‘Rites of Passage’
Geoffrey Heptonstall’s ‘Rites of Passage’ is split into three sections, ‘The Bird of Paradise’, ‘Oceans and Islands’ and ‘More Songs for Her’. The first has a focus on reading and music, gateways to paradise perhaps. The second focuses on the sea and the lives of those who live on the coasts. The third works towards a conclusion. From the first section, in ‘The Book I Open’,
‘In a sacred space the parchment dries
the ink that writes of paradise.
The eyes of the future open.
the first word moves at last.
These words I have heard in unlikely places
where voices are bound to the sound of reading
of the mind’s silence surrendering
nothing beyond the measureless extreme.
No more an echo, no less a song.’
Its gentle rhythm lulls the reader just as a library generally would. But this stillness opens a gateway to other worlds, other possibilities. It creates an idea of transport yet doesn’t move anywhere. The language is reverential, elevating the act of reading and bringing these stories alive to a form of prayer. Turning to music, in ‘Shostakovich’,
‘The composer discovers harmonies
he knows shall be forbidden.
The flesh and bone of him feel lighter
with the absence of want before
all the meanings of a single movement
until his music is a river
flowing between many cities,
and into the wastes
where truth must counsel caution
at noon and midnight.’
I’m not sure why the ‘counsel caution’ is restricted to ‘noon and midnight’ unless its referring to the idea of the stopped clock being right twice a day. Shostakovich’s career began under Stalin and the composer found himself in and out of favour. His fourth symphony was denounced but his fifth was praised. This duality of being in or out of favour dogged his career. So, the poem’s duality of music flowing into cities or into wastes feels right.
In section two in an unnamed location, ‘At the Whaling Port’ starts
‘A gothic arch of bones
raised as the whalers’ memorial,
shameless relic of conquest,
of the hunter’s harpoon thrust
in the darkness, in the deeps
before the pursuer is pursued
over a less than celestial sea
by that monster, mortality.
Feel the wound as you pass through.’
The tone is judgmental and doesn’t allow for people desperate to make a living. The poem ends,
‘The sea whale guides the fishermen home
to the harbour’s star-like lights.
Maritime museums tell none of this.
Leviathan is the watchword
luring boys at play to men’s work.
They sign on to the ship
that sails to the world’s end,
a sea of blood, an isle of bones.’
The pirate’s stories capture the imagination of youths who don’t know any better until they come to live it and have to separate myth from reality. The implication is that boys brought up on tales of monsters at sea are tricked into taking a dangerous job that they wouldn’t do if the tales hadn’t seduced them and they knew what they were actually signing up for.
The poem ‘Maggi Hambling’s Walls of Water’ is named after the exhibition at London’s National Gallery of eight large paintings (over 6 x 7’) inspired by watching stormy waves clash against the sea wall at Southwold in England.
‘The painting of water in motion
is the sound of a thinking mind,
the sensuality of silence
and the rising of earth into heaven.
Another idea of order perhaps
with a critical whisper
on the gallery wall
as nature changes course.
The eye that sees the water
is the hand that feels the motion
in the mind that speaks
of eternity all the time.’
The swells of huge waves can seem to be ‘rising of earth into heaven’. But I struggle with the image of the action of painting these thunderous waves being ‘sound of a thinking mind’ and I’m not sure whether it’s the passivity of ‘thinking’ or its apparent redundancy. The notion that painting is a silent activity is a romantic one. The last stanza feels as if it’s straining towards an aphorism that isn’t there. Maggi Hambling’s works generally are the capture of a moment, a means of communicating to the observer what the painter witnessed and to make the observer feel as if they were present when the art was created; that seems to be contrary to the idea of eternity.
The final section returns to the idea of paradise, In ‘Birds of Passage / Rites of Paradise’,
‘Of paradise there are rumours
floating feather-like in morning air.
Our waking eyes are brushed
by the wind that stirs the dust
as far as a mind can imagine.
All else is speculation
as distant as the night stars.
Now from eyes that can see
a summoning of elegant reflections
of certain doubts we may have.
their words on waxen wings
speak to heal the pain of things.’
It’s lyrical, its language is consciously poetical, ‘summoning of elegant reflections’, ‘floating feather-like’, ‘waking eyes are brushed’, ‘speculation as distant as a night stars’, and blurs the boundaries between the doubtful night speculation and the morning’s certainty.
In ‘Rites of Passage’, Geoffrey Heptonstall has created a collection of lyrical poems that consider the transforming ability of words to take readers to other worlds or other possibilities. His poems reference classical literature, classical music and art. They show the writer is aware of the craft of language, sound and rhythms, however, the language is often passive and some of the poems feel as if they were an exercise in writing rather than something born of a need to write.