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Steve Spence

"A Dynamic Exchange Between Us" by Anthony Caleshu, pub. Shearsman Books. 75pp. £9.95

These are prose poems which combine the spiritual with the secular in a manner which is entertaining, provocative, ever-so-slightly anguished at times and filled with wonderful wordplay which often verges on the deeply philosophical. And yet there’s a lightness of touch here which keeps the page turning. When the speaker in ‘The Apostle’ says ‘It’s not so much that I want to write poems, I confess / to you, as I want not to read them’. – I think I know exactly what he means but this doesn’t in the least diminish the enjoyment to be gained from doing exactly the opposite. The book’s cover, with its mix of brash colour wheel and equally colourful religious icon captures the mood of the poetry with its celebration of the here and now and a more sombre inkling of an existential crisis – Kierkeegard’s work comes to mind.

                    The Creatures Amongst us
                    are Celebrating the Advent
                     of a Vanquished Species


     The creatures amongst us are celebrating the  advent of a
     vanquished species. It takes the fallen to know the fallen,
     say  the  fallen.  In  the  desert,  or alone  at  sea, all  living
     things know no word  can overcome  another word – not
     belief,  neither  doubt. Our  confessions  about loneliness
     and congregation are the stuff of devotion:  who sent me
     here  (this island)? Who  called me here (the sky)? we ask
     ourselves  daily. If  there’s a God within us,  there’s a God
     outside us: equal and opposite, and  so on, and so on. We
     wander   and  return,  getting  lost in the spirit world, now
     rent  but thick  with so many of our kind.  We reconstitute
     the wilderness within us constantly. From the backs of our
     throats,  pooling  up  from  the lungs,  we  sweat abjection
     until  spontaneous-combustion.  We  make our way by the
     light in our bodies:  shining out of  every eye, every pore.


Here we have the physical world of our daily experience together with the ‘mythical’ world of the religious texts (references to ‘the desert’, ‘the sea’ and ‘the fallen’) alongside the pondering, questing nature of internal interrogation, the relentless play of language which ceaselessly  explores the nature of paradox and contradiction, looking for a way out of ‘the mind/body split’ (still an issue, it would seem) and finding, finally, in the closing sentences a contrast between the corporeal heaviness of ‘the body’ and a lighter expression of ‘being in the world’ which appears both physical and yet immaterial at the same time. It’s a trick of language, of course, this questing and its supposed conclusion but there’s a brave honesty nonetheless about even incorporating notions of ‘God’ in a contemporary poem, especially one with this level of sophistication and awareness. Caleshu’s use of the syllogism elsewhere foregrounds the clash between apparently clear, logical thinking and a more probing and exploratory use of language, poetry versus philosophy or an attempt to bring the two together. His work remains playfully serious, quite a thing to bring off as effectively as he does.

Who indeed are the vanquished creatures? Are we talking about ourselves here or is this a contemplation on the loss of the natural world, diminishing at a great rate due partly at least to human endeavour and enterprise? Endless questions and conflicts as already suggested but there remains above all a pleasure in the game of language and its inability to express clearly what we mean to say. What was it that MacNeice (a poet I seem to have referred to a lot recently) said about the mystery of being? – ‘If we could get the hang of it entirely’.  The quotation from Albert Einstein at the end of the book further underlines this sense of impenetrable nebulousness – ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious….’  .

In ‘The River Flows over me / Overflows me’,Caleshu again starts with a philosophical trope (Heraclitus?) which mixes humour with a sense of celebration of abundance and combines a light-hearted post-modern playfulness with a more serious confrontation with our sense of isolation and confusion – ‘The photographer’s camera is  / fast. But this poem –floating like a ship in a bottle down / the river – is faster’. In the title poem there is a searching, an almost inarticulate yearning which reminds me a little of Donne’s realisation of the divine and the earthly/earthy, as in – ‘All my life, I’d
been hoping for a religious experience starring you / as the silhouette next door, but now we’re both unframed and / window-less and streaking naked across the front lawn’. In ‘I am all I know you again’ the narrative centres around the fate of an octopus seen at the aquarium which becomes a meditation on mortality. Once again the celebration of friendship in the here and now is placed against a more serious contemplation and this juxtaposition is something which is used to good effect, forcing the reader to think about as well as enjoy the immediacy of the writing.

Ambivalence and opposition are at the heart of these poems where the conflicts are in relief against the backdrop of family life and where thoughts and feelings promote moments of apparent clarity and clear-sightedness.  If there’s a dichotomy between belief and doubt represented here (and I think there is) it’s very much located within a celebration of ‘the mysterious’ as outlined above in the quote from Einstein. I’ve enjoyed reading Anthony Caleshu’s previous poetry collections and feel that this new book represents a deeper and more reflective engagement with our ‘being in the world’. The fact that it’s filled with wit and interesting language also makes it a good read.

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019