Monday, 9 January 2017
Notification has been received from publishers Forward Poetry that the poem, "Asides to Walt Whitman, Where Brooklyn Ferry Intersects the Seventh Circle of Dante's Hell" (from the Salt Ensign, "Maquettes for a Season of Fury" series) is to be included in their new anthology of political poetry, Political Fortunes, scheduled for publication in March 2017.
On publication, copies of the anthology will be lodged with the British Library and other libraries in the UK and Republic of Ireland.
Further information will be available at www.forwardpoetry.co.uk.
Friday, 30 December 2016
Salt Ensign is a MS of poems and miscellaneous prose writings collected 2012-2016. The first two Parts, "Maquettes for a Season of Fury" and "Water Harp", were initially written with the idea of presenting them as pamphlets, but in fact they were never published as such. At some point, probably following the publication of several individual poems in various reviews and magazines, I made the decision to collect them within the Salt Ensign title.
Part Three, "A Memoir of These Future Signs", amalgamates firstly a prose script written to support a series of MP3 recordings originally available on a former website (no longer extant). I considered that the comments between the noted readings gave some insight into my own thoughts concerning the selections. To note, the poems referred to can be found in earlier posts here, in the PDFs of their respective book titles.
The second movement in this Part, "Versus", offers a meditation on the quietude of Faith. I want to thank T.L. Rankin for his insights into an earlier draft of the poem; the archival observations were based on my time as a steward at the 12th-century Wymundham Abbey in Norfolk.
The final, long movement, "Neophyte", explores my earliest poetic influences and my attempt to establish a creative identity across a five-year period in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s.
Because the MS was never published under its title, I haven't made it available as a PDF in the same way that both Blackwater Quartet and Relic Environments Trilogy were posted previously in their own right. However, I thought I should include here the epigraph upon which the collection title is based, from John Evelyn's Sylva.
'The earth… has a certain magnetism in it, by which it attracts the salt, power, or virtue which gives it life, and is the logic of all the labour and stir we keep about it, to sustain us….'
Lastly, I want to thank readers who have continued to follow my work, in the United States, in Europe, and with a growing audience in Ukraine and China.
The critic, Adam Kirsch, ventured that, ”every poet begins as a provincial, dreaming of emigration to the city of the honoured dead.”
Recently, I had occasion to source a number of my early poems, from the period 1967-1972, a time wherein I was imitating the styles of other poets and attempting to establish my own voice within the community of poetry writers. But my densely-framed, obscure, self-absorbed writings were antithesis to the contemporary scene of late-Beat and Black Mountain poetry ‘schools’ of the time.
I lived in a small town in the American South. Fortunately, there was there a state university, and its library was a source of deep comfort and kinship to me when I was sixteen or seventeen years of age. The old-fashioned rooms with their poorly-lit stacks held links to the Auden generation, the Imagists, and even translations of Persian poetry. While all around me pushed towards a bright new age of poetry, I seemed content to drift somewhat aimlessly through the past, and, like Thoreau, 'reminded of the lapse of time, I grew in that season like corn in the dark.'
I began to write poems in 1966. I made a point of writing poems most days (usually in the style of Dylan Thomas). I think I wrote about 100 poems from that Spring through into the Autumn. It was then it occurred to me that it might be better to focus my energies on the longer forms. I believed that the Long Poem might provide a more sympathetic forum to my often meandering style.
In the listings that follow, poems that were written in this five-year period offer a clear insight into the progress a young writer made in order to orient himself within the context of a poetic tradition, though in time sloughing the stylistic devices of these same generations.
Lucy East was my school Latin teacher in my first two years of 'upper' school; I think I was 13 or 14 at the time.
Under her instruction, I hauled myself through Caesar's Gallic Campaign, and I learned the difference between the oratorical styles of Seneca and Cicero. Sometime after I left school, I heard that she had died. She seemed quite old to me, but I think she was only about 60 years of age. She was unmarried, and shared a house with her sister on the other side of town.
I remember some years before, my Mother took me to see her, to 'say hello'. It was some while after I left school, but I can't imagine the purpose of the visit. I think Mother was quite proud of me for having achieved some prize or other, and wanted Miss East to share in the good news. People used to do things like that.
In the following poems, I've reconciled a number of line- and stanza-breaks to reduce the awkward spill of too many words in too little space. In other respects, all the hyphenated flourishes, howling juxtapositions, and adjectival wash, remain as painfully pristine as on the day they were written.
In Memory of Lucy East
The movements on the paper rose high against her hand,
the symbols of a life retreating.
Out of the single sigh, into the stroke of the quick-wombed cradle,
she rested in the angry grace of an uneasy light.
Justice embraced her every sin,
blasting the heart into its final decline.
With the fear of a second child, a twice-spent, single-edged infant,
she returned to the casting earth
as she had fallen from her Mother's side, unspoiled.
Her hand, from the chalk-dry fingers
to the tumbling felt of her palm, held, like a pursing secret,
her stillborn death.
And the sun became a coiling mistress
before the grief of the second grave.
But even as those last, hooded moments were sung into forgiveness,
evening entered the chapel of her eyes.
And she, a near-old, withered woman, hovering above the antlered wood
burden-ablaze in the tolling, weathered mouth of age,
was dropped like a lapping sparrow by the clapping wind.
Yet, knelt in the lonely height of the petal-running summer,
dusk fell into the sickled calm,
psalm-sped by the innocence of her passing.
Pain-turned, the leaves of the hay-blown boughs,
fluttering above the re-shaping sheet of wormspun soil,
became as brown and still as the stallioned waters
of her own, sea-pricked limbs,
though the corner-thumbed leaves at her graveworn bedside
raged in wintry silence.
My only memory of this poem is that it was my first attempt to write an elegy. Reading it again forty years later, it exhibits little of the simple personal response to death that one would expect of the genre, and too much self-regarding word-play. But then, I was seventeen, and my experience of loss on that level was something less than comprehensive. 'And the sun became a coiling mistress/ before the grief of the second grave' demonstrates that there was at least a measure of thoughtful reading behind the lines. However, their use suggests that I was simply waiting for an opportunity to hang out my wares.
The next poem is another Dylan Thomas exercise. The sweep of adjectives reinforcing a generic metaphysical ennui is typical of many younger poets. That the inspiration for the poem had been dead for less than fifteen years was a further incentive to provide a further 'witness' to the Late Modern Period.
Not Without Anger
Not without anger have I watched in silence
the stealthy throb of betrayal rise with a smile
to burn and divide the heart.
Never with malice have I sought
to uproot or undo in sleep
what allied hosts have assisted in upholding.
No longer aroused from neutral rest
by the innocent swell of unrivalled desires,
with vicious regret I bolt to meet and turn
the routing sear and polished thrust of seasoned arms,
seeking an enemy once hailed as friend.
Lured out of breath into a hostile lair,
I must bear and trust a cunning kiss, thrown from faithless lips,
though two masked faces mask a grudge and a wolf in the fold.
Blown out of truce into a grappling retreat,
wrenched to tears in an ambush of embraces,
I stand doubled in a double-crossed lull
until enemy and friend lie in the same blood.
The tautology of the line 'Though two masked faces mask a grudge', with the over-burdened alliteration of cunning kisses and an ambush of embraces, offers a warning to all aspiring poets: less is more.
In December,1967, my father died suddenly, and the 'practice poems' of the previous year paled against the overwhelming grief experienced on the instant by my Mother, my sister, and me. My Mother said, "How could God do this to us?" - at once both sweet and uncomprehending.
The poem following is a straight run at "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night". This time, however, the writing of the poem was less an attempt to mimic a stylistic master, than a direct emotional response to personal loss.
This is Not the Darkness Given by the Evening
This is not the darkness given by the evening.
The shadows of this night end more than light of day,
Set to rest a sun too frail to halt so great a falling.
The fading day has dropped on to a broken star to die.
Darkness comes where light rushed into morning,
And darkness brings to light what light has toiled to delay.
Should day's end bring only sleep, then dreams have come too late, and to nothing.
Day after day has ended with night, now night without end finds the eye, night-long in tears, too blind to see the darkness lifting.
Too far and sudden was the lightning, too dark a way to come
To find no kindness in the evening.
The shadow of my father has cast a light too bright to die.
It lacks objective correlation, and the notion of a villanelle appears to have escaped me altogether as a required form. In the same period, I continued to indulge myself, perversely, in the somewhat narrow range of Dylan Thomas subject matter.
Do Not Honor the Dead and Dying
Do not honor the dead and dying
With the mercy of a strangled whimper.
Death should dawn grim and golden out of the naked sighs.
The gate of time’s vessel lies unlocked in the brow,
Adrift in the pyre of my whispering age, Christ to Christ.
Great deaths, remembered for their glory
By the cries of throatless temper,
Slip down into the ashes of their deeds,
Collapsed beneath the brightness of their proud goodbyes,
Stubborn in the praise of memories
Buried in the silence of their rage, Christ to crucifix,
After-deaths, feared by drummed deniers,
Halt the flames of pride that track and burn
A ticking blindness of the dead below,
The voiceless earth rolling above them.
And these dead are drawn into the dust, the lipped inferno,
The blistering torch of a single, endless fever,
Burning like Adam’s rib.
And from the long poem, "Blood Meadow", (1967- cf "Over Sir John's Hill"), we have,
In a poised taloned spiral over the wilt of birds, slung
Hushed in craving dangle, the lone hung stalking kite
Flares... over the nestled meadow.
Compare, too, in, “Poem to the End of the Day” (1968, cf Thomas’s “Prologue”).
When each day's end again
Has met the bray-hooved,
Switch-back trails, and with them
Wound to the blackberry yard and the stalls,
The sailed-aground skipjacks, or so
The hawing, bootblack birds, thief-thick
In the evening’s milk-pail rings
In a covenant of fields have said,
Canebrake deep, sleep.
These days on end, again
Gone by the haycocks
To the barns and the sheds
And the husked corncribs,
To the hen-pecked yard and the roosts,
To the hogsback styes and the strut of coops,
To the orchards walking in cider-washed fields,
To horsehair strands on the fence planks riding,
And the cornbread drift from the hearth,
Herd to their end on the cowbell’s song
I burn in blue-black Kentucky wind at the dog-days’
Blood-wrung end, and I lie
To this end at the end of the day
On the faith-trod path of the last, great harm
In the hearthstone arms of prayer
And the poor pitch kettles of my trade.
I lie to this end in the moonshine fold of the farm,
A black sheep at the end of praise.
It appears that the purpose of pushing through a hundred lines of verse in this style was to provide a cushion for the final – arguably best – two lines of the poem.
Another experiment was with “Homewood”(1969- cf Under Milkwood).
The milkcans in the yard, empty before milking,
stand washed in the night's rain.
The ploughshares in the fields lie dew-deep in the sun
and hold with all love...
Effectively, this period marks the end of my homage to Dylan Thomas. There were several further poems published at this time that were stylistically similar to those noted above, but I was beginning to develop elements of a style of my own, and the Thomas itinerary grew less persuasive and, crucially for me as a young poet, less interesting.
In late 1969, I became interested in the New England poet, Robert Lowell, and his writing would occupy me thoroughly for a period of about two years.
The work of Lowell enthralled me. Its attention to prosody, and intense examination on a personal level, had a Metaphysical pedigree. It was probably poems from Life Studies, published ten years previously, that gave me an indication of the way the personal could be juxtaposed with historical suppositional sequences, and subverted through delineated narrative. His early poems, first published in the mid 40s as Lord Weary’s Castle, exemplified the cold style that was at once penetrating and remote, fixed in superb technical ability.
I emulated the writing from this ‘Catholic’ period, although usually without the attention to rhyme, as this was a new and difficult requirement, and one that I would not begin to accomplish until I had occasion to study WH Auden a few years later.
In style and subject matter, the following poem was typical of my approach.
Buzzards Bay’s salt maw still plucks the town’s bowels
Blue of breath, raw to paunch a lean Atlantic,
The vitals Promethean – pulsing pizzicato
When the brined jaws thrum:
New England’s bones picked clean of clippers
And rum-soak whalers’ guffaw and gab.
It is nineteen-seventy, and the blabber of tourists
Stuffs Woods Hole, where once
The cormorants sailed for bluefish.
And where the sea embraced the Pequod’s shrouds
And drove the death ship east of Eden,
Now chartered yawls slide from Nantucket
On a tanker’s slick.
Their helmsmen are bankers, sea-legged in Boston
Between a Popular Boating subscription’s covers.
Sundays in their sailor suits
They don an attitude towards lubbers.
The bay is baited with the sailors’ folly; the sea
Has swilled their conscience clean.
The years nose forward, pincered for the kill.
We are undone in our voyaging
For nothing by the nothing that is.
It is hell’s season, thick with lobster pots,
Plump red and snapping - the blue
That lapped up lives guts its spoil
In tidal pools,
And when a bone-pegged shank
Would plug the white whale’s spout…
A blue plume sprouts
And splays our breath like scales of fishes.
In another long poem, “Appalachian Burial Requiem” (1969), purportedly a stylised account of a coalmine collapse in eastern Kentucky, the language was rigidly formal, and attempted the rhyme elements I had admired in Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”, but without the attention to scansion that the poem perhaps deserved. Here is the opening stanza.
A sunken element of Jehoshaphat,
the judgment breaking black into the fields broke
all breath below, the miners’ backs by the black-
out weighted when heaven of a sudden spoke
through the void in its falling to the coalsack
of Apollyon’s arms. The spoils of the land’s fat
belch and foam to light at the mouth of the pits;
grave portent, foul borne of the hole that emits
but violent ghosts of light from the craw
of its corruption, the shafts choked and raw
with ash. Theirs was half the luck of Jonas: spat
not of the deeps, the hollows of the Lord’s
leviathan, sea-legged upon the strand, but
as the shapeless reminders of Will the gut
of decay rotted to itself. It affords
them no quarter of repentance, for the beast
without favor ever to its black lung hoards
the breath Appalachia offers in the East.
There is certainly a great deal going on in those few lines, with portents foul-borne ever to the black lung hoarded, with other inversions black and belching. At just over sixty lines in length, it was probably my most ambitious poem to date. Once written, it is likely I would be satisfied with the exercise, with no wish to repeat the experience. However, there are a few lines that offer a glimpse of something more elegant, or at least less ungainly.
The widows of the mines go
by the cenotaph of Appalachia where
no stones cross but those that mock the upper air.
Is it poverty of heart’s light hurts men into
the dark, and their women into black, or is it faith
that makes them blind as moles to a rising wrath?
I mentioned Auden earlier. There is one surviving treatment of his style, based on his ‘Icarus’ poem. I think I saw it as an opportunity to attempt the less-is-more theorem. My poem was also about Icarus, it may not be surprising to learn...
And rising of his own accord,
and of waxen plumage rising,
Crete below became but a word
dear once, a place once-been, something
unreal, as shadow reminds one
of daylight, and not of daylight’s
sphere, a remainder of the sun
and vision common to those heights;
and what ploughman, or fisherman
at his lines, being caught up with
his labor, should chance towards the sun
a glance and, glancing, witness myth?
What man would have, having only
labor the darkness reckons and brings
to an end, common as the sea,
as the gulls occasionally
descending there, would have as things
his own, suns, and notion of wings?
(“Icarus Descending”, 1970)
Notice, in stanza three, the use of internal rhyme, and the subtle repetition of chance/glance/glancing. The quatrain works reasonably well, and reading this now, I think I must have had a new confidence about my writing.
Reading the early Lowell 'covers' on the other hand, was not unlike receiving the Word from a Hellfire-and-Damnation preacher. However, the poems from Lowell’s ‘middle’ period, which I would also emulate, exhibited an unsettled quality that perhaps reflected Lowell’s own psychological issues in the late 50s and early 60s.
Poems from Life Studies and For the Union Dead were benchmark writings for me, in that they retained a rigorous style, but used a space of silence within the poems to communicate to the reader some hidden or troubled world-view.
In August 1970, through the auspices of one of my teachers, Reva Chrisman, who had championed my poems from an early period, I was accepted on a two-week, ‘working’ scholarship to Breadloaf Writers’ Conference near Bennington, Vermont. The ‘working’ element of the arrangement meant that I waited tables in the Conference cafeteria when not attending seminars (I understand that these arrangements are known now as 'waiterships').
My personal tutor was William Meredith. John Ciardi led the Conference as senior academic.
The route into such an organisation may be more standardized now. Then, there was a rough-and-ready quality about the place, but those of us whose families were not able to pay the fees for the experience were pleased to participate.
I recall that the poems of the 'poor folk' so-described were subject to the same scrutiny as those writings of more socially fortunate writers. One morning, Jonathan Galassi, who shared my lodgings, found me at the digs, and asked me where I'd been, as William Meredith had submitted my poems to a workshop discussion group earlier.
Mortified, I realised that at the time of the seminar I had been finishing the breakfast wash-up with the kitchen staff, and had not checked the schedule for the morning sessions. I was told there was considerable sniping, but that Meredith had argued to the strength of the poems. When I spoke to him later, the gist of his comments was: ‘You're not here to wash dishes....’
Following Breadloaf, I took the decision no longer to sign my poems with my Christian name, 'Robert', and began to use my middle name, Estill –an old family name, probably after Captain Estill, the 18th century frontiersman killed by Wyandot in eastern Kentucky. I made the conscious decision to distance myself from my apprentice pieces and to develop my writing under the new persona, Estill Pollock.
Here are the first poems published at the time under my new moniker.
In Time of War
Slumming near Hatteras, an old routine…
the shutters of this north Atlantic cottage
flutter like a bird’s sprained wings. Slates
scab the roof. A bronze-plumed weathercock
corkscrews on a rusty spike, salt air
groaning through the eyeholes – everywhere,
the seascape of cold, continual blue.
Little else remains – sloth’s dull hysteria,
the sluggish insanity of our vacuous sublime.
What little’s possible remains beyond
these old familiarities of time and space.
Squeezed-out tubes of Quick Tan
litter the public beaches. The off-season approaches,
the ghost of something now nothing.
Summer’s mermaids slough their swimsuits
now that summer’s ended – co-eds now,
returned to Winston-Salem.
There are vacancies here. The whole
unfurnished, shell-shocked scenery’s for hire.
I am nobody, a veteran of this mental block,
unoccupied, at home in these extremes.
The weathercock’s clacking, metallic flight
sustains this emptiness. From the vane’s flaked spine
like a helmet on a stick.
What little’s possible
remains beyond these old familiarities.
The winged vane’s greening copper
grows greener as season washes into season.
Accustomed to our climate,
it flies nowhere,
points to nothing, for no reason.
A Spare for Jonathan
A car spells out a lifestyle,
conditions of travel, points of no return.
But when our purring hulks burn out
along some unmapped mile of backroad,
pile into trees or passers-by, we find the mechanistic truths
we live by expendable, spent
when our stalled machinery’s dials
tick down to zero, ignition’s flint
without the edge to drop, damp powder dead to spark,
like Rimbaud’s fly, drunk in the privy,
‘…enamoured of borage, dissolved by a sunbeam’,
we are never what we seem.
In the dark of our lives the olds dreads tower,
But in hearthlight, day or starlight, the height
of spars confuses the common view to praise.
Shrouds seems sails. Grounded, we seem to sail,
enough that those still landlocked hazard,
Jonathan, by shipload, by carload, the vanity of cars,
we die, into hell’s seas, or totalled along lanes
on maps we’ve never seen.
It’s the trying breaks us, makes us run, the posthumous rescue
after mean reckonings have failed, plaques
for something we didn’t really do,
how we lost control, what availed.
A car spells out a lifestyle.
In a fifth of rye we killed
we dreamed a league of roads, hell and back…
back? Rather tried, and in that, died.
My brain’s blood sours in its cells.
Hell’s nearer. We were taught, ‘When a poem stops
the reader should go through the windshield.’
When we died…
A car spells out a lifestyle; walking’s nearer,
footfall of the ghost. Everywhere, breath is wreckage.
Though out its rust, out of loss, against the final No,
our thumbs still cocked,
slash the air for rides.
Homage to Gracchus
Last things: it’s an old lie.
The fanjet’s groaning hydraulics
braking my night flight in Newark,
my last Camel hissing down the Men’s Room flush.
I slouch in the West Terminal Bar and Grill,
soaking ale, thumb-nailing
soggy scabs of labels in the ashtray.
I am between flights,
waiting for a lift in weather.
Waiting for a lift… outside, the cabs
crawl curbward for their fares, a scene
excerpted from a Gothic tale, headlights
boring through the fog.
If I wasn’t down to pocket change I’d make New York
or Metuchen in an hour, but everyone
I know there’s in Vermont.
Everyone is someplace else than here, and me.
Metuchen in a hour, a song
someone I knew there sang, a woman I made
and died a little leaving.
Just as well it’s here as Natchez,
Huntington or L.A., cities, all the same.
Last things? It’s an old lie, and all delay
towards whatever end I hope of making,
between flights, and still the cabs depart,
meters running, purposeful, exact.
Gracchus, patron of this loss, it’s all delay,
everywhere between arrival and departure.
It’s all delay,
and between breaths, tight
in this compass case of flesh,
the heart’s needle, that old lie
geared to exile, still whirs
across the face of misdirection.
Although a philosophical pose, the poetry begins to open out a little. Admittedly, there was still a box of tricks I found necessary to move from poem to poem. However, in the poems mentioned above, and in others written and published in this period but not discussed here, I began to assimilate more naturally the required elements that in time would further the development of my poetry writing.
During this time, I wrote and published poems at university, including placements in the Atlantic Monthly’s national poetry competition in three consecutive years. Other poems appeared in the Wesleyan University Press journal, Alkahest, and the poem “Maugarite à 21 Ans” was published in The Harvard Advocate. Even at this early stage the process of writing, and its direct corollary, publishing, delivered hard lessons and useful insights.
“Oz Verbatim” was the first poem, apart from incidental student work, to receive national attention in the United States. It was written in 1972 and published the following year in Poetry. The work has never been published in any subsequent collection. Reading the poem now, and assuming the persona of unreconstructed hippie, I recognise that, although a seminal work for me in the development of my writing, in that it crystallised much of what I had learned as a poet up to that time, I was aware too that it represented a door closing.
Potest qui sciens est multos stellarum effectus avertere,
quando ea noverit, ac seipsum ante eventum praeparare.
- Ptolemy, Centiloquium, aphorism v
1. Stranger in a Strange Land
Io fei giubbetto a me delle mie case.
- Dante, Inferno
Our stars survive in us, and we in them,
something of a Mother goose tradition.
Madonna of migrations, the flying wedge
of your highs pinpoints this poetry’s asylum.
a Canada of metaphors wheeling into Leo
on its moon’s North Node: Caput Draconis:
head of a dragon in the lion’s mouth… Cauda
Draconis: the stone quill of that fire-breather’s tail
guttering in Aquarius like Icarus in a nosedive.
gathered, my love. My time is gathered to be delivered
beyond the edge of a world flat as a cobra’s head,
through seasons unthought of, within itself
& without synonym, a third eye in the face of things.
A romance, perhaps. Myself the hero:
pride’s pivot between earth & heaven,
those callipers of fortune plotting cold slaughter.
Should that cross-eyed hurricane of ends
be found to tally, let it be in a figure
cast beyond earshot of the Star-Shepherd’s voice,
a black sheep of light wolfing the derelict thesaurus
of its fate, West, to the soul’s India…
to the footfall of dreams the dreamer
pacing the history of his sleep, this memorandum
of changelings, this log of the id’s Quixote
framed as the face of some were-animal
escaped from the canvas of Heironymous Bosch.
A romance, perhaps, word for word like me,
the half-nelson of nouns and the verb’s karate,
the fighting forms in every giant-killer’s primer –
as the story goes, a lesson in survival.
Though it’s not “Flash Gordon and the Witch Queen of Mongo”,
nor “The Mysterious Wu Fang”, nor is it
“Buck Rogers and the Planetoid Plot”, nor any of those
nostalgic fatigues , those spells
we’re tucked to dreams by as children, as vivid
as Van Gogh sunflowers in our listening.
What’s now in mind is magic of another nature:
the hoodoo of hags, boiled in the skulls of beheaded bandits,
a muse of sorts, with Trotsky’s dark eyes
and Mae West’s bronze and ginger of a voice
whispering of slippers turned into sand,
and so the clubfoot within it, that at midnight
pumpkin coaches become coffins,
Prince Charming now impotent, hung like a Papal Bull,
his cruelty the envy of the Borgias.
Not the foreplay of ineffectual perversions
(what’s gone before going on forever)
after the happily-ever-afters
memory remains its own biographer,
patron of perpetual epilogues.
This the lame know, from the shoebox of their lives,
that moral and irony are one.
This the lonely, heart’s lepers, remember,
that the moral of the story is the story itself,
one within the other, a five child in the narrative womb –
as such, a Krishna directive, through umbilical planes
a defense of self beyond its means to end: a voice
an awe as makeshift as tin-can telephones.
A greenhorn in this forest of rainbows,
this Mexican standoff of sleep
I only half believe I’ll walk away from,
somewhere between childish games and God,
in the wake of the Rorschach rains
I’ve threaded the eye of distance with departures,
for what ever it is I’m coming to,
dressed within an inch of my life,
passing without arms from ambush to ambush,
menaced by enemies now become judges, minds
as compact as the breath in a native’s blowpipe,
or Cromwells in drag, playing Napoleon
to their own Robespierre, God-driven to the edge
of the headman’s axe, where the shadow of the law
tiptoes as softly as a child:
conform, or be driven from the land,
as one version of the story goes.
what have I come to, for what have I gone?
Never ask after this circling within me,
this headwater precipice where even death,
tiny dancer, jigs for its life.
I hang from the tall grain of myself, nailed by cold there,
the spine of a snowflake breaking wavelike within me.
I am a thief of absence, a macramé of exits,
A star in the water where the Christ-fish rises,
and brother, I am calling, brother,
I am your poem, a blank page revised into a voice.
I am the frog-prince, rising through myself
like a Channel swimmer surfacing at Calais.
A romance, perhaps, or turn in a dark wood,
with no favor, no pardon save my own asked now:
walk only where I walk.
In the underground of who we are
I am talisman against the ghosts
claiming your footprints as their own.
Do not ask for light::
flies sleep in the heads of matches.
I am headkeeper here, where prophecy lies coiled
like Moses serpent in a staff of flame,
a banshee in a hypo, waiting to arise
and scale the anger of the instant
as a tendon of spirit flexing through our flesh:
strength to scarecrows, to tin men
and beast-kings grown cowardly, heart and faith
should we happen upon our Grendel, Ming the Merciless,
black-hats in general or, perhaps, ourselves.
2. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Lord Protector of my ecstasies:
to love, dread and serve
the voice that is three stars.
A shift in signs, form flows as the will commands.
What’s pride in private men being in princes
the wisest distance, the bluebook of changes
contains no pedigrees but those of wanderers –
alpha and omega of a star’s calligraphy,
the decoded blood Morse of heartbeats,
life lines in the hands of clocks
traced to the dark velocities of the bone.
These means are their own end, aftermath
a simple subtraction of prefaces, like the schoolboy
Bonaparte, in the back of his exercise book
scribbling, “St Helena: a small island.”
Lesson in optics…
The refraction of a life, I am the state
and instrument of my own collapse, not as before,
elsewhere, but now without honor, without order ,
by blood deposed and beached upon antiquities within me,
sunspots mottling the backs of my hands,
and a beggar’s bowl where my chest once rose
like a Renaissance after a blackout of an age.
The powdered horns of unicorns,
lights dust the eye of space, and sleep be my vehicle,
to ride the solar winds bareback, to hotwire Andromeda,
I have arrived to pass, alone,
into the absolute elsewhere of an empty mirror,
the glass there green: a hazel switch, spell-grained.
I move in time, fused to the Dog Star,
loping to where time was, beyond zodiac,
beyond the Catherine Wheel of fortune.
Will, be, be it all,
closing on the ghost treed solitary in the field.
Shapeshifter, no simile for the thing
but the thing itself – a cleaver to a chopping block
or figure-eight onto its side… descent of lightning,
I am the appetite of the animal I touch,
the ratio of its eye: one: one: one.
Moral of relations…
Perfect is what’s said of the work of stars,
time be gathered in the marrow of the axis
all poles are burning to – sulphur my father,
my mother quicksilver, myself rocked in the wind’s body.
Wonders, wonders, this is my remembering,
and what I’m remembered by.
Past and future perfects, I am a note to myself.
From my wrists there are dark verbs growing,
from the reckonings of those actions
moons rising round and full.
About my waist, mystery snakes
to devour the secret of itself.
I am the novice, and the lesson of the novice.
The giver of lessons, I am a tree, cloud-rooted.
Talking-book; distances my leaves, my walking papers.
3. Days of Grace, Five-Finger Exercise
Causatum primum esse creatum primum
Principium omnium creaturarum
Continens in se creaturas
- Anonymous, from a 12th c Hermetic MS
House of cards, house of mirrors, dog days for heroes
framed by the window of the wind, name-droppings
and shadow plays upon the panes: be clear, be clear,
our story sails with the evening tide
and we’ll have no one but ourselves
to talk to then,
our voices ingrown as coffin nails.
In this place which is always turning,
this face I seem always to be turning to,
I am suspended on the verge of presences within me,
like snapdragons in the window box
touching and touching beneath their soil –
dragonflies, perhaps, coupling
as nimbly as pickpockets shaking hands.
I am here, in and because of you alive, love,
thief of my absence:
the Queen of Pentacles at the upright eighty-eights,
the god-roots tapped, and from her palms
lights spinning along the keys
as slowly as starfish across their space of sand.
Her notes, the shadows of giants
like rows of dominos toppling
through the rooms of this house, this face, this verb:
the magic will pass from everything but them.
Time be gathered,
there’s not long, there’s never long enough,
else turn in the world’s place,
slowly, so slowly, as if to turn a corner.
Last words, their deliverance their message,
in the care of the Page of Cups dispatched:
he will tell you nothing, word for word…
an end of names, and dignities,
and whatsoever is of the earth.
Time and its sorceries be gathered,
the garden of the iris is a pod of Edens –
moon of wonder, moon of the wolf
through the moss of my thumb, climbing,
through the green window of the nail, climbing.
The magic will pass from everything but this.
Beneath my skin, shapes begin to tide:
I am alive in their rising,
a little on the dark side.
Previously in this essay, reference has been made to ‘juvenilia’, where the verse could be read as part of an important developmental process. Apart from those writings so-noted, there were other poems written at this time that also occupied the halfway house between youthful verse and more mature writing. The provenance of the poems that follow, taken from workbooks of the time and never published, demonstrates the practical aspects of these labours.
“History as Parallax” touches on many of the themes present in “Oz Verbatim”. It is not dated in the workbook, but its style suggests its links to the former poem, and might be read as a postscript to that other writing.
History as Parallax
Blood, bone, and hinge of scale,
from the flashpoints of claw
to the rim world of each nostril,
a prophecy, poised sleek as steam…
by sword, sling, or lance, a cipher for the hero
standing where he has always stood,
before the lair that was always empty,
the drumhead of darkness he trembles to approach
as prefigured in the fields of faith –
the face of the beast a patchwork of lichens,
shaking sleep from its limbs,
nosing the air.
Earth and its others abiding,
these are the lives, and these the symbols
of the life he dreams: the courtyards
where wanderers are provided for,
and the far countries
where melons ripen under willows,
but there is no strength in his thighs,
and the walking comes hard.
On the workbook page following the above poem, two further pieces – the first, untitled, a scratch-written note, and the second, with the working title, “Fat Man with Surname” – seem to float away even as they are read.
…more of myself appearing,
each day, more than enough,
placing my hand upon water
I touch the silence
suspended from a place of light,
and know nothing
can stay down so long,
nothing hold its breath
(Fat Man with Surname)
The bleached walls of villas not rising
past the vertebrae of roof tiles,
though so white they seem to,
and so seeming
lend themselves to other landscapes.
If there were ever choices,
either to witness or admonish less,
they were not mine:
the moon moves too easily away,
the tides strung thin as seines
along deserted beaches.
The eye alone accommodates,
whether through sea clouds bracing the horizon,
or on clear slopes falling towards the sun.
And though I cannot see
for the slow gull’s arc of wings
the sails of small boats at harbor,
through the astounded postures
and pale islands of my own breath,
there is a name I answer to,
lean, and hard-won.
This next poem, and the last in this retrospective, was written in 1972, according to workbook notes.
I have written earlier of my attempts to come to terms with the early death of my father in 1967, and have noted the poems that played a role in the process at the time. “Acts” is one of the few workbook poems to have been developed more comprehensively, but for which I never sought publication. It represents for me a more circumspect reflection on the deeply personal and yet universal experience of generations passing.
Mad diary weather on a storybook coast:
fahrenheit saucering at the temples, I drowse,
a fat canary in this cat’s eye of heat.
Only now do the days allow blood
to present itself as blood, creaturing the blanks
of an Old World map, marking time
by the movement of sweet oils and spices in a bowl,
the tropics depressed, hurricane-spindling,
years from the winter of my father’s death.
Through the stunned dark of that vegetable waltz
secret worlds disintegrate in whispers,
there being spaces here, and space enough
to bury us, but only one,
only one at a time
in the likeness of these days,
steady in their praise of promise
that we do not die more than once,
and for any longer than we are worth
where memory sides with purpose, ourselves
lying long and weak with final, unloving laughter.
Skies a piranha-froth of clouds, the heat
In the ghost of a wind along the trades
I drift, face down in a dream,
given to bravadoes now, and grace of action
rolling seaward on a wave.
If only there was not so much of time
in distance, so much of distance
in everything we said…
spoken over graves
marked by children weeping,
and by the widow striking her palms,
as when the rigging strains against the spars,
the sea is thunder, and squall winds
bury our voices in the stars.
The title of this autobiographical essay, "Neophyte", is sampled from a section title of the long poem published in Poetry in 1974,"The American Book of the Dead". The essay’s title might be best understood as that of the initiate, the Tarot's Fool, an idea which appealed to me in that these poems offered something transitional that could not be fixed to one influence or genre. In time, these experiments and experiences in writing and publishing were realised in the book cycles Blackwater Quartet and Relic Environments Trilogy.
This essay began with an evocation of youthful, poetic aspirations. In 1924, in Veinte poemas de amor, a twenty-year-old Pablo Neruda wrote,
Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?
Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.
This compression of being and non-being informs our sense of mystery and expectation, whether in poetry written in a back-street flat on a rainy Monday, or at an open window above a sunlit piazza. We revisit our lives through memory, and it may be that one’s sense of self, of an emergent, personal identity, may be simply this innate apprehension of Orphic codes and patterns, refracted across time. As Heraclitus noted, you never enter the same river twice.