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.
Singing for Robbers
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 at 13:12
SINGING BEFORE ROBBERS
NORM SIBUM: GARDENS OF THE INTERREGNUM – Biblioasis, Ontario, Canada $16.95
Twenty-first century Anglophone poetry’s only artistic purpose is a defence of language and Norm Sibum’s latest collection is a vigorous example of what a poet with great skill and an active intelligence can write without any concession to current notions of poetry as an expression of identity or challenge to modes of humancommunication. Hovering behind his work are the acerbic ghosts of Latin elegists and satirists and a sense of the world as complex as Ronald Syme’s "The Roman Revolution." History is neither the expression of ideas nor great men, but a matter of people with desires and interests. As Juvenal wrote:
quidquid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira, voluptas,
gaudia, discursus, nostri farrago libelli est
(Whatever drives people, wants, fear, anger, pleasure,
joys, discourse, is in the mix of our little book.)
The condition of America is his underlying theme ranging from the Eisenhower era when material prosperity was felt to be innocent and high culture was an aspiration of the educated to the present times of a real estate developer president who once declared he loved the uneducated and gives the impression that, like the emperor Caligula, he wished the American people had one neck. Sibum is primarily a satirist although he can write a moving elegy as this book demonstrates. His satire derives directly from the original form Latin "Satura" rather than modern media versions which can be more accurately described as lampoons and low comedy. Sibum can be as morbidly savage as Jonathan Swift but not as ad hominem as John Dryden. Nor does his work have the cultural misogyny of the Roman poets. His work has the philosophical and elegiac tone of Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes, but is often very funny as in "The Angels of Rectitude" which is a poem not only about about failing to pick up a girl, but not even succeeding in managing an approach. The opening four lines are masterly in their mock-gravity. The Rape of the Lock comes to mind.
With virtue comes the ordered life.
With virtue comes book-jacket blurbs.
With virtue –but never mind.
I mean to speak of a young woman.
As the condition of America exercises him, so does the matter of power. "Intimacies" is as pessimistic as anything by Swift and explores power’s dystopian potential where Mrs Orlow, a character familiar from other poems, has been packed off to"a facility where, her wits confounded, / She’ll die perplexed, the world not the world / Into which she was born." The individual can smoke on his balcony and contemplate "The sweet darkness of the twilight rain", but such moments are disrupted by Gordon a "slack-jawed, gummy Endymion" in the next building engaging in a noisy act of sex followed by a ghostly figure in white defecating against a fence. Gordon after his moment of bliss bellows threats into a cell phone:
"Pay up or he’d unleash the pit bulls."
The last section is Augustan in its apophthegmatic rhythms and Swiftian in its imagery:
Consolations are illusory and so, merciful.
Every heaven is carved from desire’s jade.
Every enclave is subject to the lurid effects
Of naked light bulbs, of commodes malodorous or not.
Earlier in the collection "What Goes Amiss" explores the ‘golden age’ of the Eisenhower presidency which is now subject to the nostalgic distortions familiar to the audience (if they can perceive the lie) of sentimental Anglophone media fictions set in the first half of the twentieth century. "Never such innocence" Larkin wrote in MCMXIV when he should have written "Never such ignorance." Sibum’s republic, that its inhabitants "were asked to cherish," is embodied in the person of Mrs Niedermann "at rest in the shade of the elm / like a figure in a Manet" with "The pleasing smile-lines that led from her eyes / To a place that just might’ve been my soul" and "who read a thousand books and pondered much." It’s almost impossible to resist amplifying the personification as she "was consumed,was digested by a sickness" and seeing this as emblematic of the bind America finds itself in at present. The passage with Mrs Niedermann concludes with two lines that Robert Frost might have given his eye teeth for or exercised his ungenerous genius to damn with faint praise:
There’s always death to take the place
Of what goes amiss –
Mrs Niedermann dies and the task of keeping the poem’s narrator passes to his more hard-nosed mother "Stop your whining, Run along. Play / No one and nothing lives forever," a version of the American individual that gets the job done as opposed to reading books and sensing that matters are not quite right. She wins back her son’s love and lives on to a great age although "the republic …Got to be careworn."
The poem is an elegy as good as the fancy-dan efforts of Allen Tate and Robert Lowell rooted as it is in middle America not the rarefied atmosphere of early twentieth century Ivy League colleges. Sibum’s style is characterised by virtuoso long sentences, the opening passage in "Passacaglia" being a wonderful example, a description of the sea worthy of Montale. His use of consonance and assonance rhyme to intensify certain moments in his poems is judicious as from "3 Fourteeners:"
Indicating tenure: love, sex, money, honor,
All systems go for nailing down power
And sparrows carve boulevards in the air.
The title poem and the sequence "Rome Poems" deserve separate essays and the book is one I will put on my shelf for books that I read until they fall apart. It is a superb collection of comminatory poems on how the corruptions of power seep down into all human perceptions and interactions in our moribund democracies.
Balancing Over the Void
Wednesday, 13 May 2020 at 12:20
BALANCING OVER THE VOID
Aristea Papalexandrou - It’s Overtaking Us, translated by Philip Ramp, Fomite Press,USA
If there is a language that our reflections in the mirror speak to us or our shadows following behind or going on ahead, depending on the time of day or the direction we’re taking, or if there is a language spoken by a self on another plane of being entirely which comes across to us in fragments, then this must be the language that Aristea Papalexandrou uses in her poetry. “It’s Overtaking Us” is a translation of her sixth collection by Philip Ramp a long-time resident in Greece and a poet himself.
Papalexandrou alludes to Pessoa, Seferis, Sachtouris and Beckett all essential artists in European literary modernism, although Sachtouris is less well-known internationally, and one of her poems has an epigraph from Sappho, another a phrase from Pindar. Papalexandrou in an interview has hinted that her work was one continuous poem and this current collection is a continuation of previous books. The first poem quotes from Pessoa, the poet of multiple selves and yet in the poems he attributed to himself and in The Book of Disquiet he is a poet of the “abstract chasm that lies in the depth of things.” The commercial and legal vocabulary, “memorandums,” “falls due,” “deadline,” “profit,” “voucher” evokes the life and work of Pessoa as an assistant book-keeper and explorer of consciousness. This is followed by two poems entitled “The Fugitive” which introduces a female persona perhaps a doppelganger of the poet who is hardly present, “fleshless” is the description and in a black dress which paradoxically spreads light. This is a poetry which uses a minimum of imagery and expressive vocabulary to maximum effect, so much so that when one reads“Dream Unbeheld” the sudden impact of sensuality is extraordinary: “Bathed in night’s silver / two souls a world entire / lustrous sculpture / Him and her.”
Further figures or apparitions appear, for example a man with a black revolver “shooting into the air / forcing the clouds / to snow” and the economy of Papalexandrou’s means is illustrated by the almost complete absence of colour words with “pink” only in the title of the poem “The Pink Hues of a Lady in Perpetual Motion.”The collection moves from an unstated urban hinterland, “the unlit city” to a depopulated countryside (Pelion is mentioned in a subtitle) perhaps too close to the mood of “The Wasteland” for comfort.
The verse forms are fragmentary perhaps mimicking what little survives of Sappho’s work and suggesting a great volume of unspoken feeling behind the fleeting interactions with the reader. I’m not sure, having no Greek, how much of this latency can be translated except to observe that her translator has managed to communicate that it lies behind Papalexandrou’s work.
One or two local points trouble me. “awhile” in the line “die after awhile” is either a misprint or a grammatical solecism. The line should be “die after awhile” as ‘awhile’ is an adverb as in “wait awhile,” not a noun. Secondly, it peeves me to read yet another poet lamely using the Paul Simon paradox, “the sound of (my) silence” which has only ever worked as rhetorical image within the context of the original song. Finally, the translator’s ear should not have allowed him to perpetrate the line “And when wan you come.” The vowel in “wan” is less distinct than when Keats wrote “so wan and palely loitering” and for many native speakers of English is indistinguishable from the vowel in “one.”
Despite this minor nitpicking “It’s Overtaking Us’ is a stimulating balancing act of language over the void that poets sense when they combine words in new ways.