Shoring up the Ruins
Thursday, 8 April 2021 at 16:50
SHORING UP THE RUINS:
THE COLLECTED POEMS OF MARIUS KOCIEJOWSKI, Carcanet 12:99
A healthy way for a poet to become a legend is to not write too many poems. If you’ve written The Prelude, don’t write The Excursion. If you’ve had a popular success don’t write The Charge of the Heavy Brigade. If you produced a draft of Twenty-Five Cantos so that every sophisticated reader of poetry wonders where you’ll take the art next, don’t take taking the reader into an artistic and moral morass with most of the following ninety. And there may be only one Sordello, but those of us who’ve read it wish there weren’t even that.
Marius Kociejowski is a poet artistically and strategically astute enough to know that if a poet succeeds in doing something once with a poem there is no need to repeat it. Arabella’s lock can be snipped only once. A poem that can be left to itself means a poet can cast about for the next exploration of his or her soul. James Fenton, a poet whose collections are few and far between, observed while writing on Thomas Gray that it’s only necessary for a poet to write one poem. Kociejowski has written more than one poem. His Collected Poems contain thirty-six poems (more if one counts Doctor Honoris Causa as a sequence of four poems and The Charterhouse at Valledemosa as a sequence of nine.) An early flourish, The Saxon Woman, is excluded perhaps because it lacks the scrupulous music and coherence of his subsequent poems.
The cover of the Collected Poems features a painting by Anselm Kiefer from his Walhalla exhibition. The impression is of a landscape or cityscape devastated by a firestorm with only church towers in a South Italian Baroque style still standing with the ground beneath them cracked and parched. The tops of the towers have been erased by the catastrophe so they are without their bells and stare blindly at the viewer without the means to sound even an alarm. The poems within the covers are like the missing bells, sometimes sounding at the same pitch, but each with a different timbre and tone. Kociejowski’s syntax is intrinsic to the sound of his poems. After Ezra Pound’s ‘first heave’ T.S.Eliot demonstrated that the iambic pentameter, with a slight variation, was alive and kicking strongly: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." The inversion of customary word order gives a hieratic tone to the sentence. There is an essay to be written, if hasn’t been written already in the exhaustive Eliot industry, on Eliot’s choice of ‘against’ as opposed to ‘up’ to add to the original intransitive verb ‘shore.’ Suffice to observe that it allows Eliot to employ an almost perfect iambic pentameter, undoing Pound’s spadework on rhythm in English poetry. The extra syllable provided by "ruins" subverts the pentameter a little like Chico Marx pistoling his piano keys unless readers wish to hear a single syllable; "runes" perhaps. Likewise, Kociejowski turns what seems simple and unexceptional inside out. The very first verse in the first poem, The Water Clock, delivers a syntactical surprise in the third line. "I will construct for you / Out of the words I think" seem almost banal: poems are made of words preceded by thought. Then the third line demolishes those expectations with "Will work best this clock." The transposition of the object phrase "this clock" from its normal prose position after ‘construct’ creates an ambiguity in meaning. The change in word order imposes a caesura after ‘best’ so that both a poem being the best words in the best order and the notion of what makes a clock work underlies the sense. Moreover, delaying"this clock" delivers a shock when the expected collocation is ‘this poem.’ The whole poem is written without contractions of auxiliary verbs so that there is a mimetic effect of the regular slow flow of the water. A single comma is evident to mark the only instance of enjambement in the whole poem, in the eleventh verse. Kociejowski even preserves, as he does with all his poems, the convention of beginning a line with a capital letter. In The Water Clock this with the other devices enhances the precision and sense of a marvellous machine.
In numbering the streaks on the tulip petals of the first poem I hope to provide a protocol on how to read all his poems and what becomes evident on subsequent re-reading. The first section of the book culminates with ‘Coast’ which is written in six sections of eight lines. Octets is the word that comes to mind, rather than octaves, which would have been tempting had the piece eight sections and thus the range of Kociejowski’s favourite composer’s instrument. However, not even the musical meaning of octet is pertinent, but rather the octet rule of chemistry contrasting very stable relationships, as in the inert or noble gases, with the asymmetrical active elements which can bond with other elements. Kociejowski has avoided a structure of two stable quatrains but instead has an opening quatrain followed by a single line and a concluding tercet, a form of dynamic instability. The single line in the middle acts as an aside commenting on or developing the quatrain. The mood of Coast is akin to that of Seferis in his Mythistorima especially the ‘Argonaut’ poem. The underlying theme is of exile, but an exile willingly undertaken without destination as those offered are deceptively fatal:
Speak kindly of those we have abandoned,
The innocent who in their madness strayed,
Who mistook for seraphim a bright lamp
Beneath the waters’ camouflaging death.
Unlike the majority of his poems Coast has an indefinite location. Perhaps this is in the nature of exile. Kociejowski left his birth country, Canada, in the 1970s and, after a sojourn in North Africa, arrived in London in the mid-1970s. Canada publishes his books, but he has little time for many of his Canadian contemporary writers which is another symptom of exile; knowing where one doesn’t belong being more certain knowledge than having a positive destination:
It is better so than light which is false,
Better the rougher shape, the ruined voice.
For the title poem of his first collection ‘Doctor Honoris Causa’ Kociejowski has loosened the economical iambic line of his earlier poems. Longer lines are interspersed with the shorter creating a rhythmical mood of the Latin elegiac couplet where hexameter and pentameter alternate. In the poem an Aristotelean persona meditates on the career of a former pupil, a possible Alexander or Stalin or Cesare Borgia or Sancho Alfonso, the first Count of Alburqueque, the ninth child of Alfonso XI of Leon and his mistress, the beautiful Eleanor de Guzmán, but, despite this Poundian amalgam of historical identities, most likely Ashburnipal, the last great Assyrian king.
Another voice speaks through the cold Assyrian stone,
The same words you spoke in Rome, Moscow, Alburquerque.
It hardly matters from what place they come,
The consonants of power remain the same.
In this second poem of the sequence the marvellous relief from Ashburnipal’s palace of a lion pierced by four arrows turning in pain. The poem explores the craft of the unknown sculptor in rendering this brutal hunt:
As finely carved as the ringlets in the beard of the king who burns alive
The children of his enemies.
The artist, in whatever form, has to balance fidelity to his vision with human feeling. The consequence is often a lack of engagement:
The sculptor faithful to what he sees will always be at a distance from what he serves.
At the end of the poem the speaker has all but been forgotten, but is without regrets for his acquaintance with power which he rejects,
This narrow room is borrowed out of time.
I shall, if you allow me, remain here.
Rejection of being associated with political power in this age is almost banal since politicians,whether democratic or autocratic, are now usually professional and operate within an occupational class that has little time for human activities that belong to the otiosae as opposed to the necessitas required to gain and hang onto power. However, it means that political power has been sealed off from the rest of society and its language and thought has fossilized. Poets and their work used to roam dangerously in the subconscious of rulers and were silenced by tyrants physically and through ridicule in democratic societies. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me" is an adage dear to the hearts and minds of those who regard themselves as plain spoken, who happily cling to notions of the impotence of poets whilst the evidence of verbal bullying, not least from politicians themselves, and its effects proliferates on the media. Kociejowski’s Doctor Honoris Causa is a major poem on the relationship of language and power and the unceasing efforts of the politically powerful to diminish the potency of language.
The two major poems,‘Giacomo Leopardi in Naples’ and ‘The Charterhouse at Valldemosa’ are both on two artists without whom the Romantic era would not exist, both of whose lives furnished exemplars for European romanticism. One can hardly travel to the capital of a smaller European country without finding a statue to a national artist who had either an unconsummated youthful love or an early death or sometimes both. Mihai Eminescu, France Prešeren and Andrej Sládkovič are Romantic poets intimately connected with the modern language and national identities of their respective countries as is Leopardi. Chopin, despite a father born a Frenchman, is Poland’s greatest composer whose works are a matter of national glory. The Leopardi poem is a Browningesque monologue set just before the poet’s death during a cholera epidemic. The poet ruminates on his life and disappointments and yet stubbornly adheres to a sensual apprehension of life symbolized in his love of ice-cream and "I must praise the bread a certain woman bakes." Having rejected the hidebound cultural and political conservatism of his father and the Italian aristocracy for the ideas of the Enlightenment and the beginnings of liberal democracy:
The plain girl who reads me verses
Shall be my earthly guide.
Chopin had less humanist impulses, but on Mallorca where he and George Sand had travelled in the hope of improving his health, he found himself circumscribed by extreme religious conservatism of the locals, who disapproved of their lack of marriage ties, and so they were forced to live in the monastery during an exceptionally rainy winter. Despite these privations he managed to write his twenty-four preludes including the ‘Raindrop prelude,’ whose mythical provenance enables Kociejowski to assert Chopin’s view of art:
‘What, imitative harmony?’ he cries.
Anger winches him from the bottom of the lake.
‘A child slavishly follows nature,
Whereas music plays inside me.’
The repeated note in the prelude could have been not the sound of water leaking through a ceiling, but Chopin’s adaptation of the folk music drone he had exploited in his Mazurkas composed some years before his visit to Mallorca. It harks back to a passage in the Leopardi poem:
A peasant from the Abruzzi plays on his bagpipe
Ah, that I should have wasted breath bullying language
When this man with his solemn music pulls darkness over the bay of Naples.
Both poems identify and celebrate the kernel of romanticism that still holds. The humanist Leopardi sensing the quality of soul that leads to art in a maker of bread or a plain girl stumbling over her reading of Italian classical poets:
I would swap heaven for the bright lamp in her voice.
The autonomous exclusive Chopin still has to travel back to Barcelona in a boat with a hold full of pigs, "Although he’s much too fastidious for existence." Not only is his music an expression of the quality of his soul, but
A prelude that supposes what it is prelude to exists already.
In the last poem in the book, the only poem Kociejowski has written this century to set against an impressive body of discursive prose, is 'Sparrows' who are never present in the poem and are only mentioned in the last line:
You wonder, too, where have all the sparrows gone?
The poem might be read as a commination on the direction culture has taken even from the very beginning:
It is time now to make amends, apologise for the massacre that took place
One cloudless afternoon, when Stone Age became Bronze Age
Civilization falls apart as the muse, a fashionable slutty creature descended from Robert Graves’s White Goddess departs taking even the electric blanket and ice cube maker. So far so bad and worse is to come. Cultural disintegration becomes personal collapse, "Alzheimer’s in the culture, too." The rich and strange becomes horrible, "Slowly you turn the pages of a book stippled with white spores,"
and ultimately mundane,
One by one the lights flicker on and the couple opposite gesticulate with their pizza slices
As if some dumb ballet that you yourself choreograph as you watch
And puzzle at what goes on between other creatures.
This is followed by that last line which is as quiet and devastating as a blood vessel failing in one’s brain:
You wonder, too, where have all the sparrows gone?
Marius Kociejowski’s Collected Poems single out and explore critical nodes in the consciousness of individuals and civilizations. For their craft, intelligence and that indefinable attribute, beauty, they should be read now at a point when culture is dominated by the trashy and impermanent. A quotation from Gérard de Nerval’s sonnet, Á Madame Sand, seems appropriate:
Laneige règne au front de leurs pics infranchis,
Etce sont, m'a-t-on dit, les ossements blanchis
Desanciens monts rongés par la mer du déluge.