Friday, March 4

Power and Beauty (etc.)

Review by Ian Seed

Songs for Eurydice by Keith Jafrate (Stride, £9.50)

I blunder towards your kiss like a survivor from a burning house

This 130-page poem is a kind of hymn to the beauty lost in the way we live. The poem is highly ambitious, dares to be genuinely innovative, and at its best is intensely lyrical. "Songs for Eurydice" is not a retelling of the myth itself but a kind of continuation, a seeking out, of abandoned love. Given the length of the poem, I will attempt to briefly break it down, though this will not do justice to the overall complexity of the work. The book is divided into nine parts. In the first, "a magical submission", the narrator, or perhaps ‘singer’ is a better word, decides to submit to the desire to find his love, whatever the consequences:

I go to you
        as to death
     an assent
a season entered

However, there are rivals and ghosts to contend with: "the dead crowds of the river want to speak to you […] they carry us like water in their black hands." Again, there is no choice but to submit:

we lie like silence
we build nothing
with careless precision
we embrace and sleep

In part 2, the descent beckons, the narrator prepares himself for whatever has to take place:

I am clean for the journey
on a day of rain

Some of the vivid detail from the descent reads like updated scenes from Dante:

then the endless exhibition of sitting rooms
men masturbate
holding tiny photographs
some with tiny televisions
their pricks impetigo red
hands slowing
down speeding-up
wordless questioning noises
and some openly weeping
like absurd machines
they will never come is all she tells me

Parts 3 and 4 are songs celebrating love found ("your mouth’s soft method") and at the same time mourn the love irretrievably lost in a modern day hell of

…skulls of cars […]
beside the rot of crust and wrapper
rich pickings on the vomit trail

and where "rags of polythene show the wind’s temper."

In part 5 the singer describes his love in sensuous detail, mapping the particular to the universal, not unlike Neruda:

to say your single fingernail supports all history
here in the scar on your elbow every journey.

But this is followed by the "ghost tribunal" of Part 6 with its vignettes of petty people who exist in a kind of limbo ("clerks / their phrases like stones"), yet have the power, if we let them, to defeat us. A letter from a government bureaucrat is quoted at length. There is lament for the real life lost as a consequence:

but not to have looked at you enough
not to have been entered
by landscape’s shadows at evening

"The song of Orpheus", Part 7, is a kind of cry of agony. Love, and therefore life, may never be found again:

to die in the sun in our own lives
where dreams pester the shore
to die at the edge of ourselves

It ends with the ambiguous image of a "crow at the gutter" which "blinks like a toy and turns its head".

The eternal symbol of 'fire' in part 8 is, unlike our traditional image of hell, what can ultimately restore us with its power, what can restore the "small flame / dumb in us". And "the darkness around" the fire is an image of hope

beginning then
and before then

the place within this place
the meeting point

a black flower
time’s gold hand reaching through its heart

The "body lyrics"of part 9 are the most fragmented in the book, where the singer explores and juxtaposes scenes and sense impressions. Orpheus is dead:

here is the body of Orpheus
a field of high grass
a white butterfly on a poppy
silent and a long
way away

But love can still be ours:

if not for us
whose is the city?
if not for love
to keep the rain from lovers […]

the river brings more waves
it is never tired of waves

Hopefully, the parts I have quoted will convey something of the strength and beauty of the writing. The book has also its weak points. The tone can be strident and sometimes I got an impression of we sensitive souls against the philistine world, though I am sure that is not what Jafrate intended. Certain archetypal symbols such flowers are repeated with a wearisome insistence:

when flowering things
when flowering
things when flowering things when

when flowering
things when flowering

least, that’s way it comes across on the page. I accept that accompanied my music, as parts of the poem have been, the impression may well be altogether different.

The writing sometimes strays into cliché and sentimentality:





This reminds me too much of a Christmas card. Of course, other readers may respond differently. Yet given the overall power and beauty of this book, does it really matter if some parts of it are not as good as the rest? William Carlos Williams once said of Kenneth Patchen’s "The Journal of Albion Moonlight" that much of it was brilliant while some of it was truly awful, but that we desperately need writers like Patchen. Something similar could be said of Keith Jafrate.

© Ian Seed, 2005

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