Shearsman Books 2013 | 84pp |
THERE IS INDEED a sense of a sudden calm on turning to these American and Asian (well, kind of Anglo-American-Asian) poets after the English storms (see my previous column, “Poets, Angry”), and it has nothing to do with the fact that they all happen to be women. I don’t just mean placid, gentle or any suchlike gloss. It’s possible to speak of a mental calm in the act of composition which opens the mind to progressive thought and enlarges its resources by overcoming the inhibitions created by anxiety. It’s a quality of the text rather than the author, though I think certain mental habits must be conducive to it. It’s not by any means incompatible with protest or even anger. This definition will not be found in any dictionary and I might have invented it, but the word “serene” could hold some hint of it.
In Hoard it is a constant condition of Jaime Robles’ poetry. The main part of the book is a set called Hoxne which meditates in 18 poems on items from the Hoxne Hoard, a Romano-British hoard of gold and silver objects and coins discovered not long ago in Suffolk, which is also referred to in other sections of the book. Pierced goldwork and bracelets are particularly chosen for treatment. There is a display of patience in the way the sequence gradually unfolds from description to a total poetry, and this conceptual expansion takes place throughout the book in large scale and small.
Liberating calm informs the writing as an agent of coherence, making possible an interplay of opposed forces in perfect equanimity. What is basically a listing or cataloguing of items from poem to poem, focused and minimal, develops in the writing to a poetical discourse of affect, in a series of departures which range from minimal to transformative. To take successive sections of a short poem called ‘Diatrita” concerning openwork gold bracelets: the beginning could not be simpler—“a sheet of gold / pierced: cut / into a wall of vines” What we admire here is the economy and shaping of the language, the song-like phonetics, the hint at transformation. Then, with great care, the writing extends out from the literal into figures which are not allowed to develop into symbols, but are more like further precisions – “a simple piercing of gold, / banded, surprisingly workable: / the metal lace-like— / its past / unseeable, shifting”. The poem continues on out in this way, risking a simile – “like a voice that shifts to echo / and locates us, sprung back / from brisk walls” . . . and works itself finally to an imaginative leap into the original life of the object—
through the open work of tendrils
skin glistens – fine hairs
scattered and budding:
whose memory is reflexive
sited on the other side
of a punctured strip
sprouting vegetal strands
fiery vines, gold and coiling
As Robles’ imaginative processes go this is only the beginning: traceable extension from the terms dictated by the object, and yet the last line speaks far beyond the museum, in its rhythmic union of opposing imagery: new / ancient, vegetable / mineral, burning / growing . . . . Indeed it is Bacchic, the wine fermenting in the verbalised object.
There is a satisfying calm in being content to stop there, in an arena which, rich as it is, remains within the zone of the object itself. In the whole sequence there is much greater extension, forming a series of metaphysical and contemplative poems engaging with the terms “heart” and “love” and with a sense of developing narrative structure which occasionally becomes explicit. Personal indications of separation and loss, the author’s commitment to the narrative, emerge only to submerge again and re-appear near the end, cohering entirely with the calm intensity of the poetry. But as she departs she also stays. She never takes her eyes off the Hoxne Hoard, and every move in the writing emerges, through whatever leaps and flights there are, from these pieces of gold and silver—their beauty, craftsmanship, value, loss, burial, age, purpose, shape, size . . . . There is a bracelet, armlet, or clasp, for instance, which is returned to many times, which supplies a sense of the woman’s arm encompassed and held, not simply by the man and not simply as a constraint, though both possibilities are there, but also by time and loss, and the clasp is figured as human look and touch.
Under his gaze her upper arm, which seems only bone,
is a pier stretching out into sea water and pleasure
…and again in the same poem
An arm wrapped. The tip of his middle finger touches his thumb,
completes a current . . .
There is a set of four double poems, ‘Four Matching Gold Bangles’ in each of which there is an upper and a lower text on the page. I quote the first of them entire:
……….Clay clasping the wrist, thumb and finger: manacled, mute.
……….The tongue a basket—forest of gold corrugate: scuddering
……….cries, muffled, fallen reeds: plaid of stalks. Speech stopped
……….at the first gate; in the background, disaster: a procession of doors
……….each closed, each to be opened. Pushed rustling into the earth,
……….wrapped, the horizon a whirlpool. The soft shush of breath and
……….outward flight quelled, fallen earthward turning—slowly,
……….sound withdrawn. Indwelling the coat of flesh the muscle of tongue
……….clasping ____ wrist, thumb and finger:
_______________________________the circumference of forest.
The upper poem is the story contained in the object; the lower poem is the poem (song) contained in it, both released by the poet. The story is a kind of underworld scenario, the contemplated object rendered into the aftermath of negative events, invoking death and burial, slavery, being silenced, being grounded, turning inward, possibly being captive and threatened (the doors of Bluebeard’s castle). The tongue seems to be under metamorphosis into gold, as an ordeal. In the last line it is as if it absorbs its own flesh. But each of these conditions or events emerges from the gold ornaments and stays with them, in a discourse which soars into adventurous language but remains always steady, aware of the gravity which returns it to its origins. Underneath all this is the poem or song, spaced out in the manner of du Bouchet, which I feel is the answer or solution to the preceding narrative, where the actions of the narrative become a few isolated terms, some echoed from the upper text, some not, and this is what is left, or what survives. What is not echoed is the problem, the anguish, the underworld; there is open air all around. Speech now simply contracts as if under its own force, rustling like the forest which circumscribes these relics. It is like a quiet burial of the remaining pieces of language in a clearing. There are no questions in it and no need to say anything about it.1
THE REMAINING THREE poems develop this structure, and I risk over-interpreting in finding the second upper poem to represent an expansion of the field in the paradox of “the past’s forward flight looking back”, the third a drama full of movement of flight, and in the last poem the field becomes cosmic—“far under the body where the entrance to the underworld opens up, planets encircle the sun: a wrist, the perimeters of spoons.” But, as the last phrase shows, we never depart from the primary focus, and many terms are echoed from poem to poem to maintain this equilibrium. The poems “match” each other like the bangles. And the lower poems retain their immense distance from the drama, which is quite violent at the end, rescuing from it key words which become marks of sheer presence. The final word is “click”, by itself just under the centre of an otherwise blank page, derived from “click of the lover’s teeth” in the upper poem, which derives from the “click, metallic” of the bangle being fastened on the wrist but which in the great distances of time and space survives only as the word for a sound and a finality, no longer necessarily entrapping. 2
A clue to the beliefs informing this poetry might be found in a statement made in the course of an essay on visual poetry in The Fortnightly Review—
To accept the idea of our world being limited to or by our words is to deny the body’s sensual experience of the world. Language is a slow phenomenon relative to the body’s perception, experience, and understanding of the world.3
Hence the constant insistence on referring the most imaginative figuration back to the perceptual source, not only in Hoxne but throughout the book, and particularly in the more abstractive writing towards the end of the book, such as the sequence “Red Boat” (which after quite some delay is identified as “your mouth”) and ends with this powerful notation of human frailty, transience, and permanence in act:
Our bones are hollow and the color of a quill
carved for flight:
birds rise from the water’s surface,
a gleam of silver spilling down the feathered wing.
TOKAIDO ROAD, NANCY GAFFIELD’S first book, is a set of 55 poems based on woodblock prints by Hiroshige following the road which crosses Japan from eastern to western capitals. The poems respond to the pictures in many different ways but always with a combination of calm and intensity in the writing which at once reminded me of Pound’s Cathay, and I think this might be a deliberate connection (both books include poems beginning “Blue, blue . . . ”). Otherwise the similarity rests on the almost constant use throughout of the simple present tense (displaced to simple past by Pound for narratives of remembering) producing in both cases a poetical writing which is direct, where sentences and phrases are offered to the reader as exactly what they are, open to implication but not to mystique, and in which the self is a term of craft rather than a subject.
There is a refreshing sense of a new poet who is not, for once, desperate to rush into the future and mend the world, but rather values the authenticity of the present, and possibly, even, is concerned to hold back from the forward advance, while situating herself very far from a poetry of conventional address. This is evident not only in the freedom to write lines such as “Ah, this floating, fleeting world!” and “You are never far from my thoughts.” but also in passages such as this generalised statement in the last poem—
There is no clear boundary
between memory and imagination,
memory carries a trace
of place, giving us presence
in absence. Imagination
mends the holes.
—which remains happy to use conceptual terms which have been current for centuries (“imagination”!) and also accurately sums up what the book is about.
A road is a linear thing, and its poems tell stories: events on the road, travellers, then and now (more then than now), Hiroshige, geisha, fish, herons, ancient Japanese tales, and the author herself in intermittent glimpses of a story of longing and exile. It is not narrative poetry; the stories are remembered, glimpsed, hinted at, picked up and forgotten in that modern-poetry mode that hides narrative in lyrical techniques, so that we are in a cloud, with pieces of story floating round our heads, resolving themselves into fine cadential endings which speak openly at last without giving anything away. It is a familiar mode in some ways, but it is one of the best things modern poetry invented, and Nancy Gaffield does it impeccably well.
And there is the story which is the road itself, and the stories of the various rivers to be crossed, always at risk—
Then it rained. Not a soft spring rain
but a hammering, bad weather
May rains, swift current,
no crossing Oikawa
Tokaido black spot
Rain throbs on, river
breathes – no one even knows
I have a story to tell.
____..My fish have lovely fins,
____..they rarely flounder
—yes, that was the river speaking, in italics. And its story? Perhaps it lies in the tension between the mortal danger it represents, and its elegant, enticing, sylph-like speech. In the very next poem (for there is a sense of thematic sequence) the largest concept of story emerges with the same kind of ambivalence—
The river scrambles and splits,
breechclothed coolies flex muscles,
manganese herons follow
runnels, fracture the surface
and come up clean.
I want you to connect the image
with the human story.
Place blends into “human story” constantly, but the reverse transaction also takes place, and always in a dynamic and elegant script. There is very little in this book to alarm the unfamiliar reader beyond sometimes a misty withholding of the full story or occasion. One of the blurbs sums it up as “intelligent and thought-provoking” and it is good that there can still be a modern poetry where such qualities are evident to anyone on the surface. I have to add that the intelligence shows itself, wherever else, in the craft of lineation and verbal placement which delicately picks up quite ancient echoes of stylised human speech, and in the whole technique of interplay among idea and word.
EACH BOOK BY Nancy Gaffield seems a new venture—not a new poet, for there is considerable continuity of her way with words, but rather a new way of projecting the text, a new ancestry, and a new form of engagement with the reader. Continental Drift reads very much as the work of an American poet embedded in the legacy of 1960s innovation, perhaps dominantly Charles Olson. David Herd’s very helpful blurb mentions him specifically: “Writing after Olson and in the tradition of Howe [Susan? 4] and LANGUAGE.” The first two I’d nod to, but I’m surprised to see her connected with so-called “Language” poetry. On the contrary, she never gives the impression of writing as anything but a human being, which is to say that her use of language is bound to a “human story”. But even if we agree that there are signs of a reverence for Olson in the writing, it still seems to me that there is a pull back. Even quite early Olson poems could be perversely unyielding, and hers are not; in fact there is an explicitness about place and event, and a reluctance to disperse the discourse beyond a certain limit. It is normally clear what is going on and what the nature of the concern is, and it is a concern which is felt in terms which are evident and direct, without being channelled through the largest possible concepts on the one hand, or a mass of local detail on the other. Neither is there that world-saving fervour which throws out over-excited discoveries of detail.
The book holds four sets or groups, of which my favourite is “Inclusions”: eleven substantial poems of sustained declaration and question at identified places, mulling substrata of memory and history against the opening of surface (not particularly American). But the most ambitious is Po-wa-ha (“wind/water/breath: the creative life force in Pueblo cosmology”). 26 pages of poetry quite sparsely disposed on the page and the most “Olsonian” work here, though I’d still insist that she holds back from Olson’s extremes. The poetry never proclaims itself as the answer to the world and neither does it ever descend into notelets.
It is concerned with American nuclear and firebombing attacks on Japanese cities during World War II, but begins without any direct reference to them in American desert landscapes of the south-west, and in fact stays there, referring to pioneer movements, and then the desert as the zone of preparation, the laboratory for the making and testing of the bombs and the plans to utilise them, with some shocking glimpses of the nuclear attacks themselves. It is as if the bombing of Hiroshima were a continuation of the push west. But true to her tradition, no poem is cut off by its focus from a sense of the total negotiation between world and self, and this is the case on every page of the book. As the sequence passes on to its central purposes we are immersed in the events but our attention is constantly called aside to details of elsewhere which create an edge to the writing, which invoke “the rest of the world” in a handful of details. This transaction is effected through interludes of removal (landscapes, personal and emotional utterances . . . ) as well as a figurative poetical language which always has an eye open to elsewhere and to questions of principle. But it is not a dispersal, it is a gathering-in and sequencing, of responses and implications. The focus can be specific and relentless, including genuine quotations from some of the perpetrators, more shocking than any details of destroyed bodies:
“I think it’s good propaganda. The thing is these people
got good and burned—good thermal burns.”
“That’s the feeling I have,” said Mister Gadget.5
This masterly irony is followed immediately, with a page to itself, by–
….The wood warbler spins
….a coin on a marble slab
slipping in some soft, sad notes.
the force of which, I think, lies not in further ironies involving “coin” or “spins” but in its intervention as a genuine lamentational song sung elsewhere. The warbler cannot be part of the desert scenario – it is a European bird. The sense of telling inclusion has to be as wide as this.
Po-wa-ha raises difficult questions about what poetry can do with this kind of material, what we can get from it. We don’t get the history: it is understood, referred to only obliquely while preference is given to significant disconnected detail. Some episodes rely entirely on Gaffield’s notes for their relevance, for there is a sense of relevance at work rather than the text being open to subjective or random admission. The criteria of relevance are wide but quite strictly held to a sense of human and earthly story which brings the documented atrocities into contact with the present tense and a permanent apocalypse. The story ends with invocation of Spider Grandmother, the Native American cosmogenic deity who surveys the ruined landscape (American or Japanese) with a subdued hint of rebirth or continuity in her presence: “Spider Grandmother is waiting / on the edge // you walk on / the dead”.
What we get then is a kind of rhapsody (I don’t think this word is popular in the current academic critical vocabulary), an attenuated lyrical meditation which doesn’t tell the story itself, but weaves it in with other stories and other moments, and wins by the intelligence and accuracy of its sightings and the unerring tension of its musicality. In the absence of actual narrative poetry from the modern repertoire, this performance may well represent the best that poetry can do with this kind of material.
GAFFIELD’S NEW OYSTERCATCHER PAMPHLET, Zyxt, finds her working in fixed forms, but rather than sonnets and virelais, all but two of the poems are ordered by the “Fibonacci” mathematical series measured by syllable count. This gives 13 or 14 lines ordered in 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 . . . syllables up to 21, then back down to . . . 8, 5, 3, 2, 1 (there are irregularities). The poems are about Canterbury and it is suggested that the resulting shape on the page gives a sideways picture of a cathedral spire, but to me the effect is of an immense crescendo to the middle of the poem, subsiding back to the sparse notes of the ending. What’s interesting is that this crescendo and diminuendo is mostly not represented in the actual substance of the text, which rather returns to the unpunctuated steady discourse of Inclusions in a series of declarations and apostrophes—
croft sleep with me in
the vestibule under Nailsea
glass my scapular pillow for your head meet me
nomad to nomad across time’s gap don’t lose me in the intertwining we are on
the ground amongst the rushes & coarse cloth no one is the figure here
in presencing outside clouds drift in female time
a solitary blackbird sings
& we are
SO IT IS as if the form is simply there, alongside, like waves which will break whatever the humans on the shore choose to do or say. The poems of Zyxt are, like this one, full of passionate utterances lyrically phrased within a mathematical structure and in a sequence focused on the ancient within the present, love among worked stone and marshes. As she says, “each poems is an exploration / of language in place / the poetics of space” but it is more modest than this, refusing gestures of power, and it is stronger, with occasions of outright realist defiance: “we fail to matter / the living / & the dead”. The set ends with a longer, abecedarian poem (initial letters of lines in alphabetical order, naturally ending with the word “Zyxt”, which is an obsolete Kentish word for something), a chronicle poem on St Alphege, the Anglo-Saxon bishop captured and murdered by the Danes. The insistent pace and substantive manner recall at times Steve Ely, as does the insistence on the details of battle: “Clamour of cracking / Bones rent the air, ashes rose from / Burnt out houses . . . ” But creating space in which to say that which transcends language or place: “forgotten children buried in epochs.”
It is good that poets such as Nancy Gaffield (and Jaime Robles) can take on the weight of the “New American Poetry” lineage with its reach towards a total vision, without indulging either mysticism or world-saving scholarly megalomania, but rather maintain a free access to the varieties of the phenomenal world simultaneously. Where this gets us to in the end is the edge, hovering like Spider Grandmother on the edge of finality, of wholeness, a constant question behind us which never reaches its answer, in a structure in which the world participates but nothing is complete in itself, and this liminal incompletion is taken as a solution. Gaffield quotes Barthes: “The politician being interviewed clearly takes a lot of trouble to imagine an ending to his sentence: and if he stopped short? His entire policy would be jeopardized” (in The Pleasure of the Text). The problem with this, apart from the fact that it isn’t true, is that it is a comforting thesis. It means you don’t have to work anything through to its conclusion, but can just drop it when tired, open to the world but offering us nowhere to lay our heads. In fact I think Nancy Gaffield’s poetry subscribes to beliefs such as these in principle but transcends them in practice, especially in the insistent habit of reaching a lyrical and resounding finality, very noticeable in Zyxt, where again and again the syllable-count diminishes like the ending of all our days in an access of clarity and readerly trust.
little owl with eyes made of moon
tell the sleepwalker
it is safe
DONNA STONECIPHER’S MODEL CITY begins with a page bearing nothing but the question, “What was it like?” This is followed by a series of answers to the question in short prose paragraphs beginning “It was like . . . ”. There are 288 of these, divided into groups of four to a page, each four formed by common matter and sequence into a piece which could equally be seen as a story or a poem. That makes 72 poem-stories. The nature of the writing is well typified in the first page—
It was like slowly becoming aware one winter that there are new buildings going up all over your city, and then realizing that every single one of them is a hotel.
It was like thinking about all those empty rooms at night, all those empty rooms being built to hold an absence, as you lie in your bed at night, unable to sleep.
It was like the feeling of falling through the ‘o’ in ‘hotel’ as you almost fall asleep in your own bed, the bed that you own, caught at the last minute by ownership, the ownership of your wide-awake self.6
It was like giving in to your ownership of yourself and going to the window, looking out at all the softly illuminated versions of the word ‘hotel’ announcing their shifting absences all over the city.
The “model city” is the original, perfect, planned version of the city, the ideal city, before it was invaded by hotels. It is the pure idea of a city. All 72 poems hold this originary perfection, of city or some other form of being, against the reality, which in this case includes not only the insertion of vacancies into the perfected and replete idea of the city, but also the necessity to assert individual ownership, as if the model city was also a model of human community which has splintered. This model using the hotel (or room to let, closed shop etc.) is returned to several times and supplies the last words of the book—
It was like thinking about model cities and about hotels, and realizing that of course no model city ever allocated space for hotels, for why should there be any vacancy in the fully realized ideal?
The 72 poems/stories form a very heterogeneous collection of accounts which we can relate to experience and can make out to be all concerned in some way with the response to some form of imputed idealism, and it is in the delineation of these events and places that the poetry lies. These reactions are, even in the first one, not necessarily negative. Is there in fact a necessary melancholy in the account of the proliferating hotels, a sense of loss and powerlessness, or are we reading that into it? If instead of hotels it referred to the uncontrolled buying of London properties by foreigners as investments, to remain for ever unlived-in (I believe that some 400 new towers are planned which will completely transform the cityscape) then our dismay would be justified. But what is actually wrong with hotels? May they not mean, rather than emptiness, modes of venture, strangers in the city, even escapes from domesticity? Certainly number 48, on viewing a panoramic sea horizon, cannot wait for the ideal to be erased:
It was like looking up again and wishing you could hire your architect friend to cover the ocean with towers and spires to block out the panoramic horizon line and its absolute absolutism.
And no. 13 pictures the inhuman stasis of the ideal, which can only be the model of the model city, not the model city itself, and in which we are ourselves models.
It was like imagining yourself as a figure in one of the models frozen in the act of crossing the model city’s plaza, frozen for ever in your need to idealize in the midst of a realized ideal.
But neither can we read the entire structure as a protest at idealism of any kind, there is far too much suggested sadness and aloneness in this quest through model cities noting their failure to remain intact as a necessary human failure. Neither can I agree with one of the blurbs which politicises the book as an attack on “neo-liberal” forces. It is much more of an abstract, or even a secular theological treatise . . . 7
EVERYTHING HINGES ON the “it” of “What was it like?” and “It was like . . . ”, which precedes all the particularities of the narratives as an unknown event which is everywhere echoed in our singular experiences of the intrusion of the real and the ambiguous. Surely the undisclosed “it” comprises the whole of experience, the whole of a life, the loss of perfection as such, the Fall of Man . . . , unspoken because it is unspeakable. No. 45 is about passing a shop called “Umsonst Laden” (free store, where nothing costs anything), and a year later “seeing a hole where it had been, and sighing: the torment of idealism is over, the street may return to the real.” There could not be a clearer notation of the central ambiguity of the book, the implications of which could certainly stretch into politics and many cultural categories but is given us in particular incidents held in equipoise. The spoiling of the idea of the model is not necessarily either welcome or lamented. In no. 51 concerning an old “world radio” found in a rented apartment—
It was like leaving the apartment at summer’s end and sneaking the world-radio out in your suitcase, for you know that only you understand the radio’s faith in a grander, more worldly world – and its inability to transmit it.
This is an endlessly fascinating and quite difficult book. It can be a struggle to get your head round the shifting perspectives and the ambiguous feelings involved. It is in no way rhapsodic, and I couldn’t quickly disagree with anyone who thought it was more prose than poetry. It is all so indirect: all the experienced reality of the book is an echo, it is “like” an undisclosed previous event or condition. There is no “I” in the book; everything that happens happens to the impersonal “you”. But the sense of the book and its implications are clear and serious and the writing constantly attractive. Donna Stonecipher lives in Berlin, where the original idea of total order and consequent display of failed perfections cannot be avoided.
SANDEEP PARMAR’S EIDOLON is in some respects the most difficult of the books under review, but also the one least involved in claims of experimentalism. Modernist, yes, but there is a constant sense of normative expression and structure, dramatic and expressive use of the sentence, spoken declaration whether authorial or fictive, which is liable to be curtailed, or interrupted by pieces of language which do not seem to relate as metaphor or any other kind of figurative extension of the poem’s substance, nor are explicable in themselves. The poetry repeatedly inserts a momentary obstacle in its course and is clearly meant to, mainly, I think, because the poet knows she is tackling a large question—the problematic nature of life in the West—through a kind of poetical shorthand based on isolated percepts, but held together by the insertion into it of the figure of Helen of Troy and the resulting narrative-like progression. This collection of symptoms without discursive articulation (like Nancy Gaffield’s in Po-Wa-Ha) demands the inclusion of bits of elsewhere and otherness, the unsayable represented by the unsaying, to frame the scope of the text. The way the poetry behaves and the kind of obstacle we meet is well shown in poem iii—
Waking to a November morning
…..to pins running across a yardage of wool
or headaches______ the circular world
………………………………corn cobs in the sink gleam like teeth up her spine
Hurry up the bus goes
and its déshabillement goes …………………………… loaming on after it
The substantive presentation with few or no active verbs is no problem—we are used to it, and items are open to our own sense-making—I take “the circular world” to be the compass of local knowledge such as gradually expands in a child’s experience. The image is extended much later in poem xxxi, in a rural context which I also suspect in poem iii in connection with India.
That the fields should be fertile with their laughter
______as the outriggers of war pitch and move in
_____….._a merciless circle
This circle is “disfigured by food” perhaps because the food must transgress these limits in trade, from within or without and the scene is of Helen in her suburban American entrapment in the morning (for already we know from poems i and ii that “she” is Helen) with wisps of other possibilities hanging over it. And from there the bus goes (to work or school or further out?) but what is understood by its “déshabillement” (undressed) and how to make a verb out of “loam” which has the undress following the bus, I couldn’t begin to know. The answers, if there are any, may lie in depth psychology or extreme ingenuity. Or they may possibly invoke other parts of the story, in American suburbia or elsewhere. There are not very many of these pitfalls punctuating the story but they do exist and my optimum reading of most of them is of privacies or half-known personal memories which subconsciously impinge on the telling, and are fused syntactically into it in defiance of rationality. I also find it possible to trust them as they participate in the whole quality of the writing, especially the rhythmic assurance which blends modernity with respect for clearly traditional measures (specially noticeable in the line beginning “That the fields . . . ”) which the cruxes cannot damage.
Eidolon is offered as a “rewriting” in 50 poems of the story of Helen in the version in which the Helen who actually arrived in Troy was an “eidolon” or spectre substituted for the real one. The narrative thread is hard to trace, gets dissolved into partial scenarios, or survives in bits, but that is in accordance with the nature of the whole sequence, in which statements and accounts are mostly clear but occurring in sections which are precariously related to each other, connected mainly by the recurrence among them of the figure of Helen.
A VERY HELPFUL essay by the author following the poems goes into detail on her understanding of this modernisation and its principal objectives, which I needn’t repeat here. Suffice it to say that Helen is transported mainly to America, a country, like Troy, at war, and becomes there a multiple and contradictory figure, a multiple textual eidolon revealing diverse properties of the new-found land including woman (perhaps especially Asian woman as both Helen and the author are) as victim in a false society and “beauty” as a commodity, but at other times neither of these, or their contraries. She flits in and out of the text as a figure not fully written, seen only in glimpses, but she is always there. That is to say, I believe she is always there, though sometimes there is no sign of her, but her story, and the war which she precipitated, lie behind everything. She is also an unstable figure, perception of which is partialised or contradicted. She is “scattered like grain” at the same time as “indivisible.” In poem xli we have “Helen hauling an urn across a battle field” and a few lines later “Helen goes out for an hour’s lunch”. She is sometimes an immigrant and sometimes a resident. She is well-off then she is badly-off. She is several times a modern American woman trying to contact somebody by phone in order to get out of the house, but elsewhere no more than a gasp of surprise from an “audience of middle-aged women” told of Clytemnestra’s fierce refusal ever to forgive Agamemnon.
The book is for the reader a constant challenge to identify what Helen represents, which could variously be suggested as reluctance or disbelief in the face of Western society, likewise failure, lawlessness, hopelessness . . . without any definitive settlement. The poet rescues truths out of the insubstantiality she creates in this restless theatre. I also feel that the author’s experience of living in USA informs a lot of the text as it collects uncommented symptoms, many of them pieces of pure irony, to the extent that sometimes the author becomes Helen, especially in certain references to India. The question is briefly and inconclusively unlocked in poem xxxii, which begins, “An idea is not a woman but many women / the composite of an idea” and after a section on the unity of Greek culture as a thing we can only mimic, ends with what looks like a definitive answer: “we see the real Helen / is the false we / is the eidolon”. This adds greatly to the uncertainty. I could not think of suggesting what it means, (the principal difficulty is the question of who “we” are) but what it does is to cast both a light and a doubt over the whole narratives so far. We can think back to all these versions of Helen and their various virtuous acts and protests as the acts (or ideas of act) of a generality of women, as the desire and entrapment of women, but we cannot create a unity out of it because the modern Helen is, as much as the ancient one, unfaithful and deceptive. I like to read the eidolon as image,8 and this extraordinary sequence as an essay on the worth and insubstantiality of direct sensory perception, playing these contraries against each other in a grand pageant of experience and refusing a conclusion favouring one or the other.
While we are busily seeking relevance among what remains clearly a series of sightings of the ever-shifting image of Helen anywhere on earth, there are passages (and poems) such as the following from poem xxxvii which clearly don’t belong within any schematical critique of our civilisation which we may have been accumulating but which bear heavily on all the preceding serious matter. The scene is, I think, on a cruise ship approaching the site of Troy.
The grey-blue dawn
the Rosy-fingered Dawn
turning the snaking cloud
into the body of a goddess
raising her thin spear
we glide across
the blue-eyed morning
as a woman changes
her lover . . .
This is from the late parts of the sequence where what Helen means is returned to history and redeemed, and the setting is increasingly the actual sites of the Trojan war. Helen is created in the dawn sky by our regard of her image: the Helen of beauty and power, assisted by English literary echoes and rhythms, and the sweep of landscape perception. All this creates another Helen not only beautiful and significant, but also angry, at war, her spear anticipating her “beauty like a tightened bow” in the last poem. Helen’s infidelity or cheating is then aligned with the foreign policies and military habits of any nation or corporation. The sequence is increasingly bound together; here the corn-cob of poem iii reappears as a crop contributing (as corn syrup) to the western addiction to manufactured sweetness—“High Fructose Syrup / infantile mass delusion god / sugar fix of empire.”
There is a great increase of power and intensity in the last poems in the set, turning towards hope, as in this impassioned plea in poem xlix against all the buried, ruined or perverted cities Helen has passed through:
Mother, let us be as a city, rising
…………not swept through
…………………….by the greed of rumoured enemies
I trust it is obvious that I have said about ten percent of what could be said of Eidolon, and probably got some of it wrong, misled by the ever shifting and evasive image of Helen. For me Eidolon joins with two other eloquent and distinguished poetical works concerning Helen of Troy recently: Rod Mengham’s Paris by Helen, a cryptic political modernisation which submerges the ancient story almost completely, and Kelvin Corcoran’s “Helen Mania”, a more lyrical celebration of the figure of Helen as ecstasis.9
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.
- Incidentally, the verbs “scuddering” and “chuddering”, the latter obviously echoed from the former, are not in the dictionary. Possibly they derive from “scudding”, as of clouds moving fast across the sky, and “shuddering”, but there is no certainty and I have no suggestions. I can only say that they don’t seem to create a problem. “chuddering”, emphasised by italics, perhaps asks the reader to accept an almost-meaning as the term for the process of gold being metamorphosed into language. ↩
- As I understand it, a bangle does not fasten on the wrist, but a bracelet does, but perhaps this is not necessarily so. ↩
- Jaime Robles, ‘Picturing Language: tracking Wittgenstein through some recent visual and poetical artworks.’ ↩
- The sisters Susan and Fanny Howe are both respected poets in this context, though different from each other, the one more document-based the other fictively lyrical. I could see Nancy Gaffield’s work as relating to either. ↩
- This is quoted from a “Memorandum of a telephone conversation between General Groves (Mister Gadget) and Lt. Col. Rea at Oak Ridge Hospital, 9 a.m. 25 August 1945”. “The gadget” was the term used for the bomb during these preparations. ↩
- The craft in this sentence is typical—the “o” of hotel versus the “o” of own—as is the somewhat ambiguous irony created by it, to which I shall return later. ↩
- There is a suggestion from time to time that the model city is a “socialist” venture, but not at other times. In my experience, which is of Romania, the first new buildings to be erected everywhere by the communist regime when it came to power were precisely hotels, to house all the party officials sent out in quantity to enforce social and cultural conformity. ↩
- There is reference to Whitman’s poem “Eidólons” (1871) which uses the term “image” among a generalised praising of human visual perception as a forming and an idea. I wonder if anyone has ever thought of tracing these themes to Imagism regarding the prioritisation of the visual. ↩
- Rod Mengham, Paris by Helen. Oystercatcher Press 2014. Kevin Corcoran, “Helen Mania”, collected in For the Greek Spring, 2013. ↩