Books under Review
Ian Duhig: The Blind Roadmaker • Claire Dyer: Interference Effects • Mark Holihan: There are no foreign lands • Rosie Jackson: The Lightbox • Patrick Lodge: Shenanigans • Paul Stubbs: The End of the Trial of Man
James W. Wood • Emma Lee • Michael Curtis • Helen Pizzey • Wendy Klein • Tom Bland
Ian Duhig’s The Blind Roadmaker reviewed by James W. Wood
The Blind Roadmaker by Ian Duhig. Picador Books. £9.99. ISBN: 9781509809813.
The three-word title of this book says much about Ian Duhig’s method as a poet. On one level, The Blind Roadmaker references the title poem – a homage to Blind Jack Metcalf, road-builder, fiddler and romancer. Buried in this title, though, there’s a teasing reference to the ‘meme’ (to use his own coinage) created by atheism’s high priest Richard Dawkins: ‘the blind watchmaker’, Dawkins’ pseudo-poetic title for a book arguing against intelligent design. Duhig’s language seethes with such possibilities; like Blind Jack in the title poem, Duhig wants to ‘read behind their words/how men and women/felt.’
If there are times when the work suffers from an obvious rhyme or dash of wilful obscurity, then there is enough on offer here to enhance Duhig’s reputation, even though his love of the oblique and allusive might not make him Yorkshire’s answer to Pam Ayres.
The best poems in this volume – ‘Aliens’, ‘Bridled Venus’, ‘Blue Queen of Ashtrayland’, ‘The Blind Roadmaker’ to name a few – work because they marry Duhig’s talent for rich allusion with metrical discipline and a fine ear; thus the Blue Queen of Ashtrayland has hair ‘burnished as the gold/ that trims her Nike cardigan’. Whether or not we hear the echo of Shakespeare describing Cleopatra, the phrase works in its own right and enriches the poem. Elsewhere, the same technique is less successful, most egregiously in Duhig’s use of Langland’s metres to deliver what is intended as a self-reflexive, lightly humorous counterblast against Duhig’s own beliefs – atheism, a faith in science – but slips into the slough of rant rather too often to be counted a success.
That said, Duhig’s knowledge of England’s poetic tradition, his eye for England and Englishness as manifested in the country’s history from Langland’s time of Lollardry through to today’s council estates, lie deep in the marrow of this book. In this, he finds cause with colleagues such as Steve Ely and Simon Armitage who delve England’s past to reflect on the country today. ‘The Year’s Mind, Ripon’, a title which again includes an admirable syntactic pun, sees Duhig conjuring the ‘dead hand-loom weavers’ who ‘spin and reel’ as a counterpoint to a ‘squaddie suicide’ who ‘drips past’ in today’s town with a lethal cocktail of Buckfast and tequila his ruin. Throughout the book, history is ever present, the dead still watching the living, their errors and foibles. ‘Ripon’ ends with a warning to those who imagine a need to invoke the past – for Duhig, the past is always present and acting on and with us.
There’s a rollicking, likeable tone on display here that masks a profound seriousness: Duhig’s reference to ‘a wandering fault that I … caught from Sterne’ comes as no surprise. The two ‘concrete’ poems in this book, the best of which acknowledges Edwin Morgan but could just as easily have tipped the hat to BS Johnson, combine sophisticated syntactical play with emotional directness and broaden the book’s scope. Playing games with words and ideas, the heart of the poet’s craft, is lock and key for Ian Duhig, as references to Calvino and poems such as ‘Sternomancy’ make clear.
Unfortunately these games don’t always work, and tend to work least well when Duhig is at his most obvious. One imagines a certain kind of listener, two or three pints of Black Sheep down at a reading, nodding and tittering in acknowledgement of lines like, ‘such amatoria’s now all my ars,’ but we’ve heard this pun before, and this retelling has not refreshed it. Likewise, even Byron’s greatest admirers would acknowledge George Gordon’s wayward way with a rhyme – indeed, some will say this is part of his charm – but Duhig could surely have done better than to have rhymed “cobblers” with “wobblers” in Canto, his modern pastiche of the noted romantic.
For all that, some of these pieces are too slight – ‘Opening Night’, revolving around a couple of puns on existential angst, for instance – there’s a welcome seriousness on offer under the skin of puns and games, a longing to pick at the crust of how we use words today. Through humour and tenacity, and his ability to draw the long past of England’s people and language together with the present, Duhig’s new collection builds on his earlier success with The Lammas Hireling and other works, cementing his position among the best poets at work today.
James W. Wood is the author of three chapbooks and one full-length collection, The Anvil’s Prayer (Ward/Wood, 2013). His work has appeared in the TLS, Poetry Review, The North, Stand, Critical Quarterly and many other publications. The High Window have just published The Emigrant’s Farewell, his long poem about the migration of the Scots to Canada.
Claire Dyer’s Interference Effects reviewed by Emma Lee
Interference Effects by Claire Dyer. Two Rivers Press. £9.99. ISBN: 9781909747227.
The title of Claire Dyer’s new collection is taken from a description of the Morpho butterfly’s wings which have reflective layers creating interference effects. As a result, the colour that the wings are seen as differs according to which viewing angle is used. It’s a coherent collection that aims to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary and see the familiar in a new way. In the title poem the narrator looks at a photograph of an unnamed him:
time snug in our pockets,
wrapped up in ticket stubs,
his arms still around me, loosely.
I move my head and the picture changes;
layer upon layer the colours loosen
until they too slip out of shot
and always and forever’s gone by
and I look and look and look
until there’s nothing left to see.
A lost love is seen with the wisdom of hindsight. The echoes of ‘loose’ suggest casualness and lack of commitment. The suggestion here is that growing up meant growing apart. The long vowel sounds give a sound-sense that any hard feelings have faded. The narrator is ready to or has already moved on. This is contrasted to another woman, the poet’s great-grandmother, who couldn’t move on after a more permanent loss in ‘Queenie’ which starts:
Years back my great-grandmother
stepped off the platform at Earl’s Court.
She must have timed it perfectly,
her grief for the child they buried at sea
finally too heavy to hold –
Claire Dyer contrasts this with her own children travelling on the tube as the poem ends:
femurs lengthening, journeys home
on Tube trains, their blue eyes shining,
them giving up their seats.
It’s a contrast in moods, states of motherhood and situations. The poem opens to the layers the reader wants to look at or relate to. Inter-generational differences surface also in ‘Swimming Lessons’:
Neither of you wearing
water wings; my heart
round in my mouth for the hour,
the texture and weight of stone.
The community centre pools,
a Quaker school on Thursdays at five,
sometimes cottages by the sea.
I can’t recall when I first let go.
Now you slice the waves …
Allowing children to become separate and find their own paths is a necessary part of maturing but brings mixed emotions to the surface for parents. The line between ensuring safetysafe and being over-protective is a tricky one to negotiate. This is flagged even more because ‘Swimming Lessons’ follows immediately after ‘Queenie’, the two poems open side-by-side. In contrast, a hotel room in ‘Hotel’ fails to live up to expectation. The tourists hope for grand entertainment and a story to take home in the first half of the poem, in the second half:
It’s always the window first,
an incalculable sky.
Check-in was surrender,
and now we’re held by curtains that don’t fit,
the theatre of tap drip, a ceiling fan
moving air in languages we don’t know.
Your jacket’s on the chair and
afterwards we always leave
part of what we want to keep.
Disappointment comes in layers: the lack of view, checking-in, plumbing, language barriers and what’s left behind. This precision echoes Elizabeth Bishop, one of Claire Dyer’s key influences. Later, in ‘Sweet Peas’, the poems return to a secondary theme of looking backwards and forward through generations:
The sweet peas would tremble
as we sat down to eat, some sun
still in Grandpa’s Brylcreemed hair.
There are times, small and unremarkable times,
when I wonder what I’ll be remembered for:
one flower, one morning,
one particular look
across as room
as some rain begins to fall.
Despite the mention of rain, the poem’s focus is on the narrator’s memories of her grandfather. The last six lines are a shift in viewing what was remembered to musing on what might be remembered, which is out of the narrator’s hands. There lies the strength in these poems: their precise language opens and asks questions rather than providing neat, ordered conclusions. At first glance, they flutter into place like butterfly wings but it takes a second or closer reading to notice the engineering driving those wings and how the light reflects, enabling each reader to take away the patterns of light and shade that speak directly to them.
Emma Lee‘s most recent collection is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015). She was co-editor for Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves, 2015) and Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com
Mark Holihan’s There are no Foreign Lands reviewed by Michael Curtis
There are No Foreign Lands by Mark Holihan. Cultured Llama £10.00. ISBN 97809932119-8-0.
Mark Holihan, a writer and graphic designer, is a former Californian who has spent much of his life travelling and is now settled in Kent. He is an alumnus of San José State University where he studied graphic design, creative writing and anthropology. A winner of the Phalen award for both poetry and short fiction, he has also been shortlisted for the Bridport prize, and is published in various anthologies and magazines.
The titles tell you, you’re going travelling – welcome aboard! Your guide knows what he’s talking about and will share histories and insights to show you what you’ve not seen before or almost certainly missed. These patient, expansive poems take the time to describe what’s felt through what seen, what happens, often shot through with a wry, deadpan humour that seems characteristically Californian:
Still Willie and I are singing.
I think he’s off key.
What other poet is able to assume such a modest ego, assuring us he can’t do precisely what we know he’s doing, his gentle self put-downs contrasting with the persistent vision of the writing to win us over? This seemingly uncertain voice disarms the risk of bombast too often associated with beat-style narratives, creating a new mix of existential voyager and down-to-earth, honest observer. There’s mystery too, enigmas despite the naming of people and places that abounds in these poems. The last ten minutes of a movie, back stories abandoned across oceans, calm externals suggesting inner turmoil:
We see her looking away. Averting.
Hands clasped at her waist, the entwined fingers are
capable, fine, familiar and utterly unknown.
‘An unknown loss’
Many of these poems are filmic, setting up location and character, inviting us to watch what unfolds. Thrillers and violence at times, and fear:
She hammers in new dents while the boy
does what he can to make that cheap, suburban door hold
against the pummelling fists, shoulder, broom handle,
a .38 Magnum Buntline, its barrel scraping
along the hollow wood. And her voice:
‘I know you’re in there.’
Holihan can wrap a surprising power into apparently straightforward this-happened-and- then-that happened tales, locking in an energy that pulses on after the end of the poem:
I will relentlessly remember the angle
of that sun, the acres of grass softening the hillsides
a name on an obelisk and –
back at Jimmy’s – the unused pool in the dusk,
half Hollywood blue, and half darkness,
the deep end filled with rotting leaves,
shaded by a neighbor’s fence,
the shrouded powerboat in the triple garage
‘What remains unsaid?’
And he answers his own questions, and ours, with deflections into beauty that radiate an altogether different kind of certainty:
I ask her what the end of the world is like?
She doesn’t answer, just shows the photo.
And I can see it’s all mist and full of shells,
where one lone woman carefully poses
at the finish of a long walk,
by a signpost pointing the way
with a little, gold scallop shell.
‘Kelly at Finisterre’
Though he would never express it so grandly, Mark Holihan is on a quest, philosophical, searching for truths, understandings, co-ordinates, and he’s prepared to take risks along the way:
I am searching for footprints. It’s important to know the way.
But I have only found a small note in a shaky hand.
It doesn’t say much, just that she misses us –
I don’t remember anything, but I’ll keep looking
for the right place to cross,
even when I reach the sea.
Join him – you’ll enjoy the trip:
“Yes,” she said, cutting another slice of Sara-Lee,
“Except there’s a bright light,
and I think that’s love.”
‘For the love of Sara Lee’
Michael Curtis is widely published and has given readings and workshops across Europe. He was Writer in Residence for Arts Council, England, the Metropole Arts Centre, the Maison de Poesie, Nord/Pas de Calais, and the Writers and Translators House, Ventspils. His poetry has been studied at the Universities of Liege, Bucharest and Munich and broadcast in England, Ireland, Romania and Latvia. Horizon was launched at the 2012 Manx Litfest, his twelfth collection, The Fire in Me Now, was published by Cultured Llama in 2014 and the pamphlet Lullaby Days by Indigo Dreams in 2015. He is currently writing a successor sequence, Lines in the Air, and working on three further collections.
Rosie Jackson’s The Lightbox reviewed by Helen Pizzey
The Light Box by Rosie Jackson. Cultured Llama. £10.00. ISBN: 9780993211973.
Rosie Jackson’s latest poetry collection, The Light Box, is, in many ways, an extension and expansion of work started in her earlier acclaimed pamphlet, What The Ground Holds, published by Poetry Salzburg in 2014. This new book similarly takes inspiration from the lives and work of visionary artists Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline, whose complex and difficult personal relationship prompted these explorations of life, love and loss. Together with corresponding themes of light, dark – and the shadowlands between – these are the overarching motifs binding the collection.
A total of 68 poems have been carefully curated into six roughly equal sections, each prefaced by a poem initially triggered by a brief residency at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (now The Wilson) which focuses on Spencer’s art or life. Drawing parallels with other life circumstances, the subjects and characters of her poems are drawn from a wide range of art and artists, religious/mythic icons as well as figures from public and private life. Mrs Thatcher Leaves Her Body and Meets St Francis, for example, is a poem that is both political and moving; Hazrat Babajan, a Muslim ‘Perfect Master’ from Pune, India, ‘knows the gift of sorrow –/ how we may learn to squeeze sugar/out of grief.’ (‘After the Door Has Opened’).
This, however, is not a melancholy collection; along with tender poignancy, there’s also a life-affirming ebullience at work. In ‘This Big Fat Moment‘ a mother writes: ‘No more racing now towards an impossible future, / but each date gold-starred on the calendar / as if the sun had summoned it from darkness/just for us,…/…birthdays squat like candles / the wind cannot blow out…/…And I want to step with my child into the slowest,/slenderest hourglass, to make moments/that are too full to pass.’ Although many poems are laced with pangs of longing, Jackson’s energy infuses the whole with how it feels to be sentient and alert to the possibilities of both the seen and unseen. But it is the evocation of her own mother which provide some of the most powerful images: the self-denying wife and, later, widow, whose engagement ring causes her daughter to think: ‘of all the things she touched/those last forty years // and all the things –/ a man, a child, a glass of wine –/ she didn’t.’ (‘My Mother’s Engagement Ring‘); and, on visiting the Holburne in Bath: ‘My mother would have loved it here, / the roped-off beauty./ Museums were her church –/ hushed air, sweet smell of floor polish.’ (‘The Desire to Be Porcelain’); and, ultimately, ‘How I want for you a different ending – // …to have you shake your shoulders free,/stand tall and,…/ jump with both feet / and claim it all: // the radiance,/the stars,/the full-fat light.’ (‘Having It All’).
Jackson is a generous, perceptive and passionate writer who has ‘an artist’s fidelity to what eludes,’ (‘Undoing’). She herself takes heed of in ‘Advice from Georges de la Tour’ to: ‘Always pay attention / to the source of light:… // But make all this convey that other light,/the one behind all others,… // — the quiet/presence of unacknowledged fire.’ Each poem is meticulously crafted, layer upon layer, expressing shifting perspectives with clear-eyed precision and in language that is fresh, using images which delight and intrigue. ‘Leonard Woolf at his Desk, 1940’ says: ‘My edges fit: there is no overlap. / I belong inside the tailored suit of myself. / She finds it more difficult to be contained, / to navigate the in and out of consciousness.’ In ‘Love Letters‘, it is said of an ex-husband: ‘He will go on writing, after my death, so obsessed with / who he finds himself to be in me, he barely notices / my body has disappeared, my coffin has no letter box.’ And of the English Christian mystic Margery Kempe, Jackson writes: ‘When she prayed for Bliss / she didn’t know/ it would be this / bruising / didn’t know she’d be unable / to go back / to a horizontal kind of love tender fulfilled/ her limbs as limp/ and hands as loose / as fish sleeping.’ (‘Margery Kempe and the Angel’).
The Light Box is an excellent title for a collection which seeks to illuminate and view from all angles its various objects of scrutiny. It also speaks of concentration and intensity. In it you can follow the narrative of Stanley and Hilda’s tumultuous relationship: stages of love’s exuberance, unhappiness and discord followed by divorce and Stanley’s subsequent marriage to his younger muse, Patricia; while poems about Demeter and Persephone are archetypes for others which draw attention to different sorts of ‘Underworld’. But ultimately the transformative power of light can triumph – in whatever ways (physical, metaphorical or spiritual) it’s possible to do so. It’s fitting that the final poem in the collection is another based on Spencer’s work, ‘The Resurrection: Reunion’. Here ‘lovers, mothers, children, fathers, plumped-up wives’ are revelling ‘in this light that is never switched off,/these bodies that cannot have enough of each other,/this love that is always being made.’ (Resurrection).
Helen Pizzey‘s’s poetry has appeared (or is forthcoming) in various anthologies and in magazines such as The North, Orbis, The Interpreter’s House and Ink Sweat & Tears. In 2013, she was a runner-up in the flash fiction section of the Bridport Prize. Her poetry has also been set for large-scale choral and orchestral works, including for the Opening of the Derry Peace Bridge and a commemoration of RMS Titanic broadcast on Radio 3. She is Assistant Editor of regional arts and features magazine, PURBECK!, and helps facilitate the Dorset Writers’ Network.
Patrick Lodge’s Shenanigans reviewed by Wendy Klein
Shenanigans by Patrick Lodge. Valley Press. 2016. £8.99. 978-1-908853-70-7
It is always a delight to open a review collection and sense a kindred-poet-spirit. The trick is not to give reign to the urge to compare notes on shared themes: Cambodia (‘Tuol Sleng), and Anne Sexton (‘Her Mother’s Fur Coat’), one of the generation of so-called confessional poets I return to. It is the distance in subject matter between these two poems which characterises this rich collection: an extreme, but always interesting diversity.
It has seemed to me for some time that there has been a drive away from simpler language in contemporary poetry, to an obsession with seeking out unusual words in search of the will o’ the wisp of ‘freshness.’ The problem is seldom in the words themselves, but a certain pretentiousness conveyed. This is entirely absent from Patrick Lodge’s work from the opening poem where:
Recusant berries stand out
against winter orthodoxy.
and in the same poem where ‘fancies like nuggets / from a riverbed, /…’ are stacked carefully to ‘corbel’ a dry dark peace. In ‘The Spa Quartet’, 3rd part, ‘Three old “gadgers” ‘ push off from the shallow end. ‘ In a moving father-son poem, the poet observes his ageing father as:
sniffing, bemused, the ullage of your life as if there was
still a moral to be got that might be passed on, a way
in which this gleed of life might be flamed again (italics mine)
Here is bedrock precision; words chosen with thought, not for effect; because they are ‘right’ words. What had the potential to be irritating, made me curious instead.
Lodge’s poems reaffirm the importance of verbs to create energy and pace in poetry. In ‘Yiannis in His Bar’, ‘…Eclectic House… / soundtracks the mute satellite football;’ and in a Vietnam poem, ‘… the paddy dead / are become ancestors, / germ in the timeless cycle / of seed to spike to seed.’ (Uncle Ho Remembers). Elsewhere the poet describes ‘…ice cubes as
they slither and chink, around a circle of lime; (‘In Arcadia‘).
This poet’s craft is everywhere admirable, and the content is equally so. The second poem in the book is only 12 lines long, but within it is contained the fall of the Berlin wall (a death), and the birth of a baby girl: ‘Cement becomes elemental, fleshy; / it dilates and the dispossessed push / through.‘ In parallel, ‘You were only a few hours born, laid / like proving dough on my chest; / breathing unhurried, eyes closed ‘. How effectively the dough echoes the cement ‘elemental, fleshy.’ (‘Mauerfall’)
The title poem, an urban myth transformed into a clever fantasy, while a little sinister, is so entertaining: the wary human juxtaposed against the wily beast, with all that implies about the seduction of the wild:
I play the fox; what else do you expect in this
You stand, alone at the window, tall white
as down, (yes, fox and goose down!)
staring as if I was some will o’ the wisp,
a green-eyed seducer.
and the irresistible invitation:’ put on your dancing shoes, step out, trot a tricksy / measure with me.’ (‘Shenanigans’)
With the same deftness, Lodge turns a New Testament parable (Mark: 46 -52) on its head, creating a Bartimaeus who is unconvinced by ‘the miracle,’ whose restored sight results in keener insight. He notes the risk of travel during Passover when the Romans are ‘not fussy whom they cut down’ and chooses, ‘Head down’ to vanish from sight in the crowd. (‘Bartimaeus Sees His Way Clear’).
In a more explicitly political piece ‘Seamus and Paddy Build a Dam,’ modern literature, and folk legend are encompassed as two semi-literate Irish workman pick up their pay packets, and find their homecoming aborted (August 1971), by the shooting of a British soldier in Belfast, or so I believe. The references are local/vernacular:
Some of the lassies
some for the bhoys,
some for Mary in Macroom
but the final stanza pulls together early historical paintings of the dance of death (totentanz), and the famous account by James Agee and the photographer, Walker Evans, of the effects of the Great Depression in the southern United States in 1936: ‘two black and white men – / like sharecroppers in a photograph – / stripped bare to the waist,’ echo Walker’s stark images after their book: ‘Let us Now Praise Famous Men’. Author, Agee ‘appeals for the reader to see the humanity and grandeur of these horrible lives’. Lodge’s reference is apt.
In the final poem, Patrick Lodge steps off lightly with the powerful image of a kingfisher crashing into a window:
In my hand it lies, gaudy,
useless as a lost evening purse
but there is a greater loss implied. The bird’s absence is ‘palpable; in the garden – where // goodbyes hung like condolences,’ and as one stunning image follows another:
The empty air still holds the drag
of blue light, a rolling bolt of silk
like a neon ripple, a memory
and is brought back to the standard warning printed on the driver’s side of hire cars: ‘…careful, objects / may be nearer than they appear.’ The reader is left to ponder the powerful hint of the unspecified. (‘C’an Freixa’)
I am left in agreement with Oz Hardwick’s back cover comment, ‘From the local Baths to the Berlin Wall, to Greece, Africa and Saigon…This is a book to savour deeply.’
Wendy Klein was born in New York, but left the U.S. in 1964 to live in Sweden, and on from there to France, Germany and England where she has lived most of her adult life. A retired psychotherapist, she is published in many magazines and anthologies and has two collections from Cinnamon Press: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) with a third collection, Mood Indigo, out from Oversteps in spring 2016.
Paul Stubbs’ The End of the Trial of Man reviewed by Tom Bland
The End of the Trial of Man. Paul Stubbs. Arc Publications. 2015. £8.99. 978-1908376015
Paul Stubbs is one of the few contemporary poets who is daring to create outside the incestuous poetry scene without regards to fads or hashtags or schools of what makes a poem a poem. He’s not alone in this regard and there are some writers pushing the boundaries of thinking. I think it was Jacques Derrida who says, ‘what cannot be said must be written,’ and writers like Fran Lock and Melissa Lee-Houghton, have independently been creating what critics now want to call a ‘self-mythologization’ school. I fall in and out of this category, but Stubbs is certainly not a part of it; he abandons both self and myth – at least in terms of story. But it is difficult for me to abandon Stubbs in his own work, in the same way that T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land strikes with his unique fingerprints – a crime scene, a miscarriage, the poem ain’t finished, just abandoned or something. It must have his DNA in it.
J. G. Ballard speaks about obsessions and I think this is a good way into Stubbs as he is a man of obsessions which continually subvert their original contexts, playing the gnostic against the orthodox, but there is an inherent difficulty in proposing that Stubbs is a gnostic. The first idea or even obsession must be with a post-apocalyptic world which on opening the first page of The End of the Trial of Man we are thrown into. Two quotes from the opening of the book display this: Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Long after the days and seasons, and peoples and countries,’ and Blandine Longre, ‘till the agonies of nonspaces and the wreckage of erasing times,’ and yet like Heraclitus, the end and the beginning are not poles apart, they circle each other twisting into each moment. We are back to the miscarriage. Is this how Stubbs sees the world? A failure from start to finish?
Stubbs’ work focuses each poem on a Francis Bacon painting and it’s interesting to think of Bacon in terms of self-mythologization. One of the pioneers of this approach, Roddy Lumsden, says this of his poem ‘Autism,’
… and if I want to move away from particular facts, then I’ll use image or metaphor or lyricism – and I think that’s kind of what I’m doing here. The poem leaps around a lot from image to image, but I hope the reader will realise that everything is rolling around the central image of me being someone on the autistic spectrum, and how it feels, and that I’m trying to explain that to you.
Like Stubbs, Lumsden is a writer of technique and both draw on Eliot’s idea of depersonalisation, but for Stubbs the depersonalisation isn’t a way back into the self, but a destabilizing force. Bacon does this as well in his brush strokes, stripping away each layer of what makes a person human but clearly in his intensity of expression, traces of himself can be found, his lovers, his sexuality, his rage, his exhaustion, and the titbits of nihilism scattered through his interviews; a perfect but accidental line, but for Stubbs, each line is meticulously crafted. If there is an accident in Stubbs’ work it appears to be that it is poetry he is writing. An exquisite accident. But I know nothing about Stubbs other than the odd interview I have read; he remains anonymous except for the words. One of his obsessions is God and as with the myth of God, the only thing we know about him is the logos, the word itself in flesh. But where is Stubbs? The question I must endlessly repeat. Let us look more closely at one of his poems –
LOST TALE FROM THE APOCRYPHA
after ‘A Man Carrying a Child,’ 1956
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor
– A child, kidnapped at birth, is then
carried off in secret to a rib-ruined town
(to invoke and make fly the unbiblical,
the talon blunted amputees in paradise)
whilst in Bethlehem, in haste, a few hours
after, the miscarriage of Mary is confirmed. (p. 72)
Once again I’m drawn back to Ballard in the way in which Stubbs writes. Ballard writes as a depersonalising act; he originally wrote High-Rise as a report from the psychological branch of social sciences but then he decided to put Laing straight into the story; everyone in High-Rise is a stranger in a yet to be discovered landscape. It draws on knowledge (what is consciously known) as a sparse commodity but also what corrupts from the peak down. It is too easy to see political analogies in Ballard’s vision as it is too easy to see theology in Stubbs’ work. As one of my psychoanalytic teachers said, ‘if you are interpreting a dream, the patient will always think they know what it means, and that means, the dream definitely doesn’t mean that, as consciousness already knows this, the unconscious is trying to say something different.’ I find this is true with Stubbs’ poem too. Although he draws on biblical images, apart from a very slim slice of relating back to the biblical story, it seems to possess its own reverie, like Henry Corbin says of Suhrawardi, it is and isn’t Islam. We too can say of Stubbs it is and isn’t Gnosticism but the trope he uses may well extend back to those times, not interpretation, no, not hermeneutics on the good book, but in the soul, that psyche, the words, the strangers, the forms. He uses the image of the miscarriage again in relation to Jesus:
On the top of a mountain, a holy miscarriage,
and the blackened docetic wrappings of the
after-birth of Christ left now to snag (eternally?)
upon a rock… (p. 84)
Both poems use the image of miscarriage as a kind of abandonment but this is obvious. Both poems are more about suffering, the little thing Jesus went through on the cross, pathos. Docetism is a heretical early doctrine that Jesus’ pathos on the cross was only apparent, but not real, like in The Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter where Jesus is crucified on the tree (his body) but he is really above his body laughing down at the absurdity of the pain the Romans assume they put him through. But let us return to the first poem, ‘Lost Tale from the Apocrypha,’ and to the Francis Bacon painting it finds its feet in, or maybe more likely, the feetless stubs of the amputee of Stubbs’ imagination. He wants to amputate his limbs from the poem’s limbs and fortunately he fails in this regard. He opens up a scene into the scene of Bacon’s ‘A Man Carrying a Child,’ like the overlapping image scenes of a Peter Greenaway film. The title itself reveals the strangeness of the piece, a man carries a child, not a father, not someone known, not an identifiable person, only his gender is acknowledged, nothing more, he is no one, as is the child.
Bacon paints the man and the child as almost beings that make up one being, the child seems to come out of the man’s shoulder, and the landscape, that nothingness, but nothingness with dimensions. This too relates to the anonymity of the man and child; both are nothings but referential in being. they have more substance than the nothing and more ethereal but Bacon is about perspective, not spirituality, and that is what he is continually shifting, neither the gaze nor the object of the gaze remains the same in perception. Stubbs takes this image and radically alters it, like Lumsden, the ‘poem leaps around a lot from image to image, but I hope the reader will realise that everything is rolling around the central image’ of Bacon’s portrait and the idea of being – the very idea of being – being itself a miscarriage. But unlike, say, Sylvia Plath, whose work is also about deconstructing the self, Stubbs removes the tension between self and non-self; he converts the self into image of its own dissolution without connecting the dots that entangle his self in it. The poem takes a view of discomfort but the discomfort takes place in an impersonalised world. How then do we connect with it? Bacon’s work has a visceral impact but Stubbs refrains from this. I think this is my biggest problem with the collection as a whole, and unlike his The Theological Museum, the poems are too consciously constructed, leading to the downplaying of the intensity of the previous collection. The accidental. The miscarriage. The blood on the floor. The foetus. Is it still alive? Was that a breath?
I find Paul Stubbs a remarkable poet and this is a very good collection, and one that should be returned to. I originally read this book when it came out and read it again to review it. I love the images but the ideas seem to be the issue, not the contents of them, but that at times they seem a bit too forced or imprisoned in the images. Luke Kennard says in an interview that the absurdity of the images of surrealism can be very appealing both to the writer and reader but not necessarily in the accidental “un-crafted” aspect of their craft, but that can be exactly what makes surrealism work – the impact, what gets under the skin, what startles the reader out and into their senses. Bacon says, ‘I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do.’ And this is important for a writer like Stubbs, to recall a work like Adonis’ Surrealism and Sufism that sees philosophy as art, as an accidental art form. Read Stubbs’ work. It is unique and powerful and the ideas are experimental, but at times, we need the more accidental from him.
Tom Bland is a writer and an accidental performance artist. He studied psychotherapy and dream analysis at SOPH and is co-writing a book on suicide. His website is http://www.tombland.org.uk/
Tom Bland is a writer and an accidental performance artist. He studied psychotherapy and dream analysis at SOPH and is co-writing a book on suicide. His website is http://www.tombland.org.uk/