A regular feature that looks at a poetry collection, published in the last five years, that warrants further attention. In our spring issue, Seiferle's review
of Eleanor Wilner's Reversing the Spell
Personae and Other Selected Poems
By Peter Abbs
Skoob Books Publishing Ltd., 11a-17 Sicilian Avenue, Southampton Row, Holborn, London WC1A 2QH. 1995. $15.99. ISBN 1-871438-77-2. 174 pp.(paper)
Reviewed by Rebecca Seiferle
88888This volume by the British poet, Peter Abbs, includes a new collection Personae along with poems from earlier collections: For Man and Islands (1978), Songs of a New Taliesin (1981), and Icons of Time (1991). The poems are arranged chronologically, with the new poems of Personae appearing last in the volume. Read in order, the book shows the trajectory of the poet’s development, and one wishes that more publishers would so arrange selected and collected works, rather than merely offering the new work at the beginning as a hook for the reader. Another advantage offered by the publisher is the author’s preface, in which Abbs writes:
From his earliest work, represented here by a small selection from For Man and Islands, Abbs has been interested in the intersection of the personal with the mythic.
Though Abbs’ work moves deeper into the autobiographical, particularly in Icons of Time which is subtitled “An Experiment in Autobiography,” he is interested in the personal as an intersection with the historical and the mythic, where “Splinters of God lie in the melting grass” and where human consciousness is “in too far. And down too deep.”
I believe the function of poetry is essentially mythic and healing. It is my hope, then, that the poems gathered here give expression to this deep impulse for symbolic ordering and reparation. Certainly the poems are attempts–how successful only the reader can judge–to place the truth of the heart in the house of the imagination.
Abbs is a poet of the new paradigm, a poet who uses the myths of the Greeks and Romans not merely as a postmodernist twitch or to give weight to personal trivia but as an awakening to a new view of reality and to the earth itself “Earth was littered with signs we did not read/ Nor comprehend.” Poets have always used myth, and many continue to do so today, but for many it’s
merely a vehicle in which personal feeling can ride. The myth is used to take the reader back to the poet’s particular anguish, the particular crucifixion of one mind. But there are other poets, like Eleanor Wilner (see our Spring Issue) and Peter Abbs who are interested (though in very different ways) in restoring the “person,” the human being lost within the personality cult of our times. Abb’s effort is one of reparation or rescue–the rescue of the person, the rescue of the imagination. He moves from the individual perception or experience outward into the range of the world or the depth of the myth. The movement is centrifrugal rather than centripetal. In the work of poets like Abbs or Wilner, the self itself becomes the vehicle; it’s just another personae, another vehicle, not the destination. In comparison, a poet like Sylvia Plath brings us back to herself, again and again; we are left dumbfounded with our sense of that self. Abbs on the other hand is on a trajectory outward. He is not as awake as Wilner; his work has moved more slowly into a new reading of the world, as evinced by the development of his later work toward the stunning collection, Personae, in which a multitude of masks, from history, from actual personage to mythic figures becomes a means to reconfiguring a new heaven as in the book's last poem, “New Constellations:”
Abbs is preoccupied with imagination, which he perceives as “against the age” and against the prevailing mode of art. He is correct, I think, that the age is given to the idea “that art must be minimal or brutal: an ideological aid/ or bare reflection–a mirror laid across a gallery floor, or some such dull cleverness.” Though we could add to the list: dull sincerity as well, or cunning careerism, and so on . . . But what’s of most interest to Abbs is this trajectory outward, how we extend the narrative, until new constellations rise, though we cannot say definitely what shapes those constellations might take. Even when he finds that “”these words lie dark on the field of the page,” he still finds them to be “hard, obdurate grains against the age.” The possibility of taking root, of growth, is persistent. And the last poem in the book with its “hard obdurate grains” shows the integrity of his development as it replies to one of his earliest work.
You do not begin alone; rather, you extend
A narrative. Through the half-open window
The breeze blows in spiked with salt
And distance. Your senses stir until
Your memories rise into new constellations.
Abbs shoulders the weight of our culture as if it were a marble head unearthed in an ancient ruin. The head of Orpheus which, according to one variant of the myth, drifted down the river, still singing is speechless in Abbs’ vision. For this head is all eye– “Its eyes stare into a radiance beyond our grasp”–and destroyed by its own vision–“Its face peels with burning skin.”
...to shield whatever
Fragile spores of hope may –
Though our times seem sterile –fall,
Be there to cradle what is new, once more.
The narrative moves from the desires of sight, “I want it seen,” and the horrible consequences of being caught within the I/eye–burnt by one’s own vision–to the desire to speak, and the horrible consequences of being caught within “a fastidious mouth” of archives, seals, vaults, graves, until only the possibility remains, a beginning. The two lives that are finished are the ancient life of that singing head and the life of the poet as “half-crazed curator.” The third that “begins” is as vague with hope as an open door, as possible as a threshold. Abbs is a poet of hope, of hope cast in the form of uncertainty. Or as Abbs writes in another poem, “The House of Imagination: After Rilke:”
I woke with this marble head in my hands.
Between my hands this ancient head, unclaimed.
I picked it up in a shocking dream
And could not put it down again. Half-crazed
Curator, I want it to be seen.
Its eyes stare into a radiance beyond our grasp;
Its face peels with burning skin.
Though it may desire to speak to us,
A fastidious mouth shuts it in.
I will ransack archives, break gummed seals,
Crack open vaults, desecrate graves
To find its world and speak for him.
Two lives are over. A third begins.
Is it possible
that we have still to begin, to set out,
still to pluck the stars from the firmament
and place them in the bowl of our mind;
and that, after aeons of time, the stars are still waiting for us
to create this superlative luster?
It is possible.
It could be.