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Review of Clive Wilmer's New and Collected Poems - Francis O' Gorman, The Companion, no. 12, 2012
Clive Wilmer has a remarkable eye for places: for the living nature of a historical past; for hidden spiritual meanings; for the testimony of buildings; for the vividly apprehended world around. In these matters, as in others, Wilmer's poetry makes a great deal of sense beside the works of John Ruskin. But Wilmer is far from being a 'mere' Ruskinian, a poet simply converting Ruskin into verse. Here is the established voice of an exceptional writer, for whom language is the supplest tool in the creation of verbal mosaics, of patterned and precious- and also fragile- meanings. The religious dimension of Wilmer's poetry is unmissable. This is writing that demnstrates a continual return to hopes, scrupulous sense that spiritual meanings might be present in places, things, events, people. 'Near Walsingham', in which the poet contemplates the holy places around the ancient Norfolk shrine, captures a compound of desire, anticipation, and caution in an apt line: 'What we might say/ Of what it tells would speak of God' (p. 49). That perception of things that would tell of God is worth remembering throughout this new volume. Such a state lies behind the lovely miniature 'Overnight Snow':Previous review of 'New and Collected Poems'... Next review of 'New and Collected Poems'... To the 'New and Collected Poems' page...
There are star-crystals shining white on the blank earth.
It is a visitation from on high,
Where there is nothing but exploding worlds
And radiant fragments of infinity. (p. 174)
Those words might stand emblematically for the distinctive religious temper of this collection. Music, buildings, places: each has a form of revelatory potential, a promise, but in no dogmatic or exclusive sense. Ruskin's world is here too, and sometimes explicitly. 'Fonte Branda in Siena' draws directly on the last paragraph of Praeterita as the starting point for a memory of that red-bricked, darkened water spring, which Ruskin last saw with Charles Eliot Norton. Fonte Brana is 'on the point of speech' (p. 95), Wilmer says, as if Siena lost its best spokesman in Ruskin, who in Praeterita's final paragraph, lost his power of speech as well. The silencing of voices alongside the continuance of testimonies despite silence are common points of reference in this volume. The notion of being about-to-reveal, about-to-speak, might serve, indeed, as a worthy motto for much of the poetry. The suggestiveness of Wilmer's verse, often compact and even terse, raises the emotional and intellectual temperature of his writing to an exceptional level. There is promise and possibility in a multitude of places. In 'At the Grave of Ezra Pound', it is the delicacy of the understated that is acutely present, as Wilmer- imitating the lettering of Pound's grave in San Michele, Venice- asks the reader to call a physical object to mind through the most economical of means. This is the first part of the poem:
here lies a man
of words, who in time
came to doubt their meanings
who therefore confines
himself to two words
the injury done
to the white stone
to the earth
it rests upon (p. 92)
The suggestiveness of the uninjurted earth, the almost undamaged stone, wonderfully deals with Pound's sophistication and refinement as a poet, as well as with the destructive side of his life and writing that makes his tomb, even now, no unconflicted place to visit.
European in cultural range, entranced by the visual and musical creations of great minds, Wilmer's poetry ruminates on often fragile revelations, which engage the head as well as the heart. European he is in a more literal sense becauseof his energy as a translator: from the Hungarian, Russian, Italian, Latin, German. Concluding this volume is Wilmer's version of Mandelstam's 'Hagia Sophia', on the great basilica (then mosque, now museum) of Constantinople / Istanbul. In Mandelstam's glowing poem, there is almost a summary of Wilmer's own absorption with open-eyed, often sorrowful, but lingeringly affirmative promises:
Of sphere and wisdom formed, it will out-gleam
People and centuries, as it has of old,
And resonating sobs from seraphim
Cannot corrode that dark veneer of gold. (p. 283)
Mandelstam's death at the hands of Stalin's regime adds anguish to this optimism about the continuance of wisdom. But Mandelstam's memory serves not, I think, simply to ironize 'Hagia Sophia'- the basillica's name means 'holy wisdom'- but to make its optimistic testimony feel more hard-won, more durable, more believable becuase it is not above a world of sobbing. That is a luminous end to a collection of depth, intellectual power, and hope by a poet of rare grace.
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