Transfigurations

Roger Garfitt

  • The Weddings at Nether Powers by Peter Redgrove
    Routledge, 166 pp, £2.95, July 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0255 6

One of the tropes of Classical rhetoric, which surfaced again in the Jacobean fascination with death, was that of the relentless mutability of matter – Alexander the Great could be turned in his clay to the bung in a wine barrel. It is a trope that recurs repeatedly in Peter Redgrove’s recent work,

You take turns to be food,
Before you can grind wheat you have to be wheat,
Before you can eat bread you are a nice new crust
Eaten by Mary, who chooses a crust-you here,
A mouthful of Shakespeare’s breath there, a glass
Of transparent Genghis Khan there,

but in a very different spirit from the Classical original. The horror of mutability has gone: instead, mutability is taken to be reassuring evidence of the unity of matter. But matter does not rest there, in a mechanical cycle of process and reprocess. The perception of unity leads Redgrove into another, deeper insight, and here the nature of the ground changes under his feet: he steps from the perceptible and the verifiable into the realm of the visionary. The movement can be seen most clearly in ‘Swinishness’, which begins with the household pig of the old cottage economy,

The ghost in the cottage of all the refuse that they throw out
Which sinks in the wallow and then walks in
            again on the pig’s bones,

and moves on round the cycle,

And I take apple sauce with her younger
           daughter, and that gummer
Enters me and causes a mild ecstasy because she
                is truly delicious
And my underworld reduces her to Persephone
            who will haunt the mud

Until her mother meets her in her mouth again
       and makes use of what I could not
And may appear on my plate next year in a
            castrated form as a rasher;

until, via a reference to the role of pigs in the Eleusinian mysteries, the transition is made to the visionary:

             In the butcher’s window
The pig’s head sits on its neck with its heavy eyes dreaming
Of splashing me with her blood as a token of good faith,
A sealed compact, and an earnest that when the
            Goddess appears to me
Wearing just such a pig’s head, then that is her
               choice of energy,
And a matter of theology, and a covenant of
            resurrection in the flesh;
And she looks at me with Eve’s eyes in the pig’s
                 head to test me
And since I am not afraid, not this time round,
And have left flinching, drops her, and my, disguise.

One should note the tonal skill with which that transition is anticipated, the line ‘And my underworld reduces her to Persephone who will haunt the mud’ enacting a small-scale transfiguration that prepares for the greater transfiguration to come.

By an original, not so say idiosyncratic, route, Peter Redgrove has arrived back at a very ancient place: or at any rate, a place that Robert Graves unearthed in The White Goddess and would have us believe is ancient. Graves is probably right: but it is best to approach enchanted ground, as he himself does, doubly armed, with red thread around a rowan twig and a pinch of scepticism. What is certain is that Redgrove has found his way to a cluster of beliefs that have sustained him as a poet of great power and of great humour and generosity.

Partly it’s a matter of, to use the modish phrase, personal liberation, of escaping from a puritan upbringing into ‘the country of the skin’. In ‘For All the Saints’ Redgrove looks back to a time when

My schoolmarm recommended saints
With a tone of sexual secrecy
Like eating something very nice
And I thought of a pallid fellow
Of blancmange curded of mummy’s milk
Moulded by acceptance
In vesture saintly suitable
And as we talked of him in sips
Little bites would slipper down ...

and contrasts the discovery he eventually made at first hand:

I met a real saint much later,
It was inside a woman
The saint was very strong
And beat his wings
And resurrected again and again
In smiles and laughter and electric gliding,
I strode into the saintly waters, waves gripped like bone.

Again in ‘Rough and Lecherous’ he declares that

He wants the harsh tastes, he is not a man
Who lives in the steering eyes, in the jelly globes,
The geographies of coloured images without
                 taste or odour.

There the eyes, the jelly-globes reminiscent of the blancmange, seem to stand for the purely cerebral, as against the sensations

                    recorded
In the memory of his palms, the soles of his feet,
His prick, his scalp.

But the ‘saintliness’ of the woman goes far beyond sexual delight. Redgrove is concerned to restore the female principle in all things – even in the person of the Christian God. There’s a superb satirical poem, ‘Godheadgear’, which opens with a childhood memory,

I was about five when I saw God’s face in a dream,
He was a man-face floating alone high in the sky
Topped with a black beret, his serious pale face
Bitten into by a beret ...

and then develops all the possible implications of that beret – ‘Is God a Frenchman’ ... ‘a child of the Thirties who hates his hat’ ... a mental patient wearing ‘the black badge of leucotomy’? – until God furnishes the answer:

Later God showed me another dream. Like a judge
There he floats above the tides, in his black cap;
He snatches it off and the lovely hair tumbles,
The sheer raven in stepways of perfume!
God, snatch off your clumsy biretta,
Pluck off for ever that syndicate hat,
Whale of Ages, eschew your bitter fedora,
Defer in your own presence, uncover,

Pull off your head of hair that shadow of the Mafia.
If you came in disguise, doff it now;
If you are pregnant with your tides, we shall
                 wait them out;
If you are in your bloody courses, we shall not
                say child-killer.

Once again, it’s very skilful pleading which, by creating an associative link between suppression and repression, increases the sense of liberation in the final unveiling of a female Godhead. The polemical point is well made, and in this connection one thinks of the novel Jesusa, by Peter Redgrove’s close collaborator of recent years, Penelope Shuttle, in which the concept of a female Jesus is explored.

But Redgrove’s quarrel with Christianity runs much deeper than our current concern with male and female stereotyping. When he asks in ‘Godheadgear’, ‘Is half God’s brain missing?’, he is questioning the whole mental structure we have inherited from Christianity: a black-and-white mentality that divides the good, the white, from the bad, the black, and opposes the two. Poem after poem in this book argues that if we will only encounter the black without flinching – that proviso made in ‘Swinishness’ is stressed several times – then we will discover that the black, too, is benign. Redgrove’s use of a black messiah in his radio play The God of Glass is deliberately symbolic, as well as an appeal to a cultural tradition outside the Western rational tradition. Humour and eroticism are often polemical devices in Redgrove, and probably the best statement of the black/white ambivalence in The Weddings at Nether Powers is a superb comic, erotic poem, ‘Florent’.

The great black, of course, is death, and at this point we come full-circle to Redgrove’s vision of death as mutability and of mutability as an expression of the unity of matter. Part of his interest in magic stems, I suspect, from the fact that, in the magical tradition, the black and the white are not seen as opposing forces: they are alternative routes to enlightenment – though the one holds more dangers for the adept than the other.

But essentially Redgrove’s concern with magic has to do with the sources of poetry, and with the reasons poetry is still important to us today. The root of poetry is metaphor, and the root of metaphor is a magical device for ordering and controlling the world. Metaphor began literally, in other words, as a part of sympathetic magic, and at the back of sympathetic magic lies the belief that what we do registers on the world around us, that the universe is, as its name implies, a unity. The tissue of events is seen as a fabric of significances in which, for example, a single magpie crossing your path foretells sorrow but a pair of magpies foretells joy. There is a sense in which all poetry is a re-creation of that magical view. We may understand magpies now as corvidae multiplying on carrion, but there is still a strange confirmation or consolation in the power of metaphor to express our joy or our grief. A metaphor brings us into relation with the universe. It is a pattern in embryo, and there would be no poetry today if we did not still retain our primitive sense that meaning must fall into a pattern, or a pattern hold meaning.

Another way of expressing the magical view would be to say that there is no such thing as external reality. There is only the reality to which we are internal. Put that way, the magical view of the world and the scientific come together. Poetry becomes the working out of where we are, the reading of the pattern we are in. Almost everything Redgrove writes is a revelation of pattern, from a jeu d’esprit like ‘The Sky Spies’ (not yet collected but published in Poetry Review, Vol. 69, No 1) in which the clouds at sunset are seen as ‘floating Hansards’ of the day’s events that the CIA has learned to read by telescope,

                every tendril,
dazzling furl, ringlet, re-entrant,

A reflection, since all breaths escape
In cold whisperpacks of vapour, each puff
               climbs crisping
Into visibility on high,

to a more sober celebration of the responsibilities of the pattern in ‘The Smith’s Anvil’:

                The smith
Changes old iron into new. What he does

Sings with his blows for ever afterwards.

Redgrove takes a particular delight in turning the pattern inside out, describing a world where we are the external to some other life-form’s internal. His device of attributing the vocabulary of consciousness to other life-forms, of referring to trees as libraries, or to fish as letters ‘containing messages confined to issues of life and death’ that

Swarmed, wrote and rewrote themselves, fed,
                hatched and died
In the green-raftered halls of the water’s sorting office,

is, I suspect, a deliberate stratagem to make us realise that we, too, are part of an

Adventurous correspondence written
With energy and light on each leaf of the stacked flesh-pages.

Redgrove has been called ‘a great poet of the transforming eye’, and so he is, but it is important to see that his transformations all proceed from this central vision.

Not that all his writing is of equal power. There is a useful parallel here with Ted Hughes, another poet whose work is, in effect, a remaking of our cosmology. Because both poets write from a strong central vision, nothing that they write is negligible, but both are prone to repetition, and to system-building – the mechanical reproduction of a successful structure. A real poem might be defined as the conjunction of the surprising with the inevitable. In a system-built poem there is only the inevitable. Once you are familiar with the system, it becomes entirely predictable. These virtues and vices are two sides of a coin. You cannot have the strengths of a compelling vision without the weaknesses of compulsive writing. But the danger of an accomplished system-builder is that he can put the system to work, with every appearance of conviction, on an idea which is at best mere fancy, at worst totally misbegotten.

Take Peter Redgrove’s poem ‘En Route in Toppers to Ascot’. It is built on a familiar Redgrove system which might be called the Midas Variation. Everything that King Midas touched turned to gold. In the Midas Variation everything that Peter Redgrove touches turns to one thing, be it stone or clocks or bees or wasps or, in this case, pure horse manure:

He is going to horse-worship at the Races.
Everything about him refers to horses,

He carries glasses in horse-leather cases,
His chest is buttoned into a horse-leather waistcoat,

His shoes are shining brightly
As horse-sweat after a race ...

‘And so it goes on. And so it goes on’ (to quote Anthony Thwaite’s parody of Ted Hughes) until we are told that the Royal Enclosure

Feed at horse-steak restaurants
On distinguished runners, to become all horse.

Now it’s well-known that the English regard horsemeat as taboo, and it’s very probable that the taboo dates back to primitive times when the horse was the cult animal of these islands. In other words, Redgrove’s poem is not only inaccurate but self-defeating. That one mechanically-adduced detail destroys the point of what he was trying to do, which was to send up one of our tribal totems.

It’s an irony worth exploring that two poets so opposed to a mechanistic outlook as Hughes and Redgrove should themselves have become the victims of a mechanical process in their poetry – not that Hughes would have made that particular mistake about Ascot, being a rather sharper observer of English social mores. His ‘Grouse-Butts’, particularly in the original version published in the New Statesman rather than in the tamer version collected in Remains of Elmet, is a much more successful evocation of another upper-class cult, the Glorious Twelfth. But the affinities and the differences between Hughes and Redgrove would be a study in themselves, and the comparison would not always be to Hughes’s advantage.

One remark of Ted Hughes’s may, however, throw some light on Peter Redgrove. In a review written in 1963, Hughes wrote of ‘a two-way journey toward Reality’, ‘toward the objectless radiance of the Self, where the world is a composition of benign Holy Powers, and toward the objective reality of the world, where man is a virtuoso bacteria.’ At his best Redgrove is able to straddle those two paths, to use the objective reality to uncover the objectless radiance. That, at any rate, is one way of describing the achievement of a poem like ‘Superstition’, which begins with a typical piece of pattern-making,

The gorse-reeking cliffs give off jagged cloud;
The exact shape of Beeny in cloud-cast rises
Again and again in sequent shapes of scent,
The cloud-flower born of flowers in a flower-
              shape at flower-time.

only to shift to a much more intense level of experience,

The cliff begins to chatter and big flakes of slate fall,
The house sings so hard it burns, the hillside
Sits back opulent in its exposed iron-veins, the house
Settles shivering as though its walls were rushes ...

It culminates, with a characteristic application of modern knowledge to ancient purposes, in the geological material’s becoming the fabric of a vision:

Then the stone cliff looks opulent, like pyramids;
The cliff looks seated, like the king of schists;
Out of this valley they dug our houses, in the quarry
We move through their walls like corridors, are stopped
Only by solid rooms still packed with seated kings.

The pattern he uncovers on the upper, factual level – the exact shape of Beeny in cloud-cast – is in danger of being too rigidly, too mechanically orchestrated, but the pattern he uncovers on the deeper, intuitive level – of the schists transfigured into seated kings – conveys a vision of unique resonance.