Monday, November 15, 2010

The Spring Ghazals - Review

I’ve been reading The Spring Ghazals as they have appeared on John Hayes’ blog, Robert Frost’s Banjo, but the experience of reading them in one place, at one sitting, has been very different.

A traditional ghazal, before we get into the particulars of John’s version, is a strict form composed of five or more couplets. The second line of each couplet ends with a repetition of one or a more words, immediately preceded by a rhyme. There can be no enjambment across the couplets of a ghazal and although every couplet may be a short poem in itself, there should be some continuity of thought or theme across them, often related to the overall theme of the ghazal tradition, which is lost or unrequited love.

The Spring Ghazals are not traditional examples of the form. Although composed of a series of couplets they don’t repeat at the end of every couplet, nor do they rhyme, the lines frequently run across couplets, and the couplets themselves, instead of maintaining a dignified independence, are linked by a forward rush of association and feeling. What they do share with the traditional ghazal, besides their basic format, is continuity of thought and theme, and that continuity is what gives the work its very distinctive tone.

Both the individual poems, and the section of the book featuring them, are riff driven. The poems are threaded with a series of motifs or phrases repeated throughout the work, as in a musical ostinato, always with the same weight and stress. The opening image of the willow -‘the willow’s limbs fidget’ - for instance, recurs in the same poem as ‘the breeze agitating the willow,’ then moves through the ghazal section of the book in variations - ‘blackbirds busy in the willow’s supple gesticulating branches.’ blackbirds trilling from willow limb to willow limb, sparrows’ staccato outcry in willows’ arms, the weeping willow’s yellow empty arms, a breeze shifting the willow‘s delicate boughs, the willow limbs’ gray resignation, the mourning dove’s coo in the beb willows.

When the book shifts from the ghazals into the kitchen poems the willow follows. In Macaroni and Cheese we find -
Yellow marimba mallets bouncing down a chromatic bass line the willow
tree you showed me where to plant is grown into goldfinches chirping
all May -
6 tablespoons of butter melting in a copper pot with
flour black pepper paprika
the willow’s leaves the china jade & honey agate rosary beads the
tree of life—time is moving chromatic & crisp & hollow
along the wooden keys...”

It reappears in some of the Grace poems, and in the Helix and Cloudland sections of the book, each time adding shape and unity to the work, in much the same way ostinati and riffs add unity to music that has departed from the structure provided by traditional forms.

January Morning is a good example of Hayes’ technique at work.

January Morning
the cow pond exhaling smoke at 6 degrees the blue gray fog an aquarium
miasma filled with sagebrush & emptiness
a face staring backwards & forwards in the blue gray frozen fog thru the
willow thru the cloud of juncos & sparrows & the sagebrush breaking thru
the snow on the round hill eastward
the rocks white the willow’s long hair black the poplars skeletal
a face staring backwards & forwards in a cloudy mirror & the mule deer
outside the window leaping the barbed wire without any effort the dazzling
flight of a magpie subdued in the freezing mist & white air
the chill is a teardrop mandolin tremoloed in its icy throat on a high octave E
& the crow’s bitter snow is a chill in the heart muscle a contraction
tho the air is blue & gray & opaque & the ridge to the east has sunk below
this sea of fog with its frosty water droplets distributing chill to the lungs
the cowpond exhaling smoke at 6 degrees the owl on the wing over the
skeletal grape vines the owl appearing to me each night its face a white fog
of feathers its wings knifing silently thru the white air soaring south
& the road is white with ice a frozen current swerving south without moving
a face staring in every cardinal direction seeing the white air the willow’s
long black hair streaked white with hoarfrost
a rheumatic shoulder the lungs an aquarium miasma filled with sagebrush &
emptiness the heart contracting its owls wings in the white white air
a face staring into a blue gray frozen ocean stitched with barbed wire
without a horizon
is it a new day

The poem circles like an accompanied canon in 5, a melody followed by imitations after a more or less given duration, as if a new voice enters each time the face reappears, to echo and augment the emotional bleakness, and the contrasting teem of life in the surrounding physical winter. It begins simply enough, with a pond exhaling smoke and fog, until a face emerges from the miasma, staring backwards and forwards, through time, it seems, as much as through space. Significantly the face looks ‘thru’ the world around it, through the fog, the birds, the sagebrush “breaking thru the snow on the round hill eastward,” the rocks, the willow, the poplar, iterating the landscape, and building momentum through the repetition.

In its second appearance, we learn the face sees the world in a cloudy mirror, and as if to heighten the contrast between its passive unreal view and the actual world, things suddenly move, in spite of impediment, with ease and grace. The mule deer leaps the barbed wire, the magpie takes flight into the freezing mist, and from somewhere a mandolin brings the latent music of the piece into focus, cutting, with its bright clarity, through the cloudiness, the miasma, the fog, and the white air with a sustained high octave E. Words, phrases, and images move in and out, and through the lines, changing slightly in look and intent. The face stares, by its third appearance, not thru the world, backwards and forwards in memory, but at it, and ‘sees’ for the first time “the white air the willow’s long black hair streaked white with hoarfrost” and everything else, including the emptiness of things and the contraction of its own heart.

In its final appearance, the face stares not into an obscuring fog but into the wide open emptiness of an ocean without horizon, “stitched with barbed wire.” This last image is a telling one. The mule deer leapt the wire earlier in the poem, without effort, and here it reappears like a form of embroidery on the water, like the wire spread over no man’s land, making an impassable barrier. The word “stitched” however, indicates that the face sees something ‘made,’ something worked, or wrought, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the nature of the emptiness and the impediments it sees.

There are echoes of the Genesis story woven into the last two lines of the poem, subtly reinforcig the idea of something made from emptiness - “without form and void,” as it were. “Without a horizon,” evokes the view of the world before the division of the waters and the question posed in the final line – is it a new day – recalls the refrain after each act of creation -“And the evening and the morning were the first (second third and so on) day.” The poem does not, I believe, intend to be ‘religious.’ It only alludes to the Genesis text to make an immediately recognisable point about how our ways of looking and seeing create the world we occupy, and to suggest an answer to the questions posed in another poem in the collection – “Is poetry living in memory or is it fetching memory into a present moment? Is it making a moment where past & present & future coalesce?”

January Morning is as romantic, in its own way as that most romantic poem, The Lady of Shalott. Baudelaire claimed “ Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling,” and the two poems, both dealing with a mind looking at the world as if “in a cloudy mirror,” have at least that in common. They also share a focus on the natural world as a foil for the outlook of the onlooker, tree imagery, repeated willow images, and a noticeable emphasis on looking and seeing, and on snow, cold, whiteness and cloudiness.

Once the Lady has taken the radical step of looking at the real world instead of its shadowy reflection she is undone. Tennyson describes her looking “like some bold seer in a trance, seeing all his own mischance,” which is the impression we have of the face in January Morning as it looks backwards and forwards. Both poems are, of course, about impossible love. The Lady of Shalott is destroyed by a glimpse of Lancelot and a world she cannot be part of, and we know the narrator of Hayes’ poem is looking at the same thing simply because he speaks to us out of the pages of a collection called Spring Ghazals, which is by definition about lost or impossible love.

The last thing the poems share is the created work. The Lady of Shalott spent her life weaving a tapestry of the world as she saw it, before she ventured to look out on the real world, whereas the face looking, first thru and then at a January morning, ends by seeing the embroidery of barbed wire he has stitched on the world. I am by no means suggesting that January Morning is a modern retelling of Tennyson’s poem, only that it is uses a romantic idiom to address the way we construct and address the world and it shares that aim, often to brilliant effect, with the collection as a whole.

The Spring Ghazals is available at Lulu.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for such an insightful & in-depth review. No author could ask for more than this, & for an obscure writer such as myself to receive this kind of care & attention is quite moving. Thanks again.