When I first heard some of Anthony Caleshu’s ‘Victor’ poems being read last November at the Shearsman book-launch at Swedenborg Hall I was intrigued. At the time, and not having read any of them before, I was a little unsure of the tone of voice; there was a sense of yearning connected to a cold journey and there was a wry sense of humour which haunted many of the startling moments encountered on the way. When I heard them again at a reading in the University of Kent I had had an opportunity to look with greater care at the texts themselves and found myself becoming increasingly respectful of what I registered as an elegiac sense of loss in the early pieces. The character of Victor still contained, of course, its Latin association of achievement but now another Victor hovered in my mind. This second character came from Flaubert’s late tale ‘Un Coeur Simple’ and as Félicité, in some ways a later incarnation of Emma Bovary, goes to Honfleur to catch a last glimpse of her nephew, Victor, as he sets out on an ocean voyage I recognised how I had arrived at the haunting elegy which threads its steps through the early Caleshu poems:
‘When she arrived at the Calvary she turned right instead of left, got lost in the shipyards, and had to retrace her steps. Some people she spoke to advised her to hurry. She went right round the harbour, which was full of boats, constantly tripping over moorings. Then the ground fell away, rays of light criss-crossed in front of her, and for a moment she thought she was going mad, for she could see horses up in the sky.
On the quayside more horses were neighing, frightened by the sea. A derrick was hoisting them into the air and dropping them into one of the boats, which was already crowded with passengers elbowing their way between barrels of cider, baskets of cheese, and sacks of grain. Hens were cackling and the captain swearing, while a cabin-boy stood leaning on the cats-head, completely indifferent to it all. Félicité, who had not recognized him, shouted: “Victor!” and he raised his head. She rushed forward, but at that very moment the gangway was pulled ashore.’
In Caleshu’s epigraph from Emerson’s essay on ‘Friendship’ I could gain a sense of the isolation and needs of Flaubert’s character:
‘We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers our ever faithful heart.’
The first poem opens with a question, ‘Victor, we say, where are you?’ and as if in answer the line continues ‘The wind has a mind of its / own’. The air, wind, insubstantiality, friendship, hope are both now and are gone:
‘We follow the horizon to where the blue of the sky meets
the white of the ice.’
In the second poem the questioning continues as a recollection is interrupted:
‘The last time we saw you…when was the last time we
The awareness of continuance in absence is presented in festive terms as ‘Even in absentia, you put your credit card’, followed by a white space on the page before the decisive word ‘down’.
‘It’s all paid for, the bartender said’.
As friendship melts before new friendship forms there is a bleak recognition that ‘In the cold we get dark’ and, in poem 6, there is the plea ‘Victor, we want your friendship not your money!’ But the journey of dissolution continues and the poet asks ‘How do we stop the melting?’ before recognizing that
‘Each step has become a wish to step back’.
It was perhaps Anthony Caleshu’s use of the word ‘step’ that brought back to my mind that 1970 tour-de-force by W.S. Graham, ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ which opens with its elegiac tone of friendships left behind:
‘Today, Tuesday, I decided to move on
Although the wind was veering. Better to move
Than have them at my heels, poor friends
I buried earlier under the printed snow.’
Graham’s words move step by step, ‘word on word’, and as Tony Lopez put it in his monograph on the poet ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land is in many senses a particular place with its own natural history and its own community of strange inhabitants. The full description does not occur in any one place, but reading across the poems we pick up a consistent level of reference which builds a territory outside but linked with normal reality. It is a place of terror and madness, inhabited by monsters, beasts and gods.’
As Flaubert’s character dies she opens her nostrils to breathe in with ‘mystical sensuous fervour’ and ‘as she breathed her last, she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head’. A ‘sublime hope’ certainly does cheer ever the ‘faithful heart’ and Caleshu’s concluding poem asserts ‘Victor, we’re replacing this story of you with this story of / us’.
This short review is really just an exploration of a few ideas which came to me at further reading. I shall read this powerful and moving sequence of poems many more times yet.
Ian Brinton 28th January 2016