Alan Morrison on
Cyberwit, India, 2020
Sappho’s Moon is the swift follow up to Geoffrey Heptonstall’s beguiling debut volume Rites of Paradise (Cyberwit, 2020). I say ‘swift’ but, like that first volume, this second also comprises poems written and published in numerous prestigious journals over a number of years, here collected together for the first time in one book. As I wrote before of Heptonstall’s poetic style, I find much in common with the clear, succinct lyricism of the late Robert Nye, and, indeed, Robert Graves, whom I believe had been an influence on Nye. Take a stanza from the first poem in this book, ‘A Table of Translations’:
A polemic lies restlessly
eager for the insurgence
Ferlinghetti has promised
in words of stardust falling
as white water in the cataract.
His thoughts are timely metaphors.
This is verse of enviable clarity, the enjambments well-judged. I’m also reminded of the precise lyricism of the late Norman Buller. ‘The Magician’s Shadow’ deploys some subtle unobtrusive rhymes:
The romance is familiar:
a question in the fabric of time.
Threads of being are woven
of clouds and a clear sky.
Reality the riderless,
truth a critical simile
harnessed at once to the onlooker’s eye.
The aphorismic ‘Changing, Viewing, Passing’ has an oriental sagacity (again, like Buller) about life observations it imparts:
It surely is the wisest counsel
that water is drawn from the well.
All shall be found within
arabesques of experience,
original but human.
And there begins time passing.
That much is known, but not well.
‘Fortune’s Lodging’ is also brimming with wisdom:
There it began; and ended
here in his belvedere.
Nothing happened by chance.
He had observed in nature
the phases of the Moon,
and the turning of tides
in celestial patterns
the eye can barely see.
He had travelled in search of worlds,
only to return to the beginning
with a fortune spent on travelling
and another gained in knowledge.
There was a purpose in living:
it was simply to seek itself.
Something sublime is beginning to be glimpsed here. ‘The Future May Seem Written’ is another meditative poem with some nice similes—'Ivy on the neglected house grows,/ like a wilful child’—which seems to effortlessly coin aphorism after aphorism:
The future may seem written
for the words are clear,
like Arctic sunlight.
The clocks in succession strike.
Time may sound precise
but the step on the stair falters.
‘Pygmalion’ is a deft lyric—here it is in full:
See the statue smile.
he feels a tremor in the stone.
And her eyes,
they watch the artist at work.
He speaks to her,
He dare not say aloud,
not to the world he knows.
She is art, and understands
what cannot be spoken.
It is felt too deeply,
like the love he feels for his creation.
In ‘Beggar’s Bounty’ ‘(The gods, disguised in rags, experience life on earth)’. There’s some beautifully wrought sibilance in the following lines:
Reflections on clear water,
dazzling Daedalus and son.
Then hearing celestial sounds
in cedar and sycamore.
This short poem closes on the aphorism: ‘There are things to lose/ in the dream of freedom’. In ‘The Bacchae’ we get one of Heptonstall’s many syntactic inversions which, not necessitated by the attempt to clinch an end-rhyme (most of his poems are free verse or only occasionally rhyming verse) there is detectably another prosodic purpose to this: ‘Satin shoes discarded sink into mud’. There’s something of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the following verse:
The rains that fall on the city
slow the pursuit of men
in search of reason.
Sleep overtakes them.
Without iron and fire
the King is powerless.
All he has he summons,
prepared alone to face the goat-god.
What he sees destroys him.
‘Orpheus Appears’ depicts the perennial figure of the poet as epitomised by the eponymous Greek mythological figure:
On a desolate plain
comes the heavenly song
from the God-gifted one,
lyre in hand,
wrestling with the wind.
The poem closes on the hopeful lines:
Sadness steals through the forest
till the music wakens the world,
opening the eyes of songbirds.
‘Orpheus Descending’ is a striking lyric, excerpted in full:
Centaurs are still in Arcadia,
as still as frost.
Into the fissure of earth
goes this life ephemeral,
deeper than the certainties
of the hermit’s dream.
The darkness alone
sees Orpheus go down
to the rumoured margin
of an exceptional scene,
returning to find nothing
has changed, except hope.
In ‘Sysyphus: Of Punishment’ ‘The stone has no forgiving’. In ‘Antigone: Of Revenge’:
She spoke of restoration,
of changes to be made
in cartographies of the antique.
Moving by implication
into an audacious child,
so unusual in her need
to be undefined.
‘Odysseus: Of War’ gifts us a sublime metaphor for the mental struggles of the human condition:
So at a crossroads
is a choice between hazards:
to run is cowardice,
to remain suicide.
Thinking aloud, he says,
‘The certainties encircle me;
the wound rests inside my mind.’
The wounded mind. Once again we encounter what I shall term the ‘Heptonstall inversion technique’ at the start of ‘Another Homeric Moment’, which alters the poetic metre to—I think—a trochaic foot, as opposed to the more standard iambic:
Fell the shining spear of Sarpedon
through infinite space unseen,
aimed for Patroclus, moved by fate –
his horse was struck.
Stilled by shock, then rearing,
Pedarus turned away from life.
Untimely end in agony…
There’s particularly effective—though perhaps serendipitous—p-alliteration and sibilance at work in this poem.
Having already remarked on the oriental aspects to Heptonstall’s poetic style—indeed, many of his verses, if split in two, as they often are in sentence structure, could work well as haikus—the second section of the collection is entitled ‘At the Gates of Xanadu—Suggestions of China’. The enigmatic ‘Advice to the Imagination’ ends disturbingly:
Let readers think your tale romance,
unless, as you write, a shadow falls.
Consider the fate of creatures,
punished for being where they may be found.
‘The Dream of Admiral Zheng He’ is another succinct dabbling in the sublime with a hint of Buddhism:
Sailing to the moon,
their compass the stars shining.
What they find is dust.
Consider the Unanswerable Question.
What we see in the sky is a void,
for never can we read a heavenly mind.
Nor dare we delve into the earth
after such an encounter.
Fury tears at our flesh
while leaves of the fall envelope hope.
The wild dogs howl as they come near
to feast on what remains.
The phrase ‘envelope hope’ has a nice homophony. ‘Voices’ makes subtle use of occasional end rhymes and o-assonance to hypnotic lyrical effect:
In their gilded fevers
we knew they were dreaming
of walking on the moon
when horsemen came.
And the waters flowing
through the darkest eye
with ice and iron
housed among shadows,
the first of the season.
Then in view the trees
were moving all who remained,
their emotions shaken
by the sight of the fallen
when all we saw was rain.
I am again reminded of the orientalism of Norman Buller’s poetry, particularly in his Pictures of a Fleeting World (2013), in aphorismic poems such ‘In Memory of Li Yui-Se’:
An old man tends the trees
in a distant province.
Warlords are tamed by ripening fruit,
delicate as ivory queens
in a game of xiangqi.
The dust remains on the writing desk
where once a volume lay.
The space will never be filled,
for as a soul departs
there is a shadow still
There’s a constant brocade of mortality in these oriental meditations—as in the haunting ‘A Lady Lamented’:
The room where once she dreamed is open
to the fallen leaves, scurrying
in half-heard words that lie
like dust gathered in shadows.
I admire Heptonstall’s talent at imparting so much in so few words, and such gently confident phrasing, as in ‘A Treasure of the Western Han Dynasty’: ‘A game of sticks and counters,/ unearthed from the tombs, intrigues’. ‘A Dream of Xanadu’ is beguiling in its sublime subtleties:
No-one can imagine the world
seen from the stars,
for no-one has found the path
that leads beyond the mountain heights,
nor yet the trail in the wastes
that is surely heavenward.
Of these things there are whispers.
a song of mysteries is said to be lost.
Travellers who leave never return.
Rumours are many and
as varied as the flowers
growing in a well-tended garden.
In Xanadu the bamboo palace pleases
all who dream of her.
The v-alliterative ‘A Day’s Work Far From the City’ has some captivating images:
All embers of evening ashen,
our vermilion dreams vanish.
Dust in the dawn breeze makes mist
of our company leaving for the day.
Working will mock the song
I heard by night of she
who flew with white wings,
plumed in unforgiving innocence…
‘Reflections on a Window In Lan’tien’ is an exquisite miniature:
Once there were forests
where leaves fell gently.
Now there is carved ivory
encompassing her dreams.
The rain runs down the window pane.
In the kingdom of glass
the river has many streams
flowing from ancestral mountains,
Such imageries immediately remind one of Lu Han’s mountainous coloured ink pictures or Japanese Hokusai’s misty mountain prints. ‘Of Jade and Ivory’ is a meditation on Creation from the child’s point of view:
He thinks toward another life
of jade and ivory,
imagining the journey
through a mind of measureless highways
he gives the name of Nature.
A pattern is proposed
to thoughts that follow
the hand that held the world.
To see as he saw
when his hand touched the paper
making exquisite ideas visible,
a map of the world in motion –
observers may sigh at the irony -
they have seen the Moon
reflecting many moods,
all shades of light and darkness.
An anxiety gathering
in the air of the streets.
There are some nice homophonic echoes in this poem: ‘ivory’/’journey’/’irony’, ‘Moon’/’moods’ etc. The poem arrives at a juvenile vertigo:
The illusion of stillness fools no-one
in the living world all that lives has movement.
We ask what compares with the motion
of the stars in heaven?
And then there is the sun.
In ‘Seconds in China’ there are some great sibilant phrases such as ‘spiders and spectres’ and ‘silken cities’. Again Heptonstall plays poetically with infant wisdom:
A child asks of people:
‘How can they know what they want
until we show them?’
He is thought by many to be wise.
There are those who are not so sure.
All that shall remain of them is bones.
There’s follows a wonderful flourish of Chinese life:
A time of acceptance is approaching.
in certain seasons
there are no more desires.
Old men alone are wakened
by the chatter of monkeys
for whom victory is a game
to be forgotten at sunrise.
Dogs, like merchants, gather
in the square by the statue
of a mounted warrior.
The monument is European,
and may not survive.
A time of absence is approaching.
Rumours are as wild as jasmine
whose petals fall far from the stem.
Storms beat against the window glass,
tapping out a message
sung simply each time:
Every second in China
Something significant happens.
There is a gnomic quality to much of Heptonstall’s poems—take this passage from ‘Of Calm First Light, Growing’:
A foot falls on a delicate shell
All in nature is there,
taken by the discovery
seen to be a world in flight
when life itself is broken
in an unsuspecting science.
The third section of the book is titled ‘The Stratford Variations—Suggestions of Shakespeare’. ‘A Plantagenet Web’ contains many plosives, k-alliterations, and inversions:
A king himself may be victim,
and not only the princes.
Many deaths are unexplained.
Innocence is easily devoured,
a mere matter of regret
when the killing is invisible.
In shadow the trap is set,
the delicate craft of capture
a shaft of sunlight shows.
From the intricacy of the real
a history of stratagems.
‘A Roman Holiday’ touches on the living apotheoses of emperors into gods:
There is fire in the heavens
and the murmuring of gods.
A ghost walks from its grave.
A poet is torn to pieces
by an angry Roman crowd.
This is not the usual spring.
A god who fails is dust.
Another wears his laurel crown.
‘Malvolio’s Epiphany’ is a studied depiction of the eponymous vain steward for Olivia in Twelfth Night:
He of somber plumage,
maunciple no more, but master
of virtue rewarded by love.
She is, he reads, so coy
in her cryptic letters.
He thinks he is favoured
by his desire to serve
the one he calls mistress well.
‘The Queen of Egypt’ is a short monologue by Cleopatra: ‘I am amused to be thought divine/ when secretly stained with intimate blood’. ‘Venetian Whispers’ contains the sagacious trope: ‘All that I have known is no more/ than this, my forfeiture,/ which is to some a virtue’. ‘The Storm’ is a worthy take on The Tempest from the point of view of the shipwrecked. Othello is the subject of the short ‘The Moor of Venice’—it closes enigmatically:
A sea crossed to a coast
of unexpected contours.
In glim light all is Africa.
The word ‘glim’ means a candle or a lantern. ‘The Fool’s Apology’ forms aphorisms inspired by King Lear:
There may be a purpose found
when all that can be happens.
Until then there is the forest
where stealth is the watchword.
They see an old man’s madness
that summons the spirit of night
as the wolves reach the city limit.
The king and his daughters,
two of whom are treacherous,
are told in many tales
The fool is he who tells it well.
‘The Poet’s Hand’ closes on an epithet to the perennial figure, or is perhaps a tribute to Shakespeare himself, who was after all primarily a poet (most of his plays were part-composed in blank verse and/or rhyme, Richard II and King John were written entirely in verse):
The poet’s hand warms at the candle
as the light of his art fades.
If you seek his memorial
then read the life in words.
They were spoken in the fields of youth
before he found taverns to his taste.
Words have no season but always.
The fourth and final section of this book is titled ‘Metro—Suggestions of the City’. In ‘City of Words’ it is indeed certain words and their associations that dominate the poem making its themes—‘shadows’, ‘stranger’, ‘wounds’, ‘rumour’, ‘anger’:
Who calls the strangers’ case
in a city of shadows?
Truth may take every room in the house,
only to be homeless again
now a hard hand directs us.
Some may find a private place
in the light of experience,
the engine of imaginings
written in unsupposed styles.
We seek the stranger within.
Beneath the streets sleeps the anger.
Behind the anger is the blade
glistening in the low light…
The walls are whispers
from the world of chances
that float like feathers.
Consider the hope of the hanging man.
He dreams of seas in storm.
His words are wounds:
an autumnal afternoon,
anniversary of war.
What rumour is heard,
returning to source:
raw like a wound…
Better voices speak in the rain
washing those elegant walls.
The woman in her café corner,
accustomed to silence,
smiles beneath the sunflowers
painted on a sea blue wall.
Children are amazed by the rainbow
they follow all the way home.
In ‘The History of a City’ we have recapitulation of an earlier trope—'when all that can be happens’ in ‘A Fool’s Apology’—in ‘All that we imagine happened’. These poems appear to evoke and describe a Mediterranean living environment and one assumes the poet, who presently lives in Cambridge, once lived abroad. There’s a nice sense of images reflecting each other in ‘Boston Squarer’: ‘We are about to eat from the sea/ A fish caught at first light’ is reflected in
Now, girded in moonlight,
she takes upon her the shimmering
of something appropriate to the hour.
There’s an ambiguity as to whether those lines refer to the fish or the poet’s partner. The poem closes on the imagery of eighteenth century ghosts:
We walk through the square
where another ocean flows
among the ghosts of merchants
who raise their tricorne hats
as stoutly they stand, eternally
alert to the changes of tide.
‘Ghost Walks’ is the longest poem in the collection, covering nearly three pages, set out as a sequence, a note under the title reads: ‘[1816: Coleridge collapses in Bath a moment’s walk from where Mary Shelley is writing Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus]’. There’s some beautiful imagery: ‘See how Palladian shadows fall/ when imagination walks by’. Shadows, ghosts, strangers and reflections abound:
In the cool of the Salamander:
a shadow from the street light,
and the approaching tread
through the stonework echoing
the sound of unfamiliar feet.
On hearing again,
they may not be a stranger’s
Or there is no-one,
even as the conversation turns
to further reflections.
We hear of how the opium-addicted visionary poet Coleridge’s maid would change his sweat-soaked sheets/ after a night of visitations’—though it was a ‘person from Porlock’ who famously interrupted his hallucinatory visions of Kubla Kahn Khan’s pleasure domes, as famously memorialised in Stevie Smith’s ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’. There follow some cadent, beautifully judged lines:
Below the window elegance strolled,
planning an evening’s quadrille.
The poet’s thoughts were measureless
to others, at times to him.
Words were written in candlelight
that the day could not tell.
In the city of his fears
there ran dark waters beneath.
Only the damned may drink.
Their cries for mercy sounding
from abandoned places
where no pleas are heard.
The word ‘measureless’ of course echoes a line from ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘caverns measureless to man’. The final two verses focus on the simultaneous composition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
Prometheus steals the gift of fire,
angering the gods who punish him.
Another secret science reveals
that life itself might be created
in an unnatural Adam.
A spirited mind understands
how all may read
of the man-made man.
Daring to tell the truth,
Mary Shelley writes of a dream
known of old to the wise,
now received by all who live
outside of Eden, in the imperfect world
The phrases ‘unnatural Adam’ and ‘man-made man’ capture well Frankenstein’s abomination. From Bath to ‘Berlin’, and some more memorable aphorisms—‘The government elects its people/ as the walls erect their stones’—and lyrical flights:
An artist draws a circle of chalk
and Berlin becomes the moon
with dust on which a poet walks
as an innocent to the gallows,
as a book to be forever unread,
as a song without music,
as a thought without words.
There’s a Blakean feel to some of the imagery:
When the beasts have fled their cages,
making for the forest night.
And the sky is void of stars
until the sun’s rising
from memory and the eternal record
‘A Crown for the Queen of Elsewhere’ has many beguiling gnomic passages:
Paper fell on Lexington,
floating down graciously,
a leaf from a lover’s book
someone had scattered.
In the city are many unlikely things
pleased to remain so.
Travellers wait for ever,
like children in the line of fire.
The gilded lyre birds fly
through the midnight lives
in sight of Union square
and desire is indifferent.
many dreamers wake alone.
This city may be at war….
‘South Kensington’ is a beautifully judged short lyric piece which I excerpt in full:
In Thurloe Square a flower falls.
The fragrance of the tea she takes
is blown with the dust
in the four o’clock lamplight
when an outer door opens.
A finger poised on the cup
is a pen on parchment
about to make its mark,
A marvel not yet seen
as she waits for someone.
Thoughts of mine move me
when I think of her waiting
even now to go somewhere
Within unspoken expectations.
She waits for him, I see
Note the o-assonances—‘Thurloe’, ‘flower’, ‘blown’, ‘four o’clock’, ‘outer door opens’, ‘poised on’, ‘someone’, ‘move’, ‘somewhere’, ‘unspoken’—which give a sense of slowness and flow to the poem. O-assonance permeates the next poem, ‘York’, too:
And walled within the civilized difference
the descant of choristers,
preserved in patterns of stone
so that histories speak
in several tongues,
each thinking the others barbarous.
There are old incantations
of wounds that words never heal.
Again we have the juxtaposition of ‘wounds’ and ‘words’. It’s interesting to note that the word ‘barbarous’ or barbarian from the Greek bárbaroi actually originated as an onomatopoeic term drawn from ‘bar bar’ which represented the sound of incomprehensible foreign languages to the ears of the Ancient Greeks. This short exquisite poem closes on a resonant image:
The rumours pass from hand to hand.
The streets of a city are whispers.
Consider the hope of the hanged man,
or a traveller on whom the fragments fall.
Here the a-assonances are particularly effective: ‘hanged man’, ‘traveller’, ‘fragments fall’. ‘Elsewhere at the City’s Bounds’ has a beautifully lyrical close:
The birds that fly to the forest
are souls ennobled.
They hear her singing
beneath the moon of Araby.
The b-alliterations work beautifully here: ‘birds’, ‘ennobled’, ‘beneath’, ‘Araby’. ‘Metro’ gifts this line on motion and time:
This history is passing
through the flow of the crowd
toward the end of the line
in the face of departure.
‘Firebirds’ is another strikingly aphorismic poem:
Scorched feathers clouded the scene
when the flames moved like sea waves
to the shores of another land
far from the dream of Parnassus.
The heat that chokes the throat
burns the song before it sings.
No living creature could hear
the passing of the lost.
Every future was fallen
as the firebirds fled.
There was a haze at noon
and the midnight embers glowed.
What remain are mere shadows.
What they leave behind is everything.
‘Memento’ returns us to an orientalism of tone and image:
This time the trees are still
in Lenten-like denial.
A bitter tranquillity
rests on remembrance.
A gathering of birds will scatter
at the sound of lives abandoned.
Though a final word falls
when no-one has spoken.
There is too something of Robert Frost in Heptonstall’s sagacious meditations:
The trail you follow is the things itself
unmasked of metaphor, revealed.
The well-worn track of reality
that seeks a meaning imprisoned
in the stone that serves to block the way.
‘Providence’ is wistful meditation on innocence and growth:
She told her dream stories
to the wild swans,
for those family quarrels
were springtide storms.
But in a girl’s memory
are many kinds of fall.
Tearfully she would learn how
the blossom does not return
once the tree is shaken,
So she would hear the sound
of the city-bound express.
its some-time-soon promise
flashing past her innocence revealed.
Then there were no more seasons
but of her own making…
The final poem in this assured collection has the immediately poignant title of ‘John Berryman’s Recovery’—poignant, since Berryman, a lifelong alcoholic and depressive, and son of a suicide, committed suicide by jumping from Washington Avenue Bridge in 1972. Here Heptonstall imagines Berryman eternally suspended mid-leap/fall in a sense which seems to anticipate the immortality of the soul—I excerpt this beautiful poem in full:
Berryman may be found dreaming,
the poet conscious of words
sounding from heaven where
I do not want him to die.
Drinking his depression to death,
the old man is a child again
as the drunkard seeking sobriety,
there being so many futures
with all the ways of recovering.
No life is certain in itself:
Berryman is the poet falling,
never reaching the ice-still river
if an angel intervenes,
raising him up to understand
a certain life and a wilder one
in homage to ancestral music
becoming his Dream Songs.
Imagining his choice
caught between bridge and water,
the poetry, like paper, flew
from the heart of a broken man
to the whole of a life.
Then there was no more.
What was there remains
for us to follow down
into a mind making sense
at last of all the words
that might be and surely are.
The line ‘if an angel intervenes’ brings to mind Clarence’s crucial interception of George Bailey’s suicide attempt by jumping off a bridge into an ‘ice-still river’ in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). It’s a fitting poem to conclude on, echoing as it does so many of the themes of this collection: time, mortality, the writing life, words and shadows, impermanence, perpetuity.
With Sappho’s Moon Heptonstall once more proves abundantly his accomplishment as a lyrical poet in the vein of Roberts Graves, Frost and Nye, and the late Norman Buller. But what stands out the most, for me, is Heptonstall’s talent for producing aphorisms which appear as sporadic pools of gnomic wisdom throughout his poems.
Alan Morrison © 2022