Alan Morrison on
Dreams of the Caucasus
by Norman Jope
Paperback, 108pp, 9x6ins, £8.95 / $16
I first became aware of the beautifully imagistic and cadent poetry of Norman Jope with his 2009 collection The Book of Bells and Candles (Waterloo Press), one which I found immediately beguiling in its clipped yet descriptively rich language, modernistic lyricism, and highly erudite, socially perceptive, peripatetic foci – Jope having spent much time travelling and sojourning in Eastern Europe, particularly Budapest in Hungary, where his partner, artist Lynda Stevens – whose stunning, textural abstracts always adorn this and all book covers – lives. But for me, the ringing glory of Jope’s poetry – and in this case, his poetic prose – is the seemingly effortless way in which he is able to balance his modernist sensibilities with an immediately attractive, painterly and musical application of language, rarely if ever lapsing into overly conceptual and elliptical prosodic architecture that tends to predominate much – though by no means all – of contemporary modernist poetry. It is Jope’s muscular and cadent engagement with language in all its descriptive tapestries which for me makes the cerebration of his poetic so much more attractive and warm to the eye, ear and mind than the more discursive, oblique and linguistically pared-down work of many of his peers (and in which Jope shares stylistic similarities with poets such as Simon Jenner, Philip Ruthen, David Pollard, Robert Dickinson, and Hungarian poet Thomas Ország-Land, to name only a few of a long-flourishing neo-modernist wave). The phrase ‘musical modernism’ springs to mind in trying to sum up what I most admire in Jope's poetry. But in the stylistic context of this particular collection, 'polyphonic prose' feels a more apt term, one coined in a letter by poet American Imagist poet Amy Lowell to John Gould regarding the style she employed in her 1912 collection A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass:
’Polyphonic’ means ‘many-voiced,’ and the form is so-called because it makes use of the ‘voices’ of poetry, namely: meter, vers libre, assonance, alliteration, rhyme and return. It employs every form of rhythm, even prose rhythm at times.
For me personally, Jope has managed to tap that thin and difficult seam which runs along the vast ‘Caucasus’ – if you like – of modernistic poetics, like a high trickling ridge along the careening landscape of its militant sierras. In short, I feel Jope more than most contemporary modernists has captured and recalibrated that elusive Eliotonian quality of clipped aphorismic expression combined with rhythmical grace, that special type of proto-modernism which magically manages to be reductionist but poetic at the same time.
In this beautifully produced Shearsman volume, Dreams of the Caucasus, we are treated to a kind of Selected Poetic Prose/ Prose Poems from Jope’s well-stocked larder of lyrical brain-fruit, presented in seven sections which appear to indicate they have been selected from previous (fugitive?) collections; the prose poems in all cover a period of composition and compilation from 2001 to 2009. As the back blurb touches on, this is not simply an episodic poetic travelogue, but a meta-textual gallimaufry of Jope’s distinctively wanderlust and ‘wonder’-lusting ‘geopoetical’ meditations on both the physical and metaphysical characters of continental locations, as opposed to 'places'. In some ways, one might attempt to describe Jope’s globetrotting oeuvre as a sort of introspective travelogue, or ‘introvelogue’, an inverted – even subverted – journey into the discursive terrain of the self via the sensory stimuli of literal extra-mental travel; a transfiguration of travel; an anthropomorphic migrating of places back into maps. In these senses, Jope’s particular literary calling echoes those of writers such as Laurence Durrell, and, perhaps most closely, poet Bernard Spencer (who, born in India, spent most of his life abroad, in Italy, Greece, Egypt and Austria). But Jope doesn’t only explore the nuances of foreign cultures in his poetry, he also reprocesses them introspectively, and frequently confronts the ‘foreignness’ of our own natures, the ‘deep silences’ in our only half-mapped consciousnesses.
The first piece, ‘Erg’ (meaning a unit of energy, from which the Greek word for ‘work’, ergon, derives), exemplifies immediately the exquisite lyricism of Jope’s highly poetic yet disciplined prose style:
Soft sand covers the shoes and scratches the lenses of the eyes.
Language is judiciously but persistently pressed to keep up with train of thought, resulting in many curious, disorienting and genuinely innovative turns of phrase and image:
Here is the lazily-shrivelled fire-meat of the interior.
‘Erg’ concludes in something of a rondo with a distinct echo from its opening line:
…gold and silence over the backdrop…scratching the lenses that we use, when walking there, to observe our shadows walking.
‘Serir’ is a series of sharply philosophical tropes, with an almost Zarathustran tone, at once transcendent yet chillingly visceral:
A surface of refusal reaches into the refusal that is death, a domain where every gobbet of flesh is razored directly from the bone.
It also includes this faintly Gnostic-sounding aphorism: ‘Knowledge, here, is scorched. Belief, ignited’. ‘L’arbre du Téneré’ begins with this startling, almost Rimbaudian trope:
The mobile rattles in red wind, a jewel-boned scarecrow whose existence nails the past to a shadow thrown brokenly on gravel, purloined by the lizard playing dead in a limitless noon.
Such peak experiences of descriptive illumination simply keep coming from Jope’s pen, unabated, beautiful, replenishing, unguent, as this at the end of ‘Le nuits de Bilma’:
So look up, to the skies of Bilma – feel the planet tighten under the feet, drink in the absinthes of abandonment, never so alive as when so lost, not needing shade of any description.
Again, there is a definite detectable adumbration of Arthur Rimbaud in such beautifully sustained, imaginative and epiphanic poetic prose. In ‘Atakor’, we catch the distinct notes of a subtly-mined sprung rhythm and rhyme:
Denuded, so that the pipes remain and only the pipes, in the form of cones and dog-toothed plugs that rise above the surrounding plain.
Then a striking descriptive simile:
Black spires of rock, like the spars of enormous ships, or the pinnacles of Breton spires
which leads to the second paragraph’s ‘This is a porcupine landscape’. This spiky landscape is relentlessly anthropomorphised, until it is reduced to a ‘mechanical, charm-spell of a weary old man’, eyes pecked out by ravens, who is 'spare and defaced, yet continues to wave at the heavens as the skin on his back turns to chitin'. Jope’s eye is painterly, colourific, as in this paragraph from ‘Navigation: The Seven Daughters of the Night’ testifies vividly:
Their sapphire tinge is strong, as piquant as mint. Near them, the Cyclopean eye of Aldebaran is ox-blood red, a haemorrhage of light against its obsidian backdrop.
‘Evidence: The Hoofprints of Camels’ is rich in the philosophical detail of a figurative landscape – in this instance, the desert, which Jope brilliantly describes and transmutes with a sparkle of language and another littering of thought-provoking tropes:
A trace of an old campfire can outlast its creators and the couple who crept out secretly to lie, entwined, beside it, exuding moist heat in the fingernail-cracking dryness, are preserved by their faded shapes, as if embossed on a sheet of beaten light.
Here Jope’s ambition is highlighted: it is a kind of rankling after a fully-formed, almost revelatory ekphrastic appreciation of landscape, of nature’s grand immanence, even if, as I suspect, Jope is consciously atheistic, at most agnostic (but then most of us are) – perhaps then this is more a scientific rapture which he conveys, a sort of Darwinian romanticism for the sheer causeless serendipity of the physical world. But then what of sentience, of imagination, of that certain spark in the human consciousness which some call spirit? Without such a ‘spark’, we would not have such imaginatively reinvented sceneries as these, nor a night sky magicked into a ‘black-skinned galaxy’. The final two paragraphs in this piece in some ways terrestrially echo that famous anonymous religious poem ‘Footprints’, and possibly ‘Hoofprints’ is Jope’s post-Darwinian motif for apostasy – or a clash of quixotic idealism with disenchanting animalism at the brutal transience of deserts and other arid landscapes; faintly reminiscent of the tropical conflictions, the intellectual sunstrokes of khaki-thinkers such as T.E. Lawrence, or the poet and probable suicide, Alun Lewis:
So, the music of the desert is constructed. It is not the ordered polyphony of more fertile regions. It is an assemblage of traces, a swarming unison in which the fragments cluster and coincide, the amplification of a deeper silence.
Dead or alive, there is always room for one more camel, or another azalai of words –from breve to breve, from silence to silence, we deposit the trails that will leave us behind.
Note here too Jope’s inspired symbolism to represent the mark of camel hoofprints in sand, ‘breve’, a diacritical mark or glyph which resembles the bottom half of a circle. In ‘Ahal’ Jope’s own ‘geopoetical’ rooting in the outskirts of Plymouth in Devon produces a distinctive parochial comparison:
…unbearably beautiful yet dangerous landscape, ten thousand Dartmoors stitched together and deprived of moisture.
For any who know the other-worldly, doom-laden, boggy terrain of Dartmoor, there is something of the quality of a green desert about its uncompromisingly dramatic and inhospitable wildness (Bodmin Moor in Cornwall is particularly barren and foreboding, though in its relative flatness of terrain, perhaps less reminiscent of undulating dunes). ‘L’art rupestre’ stretches the desert meditations across a truly startling canvas of philosophical transportations, existential epiphanies, and a beautifully uplifting take on thanatos (the concept of death), itself, an undiscovered landscape as encapsulated by ever-altering formations of sand, willowing dunes whose constant flux and motion can seem imperceptible at times to the naked eye – and the eye’s transient lens-perception is a key focus here and in other pieces in this book, though it is a transience that can at certain peak moments transcend itself and open up to the full panorama of the infinite, unfolding endlessly before it. The awe-filled effect of Jope’s own perception is refreshingly optimistic as opposed to Sartrean and nihilistic; a sense of endless possibilities opening up before us like oysters, or unpeeling themselves like damp envelopes, in these strikingly cerebral yet experiential lyrical lines:
…a herd of aurochs that blindly charges into the semiotic circus-ring.
Here Jope conveys an echo of how perhaps those intrepid, world-explorative intellectuals such as T.E. Lawrence must have initially felt, suddenly dwarfed in their sentience by the sheer immensity of the desert – but again, Jope’s psychical salvation comes in his capacity to delve deeply but somehow rise above negatives and subvert them into positives. Having read much ‘afterlife literature’ – yes, there is such a thing, at least ostensibly – supposedly communicated via mediums to living amanuenses, there is something uncannily similar in Jope’s imaginative projections of deserts as corridors into a perception of infinite firmaments and landscapes, and seemingly boundless horizons, of seeing into time itself – often described by posthumous cross-correspondents, if you will, as akin to how we perceive space and distance in this life; so yesterday or tomorrow, in the afterlife, can apparently be viewed in the way we view the far end of a room – as in much theosophical reportage. I quote the transcendent final paragraph in full:
So, from the outside, one is offered tomorrow in the desert. One stands bare-footed on the blade of the landscape, exposed, besieged, denied and tightened into a body-space that lets the outside reach its maximum size. One shrinks to a point, a grain of sand with a pin-prick of an eye that remains as if the eye of a figure on that cave-wall at La Tefedest, white laser’s aperture that can stare out past the present into the horizon’s wall, can see the far side of its own extinction. Its share of the gaze, this deathless death.
‘Mourzouk’ is another scintillatingly aphorismic vignette, the first paragraph of which sports another imagistic trope which describes ‘‘the mind’’ as consisting of ‘a brain that falls to earth in a parachute of nerves’. The next paragraph begins with the faintly Hopkins-cum-Dylan Thomas-esque pairings, ‘Sun-side, shadow-side’. There’s a touch of immanence, or, if it’s not philosophically contradictory, of perpetual repetitiousness of novice sensation and experience – perhaps best encapsulated in Nietzsche’s theory of ‘eternal recursion’, the individual life repeated infinitely like a stuck-record, a distinctly morbid and futile alternative notion to Christian soteriology (one might call it 'tautological teleology'):
Here, one is under the spotlight of the One – living from moment to moment by grace, in a constancy of confrontation, where the pulse of thirst repeats itself with the terror of the first time.
But a preceding line, ‘Walk here even in imagination, and one is exposed, impaled, on tomorrow’s side of everything’, has a tincture of the eternal about it, of stretched perception and timelessness which echoes in many ways some accounts of the psychotic experience, even of R.D. Laing’s own attempts at evoking such through his own imagination in his sublime stream-of-consciousness prose ‘poem’ The Bird of Paradise. But it is the third paragraph that seems to turn all on its head; a further ploughing of existential furrows, but this time, it appears Jope’s ‘desert’ leitmotiv acts as an ontological nemesis for both the mortal and immortal, as he conjures for us a kind of eschatological Caste system, in a passage bristling with Zarathustran overtures:
Thirst exists at every level of the need pyramid. And there are fears at all levels – that the water will only prolong the agony, that familiarity will smother all miracles, that the One has no love to share with the Many, that the effort is doomed and one can only await one’s eventual desiccation. So the dunes of Mourzouk hold both promise and threat – they allow the gods of thirst to express their divinity, whilst offering them the obliteration not normally imposed on gods. They offer all, at the risk of withholding everything.
Stunning, and chilling at the same time: what a fait accompli Jope audaciously serves up here, the ultimate judicial punishment: to mortalise the immortal, to put a god in an hourglass.
And that is just the first section of the book, Suspended Gold. Next comes 'from' Stranger’s Goods, as mentioned earlier, the 'from' indicative of a – fugitive or previously published? – collection of prose poems. This section kicks off in what is in some senses a slightly more economical though translucent and image-driven equivalent to Iain Sinclair’s rich, dense, fruitcake-like 'psychogeographical' prose – Jope’s poetic prose style is sparer, more fluid, a little more musical on the ear, but every bit as aphorismic. ‘Getting the Taste Back’ detours into more urban landscapes, specifically the reconstructed docks and pockets of old Napoleonic-era forts that mottle Devonport in Plymouth, and here we get a bittersweet nostalgic paean to meta-environments of the poet’s roots, in some ways placing him as a kind of Plymouthian Sinclair (though Jope’s multi-cultural perspectives are distinctly different to the more insular attitudes of his native city, as he would no doubt testify; naval cities can encourage a peculiar parochialism among their civilian inhabitants, perhaps in reaction to the salt-scent of foreign influences), though Jope’s slightly terser descriptive style is very much his own:
From Whitleigh Green, the platinum smear of the Tamar shines. St Chad’s, in its scuffed Fifties brick, is like a warehouse for a god that’s shaped like a Spitfire.
In a particularly Sinclairian flourish – regards his frequent tropes on London communities being gutted to make way for more plastic Olympic outcrops, cue his recent book Ghost Milk – we get a subtly polemical description when Jope comments on a new dockyard building project:
Millions have been invested although, as yet, the demolition is what one notices most.
And the nice juxtaposition:
The shops that remain in Marlborough Street are as humble as the names are grandiloquent.
Sinclairian indeed; though not so much Hackney – That Rose-Red Empire as Plymouth – That Navy-Blue Dockyard. Indeed, in ‘Town’, Jope beautifully contrasts the halcyon Plymouth before most of it – bar the Barbican and a few other parts – was bombed out and reconstructed into a rather bleak modernist maze of pedestrian precincts just the right side of Brutalism (marginally less depressing on the eye than central Portsmouth at least):
Brutal appliances of demolition, outside Costa Coffee’s newest outlet, tomorrow’ mall rats stare towards the ripped-out innards of Burtons.
And then, after that subtly alliterative appraisal of a homogenous present, we get this slice of nostalgia for a past Plymouth which, though still post-war, was literarily richer than today:
…and think of the books I bought in Chapter and Verse, back in the late Seventies in Plymouth’s only cultural bookshop…
But then we get some real, quite important Sinclairian social document:
My parents are old enough to recall the pre-war street plan, the craters in the ground, the laying of foundation stones and the Khatchurianesque sweep of Royal Parade at its most pristine, like a trumpet blast from Soviet heaven – the marching bands, the flowers, the flags, the cauterised summer air. I recall the brighter stones of my childhood, the post-war vision still fresh at a time of genuine full employment. Now, with the murals beginning to rot, the sutures widening, I am anchored to the city’s re-aging, to the tissues of image-pulp in my head.
The phrase ‘trumpet blast from Soviet heaven’ is particularly striking, and perhaps by loose association, reminds us that this is a deeply cosmopolitan writer, a natural European, a left-field intellectual comfortably out-of-kilter with the crenelated temperament of his city of origin. In ‘Crawl’, Jope inoculates his localised anomie and provides a beguiling stream of images and scenes in evocation of the more traditionally sea-folkloric parts of the city – something like his own mini Under Milk Wood (or, Over Mutley Plain – Jope will get the reference), though sobering enough in its evocation to allay any sense of an under-the-table angle. It begins – ‘at the beginning’– with an appropriately soporific focus:
The city dreams of itself, like any city, in a number of ways. The pirate – or ‘privateer’ – is one such way. Another is the jolly fisherman, who rounds us up for the Dockyard and the Warships on a bright afternoon…
It’s interesting here – though not unsurprising – that Jope alludes to pirates and juxtaposes them with privateers, since this distinctly leftfield take on Plymouthian heritage has been extrapolated into a book-length macro-metaphor of capitalist society in decline by Jope’s associate Plymouth-based poet Steve Spence in his quirkily aphorismic and polemical Forward-shortlisted A Curious Shipwreck (Shearsman, 2010). Piracy is pretty much the perfect metaphor for free-market capitalism, and can be explored from many directions, and Jope and Spence take their own distinct approaches to the motif.
Jope alludes to Robert Falcon Scott a couple of times in these Plymouth-based prose poems, in ‘Crawl’, not by name but by evocation:
I also rate the stiff-upper-lipped heroic version, the tented, frostbitten writer of journals – but that one belongs to all humanity.
Jope then makes a volte-face from historical nostalgia into the cruder contemporary cut of the city’s jib, the depressingly typical testosterone-pumped Plymouthian Alpha male – doubtless, as I always sensed as a relatively passive, even fey young student in Plymouth back in the early 90s, there is a very macho undercurrent to the place, where it is more the ‘civvy’ males who outwardly assert their masculinity and toughness, presumably in response to the naval-and-Marine constituencies that adumbrate the character of the locality. So we have Jope’s somewhat uncharacteristically misanthropic judgement:
…there’s the crew-cut thug, the stamper on heads, who has nothing he wants to contribute apart from his own thuggishness.
Jope then alludes to the conflicted character of a city always tussling with its two cultural extremes of seafaring and parochialism:
The sailor or marine is of course a visitor, the city’s dream of its Other rather than its own. But the dream-shape I assume this evening is that of the merman, tail altered, piscine tendencies no less in evidence.
The last trope is a startling display of alliterative and sibilant deftness of touch. The rest of this piece is particularly Dylan Thomas-esque in its layering of picaresque street detail, and includes some beautiful lines:
So I flop down Kinterbury Street… At the Minerva, the usual Breughelesque crowd is eroding body space, so I settle for a half of cider downed in second via the back of the throat. … At the Queen’s Arms, there is time to lounge in a newly-knitted cardigan and listen to a man berate his girlfriend … because her shadow is flirting, unbeknown to both us, with my own slim shadow. As I crawl to the Dolphin, the salt begins to gather in the tide-pools under the street-lamps… The plaster floor’s as slippery as the deck of a wreck left stranded on the Eddystone reef. Even the punters smell of iodine, and the Plymouth Gin that I quaff is as oily as mackerel.
And, particularly aurally reminiscent of the sing-song rhythms of Under Milk Wood:
Beyond the Mayflower steps, and Dutton’s Restaurant, and the tinkling masts and wobbling lights, I find myself a quieter hole where hake and gurnard nuzzle the tankards of the dead.
The final paragraph spirals towards its muscularly descriptive close:
I round off the evening at Kitty O’Hanlon’s, amongst students in replica strips, and on a bed of sawdust bearing a faint odour of the ocean that I can taste, myself, on the mare’s tails and breakers of a pint of Guinness.
‘Crawl’ ends on the tangibly alliterative flourish ‘I return to myself, the city’s salt-encrusted Tarot intact’. ‘Observation’ concludes the second section and concentrates for its imagery on the ghosts of Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition, which sailed from Plymouth:
…Bowers and Wilson … lumber up Armada Way man-hauling their memoirs, as a walrus-gummed glacier gleams in the direction of Kit Hill.
A certain surrealism comes into play with such incongruous juxtapositions of the ghosts of Antarctic expeditions mingled with the Brutalist purgatory that is Plymouth’s main bus station – though Jope acknowledges this himself – in what is a truly touching and sublime sequence of tropes:
Back at Bretonside Bus Station – as if by way of contrasts – the choreographies of the mystery tramp continue. He paces, not in the circle but in a series of staccato marches, as if inscribing a sigil on the ash from four decades of cigarette butts. In this all-but-derelict space long overdue for replacement, he paces in his long soiled overcoat, his coarse hair hanging from the threadbare moon of his scalp.
Then Jope beautifully merges his deceptively discursive themes into the leitmotiv of the tramp:
I conclude that he is the extra man of Shackleton’s party – horrified by the white-outs, keen above all else to hide, to pace off his obsessions in this unfortunate sanctum.
Perhaps his fellow-explorer will emerge, to the moraine-like sound of an organ lodged in an orchestra…
This particular piece rises to an ingenious crescendo of metaphorical social commentary with the sublime transfiguration of figures lost in Antarctica into the itinerant exposure to the elements of a homeless man lost to the concrete tundra of a bus station. Not only is Jope’s oeuvre ‘geopoetical’, it is also supremely ‘psychogeographical’.
Section III, Inland, is comprised of three long sequences of single aphorismic paragraphs divided by asterisks, a structure perhaps more synonymous with contemporary poetic prose/prose poems. In ‘Source’, the first of these, the setting feels more rusticated, and we are now out in the countryside – this feels deliberate and adds to the dreamlike quality of the sequences, and in any case, as in many of Jope’s deeply figurative landscapes, the actual locations do not particularly matter, since they are partly meta-locations, internal landscapes. The more countrified these pieces grow Jope’s sense of the past, of history, of pre-history, shakes its bones to make its presence felt in the present:
In the invisible distance beyond them both, the Long Men of prehistory are encamped, as these are, in tussocky grass.
Here Jope shows he is equally evocative and kinetic in description as he is in urban landscapes:
Thin twigs twist over auburn bracken, set against the sherbert explosions of the moor-grass.
And ever-present, the thanatotic sense of time:
Even the gorse has the clarity of crystal – its flowers are trapped in a moment that outlasts them. They bend beneath the weight of white admirals, where weakness is the ghost of acceptance.
Jope composes no-holds-barred when it comes to the translucent and transcendent aphorism, and the almost Buddhistic contra-adumbrations of impermanence mingled with immanence, of the mortality of the microcosm – of the sentient – contrasted with the immortality of the macrocosm – Creation itself. ‘Source’ truly is a source of sorts: of many brilliantly descriptive lyrical passages and tropes. From one, it would appear we are now over the Tamar River and into the eerie ancient careening terrain of Cornwall:
Scrawled on the wall of a quarryman’s hut – Kernow Agan Bro. But what appears to be the Gwenn Ha Du – the white and black of the Cornish flag – is in fact a narrow grille in the wall of the building, where the king, the saviour, lies sleeping with his bracken-haired knights.
With effortless command of his idiom, Jope suddenly throws us into a Pre-Raphaelite Arthurian painting, and there’s a reminder in the Cornish dialect of the county’s close linguistic and mythical links with Wales; the further Jope guides us into the wilder enigmas of Cornwall, we tread into ‘mythopoetical’ Gravesian territory, the ancient Albion of the White Goddess. Jope’s stunning aphorisms and descriptions striate through these pieces like gold-struck streambeds, rhythmically brilliant:
The landscape is fastened to the earth by human constructions – the granite towers of the parish churches, the mine-stacks that flocks in the midst of pastures.
Jope lingers much on the ghosts of derelict Cornish tin-mining industries:
Mine-stacks, quarries … the landmarks of lost effort. The inevitability of these silent chimneys, green-bearded as the fragments of a ship…
And an image which for me – having grown up in a ramshackle old slate-roofed cottage in a Cornish hamlet – stands out so authentically is:
Luminous grey roofs perspire in the afternoon glare.
Jope’s ‘musical modernism’ for want of a better term, its precision of image infused with a sinuousness of language and an ear for cadence and rhythm, to my mind, makes his poetic prose stand out among his more elliptical, linguistically reductive modernist contemporaries – so we get such songful Thomasean images as cattle ‘tethered by shadow’, a ‘late Victorian cottage clad in a worn pink stucco’, and ‘the graveyard is a thicket of names and rhythmic platitudes’. But this being Jope, and not Thomas, we also get the sharp philosophical flourishes:
The inscriptions relate their ultimate settlements, the bargains sealed with the soil of this place underneath the flattened hump of the batholith’.
A Darwinian thanatotic strain of associations runs through this subtle meditation on the ‘origins’ our species, the source of our sentience, and of our destinations:
Origin is all but impossible to grasp – beyond this brief focus of stability, it continues to spiral, back to the Ice Age rovers, and the loping apes who searched for scraps in the Danakil Desert. Only sometimes, by an effort of will, it fixes its glittering eye upon the present’s guests.
In this final segment of the piece, Jope crystallises his instincts, almost in existential defiance of thanatos, of the ultimate limit, the final inertia after life’s itinerancy:
Yet to be laid to rest here, rotting into the clays of evening, is not to be located. To be located is to live, to resist location by the fact of one’s movement, yet to find oneself located moment by moment.
Jope’s own potted Autobiography of a Meta-Tramp. The equine-centric ‘Whim Round’ is a more surreal, phantasmagoric sequence; it opens with a kind of Tantric or theosophical epiphany relating to mortality and the spirit:
Adding one’s footprint, one’s shadow, to the already intact. Subtracting one’s breath, one’s passage, one’s penumbra – letting them rise into the upper air, like a squadron of kites.
There’s an intriguing epistemological trope citing the Tabula rasa belief in the blank slate of birth: that ‘mental content’ is infused into the human mind through experience and perception (nurture over nature) - but then playing against this motif:
The wind has blown through, is blowing through, to leave the geomantic forms of its absence, in a tabula rasa that never was.
We are told that ‘Whim Round’ is ‘the circle a horse’ walks to accustom itself to its ‘winding gear’. Quotes from various sources, including one Peter Stainer’s Minions Moor abound; and paraphrases as in ‘The view from the Devil’s Armchair … can cause the viewer to go mad, or be a poet, or both’ – a passage with a distinctly lycanthropic flavour. A geological texture creeps in with mineral images – something often instinctive in much contemporary modernist writing:
…glassy-grey to white quartz, white feldspar, black biotite, white muscovite, black tourmaline…
Again, Jope seems to take great pleasure in the sounds of words, but this is not superficial decorativeness, it is an authentic receptiveness to the musicality of language, even if he writes ‘I will scratch these surfaces only’. The picturesque quaintness of human sentiment represented in the special need to ‘name’ things, to stamp an anthropomorphic mark not only on man-made but also natural landscapes twinkles through with references to the ‘Cheesewring railway’, a moorland inn called ‘the House of Blazes’, and outposts such as ‘Stowe’s Pound’. This piece ends on another philosophical outcrop where, one presumes, Jope metaphorically ‘locates’ the place of being, of living:
…not here, not there, but in the absence that expresses itself in the word between.
This in many ways serves as the book’s overarching ‘place’. The final piece of Section III is the slightly more experimental prose of ‘Oubliette’, and here Jope meditates much on the semantic magic of ancient language; we have focus on semiotics, on the topographical evocations of place names, as in Jope’s Gravesian etymological mapping of the consonantal drift of ‘Lydford’ in Devon, preceded by:
As I tune in, sluggishly – chiselling at the afternoon’s coign – a calligram suggests itself –
LYDA LYDAN LYDANF LYDE LYDEFORDE
Names march down the map, a waterfall of approximations.
This village is the ‘former home of the mint-masters’:
…the burh where they hammered out silver pennies, to be borne back to Swedish museums on long ships. Devon’s Petra – a single worked-out seam of street, with a name like a rabbit’s skeleton pulled out of a hat.
Jope then guides us into the evocatively named ‘St Petroc’s church’, and the riveting descriptions and gnomic depictions keep coming thick and fast, too many to quote from:
The spalliards and the meresmen, parcelling out the moor’s turbary, come to ground in the notebooks as if in pickled brine.
Jope’s is a very living yet timeless, immanent – in its ancient and historical spicing – diction which intrigues us constantly with its picturesque allusions and names; in this piece we’re treated to ‘twizzle-haired miners’, ‘Gubbinses, with their horrible carmine beards’, and a ‘ju-ju-pink-painted Castle Inn’. Some of Jope’s tropes echo the slightly surreal, neo-Symbolist, Rimbaudian stylistics of the prolific and deeply imaginative Jeremy Reed, particulary in their quirky contra-qualities of historicity and the futuristic:
…the protreeves with their silver seals as heavy as neutron stars. A terrain that power consumes provokes my retreat, to the black space at its core where ringdoves patrol.
Section IV, the slightly esoterically titled Six Strokes for Fernand Khnopff – a Belgian symbolist painter 1858-1821 – begins with the haunting ‘I Lock the Door Upon Myself’, a brooding mood-piece of a vignette whose protagonist – Khnopff? – is depicted as a recluse addicted to silence; it ends lingeringly:
He gazes into chiaroscuro, the world summed up in a book too onerous to be written. Any motion, even of the hand, would be a sacrilege.
‘The Accoutrements of Silence’ is Jope at his aphorismic peak, with some quite Nietzschean-Eliotonian flourishes (or rather, anti-flourishes):
If time could end, then death would complete the picture … Jewels in thick mud, crowns in troughs, the winnowing of dust from dust and the scrape of a scythe with the smile of a god.
There’s a true elegance to Jope’s mastery of the prose form with musical tropes such as ‘the fog brought in from the sea, across the flatlands, past the windmills, mussel-stalls and amusement arcades – cocooned in miasma’ and ‘faded words in a scrolled and over-embellished language – its wielders of power reduced to devoted couples chiselled on tombs’. In ‘Self-Potrait, with Masks and Ashes’ Jope casts himself playing the part of ‘a shabby, overlooked detective’ – certainly he’s a sort of poet-detective, a real life Adam Dalgliesh who merges deduction into his primary aesthetic, and produces forensic poetic prose; something too of the verse-excavator, an archaeological craftsman. There’s a Dantean flavour to this piece too, as Jope morphs into a Devonian Virgil wandering in amnesia through Petroc’s Purgatory:
…exiled to this provincial recess for an unspecified transgression, one searches canals for suicides but finds instead cigarette lighters, porno mags and the corpses of rats.
This passage reads almost as one might imagine an Psychogeographical National Trust brochure written by Iain Sinclair; it certainly echoes Sinclair’s urban detailing, in how Jope sums up so much about the detritus of human society in a few grotty but still poetic images. ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ transports Jope into the Middle Ages adumbrated by the vulgarities of modern capitalism, so we get ‘exquisite pralines’ sold at the ‘foot’ of ‘scaffolds’. There’s a Blakeian feel to a ‘Just God’ who appears in a ‘lamb’s wool cloud’. There’s a witch who ‘utters a thrombosis of vowels’. This is a ‘con-mingled’ mediaeval reconstruction, brutally authentic, replete with ‘Wimples, hose, chain-mail, rags, smells so enormous as to smother clouds. Scars on the backs of penitents, lepers hidden in corners waiting to be expelled’. Jope’s very earthy feel for language is exemplified in tropes such as:
On the scaffold, an outcast prays in his guttural native language to a heathen deity.
‘Sleeping Medusa’ gifts us a kind of White ‘Savage’ Goddess in a distinctly Vorticist take on the mythical Gorgon whose ‘wings’ are a ‘texture between the feathers of an owl and the metal of a breastplate’. Jope evokes this monstrous oestrogen-totem with a subtle but corrosive use of sibilance and alliteration:
…the hair is copper and the lips corundum. She knows, withdrawing the tenderness of her gaze to replace with basilisk. She knows, and is inscrutable, she holds her poise despite the collapse, in a city made of shadows, water and exhausted gold.
The section ends on the stunningly imagistic ‘Central Belgium in the Dark’, where we are plunged into a landscape of flatness, of ‘belfries and spacious squares’, whose shade-like inhabitants are
all regretful – none of them caressed the flanks of the Sphinx. This is why they cannot leave for the underworld. Life should have been enough but it was not, and scrapings of old music pull at their spectral ears.
This is truly inspired poetic prose of the first order; to call it, in parts, Rimbaudian, seems by no means hyperbolic. Certainly there is a palpable, ectopic pulse of the Symbolists – even the Imagists – in passages as the one above.
The fifth section of the book, ‘from’ Inscriptions – which again tantalises as to the existence of the full sequence – Jope visits his girlfriend’s city of repose, Budapest, which he introduces three paragraphs in to ‘Osmosis’ via the transfiguration – as touched on earlier – of a tangible location to its meta-representation in experiential memory:
Inside my head, another street-map becomes more detailed. I can refer to it whenever I want … At times it resembles an immaculately-scaled model… In any case, its exists and answers to ‘Budapest’ – the name of the city.
Then the rather cryptically phrased: ‘Nor, of course, do I take from the city in order to acquire it.’ Then we have, indeed, Jope’s own verbalised self-evaluation of geopoetical purpose:
The city flows into the mind but, conversely, the mind flows into the city and transfigures its accretions…
In ‘Dancing in the Palimpsest’ Jope projects his very consciousness into the physical environment of the Hungarian capital, which is ‘imprinting itself more firmly on the four-dimensional map beneath my forehead’; in this sense, we’re back to the Budapest as a scale model perspective, as if the city is a three-dimensional pop-up. There are again some picturesque details eloquently listed: ‘graffiti’d doorways, wizened plants in turquoise tubs’. It’s as if Jope treats his role as poet and ‘psychogeographer’ of the pen as one symbiotic with its surroundings; but more: as almost solipsistic, as if these surroundings are only there because the poet notices them, and so are in some sublime sense animated by his descriptive powers, brought to life – it’s as if, by implication (and in a sense this applies to every single sentient individual, not only in a literal sense in childhood, but also through the more figurative egoism of adulthood), these surroundings are only in existence when the poet is perceiving them:
I enunciate balconies, stucco laurels, rusted shutters and ripped-up fragments of poster, surrounded by people I pretend to recognise.
And a bit later one we get ‘I insinuate myself into the urban fabric’ – a trope which could well be the signature of Jope’s metamorphic style, his morphological approach to both language and physical form and environments. ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ is another transfigurative piece, a meditation on Budapest’s own historical contribution to the long legacy of European anti-Semitism by focusing on the image of ‘iron shoes in pairs’ (presumably some sort of monument) ‘on the Pest bank of the Danube’ that mark the purge of Jews from the city by the ‘patriots of the Arrow Cross [who] committed this deed, under the Árpád flag’, who are ‘Sixty years later’ ‘despised by all except the most intransigent of fascists’. But Budapest, Jope tells us, is today ‘both a Hungarian and a Jewish’ city. There are some beguilingly musical phrases: ‘the turul-bird of Magyar legend’. At its close, in what appears to be an allusion to the famous anonymous Christian poem ‘Footprints’, Jope writes:
It’s as if I were expecting to see wet footprints on the opposite bank.
‘White Steps’ finds Jope in quixotic mood, and with this resurfaces the intense though by no means morbid thanatotic preoccupations: ‘Life becomes vast, precarious and mythical’ and ‘Land is infinite, in wave upon wave of turquoise hills’ – the latter trope, a surreal transformation of dry terrain into something more amorphous and sea-like. Jope comes across ‘A suddenly-tattered and defenceless man’ ‘intoning prayers to St Christopher, yet splendidly poised and deeply at ease’ – and one suspects this is the poet’s own doppelganger, or a sudden out-of-body objective appraisal of himself, clinched perhaps in: ‘The world begins with his skin, at last. Make way for the peregrinating fool!’. Then the rusty chivalry of the poet’s own particular quest and his detectable optimism regards mortality and its true nature beneath the surface of decay:
And this temporary sense, the conceit of errant knighthood … leading to a death more resonant, more generous, than he had ever imagined.
‘Paradise’ finds Jope in the region of Visegrád, near the Carpathians, where a phantasmagoria transports us to the shadowy figure of Vlad Dracul (Vlad II of Wallachia, Vlad ‘the Dragon’ and also ‘the Impaler’), supposed as the original source for Bram Stoker’s vampiric Dracula, whom Jope evokes in an appropriate aphorism:
…here was a king with a mighty library, who had never even left a silver goblet in an empty square as proof of his omnipotence.
This weirdly eerie piece finds Jope ‘Descending the Calvary path’ (and I’m not sure if this is a genuine place name, or a figurative ‘place’), and ending on a Dantean meditation on the mortal caught out-of-time while still being aged by time:
Paradise is the place one leaves … knowing that one leaves surprisingly, shockingly older…
The themes of time and mortality spill into ‘Superimpositions’, as Jope records, poignantly in a ‘second-class only, stopping train’:
I listen to the clatter of moments in motion, growing older with minimum abruptness.
‘Fata Morgana’ returns to the landscape-as-map leitmotiv, as Jope compares the Hungarian scenery through the train window to
…an enormous map … spread by a giant on the floor of a building so vast as to contain its own allowance of clouds.
Jope muses further on this papery mindscape, which is, however, simply a mental extrapolation of the confines of our perceptual realities:
But what would it be like to live on a map the size of a landscape, seeing only the four directions under skies that rise to an invisible ceiling?
Jope describes to us in seemingly effortless metaphor ‘the austerity of the Nagytemplom’ and the ‘puszta’ (Hungarian for plaza?) ‘paying homage to a stern white god whose silence is ominous’. There is also a politicisation of landscape:
…sky-crushed landscape of abandoned socialism, lured by exhaustion, boredom and this pervasive flatness.
‘Bells Drowned in Air’ is one of the more dream-like vignettes, almost its own Grimm fairy-tale with a distinctly existential figuration focusing on an ‘apricot brandy’-addicted doctor ‘too heavy and indomitable to die’. ‘Wide Roads in Sunlight’ continues the geopolitical landscaping:
This place is being built on fields, by a loess embankment … to house the proletariat of a heaven-storming steelworks itself the size of a town.
This post-Soviet steelworks lasts as a rusted monument to industrial socialism, and Jope corners its propinquity in a stunning aphorismic flourish:
What remains is still the past’s idea of a future, neutralised by softer human concerns.
‘Spring’ shows us a ‘main room’ whose ‘space is hemmed in with dog-eared almanacs’. This piece transports us back to 1881 and the compositions of Béla Bártok:
Imagine a music purely exposed, nervous and restless and astringent…
One notes how the last word is also an aural contraction of ‘a string arrangement’. Jope proffers a perhaps unconscious riposte to Eliot’s famous aphorism ‘April is the cruellest month’ with his own ‘March is all months’. This piece ends on an uplifting mantra: ‘every note and thought would flow from … the spring of the all-impossible’.
‘A Bird in the Head’ finds Jope again in mortality-reflective mode, ingeniously defining the resort to doing ‘nothing’ as not the same as ‘relaxing’ which, ‘as the adverts put it, is no more than consumption in the slow lane’: here there is one of the more detectable moments of a perhaps only partially conscious thanatophobic instinct in Jope, that is, an overt mortal sensitivity, a feeling of death’s permanent closeness and its adumbration of all things, and an equal reflexive instinct to somehow obviate its inevitability. This leads into a figurative digression about a ‘golden oriole’ which at first the poet thought was ‘a painted bird, a toy of some kind, until it hopped into shadow’ – in this one might deduce along Jungian lines the poet's ‘shadow-state’ projected into this indeterminate form, which he perceives first as artificial, but then notices its animation and thus sentience as it hops into a ‘shadow’ representing, no doubt, oblivion: a delightful parable on the impossibility of life without death, or rather, as death as the definer of life. Later, in a ‘Budapest bookshop, with a map of Hungary’ in his ‘head’, Jope tries to believe, as his ‘consciousness widens’, that ‘there is a space that is safe from time’. Indeed, in ‘Midnight at the Hotel Savaria’, Jope muses more on his mortality, and with a neurotic death-resistance reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, reflexively writes ‘the act of reaching back seems defiant enough’. ‘A Foreign Field’ continues this thanatotic intensity, where again Jope projects his consciousness into the paper landscape of a map, as if that is somehow realer than his physical environment, even his relationship with his partner: ‘the atlas, for me, is where you are now’ he muses. Then the sublime, slightly chilling, ending:
I know that I am inscribed, invisibly, in the streets we have come to know so well … and that I will not leave them, again, until both of us have died. And I knew it would end like this – in the space between the atlas on the shelf, and the one that persist in my head.
Section VI, Blue Skin, is a series of slightly shorter prose poems set in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, near Norway. ‘Comfortless Cove’ finds Jope imagining his own Xanadu in negative, meeting a ‘night-haired companion’ with whom he might propagate ‘blue-skinned ghost-children’; here an unnecessary sun is compared to ‘a blind man brandishing a torch in a room already lit’. In ‘Motivation’, Jope relinquishes ‘magick’ but still thinks himself into a ‘magickal space’. ‘Forget-Me-Nots’ paints ‘faint light’ that ‘billows like a poppy’, and Jope is in something of an egoless trance where his ‘small, besieged identity is of no concern’. In ‘Drifting Snow, across the Screen’, Jope imagines himself as a ‘magus’ manipulating his physical environment: ‘Outside, the polar demons are mine to deploy as I please’. In a mysterious phrase, the poet appears to throw the very wind like a voice: ‘a howl is all that remains, a howl that I ventriloquise’. ‘Infinite Wind’ personifies the ‘blue’ wind as a ‘sheer blue god of nowhere’, and Jope pictures himself in sculptured repose beside his partner ‘on a raised tomb in a Minster of ice’. ‘Weather Report’ is distinctly Nietzschean in its tone and motifs: an absent thunderstorm would, if it were erupting, be ‘Wagnerian’, and ‘There is no longer a hole in the Polar ice for overmen to step through’ – only ‘Tents, half buried in blue-tinged drift’ and ‘‘purple legions’ of cosmic indifference’. ‘On the Brilliance of Lichen’ meditates on a fungi which pre-dates and will outlast our species, and which the poet seems to envy for its non-sentience ‘clinging-on in unawareness’, that is ‘older than we will ever be, more passive and resigned than our corpses’. In Darwinian mood again Jope characterises our hapless species as ‘Apes … beneath unanswering stars and the ghost of a wise old naked father ape in the sky’. This particular organism is an interesting one to focus on since, as John Wyndham imagines in his novel The Trouble With Lichen, its organic source of longevity can also be farmed to prolong human life-spans. ‘Cabin Fever’, echoing the snowbound isolation of Scott and his expedition, seals us inside Jope’s own igloo of introspection – moving from solipsism egolessness:
I do not know … if I will ever see another living creature that is not my own projection. And what am I? A projection of ice? A shadow cast by void?
You stroke my chest as if in reassurance, ghost propositioning ghost. There is white-out inside these walls as well as outside. My name is white on white. I could be …. a transparent man through which the whiteness studies itself.
‘Distance of Spring’ casts the poet as a male Persephone in hibernation until his seasonal emergence, a vigil of ‘the clock’s crevasse’. In ‘A Saturnine Moon’ Jope muses on the ‘death and indifference’ that surrounds ‘our narrow nexus of life’ and that ‘we take on something of that death and it hardens in our souls like a pearl. It is one of the ways we learn to die’. Here Jope seems to be mentally rehearsing for oblivion, attempting to come to terms with the incomprehensible. ‘Itinerant’ finds Jope no doubt unconsciously echoing the nature-wrapt religiosity of Gerard Manley Hopkins, not only in tone and to some extent – part-sprung – rhythm, and tripping descriptiveness, but also more incongruously for a metaphysically sceptical poet, in an inspirited sense:
Moss-green, berry-red and bird’s egg blue … the sky’s impersonal cathedral, leaves and fruits in the aisles, the rustle of your feet or are they wings and the deft movements of a deer in the thicket to my left…
‘Impossible Music’ serves as a recapitulative leitmotiv, a kind of ontological love poem. ‘The Grave of the Mariner’ opens unabashedly with a bald, Eliotonian alliterative image of mortality:
Bleaching bones on a bed of black moss.
Jope subtly self-references his first collection, For the Wedding-Guest (Stride, 1997) in this vivid passage:
This land’s indifference can contain no mariner’s homily, no attentive wedding-guest or kirk on a low green hill. Its stories end in petrified gestures, in sockets too cold for crows to peck.
This piece concludes on the chilling Heathcliffian aphorism:
I inspect the open coffin, a void un-named by a void.
‘After Such a Long Repose’ captures Jope in Rimbaudian mode again, a deeply sensory, intoxicating and phantasmagorical (apologies for my overuse of that word) prose poem in which there are scattered images evocative of the dusky dream-scopes of opium-languishing poets of the past, particularly the ‘phantoms of sublimity’ of 'Kubla Khan'-cira Coleridge, even hints of Chatterton in ‘sitting back as if with a draught of laudanum in my hand’, conjuring his garret death-swoon in a posture reminiscent of the tumbled Icarus – but with bed-clothes instead of downy wings:
The seventh dream is of ice and I wake, rubbing invisible ice from my eyes, to walk to the window and observe the newly-risen sun. The possibilities have re-ignited…
Then enters a particularly curious reference, stark in contrast to what’s come before it, perhaps a reference to Jope’s own denominational roots:
…and I long, as never before, to be out of this Calvinist place, to forget these austerities forever.
It’s almost as if some kind of Catholic-inclined romanticism of ‘art as sacrament’ (relating perhaps unconsciously back to the recusant schools of thought and poetry, the predominantly Catholic poets of the Yellow Nineties, and the Thomism of the avant-garde David Jones) is in tension with a prosaic Protestant ‘rationalist reality’, stirring inside the poet against his conscious socialisation. ‘The Sleeping Knights’ is a hypnotic encomium with a dream-like brushing of suicidal ideation in ‘I fall from the cliff and forget that I was ever me’; mythological futurism is beguilingly coined in ‘the psychonauts of the Aeons to come’. There’s even what appears to be a subliminal, possibly unconscious image-association with the Jewish Holocaust in the line, ‘as they sleep, their fresh repeats itself in snowdrop after snowdrop’ – but this is perhaps accidental, it’s just the image conjures those in Schindler’s List as the human ashes falling from the chimneys in the concentration camp are confused with snowfall. In ‘It Seems a Pity’, Jope’s thanatotic introspection comes to the fore again with beautiful intensity – 'To create a text that resides in the aftermath of a text …' - through reflections on posterity, on becoming posthumous, almost of becoming, in oneself, a poem that will outlast oneself:
Our frozen bodies the found poems of another age, something to mark with a cross or whatever sacred symbol’s in vogue…
There is indeed something of the ring of Thomism, of the symbolic purpose of language and poetry championed by poets such as David Jones (and more recently, Sebastian Barker), seemingly adumbrating this meditation. The piece ends on the brilliantly resonant phrase:
I must leave this silence and this cold to the genuine saints.
‘I Wake to Bare Rock’ consolidates the primary leitmotiv – the secondary is musical composition – of the Blue Skin sequence, wherein Jope appears to have been altered, discoloured to a metaphorical ‘blue’ of the Arctic landscape, presumably also the blue shadow of death-awareness, of a newly acquired perceptual consciousness of mortality:
…when I see myself reflected, both my face and hands are deeply blue. Self-conscious in my blueness, I squat in an empty cabin and, in days, am back in England with my blue tan fading.
This hyper-sensitivity to the ubiquity of death appears to fade as the poet reacclimatises to his more familiar quotidian surroundings again. But, in a trope reminiscent of Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ – ‘For oft, when on my couch I lie/ In vacant or in pensive mood/ They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude’ – Jope acknowledges that he can revisit the Arctic mentally whenever he wishes:
Once more, the idea of the Arctic is lodged at the back of my mind, in a place I can return to by sitting quietly.
This, in a sense, is not only a musing on the mind’s camera, its visual recorder through sensory memory, but also perhaps it encapsulates Jope’s notion of ‘place’, of the only permanent yet impermanent, malleable ‘place’ over which he has some power of control: his own mind. But he knows he will not, therefore, be free of the perceptual scar that is his fine-tuned, augmented insight into his own mortality:
But still, the hermetic blues of the Arctic hover, as ever, at the edge of our sight. We affirm them through escape.
That last line, in a sense, feels egodystonic, that is, cognitively conflicting: the poet recognises that his conscious resistance to the inevitability of his own future death, symbolised by this all-adumbrating ‘blueness’ – also echoing Gospel descriptions of the resurrected Christ’s blueish shimmering etheric body; a kind of morbid terror which is only strengthened in its hold on the mind the more it is resisted (the classic trap of obsessional thinking).
The final Section VII, ‘from’ Departures, begins with ‘The Remains’, a supreme flourish of figurative description, autobiographical nostalgia and micropsiac distortions lending a Lewis Caroll-esque quality – the term is also known as ‘Alice in Wonderland Syndrome’, often a perceptual feature of forms of psychosis or schizophrenia (interestingly, macropsia, where things seem to increase in size, is also known as ‘megalopia’ – and in this piece, Jope describes his youthful self as ‘full of unrequited lust and megalomania’, a term in semantic echo to the former):
I walk through valleys of broken china. On either side, smashed cups and plates lay under the evening sky, white as a ransacked ossuary, in the Longport doldrums.
Villages, once blurred by smoke from beehives of brick, infested a tangled map. As I walked, the terraces appeared to shrink to my height.
Not only Carrollean, but also Gulliverish, Jope returning home from his transformative travels altered in his perceptions of things once familiar to him, the vastness of the Arctic now dwarfing his perspectives of his home surroundings. Here we get Sinclairian snatches of identity-less ‘edgelands’:
Slag, grassed over, offered perspectives on a mottled geography – beyond, stoat-grey hills…
All seems a ‘collage’ of ‘mini-conurbation’ magnified through microscopic psychopomps in this unsatisfactory reality imperfectly crafted by the demiurges of industrial capitalism. The mysterious ‘D.S. in Köln’ reads very much like an insight into the altered mind of Lemuel Gulliver after his return home, a voyager’s anomie suddenly anchored in the now unfamiliar familiar, with disorienting images such as ‘my veins full of wasp-fur’, and
…I intrude – a cloud-headed shaman – from a monstrous narrative, brought here by the Great God Dromomania.
The latter term, also known as ‘travelling fugue’, means an irrepressible impulsion to wander or travel, move about. There is a sense of Swiftian physical self-disgust, more visceral here than scatological as in Gulliver’s revulsion at the Yahoos, but nevertheless, it is again reminiscent of that traveller’s sudden sense of repulsion at all things flesh, and sense of disembodiment:
And at the end of a world-long journey, even my flesh seems vivid and strange, as mad as the hair that mumbles into my eyes.
‘The Drowning Coast’ is perhaps the most Dylan Thomas-esque piece in this book, one of the most efficacious contrapuntal poem-movements in echo to but still distinctive from the rolling, tumbling verbalism of Under Milk Wood that I've ever read:
A resumption of bells, heard through storm water. Out there, Holland-ward, in a stout-brown sea, to the right of the Sol Bay flotillas. And a dribble of bones, in a cliff-face permanent as talc.
After the lost day, the indifferent night. The church, slow-fallen from the sand rise, makes bass-profound music.
A misty, ragged rain sets in and muffles the bells, turns water to pitch. The city sleeps and its memories, already long-illegible, are pawed from encrusted surfaces…
And it goes on, beautifully, musically, relentlessly as a landslide – one can’t help being reminded of ‘organplaying galloping woods’ and ‘slowblack, crowblack fishingboat bobbing sea' while reading this, but the composition is Jope’s own, distinctive in its more clipped and self-prompting discipline to Thomas’s inexorable, gushing prose-poetry. A metaphor of Alun Lewis’s springs to mind too, ‘the church Stretched like a sow beside the stream’ (‘Mountain Over Aberdare’) – and no doubt there is a distinctly Welsh songfulness of language that comes through in such sinuous descriptions of landscape and village, and perhaps Jope as a Westcountryman shares some of this Celtic word-magick. The ghost of poet and suicide John Davidson, who drowned himself at Penzance, springs to mind in the following allusion:
I envisage a hysterical Victorian poet with an oversized mane of auburn hair, pacing the cliff path long since crumbled … intoning lines of extravagant, redundant musicality. He exhausted himself and died, no more alive than the God he had arraigned or the burghers exhumed by the sea’s claws…
‘What I Wanted to Say about György Ligeti’ reaffirms Jope’s ironic sense of that tangible, very physical permanence of death compared to a flitting impermanence of living things, as he talks about ‘clocks’ becoming ‘clouds’ and ‘everything resisting the solidity that is death’ in a ‘quickening world’. The final title piece, ‘Dreams of the Caucasus’, starts with affecting cartographical transfigurations:
The landscapes we unroll from ourselves, in dreams or in daydreams, can tease with imprecision – scrunching the maps we make with our own, somnambulistic hands.
This concluding piece elucidates the etiology of the book’s overriding motif:
In Herzog’s film, the foundling Kaspar Hauser announces that he has ‘dreamt of the Caucasus’ … Yet the ‘Caucasus’ he describes has absolutely nothing of that war-torn, sabre-dance-pomegranate landscape about it – it’s the tidy landscape of a train-set…
Like Kaspar, I will exit my life with an Earth in my head that is very sparingly spotlit.
Again, a solipsism emerges here, an ultimate philosophical distrust of perception itself, an ontological quandary akin to Propsero’s famous trope in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made of/ And our little life is rounded in a sleep’:
So – when life concludes – what was real and what was dreamt?
It feels as if Jope instinctively senses that some elucidation will come with death, though he projects in himself an anticipated posthumous apostasy (quite possible according to theosophical accounts of the afterlife, a state in which, contrary to our ‘mortal’ presumptions, our spirit selves are still deprived of ultimate knowledge of the source of Creation, but unlike the sentient, exist in a timeless bliss unbarracked by mental questioning as to ultimate truths, sanguine and curious but not in any way plagued by the human niggling after enlightenments, as if the ‘next world’ is an arrested state of supreme and unflustered ‘Negative Capability’ (Keats)):
…unsure if I’ve ever been living on a spherical planet … wearing the world, upon my shoulders, as lightly as I wear my head. And this leads me into a shadowy world, an egg made of wind and perfume and light, that struggles to break across these pages.
And so this astonishing book concludes:
Here lie monsters. Here lie humans. But encounter is all.
To my mind, this is poetic prose of the highest quality – a more ‘musical’ modernism than the commoner economical, scientifically dictioned, elliptical output of the more experimental modernists of today, although there does run through Jope’s own oeuvre a detectable vein of geological engagement, a mineral quality which often features in the poetry of like-minded stylists. Generally, poetic prose, or prose poetry, is not a medium I am normally attracted to and for my attention to be grabbed the language has to jump out sufficiently in imagery, metaphor and descriptiveness, and with some echo of musicality and rhythm, in order for me to properly engage with it. Jope’s colourfully expressive and plangent style immediately draws me in, and then its meanings and sublimations sink me entirely into its ‘geopoetical’ landscapes – because these pieces are like landscapes on the page in their own way, ‘psychogeographical’, or, one might suggest, meta-cartographical: a mapping of mental as much as of physical landscapes. Dreams of the Caucasus is in my opinion a masterwork of poetic and aphorismic craftsmanship, and of philosophical insight, a truly transporting and transformational read, and an accomplishment in poetic prose which in parts measures up to the standards set by Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood. I’ve long been an admirer of Jope’s poetry – The Book of Bells & Candles is an exceptionally well-crafted and imaginative collection – and I can only add that in the medium of poetic prose Jope stamps his mark with a formidable symphonic signature. This book is highly recommended, it is a journey to traverse again and again, and is the most seductively ‘poetic’ and ambitious of poetic-prose volumes I have read in a very, very long time, hence my somewhat feverishly detailed engagement.
Alan Morrison © 2011