Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 24 June 2013

"The Golden Age" by Paul StJohn Mackintosh (Kindle)

e-books are a useful way to extend the life of out-of-print works. Paul St John Mackintosh has produced an e-version of his 1997 book "The Golden Age", having carefully reviewed the e-production process first. It comes with glowing refs from Michael Hamburger, Yves Bonnefoy, Stephen Romer, Philip Gross, Peter Scupham, Peter Dale, etc - a heavyweight list. I particularly noticed Gross's comment "A classical sense of form and order - bold assertions of truly classic values, committed enough to outface easy cynical responses" and the poet's comment in the preface - "even if the original was overfed on Trakl and Heidegger, and stuffed with self-indulgent effusions, I’ve reproduced it as it was, warts and all"

The easy response

I can see what Gross and the poet mean. Surely a book can only be entitled "The Golden Age" nowadays if it's ironic. Well let's see. The first poem, "Home" begins

The key is turned against the night,

the windows closed, the curtains drawn;

clean linen vests the new-made bed

where Truth and Love will lie till dawn. 

Those upper-cased nouns don't seem ironic to me. Gray's Elegy haunts, no more so than in the title poem

Cloud-shadows sweep the landscape’s face,

stately flotillas in full sail;

gilt flecks daubed at each sunbeam’s base

scintillate like fish’s mail.

Those same clouds are blown into "Drunk on Moonshine"

Sparse ghost-crab clouds

sidling sideways across the sky’s

bare arena comb the phosphorescent milt.

(sidling sideways across?). In the same poem there's also

Sandtrapped down a well sunk in drifted stars,

 I cast about the oubliette myself wore smooth,

fulcrumless; the moment of truth cannot raise

me where words volatize in their informing surd.

Elsewhere there's more vocabulary from another age - "resplendent", "emblazoned", "asparkle". A child of my time, I skim over descriptions of nature, wary of pastoral, or even of landscape description like that of "Four Postcards".

Mountains condense out of morning mist

shone into white light by the rising sun

and barred by pines’ shadows, rumpled slope

quilted with growth catching fall’s first flush;

And all that's just from section 1. Atypical of the book? Not really - section 2 has poems entitled "A Pastoral Elegy", "Little Preludes", "Lyric Piece" and "Au Claire de la Lune" where "His lambent heart burns up in its glass;/ but the shutters disdain his dreams, and the stars/ wink mockingly down from the midnight blue sky" ("lambent" is often on lists of "10 words you must never use in poems"). Section 3 begins with "Drinking Song" where glasses "chime with the plangent ache nostalgia brings". In "Counterpoint 2", water is as "mellifluous as a Bach prelude". The final poem in the book doesn't ease off, bringing together some common themes (mirror, moon, etc), some obscure words ("dehisce"), and phrases like "only the curlew's call/ from desolate grey skies/ echoes our loneliness".

The harder response

In this age of ours where poets are encouraged to express themselves and explore styles, fashion still prevails. You're allowed write something after some rediscovered foreign poet, but woe betide if you emulate Keats (or even Ted Hughes). Sometimes poets whose style is unfashionable turn to translating from other (pre-modernist) cultures. Some Japanese influence is here (if it's ok for Jon Stone, why not someone older?). This poet's well-acquainted with Eastern Europe too - he has more right than most to deal with issues from continental Europe - this is far from cultural tourism. So let's not get het up by the style - after all, fashions come round again. Let's be grateful that there aren't endless reminders about the inadequacy of words, the corrosive effect of capitalism on language, or the loss of faith in poetry. There's no disruption either - not least because there's not much narrative. Instead, there are descriptions of static scenes - lists of stanza-length sentences. There's impersonality (which is unpopular). There's no hesitancy or "New Formalist" preachiness - this is committed, confident writing.

And anyway, things aren't as easy as they seem. Even in the book's final poem there's some undercutting, the classical clashing with the more contemporary.

Narcissi leer at ponds,
perennially vain;
the neuter phoenix fans
its birthday candle flame,
encored ad nauseam;
the sterile moon, reborn
anew from her own womb
emptily primps on high
before taking the veil

Here, as in many other places, the compact language enwraps rich imagery (the phoenix and the flame, the nun-moon) that other poets might unravel across several lines. In "Elegy 1" we read that "the rainbow's end ever removes - you never did find gold". At the end of "The Golden Age", "Body and soul are met and wed;/ truth gathered rays out of the bright/ meridian: heaven's watershed,/ the rainbow's keystone" but the final line is "white gold shines out round all that is" - white gold is gold with impurities added for the sake of jewellers, of artifice.

Readers might also miss the strength of the subject matter. Even when the poems deal with uncomfortable issues, the writing's not explicit. Kevin Crossley-Holland described 'An Expressionist Passion' as "a terrifying and moving rewrite of Christ's crucifixion". It describes a scene amongst tramlines and absinthe. I thought it was ekphractic (Beckmann?) or that it depicted an event in a contemporary town (Italian towns still have such enactments). I like how observers' "brows furrowed with cartography/ of where they may migrate internally" but wince a little at "The blank-as-water faces/ part before Him; closes again". I had to read about the dedicatee - Die Weisse Rose - before matters cleared up.

Elsewhere other voices can be heard. "The Two Deaths" begins "The universe's vertical smile", a daring that's not followed up. "Benthos" has what sounds like a more personal voice - "Long I flattered myself that poetry was/ my personal bathyscaphe of Hell ... Now I have no need of the lead balloon ... , the enormities of the ancient charts,// whether murder or sexual atrocity,/ sport openly in a glassy calm,/ and to see my face I need only look down". Keeping the imagery, it (and "The Magic Kingdom") could easy be re-cast (shortened) into a more trendy idiom - not Simon Armitage, but something recognisably cool. I have more trouble with poems like "Land" where "Walled cities grace the river banks" and "streams laugh" unashamedly.

Overall? A culture shock. There's evident technique that my upbringing hasn't really prepared me for. But Bonnefoy, Gross, Scupham, etc know what they're talking about.

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