Flickering Perspectives

A Fire in the House of Ic
e, Rupert M Loydell [Snowblind Books, unpriced]
Ex Catalogue, Rupert M Loydell [Shadowtrain Books, £6.95]

At first glance these two collections from Rupert Loydell couldn't be more different. On the one hand we have A Fire in the House of Ice, a photocopied, though surprisingly sturdy, booklet of poems inspired by and exploring the igloo sculptures of Mario Merz. On the other is Ex Catalogue, a nicely presented book divided into two parts: the first is a series of prose poems, and the second half a sequence of three-line syllabic poems. Certainly 2006 has been a productive year, but has it paid off?

The Title A Fire in the House of Ice
seems to me to highlight a striking contrast in the poems between the restrained, precise tone used and the passion undeniably present. Just as Merz created igloos from wood, steel, neon tubes and umbrellas, so Loydell uses the igloo in a wide variety of ways to examine life, particularly the inner life, whose insular world is has a parallel in the still air inside an igloo.

     This poem is a new commission that explore
     movement and stillness in nature. The igloo
     lets stillness in, which is sometimes the difference
     between life and death. The igloo is a great death.

     It works along similar principles to photomontage,
     creating a new image out of whatever is put in.
     This prevents snow from blowing into the igloo,
     foregrounds previously hidden detail in the picture.'
             (from 'Child's Play')

These lines demonstrate the incredibly self-conscious nature of these poems, the object of the poem mirroring both its content and the act of its creation. I was particularly struck by the first of these stanzas, whose form reflects so well the focus on 'movement and stillness in nature'; the use of a line break after 'explores' creates a sense of opening up that 'The Igloo' on the next line fills, the enjambment working differently to produce stasis and impact. This impact is such that the 'It' opening the second stanzas is both 'this poem' and 'the igloo', and by extension the poet's eye view, 'creating a new image out of whatever is put in'. This self-aware approach to artistic creation is augmented by the comparison between use of the image and the 'principles of photomontage'; Loydell's poems are always shifting their perspective on 'the igloo', attending to 'previously hidden detail'. Here, Merz becomes a more obviously relevant artist to these poems. Just as his igloos were made from all the varied materials of 20th Century western culture, Loydell uses the ingredients of modern discourse, using them to make different structures that explore the potential of 'the igloo' as an artistic device.  

Occasionally, the slant of these poems seems to become too self-consciously postmodern, with certain lines losing impact through their rather academic resonance.

     Words always lead to others,
     notes refer to other books:

     endless signposts pointing
     everywhere and nowhere,

     open maps for the intrigued.'
           (from 'Lines on the Point of Disappearing')

The first of these lines reminds me just a bit too much of undergraduate lectures on intertextuality: self-consciously literary and surprisingly close to clichˇ. With such lectures being fairly recent memories perhaps this reasonable interest is still tainted for me slightly, but when compared to his usually subtle craft it comes across a touch too ponderous. That 'notes refer to other books' becomes obvious looking at the notes for this book itself, which refer not only to Merz, but name articles, books, even emails and letters as sources. This is not simple allusion though, a la The Wasteland;
Loydell's use of Merz's sculptures as a framing device and the different slants of each of the poems hint at the unique worlds of words and ideas that each of us live in, and it becomes clear he is going much deeper than references to critical theory. The development of these lines captures a true sense of excitement when it comes to language, his exploration of it sending him 'everywhere and nowhere', a situation echoed by the later reference to 'movement and stillness in nature'. The title reflects this in the well-judged ambiguity between 'the point' as being either a moment, a 'turning point', or a purpose; the disappearance might be meaningless or transcendent. His search seems simultaneously almost futile but invigorating, and he doesn't push the reader into placing ultimate significance on either; it simply seems unavoidable for him to continue the search.

It would be unfair to give the impression, however, that the passion of this collection is a solely intellectual one. The igloo, as a shelter, is a place for living, for protecting what is precious, and also hints at a wider community, such as in the closing lines of the poem:

     Now in our village with the falling light,
     neatly carved blocks of ice surround us
     where we have built our igloo homes.

Here the igloo is a comfort, a place to retreat from 'the falling light', just as 'everywhere and nowhere' implies not only discovery but also escapism, which might perhaps be 'the Point of Disappearing'. This retreat is a very human one however, and despite being separate in their individual pockets of stillness, just as our thoughts keep us unique, there is solidarity in the final line 'where we have built our igloo homes'. In this context 'neatly carved blocks of ice' connotes not just a sense of 'precision', but 'care'; there is a gentle humanity in this poetry. My final example from this collection best illustrates this, two beautiful stanzas from 'Igloo: im Robert Lax'.

     It is dark outside now Robert
     is no longer here. Words splinter
     until we learn to read them,
     islands of shadow on a page.

     No escaping from or shelter in
     the cold igloo we call death:
     corridors of glass and snow,
     stone memories pegged in place.

This seems to me to bring together so many strands of thought from the collection, the linguistic element showing its emotional content in the 'islands of shadow on a page'. An excellent line break indeed shows how 'words splinter', producing the plaintive line 'It is dark outside now Robert' that lends such feeling to the completion 'is no longer here'.   

So on to slickly presented Ex Catalogue. Loydell has again found inspiration from a visual artist, taking the titles from the catalogue Jonathan Lasker. Gemalde | Paintings 1977-1997. I must confess to having little knowledge of painting, and a quick search on the net turned up some attractive works, but also fairly baffling reviews, so I must turn straight to the poems, and entrust the task of comparing the two to someone better qualified! The prose poems making up the first half, the part that is actually 'Ex Catalogue' and not the later 'Small Paintings', are a dozen or so lines at most, and are interspersed with 'found prose poems'; Loydell's love of giving sources for his work seems exemplified in this collection. Many of the same concerns are evident here, but with a wider scope, and more diverse imagery. There is still a propensity towards images of structure, whether grids, nests or patterns of light, but the sense of being somewhat lost, 'everywhere and nowhere', is more pervasive:

     Our thoughts make us feel separate from everyone and everything,
     can sometimes move the world. Our thoughts come from experience,
     observation, feedback and research, create our reality. In our thoughts
     we are free; they throng our consciousness, out of control and without
     focus. You are in our thoughts today.'
          (from 'Popular Psyche')  

As in much of A Fire in the House of Ice
, Loydell moves from the analytical to the excitable, to a final touching line, but the fast pace of these poems helps to merge these elements; the analytical side becomes personal quickly enough to avoid the occasionally academic tone of the former collection. Indeed the intellectual excitement and wonder has a more direct connection to the gentle emotions on display, 'out of control and out of focus' being much more visceral than the 'endless signposts pointing / everywhere and nowhere'. This excerpt also develops the title as not simply signifying a structural method or artistic allusions, but a more personal sense that these works are plucked from a catalogue of thoughts and created realities, samples from the interior world created by 'experience, observation, feedback and research'. Loydell's referencing is not dry and intellectual, but another way of exploring how all that we experience plays its part in our attempts to 'create our reality', and in this he discovers a sense of both freedom and shared humanity. The 'found prose poem' that follows is an apposite extract from a collection of essays by Alberto Manguel that offers an expansive list of the raw materials for these constellations of ideas, and their existence 'somewhere defined in this world of ours by volumes of history and atlases of geography'.

Loydell seems to be looking for a better place to put these experiences, and this search becomes an essential component of the collection's intimate tone, as in this extract from 'Born Yesterday':

     However much you gather and assemble you are still well and truly
     lost. The story with no ending starts to resemble a city you once
     visited where the cold and snow made mapping bright and believable.
     Today this alley is dark and you are a passer-by in someone else's

This explores a sense of vulnerability not so overtly present in A Fire in the House of Ice
, and in addressing it to 'you' there is a sense of collective struggle, the human desire to create order from each individual's chaotic store of experiences. The title emphasises the novelty of experience, not as remembered but as felt; 'the story with no ending' suggests the revisions of memory, the chance of some kind of narrative, but retaining the knowledge that in real life we must still wake up 'well and truly lost'. There is a sense of melancholy in these lines, 'where the cold and snow made mapping bright and believable' retaining the balance between impressions of futility and wonder, that it has only been 'believable' some of the time, but that these moments are held close to the heart when darkness returns.

There is a sense of revision in the final short poems that close this collection, 'Small Paintings', as if they might be attempts at discovering what has been found. As any reader would expect by this point, however, the conclusions are equivocal and uncertain, and these two final examples illustrate the dilemma that runs through both these collections.

     Corridors connecting
     one thing with another
     Full knowledge of himself

     How interesting and fruitful
     to shape all your anxieties
     into these pure crystals of form

The capitalisation of 'Full' rather than 'himself' gives much greater depth to the title 'God-haunted', imbuing the speaker's self-examination with a religious significance; God here is 'Full knowledge of himself', a coherent order found through self-discovery. The image used is reminiscent of much of A Fire in the House of Ice
particularly, with its emphasis on structure and interconnectedness, and seems to encapsulate the impetus behind the precise, analytical side of Loydell's tone. In contrast, 'Rationale' contains the ambiguities that allow for the vulnerable, intimate voices in these poems, the poem that the title refers to being a most uncertain 'rationale'. The first line is a good example of Loydell's often wry self-awareness, and initially seems barbed, but the last line, although still ambiguous, hints at the resilience that prevents this poem being self-defeating; while 'pure crystals of form' seems emotionally neutral when compared to the implied desire to be 'fruitful', there is a love for their intricacy that echoes the imagery of corridors in 'God-haunted'. The interplay in this poem itself and between other poems is exactly what prevents these collections being merely 'pure crystals of form'; they are indeed precise and well crafted, but the fire and humanity in these poems is by no means lessened by the frequently reserved tone. Loydell has created a vocabulary for some of the mind's most intangible movements, and in doing so is approaching material directly connected to the creation of poetry itself. Ex Catalogue has, in the main, a more intimate and less academic tone than A Fire in the House of Ice, but both these works contain a great deal of interesting thoughts and strong, well articulated feeling. Ex Catalogue, for me, was the one I felt a more immediate connection too, but each time I have revisited A Fire in the House of Ice the differences seem less pronounced, and there is certainly a great deal of thought provoking and well realised poetry to explore in both collections.  

     © Nicholas Hunt 2006