The Hollow Bone by Ian Marriott (Cinnamon Press, 2017)
Review by Cora Greenhill
(Edited version published in envoi No 182)
There are poems in this collection that seem, like the poles, to be magnetic: I turn to them again and again. There is something essential about them, in both meanings of the word - they are pared down to the essence in poetic terms, and risk territories essential to life that are often avoided and all too rarely articulated this well. They seem to distill what would be left unsaid if not said in precisely this way, while with words they seem to nudge consciousness beyond language. Some poems even insist on this:
the tuning forked silence.
The mirage season is on us,
language detaches itself - (Terra Infirma 10 & 13)
The opening lines of the first poem wake us up to the power of Marriott's unsparing imagery.
As if it were not enough
the great wild Aurochs
to this swaying udder
drained twice daily - (Bovine)
A naturalness of expression and bold, wide-ranging utterance is one of the features of this poetry. As one reads on, one realises that the poetry's sense of authority arises from deep personal process, through psychologically dark and dangerous territory, as much as physical journeying to as near the ends of the earth as one can get. The terrain of the human psyche in extremity, in a state of spiritual emergency, is a major theme in the collection, connected intricately through the pared down imagery with the harsh external landscapes, finding form in stark, unalterable lines.
Stretching out, the polar night -
we cling to ropes of frost. (Terra Firma 3)
A Marriott poem is for the wild, as well as of it, speaking for and as the undomesticated, unexploited species and the remotest landscapes in which they still cling to life:
from where you have been,
each iris an ocean trench. (Albatross, from The Hollow Bone).
Here is the voice of a man who knows what he's talking about, has been there more than once: we are sharing something beyond the incidental, momentary epiphanies that feature in much current poetry. Our journey with this poet as guide enters dangerous terrains, but we can be sure of his rock solid experience:
It would have been
map and compass work
all morning - and tricky at that- (Christmas)
(were it not for the absent fox who has left tracks as 'a gift')
A poem that leaves us in no doubt that we are following a profoundly challenging personal journey is The Inner Work. The two-part poem has a near-perfect, though not symmetrical, equilibrium, starting with flesh as food, ending with escaping being devoured as flesh: the savage compression of a life story.
Nearly forty years,
scratching a living
of meat and offal.
When we might hope or expect the second part to lead out of 'the mahogany twilight', it fails to re-assure us at all:
Then the real hunger.
The work begins.
Rarely can psychological depths have been so convincingly depicted in poetry since, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, 'O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.'
But whereas the Jesuit flails around helplessly in his despair, feeling abandoned, pleading for rescue, this seeker reaches for his own animal instinct:
like the rag-doll seal
of the killer whale-
yet all the while
Salvation doesn't come as an intervention or revelation of a higher power, but only through what myth would see as an underworld journey, what psycho-analysis would term exploring the unconscious (often symbolised by water in dreams).
The imagery of predatory sea life in this poem carries the poet's total authority, culminating in the reality that however hard we work on ourselves, deliverance is also a matter of chance - if the whale had been hungrier, it might not have been so careless. All human existence depends on the luck of not being in the path of the hungry carnivore or tornado, but it is still a necessity to work on evolving as individuals and societies, more than ever right now.
This is a pivotal poem in the book, and to my mind it is misplaced - my only criticism of the book being that its editing could have been more rigorous: some of the ordering the poems, and in a few cases, the inclusion of weaker poems, means the collection has less poise than the best poems merit.
The polar poems seem to me to be at the heart of the work, their powerful imagery fusing the dominant themes of wilderness/otherness in nature, and the inner/underworld journey of the human soul. The descriptions of the natural landscapes can be breathtakingly beautiful, as in Aurora Landscape; though living in them is the edge of human endurance. In Antarctic Winter 2, a rare occurrence of repetition brings home the unbearable tedium,
We are wrapped in fibreglass,...
We are living in treacle.
We are living in treacle.
The second part of this poem allows one of the rare visitations of other humans in the book: entering the deranged mind of the barely surviving speaker, the sensations of the parents' physicality, which may be hallucinations or memories, are shocking, uncomfortable and ambiguous. And just as there is no way out of the Antarctic in winter, there is no glimmer of escape from the psychological damage:
The memory of a woman
knots me as she un-knots me.
I am a Gordian bundle of bone and muscle.
In earth's harshest environment, people are ill-adapted both physically,
Cook used the last lime a week ago,
salt beef sunsets are gone.
We are down to a hardtack moon,
the weevil holes of stars-' (Terra Infirma 14)
Out there the suicide principle sits-
he has dropped his long line of hooks
through a hole in the ice and will wait.' (Terra Infirma 8)
So compressed is the imagery of these glistening, dark gems of language, they seem to mirror the inner and outer landscapes few of us would choose to visit, yet there is a healing catharsis in the razor-sharp honesty about life on the edge. And there are also glimpses of redemptive warmth in the affectionate, almost humorous descriptions of animals who struggle to survive:
can you hear him
singing his way to the surface?
Now he is out
a bag of seal
lying in a pool of himself. (Terra Infirma 25).
Or the penguins,
Fish-plump and oily they come,
peeling the sea-ice distance-
heads bowed, each foot
shackled to the press-gang dark. (Terra Infirma 19)
In fact, it seems any sense of redemption in The Hollow Bone is brought by animal messengers. The poetry makes no bones about its broad search for spirit in a world where '...the weight of church/drains away-' (The Dream Master). In Christmas, a wintry walk with a silent companion is made to escape 'the absence of god', and the sacred is found in
the whiteness of hares,
grouse flushed up,
a dipper working his wintry patch.
References to religion and spiritual paths are throughout the book, often in the titles eg Pilgrim, the Shaman Speaks, The Cathedrals are Sinking, and of course the book's title referring to a shamanic discipline of consciousness. But no religion offers comfort:
This is not a god
of consolation, (The Shaman Speaks)
Buddhist. Activist for twenty years-
she stepped out into busy traffic,
mind on the next best thing. (A Kind of Passing)
It was a cold
In the torch-lit rafters
row upon row
of wintering butterflies,
like iron filings
to some distant north. (Soulcraft)
As a mature student, Marriott was guided to read Heidegger, and he did, and read about how shamanism has become an artistic practise in the modern world: in poetry perhaps first and most famously through Rilke. Altered states, dreaming both awake and asleep, participating in other forms of consciousness, and a profound engagement with death, are some of the strands of this area of artistic endeavour evident in this collection. There is a bow to the mother of all shamans and gods: The Cathedrals are Sinking describes the work of trying 'to shore the walls of Winchester up-' as the great church crumbles into the flooded earth. It ends with a questions that has no question mark:
or is it simply
that the wet earth
is rising up -
of cave and fen
reclaiming - without malice -
what was hers
The last two poems of the collection make a significant and well-placed ending. The title poem, The Hollow Bone, offers haiku-like tributes to birds and animals:
Each forward movement an age -
the eyes' fixed bayonet. (Heron)
These exquisite distillations of wildness remind me a little of Kathy Tower's more domestic soul medicine in Remedies. Marriott's final poem, The Dream Master, with its dream-like irresolution, suggests our models for a soul-life need at the very least updating:
music for a gramophone
cold-pressed for another age
- a line that could well be applied to human's relationship with the living earth today. But there is no polemic in this book: it exists to replenish the soul. I'm thirsty for more of this kind of poetry: work that has earned its authority through living with open eyes. Its courage is reminiscent in some ways of Adrienne Rich's iconic Diving into the Wreck. One doesn't have to choose to spend winters in the Antarctic - that is both real and a metaphor for the perilous world we all live in. There is no hope offered here except in the courage of utterance.