Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lightly in the Good of Day



Bob Hart’s first full-length book of poems, published by Bench Press, is evocative work: in an almost magical sense of that word for the poems read like conjurations. As Jee Leong Koh notes in an effective and thoughtful introduction, Bob is a Robin, a Robin Goodfellow, a Puck of Midsummer. True, he is also a kind of Prospero, who as performance poet/mage understands the dramatic nature of words.

Writing in his introduction to this volume (by a mature poet that has the feel of a Selected Poems), Jee Leong Koh makes three important observations. Firstly, Bob Hart is a poet of the “Naughty nothing number zero”. Secondly, he is a trickster. Thirdly, his language recalls that of Dylan Thomas. All of these are interesting perspectives.

From an Hermetic view-point, Puck is The Fool of The Tarot. This card bears the Zero. It is the nothingness, the 0-like egg of Orpheus, from which creativity begins. And that creativity is a place of cancellation, where positive and negative meet. This is, perhaps, the major tone that a reader feels in Lightly in the Good of Day. Light and shadow meet in balance. The poetry contains a modern, metaphysical wit, which sees the darkness of life. Yet, this is done with a lightness of touch and dance of intellect:

You again might be
So kindly sympathetic with the Deity
You’d go one on one
With the awesome quantity of Nothingness
To sustain a Circumstance
For God’s eternity.
(Ludwig and Emily for Instance, p.28).

A nice touch, to see Donne’s circling compasses, Blake’s circle of containment, re-imagined as a “Circumstance”.

Art can be perceived through many connected words: artisan, artistry, artistic. The Trickster is known through a more subtle connection—articulated. S/he is a player with the articulations of the body, the bones and how they fall; with the skeleton of syntax and the rattle of words on the page. The poems in Lightly in the Good of Day are fuly aware of this. Their syntax swings and tumbles acrobatically. Fortunately, they never become the dreary word poetry so beloved by certain quarters in the USA. Bob Hart’s poetry sparkles within its veils, so the poem, like a cloud “is a shimmersuit for the naked sun” (The Well Showered Woman Auto-Racer, p.14).

Hermeticism has provided some vital metaphors for criticism. Bloom’s connection of Kabbalah and criticism is one major example. Most striking is Bloom’s claim that a poet is often engaged in a struggle with another poet, with chains from which s/he must break free, often by imitation, then transcendence. More often, with contemporary poetry, I am reminded of the alchemist in his laboratory with shelves of bottles, tinctures, aromas and tastes. Poetry, as in Bob Hart’s, isn’t a wrestling with any particular cosmic angel, like Jacob, so much as a blending of forms into something new. The poems in this volume are reminiscent of the early Dylan Thomas. They hold a rich surrealism. But none clearly echo any of his poems. (This isn’t a metaphysical reaction as in the poetry of Vaughan and Herbert). If anything the poems are closer to the disciples of Thomas, poets such as W.S.Graham:

Let me measure my prayer with sleep as an
Infant of story in the stronghold eyelid
Left by a hedge with a badge of campions…

(Let Me Measure, p.22 Collected Poems).

Participation in that petal’s flush
echoes blushingly in self:
song; heard caused to bloom in me—
(In that Petal Flesh, p.10)

In other words, Bob Hart writes within a tradition of pastoral and metaphor and rhetoric— but a light rhetoric, one distilled, like Graham. In the poetry many echoes appear, the profound simplicity of Emily Dickinson, the “zingy and swift” diction of e.e. cummings, the urbane jazz tone of Langston Hughes, even the energetic delicacy found in the better Futurist poets such as Ardengo Soffici. But the poems are very much in the voice of the poet! Sometimes, the world of fairy and Ariel jars with this reader, but the poems in the main are exciting and original. They are translucent visions of human feeling...double rainbows in which light is inverted...devilishly good...“iridescences”.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Into Suez by Stevie Davies: Posting the Truth.


In a short story from 1998, “My Father’s Greatcoat”, Stevie Davies asks a question: “How did he become so maternal , my Forces father?” (A Second Skin, p.97). The greatcoat is viewed as a symbol of comfort, a secure and fixed point amidst endless “postings” from Egypt to Germany. In her latest novel, Into Suez, Stevie Davies returns to this world of movement and “postings”, to Egypt, into the canal of imperialistic dreams, which the novel reads as a metaphor for communication between people and countries.

The term “postings” suggests many things within this novel. It indicates the movement/transporting of the Roberts family from Wales to Egypt. On a deeper level, it recognizes a life in flux, how all the characters within the novel are in search of a place/post to root themselves; a quest deeply felt by the volatile Mona Serafin-Jacobs, whose married name unites the unpositioned worlds of Palestine and Israel. At a subterranean level, it is a sign of Hermes, god of communication, who carries postings/communications between the living and the dead. Ailsa Roberts, living her life between birth and death, peace and war, witnesses this as she delivers a baby after visiting the Egyptian tombs of death.

In one of her scholarly works of criticism, The Idea of Woman in Renaissance Literature, Stevie Davies traces the myth of Eleusis and how it became the field of creativity for Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. Demeter’s loss of Persephone offered a fertile myth for Renaissance writers, a deep image which could be eternally re-worked in contemporary stories. The myth became a “greatcoat” of motherhood in which male writers could find security. In the Rites of Eleusis, it is Hermes who guides the initiates between dark and light, as he did when he carried posts from Demeter into Hades in search of Persephone. Subconsciously, it is this myth which inspires Stevie Davies within Into Suez. The novel splits into a double narrative in which Egypt is experienced first through the mother-daughter bond of Ailsa-Nia and again as Nia, the lost daughter, strives to embrace memories of her mother. Stevie Davies, writing with the quicksilver skill of Hermes, fuses a deep psychological narrative and a finely researched historical narrative. Like the great writers of the past, she spins her novel, taking the mothering myths into female hands.

Into Suez, is a dazzling novel. It poses a great question: how do you maternalize patriarchy? Can the Father learn from the wisdom of the Mother? And all of this is investigated through animated narrative, exact description and convincing characterization. Stevie Davies writes in the tradition of May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend-Warner and H.D.: she combines strong intellectual characterisation with mythical narrative and intense psychological awareness.


This is a novel of subtlety. And such should be realised. Some of the novel’s recent reviewers have focused on the hard-hitting nature of the language inside Into Suez. And yes, that is true. Stevie Davies does not avoid the language of patriarchy: its violence and racism. But this is a finely crafted novel and the brutality of war is balanced by gentle, lyrical writing. There is one point of crisis when Nia is building sandcastles (a symbol of Empire if ever there was one). Her father is speaking:

“And you know there is plenty of sand, “ he added, “ Out there. And most of it in my ears and nose and mouth.”
“Orifices!” said Nia.
“Nia!”
“What?”
“Where did you get that?”…
“Mami,” said it.
“Ah.”
He had no answer to that.

Nia stops the mouth of Joe with the mind and language of her mother. Into Suez is written by an author who desires to close the mouth of the fatherland and its endless wars. And this can only be done by women who dare to speak, by those who take off the scold's bridle and dare to dissent. Into Suez is a courageous novel, a work full of heart, one which touches the pulse of the common reader, reminding her or him that literature is written to change perceptions.

Monday, April 05, 2010

A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland.


On two occasions, Maitland evokes the words of Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea quartet in A Book of Silence. She does so in a quasi-mystical way, referring to the magical silence held within names and the roaring silence that follows battling the natural elements. In reviewing A Book of Silence for The Literary Review, Ursula le Guin is anything but mystical in her approach to the book, noting the following:


I hope I am not quibbling with her generous intent in saying that she seems a bit inclined to overlook the part privilege can play. She knows how foreign a chosen solitude may seem to many people, but I’m not sure she has considered how simply unattainable it is to most.
It is a fair point. A Book of Silence is a finely written meditation on silence and one that brought this reader moments of quietude. Even so, the book, like its fascinations with explorers and adventurers, is weakened by the fact that so much of the “silence” described by Maitland is outer—in a real world—one that has to be bought by privilege.

A Book of Silence is a wonderful, imaginative work. It rises far above the ubiquitous DIY meditation manual of New Age philosophy. The book is truly a meditation on aspects of silence, detailed, eccentric and far-ranging. In spirit, the book echoes the Renaissance and elaborate writers such as Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. But there is always this annoying sense that silence is not for the common reader, rather for the person who can afford to rent a cottage on Skye, or visit the Sinai desert, or build their own house with a moor of silence through the window.

One of the most interesting lines of enquiry followed by Sara Maitland is that silence is not negative, is more than an absence of sound. Indeed, silence is anything but a vacuum: it is a density. Also, given her occupation as a writer, the author of this work courageously observes that writing and silence are enemies: a writer needs silence to work, but entering fully into silence, that space beyond words is death for any author. Reading and writing, in our present cultural climate, are silent and “deeply private activities” (p.150) states Maitland in a central section on reading. And she goes on to speculate about the reading experience: reading, for her, isn’t an encounter with silence; such tends to be an active, inner battle with an authorial point-of-view or a passive surrender to an inner fictional world that sucks life out of her. I recognise both these states of reading, but, as is the case with many fascinating sections of A Book of Silence, the author doesn’t consider the whole spectrum. Yes, reading The Observer on a quiet Sunday frequently turns into a blood bath…rage with the world…anger with political deceptions…poorly written book reviews. Yes, reading What is the What over many nights before sleep was a sapping experience. But Maitland ignores that mode of writing, poetry, which more than any other deals with silence. At the close of “Silence and the Gods”, Sara Maitland alludes to a new method of reading, one that is slow, meditative, personal and in tune with the quality of words. Isn’t that the reading experience that comes with poetry? On this, she is regrettably silent.

At one point, during her reflections on reading, Sara Maitland quotes St Benedict: “a cloister without books is a fort without an armoury.” She takes the statement at face-value, books belong to silence, without observing the secondary idea suggested by St Benedict. The cloister of silence is a fort and books are its protection against evil. These words resonate for me at the moment. They touch upon what I see as central to the link between silence and reading. Recently, I lost a close friend to a manipulative religious church in Malawi. In a sudden conversion, he exchanged his love of poetry for Bible classes, for a church that is hostile to individual creative expression, such that all texts “mislead”, as he informed me, “from life”…except The Bible. For 40 days, like Maitland’s Christ-like excursion into the silence of the isle of Skye, I have pondered this, retiring more and more from anger and grief into a place of intense loss, trying to find silence, balance, an end to conflicting narratives. The question I have been answering is why he decided to accept my idea of Hell: a Bible class of untrained readers being rhetorically initiated into a single interpretation of text and life by a prejudiced guide. What allowed this? My final answer has to do with silence. He lacked silence within himself. He did not have the cloistered fortress within him, a self-awareness developed through reading, to resist the Devil with silent defiance.

The ultimate evaluation of A Book of Silence should be on Sara Maitland’s terms. It did not lead me into a noisy quarrel with her ideas. I found her ideas gently explored. It did not draw me into a kind of Romantic escapism that emptied life out of me, leaving me frustrated and empty, accepting the fact that I live in the heart of a noisy city where silence is rare. It helped me, in a quiet, medial manner, to perceive that sanity is related to the sacred silence, whatever that is, within an individual; and that silence should be cultivated…even taught…and meditative reading is a form of hermetical protection, a sealing off, against noisy, predatory forces in the world. "All silence," as Maitland's anatagonist/Job's Satan says to her, "is not waiting to be broken.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Silent Library


There are some dark and intimate passages in The Glass Bead Game. Unsurprisingly, one of the most intense (bordering on homosocial desire) takes place within a library. The silence of that place carries the weight of attraction. Silence is a characteristic of mind: memory envisaged as a library. In his evocative work, The Library at Night, Manguel captures the magic of silence:

Like Machiavelli, I often sit among my books at night. While I prefer to write in the morning, at night I enjoy reading in thick silence, when triangles of light from the reading lamps split my library shelves in two. Above, the high rows of books vanish into darkness; below sits the privileged section of the illuminated titles. (p.193).

The library is a silent place where books are stars, and the reader is an astrologer seeking patterns in darkness. Manguel remembers a protective silence.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Silence of Glass.


In Chapter 3 of The Glass Bead Game, the maturing Joseph Knecht seeks the Elder Brother who has retreated to a world of meditative silence in the Bamboo Grove.The scene, set by Hesse, it almost a type for the garden of silence:

A few goldfish swam around in the still, crystalline water. Fragile and peaceful, the feathery crowns of the bamboos swayed on their strong, slender shafts. The sward was punctuated by stone slabs carved with inscriptions in the classical style....They greeted each other briefly, drank tea, and sat listening in the matutinal stillness to the sound of the small jet of water from the fountain, a melody of eternity (pp.117-119).

Silence is linked with morning, with firstness, and from that connection to beginnings it finds itself conjoined to endings. Silence is that something beyond words. Eventually, it is revealed by the Yi King, as an action of intense enquiry:

The sage sat cross-legged on the floor of reed matting, for a long time silently examining the result of the augury on the sheet of paper.

The hexagram revealed is Meng, the fourth image, an image that glosses what Hesse has previously described: still waters. Hesse describes the whole scene imaginatively, as a dance of fingers and foretelling. But he is silent on one detail: the moving line within the hexagram. As Elder Brother permits Knecht to stay, only one interpretation is possible. The fifth line in Ken, the top trigram, must be a moving line: youthful energy is accepted by elder control to allow mental progress. For Knecht (and for Hesse), silence is a form of active stillness, a deafness to words, in which understanding develops. And the shadow of the hexagram, Huan (made by the moving line, such that Yin/_ _ in the fifth place becomes Yang/__ ), implies something else about this garden of silence. It is a place in which the solid heart (Elder Brother) meets fluent devotion/"devout emotion" (Joseph Knecht).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Silence as weapon.


In his calm denunciation of the elderly Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I, the young Prince Hal refers to the art of lying: "For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,/I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have." Prince Hal, previously imagined as "feathered Mercury", god of trickery and silence, reveals his true nature at this point in the play. Like the hermetical trickster/Hermes, he plays a part. He recognises that part-playing is a form of dissembling, of lying. With light-hearted wit characteristic of Hermes (god of inspired breath) he punctures the wind-bag Falstaff. The prince refuses to argue: is content to add false approval to a lie. Echoing the god who led The Graces in their dance, he quietly steps on Falstaff. A divine liar accepts a common liar. In this quiet confrontation, which edges towards silence and breakdown of a friendship, Hal exposes patriarchy, the rule of the Father, the Father of Misrule.

Lying, Silence and Patriarchy fit well together. They exist through the "happiest terms". In her book of essays, On Lies, Secrets and Silence, Adrienne Rich recreates Shakespeare's view-point for a contemporary readership: "Lying is done with words and also with silence." (p.186). Patriarchy, the rule of the stiff-upper lip, which produces the bridled woman (and man) allows only narrow, ignorant view-points. It worships scripture rather than script, denies that individuals have a right to play with multiple identities. Patriarchy, believing in the power of (false) silence, convinces men and women to use silence as a weapon. Silence wounds. Women, being told that thought and emotion cannot go together, accept the single-minded thrusts of patriarchy. They learn the amnesia of self. False words are spoken as truths. Truths are left unsaid in silence. Hermes the Mystagogue is perverted: the silent, guarded, inner currents of self-initiation are denied such that individuals use a silence (more deadly than words) to wound. War is waged unintelligently. Instead of the finger to the lips, a sign of inner truth and deep breath, the patriarchal warrior cannot get beyond a single, middle finger thrust pointlessly into empty air. Men are as much damaged by patriarchy as women. The man who uses silence to destroy friendship, who twists words to push a friend towards silence, who ignores his own inner needs as much as he ignores his friend, isn't a man. He is a child of patriarchy, an individual who has been conned into believing that divorcing thought from emotion is strength: he lies himself into silence where there is no grace, just self-deception, no hermetical redemption, just self-damnation.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Silence...after silence.


"And so faced with these periods of solitude, the topoanalyst starts to ask questions: Was the room a large one? How, too, in these fragments of space, did the human being achieve silence? How did he relish the very special silence of the various retreats of solitary day-dreaming?" Bachelard, writing in The Poetics of Space, creates an assistant for psychonalysis: the topoanalyst who specialises in the relationship between intimacy and space, the rooms of memory in which private acts are inhibited and re-lived. Silence characterises these spaces. Bachelard looks beyond biography (the obsession of our current times...and novels based on time-bound narrative) to a deeper level of experience and writing, insisting that Hermeticism and Hermeneutics must embody more than "conjuctive temporal tissue". As a discipline, it should speculate upon "the spaces of our intimacy". Six weeks of silence has created many intimate thoughts and feelings.