Review by Jeremy Hooker (NL75, Mar 2012)

Glen Cavaliero: Towards the Waiting Sun

(Poetry Salzburg, 2011)


The poems in Glen Cavaliero’s new book are arranged sequentially and in four sections: ‘Dissolution’, ‘Unlucky Numbers’, ‘Here and Now’, ‘Springboard’. The arrangement bespeaks a careful thematic ordering. Order also characterises Cavaliero’s sense of form, which is hospitable to a good deal of variety. However serious his subject — and this book, along with its touches of humour is profoundly serious — Cavaliero is a poet at play, delighting in language and formal variety. There is, for example, the tight control of ‘Crosswords’, a poem tense with Christian paradox:

Tempered to a fine Herodian humour
It mocks the bleak complicity of Cain,
With tender scorn allows the priests their rumour
And arrogates its power in meek disdain.

A humorous wit sounds in ‘The Witching Hour’: ‘When smooth elastic silken sisters/ saunter softly through the shade,/ and lustful ambulating misters/ strut in cocksure masquerade, ...’ These are just two examples of Cavaliero’s formal variety, which coexist in the book with many diverse ‘freer’, more conversational modes.

With so many 'voices’ one may ask of a book of verse, where is the man himself? The answer in this case is: everywhere. The first poem, ‘Flood Alert’, observes a river ‘angry/and engaged on some annihilating business’. Here, ‘A pilgrim’s chapel holds on for dear life’. Elemental forces surge through the book, which is charged with the passions of a man in age remembering, regretting, reliving.

Towards the Waiting Sun is a book of love poems, of love in a life. The poet confronts love as enemy; he expresses pain, loss, anguish, betrayal, savage love, and love as ecstasy. He is equally capable of expressing joy and the darker emotions, a son’s tender love for his mother, and the torment of disappointed sexual love. The poetry is not less religious for being, often, erotic. ‘All About You’ is among the most moving explicit love poems in the book. It recalls Cavaliero’s earlier poetry, in which places are closely bound up with human experience, historical or personal, or both. This poem is located At Portmore Loch. In this place,

You were the air’s breath that day,
earth’s distillation on my lips
your tongue stirred with the fragrance of the pines.

The memory provokes a question, which is central to the book as a whole:

Was love like that then?
Earth, water, air, all formed
To have their life for me, in you?

At issue is the relationship between self and other, and person and elemental world.

The numerous places in the poems include English locations, New York State, Sardinia, Andalusia, Scotland and the Hebrides. None is a tourist’s poem; almost all are woven with the poet’s life experience. They are elemental, made of’Earth, water, air’. The poem on the page facing ‘All about You’, ‘At Dunwich’, includes the words ‘The sea licks clay’. This turns the mind to dissolution, to mortality; but it has, too, an erotic suggestion. We are made of clay; our relationship with the elemental cosmos is a peculiarly intimate one. If we inevitably share its dissolution, love has another message, and there is waiting in the light of the setting sun. Light as energy, as well as illumination, haunt this book.

Towards the Waiting Sun has a prefatory essay, ‘A Journey’, by Peter Scupham, in which he writes: ‘In a poetic climate which is choc-a-bloc with relativism, explorations of a post-modern world where means are suspect and tease the reader with their baffling-shape changes, this collection obstinately assumes the need for poetry to move the human heart, to confront and examine pain, loss and heartbreak, but not to be imprisoned by them, and to hearten the reader to continue his or her own journey’. This is a useful elegant essay (marred only by ascription of a quotation from Christopher Smart's Hymn 32 to William Cowper), in which Scupham locates ‘the heart of the collection’ in the thirteen-part song-cycle, ‘Unlucky Numbers’. Here and elsewhere, the feeling is at times rawly painful, but the formality of 'numbers’, which enables expression, also frames it, guarding privacy.

The concluding poem, ‘The Songs of Rhiannon’, has an epigraph from John Cowper Powys: ‘... that song of the birds of Rhiannon which brought death to the living and life to the dead’. The quotation put me in mind of another passage in which Powys writes of Welsh mythology, of what he calls ‘all manner of magical mixings up in the Mabinogion, ‘of life and death and death with life; so that on all sides we grow aware of half-alive things and of half-dead things, of life vanishing as the death-mists rise or fall, of birth appearing even from the lap of death’. It has been obvious from his first book, The Ancient People, that Cavaliero the Powysian is Cavaliero the poet. it is not only that he too is drawn to the ancient and the mythological, but also that he knows himself to be living in a haunted world. There is a side of Cavaliero the poet that looks toward an English social vision in hailing distance of John Betjeman and Philip Larkin. In this book it can be detected in ‘Thingworth’ for example:

The elms are all down of course that used to stand
beside the church. And that’s marooned in a field
   nobody wants to cross. The steeple squints at you
   as you come roaring up from where the villagers all go —
   down to the shopping mall, industrial estates...

But he has always been open to something altogether more ‘Celtic’, in his eschewal of self-protective irony and his love of abrasive landscapes and prehistoric sites. as he writes here, of The Standing Stones of Callanish:

They shift while I’m not looking. hooded shapes
incline towards each other, guardians of that centre

that I will never reach.
   (Never, never, never,
the sea-birds wail as they head across the marsh.)

         (‘Among the Farthest Hebrides’)

The Powysian ‘magical mixings up’, which Cavaliero has made his own, combine with his original Christian vision to make him a poet of our liminal situation between worlds. It is an inspiring poetical perception, but it doesn’t make for comfort. Towards the waiting Sun is too full of ‘life and death and death with life’ for easy consolation. It is at once a pleasure to read and unsettling, as, surely, any serious book drawing on a lifetime of experience must be.