Monday, November 30, 2015

Double Vision in Barnfield's Homoerotic Poetry (2)

Among the London poets of the 1590s, pastoral epithets were established and shared: Spenser as Colin, Drayton as Rowland, and Barnfield as Daphnis. Leo Daugherty has argued convincingly that the Ganymede spoken of by Barnfield/Daphnis was none other than William, Sixth Earl of Derby, who inherited the poetic title on the death of his brother, Ferdinando (William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield and the Sixth Earl of Derby (p.13). The family’s heraldic crest bears an eagle to connect them to the Ganymede myth. The Derby family were closely connected to hermetical movements in the C16, most noticeably to Dr John Dee, who had been the astrological and political advisor to Elizabeth I. Though Barnfield dedicates Cynthia to William, saying “small is the gift”, he must have been aware of how large was the connection. By linking Cynthia to the Sixth Earl, he connects the book to Ganymede (his love) and hermetic political movements in Elizabethan England—which is where the poetical vision begins.

“Cynthia” is composed around an elaborate conceit that Peele had used in The Arraignment of Paris (1584). At the close of his dramatic masque (performed in front of the Queen), Majestie (Juno/Hera), Love (Venus/Aphrodite), Vertue (Minerva/Athene) refuse the golden ball/orb of power and present the gift to Elizabeth. (In Astraea, pp.63-4, Yates notes Barnfield’s imitation of this theme). This poetic conceit was also visually present in a painting by Eworth (1569) hung at Whitehall Palace. Elizabeth, as Paris, as three-in-one, a trinity harmonizing all of the goddesses, maintains the orb for herself.

Using hermetical number symbolism, Stanzas 1-15 of “Cynthia”, form a ladder of ascent (as in The Psalms) that culminate in a vision of the triple-formed Elizabeth, the Spenserian Faerie Queene who possesses Power, Loveliness and Wisdom. Stanza 16 celebrates Elizabeth as the Sun and Stanza 17 as a “peerelesse Prince”. Unlike the visual conceit of Eworth, Barnfield dwells on the androgynous nature of Elizabeth who is both the Idea of physical pulchritude in woman and of mental wisdom in men. Such is an orthodox Spenserian view (Britomart, Belphoebe, and even Una in whom Sylvanus see his youthful male beloved, Cyparissus). “Cynthia” is a vision of political order in the key of chastity. The twenty sonnets that follow are homoerotic, but also in the key of Virgo. This is introduced by the Latin emblem for the whole volume: Quod cupio, nequeo, “What I desire, I cannot have.”

In taking the pseudonym, Daphnis, Barnfield draws upon classical Greek myth. He is the male laurel, Apollo’s tree, a shepherd son of Hermes, who offended Eros and Aphrodite and was consequently cursed with unrequited love. He is the homoerotic poet whose desire cannot be consummated. His Ganymede isn’t the Ganymede of traditional mythologizing, but a beautiful boy, as Sonnet 9 explains, whom was created by Diana and Venus—a contained lover wholly “to chastity inclinde.” The twenty sonnets place homoerotic desire in the context of a world where they cannot be physically realised, yet, as Neo-Platonism claimed, they allow for a poetic birth out of chastity (just as Elizabeth’s reign as Gloriana was born from her chastity).

The twenty sonnets, as already, said parallel the twenty Spenserian Stanzas of Barnfield's Gloriana vision. They also consciously open where "Cynthia" closes: Beauty, Majestie and Virtue quarrel over who shall possess Ganymede. Beauty/Love/Venus demands his lips, his cheeks, his eyes and  hair; Majesty/Hera requests his brow, chin, countenance and stature; Virtue asks only for his Modesty and wins. If Barnfield had been a cultured Neo-Platonist, he would have known, as Ficino and Bruno argued via the myth of The Judgement of Paris, that a trinity should not be split, but remain as a dynamic whole. Virtue triumphs in Sonnet 2 and in Sonnet 3, Barnfield dismisses Virtue in favour of Beauty/Love, for he wishes for "loues faire eie" alone (line 14). Sonnet 4 diverges further still from the trinitarian vision of "Cynthia" as Barnfield recognises that Ganymede, unlike Elizabeth, is a sun with night, so does not dwell in continual glory. The Barnfield sonnets progress towards a homoerotic love for Ganymede, under the guidance of one goddess, Venus. 

The sensual core of the Sonnets commences with Sonnet 6. This has been described disparagingly as a wet-dream poem. Such a judgement is somewhat adolescent itself. This is a young poet writing within the conventions of his time, not a C20 confessional poet... Sonnet 6 describes the rejuvenating effect of sexual release. And Sonnet 7 recognises the beauty and fear contained within desire. Barnfield's swan on the Thames is stock imagery from Drayton's The Shepherd's Garland (1593), but there are some gentle, personal touches. Ganymede is a "pruned" lover, like a swan that has oiled its feathers with its beak, and his feathers/hairs are massaged and decorative-- the imagery runs beautifully into Neptune washing the lover's feet with splashes of water. An extreme modern reading by Charles explains Barnfield's fear, at this point, as one of "outing" ("Barnfield's Lovers Discourse", The Affectionate Shepherd, Celebrating Richard Barnfield, p.179). Thetis, being heterosexual, will divulge the gay love between Ganymede and Daphnis. There is little, however, within the text to support this modern interpretation. Barnfield states that he does not fear Neptune (even though he loved the boy Pelops, which is implied) nor Apollo who desired the boy Hyacinthus, nor Sylvanus who loved Cyparissus. They would understand his desire. His fear is Thetis and the currents of heterosexuality. Ganymede's love wounds like the spear of Achilles (Sonnet 5) and Achilles' mother could open up dangerous tributaries.

The sonnets are unswerving in their aim towards pleasure. They refuse to pull back into a refined, distant worship of Neo-Platonic Mind and Courtiership. The target is nature's "lips ripe strawberries in Nectar wet" (Sonnet 17). In making this choice, Daphnis must accept that he draws further away from the political context of "Cynthia". That distance is measured in Sonnet 15 (a climactic point, as in "Cynthia") where Barnfield notes that divine males loved boys and did not look down on pastoral swains whereas the Court and intellect are "infected" by pride. Chastity has become hard-heartedness. In sonnets 16 and 17, Barnfield focuses on the problematical nature of language in the Sonnets. 

Weening to kisse his lips, as my loue's fee's (fees?)
I feel but Aire, but Aire to bee him.
Thus with Ixion, kisse I clouds in vaine.
Thus with Ixion, feele I endles pain.
(ll. 11-14)

Punning on "fees" as expenses and intercourse, Barnfield senses that his sexual metaphors are no more than deceptions--like the duped Ixion, he is left penetrating a cloud-shaped Hera/Majesty--and thus acquiring a life of "endles paine". Even so, in Sonnet 17, an alternative pleasure is imagined in which the beautiful body, exceeding Apollo and Adonis, might create a beautiful body of words to be loved. Eventually this to-and fro-ing comes to a point of exhaustion.

The “Ode” that follows the two sequences describes the death of Daphnis. Here, Barnfield's model is Theocritus' Idylls 1. An unknown speaker finds Daphnis weeping for his beloved. "Fancy" pulls Daphnis towards his boy love and "Love" pulls him towards a nymph. Consequently, he abandons Ganymede for a triple-formed Eliza (Beauty, Majesty and Wisdom). It is a surrender to Elizabethan times, one that requires he give up a fanciful desire for Ganymede (homoeroticism) for what love commands: heterosexuality. His acceptance of that Idea leads to a broken heart. Using the pastoral mirror of The Golden Age, the Daphnis poems, in Cynthia, are an exploration of same sex desire in Elizabethan England.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Double Vision in Barnfield's homoerotic poetry (1)

Reading habits are changing, as Alberto Mangual observes in The Traveller, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor. The World Wide Web takes the reader on a journey of many roads, often at speed...and (I would add) frequently down the same paths with repeat information. One of the problems with the World Wide Web is the ease of reproduction: material is copied and pasted from one site to another such that errors multiply. Like Spencer's wandering Red Cross Knight, the reader finds that killing Error does not stop the spawning. Before attempting to review Barnfield's Cynthia, it is necessary to remove some of the misconceptions about  the author and his work in general. Nothing new, I know will be said, but it is best to be on solid ground as regards biography and influences.

Richard Barnfield was baptised on June 13th, 1574, in Norbury, Staffordshire. As with Shakespeare, his date of birth is not known. Little time, however, passed between birth and baptism in the C16. Infant mortality was high, so parents were eager to have their child ready for Heaven. Two days intervened in the case of Elizabeth I. Richard Barnfield would have been born somewhere around June 10th, 1574. Astrologically, this would have made him a Gemini. As a follower of Spenser, who was well aware (as any learned person in Elizabethan England) of hermetical matters, Barnfield was born under the sign of the androgyne and twins. I would not wish to make too much of this fact, but it should be kept in mind as a reader considers Barnfield's concern with twinning and male to male love.

Two dates are given (across the internet) for Barnfield's death, 1620 and 1627. 1620 is correct. As Worrall pointed out in Notes and Queries (1992, pp. 170-1), the 1627 will, taken as evidence of Barnfield's death, was Barnfield's father's will. That same will has been used to create a certain prejudice against Barnfield: he married, had a son, Robert, and his poems, therefore, are little more than a literary pastoral game by a heterosexual poet. Not so. It should be added, as regards this line of prejudice, that even if Barnfield had married it would not have meant that the poetry was automatically some kind of posturing. Heterosexual marriage, then as now, was and is a convention that "gay" men undertake. Interestingly, the prejudice is forgotten when it comes to Shakespeare. He married, had two daughters and one son, yet The Sonnets are readily taken as masterpieces of male to male sexuality.

The Poetry Foundation has this to say about Barnfield: [he] "published Cynthia, modelling his collection—which includes a 20-sonnet sequence—after the poems of Spenser and Shakespeare." The mention of the "20-sonnet sequence" intimates an influence from Shakespeare's sonnets. Across the internet, there are many discussion that connect Barnfield's sonnets with those of Shakespeare. Such is unlikely. Recent discoveries have linked the Dark Lady of The Sonnets to Lucy Negro who was a prostitute-actor, notably mentioned in the 1594 Christmas entertainments. Her reputation spread through the rest of the decade. Prior to this connection, critics attributed sonnets 127-54 to the middle of the 1590s. Now, this seems to be likely. This only suggests a date of composition for these sonnets-- it doesn't suggest an audience date. Certainly, Shakespeare's "sugared-sonnets" were circulating among a literary elite in 1598, as Mere's mentions them. But The Sonnets were largely unknown until 1609. The idea that Barnfield was a diluter of Shakespeare is simply incorrect. If anything, Shakespeare built on Barnfield's work, so the influence works in the opposite direction to what is assumed across the internet. On a simple technical note, Barnfield's sonnets are not Shakespearean sonnets: use a different rhyme scheme and do not show the characteristic octet/sestet split. If Barnfield accessed any Shakespeare beyond the early plays, it would have been Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The strongest influence on Barnfield is Spenser; and this shows in Cynthia.

Barnfield was 20 years old when he wrote and published Cynthia, which opens with two sections that are drawn together in a third poem, "An Ode". "Cynthia" is a sequence of twenty Spenserian stanzas spoken by Barnfield's pastoral persona, Daphnis. The sonnets, as already said, number twenty and record Daphnis's love for Ganymede. "An Ode" describes how an unmentioned person finds Daphnis broken-hearted for his love of "a lasse" more beautiful than Ganymede. Numbers were often used to carry silent meanings in Renaissance poetry and the double use of twenty represents Barnfield, aged 20, split, like a halved androgyne, between two different visions. But before those visions are looked at, it is useful to set a context for the volume by discussing the framing of the poetry. 

Cynthia opens with an address to the reader. The author is Barnfield. He begins by acknowledging The Affectionate Shepherd (1594) as his work, disowns "two Books" that have been wrongly attributed, and then refers to licentious interpretations of his work. It has been said that Barnfield apologises for his "interested representation of homoerotic desire" (Norton, Rictor, "Pastoral Homoeroticism, p.6). In truth, Barnfield simply disassociates himself from the wrong readings (not stated overtly) and evokes classical precedent as his defence: Virgil's Eclogue II. At the close of his address. Barnfield makes it clear that the model for “Cynthia” is Spenser and his returning to Spenser is worth some careful thought.

As a student of Spenserian pastoral, Barnfield would have known the controversy surrounding E.K.'s gloss on the homoerotic element of the "January" eclogue in The Shepherd's Calendar (1579). Colin explains that he does not love Hobbinol, though Hobbinol loves him, and he is devoted to Rosalind. A mere two lines of unsensual verse

It is not Hobinol, wherefore I plaine.
   Albee my loue he seeke with daily suit
(Ianvarie, ll 55-56)

caused E.K to hear pederasty and defend Spenser, mainly via Plato. Rictor Norton repeatedly points out (in articles across the net and in print) that Webbe heard a similar note in the "June" eclogue  and this caused him to sneer,  in A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586), at Spenser's familiarity with Italian sodomy. If this were true, Spenser would be a dangerous model for Barnfield to use. In fact, in his Discourse, Webbe repeats that others have said that Spenser used "unsavoury love" in "June" and was aware of Italian sodomy, but all he hears in the eclogue is old friendship sacrificed to heterosexual love, as often happens to young men. By making “Cynthia” into "the first imitation of the verse of that excellent Poet Maister Spenser", Barnfield is consciously making a connection with the homoerotic element in English pastoral. And it is English pastoral, nor Virgilian Latin/Roman/Italian pastoral because Cynthia continues the imperial theme of Elizabethan England. There is no accident in how Spenser selects Spenser’s dangerous “April” eclogue as a major source. In this eclogue Hobbinol refers openly to his love for Colin, "on him was all my care and ioye" (l.23) and then sings, in Colin's absence, one of Colin's harmonius "lays". Hobbinol, the beloved, recreates his love with a song of "Eliza, Queene of Shepherdes all" ("April", l.34). Spenser sets Hobbinol’s nature inspired love of Colin as the context for a divine vision of Elizabeth I’s reign. This connection is revived in Cynthia. The first poem, “Cynthia” uses the Spenserian Stanza to overtly link Barnfield’s work with the political vision of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590), Books 1-3. The twenty sonnets show, as Spenser did with Colin and Hobbinol, the natural love connected to that political vision. Golden Age pastoral is used by Barnfield to connect the love of men to natural order, not unnatural lust.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Richard Barnfield's Cynthia

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, illustration for the Cynthia sonnets.
For various reasons, poetry volumes are frequently badly reviewed. As modern collections are loosely focused, reviewing habitually consists of picking out a few poems, saying why they are liked, and then adding some sort of value judgement on poetic themes and achievement. This method doesn't work for Renaissance volumes that are  planned with structural images, for they demand that a reader has a sense of unity and reference. Perhaps, there is more to Barnfield's Cynthia than obviously meets the eye. Next post will return to Barnfield's homoerotic works of 1595.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Notes on the Androgyne.

The main literary story of the androgyne comes from Plato’s Symposium (C4 BC) in a discourse by Aristophanes. Beings existed in three shapes, each being was double, man-man (solar), woman-woman (terra), man-woman/woman-man (lunar). The original beings were split by Zeus to curb their insolence. As a result, in search of an original wholeness, three sexualities emerged: men who sought men, women who quested for women, and men who yearned for women and women who desired men.  The androgynous lunar beings became heterosexuals.  In this literary myth, androgyneity is connected to heterosexuality alone.

The word "androgyne" entered the English language just before the Elizabethan period in 1552. Language, gender-biased as it is, placed man (andro) before woman (gyno). An androgyne was a being with male-female sex organs, a symbol of unity.By 1587, the word had transformed into abuse: an androgyne was a man who cultivated womanly looks, so stood not as a sign for heterosexuality but as one for homosexuality. The androgyne was reversed in 1807 to gynander with woman placed before man. It entered English as a biological term, just before the Victorian period, and has become a literary term and psychological concept for discussing strong female writers of the C19.

If Emily Bronte did not know Plato, she knew that facts about love that Plato elucidated…The artistic creation of a “male” by a woman may well result in the creation of a being of whom the artist might say ‘”he’s more myself that I am.”’ This might be termed…”the androgynous sensibility”, and yet that is not quite exact; “gynandrous” might be better… (Davies, Stevie, Emily Bronte: Heretic, p.198, Women's Press).

The noun gynander has not extended much into contemporary imagery. The androgyne, on the other hand, has mutated. A simple internet image search shows how the image has mutated: as an image where gender is hard to distinguish…male or female?

The androgyne has also become confused with transgender images. Carmen Carrera and Laith Ashley are transgender models, not androgynes. The same is true for Andrej Pejic.

In his poem, “On One who Affected an Effeminate Manner” (Demeter, 1889), Tennyson composed an epigram on the androgyne:

While man and woman still are incomplete,
I prize that soul where man and woman meet,
Which types all Nature’s male and female plan,
But, friend, man-woman is not woman-man.

Taking androgyne in its abusive sense (see earlier note), he condemns the physical womanly man (an affectation) whilst praising the man with womanly mental traits. In a notebook, Tennyson states that men should be androgynous and women gynandrous, but men should not be gynandrous nor women androgynous. It is a puzzling, if not nonsensical statement. Seemingly, Tennyson is saying that a man should aspire to have a male-female soul/androgyne, but that soul should not be weighted towards the female—the gynander. And vice versa.  To see a weighting in the psychic androgyne is a misnomer: by definition, the psychic androgyne is an image of equality and equilibrium.

When the androgyne entered the English language and became a linguistic term, it did so with visual images in mind. A representive example would be Cartari’s view in Le imagini dei degli antichi (1556, p.38). Commenting from an alchemical viewing point, Fabricius notes the doubling of the androgyne—self meets Self—in Alchemy, The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art  (1976). The projectio merges self-awareness with a cosmic awareness of what self might be. Fabricius misses two key points, however, in his hermetical  interpretation. The snake on the ground/ouroboros suggests eternal return, fusion of ends with beginnings and what Jung termed “circumambulation”, a walking around until integration of ideas re-arrange and settle in a new order. Also, the alchemical hermaphrodites are reversals of one another. The front one is male-woman and the background one is woman-male. The androgyne and gynander are equally fused together and equally fused in their union. They mirror one another. These figures are termed Janus figures by Fabricius. Of course, they are not. Janus was male-male headed. These figures are images of Hermathena, Hermes-Athena, Eloquence and Wisdom co-joined. The androgyne is an Archetype of wise words, hermetical therapy.

Jung has this to say on the androgyne/hermaphrodite: The unrelated human being [“I”] lacks wholeness for [s]he can achieve wholeness only through the soul [which exists through love], and the soul cannot exist  without its other side, which is always found in a “You” (The Psychology of the Transference, p.82).

A few years ago, I was given a farewell gift. I knew it was a Mithila painting from India (and part of an academic Art Exhibition). In Mudhubari, “forest of honey, women painters created these images as transient forms for weddings. In modern times, they have transferred their art to paper and canvas. This is the cosmic androgyne created by the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. Fused by loved, the archetype offers transcendence.

As we misuse hermetical archetypes, such as the androgyne, we inevitably cheapen language and the life that forces through images. The result is cultural confusion or occult mish-mash

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sophie Hannah, The Poetry of Sex.

Critical standards and honesty?Faber's The Poetry of Sex, edited by Sophie Hannah, says a lot about the decline of poetry reviewing and what is unsaid adds just as much.

Sophie Hannah's website contains a link to one review of her anthology. This appears in The Guardian. It is a nice piece of uncritical proselytising, converting readers to Hannah's jocular view of poetry. This was in January, 2014. The Arts and Media correspondent, Vanessa Thorpe, romps through the book with enthusiastic asides from Hannah. A few months later, Aprll 2014, with Kate Kellaway in charge, another laudatory piece ensues, announcing that this anthology "with Hannah at the helm, [is] a triumph." It comes as no shock that Hannah had no problem tracking down poems and doing research. She had favourites and put up a poster asking for requests in The Poetry Library, The Southbank Centre, London. It has to be assumed that the visitors to that library either knew nothing about sex or little about poetry. Kellaway's piece is rather desperate to please, to re-establish a reputation. The fact that its sweeping adulation for Hannah comes without much reference to any poems in the book conceals what has happened in between. In January, following The Guardian's scoop, The Independent accurately described the book as having "some gems" but found it guilty of "lazy" editing. And in February, in The New Statesman, Germaine Greer, in blistering deadpan style, made the volume sound as erotic as a bedpan. Interesting that Kellaway's helm metaphor consciously or unconsciously picks up Greer's final verdict: "It is not surprising that when Hannah began to look for the poetry of sex she lost her way, for she was afloat on a vast seas of human endeavour with no guide" except messages in bottles from The Poetry Library.

There are many objections that could be made to this anthology. Hannah hoped that the volume would be the "raunchiest poetry anthology of the year." It wasn't! Greer has answered that line very well. Without any dating of poems, there is no sense of time and place and context, something important in a work for the general reader. That point is made elsewhere. The selection of work is rather partisan, even though Hannah proclaims neutrality and rationality. The objection not made, however, even by Greer, surprisingly, is how you can assemble a book on sex without much (if any awareness) of the body, its politics, and the place that sexual identity has in contemporary poetics. When asked if he would keep any of his liberationist themes if he had his life to live over again, Gunn answered, yes, the sexual. Is there any poem by Gunn in The Poetry of Sex? Of course not! A volume made on "literary merit" ought to include Gunn. Probably, Greer, did not pursue the sexual politics line because she had no wish to be accused of "break[ing] a butterfly upon a wheel" and was well aware that The Poetry of Sex is a bubbly piece of fluffiness that Faber should be ashamed--as serious publishers--of printing. And as the publisher of Gunn, should it not have asked,"Why no Gunn?" Maybe not.

It is an often quoted fact that 1 in 10 people are gay. Such is a myth, of course, but one that The Poetry of Sex seems to believe for exactly 10% of the 130 poems in the volume are by gay poets. "Ok, at least gay sex gets a look in"...that would most likely be the heterosexual response to this fact. "Ok, isn't Hannah brave for including any poems on gay sex"...that is a probable response from heterosexual readers who don't want to be disturbed too much as they read her anthology with a cup of bedtime cocoa. The matter, however, is more serious than this. If Hannah was really interested in poetic merit she would be recognising that 13 or so poems and fulfilling a quota isn't an appropriate line for a serious anthologist and poet to take. If this anthology was truly about the poetry of sex it would be recognising that gay poets have contributed significantly to sexual poetry and occupying 50% of the anthology would be a justifiable expectation. Even worse, though, is how Hannah decides to represent gay sexual identity within the anthology. It's Catullus, Shakespeare, Whitman, Cavafy, the tired gay canon, and then a series of inconsequential poems by connected writers. Gregory Woods is a significant modern gay poet, but Hannah represents his work with a light-hearted piece of verse, "Service", another piece of whimsy from Rich Goodson (who studied under Woods) entitled "Daniel Craig: The Screensaver", and a piece of artifice from Michael Schmidt (who publishes the work of Woods). There is an odd piece of toilet-sex (without sex) by Richard Scott. The longest, central piece of gay poetry is a piece of dire rhyming drivel written by W.H Auden in 1948 and originally ascribed to Miss Oral. Hannah calls this "brilliant" in a BBC interview and appears to think it is amusing to pay lip service to gay poetry with Auden's "The Platonic Blow":

I tested its length and strength with a manual squeeze,
I bunched my fingers and twirled them about the knob,
I stroked it from top-to-bottom. I got on my knees.
I lowered my head. I opened my mouth for the job.

etc for 136 lines.

Had she anthologised Robert Duncan's "The Torso" ( a poem on the same theme) alongside this, for example, and adopted an approach throughout comparing different ranges of sexual tension and changes in language with time then a very different anthology would have emerged. Mind you, that would have required research and intelligent effort.

The Poetry of Sex is a job badly done. Just as worrying as its ignorance of gay poetry and feeling is its unawareness of gay sexuality beyond the white male and in recent times the English male. Are there no Black gay poets? Are there no gay poets in Asia? Ever? Currently writing? 

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Steep Tea, Jee Leong Koh, Sweetened in the Dark.

Selected by The Financial Times for its Best Poetry List 2015.

Tea is that beverage which joins East and West. It serves as the exact cultural metaphor for a poet who spans two hemispheres: the UK and USA on one hand; Singapore and Japan on the other. As the connoisseur of moral literary criticism, Dr Johnson, observed: "tea amused the evening, solaced the midnight, welcomed the morning." Literary taste and tea are fused historically and the awareness is well-infused in Jee Leong Koh's latest work.

There is continuity in this volume of poems with early work, sexual identity, what gay writing might be, a mature understanding of the tensions between cultural history and the individual self, and the place of form in contemporary poetry. There is also a significant change in that Steep Tea is a seasoned work. The poems of Jee Leong Koh are always crafted, in fact meticulous craftsmanship is a hallmark. But these poems have the feeling of being worked at through time. Fine edits have been made during the editorial process and the result is a poetry that is more calculated in its effects on the reader. This tone is rightly sensed by Richard Scott in his recent review of Koh and McMillan in Ambit. As the most detailed review to date, Scott's review is worth attention, but with some reservations: there is a danger in reviewing two volumes together. Alberto Manguel, bibliophile and lover of reading, correctly points out that "Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read" (The Library at Night, p.196) and reviewing two books closely together casts odd lights and peculiar shadows. To an enthusiastic review by Scott, some corrections must be made.

According to Scott, Jee Leong Koh, like many gay poets is "adept at hiding" and concealing gayness within poetry. This suggests, unfortunately, that Scott isn't familiar with the previous work. Dissembling has never been a poetic act for Jee Leong Koh, in fact his endeavours in such poems as the sonnet "Come on straight boy", or the monologues in "Hungry Ghosts" or ghazals in "A Lover's Recourse" testify to an open gay awareness, an awareness as evident and deep as the forms it assumes. By reviewing Steep Tea alongside McMillan's interesting Physical, Scott has been drawn into making comparisons, for the sake of critical unity, that aren't valid. Out of all of Jee Leong Koh's published work, Steep Tea is the least lusty and least concerned with political acts of sexual defiance. If anything, Steep Tea is a careful attempt at a volume that isn't over-stewed. (Its publisher, after all, is Carcanet, and they have fitted Jee Leong Koh into a tradition of literary gay poetry including the phallic pens of Neil Powell, Adam Johnson, Edwin Morgan and Gregory Woods). Yes, the word "cock", much-loved by Scott, does appear, also a coy "penis"... hardly an argument for sexy gay poetry. "Koh has a question to ask of the reader – where exactly is the place for homosexual desire within contemporary poetry?" Not really. Not here. Being gay is an honest part of the poetic universe in Steep Tea yet the volume is not a polemic for being gay and an exploration of what gay poetry might be. Scott might have a point if every poem started with an epigram by an historical gay poet. As it is, every poem starts with a quotation from a female poet-- this is a volume about muses, mothers, the matrix of language, the incarnation of words rather than carnality.

The poems in Steep Tea are born from ten years of reflective reading and writing. Gregory Woods' recommendation for the poems wisely observes that the volume upholds reading as "an essential component of human awareness." This spirit frames the poems, their origins in female poets across centuries and their attention to inner worlds of human life. Interestingly, the first poem in this volume, "Eve's Fault", opens from the 1611 edition of Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. That volume itself is structured on a massive Elizabethan conceit: nine women are honoured alongside Elizabeth I; as in Spenser's April Eclogue where the nine muses dance around the Virgin Queen.  The muses in Steep Tea exceed 9, yet the principal is the same: the source is the Anima, the Eternal Feminine behind poetic incubation.

The poems crafted by Jee Leong Koh are not variations of other poets or reactions to other poets. The quotations serve as signposts to risings, as Robert Duncan would have phrased it, to points of origins. Each of the forty-six poems begins with an act of reading: the resultant creations aren't reactive fictions or attempts to better the originals. They are, to carry on with Duncan's ideas concerning poetic (gay) creation, extensions of a ground, acknowledgements of the fault-lines where poems break from. 

There is much to sip and savour in Steep Tea. As with any volume, a reader will find his own favourites. "Woodwork" is a skilful poem, as Scott asserts, a poem that captures the harshness of a generalised life, and one that turns on the individual and unfitting sexual awareness of a boy with "hands, a shade darker than the wood". The poem is as well-wrought as Hart Crane's "Episode of Hands" in which woodworking and flesh are transforming metaphors. "In His Other House", chosen by Carol Rumens as The Guardian poem of the week, is a beautiful meditation on the library as workshop and history. "The Rooms I Move In" is noticeable for its control of lines and imagery-- a fourteen-line poem in couplets deriving its technique from the ghazal. "The Clocks" has a confident sense of voice change and development. And the consummately phrased "domed/doomed/deem'd" transmutes Renaissance lyric into a modern love poem. With the perception of a pensive melancholic, the poem concludes emotionally that "this darkness, is love too". At the close of "Portrait with Blue Shirt", an ekphrastic poem on a portrait of the poet by Valerie Mendelson, one in which colour-spot theory is re-created in simple word-attunements, Jee leong Koh is envisaged as "a young face" not ready for age. There is something of this theme distilling throughout Steep Tea as the author returns to memories of youth and faces the complexities of maturity. Mellower isn't quite the right word to describe Steep Tea, ripened and immersed are closer. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


(Perugino, 1495).

The Arts traditionally have fallen under the arms of Apollo. What he represents historically is captured in detail in Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (1912) via the novel's portrayal of von Aschenbach. After many years of diligent study, he has achieved an artistic style that follows "extreme beauty, purity, symmetry and classical mastery". Such devotion springs from typical views of Apollo, a detached god who embodies proportion and elegance, whose refinement towers over all, as he does in Perugino's portrayal of the base Marsyas. 

Western thought, however, haunted by polarities, has developed its views of the Arts along a more complex continuum, conflicting the control of Apollo with the chaos of Dionysus. The result, as Nietzsche revealed, is a tragic view of extreme emotion and pleasure, and this is what develops within Mann's novel as von Aschenbach gives into youthful desires, decamps from the fanatical military ordered world of creation, his masterwork on Frederick the Great, and his mature reflections on the "intellect" in art, in search of indulgence and desire.

The Apollonian-Dionysian continuum is one of contradictions...and unity. The tragic awareness, contrasting life and death, bliss and suffering, is often imagined as the shadow of pleasure. The composer Arvo Part, however, has discussed this in another brilliant metaphor: Apollo-Dionysus is the "pain of light", a piercing penetration into the psyche (which befits a sun-god armed with arrows). 

Der Tod in Venedig can be read, as it infrequently has, using the Apollo-Dionysus dialectic to account for van Aschenbach's tragic demise. There is something deeper and more complex at the heart of the novel, something that leads the artist to his cholera induced heart attack: not a dialectic, but a trilectic. The name von Aschenbach suggests "ashen creek", a place of gloomy death, a marshland brought to life in cholera infested Venice and a psychological domain drawing from the stinking wastelands that Hermes would cross as guide to the Underworld. An understanding of Art, suggests Mann, includes Apollo-Dionysus-Hermes where Hermes is the sudden shock, the hidden spark, the dangerous, playful game in the dark heart of creativity.

Mann's Der Tod in Venedig is a deeply biographical novel. As Katia Mann recalls in her Unwritten Memories (1974) “This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach...[.]" But the novel is not a novel about Mann's pederasty as mirrored in von Aschenbach. It is a study of the disturbances which occur when Hermes enters an artist's world. Von Aeschenbach's final meditation on the object of his love imagines the mythologem of Hermes the watery divine-child: "There he stayed a little, with bent head, tracing figures in the wet sand...then paused again...with his face facing seaward."