Glaciation, a review


Glaciation, Will Stone (Salt Publishing, 2007)

a review by P. Stubbs

“He trowels his verse and builds a house / that begins its life as a ruin.” writes Will Stone of the German ‘Expressionist’ poet Georg Heym. And after reading this collection of Stone’s poems it is clear that the imaginative plough of his own mind is responsive enough to unearth his own distinctive ground. Will Stone has become best known in this country for his translations of such uncompromisingly subjective and distinctive European luminaries as Baudelaire, Nerval, Rodenbach, Verhaeren, and most recently the Selected Poems of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, (To the Silenced, Arc Publications). Yet what his own work proves is that the interrelationship between poet and translator is not, in this case, an unbalanced one; for what these poems show is that still, occasionally, a poet like Stone (who has somehow avoided the trappings of mainstream stagnation and decay) can manage to step free of the rubble-heap of mediocrity that surrounds us to go on to write poems that are as authentic as they are necessary.

Sometimes you read collections that in their ambition and concerns alert the mind to the possibility of obtaining a new perspective on what else is being written all around us, and this book is just such a collection. Like Heym, Stramm, and Trakl many years before him, Stone’s presentiment of a world about to wobble and crumble at the base of its own pillars, is confirmed in these poems by his own morbid proclivities and aversion to the processes that allow man to believe that he is heading for any other outcome than what Heym himself called “Our terrible inscrutable destiny”. His poems are spilling over with images of mankind caught on some inevitable hook, of a world balanced precariously on the brink; in the wonderful poem ‘Restoration’ where the “horizon’s guillotine sweeps down / held in the vice of sea and sky” you realise at once that here is a poet who is not interested in playing any kind of a linguistic game, is not interested in disassociating himself in any way from what he wants and needs to say, a poet who has long since seen his ‘omens’ in the sky, has long since grown accustomed to recognizing the full force of the perspicacity of his own quite personal visions, for in the same poem he warns us in the poem’s conclusion that when

“untended children like heralds cry,

you’ll know its not the end of time,

only restoration.”

On encountering the Stone poem you quickly sense the burden of being (or feeling for him like) a ‘dissident’ poet living within the familiar borders of his own country. But ‘English-born’ Stone, like the bearer of gifts from some dusky foreign city walks us continually back through the ‘European’ continent of his imagination as one walks through a half-ruined nave, or half-bombed arcade, that only the beam of his own mind through the dust can illuminate; and for this I believe he possesses a real gift, for the way that his best poems turn such a merciless and obverse mirror onto those places and times that, to a British audience, might otherwise have found no equivalent. Yet Stone’s own poetical form is in many ways, exact, engaged, and yes, accessible; but it is his exemplary eye for what interposes itself between subject and imagination that lifts these poems into another realm, as in ‘Frithelstock’ where rooks around its towers

“tie their soot ribbons around the outside,

into lichened apertures send their cries”

and with his always oracular and empirical mindset, Stone seems to be in a different time-zone to the majority of British poets, which has also surely to do with the fact that very few of these poems (refreshingly) appear to be influenced by any poet from these shores (with maybe the exception of Edward Thomas), for in this book he pillories an Anglo-American culture he believes is little more than a conspicuous consumption of itself; this of course could create the danger for some readers of his poems appearing too mordant, resigned, too blackened by their own frustrations with the way our culture has seemingly reverted back to the etymology of its own first primal graffiti to express itself. Yet this is a poetry wholly committed to uncluttering our minds of the quotidian, of scraping free our palates of such an inward looking, island-bound verbiage.

In every ‘creative’ climate of opinion we feel (quite naturally) those continual shifts beneath our feet of the old and the new grounds colliding and jarring, yet Stone seems to stand astride any kind of a divide by looking both back and forward for any significant advances in his own imagination to justify the ground he has made in these morbidly sensitive yet strangely exhilarating poems. Sympathetic to the voice of W.G. Sebald, ostensibly in the Rings of Saturn and After Nature, Stone writes of the coastal ledges of our country as one who survives its wild and unattainable beauty as an absolute and quite necessary occupation. In the poem ‘Storm off Speke’s Mill Mouth’ he reminds us by summoning those “storm mockers” who “plant their knees / more firmly in the moraine” to never flinch from looking on where seemingly nothing remains

“Only a lost shoe flattened on an outcrop,

the hair of drowned sailors,

still knotted, riding the foam.”

In his poetry Stone does not attempt to pass over civilisation’s most inhuman excesses, by writing always of an alternative landscape to the one in which he clearly recoils from, but by writing poems which are ‘peopled’ by figures that seem but a mask away from re-identifying themselves as alien within the environment they once thought of as home. Stone’s anxiety seems to be that the consciousness-enhancing sensibilities of the past, that vital depository of culture, history, intellect and feeling into which each century empties its contents, will eventually (inevitably?) be subsumed in the manic carousel of the present and by order of its brazen detachment, suffer the fate of trivialisation and/or annihilation. His poems hold some affinities with the East German poet Peter Huchel, but while Huchel felt the world, and nature In particular communicates to us in signs and ciphers, Stone relates to the natural phenomena of our world by observing it from the “prop-filled arena” that he himself has constructed from his poems. In the poem ‘In St Sulpice’ (one of a number of poems played out inside of a church or a graveyard) we witness beyond the “drone of a priest” “the dead wings of language / settle in a web-bound corner”, which, to me, amid the religious polysemies of our time seems a telling truth, that language is simply not sufficient by itself to support a faith, any faith. But just as the true heretic accepts the flames with all the forlorn countenance of his God, so too the figures in these poems that appear to accept their fate in a way that borders on the pious: whether the shore-bound spectator “held by the wind’s strong hands” or ‘The Oak’ that “staggers” “from the dream of some deliverance / that limps stoically in our wake.”

Will Stone has created a collection of poems here of oblique and uncomfortable beauty, in which he has managed to successfully capture the dislocation and bewilderment felt by modern man when confronted with the ever accelerating decline of the natural world. In the TLS recently Hugo Williams described Stone as a “maverick, European-leaning poet” and that, unashamedly he is, while also in this collection, being consistently a superb one.

First published in The Wolf magazine.

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