A Modernist Eye

A Review of Trevor Joyce's  Syzygy By Michael Smith published in The Irish Times on Saturday, July 25, 1998.

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The term " Modernism", as applied to the arts, has become so problematic that one scarcely knows what it means any more. So far as literature is concerned, however, I am taking Modernism to mean the use of language that registers the uncertain status of common-sense reality or indeed of any reality. Put another way, it is the use of language that questions the referentiality of language, that no longer treats words as the unquestioned naming of things or actions that are definitely "out there".

With that in mind, and allowing for some notable exceptions, one is forced to admit that not a great deal of contemporary Irish literature, and in particular Irish poetry, can lay claim to being Modernist. The general practice has been and continues to be an unthinking use of language, language as conditioned reflex, with the implicit assumption of an unequivocal reality accessible to agreed by all. An analogy for this literary condition might be painting that ignored the invention of the camera. Of course, the academics, or many of them, know what has been happening in our understanding of language. But by and large their knowledge stays in the lecture-rooms of academe; and for the purpose of "communicating" with the great uninitiated public, in newspaper reviews, for example, these academics are only too willing to fall back on the accepted "norms" of language and literary appreciation.

Thus we still read about the "realistic grittiness" of novelist X or "the sombre portrayal" of Irish life by writer Y or "the sensuousness" of Z's poetry; and we are smugly back in the age of Victoria. Joyce and Beckett did their thing, and Bord Fáilte are truly grateful to them, but there are more important matters to think about, thank you very much, like selling the film rights and making lots of money and being quoted by politicians and appearing on chat shows and being relevant to the Northern situation, etc.

It is not my intention to malign anyone. My purpose, rather, is to attempt to diagnose, or at least point to, an Irish cultural, specifically literary, condition: language as a quantifiable tribal property, to be bought and sold as any other commodity. This is a serious condition, well worth attention. If, as Auden once said, echoing Pound, poets are the antennae of their society, a society is ill-served by poets who give society what it wants and not what poets believe to be true. It may be that this linguistic conservatism is not unique to the Irish poetic situation, but many Irish poets have bough into the myth that the Irish are linguistically better endowed than other peoples, that poetry comes to them more "naturally", that they have simply to lay bare their soul in metaphorically neatly packaged, emotionally laden vignettes and, voilà! That magical object, the poem, makes its appearance.

As a result of the dominance of this poetic conservatism, experimentation among Irish poets is indeed a rare thing. And this state of affairs is all the more regrettable when one considers that two of the greatest literary experimenters of the 20th century, Joyce and Beckett, were Irish.

All of which brings me, albeit circuitously, to the latest work by the little-known (for commercial reasons but probably the most experimental of contemporary Irish poets Trevor Joyce. Syzygy, Joyce's latest work, is presented as a text comprising three parts: the first two are verse, titled respectively "The Drift" and "The Net", while the third, two pages of prose, provides "Some Notes".

"The Drift" is a sequence of a dozen brief poems, whose tone and manner are recognisably that of the traditional lyric, though here they are stripped down and intensified in passages of puzzling if fascinating density. This, for example, is the seventh of those lyric pieces, perhaps an elegy, perhaps not:

in three quarters now you lie
lacking a fourth
of your voice that flew at once away
not a tremor breeds with the marble orchard
and is it that this simply is either finished or not
or not yet begun
perhaps truly not begun
twig of bone empty still
until there come the words
now quite forgotten whats the air
the sun leans down
and lifts the sea

"The Net" is a single, unpunctuated passage of twenty-four three-line verses from which this is a representative segment:

squares mesh of close actions
griefs are grounds the twig of bone of time and
the sun sun where they sleep centuries new

abstracts attentions of clocks so that eventually stay
empty still tamed rage is heavy influence
leaves howling as wood does not rise

you attend and to the distracted mum unerringly
elements turn the tempting until there come reduced
broke sometimes fierce the dream on the grass

hearing each hour and the child to the infinities
metals in parks only perhaps along the words over
and weary the shadow is mistaken disordered

The relation between the first two parts is complex and rigorously worked. They are composed of the same phrases, identically, with the order of those phrases mapped between the two parts through an abstract symmetrical patterning, which is easier to sample than to describe. If you focus on the mid-lines of the verses quoted from "The Net" you will see familiar phrases from "The Drift" recur: "twig of bone empty still/until there come the words" intercut with phrases from adjacent sections of part one: "intelligence and griefs are tamed/rage is reduced in parks (#5), brief zones/of time and influence/the tasty metals of the air (#6), and fishing the empty grounds/the heavy elements/turn over in their sleep (#8)".

The effect of this structuring is strange and, so far as I know, unique in poetry. "The Notes" refer the reader to the work of the 14th-century French poet and composer Machaut, but surely it is unnecessary to reach back in this manner to justify a contemporary poem, merely because it is so densely ordered. The gesture is required only because of the inertness and insensitivity to form of so much current work. But the invocation of musical analogues is suggestive, as "The Drift" and "The Net" pick up, interweave, drop and resume their themes, touching on love, death, time, chaos, order and dirt in the manner of a fugue.

"There is nothing either finished or not yet begun", says "The Net", and this is borne out in Syzygy, which can never find a place of rest, apart from the dynamic of the poem. "The Notes" strain to bed the details of the lyrics in the facts of the world, granting them a stability at the cost of narrowing their reference, but "The Net" explodes this tendency, ripping the measured words from the territories they have ordered, where they are safe, and freeing them to the use of the imagination, at the cost of imperilling their familiar purchase on the world. And is it that this simply is words asks "The Net". It is not.