Monday, 5 April 2010

review of 'Departures' by David Wevill

David Wevill, Departures. Selected Poems (shearsman. 139 pp; £9.95. ISBN 0-907562-34-5)

Wevill was born in 1935, a Canadian, and lived in England for ten years; his first book was published in 1963, but he had already been part of a Penguin Modern Poets volume; he has lived in Austin, Texas, for the last 30 years [written 2004]. The first trace is 4 poems in 'Cambridge Poets of 1958'. The volume was Birth of a Shark, and the projection of an animal, with the poem shaped by an anatomy, was critical for his first two books. Perhaps this linked to an existentialist preoccupation with the individual and with the dominance of the physical situation.

This sea has many coasts,
And every inch and brown pool
Is a fingerprint. The gannets come
Plunging, wreck their sight; the sea-salt keeps
The crab-flesh it corrodes; and the grape-
Avenging Dog Star locks
These fiery lives to the pillows we drown on.

The focus on the edges of a body were a metaphor for the washing and ebbing edges of a poem - anyway, this period saw Wevill emerge with a perfect grasp of the edge. He learnt how to say everything in a small compass, and still imply a world beyond the poem. The emphasis on exact physical detail and action sequences, and on human marginality in a violent landscape, seems to match themes of Canadian literature identified by Northrop Frye (The Bush Garden) and Margaret Atwood (Survival). It resembles EJ Pratt in that combination of exact sequences of physical actions and an atmosphere of latent violence.

The explosion came a few years later. Linked by an experiential metaphor to the vast unobstructed spaces of Texas, the expansion to book-length poems could be seen as a totalisation of the animal poems: they were staged around a (projected) body, here the projection was an entire world.
Lose no sleep over this re-entry into the condom of
daylight and dust. Here the moon's vulva opens. The Sea of
Tranquility is a dripping cave where blind shell creatures,
colourless, crawl.

In the clear cooling pool the skeletons will harden again,
both male and female.

We wake washed in the sweat where all seas meet.
Bone to bone, our breath sifting through our ribs like wind.
(from Firebreak, 1971)

Martin Thom, Tom Lowenstein, and Nathaniel Tarn are just some of the poets who drew on anthropology at that time. The pressing question of English poetry over a long period had been how to write mythical poetry in the emptiness after Christian and Greco-Roman myth ceased to work. The 'authoritarian pessimism' of Beckett had been a stopgap elevation of the emptiness to fill the boundless; the discovery of non-European myth required perseverance and great exactness of technique. Animal poems led into animal myth and then into the dizzying selfreferentiality of creation myth - Where the Arrow Falls (1973) draws extensively on Hopi cosmology, narrates a world which the characters create every morning. It is their anatomy translated into space. The extension of scale and the jettison of a 20th century Western semantic frame shattered the poetry audience - this is where a shared cultural memory stops. Discovering Wevill now is a staggering experience - this is his first English book since 1973 - but my whole career as a reviewer has thrived on slab reissues of major poets of the 1970s. The 80s were a period of gloss erasure, the disappearance of entire sections of history. Wevill's translations of Ferenc Juhasz (in a Penguin European Poets volume) provided the most amazing reading experience of my undergraduate career - maybe Juhasz was the specific entry which led him into original mythic poetry. (To be exact, the most convincing proponents of poetry as myth were the Canadian Northrop Frye and G Wilson Knight, his teacher at Toronto in the 30s.)
The theme of the next phase seems to be making a home - and making a loving family for children. Here, the mythical vastness and everyday reality coincide. The late poems are much sparser; and seem to be influenced by Spanish poetry, or by Spanish songs - 'Solea' is named for an Andalusian religious song type (familiar from Miles Davies' Sketches of Spain). It means solitude, in the dialect of Seville - or better, perhaps, longing. These poems about family history embody a depth of time and sometimes of loss which is almost overwhelming - 'We have what we're not while it lasts.' In 'Rincòn of the heady abstractions' I think rincòn (literally, corner) means 'my corner, my home', almost like niche or Heimat:


corner has no exit. If I remember
it is satisfaction of remembering & not
even a body or face to go
under for, strings in my hand
vibrating still with earth's winds.

Orpheus is too old to meet his question.
Above & below there are greater
certainties than love
remembered, a person.

'Figure of Eight' (1987), a long poem, is a denial of loss through a geometrical figure that replenishes itself; drawing heavily on Buddhist parables, the figure draws itself against a lack of resistance which implies a deeper emptiness of its ground; with autobiographical pictures and a meditation on the high points of 20th century poetry.

Summer too long where is fall the keen
Canadian wind
the clear streambeds of eyes, the
lassitude of honey.
Means and ends
'The honey of peace in old poems'
the clear viscosity clouded by the cold
of living fragments.

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