Oct/Nov 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

From the Root of Light

Review by Gregory Stephenson

New Selected Poems.
Elizabeth Jennings, edited by Rebecca Watts.
Carcanet Press. 2019. 206 pp.
ISBN 978-1-78410-865-6.

By powerful opposing forces within her own mind and spirit, Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) was alternately laid waste and raised again, torn and made whole. Her life bears all the stigmata of a contemporary poète maudit: poverty, mental illness, unrequited love, suicide attempts, institutionalization, alcoholism, loneliness. At the same time, she was also a deeply dedicated, proficient and prolific, award-winning poet, honoured in 1992 by Queen Elizabeth II with an O.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire.) Jennings was also a devout—if sometimes conflicted—Roman Catholic, of decidedly mystical inclination. Her work remains under-appreciated and in America largely unknown.

New Selected Poems brings together 166 poems gleaned by the author and the editor, Rebecca Watts, from 21 volumes of Jennings' poems, written over six decades (from 1953 to 2001.) The poems are for the most part short lyrics cast in traditional forms, though later in her career Jennings wrote occasionally in free verse. Unlike many of her fellow poets in the postwar period, Jennings found writing in regular metre and end-rhyme not a constriction of her imagination but a liberation. Within the formal pattern of rhythm and rhyme she works with great technical skill, but her poems are far from tidy and kempt; beneath their elegance and ingenuity they are informed by rending tensions and dark energies. Each poem is thus a kind of temporary victory of order and hope over despair and disorder.

Seeking communion with life in the wider world, Elizabeth Jennings writes of fishermen and children, teenagers riding a bus and the tender love of old couples, of nuns and nurses, love affairs and the deaths of friends, of patients in a mental hospital and a lonely little boy, of mountaineers, statues, a diamond-cutter and a still-born child, of flies and thunder, beech leaves and grapes, stars, trees, birds, flowers, the moon, the seasons, and of paintings and painters: Chagall, Bonnard, Rembrandt, Andrea Mantegna, Samuel Palmer, and David Jones. There are descriptive poems and devotional poems, elegies and meditations, poems of personal memory and self-scrutiny, poems portraying moments of naked despair and moments of illumination.

While each of Jennings' poems is distinct and autonomous, informed by its own means and ends, the individual poems can most fully be understood, I think, as interlinked expressions of a central underlying theme of perception, by which I mean the way in which reality is apprehended by human eyes and minds. In close relation to this bedrock theme, there is a theme of spiritual conflict and growth in the life of the poet-speaker.

The theme of perception is evident already in Jennings' earliest poems, such as "Reminiscence," where the poet contrasts the sensual unpatterned apprehension of the world she possessed as a child with her present overly subtle and confused consciousness. Similarly, in "The Idler," the poet-speaker acknowledges the wisdom of a disparaged social outsider in seeing and appreciating what is immediately before his senses, rather than wishing to accelerate or striving to anticipate its future state. In observing a rose, the idler does not, Jennings writes, "colour it with his own shadow, as we contrive, living beyond the present, / To move all things away from their present moment."

Jennings deepens and broadens the theme of perception through many subsequent poems, writing in "In this Time" that as a culture we have—to our loss and our peril—severed ourselves from the profound truths of myth and legend and have "retreated inwards to our minds / ...have made rooms there with all doors closed, / All windows shuttered." In "Beyond Possession," she writes of the way in which as adults we no longer perceive the things of the world—a rose, a river—as they are but only according to the images we project upon them through habit and egocentricity. "All is itself," she states, but we have rendered ourselves incapable of perceiving things as themselves, in themselves and for themselves, seeing them instead exclusively in terms of ourselves, each separate sundered human individual interpreting the external world in terms of "a mind reflecting his own face."

"Thunder and a Boy" depicts the divergent responses to a thunder storm made by "us" (acculturated, habituated adults) and by a boy watching the lightning by night from a window. We have forgotten or dismissed, Jennings asserts, the wonder once elicited in our spirits by such an event. In naming (and explaining) the elements of heaven we have sought to deny their primal power and to subjugate them, to assert over them ourselves, our power. In contrast to our predetermined, reductive response to the naked beauty and raw force of a thunder storm, the boy feels exalted and moved to awe. In "Beginning," the poet-speaker recalls a similar—gentler yet more intense, epiphanic—occurrence from her early childhood:

I stood at a window once. I was four or five
And I watched the sun open the garden and spread out the grass
And I heard the far choir of some blackbirds and watched
blue flowers rise.
This was the first day for me, the planet alive,
And I watched the stars' shadows grow faint and finally pass
And I could not believe my eyes.

Other aspects of the theme of perception are treated in a number of other poems by Jennings but an equal number of her poems describe the sense of desolation, the discord and division, the brokenness and confusion experienced by the poet-speaker when clarity of perception and reciprocal connectivity with the world are lost, overwhelmed from within by darkness and disorder. In "To a Friend with a Religious Vocation," the first-person speaker expresses distress at the implacable power of an invasive force inhabiting her mind: "the dark, the dark that draws me back / Into a chaos where / Vocations, visions fail, the will grows slack / And I am stunned by silence everywhere." There follow several harrowing poems written by Jennings in a mental hospital, including "Night Garden of the Asylum," conveying in potent compression the infernal estrangement from the world as experienced by her and her fellow sufferers in their affliction:

The all is broken from its fullness.
A human cry cuts across a dream.
A wild hand squeezes an open rose.
We are in witchcraft, bedevilled.

After poems of collapse and disconnection, there come poems of recovery and reconnection to the natural world and to deep currents of the spirit. Even following her release from the hospital, the poet remains acutely aware of "The terrible depth / of dark in me" ("A Litany for Contrition.) Beech leaves clinging to winter branches, bare winter grape vines, the hatching of a bird's egg, a hand embroidery, a frail-seeming but firm tree are all embraced by her as emblems and omens of endurance and perseverance. There continue to be hard hours for the poet-speaker, hours "when hope seems as far as the furthest star," but once again she achieves moments of joy, regaining a sense of God as immanent in the visible world. More than ever, the writing of poetry is seen by Jennings as a sacred act, a spell against the darkness within, for, as she affirms, poetry rises "from the root of light" ("Against the Dark.") And, as expressed in the poem "Is it Dual Natured?" her convalescence summons in her a brave resolve to live and strive according to her own sense of truth: "I will risk all extremes, I will flounder, will stumble, will burn."

In Elizabeth Jennings' study of "mystical experience and the making of poems," Every Changing Shape (London: Andre Deutsch, 1961) the author remarks that "the poems which satisfy most are not those which simply give a sense of reconciliation and order, but those which show life and order as the fruits of conflict." (108) The poems of Jennings' last years are distinguished by this latter quality. The praise and celebration of the visible world and of the invisible Presence within and beyond it which informs these late poems has the feeling of a grace gained through harrowing dispossession.

In "Into the Hour," the poet speaks with humility of "the hour of a white healing... a sudden sunlit hour" when the wide wound of inward loss is lost and the world is seen as a singing. Deploying similar imagery of light and music, "The Way of Words and Language" counsels those who may have lost their way in life that their dark night will ultimately end and there will be "a time of silence and light like a shielded lamp" when "you are found and safe at last." Attaining this blessed state of spirit, the spirit will then be transfigured into song.

"Star Gazing" gives form again to the theme of perception, linking it to a spiritual optics, arguing that by imposing onto natural phenomena designs and definitions of our own construction we become blind to their mystery and meaning. The eye must be unsealed, the mind disimprisoned to see the true luminous and numinous nature of things. The stars in the night sky, she argues, are not to be possessed by our presumptuous petrified formulae, they must be seen, received in wonder, beheld with the perceptual innocence of childhood: "The sky is pouring silver rain." Another poem of night and stars and spiritual optics, Jennings' last poem of all, "Assurance Beyond Midnight," tells of "clarities" that come in the solitude of the small hours, affirmations of faith, when there is contact with "everything that's peace," and the conviction that in the end all things work for the best. "Sickness and heartbreaks" and all that is sombre notwithstanding, seen with a dark-adapted eye, the world we inhabit is, after all, "a golden world."

A woman and a Catholic, Elizabeth Jennings was not altogether at home in the mainstream of English postwar poetry, neither among the traditionalists nor the modernists. Her affinities were with other Christian visionary poets, such as Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) with whom she shared a view of natural beauty as a reflection of divine Presence. Jennings' well-wrought poems are at once modest and honest, stripped of inessentials, yet bold and rich, possessing a freshness and a strangeness that seize our attention, sustain our interest and ultimately secure our admiration. In theme and form, she went her own way as a poet, following the contours of her own experience, according to the intelligence of her heart. Her poetry offers us many bright gifts, many genuine and precious things.


Editor Note: Thinking about buying New Selected Poems or another book today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!