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The Dances of Albion by John Milbank (Shearsman Books)

The Dances of Albion by John Milbank (Shearsman Books)

In his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry Michael Symmons Roberts writes about ‘Contemporary Poetry and Belief’. He quotes from David Jones’s Preface to The Anathémata where the Anglo-Welsh poet asserts that ‘The arts abhor any loppings off of meanings or emptyings out, any lessening of the totality of connotation, and loss of recession and thickness through.’ This acts as a prescient introduction to the work of John Milbank and Roberts goes on to quote from Milbank’s Introduction to The Mercurial Wood:

‘Poetry is not fiction, but the most intense of real interventions…Of its essence, poetry makes, but it makes only to see further, and to establish something real in the world: real, because it further manifests the ideal and abiding. In this context it can be seen that its unavoidable detour via fiction is paradoxically a sign of its necessary humility: it must, in part, conjecture, since it cannot fully see and create in one simple intuition, like God himself.’

This idea of seeing further reminds me of Hopkins and his ideas of ‘inscape’, an expression of individuality that can be perceived by the fully engaged onlooker. It reminds me of Roger Langley in his interview with R. F. Walker in which he referred to standing for an hour and a half by a track with the feeling ‘that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough’. It reminds me of those lines from a late John Riley poem ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’. Or as John Milbank puts it in ‘Dorset Song’

‘These yearnings outlast
all understandings’

Milbank’s Albion is a living world held poised between the lyric / and the hymnic’, a psychogeography of a land from Pembrokeshire to North Kent, from Dorset to East Anglia. It is a world that reminds me also of the almost amphibious reality to be found in the novels of John Cowper Powys:

‘It is only a very few human beings, however, in each community, who are able to slip out of their skins and share this super-mundane observation of themselves. For the most part the inhabitants of a given locality—or aquarium—just go blindly on, unconsciously swimming about, following their affairs, obeying their necessities, pursuing the smaller fry, making their weed-nests or their mud-nurseries.’ (A Glastonbury Romance)

Milbank’s world is alive in such a manner that his reassurance leaves the sceptical emptiness of a failure of belief to be recognised as it is: dust.
Instead of a late-secular aridity we are presented with the ‘infinitely many crystal-droplets’ which ‘merge as one lucidity, older than the sun, / more like the moon’s echo of but one star.’ The poet’s re-creation of myth and belief, humility and intense observation makes

‘solidity sing, flow stay and burning warm.’

The lyric quality of these poems is infectious and it merges a Romantic response to landscape with a Post-Modern awareness of how it is our business

‘to dig and merely wonder
at the limit, at the outside,
in the outlasting.’

Ian Brinton 24th September 2015

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