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04 July 2017 @ 05:05 pm
Review of Incendium Amoris by Steve Ely, pub. Smokestack 2017  



Those who have read Ely's two previous full-length collections, Oswald's Book of Hours and Englaland , will be familiar with his themes and preoccupations: place, and people dispossessed of it, history permanently alive in landscape, religion, politics. They will also be aware of his techniques, particularly the delight in the multifariousness of words, the use of forms, and the dense texture created by constant allusiveness.  There are generally a lot of things going on beneath the surface of an Ely poem, so much so that end-notes are needed, but up to now, this has never, to my mind, been a problem. The technique arises from his consciousness of past-in-present; he cannot look at a landscape and see only what it is now. Rather, everything that has ever happened there comes together to shape it.

The ground of this book is the story of Richard Rolle, 14th-century mystic, prolific religious writer, unofficial preacher and spiritual adviser to nuns, with one of whom, Margaret, he seems to have developed a relationship close enough to raise eyebrows. At one point she became an anchoress, only emerging from solitude when informed of his death, after which she was active in promoting his cult.  Whatever the historical truth of the matter, it is strongly hinted, especially in the poem "Richard lay a-weeping", that the Richard and Margaret of this collection are indeed lovers, and torn between their vocations and temptation.

This is potentially an absorbing and moving situation, and it does become so in some of the early poems in Richard's voice, where he emerges as a character, notably "To Mega Therion" and "Banquet of Virgins":
I am your Father and you my monkish girl.
We sit knee to knee, handfast in yearning.
You confess you are often tempted,
as am I.
Much of the time, though, Richard and Margaret seem to me to disappear behind the crowd of disparate characters who elbow their way into these poems: Pound, Blake, Catweazle, Agricola, Robert Aske and various friends and relatives of the poet. Some of these, sometimes, do have the effect of the allusiveness in Oswald's Book of Hours, making the poems deeper and more layered by adding an historical consciousness. But sometimes I felt they were not so much adding layers to the narrative as getting in its way.

 It is the first time I have felt the level of allusiveness might be a problem, that some of the allusions were lying about on the surface of the poem rather than being absorbed into its fabric, and that Ely was perhaps trying to cram too much into one poem. Notably, this happened in a five-part non-Rolle poem, "The Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram". The note to it begins with the sentence "In (1), the unravelling of creation is explored with help from the Genesis creation story, the legend of the Golem, Gnosticism, the allegory of Adam Kadmon and Gawain and the Green Knight". After that, it gets a bit complicated.  I found this particular poem all but unreadable. Another allusive poem in several parts, "Little Saint Hugh", exploring the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, is far more powerful, communicative and focused.

If there is a problem, it is one of over-ambitiousness, which, goodness knows, is better than having poems aim too low and attempt too little. But to me at least, it robs the poems of some of the drive and momentum that were so evident in his two previous collections.  Some associations, maybe, should be like the seven-eighths of the iceberg beneath the surface: the writer knows they are there, and his writing is influenced accordingly, but the reader need not.

In the final poem, "Æcerbot" ( a charm designed to restore fertility to a field) Rolle reappears to conduct the rite, as does Ely's ability to dazzle with the richness of words:
Slit-light splayed in shafts cross
chancel, limed walls lucent, linen bright.
Bated breath of bell and Bible,
batflit dust mote, transepts still.
And in two adjoining poems, "Je te plumerai" and "The White Hart", Ely again shows the skill at playing one poem off another, to the benefit of both, that surfaced so often in Englaland. Both are set in the 14th century, both involve hunting, the first by nobles, the second by poachers in rebellion against government and its tax-collectors, and while each is complete in itself, together they are more than the sum of their parts. There is much to enjoy and think about here, as always, and most when he gives music and narrative their head.