Raking Light, Eric Langley, Carcanet, April 2017, pp. 136, £9.99(hardcover) Cavalcanty, Peter Hughes, Carcanet, May 2017, pp.72, £9.99 (paperback) Farm by the Shore, Thomas A. Clarke, Carcanet, August 2017, pp.104, £9.99, (paperback)
A sense of light crackles across the pages of these three new Carcanet publications and one might be forgiven for thinking that each of the poets had been reading the work of the Medieval philosopher Robert Grosseteste whose words in De Luce (‘On Light’) emphasised a light which ‘of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ The poetic language which snakes its way across the pages of these books appears to be informed by light and seems to participate in the world invoked and delineated by that illumination.
Eric Langley’s début collection of poems, Raking Light, casts a forensic eye over the world of etymologies. The title is taken from the technique used in art-conservation where an oblique beam is thrown across the surface of a picture in order to expose its textures and overlays. Under such raked light, secrets appear from their hiding places as paint reveals its damage and deterioration, its craquelure and canvas warp. The reader of a painting, like that of a poem, is confronted with a backstory of abandoned intentions: lost meanings and buried contradictions in language. Langley presents the reader with a world of abandoned significances:
Once, there was life here – residual and errant –
hushed since, shucked under the thick skin, the tough slough.
A past master lies licked in his dust. Yoked behind slaked lime, Flake-white and linseed, hid behind The chalking, quick lick-and-promise.
Memories are tucked away and, through contemplation of a world of derivations, can rise to the surface clear and true. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is placed within a London context and Proserpina (whose very name is derived from the Latin proserpere, to creep forth), consort of Pluto in Hades, ‘permits a soft requick’ning’ as Eurydice’s ‘recent ghost’ is re-weaved for some moments out of light and words. Looked at by Orpheus too intrusively and too directly she will return to the shades of the buried meanings and in ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ the elegiac tone of the grieving singer faces a lost past:
I don’t know when
I looked to lose
you, or heard you spiralled off on spindrift.
Eurydice returns ‘…right on edge / of the brightest world’ before ‘you slipped / off on their atmosphere” and Orpheus is left by her “dimly falling’:
Why did you go
when I’m still calling out for full recall?
One can almost hear the eerie repetition of lines from Thomas Hardy’s elegiac stanzas to his dead wife in the 1912-13 poem ‘The Voice’ as he is left ‘faltering forward’ with ‘leaves around me falling’:
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward, And the woman calling.
The word which seems most appropriate to Eric Langley’s poems might be glimpses, memories tucked under the hedge, fragmented light.
Peter Hughes’s translations of Petrarch’s complete sonnets were published by Reality Street in 2015 under the title Quite Frankly and it seems entirely appropriate that he should now have turned his individual and energetic attention to the work of the thirteenth-century Tuscan poet Cavalcanti. It was 1910 when Ezra Pound suggested some major differences between the two Italian poets by suggesting that Petrarch’s art was that of ornament (‘the prettiest ornament he could find’) whereas in referring to Cavalcanti he voiced one of the major statements which has been linked to the origins of Modernism:
We appear to have lost the radiant world where one thought cuts through another with clean edge, a world of moving energies ‘ mezzo oscuro rade’, ‘ risplende in sè perpetuale effecto’, magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border the visible, the matter of Dante’s paradiso, the glass under water, the form that seems a form seen in a mirror, these realities perceptible to the sense…
A shimmering energy in Hughes’s poems reflects off the pages of this new translation of Cavalcanti, Cavalcanty. When Pound wrote about the Tuscan poet he had suggested that the famous canzone, Donna mi Prega, ‘may have appeared about as soothing to the Florentine of A.D. 1290 as conversation about Tom Paine, Marx, Lenin and Bucharin would to-day in a Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis, Tenn.’ Turning to the very up-to-date version of ‘ Donna me prega – per ch’eo voglio dire’ in Hughes’s new translation we can see what might halt today’s equivalent of that bankers’ board meeting in Memphis in its tracks:
now the lady makes me think about love’s pit-bull attacks on the soul’s soft tissues
& those fatal core-reactor meltdowns & deep immunity to metaphor
The immediacy of these lines gives off a heat which confronts us with a social and political sense of confrontation and that ‘deep immunity to metaphor’ ensures that any prevailing world of socially polite poetry is left completely behind in the dusty cupboard of dead poetry anthologies. This is a world of Love which is composed of ‘overactive elbows’ barging its way ‘to the front of any queue or crowd’. This sensuality of love is made
of nothing yet feels like marble knuckles kneading your most vulnerable hollows articles & raw protuberances.
The focus of attention on a childhood’s game of marbles (no feeling of butterflies here!) merges with the pun on knead/need and the empty cries from empty places within. It is uncompromisingly vivid.
Perhaps what distinguishes poetry from other forms of writing is the emphasis it gives to each word, a weight, space and lustral immediacy. Farm by the Shore is a collection of just over two hundred short poems. The shortest contain only one line and appear on the page a little like proverbs reminding one of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: mysterious lines offering a thought contained in the simplicity of black print on a white page:
open the door and startle a deer
The poems are investigations into the landscape and culture of the Scottish highlands and islands and, as the note on the back of this attractively produced volume informs us:
Thomas A. Clark’s brief notations and fragments embody the precarious balance between sea and land, wilderness and civilisation, while everything is played out in a context of weather.
This precarious balance is held still for a moment in a world of light:
nothing is lovelier than the grey line that approaches and departs from precision
As light shifts so does the focus of attention that Clark brings to bear upon the moment. However, attentiveness, like light is indivisible and thirteen poems after this moment we read:
between stimulus and response the grey lag
The noun ‘lag’ may refer to a long strip of marshy meadow, one that might appear in ‘the grey line’, but it also can refer to the halting movement of time as reflected in shifting light. The spaces between the individual poems are pauses for thought:
…indications of time or distance, or graphs of the vagaries of attention. In such a climate, to farm, or walk, or write, is to persist. You come to one thing and then another.
In the terse and exact language of Thomas A. Clark words track down thoughts:
noun intending its object stoat chasing a rabbit
and language tries to hold a moment still, to extract a significance from what is already changing in the shifting light. It is as though Clark holds in mind Walter Benjamin’s phrase ‘the dialectics of happiness’. In 1977 Clark was interviewed by Glyn Pursglove and he referred to that Benjamin quotation:
He talks of there being two modes within the dialectic; a hymnic mode and an elegiac mode. That means for me a Paradise Lost, being the elegiac, and a Paradise Regained or Glimpsed being the hymnic.
The two modes are of course inseparable and in Farm by the Shore Clark offers us bright glimpses which are already moving into shadow.
In Canto 93 from Section: Rock-Drill Pound quoted from Dante’s Convivio about how the union of love permits us to know what is inside the mind by seeing outside the thing it loves. He then proceeded with the single word ‘ Risplende’, standing shining in a line of its own and emphasised the centrality of presence by asserting words which have become totemic for Modernism: ‘Manifest and not abstract’. It was Pound’s essay of 1910 which suggested that Cavalcanti may well have read Grosseteste on the substance of light and his own rendering of the Canzone ‘Donna me prega’ took that into account. Grosseteste had considered light to be ‘a very subtle corporeal substance, whose exceeding thinness and rarity approaches the incorporeal, and which of its own nature perpetually generates itself and is at once spherically diffused around a given point.’ In the combative and assertive words of Peter Hughes’s Cavalcanty we flow into fresh configurations ‘in response to love’s accommodations’ and Eric Langley’s eye rakes the canvas ‘soothed through / freeze frame and bending glass’. Meaning is discovered between spaces, silences heard between sounds, in the work of all three of these vitally alert poets.