Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Thom Gunn as Hermeticist in "The Differences"/Hermetical Poetry (3).

Cavalcanti's canzone "Because a lady asks me" was prized by Pound as one of the masterpieces of love poetry, valued for the quality of its technique and its precision on matters of love. For Pound, this canzone was the shift from murky medievalism into a more modern, scientific frame of mind. Pound himself offered translations in his Cavalcanti and in Canto XXXVI. In The Cantos, the poem stands as a key text on light and love, the radiant energies under the auspices of Hermes that shine from the darkness of Eleusis and the Greek Mysteries. In writing about "The Differences", "Kinaesthetic Aesthetics: On Thom Gunn's poems", Stephen Burt notes that "The Differences" gets wacky in the middle, declaring, "love is formed by a dark ray's invasion / From Mars," which turns out to be translated Cavalcanti." Actually, the poem is a continual variation on Cavalcanti's complex song, transmuting its Hermeticism into a modern setting. In Gunn's hands, the poem becomes one of substantiation, making the intellect physical. 

The Differences.

Reciting Adrienne Rich on Cole and Haight,
Your blond hair bouncing like a corner boy’s,
You walked with sturdy almost swaggering gait,
The short man’s, looking upward with such poise,
Such bold yet friendly curiosity
I was convinced that clear defiant blue
Would have abashed a storm-trooper. To me
Conscience and courage stood fleshed out in you.

So when you gnawed my armpits, I gnawed yours
And learned to associate you with that smell
As if your exuberance sprang from your pores.
I tried to lose my self in you as well.
To lose my self . . . I did the opposite,
I turned into the boy with iron teeth
Who planned to eat the whole world bit by bit,
My love not flesh but in the mind beneath.

Love takes its shape within that part of me
(A poet says) where memories reside.
And just as light marks out the boundary
Of some glass outline men can see inside,
So love is formed by a dark ray’s invasion
From Mars, its dwelling in the mind to make.
Is a created thing, and has sensation,
A soul, and strength of will.
It is opaque.

Opaque, yet once I slept with you all night
Dreaming about you — though not quite embraced
Always in contact felt however slight.
We lay at ease, an arm loose round a waist,
Or side by side and touching at the hips,
As if we were two trees, bough grazing bough,
The twigs being the toes or fingertips.
I have not crossed your mind for three weeks now,

But think back on that night in January,
When casually distinct we shared the most
And lay upon a bed of clarity
In luminous half-sleep where the will was lost.
We woke at times and as the night got colder
Exchanged a word, or pulled the clothes again
To cover up the other’s exposed shoulder,
Falling asleep to the small talk of the rain.

With gentle irony, Gunn opens his poem with two gay men walking, discussing their locality and Adrienne Rich. Her poetic appreciation of the common language and relationships between women becomes a clever re-statement of the courtly tradition: Gunn and his friend become troubadours in praise of their Lady in whom Amor shines. Gradually, the poem begins to map out the differences between two very different localities, poetic spaces: Cavalcanti’s obscure and brilliant Donna me prega and Gunn’s own canzone. The first word fixes the comparison. “Reciting” refers to an act of memory and that evokes Love which is an action whose “region is memory”: “In quella parte/dova sta memora/prende suo stato”. Gunn pays tribute to Cavalcanti’s poetic line (of 11 syllables, to break up the pentameter elsewhere) and starts to unravel his song so that a visceral poetry emerges. As Cavalcanti’s poem explores Love through the “Law of Physics”, so Gunn’s poem explores sex, friendship, male-to-male bonding through physical acts. The five stanzas of Gunn’s poem do not translate Cavalcanti’s five sections (though the central, pivotal stanza does) but rather pick up echoes from within poetic time. For Cavalcanti, Love’s light is identified by “a shadow from Mars”, a psychological statement of a traditional, astrological Venus-Mars, Love-War conjuction. For Gunn, this becomes a “defiant” gaze of love sufficient to calm a “storm-trooper” and an erotic drama to be played out as warfare, as a passionate and violent gnawing of armpits. In the final two stanzas of “The Differences”, Gunn (like a modern day follower of De Homero and De Amore) remembers that Venus and Mars gave birth to harmony. Through a concordia discors, the poet and his lover settle down to balanced restful order which is a “clarity/ In luminous half-sleep.” Looking beyond Cavalcanti, Gunn experiences a tenderness within the wildness of love and sex, a point of still communion within male kinship. His delicate image of lovers touching like trees echoes the myth of Philemon and Baucis whom Hermes transformed into trees so as they would become eternal within the world’s divine and natural order. Though here, the conjoined trees celebrates transience and the intensity of a moment come and gone. A sensitive, ironical contemplation runs throughout “The Differences”, one that gives Gunn a glimpse of a divine communion felt within flesh and bone. It is poetic hermet(r)icism. And all of it done, lightly, using simple “memorable speech”…” the small talk of the rain”.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Equivocator by Stevie Davies

Equivocator is the first novella by the Welsh author Stevie Davies. Her previous fictional work includes novels (such as the prize-winning Boy Blue) and short stories (that include "Mr Duda", runner-up for the prestigious Rhys Davies prize). Equivocator, 92 pages in length, combines the characteristics of both previous forms: it possesses thematic levels and poignant vignettes; it blends the poetic style of her detailed novels with brief and sharp satirical insights. The result is a short, but nonethless intense reading experience.

The Porter, here, is a gatekeeper, a liminal character at the doors of Hell. Life swings both ways and is hinged on double-speak. This is a truly Hermetic characteristic, for Hermes, god of tricky communication, stands also at the entrance to the Underworld. Equivocator is a novella  that absorbs these mythological levels and studies how people deceive and present truths that are half-truths. The great equivocator alluded to by Shakespeare's porter is Father Henry Garnet who lied in God's name and therefore committed no lie (in his mind). The equivocators in Stevie Davies' novella are Jack Messenger and his son, Sebastian. Jack, the Hermetic messenger, is a writer whose life is a fiction. His son quests throughout the novel to come to terms with his past: what is fiction and what is real? How does the present equivocally write the past?

Gay male characters have occurred before in Stevie Davies' work. In Primavera (1990) there exists the relationship of the 70 year old Jacques and his much younger lover Ralph. (They are a vital part of a novel about how spring rejuvenates winter). Another tender relationship is portrayed in "Ballooning with Habibi" from The Lonely Crowd (2015). In Equivocator, the gay relationship of Sebastian and Jess takes centre-stage. It is a relationship built on deception but one that works towards honesty. As a committed Miltonist and Feminist, Stevie Davies will know that curious section in Milton's divorce tracts where he resorts to a self-made myth of male-to-male love (a prime example of Miltonic equivocation) to justify the true basis of heterosexual marriage-- and how to get rid of a wife you no longer require! Sebastian, like Milton's Eros, must cross beyond sexual desire and cheating into a realm of Anteros and shared, homogeneal love based on equality and the truths created by two people (not one: the doubleness of equivocation is surrendered to a shared twinning). 

The style of Equivocator is forever changing and this captures the Protean nature of Sebastian's nemesis, the mysterious Professor Salvatore, master of salvation (for academia). He is a mirrored Hermes, a Spencerian Archimago, another dubious messenger, like Sebastian's father. Salvatore entrances Sebastian at the opening of the narrative "like a door ajar"-- a true liminal description of a borderline character who is a threshold between what is without and what is within. The novella's changing styles--like the shifting sands on which Sebastian and Salvatore meet-- match medium to message with consummate skill. Iran's Zagros Mountains, Manchester's Rusholme, the Gower's coastline...merge into a flickering storyline. It is telling that Sebastian learns a surprising truth about Jess during a play-within-a-play in their London flat. Reality topples into fakery and then picks itself up again in a new form. The publishers of Equivocator, Parthian, never mention Shakespeare in their blurb, which is a pity, for in this, the 400th year since The Bard's death, Equivocator stands as a wonderful tribute to Shakespeare. Jack Messenger's cross-dressing, the feminisation of the masculine father who humiliated his gay son for being feminine and not a real man, is worthy of Twelfth Night. And the crossing of gender, female author into male narrator, is pure Shakespeare too! A "master-mistress" is the muse of Equivocator.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

For Two Thousand Years.

For Two Thousand Years is a poignant novel, one that has been oddly misunderstood. Or rather, one that has changed with time. 15 years ago, when Mihail Sebastian's Journal (Part One) was published it was described by The new York Times as tedious and then compelling. A similar issue occurs with the 1934 novel, until it is realised that the style is very much part of the novel's concern. Gradually, the novel develops from fragmented, aesthetic journal into fully narrated novel, the depth and range of the "I" narrating the novel growing richer and deeper with experience.

Recent reviews of For Two Thousand Years have concentrated on the contentious aspects of the real world of politics-- was Sebastian a Fascist sympathiser because he portrayed Nae Ionescu favouraby as Ghita Blidaru and was his novel an attack on Judaism? Some critics have faulted the novel for its Zionism and some for its anti-Semitisim. All of these strange views side-step the obvious: this is a novel in which various voices speak and it is inept to extract certain voices in order that political stand-points might be forced into the fiction.

For Two Thousand Years, though written a decade before Sartre pronounced Existentialism, speaks very much in tones that would become the intellectual signatures of that philosophy. The questioning of Jewishness is made from a position of isolation and aloneness:

The voluptuousness of being alone in the world that believes it owns you. It's not pride. Not even shyness. It's a natural, simple and unforced sense of being left to yourself.
(FTTY, p.13).

The separating of the individual from traditional beliefs is a search for self:

You will face yourself again in a moment of terror can escape from anywhere, but you cannot flee your own self.
(FTTY, p.2150).

This novel is far from being the racist novel that some have seen: it is rather one of the most thoughtful investigations of racism in any modern novel. Through the novel, a reader experiences the development of an exposed young man as he attempts to build a foundation (as an architect) for his own life, realising that people build to move on and build again. The racism shown towards Jewish students in Romania is described with searing intelligence.

Undoubtedly, this is a novel of ideas, but this is balanced with finely crafted human portraits-- the narrator's ageing family-- the dangerous S.T.Haim-- and the wonderful Abraham Sulitzer, lover of beautiful books. 

For Two Thousand Years, in its recent translation into English by Philip O Ceealigh, is a fascinating read, dark, melancholic, witty and perceptive.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Loop of Jade and the T.S.Eliot Prize

It is now established knowledge that Sarah Howe’s debut volume Loop of Jade was awarded the 2015 T.S. Eliot prize for poetry. Reviewers initially greeted the win with unqualified adulation; Ben Wikinson, in The Guardian, being the rare reader who side-stepped the hype to perform practical criticism on Howe’s poems and concentrate on her selection of language. (A fair and respectful response given Howe’s commitment to practical criticism and her belief that modern poetry reviews lack quality). Generally, reviewers readily ascribed to the view of Pascale Petite (Chair of the three-strong judging panel) that the volume was “erudite and dense” and came from a “culture [China] which we are not used to seeing in British poetry” and the result would be a sea-change for poets. Loop of Jade’s ground-breaking tone has been attributed to two important themes: Howe’s exploration of her Anglo-Chinese/Sino-British heritage and her enquiries into gender. UK attitudes have viewed Howe’s poetry as “deliberate exoticism” or “Oriental poise” transfigured by language into a realm where new identities could exist: the volume reveals more than just a nostalgic search for roots. The Boston Review uplifted the Chinese element into the higher realm of “identity politics”. As might be expected, the Asian perspective has made even more of Howe’s debt to China. The Hong Kong Review of Books emphasised Howe’s use of “forms and imagery normally associated with Chinese or Japan”. And the Asian Review of Books went as far as to claim that if “Hong Kong literature in English” exists, then it must be Loop of Jade

Unsurprisingly, those who have started to question the largely unqualified praise for Loop of Jade and exaltation of Howe have found themselves facing accusations of racism and chauvinism. Female poets have rallied to the defence of Howe against the male establishment (as exemplified by The Sunday Times, The Times Literary Supplement and Private Eye). There is little value in arguing whether Loop of Jade should have won the T.S. Eliot prize. The point is: it did. And a panel of judges stepped in to provide strong critical judgements within a climate of weak critical standards: Howe’s view of “prize culture” in an interview prior to winning the T.S.Eliot prize. Kate Evans-Bush, of Baroque In Hackney fame, who stepped into counter the old-boy-network in The Guardian, takes the correct line (in her website): the 2015 T.S. Eliot short-list places relevant and difficult poetry before the public. The T.S.Eliot prize has increased the status of Loop of Jade, even brought it to the attention of Asia, yet the prize does not change the poetry. Congratulations to Sarah Howe on achieving the Eliot prize, now set that aside and look at the poetry in Loop of Jade as it is.

There is a strong and interesting handling of identity in Loop of Jade. Howe’s “Tame” has been praised for its attack on China’s one child per family and a male child preferably. Howe has said herself that she wanted to write about gendercide and the line “He called her Mei Ming” (No-name) alludes to a real and tragic case in the film Dying Rooms, but it is more a case of wanting than doing: the poem is a finely written metamorphosis, yet it hardly engages with the deep horror of child-murder. In a similar way, “Crossing from Guangdong” reflects on Howe’s girlhood with memorable images, yet it is diffuse and rarely exhibits the ardent insights that come with feminist poetry.  The wonder of Loop of Jade is in its variety of forms and richness of imagery and it is here that critical thought ought to begin, not with questions outside the poems themselves.

Loop of Jade is an “erudite” volume. It is also very readable. To combine depth with an enjoyable reading experience is an achievement to be valued and recognised. In “Sirens”, Howe begins with a moment of musing, a misreading of Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane”. She moves the poem through Cambridge, into affective literary criticism, into Homer and Horace, into the Renaissance imagery of Alciato (Enblema CXVI), and finally arrives at an epigrammatic image with its moral message for life “on reigning in fancy”. It is done with craft by someone who spans the history of images with passion and skill. The Renaissance flows into a lot of the poetry in Loop of Jade, as does China, and they meet in moments of gentle elucidation: “My heart is bounded by a scallop shell--/this strange pilgrimage to home” hearkens quietly back to Raleigh. The Renaissance enters clearly in “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” and more subtly elsewhere. Howe’s re-telling of Chinese myths in “Loop of Jade” has the quality of Golding’s version of Ovid. The concrete poem “Banderole” (as visually clever as Howe’s “Human Marks”, not in Loop of Jade, a poem about the Renaissance manicule) echoes the shape poems of Herbert. The tradition of hortus conclusus hides behind “The Walled Garden” and the topos of innutrition shapes “Crocodile”. There is a stitched quality to Howe’s poetry, as in the title poem, which draws from text/textile correspondences, a synthesis alchemised in the Renaissance.

Howe re-vitalises traditions intelligently. Loop of Jade is a field of creative images. Is it a re-birth of poetry, though, the renaissance that Petite has claimed? There is an emblem by Alciato (one that Howe will know) that shows the caduceus of Hermes balanced by a left and right horn-of-plenty. “Fortune” records how the cornucopia of life must be moderated by the precise Hermetic wand of language. Art mediates Nature. The emblem also has Confusian echoes: the heart must be ordered by language if the expansive riches of the state are to be ordered. Life is language and language is life. Howe’s embracing of a wide-ranging imagery is both her strength and her weakness. Sometimes the fertile teeming achieves intriguing fusions, as in “Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush”—a poem that mimics Pound’s Cathay very well. Howe has an ability to play with forms and harmonise form and meaning. And yes, she has added something new to British poetry. Sometimes the work becomes over-indulgent, however, even prodigal. Howe, like Ashberry and Graham, both of whom are influences, is curious about surfaces and the stratification of imagery. This leads her into a fascination with visual and auditory images and the tricky/hermetical nature of language. “Crocodile” descends into silent movie slapstick as the waiters slip flat on their backs… like “so many Michael Flatleys”. The prose poetry of Haas becomes a “gush” in which the stream of language meets Riverdance. It works. Less successful are the strained tonalities of “Pythagoras’s Curtain”. The music of the spheres seems to have been unstrung in lines like “cadenza the acousmatic dusk”. Just as there are exact sensual images such as “curlicues/slick on the backs/of thighs”, images with syllabic weighting and shaped by line turns, so there are imagistic blobs like “the sunflower patch/of a forethought” which would have benefitted from self-criticism. Double meanings play across the volume, from allotropes of Chinese in “Having just broken the water pitcher”, to extrovert puns in “Others”, to non-sense in “Start with Weather” and to insubstantial stuff  in “Stray dogs”. Here, Howe’s devotion to word play gets the better of her disastrously. There is illuminating scholarship in Loop of Jade and there are examples of real howlers. A close reading of “Stray dogs” shows the weak points of Loop of Jade.

“Stray dogs” is poem (g) in a series of poems, (a)-(n), which is based on a fictional list by Borges—a list that prefaces Loop of Jade.Howe described the poem, during a lecture at Harvard, as “a sequence of terrible puns… including that Ezra got sent to the [dog] pound”. Supposedly, the poem is about empathy and an enquiry into censorship, yet the crude joke by Howe exposes the poem for what it is. The title is followed by a quotation from The Pisan Cantos. “Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail” (Canto LXXXI). A parallel is drawn between the Borge phrase and Pound in the Disciplinary Training Camp outside Pisa. The suggestion is that Pound is “a beaten dog” whereas the line refers to the Dogs of War in Canto LXXXI. It is not a self-reference by Pound. Perhaps, this is a deliberate misreading, a pun on facts. Mind you, a mistake seems more likely, bearing in mind that Howe told the Harvard audience, with conviction, that Pound’s The Pisan Cantos were “the last cantos that he wrote.” Of course, they were not: they were followed by Rock Drill and Thrones. Suddenly, the erudition behind Loop of Jade becomes suspect. “Stray dogs” opens with an aloof, academic tone: “To think again of Pound”. Howe stands outside events, as a spectator, one who assembles facts and images for synthesis. The poem is built with lacunae, gaps that must be filled in by the reader. These breaks avoid narration and keep both author and reader outside the story. It is a kind of alienation that allows space to think. For such a method to function, however, images must be selected with accuracy. Pound is “bared to the sky”. There is a lack of precision in that phrase. In what sense is he “bared”? The cage in which he was held had a sealed roof. The cage was open to the elements, but not to the sky. Is Pound himself “bared”? Even so, the image does not match reality. Further distance is made in the poem by the word “traitor”. Howe moves herself away by citing Pound’s criminality. The poem moves on by patching together factual details with quotations from Cantos LXXIV and LXXXI. Again, there is a misreading: “Swollen magpie” refers to the bombastic Black and White army of the Allies, not Pound, and a dull piece of Imagism tries to fix the scene: “Wire diamonds shadowed starkly underfoot.” Puns thicken towards the middle of the poem. Pound’s copy of the Analects is “dog-eared”. (Angela Palandri, as a Chinese student with little English, visited Pound in St Elizabeth’s and she makes this exact observation, without the insult, in an essay in Paideuma 3.3 The essay focuses evocatively on bi-cultural identities— Howe territory). Then, “a rifle butt” is “ pounding the door”. And Howe is so busy having fun with the pun on Pound/pounding that she writes without checking facts. The clich├ęd phrase that she has selected, reducing the scene bathetically to pulp fiction, is untrue. There were no rifles. The Italian partisans who arrested Pound for ransom were armed with a Thompson machine gun. A moment of terror is rendered clumsily as inaccurate wild-west comedy. By standing two unrelated images side by side, a logopoetic image/Pull down thy vanity (Canto LXXXI again) and a phanopoetic image/the opening of Canto LXXIV written on toilet paper, Howe links pride with abasement and suggests the punning conclusion of “Stray dogs”. As the poem closes, an anti-semitic line from Pound’s Fifth radio speech, “Those Parentheses”, is quoted. The reader has descended into “Circe’s sty” because Circe changed men into pigs. And Pound saw the Jewish control of money as occult trickery and banking as a sty for swine. The reader has hit the core of the poem, Pound’s unjustifiable hatred of Jewishness. (Something undoubtedly felt at a personal level by Howe because of her “mixed marriage”). But at the heart of this poem, there is nothing. The text does not support the belief that this is a poem about censorship. There is no debate with ethics. All that exists is a pun on canto/”Glorious cant”. That single piece of word-play is insufficient to stand for a debate on where the boundaries of language might be drawn. On being forced from Sant’Ambrogio, Pound took a copy of Legge’s Si Shu with him. In writing about the life of Confucius, not in the Analects (Part I of The Four Books) as cited in Loop of Jade, Legge describes the well-known story of how Confucius was separated from his disciples and resembled a “stray dog”. (This was the term that the Cultural Revolution used to discredit Confucius). It would have been impossible for Pound to be reading the incident in the Analects as imagined by Howe. But then, truthfulness to either Pound or Chinese history does not appear to be the point. The whole of the poem drives towards a conclusion that juxtaposes Pound and Confucius, a conclusion that is the main reason for the poem, another pun in which Pound’s pride and humiliation can be stood ironically against the humility of Pound’s hero, Kung. Together, they make up the “dogs” of Borge’s title. In speaking about the form of “Stray dogs”, Howe has said that the “visual block”, the justifying of the type-face at the right margin, mimes Pound’s “restraint”. But does it? The layout occurs on four occasions in Loop of Jade. Why should it suddenly become a mimetic image of imprisonment in one poem and not in others? There are multiple weaknesses in “Stray dogs”. There is a poor grasp of material. The material is not transformed into an aesthetic experience. It reads like a student writing exercise, though it is one of the later, mature works in Loop of Jade. And most seriously there is a failure of human sensibility. It is a bit of knock-about academic fun on a serious matter for Art: can the life of the poet and the poetry be split into separate worlds? Can there be double standards within censorship so as the poet descends to Hell (St Elizabeth’s in Pound’s case) and the poetry ascends to Paradise (The Bollingen Prize)? Ethical distancing results in a lack of ethical involvement and judgement.

Within Loop of Jade, there is a sense that though Howe achieves real successes and takes many whole-hearted risks, there is rather too much poetic game playing. The volume is strongest where it encompasses the richness of cultural and historical imagery and weakest where it must engage directly with emotion and political contexts.