Maturity and mysticism
Richard England: Tapestries: Moonlight, Starlight and Nowhere. Selected poems. Melfi (Italia) Libria. 2012. 206 pp.
This is the third substantial collection of poems in English published since 2006 by Richard England, who is also, of course, a distinguished architect and visual artist. His artistry has been expressed in various ways, not least in his designing books for works written by himself, such as his early White is White (1972), now a collector’s piece; another early work, Walls of Malta (1973), or his magnificent 1997 volume, Gozo Island of Oblivion, a superb collection of England’s drawings of that island, accompanied by poetic texts written by the author and others. The present volume has been produced with the elegance and eye for detail we have come to expect of England.
There has always been a mystical streak in England’s literary and pictorial work, a streak that has become a strong element of his recent work. Old age and the thought of his mortality have made the idea of time and the evanescence of the moment an obsessive theme in his work. He writes fervently that the ‘no’ that vanishes as soon as it is experienced will become a permanent ‘now’ in the eternity Christian doctrine promises all believers.
The author is a believer, but like many other believers he has a doubt or two and writes in one of a series of apothegms towards the end of the book: “Since/you cannot be happy ever after/try/instead/ to/be/happy for a while.”
Throughout the volume with its scores of poems – particularly in the long first section, Once and Future Myths: the Sapience of the Sages – he uses the earth and sky that surround him to transcend himself, to commune with supernatural creatures so as to obtain their cosmic codes and learn “the wordless wisdom of what was never said”.
In a number of these poems the author seems to be living on a level far removed from the reader’s. Mysticism is not easily comprehended by those who have never tried to achieve it.
Some of these poems, with their stellar environment, are themselves constellations of glittering vocabulary that is erudite and attempts to convey the poet’s supernormal experiences. Once or twice, one can feel that this loading of every rift with ore is overdone.
England, however, is also a master of the simple style, a style with which he manages to speak much more intimately and much more concretely.
It is this direct simplicity that makes the whole section of apothegms so attractive, and strikes the reader with its lucidity in earlier sections. For instance, in the first section, the directness of Rainmaker of Summer makes much greater impact than the piece that follows it (Seraphic Seeds Descend), with its aureate vocabulary and celestial mysticism.
A minority of the poems express joy and relief, but many others are pregnant with gloom, as the poet contemplates the distant past, its hopes and joys, in the light of the present and the foreseeable future.
Not that for him the past is symbolical solely of joy, for he can detect in it the formation of ambitions, of paths to be trodden in future, that failed to come off in his later life. One is surprised to see a very successful artist and professional like him write in a piece called Failures of a Lifetime, saying that for him all the future he had planned remains “unaccomplished and unfulfilled”.
Two very successful pieces are Narcissus and Echo, different versions of both having appeared in an earlier volume. Surely, these are meant to tie up with a series of pieces also in this volume about the poet’s mirror in which he gazes and tries to find his real self, only to find that the reality shown by his mirror is very different from that of his daily experience.
Indeed it is the poet’s constant and honest probing of himself, the superficial and the hidden, and his inability to make true sense of the world that surrounds him in his declining years, that make true happiness no longer possible.
As Peter Vassallo writes in his perceptive afterword to the volume, the poems are “reveries on the nature of consciousness, of being and nothingness, on the slow inexorable transformation of one’s essence”.
To this I should add a sentence from the foreword written by the doyen of Maltese poets writing in English, John Cremona: “There is an element… of search and exploration, which betrays a tormented soul, an inquisitive spirit who is left without answers to his burning questions and seeks refuge in the mystic world of the beyond.”
England speaks in a voice that is very much his own. Few readers will read this volume and remain indifferent.