Questing verse

The Living Law

Jesse Keith Butler, Darkly Bright Press, 2024, 106 pp., £16.08

Jesse Keith Butler’s debut volume The Living Law exhibits an extraordinary mastery and inventiveness of form, comprising poems in traditional metres (with an unusual predominance of the anapaestic), as well as free verse, not to mention prose poetry. The matter spans country and city life, family, travel, work and leisure. Some poems address their themes directly, even polemically.

Religious themes predominate, with poems on a range of subjects depicting and evaluating experiences from the somewhat aloof persona of a man whose faith grants him access to a truth beyond this world. For example, ‘The Boatwright’ contemplates the postmortem fate of the speaker’s unbelieving brother, and cleverly as well as touchingly finds the same wiggle room as many a liberal theologian, granting the minimum and the maximum an orthodox believer may, that “if there’s open water beyond this life […] I know you’ll find your way.”

The overall sensibility is conservative, however. Witness ‘Whatever is Born of Fire’ with its generalised anti-modern nostalgia that evokes Eliot’s ‘Choruses from The Rock.’ Developing out of a vignette of returning to the family home, the aspiration bursts forth:

We can try to turn back—

     We could maybe turn back—

          And seek a strange new trajectory—

But here as elsewhere one is aware of a problem that Butler has not dealt with. Just as a descriptive passage featuring “heavy clouds” filled with “life-giving rain” in a scene that “tears the veil of time” is built upon cliché, so the notion that we might in some sense return to a pre-modern, religiously-based culture lacks authenticity, with what might be ‘strange’ and ‘new’ about this proposed trajectory left unexplored.

At his most glib, Butler is capable of promulgating intellectual clichés like:

Rock on, rock on Voltaire, Rousseau

‘Cause Revolution’s all we know

We’ll line them all up in a row

To build the Kingdom here below

(‘Rock on, Rock on Voltaire, Rousseau’)

Many poems in the volume depict a moment in nature in which a moment of afflatus supervenes in the manner typical of much nature poetry, in which a vision is beheld and, as Wordsworth put it, “we see into the life of things.” This lyric mode is so entrenched that it is hard to practise with any convincing originality. It is, of course, a heritage of the Romantic movement whose poets sought to imbue mundane subjects with the ‘visionary gleam’ of a religious ardour that even then had largely ceased to be evoked by Christian subjects. Thinking over the progress of English verse, it is interesting to note the peculiarity of Butler’s proffered contribution, since the latter often consists of injecting explicitly religious and Biblical imagery into a naturalistic setting, as in the prose poem that begins ‘“Look, he says, the friggin’ Rocky Mountains!”’ and culminates in a vision out of Genesis where

my eyes stream with tears and […] I wish I had a voice big and inhuman enough to sing along. […] It’s the creatures on the ladder that are singing, I know that now, and they’re both ascending and descending on a ladder whose end vanishes between the stars (‘The Ladder’).

There may be antecedents for Butler’s technique here. One thinks of his fellow Catholic Robert Lowell, who in his early work might juxtapose a vision of a Mary who “twists the warlock with her flowers […] her whole body an ecstatic womb” against the narrative of a drowned ancestor. Explicitly religious imagery has never died out, of course. But in Lowell’s case the depiction of Mary dramatises the repressed sexual content of Catholic iconography in a way that renders it uncanny. In Butler’s poem the narrative is delivered with the simplicity of a child reporting a Marian vision.

Butler’s use of form is virtuosic in a way that disdains to hide itself. Although The Living Law contains prose and free verse as well as iambics, the metrical refrain throughout is anapaestic: a metre not to be handled by those afraid of formal obtrusiveness. The cantering rhythm advances past the syntax, so that artifice is foregrounded to a surprising extent. The effect is often strident, as for example in the title poem, in which:

something cuts through the dull resonance

and draws us to join a reciprocal dance

and love the

                          living

                                       law.

The situation is a bus trip on which an old lady loses her glasses and the other passengers pitch in to help find them. But the subject is infused with a numinous light and music that give the weary speaker a sense of his place in the divine order of things – though the notion of him and his fellow passengers ‘dancing’ on a Greyhound is perhaps unintentionally funny.

I have hinted that the religiosity of these poems is sometimes their downfall. I say this not out of any dogmatic hostility to Butler’s religion and in full awareness of the importance of Christian belief to some of the greatest poetry in existence. But successful poetry must offer something new – not necessarily drastically new, but at least individual or peculiar to the speaker, the author, or the context of writing. If it does not, it merely restates, likely in hackneyed language, conventional sentiments derived from an outside source.

In the longish poem ‘The Lawgiver’ Butler re-narrates in truncated form the main incidents of Moses’ career in Exodus. We learn for instance that, “I stayed forty days as your fire filled my mind,” and “I cast your bronze serpent and lifted it up” after “the destroyer turned back at the doorway’s blood-smear.” It is a retelling with little embellishment. One thinks, in contrast, of Pound’s famous poem ‘The Goodly Feere’ with its surprising depiction of Jesus as the tragic hero of a border ballad. Whether one likes the depiction or not, at least Pound adds a fresh dimension to his subject. ‘The Lawgiver’ rather timidly imitates the form of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, suggesting an analogous attempt at resituation. Is Moses to be understood as a Hebrew Beowulf? But the formal exercise seems to have been carried out gratuitously, without significance. And this blandness extends beyond the narrative recapitulation to the equally derivative notions Moses enunciates, which might come from a prayer book of any denomination:

Your grace has brought me to the sabbath of your year

Ground me in sound judgment and knowledge of your law

[…]

Without your correction I’d be wandering still

And so on. The linguistic possibilities of imagery and symbol are foreclosed at the same time as discursive ones. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to say what the author of the Psalms, for instance, has already said without using either the same or inferior language. It is as if someone out of utter devotion to The Bard were to rewrite Hamlet, more or less in the style of Shakespeare, changing nothing essential in regard to plot or characterisation.

Now, take ‘The Lawgiver’ and place it beside Vigny’s romantic depiction of the same subject in his great poem ‘Moïse.’ Hardly blasphemous or wildly revisionist, Vigny has a clear contribution to make to Moses as a human archetype. We imagine that we learn something new and previously un-adumbrated about God’s representative. Not how faithful and pious and prophetic he is, which we already know, but, for the first time, of his divided nature, half earthly, half heavenly, and the pain and weariness of such eminence, analogous to that of a romantic poet. Vigny’s Moses is an imaginative reinterpretation; Butler’s is merely an homage.

‘The Lawgiver’ is followed by the interesting ‘Villanelle of the Elect.’ If Butler’s use of anapaestic metre, internal rhyme and alliteration are a marching rhythm calling Christian soldiers to spiritual warfare, the repetitious form of the villanelle is serviceable to his ends in an analogous way. Surely that of election is the most puzzling and disturbing of doctrines, and one that requires circumspect treatment by anyone who would sympathetically present it in any of its denominational forms. Yet in what should be his most intellectually and spiritually rigorous exercise, Butler opts for a form highly ill-adapted to discursive development:

If Esau had hope, it was quickly deflated.

The subtle supplanter had him by the heel.

But Jacob was loved, and Esau was hated.

Nothing about the scenario, so puzzling and upsetting to the moral sense, is explained or even explored. Again, we have a simple retelling without augmentation or exegesis. It is cleverly done, but constitutes an overly deferential, and therefore superficial, approach to the material.

At his most accessible (at least, to the reader who lacks his convictions), Butler seems almost to entertain an aporia with regard to the certainties that elsewhere drive his poetry. In the sonnet ‘The Return,’ for example, the speaker addresses the city of Vancouver with the words:

The Hip on FM sing escape’s at hand

For me, the travelling man. Let this last mile

Stretch out to fill a year. Anchor my grand

Illusions to your stubborn facts awhile.

Those ‘grand illusions’ are probably the usual worldly ones: a failed relationship, dreams of wealth and career success or other appurtenances of this world that, 2,000 years later, is still doggedly imagined by some to be ‘passing away,’ as the Apostle Paul assured his followers—but interpretation must have some latitude.

Although I have expressed some reservations about his approach, it is bracing to discover an emerging poet whose sensibility stands provocatively outside the mainstream. Formal poetry is increasingly associated with curmudgeonliness, and Butler does nothing to challenge this perception; on the other hand, he writes with conviction and an evident desire to say something true and permanent. At the same time, there is something quite contemporary about The Living Law. It speaks to a certain subculture for which a necessarily selective rejection of modernity is expressed in a return to traditional forms and subjects, a defiance of writing seminar orthodoxy in favour of a certain literary populism – if it makes sense to speak, as A M Juster does in his blurb, of ‘a broader audience of poetry lovers’ in this day and age.

Horses for remorses

CLARENCE CADDELL is the author of a collection of verse, The True Gods Attend You, published by Bonfire Books. His poems have appeared recently in The Brazen Head as well as in Quadrant, The Crank and other venues. A translation of Jean Moréas’ Les Stances is underway, as well as another book of original poetry

Why is it that I never win on horses?
The one my brainstem picks I look on past
To pick the one that comes, if not quite last,
Just in the middle, as I knew it would.
It is as if the knowing in me pauses
Before an obstacle it knows it should
Jump over; as if coming in first place
Were something frightening; as if the ways

It trod were drawn upon a map the same
Size as the path itself, obscuring it.
And this is why I foamed about the bit
When it was time to tell the one of you
I chose the other. Then when the words came
I said them to the wrong one, right on cue.

Faith and formalism

Ezekiel’s vision

The True Gods Attend You

Clarence Caddell, Bonfire Books, 2022, 71 pages, £11.80

MICHAEL YOST finds a collection of original religiously-inspired verse rather forced

There are two major traditions pertinent to verse literature that are seldom engaged in, but for all that are the more interesting when an artist does make use of them: the theological and imaginative Christian tradition of faith, and the much more practical tradition of formal verse craft.

In most people’s minds, the two probably go together; one thinks of the Anglican John Keble’s Christian Year, the Roman Catholic James Matthew Wilson, or the American Protestant Longfellow, all of whom reward the interest of their readers. However, the major religious tradition of the West is less often engaged today, and many Christian poets take the outward and visible signs of form as Luther and Zwingli took the outward and visible signs of the Eucharist: conventional, and unessential.

T.S. Eliot suggested in his essay Religion and Literature that what was needed was not religous literature in the obvious, propagandizing manner of a Keble or Chesterton, but rather the unconsciously religious literature of a Dante or a Joyce. As I have suggested in another essay, Eliot’s idea of the relation between religion and literature also is true of any set of first principles, or overarching metaphysics; the reason Eliot sought for an unconsciously religious literature was because he wished religion to inform the bones and marrow, the form and substance of literature, not merely decorate it with the furniture of, say early-mid-twentieth century Anglo-Catholicism. In brief, the law of craft is the law of belief, or philosophical conviction, or more often, the lack of those things.

This is not to say that formal verse is always the work of deists. But it is per se the work of people who have some stake in things as ordered, even if the order is conventional, or merely conservative in character. Here we come to Clarence Caddell’s The True Gods Attend You, a chapbook published by Bonfire Books, the Australian press. What makes Caddell interesting is that his poems do often address religious themes; but in each case they are pitched with a deep and seemingly impenetrable irony. In reading them, I cannot help but place them in the category of consciously religious.

This is largely because the primary concern of the poems is, as in a devotional poem, religion and religious experience. The difference is that the religious poems are counter-propaganda; they are devotional poems in reverse. Not much to their credit, the poems’ engagement with religion largely draws from the fragmentary and derivative gnostic texts of the Church’s early period, as well as two books that each propose a conspiracy-theorist’s account of the origins of Christianity. There are poems of some formal merit, such as Initiations, The Golem, Passover Feasts of the New Covenant, Elegy With an Omen, and A Mobius Wedding Band; as well as a long blank verse narrative poem, The Candidate. These I would single out among the collection as poems whose ideas are engaging, but more importantly, solidly executed. In many of the other poems, there is a distinct lack of metrical control. Cadell’s hand is often shaky as he tries to unpack complex situations, parallels, and resonances within a brief space. Trochees, eye rhymes, weak rhymes, (such as the anachronistically signaled elision “o’er” that exists in order to rhyme with “floor”) and awkward syntax abound, marring an energetic idea, crippling a final stanza, and perhaps most difficult, undermining the authority of Cadell, the poet and speaker. On one or two occasions the concrete situation of the poem is nearly impossible to discern.

There is also a distinct difference between the poems that rely on history, the re-formulated symbolism of the Gnostics, or the tendentious and ludicrous thesis that Christianity was a political invention of the Flavian dynasty, and the poems that seem to draw from Caddell’s own experiences of life, love, and loss. The aforementioned poems can be by turn, difficult, energetic, and reliant upon an imaginative world inherited by Caddell. When they succeed, they succeed because Caddell unlocks their complexity, which pours out in a torrential fashion reminiscent of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. This is the case in the Blakean Initiations. But where they fail, it is because that complexity has failed to materialize in an ordered way. Caddell’s more intimate poems, by contrast, work precisely because that same intricacy is in play, but in a context that is both familiar, tender, and surprising, such as A Mobius Wedding Band. But even here the shield of irony is raised. I wish to turn to that particular poem as a success: an English sonnet that treats of married love; a love that is painful and yet inseparable, desired and feared. It plays with the same themes of distance, suffering, betrayal and desire that another of his poems, Vicar of Christ, engages; but with a more perfect union between form and content, a clearer direction and drive moving through the entire poem, and a perfect complication of the symbolic ring of marriage. Here, the symbol seems to truly mean something, even in its reversal.
The Candidate, the longest poem in the collection, details the conversion and reversion of a family man to and from the Roman Catholic Church, or at least, a parodic vision of that church. Throughout the poem, the sincerity of his spiritual search is pushed back against, and ultimately revealed as an expression of his own narcissistic quest for “religious experience.” The heavy-handed moral is that the candidate should avaunt church-shopping and return from its distractions to his wife and family. It is singular insofar as it depicts an often undepicted subculture within Catholicism. But it does not ascend above the level of caricature.

Earlier in the review, I suggested that “the law of craft is the law of belief, or philosophical conviction, or more often, the lack of those things.” How does this apply in Caddell’s case? The True Gods Attend You stands half within the world of traditional religious expression (if ironically so), and half out of it. Likewise, Caddell has difficulty fully achieving coherence and rigor of poetic expression. His poems are indeed “formalist” as the blurb of the chapbook declares. But often the poems are (it seems unintentionally) rumpled. In both cases, it is hard for a Christian reader not to suggest that both constitute a falling away – an imperfect or misunderstood discipline. In sum, there is something to commend the originality and force, as well as the wit behind The True Gods Attend You. Caddell has skill, and an idiosyncratic vision. What remains to be seen is whether both, in time, develop.

Four poems by Clarence Caddell

CLARENCE CADDELL lives with his wife and three children in western Victoria, Australia, where he works as a high school English and humanities teacher, and writes in spare time he doesn’t have. His first collection of poems, The True Gods Attend You, will be published by Bonfire books in 2022. 

Note. The first two poems are situated in the universe of gnostic Christology. The first explores the notion, found in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, that Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross for Jesus, was actually crucified in his stead while the Christ spirit watched in amusement from on high. The second, inspired by The Gospel of Judas, contrasts the materialistic consciousness of the other disciples with the superior understanding shown by Judas, who is represented as Jesus’ only faithful follower and receiver of his highest teachings.

I. Vicar of Christ

Fulfilment’s plenitude, the dénouement

Of life’s afflictions—how can one not crave it?

The Easter feast that ends those weeks of Lent,

Of joy postponed in order then to have it,

And more abundantly! What we deplore

Leads on to joy, as if thus to redeem

The one who died therein. The soldiers saw

The man beneath his cross stumble, or seem

To do so; therefore, with true man replaced

Deceptive God. The spark cannot have been

Within that unknown Simon of Cyrene,

Or else it came through his ordeal ungrazed

And rose in glory to the left-hand side

Of him who laughed as Sakla’s creature died.

II. Generations

Some only care for action—mystery

   They like, but wish to see resolved before

The light comes on and all’s decoded.

   Such stories have their law,

Broken sometimes just to be reinvented.

   They’re thrilled by an exciting murder plot,

Don’t see its flaws. Perhaps they envy

   The hero what he’s got,

And wish him dead, if not picture themselves

   His love-interest (or both, as might a few!).

But when it comes to horror, surely

   They would not wish it true!

In fact, some are ambitious to be burnt

   And flayed for their opinion of the dead,

While dreaming of the Day when others

   Shall suffer in their stead!—

Vicarious atonement! Make me laugh.

   But it grows egregoric, their belief

In tales the most permanent of which are

   Often, lengthwise, most brief.

True stories they like best (as if a thing

   That’s happened in this world were true at all!)

Confused, they look to good’s exemplar

   To render evil’s fall,

But should they fail to misidentify

   The two, black knight and white in that romance

Of many versions—check their eyesight,

   Then lay the blame on chance.

Both absolutes and shades are so opaque

   To them, that all are manifest before

Their opalescent eyes as shadows

   They feel as if they could paw.

A perfect audience, willing to suspend

   All disbelief in all absurdity—

But not so ideal on a jury,

   As their God would agree!

But there are those like us who, in our hearts

   Possess the answering light to recognise

The figure understood by Judas,

    Unseen by mundane eyes.

I. Passover Feasts of the New Covenant

Note. These next two poems engage with some intriguing parallels between Josephus’ account of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD and parts of the Gospels and traditions of the early Church. The first is set during the siege when the rebels are going from house to house requisitioning whatever scraps of food they can find. A woman named Mary, driven to insanity by hunger, has turned her infant son into a human Passover lamb (one of only two in the whole of literature, according to Joseph Atwill). In the second, a Jewish rebel leader named Simon plays a part that can be read as a parody of the Apostle Simon Peter’s career. After Jerusalem’s fall, having tried to escape by tunnelling beneath the ruined temple, he is caught, taken to Rome and crucified.

A pair of lambs, each of them Mary’s son;

The second, not the world-upending one

We think of first, was born in time to see,

Not understand, the truth of prophecy!

He was to be a byword till the end,

His mother said. Nothing would ever mend

For her, except, for now, the pain of hunger.

Take what you will! She cried and no doubt flung her

Compliments on their heels as they backed out,

Those demoniac rebels put to rout

Along with Moses’ Law and Abraham’s

Old Covenant by the power of these two lambs,

The younger surely side-by-side with Jesus,

Who’d warned: To Caesar render what is Caesar’s.

Then which did Mary mean, or Joseph muse

Would seal up the calamities of the Jews?

II. The Other Peter

Simon the cutthroat—you had sought to hide

In stolen robes here where no stone’s liaison

With stone remains. Were you not petrified,

Impersonating high priest and stonemason?

Obdurate as stone, in history’s next minute

Buried beneath an unknown myth’s foundation,

You’d sought to carve out on the earth, then in it,

While stones were crying out that here he comes,

This son of man, and, as they soon would spin it,

Of God, a god himself—a place where Rome’s

Dominion would end. But it was lysed,

Your empery of messianic coxcombs,

And unlike him who would be canonised

Despite denying three times his own master,

Your own post-mortem shadow would be life-sized,

Your master not denied, and Rome would cast her

Anchor, dolphin wrapped, where ebb and flow

Would not dislodge, though Goths and Vandals blast her.

Hands bound to Caesar’s chariot, in tow,

Who lived by the sword but had not sense to die

By it, dragged where you had no wish to go!

And this would take place so that prophecy

Might be fulfilled, the city’s inanition

Avenged and, as at the lake of Galilee

Where your namesake was wont to do his fishing,

Might come to rule the Holy Trinity:

Vespasian, then Titus, then Domitian.