a personal response to Monuments by Jay Ramsay (202pp, £12, Waterloo Press)
I first became aware of Jay Ramsay's work towards the end of 1989. At the time, I was eighteen months into a two-year stretch of unemployment which was, in fact, a productive and fulfilling period of my life. I occupied myself not with sending forth a pointless stream of speculative letters to indifferent employers, under the threat of being sanctioned (things were very different back then!), but in applying for the occasional job I actually wanted; writing; political activism; esoteric dabbling; dromomaniac football-watching; amateur psychogeography; hardcore indolence; and editing a magazine, Memes, that published poetry alongside fiction, artwork and essays.
I was 29. As it says on the back cover of issue 2, in which Jay's work appears - an excerpt from a sequence, 'Borderlines' - 'if the artistic, the spiritual and the political concern you, turn to Page One'. The final line of the excerpt reads 'You shall sing, you shall be song, you shall be praise'. Memes was a heady brew, in hindsight, with a title that only became a buzz-word (and then a clichˇ) several years later.
By the time I met Jay, it was 1992 and various twists and turns had brought me to Swindon - by then, a slave to work and debt. Jay, who lived (and still lives) in nearby Stroud gave classes on Alchemy at the local FE college. They were sparsely attended but the ideas would surface, a few years later, in his profound and accessible introduction to the subject, Alchemy - the art of transformation (Thorsons/Harper Collins, 1997).
We've been in contact ever since and I remain impressed by his continued search for a fusion of the artistic, the spiritual and the political. He is now the author of thirty-five books of poetry, non-fiction and classic translation. He also works in private practice as an accredited psychotherapist and healer, and there's a clear relationship between this calling and his own poetry.
Monuments assembles a generous selection of work written since the turn of the century. In his preface, Jay describes this as a 'critical and transitional time' in which 'apparently reliable systems and authorities dissolve around us, revealing their transience beside what stands beyond them'. His poetry is intended to contribute to a transformation which, he believes, will be necessary for the human race to realise its potential... and maybe, even, to survive at all.
In a helpful note to the poem 'Blessed Unrest', he discusses Andrew Harvey's concept of the 'sacred activist' and applies it to himself as 'poet-activist'. Apparently, the sacred activist avoids both 'the solipsism of the mystic on the one hand, and the self-righteousness and/or burn-out of the secular activist on the other'. This is, indeed, the strategy behind his work. Monuments shifts constantly from the spiritual to the political, sometimes within the very same poem or sequence.
So, at one end of the spectrum, we have (for example) the sequence 'Anamnesis - the remembering of soul' - which was written during a residency at St James' Church Piccadilly in 2005-06. This explores how a contemporary spirituality, free of the accumulations of dogma, can manifest - and where injustices appear, they do so as if at distance. But we also have spectacularly angry poems about real-life injustices, such as the fire that killed around a thousand exploited garment-workers in Dhaka a few years ago. Here, a radical political note enters his work, perhaps more strongly than ever before ('Dhaka'):
The blackened windows of the derelict factory
tell the same burnt-out story: it's not people, but money
that has to come crashing down (...)
But then, a few poems later, we return to the ecstatic epiphanies that characterise so much of his work in 'St Ives':
All saints, and the souls of the dead
who know that life eternal is inside the breath
say listen to the sea, and surrender to the sense
that takes you beyond form and name and memory,
fathered in your birth and death
by the Father of the Air (...)
Indeed, Monuments might also be one of Jay's most explicitly 'Christian' collections, although his take on Christianity is much closer to the 'creation spirituality' of the radical theologian, Matthew Fox, than to any mainstream Anglican tradition.
Technically, the writing has an 'instinctive' feel to it, as if the poems were quickly written (albeit by a highly-experienced poet) and only lightly revised. Whilst this can lead to the occasional clumsy formulation, typo and non-sequitur, it also lends his work an unforced quality that is nonetheless deeply artful, as at the beginning of 'Black Icon':
Christ of the shadow
shiny as a black stone
in your knowing
you gather the darkness
you have mastered
into a sheen like obsidian (...)
Another aspect of his work is an interest in place. This book displays a global reach in which Iraq, Bangladesh and Haiti feature alongside London and rural Devon (for example). However, his work can also deepen into a specific locality, most notably in one of the highlights of the book, the sequence 'Summerland'. This focuses on a relatively unknown spiritual site - the parish church of St. Martin's in the village of North Stoke, just north of Bath - and a history that reveals itself through quiet attention ('Romano'):
and all our ancestors we've never met
standing behind us, like these walls
scrolling back through decades, centuries
bearing our story.
Having been in contact with Jay and his work for a quarter of a century - and because, to some extent, we share a common origin in the counter-culture of the Eighties - I can't approach his writing without thinking of our similarities and differences. We certainly share an interest in place or, perhaps more accurately, places - I don't believe that it's possible to maintain a 'poetry of place', in traditional terms, in an era in which every place, literally, penetrates and infuses every other by way of contemporary technology and media. Today's world, more than ever, is like a hologram in which each part reflects the whole, and the degree of accessibility to other places, without leaving one's own city or even one's own home, would have been unimaginable even in the Eighties. Much of our work derives from a relationship with the places we encounter - whether directly or indirectly - although, whereas Jay's response to these places is motivated by a desire for transformation, perhaps I'm more of an observer and fl‰neur.
At times, we can almost write the same poem. I was amused to find that his 'Page 360', which is addressed to an anonymous Page Three model in The Sun, covers almost identical territory to my poem 'Pose' in Aphinar (Waterloo Press, 2012). My poem (inspired by an erotic calendar I found, believe it or not, on a train) similarly contrasts the beauty of the female form with the exploitative context of the photographs. Whereas Jay writes of this woman's 'knickers innocent as bedroom curtains / draping the goddess' timeless form', the focus of my piece is on the vulnerability of human beauty when set against infinite space and the darkness between the stars. Without mutual influence, we've approached a similar theme from complementary perspectives - teasing feminist shibboleths perhaps, but from a broadly supportive standpoint.
However, there are also crucial differences. His vision is perhaps less pragmatic than mine and, at times, he appears to think of the world in almost Manichean terms. My radicalism seems tempered in comparison - the anarchist-leaning green of the mid-Eighties has given way to the 'Scandinavian' socialist I probably was all along at heart. And that seems radical enough in a land in which the rednecks are currently on the march, imposing their 'vision' on immigration, criminal justice and welfare. Jay, by contrast, is so repelled by the 'cold sneer of command' that he can succumb to caricature. 'Putin' for example, is a tightly-written poem about a divisive and controversial figure but, in its concentration on Putin's 'reptilian' features ('the suit and tie like lizard skin') it fails to take into account that Russia has, understandably, felt itself encircled and encroached upon by an organisation (NATO) that in its post-Cold War persistence has helped to create the very threat that it now seeks to counter.
Second, there is an ambivalence about the city and the 'works of man' that is typical of Eighties radicalism. I recall various debates about 'greening the city' or even vacating it altogether to return to a more 'authentic' existence on the land. Jay doesn't fall into that camp but when, for example, he writes about 'Leaving Brussels' what he highlights are not the sights and pleasures of that intriguing city (as I'm sure I would) but 'the concrete bridges and towers/polytechnic buildings and identical cars'. Rarely, in fact, does he celebrate metropolitan life in this collection. In 'La Maison De Dieu', a striking poem written in response to 9/11, he expresses his horror at the sight of those 'who chose to die / in a clean plummeting of air' but he is also critical of the World Trade Centre itself, describing it as the 'Babel of its own security'. To some extent, I shared this distrust in the Eighties. Now, however, I think of the more-affluent large cities, at least, primarily as sites of human flourishing. Globally, moreover, the movement to cities is encouraging the education of women and a reduction in the birth-rate - the one thing that might save our species (and innumerable others) in the long run.
Finally, there's a difference between Jay's clear sense of election to the role of 'poet' and my image of myself as a human being who spends time, occasionally, writing and a proportion of that time writing poetry - with poetry appealing, not so much from a sense of election, but because it offers me a single space in which I can address my multiple concerns. The extent to which someone who chooses to write and publish their poetry decides to adopt a poetic identity is probably dependent on a number of factors - societal considerations are paramount, but it might also have something to do with how keen they are to act out that role in public. How well they do so depends upon the person concerned but, in principle, I'm wary of anyone who is too willing to call themselves a 'poet' (or, at worst, 'the poet' as if they were the only one of their kind in existence) - they have to win me over, as Jay did from the beginning, and it's not a road I can ever imagine myself following.
Overall, then, his approach is a more messianic one and in this, perhaps, it's also closer in spirit to the radical Eighties counterculture that first brought us into contact. He has stayed faithful to his original vision throughout, with total integrity, whilst it has also continued to evolve and adapt to present-day realities. And so, in his particular 'place' in the poetic ecology - undervalued by both the 'mainstream' and the 'avant-garde' alike, for different reasons - Jay continues to work towards a benign, yet all-encompassing transformation via the medium of poetry. It is a lifework that I shall continue to follow with interest and admiration.
© Norman Jope 2014