Saturday, September 5, 2015

Not only in the brain's grey spaces

Those who love Oscar Wilde's "The Sphinx," George Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry," and Clark Ashton Smith's "The Hashish Eater," might want to read Mervyn Peake's "A Reverie of Bone," printed for the first time in its complete form in the FyfieldBooks / Carcanet Collected Poems.

Although it seems unlikely that Peake would have read Sterling or Smith, at one point he did read "The Sphinx," and like that poem, "Reverie" is a long meditation on a theme. But unlike Wilde, Sterling, or Smith, Peake draws his elaborate metaphors and riotous imagery not from the world of Romanticism, but from "vast and valid landscapes" of the world as we know it, and as he would later do in the Titus books, he discovers the fantastic in the down-to-earth:

There is a pearl white arabesque of bones
Behind my eyes where the harsh brow encloses
These bones my visions conjure; I can see
Them lying pranked across a brow of stones.
Beyond them a dramatic mountain raises
High flanks of cold and silver-coloured scree.

And yet not only in the brain's grey spaces
Which, at the imagination's astral touch
Flare into focus, all horizons failing...
Not only through the wastes of thought uprises
A ghosted mountain lit by the full torch
Of a sailing moon that never ceases sailing...

Not only in the brain, nor in the heart
Nor out of love, nor through untethered fancy,
Is that cold mountain littered with the white
Residue of the dead, as though its bright
Steep sides were dusted with dry leprosy --
Nor any other death-engendered sight
Which I envisage in deserted places --
But, in the ruthless regions of what's true --
And I can only hope to grasp the worth
From vast and valid landscapes, while Time passes
Beneath my pen-nib as it trails the blue
Thread of my thought behind each glimpse of truth.

Because fantasy is not a genre but a matter of perception, a shift in perspective, a construction of imagery and metaphor, "A Reverie of Bone" can hit the same nerves that Wilde and Sterling and Smith struck in their own fascinating ways, even as it remains true to this world of life and death and physical transformation by the slow artistry of time.

No comments: