Thomas Ovans reflects on two poetry collections which take their inspiration from the past.

Knot by John GreeningKnot1-211x300
Worple Press
IBN 978-1-905208-18-0 pp 47 £8

The Cavafy Variations by Ian Parks
Rack Press
ISBN 978-0-9567981-5-2 pp 12  £5

The two short collections reviewed here both make use of borrowed voices. Ian Parks’ pamphlet contains versions of poems by Cavafy, who himself looks backwards to retell stories from the classical era. The starting point for John Greening’s book is the imagined experience of Ben Jonson on his famous walk to visit William Drummond in Hawthornden Castle.

There is also a pessimistic thread running through both collections. This is particularly true of The Cavafy Variations with its accounts of impotent or untrustworthy gods and the need for accepting fate without protest. There is, for example, no escape to be found in moving to another city because the damage that you did will follow you (and we hope in vain for a qualifying clause that starts unless). There is greater variation of mood in Knot, but Greening too can express a pretty bleak point of view. In a poem addressed to Sir Philip Sidney he scorns the shallowness of our own times by lamenting If yours was a golden age, ours / was aluminium at best, with a ring-pull…and again We have no standard, only plastic that can be swiped.

These commonalities being acknowledged, we may take each book individually. The Cavafy Variations is a short, twelve-page selection. It begins with a reflection on the transience of life – likening our days to candles where the burnt-out ones outnumber the future’s bright, upright candles, glowing in the dark – and ends in similar vein with an injunction not to waste your life because you’ll wake up one day and find it’s gone. Material like this could be hard to handle: there is a danger of the poems becoming overwrought or even spilling over into self-parody. However Parks does manage to stay in control; and this must partly be due to his careful use of quite plain and spare language. The poetry comes from his subtle skill in constructing pleasing sound-echoes – for instance this lost metropolis will track you down or again:

I see myself among the ruined squares
the cafés and the harbour bars
repeating the identical mistakes.
                                         (‘The City’)

There is similar understated craft to be enjoyed in the wide-spaced and irregular rhymes employed in several of the poems – for instance joy / boy / Troy / dry in ‘Unfaithfulness’ or peak / unique and lose / shoes in ‘The Watchman’.

Cavafy’s poems suggest that, in the face of hostile (or merely indifferent) superior forces, one refuge is wry cynicism. Thus, when hearing pronouncements about the virtues of a ruler The secret is to listen, nod, and not believe. After all, we know

that someone just as able and unique
as wise and irreplaceable and brave
is there to step into the empty shoes.
                                             (‘The Watchman’)

Such staring back at unpalatable facts is at the heart of Parks’ version of the well-known and often-translated ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Don’t shirk the pain but, instead, as if you were prepared to face the loss / step out onto the balcony, look down …

Readers who are also themselves poets may take especial note of ’The First Step’ where Parks translates Cavafy’s channelling of the Greek poet Theocritus as he responds to a young writer’s complaint I’ve been drafting and redrafting for two years / and all I have to show is one short poem. I wonder how easy most of us would find it, in this fame and success oriented age, quietly to accept the reassurance that to have one foot on the mountain track / should make you happy …/ the first step is an incredible thing.

Attitudes to poetry in different times are also considered in John Greening’s Knot. This is an unusual and original collection in two parts. The first part mixes impressions of Ben Jonson’s visit to Hawthornden Castle with Greening’s own reflections on being a Hawthornden Fellow in May 2010. These prose paragraphs are interspersed with sonnets and ‘verse letters’ addressed to some of Jonson’s contemporaries like George Gascoigne and Walter Raleigh. The second section is a masque – a stylised dramatic form which is probably unfamiliar to many contemporary readers but one which at which Jonson excelled.

I have already referred to Knot as a ‘short’ book; and at 47 pages it probably merits this description. But with its passages of prose and some fairly long poems the pages do not feature very much white space and so it is not a book which is short on content. The first section plays intriguingly with time as the author’s own twenty-first century thoughts are set alongside facts (and fancies) about Jonson and his milieu. The poetry in this section is cleverly crafted. In particular the sonnets skilfully mix a period feel with modern references. A single extended quote sets the standard

That night no moon could brighten brought a moth
to Spain’s fire, but I have preserved Arcadia
in these beds for him. Gardeners keep faith
though others lose it. How many pretty heads
have been planted now? My brother’s death
still climbs the years with sad steps. These last threads
of psalmody I sew for him beneath
our lawns, our hedges. Turn on your radio:
there is another life …

I have previously mentioned the unfavourable comparisons Greening draws between the art of our own times and that of Sir Philip Sidney. Elsewhere there is a recognition that, in some things, different eras do not differ all that much:

“If I am asked to represent World’s End,
I want to make this absolutely clear,
my one priority will be to spend
more money on my home …” No,no, that’s wrong.
It’s true but not what politicians say
in my time or in yours….

All the sonnets in the first section are entitled simply by initials and a more-than-minimal grasp of history may be needed to understand the references. I ‘got’ C.M. thanks to a single mention of Deptford; and probably identified ‘M.W.’ via a clue elsewhere in the text. A few notes might have been helpful; but at the same time I enjoyed a pleasant air of puzzle-solving and play which also occurs when Jonson’s actual journey seems to expand into time-travel, allowing him to be astonished by the smoke, chimneys and viaducts of the Industrial Revolution.

After the intriguing, witty and satisfying first section, I have to report that I found the second section ‘The Masque of Time’ more difficult to appreciate. It consists of a script that was actually performed by a group of Hawthornden Fellows; and one can imagine that the event itself might have been more engaging than the words alone on the page. The fact that they record an enactment that has already happened is underlined by the convention that all stage directions are in the past tense.

The masque is concerned with the experience of aging; and the six poet-characters who take part are sequentially masked as children, young couples, the middle-aged and the old. Certain themes from the first part of the book re-appear: the throw-away nature of our society – the lager can in the sleepers where the night trains terminate; the shallowness of our culture – we lie here relaxing with an airport novel perched on our nipples. But I did not feel the author brought very much that was new to his chosen subject.

Notwithstanding my reservations about the overall effectiveness of the piece, the writing shows the same care and craft that was evident in the first section. One of the most successful of the poems/speeches begins

There are many different times:
common, lemon-scented
and broad-leaf – the first
we barely notice …

The conceit is successfully sustained with the second hints at / some edge to the day; and as for the last its propagation [is] beyond my scope and skill.

Greening’s taste for punning that is evident in the previous extract is also indulged more broadly in a contrast drawn between an empty can and a brimming can’t or in the remark that there is no music in bones in the glue factory. Only horse voices. Which is surely a testimony to the inventiveness and energy of this unusual collection.