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Issue 257
November/December 2009
Resilience & Climate Change

Reviews

Song at the Hazardous Edge
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Cover: White Snakes Head Fritillary Photograph: David Hall/WWT

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Song at the Hazardous Edge

Jeremy Hooker is impressed by a new metaphysical poetry of harsh struggle and lyrical beauty. Voyaging Out by Peter Abbs. Salt, 2009. ISBN 9781844715121

From the beginning Peter Abbs’ quest has been spiritual. In a poem published in 1978, which is the first in his selected poems, The Flowering of Flint, he asks: “where would you lead me and what | would you have of | me, restless | and enigmatic | spirit?” A line from another early poem expresses the autobiographical impulse that drives his spiritual quest: “What I have struggled with is who I am”.

The authenticity of his struggle, which continues in the new poems gathered in Voyaging Out, lends a certain harshness to Abbs’ lyricism. Characteristically, he begins a number of poems with questions: for example, “Where to begin?” and “How to phrase it?” This both denotes the genuinely exploratory nature of Abbs’ poetry, and engages the reader with the immediacy of his quest.

Voyaging Out is in two parts. ‘Peregrinations’ consists of poems representing the poet’s personal voyages both into inner depths and out into the world, some of the poems arising directly from his life experiences, and others focusing on subjects as diverse as Nietzsche’s childhood, the death of Pope John Paul II, and paintings by Pierre Bonnard and Edward Hopper, but all driven by the same metaphysical quest. The second section, ‘Transformations’, consists of contemporary versions of poems by Rumi, Dante and Rilke. These metamorphoses of the originals both bring a great tradition into the conditions of the modern world, and lend the poet the spiritual support of that tradition.

To say that Abbs is a religious poet means, partly, that he is consciously a post-Christian poet who grapples with the spiritual legacy of his early Catholic faith. It also means that he draws upon religious language and imagery with the aim of renewing it for a new vision of aesthetic, erotic and ecological meaning. The metamorphic or alchemic process begins with words and imagery, such as ‘icon’, associated with the poet’s strongest early experiences. Thus, in ‘Self Portrait’, the first poem in Voyaging Out, Abbs writes of “icons where endings | are beginnings, where the country of despair | borders the frontier of possibility”. The border or frontier, which recurs also in Voyaging Out in imagery of an ‘edge’, is the location of Abbs’ quest for a new metaphysical poetry. This is at once the world of everyday experience and, in the title of another poem, ‘Off all the maps’:

How to grasp the emergency that’s

ours? At the edge,

speechless, flailing unseen – into the

wind scream.

Recurring images in Voyaging Out include colours such as silver and white, birds, music, light and fire, and rising winds. Thus, the poet sees a swan:

a prodigy of driven white, its huge

wings whirring over

my astounded head, its webbed feet

dripping silver

in the mist and light. No beginning,

no middle, no end.

Not a word on my tongue…

Mysterium Tremendum.

The ellipsis, a form of punctuation Abbs favours in a number of his poems, indicates the place where speech fronts speechlessness. In this instance, the iconic swan perhaps does not need the final explanatory words.

In such books as Against the Flow, Abbs is known as a powerful polemicist. On occasion in his poems the polemicist weighs in to explain what the lyrical poet has pictured and sounded in words. It would be fair to say, however, that the best of Voyaging Out is vision: a quality marvellously conveyed by the cover image of a David Tress painted bush ablaze with colour. Vision emerges through poetry that takes the strain of negation.

Voyaging Out is haunted by endings as well as beginnings, by death and the prospect of death. The poems seek through time for timelessness, and through the finite for infinity. For Abbs, Christianity is associated with death, and philosophy risks being “a betrayal of the body”. His poem ‘Bonnard’s Gift’ embodies what he says about the painter in Against the Flow, where he sees in the paintings “the ecstasy of the ordinary. The fullness of existence”. It is in Nature, and in erotic love, that Abbs, like Bonnard, perceives that fullness. In the words of ‘Bonnard’s Gift’, “He wants the gold gift | from the alchemist’s furnace, flesh | rippling with light”. His new poems contain more than glimpses of this vision. Voyaging Out is all the stronger for the courage with which the poet struggles towards the frontiers of possibility, through the country of despair.

Jeremy Hooker’s books include The Cut of the Light: Poems 1965-2005 and an edition of Richard Jefferies’ essays, At Home on the Earth.

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