Linda Black on Daphne Gloag and Ian Parks on Glyn Hughes
A Compression of Distances
Cinnamon Press 2009
A Compression of Distances by Daphne Gloag, one time medical journalist, and scholar of classics and philosophy, is a paean to her life with her late husband, to whose memory the collection is dedicated. In the words of Rabindranath Togore, quoted in the epigraph, 'My songs... brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart.'
Gloag's sight is both immediate and far-reaching, one could say without boundaries:
So many days with no particulars,
painted like a reflection of sky...
such freedom, it was like the immensity
of sky in our hands. But it was only
the immensity of every day.
We were surprised that moments held so much space
(The Painting of Light is Without Boundaries)
The collection begins with the title poem, commemorating 'our wedding anniversary', introducing us to a couple 'entwined' as the leaves on the roof bosses of Winchester Cathedral. Written in the manner of a conversation - or the relating of a conversation, the plain language of 'I said'/'you said' - here and throughout the book the 'we' is as one, passionately in awe of life: 'We couldn't get enough/of our sky.' A meeting of hearts and minds, it seems the perfect relationship, complete and tender:
We lay close as two words, then you wrapped me
like a parenthesis.
I was warmed by meaning
The attempt - as successful as such an attempt could be - is to pin down the moment, the everyday epiphanies, the 'not quite graspable', to capture ' the irreplaceable days', in communion with the elements; water, light, stars, the universe:
Whether it was flower or light
It was held for us
by the water
Is this what memory does - reconfigure the days? This is what becomes of love
when a life is done.
The latter quote from The Lake, a longer poem in seven parts (inspired we learn from the endnotes, by a line from Dante's Purgatorio canto 12: 'Think that this day never dawns again') evokes the oneness of the union in all its profound simplicity - and intellect:
Once we read up
the etymology of water:
we didn't know that a distant relative
is unda, wave...
abound and abundant.
No one, you said
would mistake the meaning
of us sitting by the water,
At the Café Ondina, a long poem in two sections, quotes from Spenser ('you recited Spenser to me'), speaks of 'reciprocal love', words written in the sand, 'close as two lovers', then photographed 'as if negating/ obliteration': But came the waves and washéd it away. The poem's second stanza quotes from Paradise Lost - the couple are likened to Adam and Eve, such is their self sufficiency:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitarie way
Hand in hand... we held to that paragon peace
of destinations and beginnings.
Where e'er they go is Paradise: 'This is Paradise , you said ( the tranquillity of words connecting us)', only occasionally populated by others - the Acrobat in the Piazza, 'no longer denied the scope of the sky', aiming knives at balloons, 'at first misses them (he is human after all)'; Morris dancers, whose accordion music 'has no beginning/and no end'; Giotto, given voice in The Boy Giotto Draws Sheep on Rock (c.1280), who implores others to 'look and look/at the world' in his desire to 'make things real' under 'stars falling out of blue distances', ahead of him ' only time and dust'.
Biblical references continue; in Joseph's Story, a three page poem in which Joseph relates the flight from Herod, as depicted in Flight into Egypt by Tintoretto, who caught them 'at a bad moment', yet 'made the whole scene/a drama of light' so that, 'I began/ to see things in new ways.' The poem relates a story relating a story, leading us on to the next poem, Arnolfini Story, after Jan van Eyke, beginning 'Of course light isn't everything.'
The final section of the book, the first two parts of a six part sequence entitled Beginnings, has grand designs, seeking as it does to explore 'the personal in the context of the cosmological'. The elegiac tone continues - the 'we' as one, the unified field of thought, now introducing a sense of urgency; 'I had to tell you while we had time'. Though vast, their world is an insular one, as if populated by the two alone, no need for any other: 'You and I understand how matter/is drawn to matter.' When, rarely, they do step outside the small universe of their intimacy and observe, even 'our granddaughter' is seen as 'a child of that hair's breadth victory/of particles over antiparticles...'
A six line poem, Nothing, refers to Leibniz (an advocate of rationalism) asking 'why is there something rather than nothing?', wonders 'suppose there was nothing', subverting the romantic notion of a forever love:
an absence of that huge daring the universe,
a chill and a darkness
nothing and forever without meaning.
All but two of the earlier poems in the sequence take their momentum from scientific terms, mostly pertaining to cosmology, with a simple explanation preceding each poem, for example Inflation, Afterglow, Dark matter. The scientific and the magical are conflated:
A small waterfall, ripple after ripple
on the pool. A bit of magic,
you said. Mulberries fell
from the tree, sheen
We ate a few, fingers stained with copious juice.
The magic of facts, I said.
Ripples of high cloud covered the sky...
The magic of becoming us as we were then
in space and time that unrepeatable day,
Gloag's wonderings, her attempts to make sense of her/their place in the universe, both physically and emotionally, beyond the psyche and the tangible, despite the scientific references, verge on mysticism. One does not doubt the intensity of the experience, the depth of personal connection - the concept of the universe is awe inspiring.
Review by Linda Black
(Shoestring Press, £13.95, ISBN 978 1 904886 98 3)
I first encountered Glyn Hughes' poetry in 1979 when I read Best of Neighbours, his New and Selected Poems. I was twenty and looking for a poetry that spoke directly to my own experience. In Hughes I found a clear and uncompromising voice, a transformative lyrical gift and a formal grittiness which immediately set him apart from his contemporaries. It was a seminal moment and some of the enthusiasm that gripped me then returned on reading Life Class, his moving autobiography in verse.A glance at the list of Hughes' publications reveals that a gap of twenty-six years separates the publication of Best of Neighbours and his next collection, Dancing out of the Dark Side in 2005. Hughes, of course, had been far from silent, establishing a reputation for himself as a fine novelist (Where I Used to Play on the Green, The Rape of the Rose) and writer of autobiography (Millstone Grit, Fair Prospects) the impulse to poetry had remained in his sensibility and in his keen identification with the characters, periods and landscapes he chose to write about. Comparisons with other poet-novelists such as Hardy, Graves and (particularly) Lawrence are inevitable but Hughes is entirely his own man and the poetic temperament presides over everything he's written. So it's particularly fitting that Hughes returns triumphantly to verse in rendering his experiences, memories and observations. Whether dealing with his life-long empathy with nature, his childhood in rural Cheshire or his encounter with another culture in Greece, Hughes informs his verse with a sinuous quality and, remarkably, seeks to recreate rather than merely recollect the sights and sounds, passions and pains, triumphs and despairs that have made up this singular life.
From the beginning Life Class raises questions about the validity of memory - its transitional nature and the way in which it creates its own reality from vividly remembered fragments and impressions. The first of eight distinct though interrelated sections opens with a specific memory:
Caring mothers fed us bacon, eggs,
black puddings, sausages, fried bread;
packed egg sandwiches and thermos flasks
for my friend, whom I shall call Farley, and me:
two youths who thought they had outgrown
such tenderness - of mothers also angry,
quivering without utterance
for what in 1950 they dare not say
but soon shifts from the candour of the specific to a beautiful description of a camping trip where the poet encounters nature head on, embedding in his sensibility a deep-seated sense of communion and inspiration. Here, as elsewhere Hughes moves with consummate ease from the particular to the universal, from the physical to the imagined, from the mundane to the poetic. Life as a journey is a hackneyed metaphor. Hughes manages to rise above it by presenting the journey itself and not the destination as the central impulse behind the rendering of experience into verse. and the verse itself is fluid, free in the best sense, sustained, flexible and never leaving the reader in any doubt that poetry is being read and not prose. It's as if poetry is the only medium available with which to deal with the experiences Hughes wants to revisit and explore.
The memories Hughes evokes in Life Class would appear random and disparate were it not for the fact that the twin themes of love and inspiration inform the whole. There's a Gravesean preoccupation with the transformative power of romantic love, and though Hughes deals in an uncompromisingly realistic manner with his three marriages his conclusion that 'there are as many selves as there are lovers' is as disarming as it is startling. For me the finest, most mysterious writing in the book occurs in the sixth section which Hughes calls Hawthorn Goddess. The Hawthorn Goddess is as much a muse figure to Hughes as the White Goddess was to Graves although for Hughes she is very much the spirit of a particular place: the feminine embodiment of a specific locale: 'of another time, the one of early mills' . His encounters with her are fleeting, vivid, mesmerising; episodes when the membrane between the real and the imagined, the past and the present, the body and the spirit is thin and transparent. This is very powerful writing marked by an intense sense of detail and atmosphere of unease. Ultimately, these visitations leave the poet himself in an unsettled state and 'primed' as he says 'for exile'.
The eighth and final section of the poem brings us full circle. Hughes is once again remembering the friendship of youth but discovering ruefully that Paradise is not located 'beyond the horizon' but 'in the flower at my door'. Reading Life Class is like encountering the man entire - and though it doesn't claim to be comprehensive in its approach it highlights those 'spots of time' which were so important to Wordsworth and the Romantics - those seemingly inconsequential moments when the ordinary is invested with a timelessness which makes one want to live after all':
Though I'm frailer now, will some person catch the gleam
On some days hence, of one starting again
With a happier breathlessness than the one it seems:
Not sickness, but the panting of a boy
Once again waiting for beauty to alight at a station.
Exactly. Life Class is an important long poem by a pure, disinterested poet. It takes us through particular places, situations and times while simultaneously and with incredible grace reminding us of the 'Particles with no sense of ending, which we are'.
Review by Ian Parks
Reprinted by kind permission of the author and Tears in the Fence magazine