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CZ.com | Reviews | Jean Mallinson
 

Winter, letter by Jean Mallinson, Ph.D.

     I have read “Winter” and have many things to say about it. The first concerns the cover, which is a hibernal or negative image of an icon called The Green Man: do you know it? The Green Man is a threshold image, an image of regeneration, a blending of the human visage with the kingdom in flora. It is common and archaic in Europe, and appears in cathedrals, in pub signs, facades—virtually all over the place. The image is a face, not—as in images of Wild Men—a whole form. Typically, foliage is sprouting from the corners of the eyes, the mouth, in such a way that the borders and contours of the face are seen to be blending with leaves, but the effect is not grotesque. As soon as I saw the leaves as the left side of the face on the cover of your book, I thought, "this is the winter disintegration of the Green Man" and of course the crack completes the symbol, and it is entirely appropriate to the subject of the poems.

     It can only be a compliment to your poem that in trying, as I always do, to find what it is like, I thought of “The Waste Land”, which, like your poem, is both private meditation and public lament; and is, moreover, about barrenness and possible regeneration. Did you think of this? (I realize that “The Waste Land” lies behind a good many modern poems, especially poems about cities, but your poem evokes it more specifically than that). Of course, the sense of spring in the opening of “The Waste Land” is reluctant; the poem resists spring. The opening lines of your poem are more like D.H. Lawrence, that sense of generative power in and under the earth. Other lines, the whole sense of the opening sections, are like Lawrence. Section iv is very beautiful. (Do you know Wallace Stevens' poem "Large Red Man Reading"—it is one of my favourite modern poems, and it is about how the dead long to rejoin the living, long to touch again the things they have left behind).

     I like the poem about Jim Morrison in itself and I read it, in context, as a transition poem between the first part and the second, but I'm not sure that his strong presence belongs in the sequence; at least, I can't for now see just how it works. With "Heaven's Gate, Hell's Gate" and its oxymorons used to suggest stasis, a sense of being immobilized by and between opposites, the poem seems to be coherent again. The geographical placing in this section leads on to the geographical and historical placings that are used in the rest of the poem—a change from the mythological placing of the opening pieces.

     I suppose a question may arise about the implied parallel between vii, "City under Siege" and viii "The city of Dis", and between the listed parallels in "call it ethnic cleansing, /call it fascism, communism, / nationalism / call it black or white / pur laine, Aryan race". The phrase "call it" suggests an equivalence, not a series of stages or gradations. I suppose you can say that the poem is about a human response to history as it unfolds around you, and the threats you observe are akin to the threats embodied in the other words. I think it works, though I question the inclusion of the information about the churches being burned in the southern USA. I suppose you want to pull in instances and images that are part of the terror of contemporary history, but I'm not sure that this detail works to that end.

     I think x works very well and its tone of public statement is right for the condemnation of bigotry and the evils of demagoguery. The documentary in the last few lines of this section brings the outrage into history and up to the present. This material and the sense of outrage it arouses is elaborated, made more detailed in section xii. The evocation and celebration of the city as it was in xiv is very fine, especially the list of poets. I'm not sure about the last two lines of this section, "none of the above / an April Fool's joke" but maybe its wry, colloquial tone suits the poem. I think the concluding section xv, is just right, with its account of the speaker's personal history, stance, and a hope for the city to retain, regain its multifarious character, its vitality, its essence—and, of course, it links the poem with the opening images of possible regeneration out of the depths of winter.

     This is a bold, deeply felt poem, and it will be interesting for you to see what kind of attention is paid to it, who comments on it and in what way. It is very ambitious of you to write a long meditative lyric poem that is also a public political poem and I think you have succeeded wonderfully. You realize that what I have written is after a couple of readings, and things, which are not clear, now may come clear later. It is true, too, that “The Waste Land”, which I take to be the prototype—though your poem is much more a political, historical statement than that—works through evocative fragments which have no narrative connections. There is a sense, too, in which the speaker of such a poem is slightly deranged by dismay and disbelief, and so the eruption of related images—like Jim Morrison, the churches burning in America—may be allowed in the poem.

Copyright by Jean Mallinson: www.carolynzonailo.com, 2004.

 
 
CZ.com | Reviews | Jean Mallinson
 
 
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