Being possessed of little self-awareness and what I hoped, afterwards, was an endearing gaucherie, I went up to Toby Martinez de las Rivas after a reading in London in support of the first Faber New Poets pamphlets in 2010. I remember coming out with something along the lines of ‘I’m a huge fan of your work.’ Cringe-worthy, but honest; I was fascinated by these poems that had already won De las Rivas an Eric Gregory award in 2005 and the Andrew Waterhouse award from New Writing North in 2008. Since De las Rivas lives in Cordoba, having previously come from Somerset to Northumbria to study history and archaeology at Durham, I had thought it worth taking this rare chance at buttonholing him to ‘talk poetry.’ Thanks to his generosity and patience – with David Harsent helpfully on hand to buy a round of beer – we started a conversation that has been running in fits and starts ever since, through to the publication of De las Rivas’s first full collection Terror (Faber, 2014), which opens with a much-changed incarnation of the poem that first inspired my earnest admiration ‘Twenty One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Things’. In the last five years we have met only once more in person, again in London in the presence of Harsent and beer (occult prerequisites?); nevertheless we have kept up a sporadic exchange of poems and emails for which I am hugely grateful and from which this interview has, in the last few months, taken shape.
I’m full of questions, but may I start by asking about the Latin word, ignis – the initial fragment appearing under that terrible recurring black orb at the opening of Terror. What is it doing there?
My Latin now is not great, though it was, once upon a time, pretty good. The four words that make up the book’s section titles (ignis, natura, renovatur, integra) would, taken together, be translated as ‘By (or through) fire, the world is renewed’ – in which case I perhaps should have used the ablative, igne, no? On the other hand, I first encountered this phrase in a discussion of the alchemist Fulcanelli and his fascinating investigation of the Great Cross of Hendaye, where it was substituted as an hermetic gloss of the superscription Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, and I copied it down without thinking about it too much. That would have been about twenty three years ago, and it has ridden along with me all that time.
Staying with this theme, I am fascinated by the fire that manifests throughout Terror. It touches so many lines it would be folly to try to enumerate them, so I’ll just pick out three instances I’ve particularly enjoyed. In ‘Shiggaion’:
Wildfire sheering the high margins
A lovely homophonic nod to shearing and, of course, a knowing wink in ‘high margins’ to your manipulation of marginalia. In ‘Blackdowns’:
the torn birch is lashed, stumbles, immaculate with fire. Station III
That subscript ‘desolate’ echoing the italicised ‘wasta est’ in an earlier poem, ‘The Clean Versus the Psoriatic Body’. And finally, in ‘Crede’:
Tyler’s vision of the commons, burned before the king at Smithfield, to his satisfaction.
I believe in a hell most nearly seen in Doré’s sixty-seventh illustration of The Inferno.
Fluorspar, correlative to purging fire.
I wonder, do you conceive of all these instances of fire as a having a single nature or teleology? Is the fire Heraclitan, or Promethean? Or even Apostolic? I’m sure that there’s something experiential at play here, too – as Tolkein has Gandalf say in The Two Towers, ‘the burned hand teaches best. After that advice about fire goes to the heart.’
Of course, the mentions of ‘fire’ above are just the overt references. It brings me back to your Poetry School downloadable ‘short course’, Form as Burning. I’d like to quote back to you two snippets:
Do these help towards a gloss of your praxis for Terror? Is it a private apocalypse, an ‘uncovering’ and remaking in – and through – the poems, both of the physical body and of the body politic?
The way the lines flake and fall away like scabs in ‘The Clean Versus the Psoriatic Body’ seems to suggest this:
The body as image of the state, violated and violating.
The moon above Alston, which is an anagram of the end, where my heart was lost.
That hé said: I do will it, and meant it.
Your head, de Comines.
I find myself reading your frequent use of marginalia and superscription as part of this process, as if the dead or dirempt organic matter of the poem is flaking off from its body like so much soot… I should ’fess up that many members of my family have psoriasis, so perhaps I’m too ready to read this kind of mimesis into things.
How far up the wrong tree am I barking? And whilst I’m at it, what do you make of the end of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings’, with its startlingly literal vision of the bodily resurrection:
Your questions here are penetrating ones, and I’ll separate them into their two strands, which seem to me to be fundamentally about the body, about my views on the nature of the body, particularly in theological terms, and what role the imagery related to fire throughout Terror plays in this.
It would be disingenuous of me to claim that I had thought about fire as Heraclitean, Promethean or Apostolic in distinct terms. Certainly, when I work, I don’t tend to work from a particular philosophical basis towards the poem. Rather, the poem evolves, and then one can perhaps tease out the influences from literature or philosophy which may have informed them (though I should add, at this point, that my reading is generally chaotic and that I am not a particularly disciplined thinker). Of the three, I would guess my relationship with the image of fire is primarily Apostolic. Why? Well, the answer to this may not be particularly satisfactory as it lies, as you suggest, in experience. I grew up in a heavily Catholic environment (not at home, where the dominant view was agnostic and possibly atheistic), but at school, where Mass was said at least twice a week, and Benediction given once a week, by candlelight. The experience of the Apostles in the Cenacle as described in Acts impressed itself powerfully on me from a young age. The wind and the tongues of flame. As well as the candlelight at Benediction which I recall vividly as a canopy the darkness of the chapel seemed to press strongly against (Benediction, I should add, was an optional service – there was rarely more than three or four of us present, which only increased the sense of isolation), I also remember the Ash Wednesday service, and the pressure of the thumb of the priest tracing the cross of ash on my forehead and intoning, ‘Remember, Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ I did remember, and I have always remembered. That, perhaps, was the beginning of Terror.
Fire, in the context of the rites of Catholicism, was therefore both the fire that raises and inspires, but also the fire that punishes and, ultimately, destroys. I was sensitive towards the imagery of Revelation, and the threat of Hell. The crux of my predicament as I was growing, though, lay in the fact that I saw myself as excluded from redemption (and excluded from my friends) by a sheer accident of circumstance – I was, nominally, Church of England (as I said, my parents were not, and are not, religious, and probably had little awareness of my growing interest in religion – I might say, my religiosity), and I was therefore barred from participating in communion. I could not receive the Host. Instead, while the others took communion, I had to approach the altar with my arms folded across my chest and bow my head for the blessing. Once, filled with a sudden yearning, I approached the priest with my hands at my side and my mouth stupidly hanging open, to try and dupe him. The host, perfectly round and stamped with little crosses, hung above me until, at the last moment, and in sudden shame at my cowardice, I bent my head and received my blessing.
But I recall one experience more powerfully than the others. After a two-day retreat, we were enjoined to walk quietly in the grounds of the school to contemplate the things we had learned from the visiting priest. In hindsight it was all a lot of nonsense about Medjugorje and Marian apparitions. Nothing but indoctrination. But, in that brief spell of solitude in the grounds, many things changed for me. It will seem quite unremarkable to readers of this interview, but for me it was very important. One moment, I was simply walking through a small portion of woodland in the grounds. The next moment, everything began burning. I do not mean, by this, that I was hallucinating. I did not – not exactly – see fire. But I felt, and was aware of, a sudden rushing and trembling, of all things, the trees in particular – they seemed to rush upward in a great lightness, and there was great levity and radiance and – how can I put this – a kind of sober, cold heat within me, too. I say all these things in retrospect – I wouldn’t have had the words for it then. I see it now as Joy. It was certainly not happiness. Rather, a sudden sense of contradictory ideas held together without apparent contradiction. A simultaneity of all things, both being here now and passing away. I began to shake. It soon passed. I’ve no doubt the explanations are simple. A young, impressionable – and oftentimes slightly lonely – child in the grip of powerful influences he could not comprehend. Materialists would have no trouble with such an experience. I remain ambivalent towards it, in many ways, but I cannot deny its power for me, now as then. So fire, as you suggest, has its roots for me in experience too and I am not surprised, in hindsight, that it has become important for me.
As to the body? Well, from the above you will easily be able to understand the obsession it holds for me. I think we can apprehend a kind of justice in the universe. I would call pattern, form – these things that are so crucial to poetry – species of justice. By a laborious, and probably inconsistent chain of reasoning, I extrapolate from that the idea of a physical resurrection as the final establishment of justice in the universe. In the best of all possible worlds, I might add laughingly, after Dr Pangloss. Things I have loved, that I have been loved by, the tiny things that pass disregarded out of the world, unseen, unnoticed – or, simply, to many, beneath contempt. Can it really be that they are valueless, that they are to be utterly forgotten, utterly consumed? But I am at least relatively well-educated, and all my education would scoff at the notion, so the idea, held by Wesley at least, of a general restitution, is an idea I cling to with both despair and hope, in quite equal, and oftentimes paralyzing measure.
I think I’ve mentioned before how interested I am in ‘Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Things’, especially the changes between the New Poets pamphlet version and Terror, and I was hoping you might unpick something of the significance of those changes for you as their instigator?
One of the things that I was surprised no critic addressed in Terror is the absolute centrality of physical shape to the poems. It was the dominating formal theme in making them. I suppose if one looks at the rigid margins of ‘Twenty-One Prayers’, together with the second (and, to a slightly lesser extent, third) sections of the book, one might imagine that the poems were written more freely, and then the line lengths matched up using editing tools. With some exceptions caused by the switch from Times New Roman (which I write in) to Faber’s font, which threw some things out of alignment initially, the poems were in fact written with the pre-condition that the physical shape exerted an absolute tyranny over the content. I recall Yeats’s famous response to a question about where his ideas came from – ‘by searching for the next rhyme’ – well, mine came from creating, discarding or altering lines, words, even punctuation, according to my need to exert this physical dominance over the text, to have lines match up physically with the one above and the one below. That is where those very strict shapes come from. Now, if one looks at the version of ‘Twenty-One Prayers’ in the Faber New Poets pamphlet, one can see that my ideas on this were not fully fleshed out. The visual shape is there, and it is dictating content to a degree, but it is loose and somewhat arbitrary. The shape is inconsistent – therefore, the principle behind the shape is inconsistent. It was that which I felt I needed to address, so sometime in (I think) 2011, possibly early 2012, I returned to the text of ‘Twenty-One Prayers’ and sought to apply the principle more completely.
Now, as a corollary to all that, I should add that ‘Twenty-One Prayers’ is not only 21 Prayers. There is a version which extends to about 45 Prayers which I was working on throughout 2009/2010. In the end, I discarded it, as I felt it had lost its freshness and vitality, both as a cathartic process, and as a poem. But, inevitably, when I addressed the problem of shape, I re-consulted the longer text, and found things in it I liked, so I attempted to incorporate them into the new version. That would be particularly the four or five verses which aren’t numbered, the very personal ones which feature the beach at Restronguet, for example, the one about the bodies touching, and the two about Burgess the miner. I felt those helped to break up the monotony of the list a little, so they found a way back in. The idea of returning to the poem in the future and lengthening it towards a hundred or so prayers is sometimes attractive to me – but writing like this is a physically and mentally exhausting process, and something I think I have moved away from in my more recent work.
I’m fascinated to hear your idea of maintaining ‘physical dominance’ over this poem. You call it a ‘cathartic process’ and there does seem to be a sense of purgation and purification at work. Yet it seems much more generative than that, bringing as it does such disparate and personal fragments into this formal union. I’m tempted to take your comment that the earlier version wasn’t ‘fully fleshed out’ as revealing; can a poem be – should it try to be – an instance of the ‘word made flesh’? Given your attentiveness throughout Terror to ‘the body of the text’ – to bodies politic, temporal and spiritual – why was such painful exactitude so important in this poem? The question I’m trying to pitch at you, I guess, is similar to the hanging question that ends Fiona Sampson’s poem, ‘Hay-on-Wye’, in Common Prayer (2011) – ‘is this, then, what incarnation means?’
Yes, I think this idea of catharsis is a very interesting one, though I believe it’s somewhat dropped out of fashion recently, I guess because of its close (and, generally, I think, lazy) association with the confessional poets, particularly the more graphic of them – I’m thinking in particular of Anne Sexton. I would like to shift the frame of reference a little from catharsis which comes, of course, from Aristotle’s work on drama, to a theological term which has some similarities – kenosis. If catharsis might be translated as ‘purification,’ then kenosis would be ‘emptiness’ or ‘emptying.’ In the New Testament, the word has two applications. On its more technical level, it refers to the extent to which Christ fully becomes man, emptying himself of divinity, while on a more general level it refers to the will toward self-sacrifice in the service of others, an emptying out of self-love and self-regard. While I do see a predominantly cathartic function in both the act of producing poems and in the way the finished article confronts or embodies an anxiety, I would be tempted to go a step further (as others have) and say that poems can have a fundamentally kenotic function. In the act of their being written, the self is emptied, or, more accurately, in the writer’s act of emptying the self, a polar self is created which is outside and beyond the individual – the poem.
If this reminds you of something else in the Bible, it should – Genesis – because there is an analogy between the creation of the physical bodies of man and woman by God from clay, and the creation of literary bodies (and particularly poems due to their more obviously discrete nature) by individuals from the physical material around them. Both act with impunity, both satisfy their vision and both, crucially, empty themselves (to a greater or lesser extent), into the work of their hands. (Remember how, in Genesis 2:7, the Lord God formede man of the sliyme of erthe, and brethide into his face the brething of lijf, and man was maad in to a lyunynge soule – in the rather beautiful Wycliffe version). That, I suppose, is the ideal form, and the redemptive function of poetry. Writers, therefore, can empty themselves into text, but text can, in turn, empty readers. I would argue that our regard for the greatness of a text lies in its capacity to induce this state of emptiness, of extinction, in its encounter with a reader – this is a form of redemption.
I think it’s clear though, that in most works, something less profound than kenosis is going on, and when I think of the process of writing poems such as ‘Twenty-One Prayers’, and most of Terror, I am far, far closer to the idea of temporary purgation than emptying, and the violent rigidity of shape comes from my attempt to physically dominate and corral the anxieties and joys that gave rise to the poems. In general in modern poetry – though perhaps I am setting up a straw man here – there’s a reaction against acts which are seen as intrusive, domineering or judgmental, but whereas many poets I know (and admire), aim to ‘set up a dialogue with’, or ‘question’ or ‘play,’ my first aim is always to impose my will on the text, and, throughout Terror, the primary means of that imposition was, at a very fundamental level, physical shape. In ‘Twenty-One Prayers’ that came gradually and, I think, subconsciously. At first, it was felt merely as an irritation when the shape was not even and precise, no different from an obsessive-compulsive having to straighten the towel on the towel rail, or repeatedly wash his hands. It is only gradually that I have come to recognise this obsession with shape as a product of anxiety, and as a wish to establish control in response to that. So yes, I think there is something in what you say, that a poem is an instance of ‘the word made flesh’ – but, leaving aside that phrase’s religious moment, the poem is my word made flesh, and that flesh – tyrannically cleansed, comely, ordered, unwavering – must stand in for my dissolution and eventual corruption – my terror.
As regards number, that is also important to me, as you suggest. 21 is 7 times 3 – a perfectly composed body and a reflection of the Trinity. We could use another term somewhat related to kenosis here – perichoresis, the perpetual emptying of all the parts of the Trinity into each other, which I guess would also have something to say about the unity or integrity of the body. But there you go. The beauty of speculating about theory (and particularly retrospectively in terms of one’s motives) is that one can always be tempted to go a little too far. At the end of the day, there is also just an element of instinct for the rightness of a particular poem, and its shape, and its constituent parts, and knowing when to stop.
Given the exacting sense of purpose behind the making of the poem, how do you feel about turning the literary body over to a reader? Is it to commit it to the deep (parsing the Book of Common Prayer again) to be turned into corruption? Or is it a hopeful or a necessary act, ‘looking for … the life of the world to come?’
This is an extremely interesting question, James, and really strikes at the heart of Terror, and the heart of ‘Twenty-One Prayers’. But could I just digress for a second and pick up this equation you make between the act of reading and the act of corruption? I find that fascinating, and very much worth pursuing. I think it’s more or less taken as read now that, above all else, meaning is created in the act of reading as the Post-Structuralists suggest, that texts themselves are essentially unfixed, and that one cannot privilege the author’s intent over the reader’s interpretation. I tend to react very strongly against that, and if I can continue the analogy with Genesis that we began earlier, I would say, instead, that authorial intent in the text is the text as Edenic, the world as it was meant to be, while each successive act of reading is a Fall away from that paradise – in other words, an act of corruption. I suppose I am really taking issue with something Derrida says in Of Grammatology, ‘reading […] cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it…or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language.’
In the last poem in Terror there is a quatrain which I guess summarizes the theological trajectory of the book and which, in hindsight, provides a gloss on Derrida:
In other words, the poem here has two functions: one, to create itself (or to be created) as a discrete, ordered, coherent being in and of itself, and two, to act as a glass that one peers through to see, even if only dimly, the fundamental reality of the things, the small things, it memorializes, or cherishes. And really, Terror – and ‘Twenty-One Prayers’ in particular – is about small things. The Rufus of the very first verse is in fact a cat, David in the second verse a deeply disturbed paranoiac whom I used to see and talk to several times a week in Newcastle over a period of many years. The fifteenth prayer is for a bee – a specific bee; others are for lovers, plants, birds, my children, the dead. I cannot bear the thought that the value of all these half-forgotten or misremembered or unknown things should be set aside once and for all, or reduced to a merely textual game between the poem and the reader enacted out of despair. No, the first and correct reading is my reading. That is not to say that other readings have no value – only that there is a reading that is the true reading, and which all other readings devolve from or revolt against in a mirroring of the Fall. So I would say, against Derrida, that reading, in fact, must transgress the text toward something other than it – must seek to reconstruct, however pitifully, that first Eden. That is hope, the fundamental hope, and perhaps that also answers your question about where ‘Twenty-One Prayers’ lies on the theological line between being cast into the deep and looking for the life of the world to come? It is precisely both, and torn between the two. It is, in many ways, a diagram of my life and my body as I conceive them.
[This tab gives the poem as it was published in the 2014 collection
Terror, the other as it first appeared in the 2009 pamphlet Faber
New Poets 2. To compare them, click the double-arrowed button.]
As snow falls, as the first snow of this year falls & falls
beyond all light & knowledge, I pray for Rufus
corrupted by lung parasites: whose viscera is corrupted
& whose eyes are uncorrupted by flitting about
in the weak light. I speak this prayer into the black sun.
Secondly, I pray for David, who watches his dead sister
wandering the yard each morning, up and down,
a shadow of herself. I pray for all things that slough off
their skins: for snakes, for cicadas & silkworms
set doggedly to branches & pent in the rush of the bush.
Thirdly, I pray for a babbling, drunk fisherman wearing
no trousers, dredged from the Tyne, who swore
everafter that by singing to Cuthbert he was able to call
pearly trout from the river, to throw themselves
from their element into his – & there they flop, gasping.
Fourthly, I pray for a war protester, picketing The Sage,
whose banners are scattered with cluster bombs
like falling seeds having the real viridian sting of black
pansies closing. I pray for all things that unfurl
& shadow the sun: its star-track raked in the winter sky.
Fifthly, I pray for the ghost of Rene, & the living ghost
of Mary in the final blank stage of Alzheimer’s
nodding, clucking & fumbling. I pray for the sunflower,
petals tight about a face of seed, head nodding
imperceptibly nightward. It has arms, too: to hold itself.
Sixthly, I pray for a pair of Yellowhammers on the wire
who sing in English: a little bit of bread & no cheese.
These are the hills. Not the north. This is upland chalks.
I pray for the wild ghost of Barry MacSweeney
which has a bird’s throat & thrumming, elliptical wings.
Seventhly, I pray for the sparrow with a slashed tongue,
who in Egypt wore a jackal’s garish blunt head
& ferried dead children across the river, but in England
he’s a happy, fat fellow. I listen to his declining
brotherhood at Broadway: there is one fewer every day.
Eighthly, I pray for Jimmy, who touches Mary’s hands,
& looks into Mary’s empty shell each Thursday,
also on her birthday & the slow mornings of Christmas.
The bright filament yells its single candlepower.
8 is the sign for the infinite & is also the sum of YHVH.
Ninthly, I pray for the boy lying out in the summer rain
by the old pigeon lofts round back of our house.
A boy: a father, but a boy too, failing to blink as globes
of water drip into his eyes. To the molting birds
he is a king at siege in the twinkle of his paraphernalia.
& I remember, one night when everyone was in the bar,
opening up an eye in my wrist an inch & a half
back from the base of the thumb that glared left & right,
then fixed itself faithfully on me, in my despite.
Kate, Kate. The morning gathered us in its white sheets,
white vestments, as when Venus in her burnished cleats
drew out of Restronguet, the deep lines of linen
signalling cruelly from the shore as fog rose up like joy
& a boisterous wind cuffed the heads off waves.
Tell this out, too: the curlew crying out over Culmhead.
Tenthly, I pray to the last few seconds of a cold August,
when the world is silent, a sullen body of water
that brings the famished larva creeping to my fingertips,
my tongue a water-snail with soft horns forcing
its head from between my lips. Harp of dusk, & muscle.
My eleventh prayer is for Migdale checking the hooves
of his sheep for rot peeling the hoof’s heel, sole
& wall from their attachments to the foot: for the sheep
like amputees lagging & nibbling at lung flukes
& brain worms: & some fall down in the clart, shaking.
My twelfth prayer is for the unfledged rooks overcome
by ants beneath the high nests. For the membra
over the pods of their eyes. For the shine of their beaks
& the orbit. For the boot I bring down on them.
Let me love best all these creeping things that creepeth.
My thirteenth prayer is to the ghost of Nicholas of Flüe,
who saw the face of the lord lacerated with fury,
& whose own face was fixed into a mask by that vision.
The faint shapes of his children, flinching away.
Today even the little sparrow cannot bear to look at me.
My fourteenth prayer is for you Isa, altered by distance.
I see your heart, & it has the shape of the winter
cherry convulsing in the gale. Arterial web of branches,
blossom battered off, acquiescence in the bough.
But mine is a bird fixed in the canopy – a false lapwing.
Sometimes, when we touch, you subtly shift your body
ten degrees to the right or left – so it is your hip
or thigh, & not your genitals which quiver against mine:
we do not stand dovetailed, as the beating wing
should to the physicality of lift. Or the wall to its brace.
My fifteenth prayer is for the recoiling bee that I found
in the allotment, like a small aeronaut slumped
in the riven spars of his machine. He thumped his sting
once into the sodden ground to vent his temper
& is free to go. A cold season gathers itself in the earth.
& have you heard about Burgess the miner, who tossed
the body of his daughter into the gut of the well
at Watercombe & kept mum & married her stepmother:
he was caught out by the deadlight that winked
above the shaft: & a sheep rustler spied her down there.
Here they call a deadlight a spunky, the ghost of a child
that catches & flares above a tract of still water.
On Midsummer, they gather at church to meet the souls
of the freshly buried, & invite each one to swell
their companies: but some of these I blame on the cider.
My sixteenth prayer is for the drunk staggering through
a shattered gate in Thomas Bewick’s Tail-piece:
after the Merganser ascetically rearranging its plumage,
after the Mute Swan riding from its harbourage
like a troubled schooner. & in the sky – a double moon.
My seventeenth prayer is to the memory of Christopher
Smart kneeling in a torrent of bees at Staindrop
to pray, or cutting the Song to David into the bare page
of a wall with a clasp knife, or a shard of glass,
& with his fingertip rubbing charcoal into the scratches.
My eighteenth prayer is for the glass ghosts of Leopold
& Rudolf Blaschka, combinations of moonlight
& organ, slight tendrils of glass teasing out their quarry
by tentacle & night vision. The Scyphomedusa
flows above us, a star in a doomed pod or constellation.
My nineteenth prayer is for the one who kept his watch
on the stair the night we brought the bairn back,
the iron of whose glare counteracts supernatural malice.
After the owl & dragon, he is the most puissant
& canny of all living beasts. The devil cannot pass him.
My twentieth prayer is for the wind sobbing in the haw,
& the lamb that lurches through the Pentateuch.
Tobe, Tobe, you have called him here to face the music
& be thrust face down in the beck, shorn of life,
the water misremembering its long lineage into his hair.
Last, I pray for the makers of prayers, which are poems
we say to ourselves in the hard times, dry times,
cold times. In tenements, in tower blocks, in the locked
tin caskets of our hearts: as sleep comes: falling
& falling like snowflakes beyond all light & knowledge.
From Terror (Faber, 2014). Reproduced with permission of the author.