Alan Morrison on
The Rites of Paradise
Cyberwit (India/UK/US) 2020
Geoffrey Heptonstall is a veteran writer, playwright, monologist, poet and critic who has regularly reviewed for The London Magazine among others, and as a poet has been published in scores of reputable journals. The Rites of Paradise is, surprisingly, his first solo poetry collection. I say surprisingly since it is such an assured debut volume, no doubt reflective of the author's extensive experience in other literary mediums but not least of his exceptional poetic capability. Heptonstall's clear, spare, uncluttered lyricism calls to mind the late Robert Nye, particularly the latter's later poetry, even if the former is more inclined to verse libre than was the more formalistic latter. Here is an example of Heptonstall from 'The Book I Open':
These words I have heard in unlikely places
where voices are bound to the sound of reading
of the mind’s silence surrendering
nothing beyond the measureless extreme.
No more an echo, no less a song.
'Jane Austen' contains some beautifully unobtrusive alliteration and sibilance:
Her feelings are composed,
the finger carefully poised,
A single note sustained
on a street fiddler’s string
quivering, like a cornered hart
haunted by the common cry
for something sacrificed.
Such technique is also effective in 'Exile in Ischia' where we also find Heptonstall in aphorismic mode:
Advised, like Adam,
to be a maker of worlds
in sight of another creation
in words like wounds that heal,
'Of Human Geometry' is a wonderful ekphrastic encomium to the work of the late sculptor Barbara Hepworth:
Every hollow in the stone
forms an eloquent absence,
a mind’s eye of feeling
for the possible
imagined by her hands,
re-making a world more real.
The stones stand as sentinel.
Or they may seem to move
as guardians of the natural.
They have shaped the landscape
by their presence.
Her art has peopled emptiness.
In 'Shostakovich' Heptonstall pays tribute to the eponymous composer in short, sharp aphorismic lines, almost staccato in pace:
The viola’s strain is a proud man’s anguish.
Outside his apartment an artist is taken.
Images vanish from the poet’s mind.
Though the poet permits himself some enjambments to furnish the rangier trope:
Something may return
in the changing rooms of memory.
From Classical to 'Jazz', Heptonstall is particularly adept at sense impression, especially aural:
Scent of jasmine, wild
in the derelict square,
at once we name
The rhythm of water
sighs false innocence,
the way a cymbal sound spins.
In 'Edward Lear' Heptonstall depicts the eponymous poet and limerick-writer (probably most famous for 'The Owl and the Pussy Cat') as a solitary soul who sought personal fulfilment in the imagination and creative process:
Never knowing full health,
he chanced on tombs
with names like a roll-call.
Anticipating his own inscribed
softened the loneliness.
‘All shall be Arcady,’
whispered the bird.
Redeemed by art,
he found a cause
for the suffering of life.
We are meant, he knew, to love.
Though he knew no love,
he knew how true it was.
An owl in daylight,
he peered at the radiance
of everything he saw.
In the end is another world.
He hummed to himself as he sketched
the natural sound of wonder.
As that final trope shows Heptonstall's wistfulness can sometimes tip into the fey. Similarly delighting in wonder is the succinct lyric 'Circus Act':
The woman on a high wire
reaches for the Moon.
She is starlit
in her perfect silence, shimmering
above the ganglion children...
Heptonstall has a capacity to surprise with his protean poetry so that suddenly we come upon an Eliotic flourish as in 'A Late Memorial':
Those dreams were sung by everyone
drinking metaphor as spoken
by several personae, each with his name.
Later in the early hours he confesses
the ice complements a bourbon dawn,
smiling at the thought of everything.
Waking to hear the well-remembered,
let us whisper the proper tea values
of English princes Shakespeared
by a Harvard man
so near the music of devoured dreams.
The assuredness of the image of that fifth excerpted line, together with the verbing of 'Shakespeared', gives this poem an avant garde vibe, an Eliotic quality; and on a purely technical point, the v- and p-alliteration, and the assonance, of those last four lines, is strikingly effective.
'Thanksgiving' proffers the exceptional Keatsian aphorism: 'And the ripening fruit knows its time/ before frost glistens in the sun'.
The second part of the collection consists of many nautically tinctured poems, and verse-travelogues. 'An Island in the Mind' begins with what one senses is a serendipitous rhyme:
High winds are coming down the coast
with bitter rain that falls as snow
in the vicinity of Sacramento.
This beguiling poem has a philosophical, or spiritual, optimism, something of Neoplatonism, even Buddhism, about it:
Never will the world be gone
while what we imagine moves
in our opening mind.
And a new moon risen
not yet trespassed.
Sometimes there is music
in the well-tended churchyard.
That last trope is particularly haunting. There is a real sense of Buddhism about the closing aphorismic lines:
History is waxwork,
but on this common ground
are lives of many kinds,
falling as water on stone
where something thoughtful is written:
That the poem closes on a colon and then an expanse of blank page beneath is emphatic.
'Possessing' is split in time between 2013 and 1763 and contrasts the modern materialist world with the its historical foundations in slavery. So, in 2013:
Tomorrow at dawn the fishermen sail
into antiquity and myth,
bringing home a gift of the gods.
All we shall eat is silver and gold.
And back in 1763:
The slaves in the hold are listless.
They murmur like stricken quarry
in the hunt as evening falls
through the forests of an English autumn.
'Because I Shall Not Be Sleeping' is a deeply empathetic poem in which the poet is acknowledging his relative good fortune compared to the plights of the world's homeless, refugees, the war- and famine-stricken:
Because I shall not be wounded,
nor fearful of uniforms,
nor seeking refuge in unlikely places -
Because the desert will not burn me
in my barefoot exile
among the scorpions of my torment -
This is clipped, shapely poetry, which recalls some of the poets of the mid-twentieth century, such as Sidney Keyes, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis (all twenty-something fatalities of the Second World War), and Bernard Spencer (who died in his fifties in mysterious circumstances).
'Sea and Sardinia' is drenched in atmosphere:
The Western sky is velvet –
He thinks of lichened stones.
At home lamps are lit
in darkened windows.
Dust gathers daily, waiting for the rain.
'Interior' is a sublime aphorismic lyric which needs quoting in full:
A late tranquillity:
The shadows seem familiar.
So, too, the light.
These contrasts make the scene
where we have walked
into a world we know
when other interiors offer
to history in its original frame.
As with a ship on sand
whose timbers once supported
sails, cargo and crew –
these things we cannot see.
What we admire is absence.
That last line is particularly resonant in terms of humanity's propensity to venerate and worship the invisible and insubstantial i.e. spirituality. Greek mythology is referenced in 'Siren Water':
No Odysseus can evade for ever
the echo of everything
imagined in history.
The siren sounds safe haven.
A mutiny averted by sight of paradise.
One verse stands out for me at this time of British cultural retreat and reactive chauvinism -an axiomatic stanza:
The flowers that fall in the flood,
then drown in the deep
are sure to wake, recalled
as garlands for beguiled sailors.
An island is defined by water.
These rocks are as they are
because the sea surrounds them.
There is occasionally in Heptonstall's poetry the shadow of Romanticism, of Keatsian Negative Capability, or Coleridgean 'phantoms of Sublimity', the capacity to stand back and gaze in wonder at Creation without a thirst for certainties or answers, and sometimes an almost mystical pursuit of the obscure, as in 'Walking to the Moon':
Sunrise at the opening hour,
Creation’s revelation now the perpetual is waiting
for all that moves here as infinite.
Such untraveled time to be in noon light
revealed as truth composing the words proposed.
Another wonderful image that leaps out in this poem is 'Midsummer children are counting the stars'. From such wispy poems to the more descriptively precise, as in the sublime 'Archives of Eden':
Ancient shadows are cast
across a musician’s disciplined face,
features taut as a parchment scroll
now her fingers determine
to pluck the delicate strings
into a new composition.
The rhythm is measured
as if time itself were shaping
the harmonies of an infinite circle.
Once again the alliteration, sibilance and assonance are particularly effective. There is a mythic quality in Heptonstall's turn of phrase:
Work is sweetened by song,
gathering the harvest,
a custom of the climate
that ripens an island
in this the mango season
when we may eat well
the labour of many hands.
There's also something of Gauguin in these depictions of tropical island life. And like a painter, Heptonstall is attuned to light, and shadow, chiaroscuro:
Shadow lines cast their history
across his well-defined face.
A veteran at leisure,
one who has fought and loved.
He is taking cool wine in the afternoon
toward sunset with light clouding.
Heptonstall frequently uses enjambment to imbue ambiguity, as in this excerpt from 'That Way She May Travel':
A moon, a mouth, a mystery-
or do I mean memory? –
drawn from life, like water
swelling in the streets after rain
begins the end of innocence.
Heptonstall plays much with juxtapositions of the particular and universal, the micro and macro, as when he analyses the historical and cultural symbolisms of a corncob in 'In the Novel Café, Ocean Park Boulevard':
Reading how the Ancients of America
found in the wild the saving grace
of what became corn.
Buttered lightly, it beckons
a continent to consume.
We see Aztecs and ox-wagons,
empires and pioneers,
feasting on corn.
A history of the Americas
here is served every day.
'The Reading Room' has a sublime beginning, beautifully phrased and aphorismic:
The page’s opening becomes a smile
at the delicacy of readers’ fingers
touching a supple, subtle firmness.
Paper has invented the world we read.
History has risen to the challenge
and is travelling.
Negative Capability again in 'Birds of Paradise/ Rites of Paradise': 'All else is speculation/
as distant as the night stars'. In 'Inheritance' Heptonstall plays on the inherent wonder in Nature as in art:
Andosthenes, a scribe,
is given to observe
how the tamarind flower
is to Hellenic eyes
a marvellous use of senses
in perihelion motion.
The author of the phrase 'phantoms of sublimity' makes an appearance in this poem as he has an epiphany:
Centuries pass when Coleridge
finds evidence of otherness.
Crouching to adjust his shoe,
the poet’s eye rests on
a skeleton leaf in the grass:
emissary of paradise,
as in dreams that speak like memory
that from another Indus flows
a curious mind is moved.
'Memento Mori' seems to be an alternative version of poem appearing earlier, 'An Island in the Mind' -it begins quite differently:
Sometimes there is music
in the well-tended churchyard.
Victorians below stir in their sleep.
Some only knew childhood,
then they were no more.
The memorable 'History is waxwork' phrase reappears here, though this version of the poem has an italicised epitaph following the colon: 'And in the Beginning/ there was Everything'. It's unclear if this inclusion marks two different versions of essentially the same poem, or whether it is a case of two different poems sharing some of the same lines and images.
'Homeward We Remember' contains the fey lines:
So with her otherness,
chatelaine of this fabled world,
we name now as Nevermore.
In the final poem, 'Answered Prayers', Heptonstall employs some effective personification when contemplating place and personality:
According to Pessoa
we are shadows.
Thinking of his city,
surely he was mindful
of the way Lisbon moves
in and out of history,
an expectant traveller
in a vacant museum.
While many readers will be familiar with the heteronymous Portuguese poet Pessoa, some may not be so familiar with that of Holub, whom I am assuming is Miroslav Holub, Czech poet and immunologist, judging by the pathology of that particular stanza:
In Holub’s world we are symptoms:
the poet doctors a disease,
a common condition
no-one dare mention,
for no cure is found
before the physician dies.
In a healthy state
they learn another language
where every word is critical.
The ensuing lines are quite fascinating as a study of regional affectations and mannerisms of various Italians:
Now consider Roman laughter.
The Neapolitan face is cautious.
Florentines avoid a gawper’s gaze.
Sorrentinos sing proudly
among their own.
But Romans are in carnival,
always prepared for excess.
Behind a sacred smile
is a citizen’s laughter,
This fascinating poem concludes on a thought-provoking apothegms:
Before the revolution
are the silken intrigues
and other mysteries.
Before the revolution
is an absence.
all that never is.
Nothing will be
Such an aphorismic flourish marks a fitting close to Geoffrey Heptonstall's The Rites of Paradise, a beguiling, imaginative and highly assured debut collection with some moments of brilliance.
Alan Morrison © 2020