MATT SIMPSON’s review of THE THEOLOGICAL MUSEUM (May 2005)
(published in Critical Survey, May 2005)
Stubbs is another kettle of fish. You need to read him with the sort of intelligent attentiveness you bring to a reading, say, of Donne.
The Theological Museum is an astonishing debut. I have to admit, however, that, as much as I may admire Alice Oswald, I found her foreword disconcerting. Back-cover quotes recommending the poet to us are fair enough. But it is disconcerting to have someone, however well-meaning and enthusiastic, tell you at length, before you can begin to find out for yourself, that “These are great poems.”
That said (maybe I am just as guilty here), this is indeed a remarkable collection, original to the point of idiosyncrasy, tussling with language, much in line with Eliot’s pronouncement that the poet “must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate, if necessary, language to his meaning”. The result is not an easy or comfortable read but it is certainly a challenging and exciting one. It is quite impossible to do justice to the poems by isolating bits of them but perhaps these opening lines give a flavour:
‘Pick up your pen, as if it were a scalpel;
open up each day your own insides, remove
first any bones left over of the vertebrae
of the selves that never quite
managed to survive your drafts.’
(When Writing a Poem)
‘Once I used to pray and hoped something
of my entire torso would be reborn; a limb maybe,
hoisted suddenly above me. But it wasn’t.
I am already in front of you and
I shimmer a mirage of spaces,
or like a cathedral, where inside you will find
only other more sacred spaces.
Stubbs’s is a poetry complementing the paintings of Francis Bacon, the plays of Pinter and Beckett; poems-on-the-page that look like those of Marianne Moore, a voice as distinctively original as the later W.S. Graham, its presiding spirits, if we look to epigraphs, European.
Oswald praises Stubbs for his disregard of ‘anything that smacks of poetical correctness’ and, whatever that means (and I am not really sure), it certainly implies something alien, even hostile to the contemporary tradition. Stubbs’s museum is an imaginary one full of fragments (‘these fragments I have shored against my ruin’) existing in a present of largely lost meanings. He takes on giant themes, playing great earnest metaphysical games with religion and ways of perceiving the world. In this he resembles Philip Pullman in his ‘Dark Materials’. He is an ambitious poet of real originality.