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Peter Redgrove. A Speaker for the Silver Goddess

Erik MARTINY
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Peter REDGROVE, A Speaker for the Silver Goddess. Stride, 2006, 324 pp., £8.50, ISBN 1-905024-16-9

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1Peter Redgrove is such a tremendously prolific writer that years after his death he is still publishing as much as ever. A Speaker for the Silver Goddess is Redgrove’s second posthumous collection since 2003, after his sizeable book, Sheen, also issued by Stride. Cape has also just published The Harper. This prolificacy has irked such critics as Craig Raine who feels that Redgrove not only produced over-abundantly but also that he recycled and even “tricycled” his ideas. If all be told, once you have read Redgrove’s entire corpus, you have to come to terms with the fact that “tricycled” is actually something of an understatement. And yet, as Redgrove once put it in a letter to Alan Ross, the late editor of the London Magazine , let us not give Craig his Raine for too long. This is not to suggest that the risks of extreme fruitfulness are negligible: clearly they are not, as Redgrove’s reception hereto has proven. The problem with cornucopian poetry is that one is constantly running the risk of over-consuming it and reaching a surfeit. The overfed reader then tends to blame his cloyedness on the horn of abundance. When all is said, this reflex should really be perceived as a case of biting the hand that feeds you: Redgrove can hardly be blamed for producing too much of a good thing. It is up to the reader to adopt a reading practice in accordance with his or her own capacity, Gargantuan or otherwise. This is true of course for any poet – reading a collection of poems from cover to cover at one sitting is virtually unthinkable unless it has a very strong narrative base and reading one of Redgrove’s collections in one go would be the poetic equivalent of eating a whole tray of Oriental pastries after an entire Christmas cake.

2One might add in Redgrove’s defence that to also fault him for reiteration is to misunderstand his aesthetic: his poetry relies centrally on the motif of the mirror and this is reflected on a formal and linguistic level also. Repetition is therefore not a sign of limited inventiveness, as Raine would have us think, but a way of returning to an inexhaustible source of inspiration and embodying it through linguistic theme and variation. Moreover, if Redgrove does recycle a few core ideas and their metaphoric manifestations, these are always re-entered creatively, and if repeated verbatim, their interaction with the surrounding swirl of linguistic magic invariably washes them of the potential stain of staleness. A case in point is the return of the mudbath motif, which out of context may sound somewhat pedestrian but is of profound spiritual and poetic significance in Redgrove’s oeuvre. In the early seventies, a few years before Heaney’s bog figures began to emerge, Redgrove began publishing his first mud-people poems, producing one of his most memorable iconic texts with “The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach” (Dr. Faust’s Sea-Spiral Spirit). Since then, a number of mudbath-poems have appeared (“Better Than Before” and “To Circe” in Assembling a Ghost , “Mud” in The Laborators to name but a few); A Speaker for the Silver Goddess may offer the last of its kind with “Luckbath” which bears an epigraph attributed to Jung, one of Redgrove’s lifelong masters. The concept behind these mud poems is always the same and can be stated very succinctly in Jung’s own words as “we need the mud”. That Redgrove needs to ratify his point so late in his career by referring to the imprimatur of a linguistically uninspired Jungian phrase seems a bit needless, especially since the poem itself makes Jung’s remark abundantly superfluous, but perhaps this reference stems from a need for connections and a sense that Redgrove is not a lone prophet preaching in the wilderness. Another writer that accompanies Redgrove throughout this collection (also in the challenging poem “Who Is the Higher Penis here?”) is Stevenson. Mud imagery invariably draws on the dynamics of doubleness: the poems seem to argue that entering the unknown we Jekylls should not attempt to Hyde but seek.

3Just how exhortatory these poems intend to be is a matter for speculation; I can imagine that Redgrove did not expect many academic readers to literally smear mud on their pristine clothes, even if this is something that some of Redgrove’s early libel poems do engage in with a certain amount of Sadean relish. There is no trace of punishment in these mudbaths though, even if the mud is refreshingly defamiliarized as “tree-shit”. In general, when Redgrove describes these rituals, he either uses a persona or the third person singular as if to suggest that this experience is a literary one that the writer observes rather than experiences at first hand. This being said, it would not surprise me all that much to learn that Redgrove dabbled with authentic Cornwall mud: his diary manuscripts in Sheffield and Leeds reveal that Redgrove had nothing of the Ivory Poet, as his luscious enjoyment of menstrual sex makes crystal clear. While this mud/menses link might shock the modern reader, the connection is for Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle (his outstanding poet-wife) not a degrading one, quite the contrary. Mud is invariably a metaphor for the bodily fluids we try to Hyde.

4One might be tempted to say but what is novel about mudbaths? They can now be taken in special resorts all around Europe and while they make for some relaxing ghoulish fun, they don’t exactly lead to in-depth spiritual refurbishment. Redgrove’s immersions are a far cry from the social mud fests made for tourists. The experience is described as a solitary one (exceptionally in his novel The Facilitators it is a couple which makes love in the mud), based on the Romantic model of intimate, isolated, unmediated, contact with the spirit of nature. While laughter and comedy are not exempt from the experience, these rituals are related in deeply serious, transformative terms. The absence of other human beings allows the personae in these poems to relinquish all social ties, all conventional constrictions on the body and the mind. Comparing “Luckbath” with one of Redgrove’s signature poems, “The Idea of Entropy”, makes the earlier icon poem seem somewhat more monumental, yet this does not mean that Redgrove has lost his nerve or his verve. If this penultimate collection doesn’t quite bode that Redgrove’s last will be his bang, what is clear is that he is very far from going out with a Wordsworthian whimper. Quite a number of the poems in A Speaker for the Silver Goddess compare favourably with his best work and nothing in the collection indicates that the poet’s creativity and craftsmanship has been affected by age or the fatal diseases from which Redgrove suffered. If “Luckbath” doesn’t quite ascend to the alliterative genius of the early poem, it still retains some of its fascinatingly flighty flatulence, retaining all the pleasures of “the reek of fruct and filth” of this late defilement rite that thanks to Redgrove we can experience vicariously, if we are not prompted to do so at first hand.

5Redgrove’s interest in the virtues of mud is not solely restricted to nature and extends to faecal matters too. This is not an unprecedented feature of his work but there seems to be a distinctly excretory preoccupation in this particular collection, almost as if nearing death, in a similar way to the late American poet, A. R. Ammons, Redgrove wished to explore bodily excretions and the first phases of childhood. If mud is considered as “tree-shit” in “Luckbath”, then excreta are treated as human mud. Some will find that one of the last poems in the collection, “Underneathness”, stretches this scatological impulse beyond the reader’s elastic limit. In this piece, Redgrove examines the aesthetic and metaphysical merits of a wet fart:

a minute medallion of shit-stain
from a fart:
Its tiny ginger shines like gold
in my sky-blue underpants.
‘The sun that shines in the dark’

6Craig Raine might wish to sneer at Redgrove’s daring attempt to transform this kind of material into art, even though he has himself composed his own Rimbaldian “Sonnet du Trou du Cul” in his early poem “Arsehole” (Rich). While Raine’s Martian aesthetic can hardly said to be genteel here, it still takes fewer risks and does not really court the truly course. Redgrove’s skill is such that he can stoop to scoop the lowly and fling it into stars. As the title of another poem indicates, “Shit and Spirit” attempts to bridge the gap between the “basely” physical and the metaphysical through the use of paronomasia (one of Redgrove’s major stylistic features) and achieves its goal: half way through the lyric, “the composite stench / unfurls its wings over the town” and alights at the poem’s close, having accomplished the transmogrification of stench into “a sweet-smelling forest”.

7This idea that flowers can grow from excrement is not new in poetry and has been explored to some extent (with less obsessive gusto) in Derek Walcott’s “The Castaway” whose transformative vision imagines how “In the sun, the dog’s feces / Crusts, whitens like coral”. James Wright’s famous “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm” achieves a similar kind of alchemical scatological magic when “In a field of sunlight between two pines, / The droppings of last year’s horses / Blaze up into golden stones”. But more than all these, Redgrove manages to redeem the ordinary and coax out the magic from under the muddiest stones.

8Other readers may also be turned off initially by Redgrove’s devotion to Asian religious philosophy and the occult but this is like saying that you have to be a believer to appreciate the beauty of the Bible. While there is a high occurrence of words like ‘ectoplasm’, ‘hydromantia’ or ‘aethyr’, these concepts are often taken from their esoteric context and extended to workaday reality, making them available to the layman and acceptable to the sceptic through their creative inscription into poetry. Redgrove takes the sometimes hackneyed conventions of the occult and brings them back to life. There is nothing programmatic about his interest in mysticism, just a creative “alertness to the invisibles”, as the poem “Your Bowl” puts it, and an attention to the poetic possibilities of ancient magic. The main magic sought after is finally always linguistic. Redgrove’s religious explorations are frequently syncretic and it is always interesting to find Christ interacting with the philosophy of Chinese massage. The poet’s iconoclastic fervour allows the non-believer the pleasure of engaging in religion with a sense of humour. This is one of Redgrove’s many achievements: over the years, his steady exploration of Christianity has made it into less of a narrative devoted to a tragic execution on a cross than a story about how Christ and Buddha can cohabit.

9Above all, A Speaker for the Silver Goddess, is a thrilling collection because of the new mystery poems Redgrove allows us to be spellbound by. One of these, the bemusing “Who Is the Higher Penis Here?” has the reader come back to it again and again to try to ferret out its slippery enigma. In fact, one is sometimes left with the feeling that it’s a pity Redgrove didn’t use this narrative mode more often. His readership would probably have been wider and he is such an accomplished and original story-teller that his fairytales for adults always leave one wanting more. Redgrove often dispenses with everything but the most frugal narrative line – a tendency which places far greater demands on the reader’s concentration. Ultimately, though, his verbal acumen is generally so refined that there is no need for the tale: the story is the language.

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Erik MARTINY, « Peter Redgrove. A Speaker for the Silver Goddess », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 9, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 24 mai 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/719

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Erik MARTINY

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