Thursday, July 20, 2006

9. Philip Jenkins

The ninth in this series.

With Philip Jenkins, we’re back into fragments, images that repeat and echo throughout a poem, abstract postulations, constantly shifting tones and registers within the same poem, non-sequiturs, and blurry connections.

Only one poem is included in the anthology, Cairo. It’s a long poem comprising of two “books”, each with ten sections. It’s much harder to get into initially than Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher or Harry Guest. The style corresponds more to that of Richard Caddel and David Chaloner, discussed earlier in this series.

I didn’t get much of a picture of Cairo from these poems - not in a physical sense at all. The city is a vehicle for Philip Jenkins to reflect on various concepts – some have an Egyptian reference, such as myth, water, dust and sand, the boat to the afterlife. Other concepts that crop up include the familiar poetic territory of darkness, Void, emptiness, time, movement, film, death – and of course, geometry, a popular word in this anthology.

There is no narrative. The sections are arranged so that similar images repeat in different sections, and the reader can make of these what he/she wants to. At the centre of the poem (“centre” in a vague way) is revelation, symbolised by an inundation of water onto parched earth and dust. Then the ground is revitalised and the boat can sail from one realm to the other (i.e. the realm of earth and heaven, death and life). However, not every section of the poem directly (or even indirectly) relates to this. The poem is like a cocktail, made up from disparate elements, and is liable to make you dizzy when you’ve drunk the lot. Not everything is going to be clear, that’s for sure.

To give you an idea, the poem begins:

and the darkest hour is just
before dawn         goes the song         the sound
necessarily fades

a spacious wooden floor
right angles extending out
touch the heavy curtains

the darkest segment of the film

the night
a diamond
hard tonality

Now darkness keeps cropping up in the poem. It’s not something I associate with Cairo, but the darkness is later shown to be the first principle of the universe (as the ancient Egyptians imagined), and this darkness is also a primal property of light and all created things.

The film comes up later too, as if there is something outside reality as we know it – whether we are all in the film and there is another real world or whether the film is the other world is ambiguous.

Reality comes under scrutiny. The narrator imagines himself to be the centre of things, but only a loosely defined centre i.e. the centre of something that is a “world of meanings and contexts.” However, this, by implication, may not be an accurate way to describe the world, and certainly not the world of this poem.
In another section, there is a line that ties a bottle’s neck to the edge of a table (how it does this isn’t clear). This line and others create or at least make up reality:

in this one, he seems
to be contemplating geometry
in the next, he has
discovered the wheel

that elegant curve
separating black from white
yin from yang…

…the line that can be built anew

There is a spiritual search going on through the poem. The Egyptian image of a snake eating its tail illustrates perpetual flux, the “cosmic ocean”. There is Divine power in chaos, and meaning seems to lie in emptiness, in the waters of the Abyss, which will open the canals and provide passage to the afterlife.

No matter what we do, there is an inevitability about life:

We arrive by a despite our own efforts. Inexorably and without remorse, we shall be here.

Sometimes the tone shifts abruptly from section to section. In section 5 of Book 1, Jenkins considers the importance of water, how rain and snow will build up to the “inundation” he looks forward to and bring liquid to dry lands, and he points to:

secret of movement
a darkness in the daytime

imperceptible, I suppose he means. Then the tone changes completely in section 6, which reads like a pulp novel that isn’t taking itself entirely seriously:

He re-entered, visibly flustered. “Whatever you
do,” he reminded, “don’t mention the Void. I mentioned
it once but I think I got away with it.”

To be honest, I could have done with a few more of these moments. It is, generally, earnest, serious verse, full of ambiguity and very puzzling in places. I can’t say I really warmed to it much. It didn’t leave me completely clueless, but I’ve no idea if my thoughts on it are anywhere near the writer’s intentions. I suspect my ability to read this kind of material isn’t quite adequate for Philip Jenkins.

Now next up is Grace Lake, and at the moment, I really am clueless when it comes to her. Let’s hope the penny will suddenly drop. Soon. Otherwise, I won’t have much to say, which may be no bad thing.

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