No 1 - Spring 2001
De-Constructing the Human
Review of Estill Pollock
Constructing the Human, Estill Pollock, Poetry Salzburg 2001, 123 pp, £8.95, ISBN: 3-901993-08-8)
1. The Face in the Mirror: Metaphysical Graffiti
On a visit to a second-hand bookshop, I found a bundle of magazines dating from about 1940 to 1953. Amongst the items there was a first appearance of Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill", "A Refusal to Mourn", Auden's "In Memory of Sigmund Freud", and a London journal in which T. S. Eliot paid tribute to Dylan Thomas, who had died the previous autumn. Touchingly, Eliot urged readers to offer a donation in support of Thomas's widow and children. Ephemeral by nature, these magazines had a print run of a few hundred copies only, and were never considered rare in any case, bound for pulping, or to be burnt, or, like these, left to moulder with the contents of an auction house clearance.
Reading through the issues, I became aware that many of the contributors represented therein, represented too the period referred to since as the Modern. In fact, by 1940 the Modernist influence was one of retrospection. We walk with those ghosts still.
"Metaphysical Graffiti" was written to chronicle this phenomenon in particular, as were the other poems in the first section of Constructing the Human, by association.
… rakehells quoting
Dylan's boys of summer …
dismayed and disbelieving
to mourn the maker of the map of love.
… praetorian personae
reminisce along the parapets, the interlude
extracted from memory's cold fire.(1)
A generation squats in doorways, sleeping rough
on cold iambics.(2)
"Metaphysical Graffiti" represents the death of the Modern period, or at the least our sense of closure. The figure in the glass at the beginning of the poem, corpse-like, prepared for burial, becomes the conscious symbol of that passing.
A cold morning decades gone
models this present dawn: my features
accommodate the halflight.
Filigree emblems of the grand parade
worn décolleté, the sun draws
shallow breath along the ghost perimeters.
The dead reside beyond this alchemy.(3)
The poem progresses using a mechanism largely autobiographical. References to specific events position the writing within a designated cultural heritage, but the juxtaposition of these against the rawness of the apprehended present creates a sense of dislocation that could never be mistaken for the nostalgic.
The razor at the throat perfects the years,
time and places traded for a life …
The speaking parts are taken.(4)
Other poems in this section are more studied in their approach, if only because, in the Modernist mirror, there is a requirement for the image there to be fundamentally expressive; in the eyes staring back, we recognise ourselves.
… a vapour of lies, a rogue's world, edgy – thus,
where mannequin vogues embrace the void.(5)
The past exists
in recollection only, some ancient rendezvous we made
configured in the spheres' acoustics …(6)
… the lives you never save
demand your witness and release.(7)
This view of the Modern as a beautiful cadaver, dressed and decorated for an audience of one – the face in the mirror, self contemplating self – raises the issue of rightful succession. Postmodernism may be a condition of the true inheritance, or simply a measure of convenience, drifting somewhere in the ironic distance, or engaged in a desperate vernacular.
I spend mornings pruning stubborn gnarls,
righting listing inclinations of the trees
with preference to weathered whorls.(8)
In fact, Postmodernism is no more valid a conceptual process than writing labelled 'Post-Chaucerian', or 'Post-Shakespearian', to use an established iconography. The term itself is seen as a licence for poets not to engage except referentially. All movements or schools of writing are programmed for obsolescence. Insistence that the epithet 'Postmodern' represents progress is specious. The Modern and Postmodern are both relics, because they exist relatively in cultural time.
… nothing has been changed except the unreal,
as if nothing had been changed at all.(9)
Whatever the name it is known by, the face in the mirror is always there, demanding recognition.
2. The Long Road Home: Man from Earth
Many of the poems in this section fall into the sub-genre, 'road' poems. They are poems about travel and travellers, representative of the search for personal identity. The voice, too, is personal, in that events are experienced first-hand, or are integral to the process of reconciliation between the poet and the past. From the beginning, the elegiac dominates.
A journeyman's domain,
this broken realm of miles and sky,
island clouds, the storm's remains, archipelago nimbus
adrift in the blue …(10)
The day is a page from Ovid.(11)
In "Captain Blood Returns", the characters are archetypal, the journey allegorical.
… or have the stones of Venice more in common with the clouds
than with the sea's lit foam,
the plasma of ancient stars, or unfamiliar moons
ajar in other doorways?
In the title poem for this section, a sense of place and in it the poet's sensibility to the past, an acceptance of the human condition, are expressed through simple metaphors.
…I look to my conduct, and see in signs
my life my only true inheritance,
sheltered in that strength of witness
as fate is fostered in the stars.
and what will they say of me
when their children's children ask –
a picture of a gentleman from the century past,
the clothing quaint, the pose uncertain,
the colours in the background faint?(12)
"Pendragon" leads with lines of child-like simplicity,
There are stars to wish upon,
and stars to keep our love songs honest,
but when the stars in the windowpane have gone
and these wilderness endeavours fade,
will nothing else remain
as rule or symbol of the world we made?
proceeding then with more authority,
Time's grammar shining like a birthstone,
shall it be cut in courtly flourishes,
or do we inhabit a round morality
turning on a dream?
The myth of the Eternal Return is examined in the closing sequence. The progressive layering of imagery seen previously in the poem, "a world engaging its own horizons in relentless integrals of blue", succeeds to that of brutal resignation.
I wish without anguish now:
waiting for equinox and the Lord's elect,
determined to winter here
washing the corpses.(13)
"Zodiac Days", another poem of measured, reflective language, concludes the section. The themes of time and identity are recurrent.
… wind emblem, time's high hawk a falling flame,
the same years passing for you, for me,
always the same years passing.
We meet in dreams, in a strange country
on paths we name as the hour of our birth is named …
The dead rise up and circle the moon,
long, tree-rimmed, corpse-woven light
bright as the world, the presence beside me,
rivers of stars.
3. News from Nowhere: Versions of Sanctuary
The number of poems in this section, and the variety of styles in which they are written, make the listing difficult to sample effectively in an introductory article of this nature. However, as many of the poems share themes common to poems in the other sections, it may serve to select a few passages as representative, and allow readers to examine the poems at length and at their leisure.
In the tales of central Europe
the dead walk, and farmyard creatures
solve the riddle at the world' heart.
In our lives, the leaves of autumn
fall irrevocably to earth,
and allegiances are buried
to the depth of memory, each
weighted with unforgiven pain.(14)
Excitable atoms, busy bird shapes
in slippersoft configurations
whirl above your head.(15)
… the patterns of enamelled flight where each
repeats, repeats within the mind to leave
a witness trace, so vagrant icons teach
an iridescence hovers out of reach.(16)
It is a language of remembered forms,
the marsh dawn lemon on emerald
and the day waiting to be named.(17)
High in the cedars a tatter of crows
against the crushed red of October light,
our own steps sharp in frosted sequence –
who could have known all was mist
and vanished as it came, zero presaging zero?(18)
This chance, believe
as I believed that all
things possible begin as we began,
A weight of breath
is all that holds us here,
a keepsake anchor for our little lives.(20)
for you in hours
no longer than the time
it takes to mend the world, a pressed-leaf time
luminous at the poles.(21)
Within the process of self-examination, through which we become more conscious of our place within a physical space seething with phenomena, the experience of the poetry remains personal and revelatory.
(1) "Metaphysical Graffiti"
(2) "Writing Home"
(6) "Fortunate Aspects"
(7) "A Visitor at Madingley"
(10) "Facing South"
(11) "Weapons Lore"
(12) "Man from Earth"
(14) "Octaves in C"
(15) "Constructing the Human"
(16) "Nomad Frescos"
(17) "The Bell"
(18) "Emblem Heart"
(19) "Signatures in Time"
(20) "Conditions of Service"
(21) "Sailing by the Stars"
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The