(Meer licht-supposedly Goethe's last words)

Review by Jay Ramsay


Orpheus Ascending

By John Gibbens

Orpheus Ascending

Visions of the Drowning Man

By Dee Sunshine

Visions of the Drowning Man

   John Gibbens' finely-tuned and astonishingly economic narrative poem is a re-telling of the Orpheus myth for our time, set in 1980's London. A novella with all the dramatic tension of a thriller, compressed into a mere 65 pages, it's proof of what poetry can do in this form as a bedtime read with a difference, and evidence of the resurgence of the long poem as narrative (rather than epic) which Andrew Motion introduced with his Secret Narratives in the 80's, and which John Gibbens and Aidan Andrew Dun have since developed with significantly more sophistication, and (one might argue) significantly better and more dynamic writing as well (Motion's 'Independence' seems bland by comparison). Orpheus Ascending is contemporary as it is fresh: even as it looks back 30 years, its concerns and its psychological as well as lyrical depth are perennial as the myth it celebrates, and the question it holds as a subtext: how to lead a meaningful and lyrical life in the face of destructiveness and the shadow ? Musician Paul Dell's love for Alys is that hope; but she belongs to the underworld too as the possession of a bullying drug dealer (Will) who claims her in her eventual tragic demise. All the way through this masterful poem, beauty and consciousness (and lyrical hope) are juxtaposed with the unconscious and the disturbing in a troubled world, with its backdrop of city rioting and disorder:

The same sad joke that lovers always tell.
Railing shadows stretching out like harp strings
And the flowerbeds leaving their colour
To motionless air where a blackbird sings
Transmuting dusk's cold ashes through his spell
    To pointed blues, grown fuller and fuller
    Of the coming night: sings that all is well.

   It isn't of course: and we know this as we read, but this doesn't make either the story or the writing depressing. The lightness of touch of Gibbens' exquisite sensitivity never lets up, creating a remarkable fusion with the Plutonic depth he is also describing: while the narrative itself, with its shifts between third person and first person singular demands that attentiveness-you have to stay on the ball to know who's speaking and what it means. And yet the shifts are clear, structured as the poetry itself is, as well as being marvellously varied in form and tone and resonance as the pages turn. I've read the poem three times now, and it gets better with each reading, revealing more discreet detail where every detail speaks in what is being gestured as poetry. It really is worth getting.

   Dee Sunshine (previously Rimbaud), who I first met in 1980's bohemian/punk London (Shepherd's Bush) has a different encounter with the shadow, also because the poetry as a testimony is overtly personal, and because in its depth he is seeking a particular truth that by definition is wary of illusion. Reminiscent of Billy Childish, but with a vastly richer vocabulary, his diagnosis is through dissolution (echoing Rimbaud's own disasssociation de tous ses sens)

Junked out on television
we watched the world disintegrating
in raptures of violent dreams:
each dreamer being so much less
than the sum of the parts;
each dream, a fragment
deconstructed from the whole.

   Dee's writing, as well-crafted in its own way, is also (like Childish's) visceral: and the story he tells as the Drowning Man is through that deep embodiment. The struggle in it is to find transformation where the process appears to be so self-consuming...and, perhaps inevitably, self-centred. There's a deep awareness of paradox throughout where light and dark (Madonna and Durga, as in 'Autumn in Florence') are juxtaposed without resolution...the softening beyond love's absence (and sex's all-consuming presence) comes later as the poems reach towards the title poem right at the end, and tenderness beckons. Dee's alchemical lovers are both sexual and child-like, desperate and clinging: their very 'lostness' echoes his own, and history's own echoed in the haunting poem 'A Burnt Offering' (one of his best), 50 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau (1945/1995) where he explores his Jewishness beside his Scottish nationality to potent effect, precisely reaching beyond nationalism

Who are these Scots
That claim this nation ?
Are they Picts, Celts and Norse ?
Britons, Angels and Saxons ?
Italians, Irish and Jews ?
African, Chinese and Asian ?
Who is Scottish, exactly ?

And beyond that, the vision (if his lover was with him)

All would be dissolved
in the fire of our Shiva-Shakti.
All would be undone
in the tender loop of love.

   This is personally what I hang on to, reading this, immersed in another wave of suffering which is also his quest to understand love and its absence within himself. And, through his body as witness, to state

Through this blood flower
through the angry vibrant red of it,
the root of our collective being,
the root of our animal soul,
we struggle towards the light.

   And so his journey as Drowning Man/Everyman struggles through lust (having drowned in it) to awakening to what the trip has revealed as he sheds its skin...meanwhile, traveller that he is, he's journeying on. Miles to go before he sleeps. And, definitely I'd say, promises to his heart to keep.