INHABITING ALL OF THE LANGUAGE


SONGS FOR EURYDICE
by Keith Jafrate
136pp, 9.50, Stride Publications, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6EW


'I must sing you back / from the ordinary world' writes Keith Jafrate, beginning his epic book-length poem as a love poem, Orpheus who sings 'to wake Eurydice', 'to lay down my speeches / in the summmer of your body'. This isn't a narrative retelling of the myth, though Jafrate uses elements of it: for example there are powerful descriptions of a contemporary 'hell', a horribly familiar underworld through which the narrator travels, seeing 'the skulls of cars / ...red ink of cartons washed to tan / by smog-wash and oil and our faith in acid'or 'scum of reject lubricant / on yard after yard of blue // polythene off-cut stuffed / under crust and solvent'. This 'poison land' encompasses landfills, where pieces of the world are 'slung in a bowl of earth', and fields, 'pestless and slack'.

But if Jafrate can describe the sordidness of the world, he can also write lyrically about its beauty, as in his William Carlos Williams-like paean to the blackbird, which moves in and out of the poem like a jazz riff. There are gorgeous images too - 'the poppies lipstick the garden', or 'the rain is a brush / laid on a cymbal', or 'mittens / of snow on each fold of the cypresses'. These contrasts point up the extremes of Jafrate's writing, which can be both harsh and angry or tender and lyrical ('the skin of a baby's face / which is neither skin nor face / but white of daisies / and certain kinds / of silk'). Like the poet  W.S. Graham, Jafrate takes on language so that it becomes almost a character in the poem. 'Language ah now you have me', wrote Graham, and Jafrate has a similarly intimate relationship ('I lick the blood of verbs', he writes) so that by the close of the poem it seems that perhaps it's language, rather than the figure of Eurydice, to whom he's writing, underlining the primacy of giving language to things, of putting them into words. To Jafrate, 'the body without language / [is] weaker than a bird / colder than a bell', and elsewhere it's as if he resurrects through language: 'sleep body / the poem loves you', he says, as if by this act of naming and telling and making into poetry, he can restore something vital.

At its best, this can mean that every detail Jafrate mentions
- 'a woodlouse / a cow / a button' - takes on a sense of the sacred, but occasionally there seem too many unrelated details, things glimpsed which therefore have to be put in the poem but which have little imaginative resonance for the reader, so that the poet himself is guilty of what he writes of, a state of being 'where language falls like litter'. The most extreme example of this is a letter, quoted verbatim, from the funder of an arts event, presumably meant to signify the petty bureaucracy of administrators crushing the creative spirit of the artist. But it seems out of place in the poem, and is anyway a fairly mild example of our Kafkaesque world: Jafrate should compare notes with an asylum seeker.

This aside, Songs for Eurydice
is a wonderfully sustained piece of writing, linking back to Anglo Saxon poetry, especially in sections like this chant, beginning 'how the moon is a face and the fist is a world / how the blade is a world and the world is lead / how the world is glass and the eye is a globe' and so on - it's difficult to halt the flow of the quote. There's also the use of compound words like 'lightdance birdbreast', the muscular language with its strong rhythms, and the aurality of the poem, which makes you long to hear it performed. Beautifully and unusually produced by Stride, in a neat square format, this is a book that more than fulfils what Jafrate calls our 'duty': 'to inhabit all of English'.

   Elizabeth Burns 2004