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Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

The critic G. Wilson Knight is perhaps best known for his work on Shakespeare: The Wheel of Fire, The Imperial Theme, The Crown of Life. However, he was also a great admirer of the novelist John Cowper Powys and wrote a short account of that underestimated Dorset giant, The Saturnian Quest. In Wilson Knight’s last book, Neglected Powers, he wrote about Powys as well as presenting us with a ninety page essay on ‘Poetry and magic’. In this essay he directed us towards chapter 14 of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria suggesting that ‘there is a reality being apprehended as surely as in ordinary sense-perception’. In that chapter Coleridge quotes from Sir John Davies’s 1599 poem ‘Of the Soule of Man’:

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light, on her celestial wings.

Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

Wilson Knight commented on this: ‘Sublimation is a term from alchemy. Piercing through matter to essential forms, imagination grips what is universal, which is then re-clothed. The result is addressed to a new sense-perception, resembling yet transcending ordinary sense-perception.’
And then I turned to Alan Baker’s sequence of ‘Thirteen Spells Against Global Warming’, the second half of this fine little volume from last year with its intricate title that shifts from the conditional to the state of play, from ‘Whether’ to ‘weather’. I find these poems wonderfully eerie; they create a living world where the magical pierces through the mundane to tap on our windows.

‘Walk through rain
and dark
spitting leaves, cold
and here’s sleet.
Breath on the window
freezing frames
(what rhymes with breath?)
wind wails or is it squeals
and in silent rooms
curtains move by themselves.’

The sense of a living presence of the outside world, the non-human, is terrific here and it seems entirely appropriate that the poet should then take us to the world of Old English Charms and Gnomic Verses:

‘Shrink like water in a bucket.
Shrivel like coal on the hearth.’

The echo is of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Charm Against a Wen’:

‘Wen, wen wenlet little,
build not here nor find a home
but pass to the north to the next hill
and there discover your brother in pain.
He shall place a leaf on your face.
Under the wolf’s foot under the eagle’s wing
under the eagle’s claw grow into nothingness.
Collapse like a coal burnt in a hearth;
shrink like plaster in a ruined wall…’

In 1923 William Carlos Williams was convinced that ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’ and perhaps his conviction was based upon a feeling that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. His little poem was written only a year after the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land where the American hope for cultural distinction seemed to be based upon an inheritance of a European and classical tradition of placing oneself in a very different context from the one asserted by Williams. The doctor from Rutherford wanted to start with local materials, ‘lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole’ (The American Background, 1934). However, if so much is to depend upon this localization of background then it must be because firm observation of the local will lead to greater insights into thoughts and emotions which transcend what could otherwise become simply parochial.
Reading Alan Baker’s poems this morning I found myself tempted into a slight frisson, a sense of an otherness which I shall want to return to many times again. He certainly takes the reader far beyond the parochial!

1
‘I wish she’d tap
at my window
and smile
when I’m far from home.’

2
‘Path, leading me
to the riverbank
to meet our ghosts
at daybreak:
so pale and wan
and fond, like lovers
expecting rain.’

Ian Brinton 9th July 2015

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