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Jacket 20 — December 2002   |   # 20  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Pale angel exuvial who can mix it with the chicken

Andrew Duncan reviews

With the first dream of fire they hunt the cold: a body of work 1966-2000, by Trevor Joyce

New Writers’ Press & Shearsman books, 2001, 243 pp, price £12.95
Available from Wild Honey Press, 16a Ballyman Rd. Bray Co. Wicklow, Ireland; on the Internet at

This piece is 3,000 words or about six printed pages long

In such estates
the child achieves
the mothers aim
whose hands knit dust

down streets of bone
what fathers terror
still runs on
whose eyes count clay

one inch of blood
an epoch of desire
each syllable
immeasurable grief


I counted the words dying/die/death/dead in Pentahedron (1972) and came to 30 (in 44 pages). These are excessively stylised poems, and this is a writer with a high disgust level. Up to 1995, his books fit in between Geoffrey Hill and Charles Tomlinson. According to a critic cited in the info pack supplied by the publisher, ‘The delights of formal intricacy possess an inhuman coldness, a static “frozen” quality, that do not address or interrogate the world, but mark a retreat from it’. Indeed, the dish is so cold the spoon welds itself to my tongue. This de-organic quality is the main issue here; in fact, the essays (by John Goodby and Alex Davis) are mainly complimentary. Joyce (b.1947) debuted with a chapbook, Sole Glum Trek, in 1967. The tariff reads roughly like this:

1976 Buile Suibhne madness and grief
1972 Pentahedron dying and confinement
1995 Stone Floods angst and livid textures
1998 Hopeful Monsters aborted foetuses, exhibit jars; forensics of a drowned cadaver
1999 Trem Neul neuro-anatomy

The issue is whether the exfoliation of a purist, impersonal, self-generating world of forms overtakes the prevailing tone of hypersensitive loathing. This book opens with a translation of an old Irish text, the Buile Shuibhne, one of a genre of Celtic forest tales (a topic I researched to write about Barry MacSweeney’s Sweeny poems), to include Lailoken, the Vita Merlini, and Tristan. The sacred is concealed in the profane objects of the universe, and these stories are really the same story. The thema is deeper than the stories (as we suppose the stories to be deeper than the moments which compose them). There is a ‘spread’ of about 600 years between the Lailoken legend and the Folie Tristan. Sweeny is ‘geilt’, i.e. he lives in the treetops and grows feathers. The forest and the tilled, an abiding division in symbolic space. Obviously, other Celtic tales incorporate the same division, and one has to ask whether the eremitical movement is really separable from this myth of withdrawal into innocence. Unlike any other adaptor, Joyce raises the possibility that Suibhne’s state of dissociation, his visceral rejection of everything social, is the most interesting aspect of the legend. He is not interested in the regret for the society, marriage, etc., which the exile can no longer enjoy. His Sweeny is genuinely desocialised, wilfully heading outwards. The analogy with Joyce, publishing no book of poetry for 23 years, presents itself rather forcefully. In terms of its time, the Sweeny Peregrine reminds us of fundamentalism, then brooding on its rise, and of the psychopath, a figure the mass media were fascinated by.
      It has a singularly beautiful cover design. The colour mix is deeply satisfying. We especially like the indigo.
      I had just finished writing into a notebook ‘more dead birds than Kentucky Fried Chicken’ when I came across a poem about angels falling to earth and being eaten by cats. ‘they stoop to gather them/ into eternity and so/ become the prey of immense/ cats that sniff them/ out to maul and play/fully dismember as they dine/ on the rare giblets/ of felled seraphs/ and their squab.’ (squab: a newly hatched, unfledged, or very young bird [or angel?], OED) Seraph giblets? Not so much angel exhaust as angel evacuate. So images repeat obsessively? How does this relate to procedures which impose variation & eliminate subjective choice? This is the ‘type site’ for a Joyce poem. The moment when the envelope of flesh breaks open. How do the dead birds relate to the bird status of Sweeny, where geilt is glossed as ‘volatilis’ (‘flying’, but cf. volucris, bird; Sweeny Poultry?). The key scene in the Buile is the tearing with thorns:

‘He couldn’t sleep there because each time he twitched the wood tines stuck him, leaving his flesh split and specked with blood. So he went to where a single blackthorn limb spired above a briary thicket, rayed with fine spikes. He perched there, but the slender branch sagged under him and it snapped, throwing him into the thorny mass below, so that his skin from heel to head was a crimson tracery.’

It’s the bloodied bird image again. Few birds, it seems, can have died in Dublin in those years without God being aware of it or Trevor Joyce being on the scene, with a notebook. The street poultry of the old Danish seaport town, indeed, must have been stricken with dread when he showed up in their neighbourhood. The book reminds one of Crow — the carrion god whose presence announces someone’s death. Seraph giblets?
      Is it wholly out of court that ‘peregrine’ does not only mean ‘wandering; without citizen rights’, but a kind of a bird - a kind which kills other birds. The word comes from peragro, as in Avia Pieridum peragro loca, nullius ante/ trita solo (Lucretius) - we only have to mistranslate avia as avian to reach the ur-Joyce poem. What does this obsessive scene mean? Perhaps the Christian soul/flesh division is expressed by wings miming the path of the soul, while the death of a bird shows the spiritual reverting to meat. There is singularly little introspection in the book, so that we do not find out what the images mean. This is what the procedures avoid. The soul freed from choice? Fearing the heresy of pelagianism? The death of the bird is the exclusion of intentionality.
      I think that as the angel is created, not begotten, it is not made of meat; being impassible of metabolism, it can logically have no giblets; and also cannot be metabolised by any cat.
      The gap of 23 years between his first and second books suggestively resembles Sweeny’s forest period. Stone Floods is Pentahedron part 2 – the intervening years were spent in a state of low change, which the obsessive death imagery of Pentahedron might have predicted. In three near-adjacent poems of Syzygy we find the theme of ‘long vigil with a corpse’, in one case for up to 3000 years. Surely Joyce is aware of this repetitive quality. It explains the departure, around 1996, into generated language, using procedures to replace the doomed repetitions of the self. This ‘necrophile’ theme might be related to the soul’s imprisonment in the body (seen as more essentially dead than alive). Strangely, we also have brief accounts of the soul outside the body. (souls of the dead like mountain oaks uprooted by demons/ souls of the dead like meadow flowers gathered by angels, p.111)
      The theme reminds me of a song by Suzanne Vega ‘Ironbound’ (on Solitude Standing): In the Ironbound section, near Avenue L... the beams and the bridges Cut the light on the ground Into little triangles. Steps off the curb and into the street The blood and the feathers near her feet Into the Ironbound market. ‘fancy poultry parts sold here. Breasts and thighs and hearts. And wings are almost free’ she sings. This puts Joyce’s quality into an almost garish light of contrast: he doesn’t want to put his soul into things. He writes out symbols but withdraws all spiritual meaning from them.
      With so many cadavers to hand, it would have seemed cost-effective to study anatomy. The themes of interest in science, still frames, sharp knives, cadavers trigger the association ‘control freak’ and make it at least possible that the reliance on procedures is also an overdose of control.
      A secondary cluster of images surrounds the obex topos; ‘Since obex, jamb, and baffle block...’. Obex is ‘bolt’.’the serdab, lock, maze, glass, very/ cell and ossuary, or pass,/ necropolite’, I take it that serdab here refers to a sealed cell underground inside a pyramid (OED). Elsewhere, ‘Prison of bone/ cage of bone.’ The ‘restraint/confinement’ is then a part of the ‘winged death’ image complex. I suspect that the ‘dominant’ is in fact the ‘crypt’ tone: certainly a place where corpses are (so the soul trapped in the carnal and mundane) but also where precious relics of saints are stowed — expecting resurrection. ‘Necropolite’ is a word worth probing. My feeling is that the problem of ‘capturing’ emotional meaning in a text is also in play.

Passages of labyrinth repeat;
the crypt gives vellum thighs to the dead,
mark our return in this way;
again we hollow dust-caves, ankle-deep.

Perhaps the journey through the labyrinth is an initiatory ordeal, and ends with an exit to a higher plane.
      Twinkling eyes, empty welcomes, brainless fluency. Popular culture is big in the area of empty friendliness and collusion, and Joyce’s etching-acid tonality is perhaps the negative of this affirmative culture. The dark spectra are uninhabited for a reason. Does this amount to desensitisation? Are they the ones Mad Sweeny would have bid for?
      One has to be impressed by Joyce’s zone of success. In particular, poems like ‘Surd Blab’ and ‘Dark Senses Parallel Streets’ have a stable complexity, a satisfying autonomy and internal logic. The spaciousness of the geometry suggested by the structure of Trem Neul. The feeling of complex and detailed conceptual arrays opening up. Persistence of impulses. Freedom from the circularity of biological-expressive demands, submission to the curve-drawing equations of mere geometry. The Raworth adaptation ‘Dark Streets’ projects a negative space which is never vague and never knowable, projecting out in dark pristine spirals — the sensation of freedom itself, perhaps. Naked symmetries. Austere circularities. Trem Neul consists of non-parallel windings of found text; the most prominent are a line about neuroanatomy (taken from Sir Charles Sherrington, probably also from AS Luria’s The mind of a mnemonist), a phrasebook (rather pre-modern, and probably of Irish), and a folkloric account of life in some Irish parish, a discussion of insects in amber, and other sources. ‘Then comes the waking, and it is as if the galaxy stepped out in dance. Swiftly the head-mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern. The fiber employed derives from plants and is like that of which ourselves are wrapped, for heart is surrounded by the coronary plexus, that most vital of threads. handling fibre we handle centuries and distance...’ (p.201) Here anatomy is turned to show the origin of consciousness; the passage from Sherrington is about nothing other than the formation of patterns of activity in the brain — what is happening inside us as we read it.
      This is a work of mighty scope, trapping and releasing giant impersonal energies. Of course, there are specific problems with this practice of montage. It gives a surreal imitation of objectivity. A shape fit to the impression of scientific works. Subjective and suggestive. The montage blurs any true scientific or mathematical value. So language which increases this suggestivity is desirable? The space implied by the separate strands is oscillatory, swelling up or vanishing to nothing — the parts don’t really fit together. The moments before you realise this are magical, exalting.
      There is an operational resemblance between the use of personæ, of procedures, of found texts, and of translation. The same thing is missing in each case. The absence of run-on, the asyndeton of folk poetry may bear some relationship to Joyce’s inability to develop a running line, the non-discursive quality of his writing. I wondered why the ‘devoicing’ and ‘object quality’ of the documentary remind me of folk art. Both Joyce and folksong show objects because no personal appearance is allowed. Both rely on objects to embody emotional meanings — thus, cage of bone. The use of acquired texts throughoutTrem Neul is reminiscent of a folksong writer’s use of pre-existing blocks and lines — where the (in)sertion, seriation, is all the writer’s task. The formal repetition of blocks (in certain poems) is like folk music.
      All folk poetry has an irresoluble ambiguity based in its use of signed objects, plants, and animals. The disappearance of allegory coincides with the rise of a materialist world-view (and with the slide of Catholic literatures into a side-line). The shift from vanitas to anatomical drawing was a critical moment. It is possible, too, to redefine most of Joyce’s work as a variation on the Vanitas theme, a recuperated Mannerism. Maybe the dead bird so much under discussion is really Irish folk culture, disappearing under a new economy; the bird is an allegory flying out of a song which is itself vanishing. And there we laid poor Polly with a bird to weep and moan.
      Information about a human situation is never vouchsafed here. It’s all sights without words. TJ quotes Yeats as saying ‘All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.’ Clingfilm, of course, had not been invented then. We could say impersonal data is for business applications (and is out of date when the next day’s prices come in). Maybe what the poem delivers is a frozen volatility, a repeatable transience, a self-organising circularity. Yeats’ dictum is so vague in its allegorical language that there is no way of knowing whether it applies in any concrete case. ‘Behaviour is dynamic and transient; we can only give accurate accounts of cadavers.’ (OK, I made that one up.) It is cadavers which need to be protected from rotting, not living things. When we get a snatch of personal data from the Bronze Age, we’re all over it.
      The visual effect of distantiation is that you shed subjective involvement and so gain information (alt. lose information). Moving away means you don’t care any more (and the reader doesn’t care either). The silencing of the actors means that you see the true situation (or fail to find anything about it). The use of advanced techniques means you can’t possibly fail (or that you block off most of your perceptions and compromise the artistic decision process). The failure to explain feelings means that they are inevitable given the physical lay-out (or that we just don’t find out what they are).
      However vexed I am by a poem which is ‘only’ about the feelings of some teenager, I am forever coming across moments of wonderful art which are... the feelings of some teenager. Leslie Gore singing ‘You don’t own me’ — that one’s about two teenagers, actually. A non-mint copy of this one on Mercury has even its surface noise soaked in the warmth and human meaning which elude Joyce at every step — they don’t like the ice and salt. Identification is a source of information. My personal suspicion is that irritation at personal information is irritation at the person — a personality clash, or simply an absence of compatibility. We could shed light on this by building a file of 10,000 incidents of personal art, recording the contexts, and looking for reasons why some of them are irritating. The idea that it’s the personal per se seems quite unwarranted. This is an attempt to avoid sociology!
      This episode of death reminds us of:
the transmission of sin by birth/ resurrection of the body (loss of sin) — and we want to compare this to:
the elimination of the personal from poetry (making de-organic) and the growth of bacterial life as something rots (coming back to life). The poetry seems inscribed inside this quadrilateral. If we fail to identify, we cannot become corrupt?
      A quote I can never find in Ronald Bottrall (or was it Ronald Duncan?) is about most poetry being no more than a mating call. Writing ‘objective’ poetry then becomes an aspirational item. Duncan’s poem ‘Man’ is about physics, astronomy, and biology. The theory of a competitive game won by depersonalising the poem, making it more and more like film from a security camera, registering shapes non-projectively, ‘no-one’s dream’. For many years, a tiny group of poets (and perhaps visual artists?) has been trying to score points in this game. Is it worth us going down for a look? Maybe I’m the wrong person to give the match commentary, as I’ve always preferred folklore and pop music to academic art.
      Simultaneity is the key to suggestivity. Places and sensations become interesting through association with people you are attached to, groupings of figures, social dynamics. You isolate the concrete data from the interpersonal stuff and it becomes too easy to resolve. It loses its power to occupy the mind. It arouses very few associations because it is straightforward. De-expressive. The part about screening out the author’s bias is great, but it is strange that we are not being shown human, interpersonal situations to reveal with this new cleaned lens. Is it that suppressing the author’s feelings is just an aspect of suppressing other people’s feelings? In this context of overt or covert imperatives, is it possible for the reader to have feelings?There is a key oscillation in any evaluation of Joyce’s œuvre. The work on Sweeny seems to seize the myth-figure as a projection of private feelings, an identification, yet the feelings of Sweeny are ones of de-identification and dis-possession. Decision is impossible. With the procedural work, the context is compatible with trauma and dissociative withdrawal but simultaneously it is possible that the works show a shaping power. This ambiguity follows inevitably on from the suppression of contextual information and especially of any accounts of interaction with other people.
      The move towards writing poetry down deprived it of music, perhaps, certainly of the suprasegmental qualities of pitch, timbre, etc., which are personal in a physiological sense. A wish to carry out the process again and eliminate the personal may be simply to follow the slope. An involuntary drift down the track of spent energies? Another rare word is exuviae. These are simply the shed skin of something, its slough – a metaphor commonly used for the soul quitting the body. Perhaps we should extend this to a whole universe abandoned by its maker. Or to an artwork from which personality and voice have been expunged. The silence of the artist is like the silence of God, part of a desacralised world which I am terribly happy not to live in.

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