Reviewed by Dr Elena Nistor, Centre for the Translation and Interpretation of theContemporary Text, University of Bucharest, Romania.Shades of Light: A Triumph of City
by M A Coghill
To read Shades of Light: A Triumph of City
is to embark upon a fascinating journey through the labyrinthine universe of London. Following Designed to Fade
(Shearsman Books 2006), this second collection by Mary Coghill and dedicated to London is a fine example of poly-sensorial art, combining visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory elements that open the readers’ reception to the expressive heterogeneity created by a singular poetic imagination. At the same time, it allows the privilege of choosing highly subjective modes of decoding the message or, in the poet’s own words, to ‘deconstruct the angle’ (‘BooleanTerm’).
Dynamic and encyclopaedic, the book reflects Coghill’s academic background as Doctoral candidate (and later Fellow of the London Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow of The Institute of English Studies, University of London) as her proposed intellectual geography isfiltered through personal scholarly knowledge based on Russian Formalism and universal literature. The poems include various referencesto ancient Greek philosophy, early and modernpoetry, literary theory, linguistics, semiotics, contemporary history, computerscience and neuroscience, which recommend the book as thoughtful urban poetry.
Inspired by Petrarch’s 14th-century poem ‘Triumphs’, Shades of Light
reinterprets allegorical human strife, transgresses personal borders and achieves spiritual completion as a celebration of individual existence from a metamodernist urban perception. It is not by chance that Coghill replaces Chastity in the Petrarchian paradigm of Love-Chastity-Death-Fame-Time-Eternity with Discipline, for it takes a great deal of self-control and a particular system of conduct to manipulate and eventually subdue the erratic urbis, even if temporarily.The poems weave a picaresque quasi-autobiography placed in the common surroundings of an out-of-ordinary place where the self attempts to acquire and preserve coherence.
A genuine Londoner, Coghill forges a distinctive ethos of self-identification in relation to geographic space and chronological time, as well as personal topologicaland temporal present. However, the arcane megalopolis often seems to plot against the protagonist’s endeavours to decode the urban signs of self-identification on a site of pure dissolution inhabited by ‘the miserable multitude’ of ‘phantoms swept along by progress’ (‘Embedding on’). There are no alternatives for the dilemmas of the ‘woman in the city’ who is ‘endlessly deadening/down for a final answer/to ratify dreams’, as Coghill identifies herself (‘Take 2’ of the sequence ‘Predatory Oration’); the only strategy forsurvival is to nurture an ambivalent relationship with the city: dutiful commitment on the one hand and unbiased scrutiny on the other.
The devouring conurbation becomes metaphorically monopolised by the savvy city-dwellerwho finds freedom in narratives that generate almost endless significations of the self against the bewitching background. There is arecognisable geography that accommodates the uncompromising search of identity – Kings Cross, Hampstead, Neasden, Stonebridge Park, Acton Vale, Shepherd’s Bush, Fulham, Hammersmith, Barnes, Chiswick, Kew, Postman’s Park, the Isle of Dogs – and yet poetic imagination creates a different reality that provides the opportunity of instantaneous identification with anonymity and simultaneous regeneration: the eidometropolis.
Mary Coghill reformulates the Eliotian concept ofthe phantomatic ‘unreal city’ in a profoundly spiritual public agglomeration, creating an ideal ideated world without completely vacating the real one. In this world, the eidoindividual, ‘female born here bychance’ (‘The Poet Listens in on the Eidometropolis
’), acquires a momentary domination over the timeless metropolitan conglomerate. Self-centrality is, however, illusory since the multiple facets of London prompt perpetual personal metamorphosis – as the poet says, ‘when I look at the next moment/I am somewhere else/measuring the rhythm of dislocation’ (‘Anomie vs Logic Gates’).
Identity needs to assert itself repeatedly and repeatably in a constant play of likeness and difference, which justifies the metamodernist oscillation between two poles, announced from the title itself: the shades vs the light of the consuming city; the centrifugal vitality of London vs the dissipation of the being ‘gone and returned gone again/in terror irreversible distress’(‘Interstice Four’ from the sequence ‘Negative Crossings’); commuting-derived familiarity and short-term relocation within a space ‘made of the same time same place’ (‘Getting the Timing right’ from the sequence ‘Gravispace”) vs acute dislocation and inner crisis triggered by the 7/7 terrorist bombing that turned London into ‘hell on earth’ (‘Seven Seven’); social invisibility concealed under ‘a blanket of silence’ (‘The Poet Performs’) vs intense loquacity followingthe sequence of thoughts often interrupted by adjacent ideas.
Inthe six sections of Coghill’s collection, symbolic alter egos exhibit aDyonisian parade of subjective flashes arranged in a stunning collage of burghal life that simultaneously captures the dynamics of self-creation in a surreal world driven by collective high speed and personal insulation. Apparently guided by a cyborgian motto – ‘Begin. Process. Function. Outcome. End result.’(‘Trademark’) –, the city dwellers expose their frustration with the estranging mechanism of the dystopian world in a specific poetic discourse aimed at constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing reality according to personal logic. Thus, they propose multiple starting points as possibilities to achieve the wholeness of existence and solve the metaphysical contradictions of the individual trapped between ‘the metonymic city we most long to forget’ (‘Panout’ from the sequence ‘Predatory Oration’) and the desired‘God given place’(‘Arches’), the place where the individual can restorethe balance by ‘finding destinations half truths/distancing balancing perhaps’ (Pellucid).
The collection includes numerous memorable poems, from long poems that use a wide variety of voices to examine abstract concepts (‘Declamatory Mrs Gilpin’, ‘Arches’) or real-life events (‘Seven Seven’) to sequences that explore pragmatic doubts (‘Predatory Oration’) or private angst (‘Negative Crossings’). They are intertwined with free-verse poems that follow the natural rhythm of emotions and impressions (‘Top Rhemes and Pavement Themes’, ‘Boolean Term’,‘Punch Out the Air’) and creative exercises in meter and rhyme (‘StarlessNight’, ‘City Dawn’, the last two stanzas of ‘The Poet is Dead’).
Absent punctuation produces breathless complex sequences allowing multiple readings and, consequently, multiple meanings alludingto the infinite possibilities provided by the metropolis. The lack of full stops marks a luscious rhetoric of excess unveiling the mercurial essence of a ‘£ONpON’ (‘Trademark’) that makes itself conspicuous as an over-confident, self-sufficient world.
The original layout of most poems seems to echo the continuous stream of thoughts and feelings,particularly in the section dedicated to Fame. Coghill’s authentic creativity is at work in arranging words on page: fans (‘Dull’), zigzagsand words written backwards (‘Shout!’), lines written upside down (‘Wrestle’), parallel columns (‘Ms Pixel Writes’) and cases (‘Uninvited’), parallel square angles (‘Random’) and radially juxtaposedtriangles (‘Breaking the Vitriol’), converging rectangles (‘Images Attached’) and tiles (‘Building in the Localities’) – all are summoned up to suggest urban agglomeration and complication, diversity and inconsistency.
And, ultimately, in the final section, Eternity, Coghill accepts that the unique cosmopolitan conurbation is unknowable in reality, that it is ‘a space that is both given and powerful and is imposed on the humans’, as she explains in the Endnotes of her book. Thecommon Londoners who write their daily stories of identity belong to Time: they are merely ‘particles of sand between/blink’ (The Desert in the City’) – the present remembering the past and anticipating the future. The prerogative of immortality belongs to London, the exceptional metropolis – or rather, to the idea of London, the enlightened and enlightening eidometropolis. Reviews:
In this ‘Afterword’, reprinted from Shades of Light: A Triumph of City,
M Coghill writes:‘Shades of Light’
is an exploration of a city poetic. The poem is divided into six sections, the title of each is adapted from Petrarch’s ‘Trionfi’ or ‘Triumphs’ begun around 1334. The idea of the ‘Triumphs’ has been re-interpreted both poetically and artistically over a long period of time; including by Sir Thomas More, Holbein and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke who retranslated Petrarch’s ‘Triumph of Death’ as an exploration of personal grief for the loss of her brother Sir Philip Sidney who died of wounds in the Low Countries in 1586. Shelley was much inspired by the Triumphs and wrote his own addition ‘The Triumph of Life’ in 1822. This was the poem he was working on when he died, leaving it unfinished. Geoffrey Hill, more recently, has written The Triumph of Love.
The sections of ‘Shades of Light’
are: Love, Discipline, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity. The structure of the poem is, more explicitly, The Triumph of Love over the Poet; The Triumph of Discipline over Love and so on.
In a contemporary exploration of a city poetic, Petrarch’s ‘Triumphs’ have the additional relevance of a humanist viewpoint. Writing poetry about crowded urban spaces, of necessity, requires focus on a poetic interpretation of people’s lives if a city poetic is not to be overwhelmed by topography, architecture, statistics, history, politics or sociology. And how does the human survive the inanimate (though rapidly changing) structure of the city? This poem attempts to explore the humanist viewpoint without being anthropocentric. The section ‘Fame’ has been written with Adobe Indesign software.
This poem explores the construction of a poetic city space. This includes the process whereby the artist or poet makes strange something which is familiar (ostranenie) so that it is really seen once again. Projection is a crucial aspect of ostranenie and also has a bearing on how ‘projected’ is understood within a poetic framework. The term ‘projection’ is linked to Roman Jakobson’s theory of ‘Poetic Function’. ‘Projection’ has several properties but within the theory of Formalist function it suggests a sense of movement which this poem explores as a structure for a city poetic. If the artist is able to project a visual image that is not literal, then the poet can project words in the same way. Meaning can arise from a collocation of metonymic phrases – the meaning arises from phrase added to phrase – parts of meaning added to parts of meaning. This can interpret city poetic space. Deictics also give a strong sense of time, place and space; and perhaps this is the heart of a city poetic. The city with all its energy and activity – lines crossing, junctions – real and influential - is combined with the people, the energy and the travelling through.
This is the author’s second poem about the city. Dr M.A. Coghill is a Fellow of The London Metropolitan University. ‘Designed to Fade’
was published by Shearsman Books in 2006. See also www.academia.edu