies. It is peopled with mourning angels, as was the custom of the time, but lies only yards from the bustle of Ermine Street, the great Roman road north to York, along which the trade and armies of empire have been travelling for two millennia.

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Abney Park, Stoke Newington, north London

MC: Throughout the book you make use of two quite distinctive poetic styles. One is a more discursive, even philosophical, free style of unrhymed verse; the other is more formal and lyrical. Are they contrasting or complementary?

HD: The question of styles emerged really from the differing subject matters. The personal poems naturally spoke in a lyric voice, the longer sequences do mirror the fact I am trying to reflect on larger historical and philosophical themes

MC: In that variety of poetic voice, I seem to hear the influence of writers like T.S. Eliot, David Jones, even George Herbert. Which predecessors do you look to when you write, or perhaps which predecessors do you try to circumvent?

HD: I don’t consciously look to any poets when I am writing, which of course is not to say I am not influenced by certain writers, as we all are. But these influences hopefully have become fully digested in a mature style.  I have been influenced by and admire the poetry of Jones, Herbert, Eliot, Donne, Traherne, Vaughan, Yeats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Patrick Kavanaugh, W.S. Graham, David Gascoyne, George Barker.  But also Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Rilke, Jean Follain, Hofmannsthal, Goethe, Lorca. And others no doubt that temporarily escape my mind.  These are for wildly different reasons and sometimes as much for subject matter as prosody.

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MC: Your love of the landscape and culture of France and Germany comes through powerfully in the book. Do you see yourself as an British poet who travels, or a European poet who lives in the UK?

HD: I first crossed the Channel at the age of fifteen, at a time when Britain was negotiating its entry into the Common Market. In those less blasé times, the land on the other side seemed unimaginably exotic and profoundly exciting. Two years later I went to Germany, West Germany as it then was – a tiny difference in nomenclature that encapsulated the catastrophe of the 20th century.  These visits changed the course of my life: I went on to read French and German at university, and to earn my living teaching these languages and cultures for over thirty years while pursuing my writing as a poet.

This means I am a committed European. I have lived in Paris and spent over 20 summers in France. I have written poems about the 12th century lovers and thinkers, Abelard and Héloïse, and poems set in the great Paleolithic landscapes of the Dordogne and the Vézère: I have charted the spiritual pilgrimage that began for me in Poitiers and the Marais in Paris.

MC: So that sense of connectedness to the European mainland and its cultures has been important to you for a very long time?

HD:  The theme of interconnectedness, of the richness that the admixture of peoples brings, was the major inspiration behind the fourth section of the collection, ‘Rhine Fugue’.  This was an ambitious project which required a great deal of research over 5 years. France and Germany are part of my psyche and part of my heritage as a European.  They have also, as we notoriously know, been for many centuries alternately brothers and enemies, and the Rhine is the great watercourse that both unites and divides them.

The notion of fugue was suggested to me by the fact that Beethoven was born on the banks of the river in Bonn; the contrapuntal nature of this musical form exactly fits the interweaving, recapitulations and reversals of the history of the Rhine.  I wrote the poem in seven overlapping and yet distinctive sections, drawing on my own experiences with the kindness of strangers as a teenager; the Prussian general Blücher’s crossing of the Rhine in the cold dead of night to go and help Wellington at Waterloo; evocations of the benign influence of the river in different French and German locations; the rich Jewish Ashkenazim tradition during the Middle Ages in Worms; William Tyndale’s publication of his world-changing English translation of the New Testament while in exile, also in Worms; Beethoven as a exemplar of man’s attempts to reach the spiritual world through music and, finally, a return to the Rhine as a symbol of the need for cohesion and friendship in Europe, and what happens when we don’t have that.

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Blucher crossing the Rhine

When I began this poem, it seemed like a rather private concern of mine that might have little resonance with my readership; in 2017, it has all the urgency of a warning against a not so benign return to the nationalisms and wars of the past,

MC:  This is where we wish poetry had a wider and more powerful reach! You catch that admonitory sense so well in the lines: “O the melancholy of broken-backed bridges! / For razed cities never gave garlands.”  

HD:  At the height of the Second World War, two men from Rhenish backgrounds, Robert Schuman, a Frenchman of German and Luxemburg origin, and Konrad Adenauer, former mayor of Cologne, were both in hiding from the Nazis. Independently, and later together, influenced by the Christian democratic thinking of Jacques Maritain, they conceived of a post-war Europe transformed and redeemed by reconciliation and co-operation. Their vision underlies the European project and the peace that has obtained in Europe for the last 70 years. It is the Europe that I grew up in and which has sustained me poetically and professionally all my life.

MC: Despite a number of ‘in memoriam’ poems, it struck me that this was a book as much about love as grief. Did the book grew organically in that direction or was there something more willed about it?

HD: Yes, the poems were about grief, its extreme and shocking impact, but also about how in the end love overcomes this. But ‘overcomes’ makes it sound trite. It is a much more subtle, protracted and painful process than this in reality, and actually one that goes on for the rest of your life. I know this now because in the summer of 2013, my husband, the poet and editor Sebastian Barker, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given three months to live.

In fact, he lived another seven; he also lived to see his last and best collection, The Land of Gold (Enitharmon, 2014), reach publication. It contains his farewell to life, to love, his family, to the landscapes he loved in France and Greece. It contains his last and most profound statement about hope and faith, from which he gave a reading in Cambridge two days before he died.  This journey is one he had begun many years earlier but one which I had gone with him, in marriage, poetically and spiritually. His death provoked profound grief and a sudden and violent realignment of everything in my life that had seemed so certain. I have described it as ‘severe growth’: growth that was not sought for nor wanted, but which came upon me just the same.  I am still discovering what this means.  The central sequence of the book is about the loss, confusion, terror and celebration that the death of one we love occasions.  ‘Lympne Hill’ is a memory of looking out over the huge panorama at Lympne on the south coast towards Romney Marsh and the sea, where my husband seemed to touch, just for a moment, heaven. It is my thanksgiving to him.

 

You turn towards me, burning and happy,

That boy running the clouds over and over

Pell-mell into the hollows, this man

In his years reaching with all his might

Far out on life’s cantilever to touch his soul’s blue.

 

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Whitesands Bay, near St Davids

MC: The final poem of the collection is set at St Davids in Wales. You seem to be responding partly to the bleakness of the landscape. What streams of thought and experience seem to be coalescing there?

HD: That poem came out of a visit I made there at Christmas 2007, not the first by any means, as I am half Welsh. By chance we met a friend there who was visiting her very devout, sweet and Catholic mother, sitting in her ‘ragged kitchen’, and the friend then took us to St. Non’s Chapel, which is right out on a promontory exposed to the sea. Its situation struck me very much. The dusk came down in a very clear sky, with that indigo you get in winter twilight. And I was very conscious of the geology of that part of the world. Some of the oldest rocks in the world are exposed near St. David’s. Pre-Cambrian, pre-life on land, 620 million years old estimated. Hence the reference to the ‘oldlands’ where the human presence is compared to a baby in its mother’s arms.  At Whitesands Bay, near St. David’s, the shales are Cambrian and the rounded domes you see at the top are characteristic of those very old rocks.

I also remember I had Stanley Spencer’s painting of ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ in mind in writing the line ‘The saints lean from her windows against the night’. And the final line – the concluding line of the whole collection – is from the liturgy of Compline: ‘God grant us a quiet night and a perfect end’. But the whole poem is shot through with liturgical references as is, of course, the whole sequence.

 

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Stanley Spencer, ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’

 

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What Love Is: Hilary Davies’ ‘Exile and the Kingdom’

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I met poet, translator and critic, Hilary Davies, back in the early 1980s and our paths have kept crossing since. She was one of the first intake of women undergraduates at Wadham College, Oxford, where she read French and German. She won an Eric Gregory award in 1983, has been a Hawthornden Fellow and chair of the Poetry Society (1992–3). With David Constantine, she co-founded and edited the poetry magazine Argo and has three previous collections of poetry (published by Enitharmon): The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (1991); In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1997); Imperium (2005). She was head of languages at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London, for 19 years and was married to the poet, Sebastian Barker, who died in 2014.

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Davies’ new collection, Exile and the Kingdom (Enitharmon, 2016), is framed by two very powerful sequences. It opens with ‘Across Country’, a series of seven poems which add up to an autobiographical ‘growth of the poet’s mind’. The book concludes with ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ itself, a further eight poems which are nothing less than a meditation on the poet’s raw grief and re-discovery, or reassertion, of her religious faith. Both sequences contain weddings.

‘Across Country’ opens with an evocation of a child’s first moments, “what gets forgotten”, in a state of inarticulacy, no ability to exert our own will, with no will even, language-less and effectively silent, being “carried by gods”.  Passive in the hands of mother and father, the journey variously begins in “The reindeer saddle and the motor car, / the sighing desert and the plateau wind”. Davies seems to suggest these first human experiences fall onto a tabula rasa as they “Etch the first surfaces of particularity / And settle in our souls”. The particular development traced here is Davies’ own, of course, and crucially this involves a later period of travel in France. Happily alluding to Wordsworth’s own tracing of his youthful days and Revolutionary enthusiasm in France (“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive /But to be young was very heaven” – The Prelude, Book 11), Davies praises “the glory of the cornfield and belltower, / Granite, limestone, vineyard and cloister”. As with Wordsworth, France offers an experience of human love, but Davies is also drawn to intellectual pursuits, the thrilling confusion of “many minds passing”, arguments of “polity and governance” and to the “meretricious fruit / Of the ideology tree”. We are being told this in order for such concerns to be ultimately dismissed:

 

The lords of existence

Are neither economist nor philosopher

The Lord of existence

Shows himself not in systems

 

The fourth poem in ‘Across Country’ seems to record the young woman’s first realisation that religion was to be the answer to many of the questions she was asking: “I crossed into church after church that summer, / Thinking of erudition, but beside me trod Love”. The capitalisation and conventional personification makes it clear that Davies is deliberate and happy to place herself in a long tradition of poetry dealing with religious experience; there is no radical re-making of poetic form or language. Davies does not use masks. Discursive passages are in unrhymed, fairly irregular paragraphs which are punctuated every so often with more lyrical rhyming passages, song-like.

Poem five of ‘Across Country’ is just such a lyrical piece, portraying a wedding, but not one that lasts:

 

Hate has eaten my bridegroom’s heart

And remorse is become my fury

Now I must go the road of affliction

Searching for mercy.

 

That search, Davies argues, is more a matter of “Waiting, not willing”. It is the traditional negative road in the sense of the centrality of “self-surrender”, imaged in the seventh poem as the sensation of being on a boat on a threatening ocean: “No measure but the dark blue breathing of the opening deep, / Where personhood dissolves beyond mere terror”. I don’t share Davies’ faith but I share her belief that, in terms of our daily acts and choices, we are to be judged in the long run: “Only perdurance delivers”. And in terms of the nature of those acts and choices, whatever set-backs are faced, we need to be accompanied by that same figure who walked beside her into the churches in France: “what love is, and does”. Read as the record of the poet’s experiences, it’s likely that this opening sequence concludes with Davies meeting with Sebastian Barker, the beginning of new happiness (“I knew instantly I had to go the hard way with you / To learn how to love better”).

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Sebastian Barker

 

The central sections of this collection are made up of poems more directly engaged with the contemporary world of north London, Stamford Hill, Walthamstow, the valley of the River Lee, Abney Park in Stoke Newington (I blogged one of these poem’s a few weeks ago). There are also poems more explicitly concerned with the relationship with Barker with titles like ‘Night’s Cloak’, ‘Aubade’, ‘Love Song’. I’ve always thought it a premature admission of defeat to declare ‘happiness writes white’ but some of these poems slip too easily into a mode in which this reader feels more like eavesdropping than sharing the experience of years of happy marriage; technically there is a flowering of lyricism and some softening of the vocabulary. On the other hand nobody is going to read these poems and not be thinking of Hardy’s tributes to Emma Gifford – it seems whether the marriage was mutually loving or not, the sense of loss remains overwhelming.

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River Lee and Valley Park

This is where the concluding sequence picks up though there is no need to narrow Davies’ focus wholly to the autobiographical. As I’ve said, these poems are in the tradition of religious verse and there are passages here that stand comparison with the Eliot of the Four Quartets. The opening poem – a little sequence in itself – paints a state of despair, initially social and political, latterly more personal:

 

Then there’s the heartache

At the core of things: attachment, the blank certainty

Of letting go, the arbitrary wing of accident,

Wrong gene or partner, a lifetime bled into the dusty ground

Of non-fulfilment, the waste [. . . ]”

 

The temptation is to try to counter this by accepting “ourselves as measure”, to focus simply on career, material gain, simply being busy, keeping warm. That this is never enough in itself is suggested when Davies recalls a favourite uncle who, having apparently a comfortable and successful life kills himself. For the young Davies what this taught was clear: “the impossibility of loving begets despair, / And despair kills”. The third poem of ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ seems to mark the beginning of the end of exile and returns to one of the many French churches mentioned in the earlier sequence.

 

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Church of St-Gervais-et-St-Protais, Paris

 

Out of the bustling Parisian streets, the narrator turns aside and understands, “Even if I have all gifts without love I am nothing”. As in Four Quartets, Davies mixes philosophical discursiveness with personal reminiscence and poem four recalls a Christmas morning in a country church. The priest, apparently ill, still takes the service, his gasping for breath making his faith even more memorable, a Wordsworthian spot of time worthy of recall in darker moments in the struggle to “retain that sudden downrush / Of the numinous that was supposed to change us”.  Poem seven expresses the sense of hard-won joy through another lyrical presentation of a second wedding. On this occasion, no clouds foreshadow failure but as the bride stands at the door, a wind blows her veil up like a candle flame or flower:

 

The guests are gathered in the church at Salle

The light falls on the floor;

For all eternity the rose

Stands at heaven’s door.

 

But the sequence and whole book ends in the altogether wilder landscape of St David’s, Wales. The final poem suggests such rose and flame moments are but parts of the coherence of a life where experience must inevitably consist of “Innocence and loss, hope, wisdom, regret and thanksgiving”. Exile and the Kingdom intends to convey this in full. Although propelled most often by loss of a loved one, the burden of the book remains love not grief. It matters little whether we share Davies’ particular form of faith, since what comes strongly from these pages is her concern for the way we treat each other, our overloaded preoccupation with ourselves, how our acts and choices are affected. Poems like these themselves form spots of time for the reader and I’m not going to forget their human concern for what love is and does.

In the Fire-Frost Morning

To wish everybody a peaceful Christmas and to apologise for my absence from blogging in recent weeks, I hope you will enjoy this poem from Hilary Davies’ new collection Exile and Kingdom (Enitharmon Press, 2016). Though I don’t share her faith, I do share her hope, though too often the world seems determined to test both faith and hope.

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In the Fire-Frost Morning

In the fire-frost morning the geese drive south

Trailing hosannas over the estuaries

And the beasts on the clockhouse stir.

From Tottenham Hale to Hackney Downs

The trumpets of day sound

And the gulls swarm up like heralds

Over the sleepers. ‘Awake! Awake!’

Throw open your skylights, thrust your heads to see:

Horseshoe thicket is afire with dawn

And the waters of Spring Hill teem.

Doors, dance. Fill the houses with praises.

God’s promise blazes in the reedbeds,

Bursting over the winter willows and sallows

All the way down to waiting Walthamstow.

 

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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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The Politics of the ‘Daodejing’

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I travelled north to Bradford earlier this week to read from my versions of the Daodejing. For the first time a reader of Mandarin was present to read from something approaching the original texts. Bradford artist Yan Wang read beautifully as well as providing the evening with a couple of large banner-scrolls of chapters from the text. The whole evening had been organised by an old friend, Bruce Barnes, a poet and tireless organiser and more recently translator of long-neglected work by Kosuke Shirasu, a Japanese proletarian writer from the 1920/30s. I read Bruce’s ‘interpretations’ of Shirasu’s work (done with the help of Jun Shirasu and published as Out of his struggles (Utistugu Press, Bradford) on the train back to London and it reminded me that I had wanted for a while to organise my thoughts about the political elements in the Daodejing poems. (Poem titles in brackets are those I have given to the individual ‘chapters’ of the text).

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It’s generally accepted that one of the purposes of the collection of texts called the Daodejing is to instruct about good government. Chapter 46 (Annexation) argues that when government adheres to the Way – the teachings of the Daoist ideas – then its great parades of horses “are put out to grass to fertilise the ground”. It’s when government neglects the Way that its “war horses sire and foal / even on sacred ground”. Such neglect leads to personal and political “unsteadiness” which Chapter 26 (‘Breath-taking Scenes’) identifies as the “loss of all authority”. This is authority in its truest sense because in other poems we read of aggressive, power-grabbing behaviour which is also a way of neglecting Daoist ideas. Chapter 29 (‘What is Fixed’) describes those who grab at “earthly power” who are as liable to smash it as gain any advantage.

One of the key chapters, 67 (‘Three Treasures’) goes so far as to suggest that “only one reluctant to grasp power / is properly capable of government”. One clear attitude in these poems is that busy, hyperactive government – one that “grows brisk full of initiatives” – is an error:

 

those who hope

to rule by dishing out

press releases

a multiplicity of choices

are the con-men

of the nation

Chapter 65 (‘Blizzard’)

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This distrust of big government is compounded when those with power try to ingratiate themselves with those they rule. With very little modernisation, the Daodejing is suspicious of those politicians who “style themselves ‘man of the people’ / sometimes ‘housewife’ / they like to say ‘we are all in this together’” (Chapter 39). What lies behind such cynical declarations is a real hunger for power as an exercise of ego (not true government). Laozi is very clear that such egoistic motives lead only in one direction for a nation: war.

 

–those who govern my teacher says

must oppose conquest by force of arms

 

such methods swiftly rebound

thorn and bramble where troops assemble

Chapter 30 (‘Scorched Earth’)

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Leaders (and the Daodejing never really doubts that human society needs leaders of a sort) need to adhere to the Way and encourage their people to do the same. Chapter 37 (‘Dispassion’) puts it succinctly:

 

—the way enacts nothing yet through it all things are achieved

if the powerful

possessed themselves of it

the ten thousand would be transformed

 

once transformed if they begin

to demand action

they ought to be constrained

with the uncarved wood quality of namelessness

 

the unconditional quality of the nameless

evokes dispassion—

hence it is to be still

 

so the nation pursues its way in peace

 

This idea of ‘constraint’ begins to sound authoritarian again but elsewhere it appears our political leaders are being advised not to over-encourage our expectations. Chapter 19 (‘Fewer Wishes’) advises that a people’s restlessness ought to be dealt with by offering them “simplicity / to behold give them the uncarved block // give them selflessness give fewer wishes”. In our world of unconfined desire and acquisitiveness (the point of being alive?) this sounds suspect perhaps but is perfectly in line with those who choose to opt out of modern life towards simplicity, fewer possessions etc. The uncarved block is a recurring image representing the fullest presence of life and experience before we begin to hack away at it with our self-centred preconceptions. The three virtues of the Daodejing are to be compassionate, to be frugal and to lack ambition.

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The point is that Daoist thinking is optimistic about human nature. There is a Rousseauistic quality to its belief in the goodness of mankind as a noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious. Chapter 18 (Codes of kindness’) argues it’s only when the Way “falls into disuse / codes of kindness thoughts / of morality evolve”. Laozi argues we are better off without such rules of codified behaviour. This is not quite anarchism but certainly a powerfully libertarian thread runs through the work. In one of the most striking images in the whole sequence, Chapter 60 (‘Recipe’) compares true government to the cooking of a “delicate fish”. It requires the gentlest of touches:

 

no agitation

or any demon

or the fretting

of your own spirit

 

no shuffle or harm

or sudden injury

but aid and attend

gain advantage

 

the power to feed

the common purpose

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It’s this delicacy, gentleness, almost passivity of government that leads Laozi to associate this approach with the stereotypically ‘female’. Early on, in Chapter 6 (‘Valley’) we are told the spirit of the Way is “[a] valley without end / it is female it is called mysteriousness”. This translates politically into government playing a largely passive role (as does the good teacher) to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. Government must be honest, give the tools, give opportunities, do its job well. Its role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Its actions call forth responses to the fact it acts, plans, demands. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else.

 

Tributaries

chapter 61

 

—strong nations must play the low ground

to which all contributing waters flow

the point to which all things converge

so their invitations issue from stillness

through quiescence they gather power

let’s call that female and the male cannot

resist he brings his watery tributes

and she gains adherents he procures favour

as she looks to embrace and empower

he finds himself part of a greater thing

in this way becomes part of creation

so both thrive both discovering bliss—

real power is female it rises from beneath

Study of a Kneeling Boy Bending a Bow, for Dorchester House c.1860 by Alfred Stevens 1817-1875

Like the cooked fish, another memorable image is the bending of a bow. As it is bent the top (of society) descends earthwards while what is “nearest the earth is raised up”. This is the ideal process of government in the Daodejing. Only in Chapter 80 (‘The Commonwealth’) does Laozi give something of a portrait of the contentedly ruled society. It is small, hard-working, has basic needs met; it has the capability of greater luxury (and also weapons) but none of these are made use of. This little society is aware of others around it (perhaps run on different lines) but its people are so content they feel no desire to travel.

Idealistic without doubt. But does this even sound attractive? It’s unlikely to – given our absorption into our consumerist society, our expectations that government ought to provide and lead. But we don’t need to look far to see systems breaking down and at the least what the Daodejing offers is an alternative vision of the exercise of power in society. It’s a vision that is over 2000 years old which means it’s either well past its sell-by-date or that it contains some wisdom that we ought not to ignore.

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Martyn and Yan Wang reading from the ‘Daodejing’ for Beehive Poets, Bradford

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2: Nancy Campbell

This is the second in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press)
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Enitharmon Press for providing a copy of Nancy Campbell’s book for review purposes.

The concluding poem of Nancy Campbell’s collection Disko Bay is, I think, a good place to begin. In ‘Giving Up on Capitalism’, an unnamed boy makes kayaks and sells them for one, then two kroner (these poems are mostly set in Greenland). He hands his earnings to his mother who buys basics like coffee, sugar, needles, cotton and, more ominously, whisky. If this is the nirvana of capitalist enterprise it hardly gets beyond subsistence level and then only to poisonous effect. On the third occasion he instead decides to construct a kayak for himself: taking the few remaining skins, he “pegged them down deftly / and paddled away”. The point of rejection is simply made, but the simplicity has a mythic, typological impact. The poem’s form is simple, repetitive, like a piece of folklore, an oral transmission perhaps, and – characteristic of the whole collection – the vocabulary is plain to such a degree that the reader is impressed by a paucity or poverty or essentialism (depending on how successful you think it is). Certainly this is a book unlike any other you’ll read this year, drawing on myths and landscapes of the far north (the opening section of the book has poem titles in Greenlandic first, then English). Its impact is often impersonal but Campbell’s knowledge derives from her several residencies in the region and she deploys it in a skilful and poetically knowing fashion.

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Above all, these poems convey the harshness of scraping a human existence in the Arctic Circle, perhaps most obviously in the section called ‘Ruin Island’. An epigraph quotes the Eskimo, Osarqaq: “Our tales are narratives of human experience, and therefore do not always tell of beautiful things”. Several poems follow the exploits of Qujaavaarssuk, a heroic figure and general strong man, who is reduced to singing a dirge at the troubled fishing grounds and is advised by “a man who is not his father” (a break in traditional forms of transmission here?) that the one thing to be relied upon is that “hunger will come of its own accord”. ‘Hospitality’ in such circumstances may consist of feeding guests “the kidneys of a black seal / as the ice harden[s]”. Qujaavaarssuk’s immediate difficulty is the presence of too much ice (a deliberately ironic comment on the shrinking ice caps of our day): he sees the shadows of seals moving beneath it and sets out “to the ice edge to follow them” but what Campbell is interested in (these are contemporary poems, not slavish myth-reproductions) is the failure of the hunter. In ‘Danger of Snow Blindness’, Qujaavaarssuk returns for the first time “his sled empty, his kamiks [boots] clean”. ‘The Last Seal’ opens:

There was nothing left to feed the dogs.

Qujaavaarssuk shot them, one by one

and fed them to each other.

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To the contemporary reader, what lies largely unspoken beneath these chilly, often curt, unsentimental chips off a mythic block is, of course, our own awareness the adverse effects of climate change. ‘Ruin Island’ becomes apocalyptic in tone so that the words spoken by a hunter that conclude the sequence, words spoken by Jorsias Ammonsen in a real interview conducted in 2006, are presented as the reply of a hunter “who can no longer hear the question”. In this way, Campbell tragically ironises Ammonsen’s proud, nostalgic, heroic, perhaps hopeless comments:

When we were young

no place seemed too far away for hunting.

 

We travelled a long way,

too far to come back the same day.

We slept in stone caves

and were cold in winter.

 

Nothing is too harsh

when you are accustomed to it.

Nancy Campbell 2012

Campbell tries to remain true to the plain directness and dignity of such a voice in most of these poems. The figure of the poet seldom intrudes. When it does she is trying to learn the “soft uvulars” of a new language which seem like “dark flocks of sound I’ll never net, or say”. Difficulties of expression in one language are compounded by problems of communicating across distance to her own homeland: “Since I can’t post a letter this far north, / I’m sending you an Arctic snowstorm”. ‘The Night Hunter’ is typical in its use of a simple lexis – snow, door, harbour, boat, blood, sled, knife – and a repeating form of verse as if the polar climate has sheared away more baroque elaborations of language and form. At first this feels cramping, but as Campbell persists and insists this really is what she intends, the simplicity seems more likely to put us in touch with the elements, the elemental, the bottom line of harsh Arctic existence.

With figures like the hunter Qujaavaarssuk so prominent you might anticipate a macho sort of world but the harsh conditions seem to teach an underlying humility (even to men) and Campbell has a number of female narrators who are clearly no push over. In ‘The Seal People’ a seal hunter’s wife watches the vindictive spirits of killed seals approach by boat and though threatened by them her voice does not falter through three steady quatrains, the verse’s repetitions here expressive of her firm courage. ‘The Hunter’s Wife Becomes the Sun’ is a major poem (its form is a sestina with its obsessive recurrences). Here, a hunter’s wife gives him a tinny Christian memento for protection. The hunter is more concerned with the reality of death and an apocalyptic sense of the world’s end (Campbell’s chosen rhyme words are tin, angel, window, box, candle, darkness). But his wife insists on the need for “light”, transforming herself into a “vast white wake / of stars” which might be considered angels, though the man himself finds it hard to shrug off his pessimism: “At the world’s last window, I light another candle”. The shamanic implications of their exchange are more explicitly played out in three translations of crude Greenlandic Qavak songs, originally collected in the 1950s. They are spoken by a “terrible mother” a “female shaman” and an omniscient “wicked woman”, the latter advising the only way to tackle an enemy is to bite off and employ her clitoris as an arrowhead. Neither the blunt obscenity or implied moral judgement can hide the suggestion that this remote culture clearly understands the importance of the female in ultimate survival.

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One of the impressive things about Disko Bay is that it is eco-poetry without shed loads of landscape description. Those vindictive seal spirits carry a powerful ecological message in their “round, black eyes” – less for the Greenland hunter and his wife (whose place and role within a traditional, sustainable Arctic ecosystem is be unlikely to unbalance things) but to us with our petrol engines, plastics and carbon complacencies. Another success of the book is its use of myths redolent of Nordic and North American materials without distracting echoes of Ted Hughes’ trickster figure Crow. In ‘Fragment’ a severed raven’s wing in the snow is enough to imply the global problem: “Never to breed, never to scavenge / on scarlet seal hearts by the ice edge”. It is brave of Campbell to delay the more eco-explicit poems to later sections of the book. Part three sets off from the premonition that “the future is full of riddles” and ‘Conversations’ conveys both the mystery and the certainty of climate change: “I don’t think it is one thing / I think it is a combination of things / a combination of everything”. The riddle-subjects appropriately include a tsunami and an iceberg but not the dirty complexities of the ever-hungry, seldom-satisfying capitalism rejected by the boy who constructs a kayak not to be sold but for his own setting out in this fine, unusual book’s concluding poem.

Read more on Nancy Campbell – in discussion with Forward Arts Foundation.