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This review is taken from PN Review 30, Volume 9 Number 4, March - April 1983.IN THE BRAZEN AGE
The title of Clive Kilmer's second collection is happily chosen. The author lurks around churches and graveyards, and many of the poems show considerable religious feeling, and so in that sense they are like devotional poems; but his main devotion is still for things of this world, not the next. He has an affection for Christianity, but he does not seem to subscribe to it. He honours whatever is behind the things of this world, their great origin, for which the name of God is as good as any other.
The epigraph to the first section is out of Fulke Greville, contrasting a Golden past with a Brazen present, in which 'earth is worn' and 'Beauty grown sick'. What then in Wilmer's secular terms constituted the Fall from the Golden Eden? The answer is to be found, I think, in a bare-seeming five-line poem called 'Pony and Boy'
the pony presses
its muzzle into the bark
of the tree blindly
as my boy, across the stream
leaning towards it, gazes
Pony and boy are similar in their eager forward postures, but the pony acts blindly and the boy gazes. Gazing suggests reflection, and indicates the boy's greater detachment and self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is the great disrupter of unity.
If in his secular religious feeling Wilmer reminds me of the Victorians, and if in his implication that consciousness is the Fall he reminds me of the early moderns like Mann, most of his actual writing is firmly in that tradition of song as statement that started long before Wyatt and has continued well after Hardy. He may deal with old subjects, but he makes them new. In 'Bindweed Song' the convolvulus addresses humankind with a kind of timeless triumph, commenting on the artefacts that start to fall down. 'What am I,' it remarks,
Who have wound a way back in?
-Who mesh and drape (until they all cohere)
Hedge, pathway and door-frame. See, passer-by,
How beauty decks the substance of your fear.
The language is as dense but simple and as swift in movement as the bindweed itself. 'Cohere': the separating signs of human activity, hedge, pathway and door-frame, are literally stuck together by the overrunning weed, made one; in this state they are coherent, intelligible, speaking of a unity they did not have before. The bindweed mimes the Golden Age, in fact, where the earth is re-covered and Beauty has got over her sickness. But it is only a miming: decking is something external, a decoration, and the 'substance' of our fear is still there.
I particularly admire the tact with which Wilmer handles his traditional modes. He is not one of those poets who write as if pretending to be a sixteenth-century mystic, for example, as if unaware of the passage of five hundred years. He remains a poet speaking to us with the assurance and closeness of a contemporary, though without the idiosyncracy of the fashionable.
'Pony and Boy' is not written in what I call a traditional mode, of course, and nor are any of the poems in the second section of the book. They are in a free verse that probably derives more from William Carlos Williams's example than anything else, though it sometimes comes dangerously close to the iambic for free verse. This second section consists entirely of poems about birds. In avibus intellige studia spiritualia, the epigraph to it begins, in birds understand spiritual studies, but I don't see that Wilmer really does extract spiritual significance from them. On the contrary, it is the virtue of these poems that they give us very bird like birds, which have just that strange otherness of the air that sets them apart from us in every way, including the spiritual.
The third and last section of the book, which is also the strongest, returns us largely to metre. Its first poem links it to the second section, however: 'The Natural History of the Rook' is about the naturalist and conservationist charles Waterton. At the end, in swift and fluid blank verse, Waterton is described watching the rooks 'Fly overhead in the dawn light to pass/Into the Still-remote, unmediated/Variety of inhuman atmosphere.' Reading straight through the book you can see at this point how through a kind of dialectic between the first two sections the third is produced. In section one, things were not working out well for humans; in the next, birds went their indifferent ways with all the sureness and strength of being unlike us; and here humans-in this poem by paying attention to birds-have regained their own energy: energy of perception, it may be, of action, or of art, which is another sort of action.
If I had more space I would praise some of the poems in this section in detail, specifically 'Chinoiserie', with its Grevillean and Donnean condensation, and the two severely sonorous 'Antiphonal Sonnets', but I want to go straight to what for me is the triumph of the book and perhaps Wilmer's best single poem to date, 'The Parable of the Sower'. The subject is a stained glass window of 1897:
The sower goes out to sow. His sense and form
Move only in a landscape of stained glass;
The leads like ivy stems,
Enmeshing, bind him in.
A pair of pentameters is followed by a pair of trimeters. This pattern is repeated nine times in the poem, and variations are played on the relation of the short to the long lines. Here the amplitude of the sower's movement is abruptly contracted by the medium of the stained glass, and in lines that are contracted too. (The organic suggestion of 'ivy stems, enmeshing' is admirably appropriate to the period of the window.) But after this check to the verse movement, this qualification of both 'sense and form', the poem moves on with a remarkable openness and speed (slowness is beauty sometimes, but in a song swiftness can be beauty too): the musical power is great, so great indeed that I am given the impression of more rhymes than there actually are, for there are only three pairs of them in the whole poem. Wilmer goes on to tell how the craftsman who made the window brought his vision into his work, specifically into the sower's expression and into the 'unearthly glow' of the bare field-even though he sees, like Greville, only 'an absence' in the aspect of the real earth. The poem ends:
Here wayside, thorn, good ground and stony ground
Are stained through with devotion, with his need
For things to mean-the word
Secreted in the seed.
The word here, given the Christian and the artistic context, is a very complex matter indeed. The spreading of Christ's word, to take the most available of the meanings, can lead to redemption. But the work of the craftsman (or of the poet) can embody a kind of redemption from the Brazen Age as well, and it is something more meaningful than the mime of the bindweed. The poem itself is 'stained through' with Wilmer's devotion-and his devotion here as throughout the book takes the form of a search after meaning.
This review is taken from PN Review 30, Volume 9 Number 4, March - April 1983.