Incendium Amoris: Steve Ely, Smokestack Books
Sometimes one comes across books that confound your expectations of poetry. Most poetry, even some experimental poetry, goes along relatively obvious lines and you generally know where you are in the poetic map. But what do you make of this:
Hreodfenn fallows at Standing Flatt Bridge,
agger of Old Sraet fording the flood.
Ox-teams hauling harvest to Tanshelf,
brisket-deep in surgent Winwaed.
(‘Je te plumerai’)
The language is more than old-fashioned, it’s medieval, and deliberately so because Steve Ely is writing about a medieval battle site. But this is in contrast with:
Sunday disco, Hacienda:
mirror-ball, Hazell Dean.
drink-drive XR3 –
searchin, lookin for love.
(‘Iohannes of Sutton’)
This is fully contemporary, but also has a medieval resonance as one of the people miraculously healed by Richard Rolle, a Yorkshire mystic around whose story the book is based. Throughout the book, Ely is making connections between medieval and contemporary both stylistically and through ideas.
This historical/modern theme is what makes this collection so interesting. One of the major poems in the collection is ‘Little St. Hugh’, a poem based around an incidence of violent anti-semitism in Lincoln in the middle ages. However, it’s also riffing off the Cantos of Ezra Pound, especially his infamously anti-semitic Canto LII, and takes in contemporary racist ideas as well. Ely collages references and ideas together to critique Pound and to protest contemporary racism.
This is a very political book in many ways, but he doesn’t preach. Ely delves into the almost lost corners of British history, from the writings of an obscure English mystic to the present, and brings back a fiercely original sound-hoard. It does remind me of Geoffrey Hill, especially his Mercian Hymns, but this is a much recusant, radical view of history from the bottom up, and that’s why it’s one of the most interesting books of poetry I’ve read for a while.