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Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

Tracing the Distance by Andrea Moorhead (The Bitter Oleander Press)

This book is a quartet of slow, accumulative, long prose poems that touch on landscape, personal experience, geography, and philosophy. Sectioned and/or paragraphed, they gradually build up encounters with ‘Landscapes. Subtle shiftings of reality.’ These shiftings come from attention to detail, consideration of change, the seasons, the weather, how the light falls, and of how humans engage with the world around them.

Moorhead is interested in her own place in things, and in place itself, willing to be both scientific and emotional, rational and speculative, and to grapple with the unknown, in an attempt to allow ‘this existence to be full’. This fullness of experience, of course, means dealing with ups and downs, winter and summer, light and dark, the desired-for and the unwelcome. Death and mortality are part of nature, as is longing, absence, memory and anticipation; our own stories make sense of our lives, and ‘[f]ables frame the day’. Moorhead is well aware that ‘[t]his insistence on recollection alters the perception of light, changes the angle, lifts the dark shades to a brighter hue’, and she willingly brings that self-awareness to her texts.

But her self, her ego if you prefer, is pushed to the background throughout this writing. Moorhead gazes outwards, sits still and observes, walks and watches. She is well travelled and well aware of ecological damage and devastation, in fact it informs her work, but her work is mostly sitting still, looking and thinking about what she can see, and putting it in to language. ‘Sometimes’, she writes, ‘the day itself wobbles, sometimes everything wobbles, oscillates, shimmers and shivers along some axis that isn’t readily apparent.’ 

She attempts to explain how history, geography and language – ‘remarks’ – ‘have a way of escaping […] perhaps dissolving into what people call thin air, the substanceless extension of lived space.’ Moorhead is busy trying to document what is missing, push beyond the surface of the world into the past, the now, and the elsewhere, but ‘[t]he physical world preserves its mystery’ and only ‘fragile words linger’, perhaps not for long.

Much as Moorhead does her best to watch and understand, think and engage, she admits that ‘[t]he hallucinatory boundaries are unclear; illusion, mirage, hope and expectation reek havoc with the mind.’ We cannot escape what we have done and are doing, our shared responsibility, or leave our assumptions and wishes, our selves, behind: ‘flesh is slow to absorb what flickers across the mind’. But in this wonderful book Moorhead attempts to ‘narrow the gap between lost reflection and the insistent weight of the body’, to earth herself and us in time and place, the very now of where and how we live.

Rupert Loydell 14th May 2022

Afterword by David Miller (Shearsman Books), Circle Square Triangle by David Miller (Spuyten Duyvil)

Afterword by David Miller (Shearsman Books), Circle Square Triangle by David Miller (Spuyten Duyvil)

David Miller’s writing has always crossed boundaries: between poetry and fiction, between the confessional and poetically distant, the heartfelt and philosophical. His work has consistently used short texts – often containing quotes or intertextual allusions – in juxtaposition to other short texts to build up a patchwork effect within a text. In the ‘Notes’ to Afterword, he refers to ‘independent texts. Yet related.’ and ‘Ruins, edifices, fragmented architectures.’ Adopting a phrase from Circle Square Triangle a reader might think of reading Miller more as ‘through & past & back’.

But it is never a puzzle to be solved, or a jigsaw that makes a picture with straight edges and is complete. Miller’s work is often more like an archaeological tesserae, the remains of a mosaic that has slowly been revealed by digging and then patient brush work. The quotations and allusions, be they from neglected authors, obscure religious texts or other poets’ writing, are sufficient in themselves: we do not need to read them for ourselves, Miller has captured the essence of what he wishes to say or mention and embedded that within his own web of writing.

Because the texts are so brief, it means the language and ideas have to work hard on the page. These are poems that have been edited and shaped, revised and rewritten until there is just enough on the page, enough to capture a moment, a thought, an image or idea. These are then allowed to accumulate and link, via association and theme, to produce a complete work. It risks being precious, elusive and cryptic, but Miller’s work is consistently clear-headed and precise, carefully sculpted on the page and for the ear.

The back cover blurb suggests that Afterword is ‘a long poem in fragments, but it might also be seen as a poem sequence of memories and mediations, dreams and visions’. Thankfully, Miller retains his specificity and imagistic skill to keep away from the new age ideas this conjured up for me, although at times these texts can be more abstract than much of his writing, relying on wordplay, visual/aural echo and surprising trains of thought to make their point:

     rage

     rags | rags we have | rags we become we are       (page 86)

     so late | & still it rains

     so long ah so long that it rains it rains & it rains

     cherries in kirsch | once               (page 83)

Much of Afterword references spirituality, belief and love, often within the context of regret and loss, but also in relation to art, theology and relationships, and the book slowly moves towards a kind of resolution which is rooted in the physicality of fingers, speech and lips.

Circle Square Triangle is more of a sequence in the expected way: a long poem in four numbered parts, sometimes divided again into numbered parts, with individual poems (or parts of poems) delineated by asterisks between them, but the whole running on over the pages. I confess that even after several reads (and also as an unnamed character who is briefly present in a poem) I struggle with this work. It is the first time for me that Miller has tried to imbue too much meaning into some of his images or let named artists and writers stand in as a kind of shorthand for what he wants to say. And the title phrase does not resonate or underpin the work as Miller clearly wants it to do.

There are wonderful memories and moments, even compressed narratives, in this text, but there are also poems that moan and poems that seem too ordinary in what they depict. It is clear these autobiographical stories and memories are important to the author, but sometimes they seem slight or disgruntled in their retelling. Others, of course, may disagree and find ways to engage with Circle Square Triangle, but for me it is Afterword, along with Miller’s Collected Poems, Reassembling Still, I shall be returning to.

Rupert Loydell 6th February 2022

Aliens, angels & annunciations: Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell in conversation

Aliens, angels & annunciations: Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell in conversation

Rupert Loydell: So, A Confusion of Marys is finally out. A couple of people have asked about the process, the research, and motive for writing it. I can talk about trips to Italy and being mesmerised by a couple of Fra Angelica paintings, and then following through by looking at lots more annunciations and art and photography about angels, about deliberately [mis]reading works of art and events as annunciations, and a vague idea of something from elsewhere intruding into the human realm, but what’s your perception of coming on board as it were? I honestly can’t recall how we ended up doing those Joyful Mysteries pamphlets and then the Impossible Songs pamphlet.

Sarah Cave: I grew up a Christian and have been mentally dealing with what that means for the best part of three decades. My long poem in A Confusion of Marys was really my way of trying to understand Mary – a figure of grace – and to draw her for myself; beyond the annunciation, beyond liturgy. I think our conversations about the annunciation and John F Deane’s beautiful sequence of poems about Lydia in Give Dust a Tongue – the woman Jesus meets at Jacob’s well – helped frame how I wanted Mary to emerge in her own right. Also, when Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer’ was released in a softer form by the Norwegian singer Moddi, I was struck by their pleas, ‘Mary, our hands are tied in prayer / Help us if you’re there!’ and ‘O Holy Mary, be a feminist!’. I was also struck by the way that Maria Alyokhina talked about faith in interviews; faith wasn’t something that belonged to the church but to the individual. ‘Punk Prayer’ isn’t irreligious, it’s rather an intercession begging Mary to dissolve the kyriarchy and free women from society’s oppressive expectations.

I think the two pamphlets we did were a combination of this and some very silly poems about ducks. I’m certain there was an element of irreverent one-upmanship going on there too.

RL: So, what’s an autophagy then? And what’s it got to do with Mary or the annunciation? Explain yourself!

SC: Autophagy literally means self-eating.

It’s a biological process of cell regeneration – clearing out old cells to encourage regrowth – and I’m interested in the idea of regenerative theology. I was a cradle Anglican and within that tradition Mary is more of a backseat figure – usually appearing in knitted form at crib services – no intercessions etc. I wanted to bring her to the forefront and to understand how, in her all pervasive way, she has shaped my life and the expectations people place on my life – gender, sexuality, politics, mysticism – and the lives of the women around me, and of course, how those expectations must have affected Mary’s own life.

I like that the title, A Confusion of Marys, evokes a sense of the process of writing and re-writing, the Marian annunciation scene as palimpsest. Was this deliberate?

RL: Very much so. I thought of it as a series of variations, accumulations and versions of the same event – including, as you say, some very silly and jokey ideas. I wanted to get away from any idea of theological certainty, I’m much more interested in doubt and myth, symbolism and tangential ideas than anything fixed or final. I like stories that get retold throughout culture, and the annunciation certainly seems to be one that has. I guess the long prose poem that opens the book is an attempt to pile up versions of the story: it could be this, or this, or like that, or what about this?

I confess I’m quite interested in being slightly irreverent, too. I’m not very good at po-faced religion in any shape or form, although I quite like some traditional liturgy. But I abhor those who use their certainty as an excuse for censorship, racism, hatred and abuse.

I enjoyed finding some of the images of angels and annunciations I did. There’s a surprising amount of angel imagery, for instance, in contemporary photography, and many abstract paintings use ‘Annunciation’ as a title. I don’t think these tie in to any version of the traditional Mary and angel story, but I was happy to make the link for myself, just as I did with other ideas such as a magician and his assistant, or boys at a fancy dress party.

From what you’ve said, I’m guessing that your work is actually much more personal to you, and less ideas-driven, than mine is? I’m not suggesting it’s autobiography, but more concerned with ideas that are really important to you, whereas mine could be seen as a bit of an intellectual joke?

SC: Yes, they’re ideas that are important to me because I feel part of those stories. I see their patterns in my own life and the books that I read; a kind of cultural pareidolia, the culture I am simultaneously absorbing and rejecting, honouring and dishonouring. But, of course, the sequence isn’t autobiographical, no more than any other post-confessional poetry.

I think humour, play and irreverence are important when talking about theology. Human spirituality is such a beautifully absurd thing and, as you say, there’s nothing worse than po-faced believers, who sit in judgement. It’s the first step to exclusion and ‘theological certainty’ is what makes heretics and heresy is merely an historical excuse for killing people who don’t agree with you. There’s no way either of us would have survived the inquisition!

You don’t have to look much further than the bible for the sense of versioning, which you’re talking about. I love that this weird and supposedly holy text is the best sense the Council of Nicaea could make of the disparate strands of accounts, prophesy and scripture, and gloriously, it still doesn’t make much sense.

Did you have a personal sense of Mary? Where did your interest in her start?

RL: I’ve always been very resistant to any sense of Marian theology. Saints weren’t a thing in the church I was brought up in, and Mary was simply a human being chosen by God. I think I’m mostly interested in the painting and the way people do turn Mary into something else, almost non-human: it’s very strange to me. I keep coming back to that moment as the idea of worlds colliding; it’s not just me being silly when I wrote about the annunciation as an alien encounter.

Having said that, a lot of the contemporary art I looked at, such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation and the book of it, is very concerned with female human experience, with exploring the story through Mary’s eyes. And of course I’ve reversioned the story from both the male and female gaze, from lustful angels and desirous Mary, with the idea of the angel turning up via an online dating agency, to Joseph’s point-of-view, feeling resentful and sidelined in both the original event and the ensuing art.

It’s strange how once an idea starts – and originally my sense of the annunciation was very much to do with Renaissance art and Italy, as well as colour and ekphrasis – one can interpret almost anything through the lens of a particular story or event. At times it feels like an endless and somewhat ridiculous shaggy dog story, but it’s become a real way to think about all sorts of stories and encounters in the world, a way of understanding human beings. So, I guess my ‘sense of Mary’ is not very specific, it’s about bewildered, frightened, confused and perhaps empowered humans caught up in strange encounters and activities, sometimes aware they are within a painting, sculpture, film or story.

I can’t help thinking about a text I use to teach the first years with, where Gabriel Josipovici talks about how stories die unless they are changed, reinvented, argued over and made new. He also questions the idea of ownership of stories, or even being able to ‘ring-fence’ them. Perhaps we are just part of a religious and artistic dialogue?

SC: Gosh, yes. The book is undoubtedly part of a wider dialogue. Even in Christianity there are so many different interpretations, the same story manifesting through art, literature and performance; from fish and crosses scratched in caves, renaissance frescoes, Sunday school cartoons, those strange graphics in religious pamphlets and school plays. I love the version of the nativity in the Quran, which has Mary give birth to the prophet, while clinging to a palm tree.

I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I was asked to do at Sunday school was to draw Jesus, which started off abstract and developed over the years into crayon stick people with palm leaves, poster paint crucifixions and pasta shaped ascensions. We’ve come an awful long way in two thousand years with this particular story, considering only half a century ago re-versions by writers such as Robert Graves, Nikos Kazantzakis et al were met with horror and derision; it’s only forty years since The Life of Brian upset Malcolm Muggeridge and the Archbishop of York. I find Michael Palin’s visible pain at being told the film is irreligious during that debate very identifiable. For me, a sense of irreverence is its own reverie.

In ‘Autophagy’, I’ve tried to create my own Marian theology, based on tracing a matriarchal line of caregiving. By looking at the other women in the bible, such as Sarah and Hagar, allowed me to draw lines of comparison between different aspects of female experience. Sarah had her own miraculous conception, and, like Elizabeth’s, it went beyond biological expectation. God blesses Sarah but he also causes a rupture between her and her handmaiden Hagar. Women’s relationships are footnotes in the bible and the more we think about them the less clear cut the stories are and the less suitable for the simplistic moral guidance deployed by some believers.

© Sarah Cave & Rupert Loydell 2020
14th January 2020

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