Review by Penelope Shuttle (NL61, Jul 2006)

Glen Cavaliero: The Justice of the Night

(Tartarus Press, 2007)


In the high-spirited and optimistic opening poem of Glen Cavaliero’s welcome new collection Justice of the Night, the poet offers us not imagery of the night but radiance, God seen as very like the sun.

God has a great round face
    like the sun, a dial like the sun,
      a sun-dial.

His grin is the daylight.
   He tosses the earth in his arms
      on a taut line

‘The First Lesson’, inspired perhaps by the seven-year-old Rebecca who is its dedicatee, encourages us to ‘endure the round/of grief and glamour’, by figuring God in benevolent style, with solar attributes. This god plays with the earth as if it’s a ball,

his sport, his delight, his toy,

and human beings, says this poet, must

... enjoy the game
   if you can, breathless,
bruised; enjoy the round
   of grief and glamour ...

Grief and glamoutr are the dominant moods of the collection, the dual feelings of despair and of energetic hope with which the poet confronts the world. He suffers, but keeps faith with
and experiences much rejoicing, like any good Powysian.

In such connection we might also expect, and indeed do find, a finely-judged and atmospheric sense of place, evocations of landscapes with which the individual who ‘notices such things’ must come into relation, even though there is inevitable struggle.

Space falls away, compliant, you’re exposed,
and the sky’s hood contracts and darkens,
drawn tight by some immense and unseen hand,
and the reeds’ shuddering seems a warning,
and you start to walk, anywhere, no matter
in what direction so long as you keep moving,
but aware in a corner of the mind’s eye
of that stooping thing that pads towards you,
that no dike bars, that knows its way
and you, its destination.

In the above quotation from ‘Points of Recognition’, this sense of challenge from the uninhabited landscape, where the individual is alone with, if you like, his destiny, is fully realised. We realize as we read this poem why the word panic comes from being in the realm of Pan, in the wild of outside the walls of city, town or village — ‘an old thicket choked with long dead branches’, where ‘the trees exert a queer pressure, and the cornfield’s further off than you remember.’ But such disquiet comes indoors also, as we learn in the masterly second section.

But above all be aware
of being alone in your house on a summer evening
endless as only summer evenings are
when the soaked shroud of leaves weighs on the wall,
and it’s too warm for a fire, too cold
for concentration, not dark
enough as yet for light,
and you know that stillness and action are alike impossible.

This long and complex poem is a triumph of utterance, catching exactly and conveying in controlled but vivid language the disquiet to be felt in solitude, the whip of isolation, within a landscape that is not as friendly or tame as it seemed at first, or in a house that no longer gives psychological shelter. The poem builds up to the final striking clarity of the last line —

      When it finds you
it will not feel like a friend.

This is a superb conjuring-up of the sense we have at challenging times of the unexpected dangers lying in wait for us and against which there is no defence. An unflinching poem, where the it, the figure of death that haunts the poem, makes a powerful contrast with the boisterousness of the bright-faced God in the opening poem. Grief and glamour indeed.

These tanists, these opposites, recur throughout the volume. The final poem, ‘Dedication’, addresses the panic theme again, in a love poem that draws adroitly both on the resource of writing, ‘a private alphabet of unappeased desire’ to address the you who ‘yet again, become my dictionary’, set in a summer landscape where ‘the panic season calls once more’.

This coherently arranged collection is made up of four sections which create a strong sense of equilibrium, and it follows-through these themes of loneliness, landscape, celebration, human love and, not least of all, stoic humour.

’The Wise Woman of Amounderness’ is a moving portrait of a wise woman ‘shrinking in the wail of gulls’, deeply disillusioned with her life of faith and contemplation, believing ‘Everything lost, lost’. But she comes to accept she can only continue to praise the world and the creator-god who has disappointed her —

   Three tiny scallop shells
came to my hand as I floundered over shingle,
   renegade, on pilgrimage
      to the engulfing sands:

      I cherish them, scrolls of a creation
   inhumanly complete, a superfluity
to me as I to them, and so I praise their maker
   since nothing’s left to me but praise
      until the tide, indifferently obedient,
         sounds my name.

Name, identity, disillusion, faith in the face of the uncaring universe., an illogical but necessary cherishing — this is a beautiful describing of the difficulties of any soul, and a fine job description, in a way, of any poet.

Glen Cavaliero’s vision also takes in the city. In ‘London Fires’, the city is presented with all its bloody fiery history at the margins, but concludes in the present moment (and this poet has a wonderful gift for last lines), as

   a blondie ghost in flickering pink
   confers belated grace. Below
the jar and rumble of the fleeting traffic
and its unseen load, the bones of London kindling
      crumble, uninsured.

Regret, that halfway house between Grief and Glamour, is a constant presence in the poems, whose calm is deceptive, like the bones of London under the pavements.

In the attentively-detailed poem 3 from the sequence ‘Mater Dei’, ‘The Knd of the Beginning’, the poet considers a garden in a cold springtime where

... the poet’s drooping mulberry prepares
for a fourth centenary, propped on crutches

and wonders if the legend of John Milton planting the tree is true. From this he considers whether a secluded garden like this could be like that in which

... Mary heard the summons and assented,
compliant with tradition’s iconography —
an ordinary room, familiar, humble,
for no red carpet’s called for by an angel
who ‘ll hover in a crowded city bus-stop
on a November morning at a sad farewell
for ever, in the fog —

that grieving face
still haunts me, outward bound
to God knows where. Yet I was once
the object of an unsolicited embrace there...

The heartfelt image of an angel at a crowded city bus-stop exemplifies this poet’s ability to take traditional images and make them new, contemporary. He also takes us to places such as this (from ‘On the March’ I.The Begwns) —

young Kilvert comes into his angel-satyr country
with its blackberry girls in lonely dingles, curlews
voicing waters, whitewashed chapels and the parson
in a hermit’s cell, dementedly at prayer,

and this (from 2.The Skreen) —

There is a well here, close to the terrace walk.
Down it goes, deep and hallowed as the trees are high.
while in a square deiflc poets gather
to discern appearances of some inscrutable illumination.

I love the wit of those two lines.

This book has been written from ‘an estate of the soul’. It is a powerful collection, rooted in love of and experience of language, and it possesses an individual and sophisticated vision. I must also add that it is beautifully produced by Tartarus Press.