A Gregorian Peace
Where do journeys end? What were settings in the early poems, now become things in their own right; the world has been stripped down to its constituents. It is interesting to see how far Kopland has travelled when we compare this poem from 1993 with his earlier work:
And when the summer had come back again after all
And so we were sitting once more, drinking by the river.
His old arms still moved, to there, that world,
That slow, that eternal life of cattle in the distance.
Every human being should be an animal, should die
In the autumn and be re-born in the spring.
Or every human being should be a river, should come
Without a longing to remain, leave without nostalgia.
So we were sitting there and drinking again, passing time,
Old stories, genever, but the sun went down the same.
And he went to sleep. Because the world went to sleep.
Black he sat by the river, black hole in the prospect.
Now deeply versed in our human myths of living, our hopes, fears, equivocations and failures to measure up: the tonal and emotional ranges these lines weave, and weave between, are immense. The language and imagery now is scrupulously placed.
The human being becomes as much an object of the world as any other of its constituents parts. And as such just as subject to its laws of natural science.
Kopland uses the image of a ‘patient instrument’: “we were made by an impartial attentive/patient instrument, the same/ that breaks us down again.” (Your Back). It is also an image for language, and by extension, our ability to comprehend everything, whether by reason or instinct. He examines with it the human dimension. Patient, in that it enables him, by the complex employment of the medium, to look calmly at our extremis: dementia, ageing, death. He sees an aged one’s back, he wants to see the person, not just his own response, or his version of that person; his instrument shows him, not love: “love is a word for something other /than what I was seeking…” (ibid), it shows him the commomplace that everyone ages; he also sees, through his training, profession, a medical anatomy chart. All these have their part, all are acknowledged.
Language, our distinguishing feature, also distances us from that of which we speak or write. Can it also bring the world to us:
“there must be something now the word morning
slowly lights up and it becomes morning
that held us together and lets us go
as we lie here like this.”
(In the Morning) ?
His instrument‘s distancing effect allows him to see fables in our existence. His Message from the Isle of Chaos (1997) sits very well amongst Seamus Heaney’s fables in The Haw Lantern, and their background in the east European writers (Holub, Herbert in particular).
These examinations of ways and means, of what language allows us, bears extraordinary fruit in The Latest Findings:
have searched in human brains
“Night fell through the windows of our institute
moonlight stroked across the young breasts
of our female experimental person
We are still searching feverishly for formulae.”
Desire, human warmth, love, still escape the limits of our study.
More pertinently, the most important human apprehensions continue to fall outside the scope of our microscopes:
because happiness is a memory
it exists because at the same time
the reverse is also true
I mean this: because happiness
reminds us of happiness it pursues
us and therefore we flee from it
must exist somewhere at some time because
we remember it and it reminds us.
(What is Happiness?)
Richard Pool, reviewing for ‘Poetry Wales’ wrote of Kopland’s “existentialist poetry”. I find the writing more Phenomenological. Based on Husserl’s work, the present-day Phenomenologists present the experience of mind as a series of recursive mental events: echoes of echoes looping back and forth through our brain’s maps of world and body, that create an impression of one’s self. It is as though we continually restructure our maps on a daily basis, as the pattern at play in the brain changes.
The extra ingredient, the rider, is a sense of futurity: anticipation.
Here we have Kopland’s exploratory template as he explores and objectifies in his writing. There is an increasing sense of wonder, openness, what Belgian critic Herman de Coninck called the “Gregorian peace” of the later work (timeless rivalries: how the Catholic south never forgave the north ‘s breaking away, or abandonment of them… the wry dig of allotting a Gregorian peace to a Calvanistic northerner).
We now encounter titles like, Until it Lets Us Go (1997), even the title of the Harvill collection, Memories of the Unknown, or the recent book, What Water Leaves Behind. All of these exhibit, I would argue, a Phenomenologist sense of numinous wonder, where the world of objects is found to be the one reality, and our response to it is the possibility of happiness, love, desire, all the human responses. These objects are, as Phenomenlogist professor Dan Lloyd called, ‘the insensible dimensions that constitute reality.’
It is always best to let the writer have last say:
A Garden in the Evening
Things are happening here and I am the only
one who knows which
I shall name them and also say why
there’s an old garden seat standing under the apple-tree
there’s an old football lying in the grass
there are old sounds coming out of the house
there is an old light in the sky
this is happening here: a garden in the evening
and what you don’t hear and don’t see – the places
where we dug holes
and filled them up again, weeping
I tell you this because I do not want to be alone
before I am.
The story goes that ‘Rutger Kopland’ was involved in a bad car crash: night driving, a tree, a write-off. He acquired a bad head injury; so much so he was unable to speak for a while, became frustrated, violent even. The story continues he ended up for a period in one of his own locked wards.
The upshot is he now restricts his activities severely: his readings, attending conferences, exhibitions all cut back to a minimum.
For further and more modern work by Rutger Kopland, see:
There is a translation facility.