Prac Crit

Tuscan Sequence

by Toby Martinez de las Rivas

Essay

by Sarah Howe

Reading ‘Tuscan Sequence’, I thought about that passage in Simone Weil – the one where she describes two prisoners held in adjoining cells. Over their long and solitary confinement they develop a language of knocks and taps on the wall. ‘The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication’, she says: ‘It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.’ Whether at a section’s threshold, the firebreak between stanzas, or one line’s leap of faith into the next, the structure of this new sequence by Toby Martinez de las Rivas invites us to pay attention to the qualities of its gaps – to press our ear up against them and wait.

Each of the poem’s three panels describes a stage in a journey, which is also a sort of pilgrim’s progress: the first a train ride out of Spain, the second a sojourn in Tuscany that sparks memories of a failed affair, the third a climb up a hill named for the cross at its summit. It’s perhaps worth noting these sections would relate to each other slightly differently in book form, with the asterisks replaced (as De las Rivas originally imagined it) by the turn of a physical page, so each leaf of the triptych stood apart. Within the sequence’s fictive timespan, how long – how far – is a page turn? How irreversible? Reading the poem in Prac Crit’s electronic pane made me suddenly aware of the metaphorical valences of codex versus scroll (papyrus having been reborn in the web browser), and their distinct ways of configuring time. We leave the past behind as we read, or can choose to resurrect it with the flick of a page, a trackpad’s caress.

‘Time ungathers, then refolds in its wake / like a trail through the aftermath’: the poem’s opening train journey reminded me of Einstein on time (so far as I can grasp it). More precisely, the fact that Einstein chose a speeding railway carriage – the way pulses of light would be perceived differently in time by viewers on and off the train – for his thought experiment to illustrate one aspect of Relativity. It’s not quite Interstellar, but in the poem the passing Spanish landscape is subject to dilations and deformations of time relative to its speeding observer:

an olive tree twists in its private dusk
then stands an awful second
as the brief bars of light go scurrying by.

These stem from the vicissitudes of perception rather than physics, of course, but the effect is all the more disorientating because presented as objective. The speaker is not explicitly placed on a train until lines six and seven: ‘So smooth, so smooth in its carriage / the train hisses, suave gesture of contempt’. Until this point it’s the ‘Landscape…bar[ing] itself’ that seems to be moving, rather than the passenger. That deadpan pun on ‘carriage’, by the way, with its strange mixture of aloofness and endearing self-deflation, is characteristic of De las Rivas’s wider tone, and not just a function of his local channelings of Geoffrey Hill.

The opening’s unsettling of motion and stillness, agency and passivity, comes back later in the speaker’s ‘acquiescence / to the helpless thrust of the journey’. On the surface these lines describe the pleasure to be found in subordinating one’s will to a higher power. There is indeed something divine about the ‘the train dividing the darkness from itself / & flinging its glow to the verges’, echoing as it does the first act of creation in Genesis when ‘God divided the light from the darkness’. And yet the paradox of ‘helpless thrust’ twists under the gaze: the train’s movement is helpless in the sense of ‘powerful, impossible to control’, but the word also contains a flicker of its opposite, ‘unable to help oneself, powerless’. De las Rivas is tapping here into a long tradition of Christian paradox: what could be more paradoxical than a God who dies humiliated on a cross? A few lines down our passenger questions his former ‘belief in the power of words / to summon mercy or mitigate our loss’: summon mercy, the imperiousness of that verb doesn’t sound quite right in the mouth of an abject petitioner. Surely the only time you would struggle to summon mercy is if you’re the one who has the power to forgive? There is a touch of Iben’s Brand about the voice at the outset of its journey, as though salvation were something achievable through sheer power of will.

If God divided the light from the darkness, the waters from the waters, the poet’s act of shaping his poem into its form is an attenuated echo of that act of creation. Each section of ‘Tuscan Sequence’ is further divided by a central rift or hinge. In the first section, that gulf coincides with the imagined ferry trip to come, suggesting the limits of prophecy: ‘…the sea’s austerity. // I anticipate a dead calm…’ In the second section, the gap is the ‘across’ that measures the distance between past and present, dream and reality, between the speaker among dark Renaissance alleys and the onetime lover’s high citadel. In the final section, it marks the ‘threshold’ between known and unseen, youth and age, body and spirit – a horizon line or vanishing point where one shades imperceptibly into the other:

                                        & bats
flicker in & out of being between
the night I know & the unseen.

I am walking into the second half
of my life, slowly drawing each cold
breath into this epitaph
of flesh as it wanders across the threshold.

Does it matter if we think about them as two fourteen-line stanzas or as paired sonnets? The form is one De las Rivas has used before, in ‘Triptych for the Disused Nonconformist Chapel, Wildhern’, a poem that comes late on in Terror. It too ends with looking up at a spiritual high place as yet unreached – ‘we saw / as if through glass the road receding among gray rocks | the citadel’ – and perhaps unreachable, that last vertical bar would imply. The stanzas of ‘Tuscan Sequence’ certainly work quite differently to established sonnet pairs like George Herbert’s ‘Jordan (I)’ and ‘Jordan (II)’, or even the set of two unrhymed sonnets that make up Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Annunciations’ in King Log (1968), where each part is marked off by a dividing numeral (‘1’, ‘2’). Rather than serving as two rounds of the same argument, the sonnet pairs of ‘Tuscan sequence’ reach out to each other for completion, the gap between them as charged as the almost-touching fingertips of the Sistine’s Adam and God; their linked separation a ‘distant / intimac[y]’, a ‘broken desire’.

Unrhymed sonnets are already an exercise in paradox. By refusing the interlacing sonic order that defines so much about the traditional form, a poet who uses them is making a point about simultaneously inhabiting and renouncing inherited structures. In this view, the Renaissance sonnet is maybe the poetic equivalent of the church ‘dressed in baroque ironies’ from the poem’s middle section. Yet for all its ornamental excess, the church nevertheless stands ‘in its silent square at the end of all roads’: the still point to which all travellers will return, even despite themselves. As the poem wears on, we can start to see other sorts of order in ‘Tuscan Sequence’. The forward-thrusting teleology of a journey starts to admit of loops and reprises. The first and last sections of the poem track vectors (‘Córdoba – Barcelona’ or ‘Walking to La Croce’), while the middle one is more static (‘Cortona’), pacing about the radiating alleys that all lead back to the church on the central square. If the poetic triptych were a painted one, the middle section would be the main panel, flanked by two hinged wings.

The middle panel deals not in straight lines but in circles we might even say crowns, since the Latin for crown, corona, is just one letter away from the Tuscan hill-town’s name. Once you start to look for them in the ‘Cortona’ section they are everywhere, from the town’s wheel with the church at its hub, to the self-consciously far-fetched metaphor of the ‘crown’ that blows up with the storm (a moment almost worthy of a Metaphysical like Crashaw, while we’re on the subject of baroque ironies):

A stormhead is blowing over the ridge,
massive needles of sunlight pierce its crown

This is a speaker predisposed to see crowns (of thorns, of glory) in the sunlight splitting through clouds over a ridge. Or take the daydream towards the start of this section, in which memory works on the body in strangely physical ways:

I dream the speckled blue corollae
of your eyes falling acquisitively upon
the bare shoulders of strangers & lightening,
maybe, with a dead image of me.

It is as though a ghostly image recalled to the mind’s eye might actually imprint itself once more on the woman’s retina. The ‘corollae’ of her eyes: a botanical metaphor (thorns again?) referring to the outermost but one whorl of petals on a flower – a sort of Latinate visual pun on ‘iris’. It is also yet another sort of crown, since corolla (‘little crown’) comes from the Latin diminutive of corona and meant ‘garland, chaplet, wreath’.

That the central section of ‘Tuscan Sequence’ is filled with crowns might remind us that the ‘corona’ or ‘crown’ is another sort of arrangement groups of sonnets would traditionally take. In Donne’s ‘La Corona’, for example, the last line of each of the seven sonnets supplies the first line of the next, plaiting them together, while the first line of the entire sequence – ‘Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise’ – is also its last. We could imagine ‘Tuscan Sequence’ as a sort of failed corona, whose sonnets refuse to knit up. By its end, when the hilltop cross is still just over the horizon, there are gestures towards circling back even within the poem’s upward trajectory. The olive tree’s private dusk, spied on from the train carriage in the first section, returns in the ‘solitude in company, this glowing night’ at the end of the whole sequence; that sense of simultaneous aloneness and communion reminiscent of Weil’s prisoners. It’s a leap, but in that line, ‘still blind as at my beginning’, I can’t but hear Eliot’s meditations on time in Four Quartets – the chiasmus that spans ‘East Coker’: ‘In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning’.

Tuscan Sequence

by Toby Martinez de las Rivas

Landscape bares itself like the totality
of hís love as the evangelists conceived it –
an olive tree twists in its private dusk
then stands an awful second
as the brief bars of light go scurrying by.
So smooth, so smooth in its carriage
the train hisses, suave gesture of contempt
ploughing through orchards & under mountains.
Time ungathers, then refolds in its wake
like a trail through the aftermath,
the stands whispering past in a blind rush
to Aragon, to the high places
deep in their shifting tides of snow, or
cold at their foot, the sea’s austerity.
                                                                                      Córdoba – Barcelona
I anticipate a dead calm, the ferry
in its harbour glittering like a bauble.
All my pleasure is a kind of acquiescence
to the helpless thrust of the journey –
the train dividing the darkness from itself
& flinging its glow to the verges
where the olives diminish row on row
& I can sit & watch them go.
No longer read with the same fierce hunger
or belief in the power of words
to summon mercy or mitigate our loss,
though there is a line I recall in Machado –
Todo pasa y todo queda:
all things pass away, & all things remain.

                  

*

                    

Look across to the citadel on the hill
where you stayed – & stay – every summer.
I dream the speckled blue corollae
of your eyes falling acquisitively upon
the bare shoulders of strangers & lightening,
maybe, with a dead image of me.
The bodies that were ours – sober, intense,
courteously deferent to each other
through the days of our unconsummated
wedding hang above me like smoke in the rain.
Something – loss or failure or the distant
intimacies of regret – fades away
with the shreds of those fantastic beings.
I do not hate the life I have chosen.
                                                                                      Cortona
A stormhead is blowing over the ridge,
massive needles of sunlight pierce its crown
& wheel away to drape the far hillside
with exquisite tapestries of rain.
The desolate face of the scarp turns white
with joy, then wavers & dissolves as if
sinking through deep water.
I turn away into the crenellated
dark & walk back along Renaissance alleys,
chaste stone reiterating the hunger
of the days in its flank, back to the church
dressed in baroque ironies that stands
in its silent square at the end of all roads,
since it is what we are: broken desire.

                        

*

                      

Deep destroying sadness of a Sunday
afternoon in late December. The armed spider
wanders the litter, the bare canopy
spreads its net as the first stars appear
& I climb the hill to La Croce.
White roses of breath blossom in air,
headlights peering through mist in the valley
grope towards the cone of Amiata.
I pass a final line of houses
decorated for Christmas in blinking lights,
then turn to the sail of the moon & pause
where the darkness rises & bats
flicker in & out of being between
the night I know & the unseen.
                                                                                      Walking to La Croce
I am walking into the second half
of my life, slowly drawing each cold
breath into this epitaph
of flesh as it wanders across the threshold.
No solstice to stir the hard bud to leaf,
no baptism to wash away the old
proclivities, the failed loves, the dead life
of the body nor that body’s yield.
All my days have been a climbing through
the dark to the summit in the moonlight,
still blind as at my beginning,
still truant to my first belonging –
this solitude in company, this glowing night
where the cross establishes its shadow.

First Published by Prac Crit.

Related articles

Melissa Lee-Houghton

“I realise that there are lot of people who wouldn’t be interested in my work, or would even be opposed to it. But I want to feel I’m creating an environment, even if it’s within literature, where I’ve liberated people. I know I’ve liberated myself.”

‘Mergers and Acquisitions’ – interview by Sarah Howe

On a darkening autumnal afternoon last year, I met with Dai George to talk about ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’, a poem of his set in an altogether more summery London. The interview took place just after his first collection, The Claims Office, came out from Seren in 2013. Our conversation touched on s ...

Read more