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The Last Oblivion: Best Fantastic Poems Of Clark Ashton Smith
editors: S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz
Hippocampus paperback $15
review by Steve Sneyd
Clark Ashton Smith (hereafter CAS) was the best known of the 'cosmic' poets, early and mid-20th century Americans putting science fiction, or at any rate science fantasy, along with dark fantasy imagery, at the heart of their work, a group that also included Stanton Coblentz and Lilith Lorraine. He is also permanently associated with the epithet, transferred from the title of his first published poem, of The Star-Treader.
Yet, although his name was well remembered, his poetry had long been effectively out of print. So this book, a comprehensive ingathering of CAS' work, inevitably has great importance for the understanding of earlier 20th century genre poetry. It brings together, not just the content of his Arkham House and other collections, but also over two-dozen uncollected poems from little magazines of his time or hitherto unpublished. In terms of dates, the contents run from 1911, when, as a 19-year-old, he saw The Star-Treader appear, to posthumous printings from 1962, the year after his death.
As well as a helpful introduction, The Last Oblivion also includes full bibliographical data on the poems and a large glossary, which proved essential for this reader at least. The book is handsomely produced, the text setting is eye-friendly, and it seems remarkably free of typographical error. In fact, I could only find a single apparent textual flaw - in the line from the poem Averoigne reading, as printed, "Of Norns the plot the impested age," from the context the first 'the' should clearly read 'who'. Overall, it is a credit to the publisher, one that has shown considerable dedication to the project of bringing significant writers with associations with Lovecraft, as CAS had, back into print.
Cover and other illustrations are art by CAS himself, offering an interesting insight into his mental landscapes (there is also a - tiny - back cover photo of the poet.) The poems themselves are grouped into a series of categories: first, The Hashish-Eater; then The Star-Treader, and cosmicism generally; next, 'fantastic beings/ people - Medusa and other horrors'; then follow 'exotic landscapes'; 'dream poems'; 'weird love - Eros'; 'pessimistic/ misanthropic'; and finally 'tributes/ elegies'. Assignment to particular sections can occasionally seem arbitrary: for instance, The Refuge Of Beauty and The Power Of Eld seem out of place in the Eros section, where The Last Goddess (a fragment) and Love Malevolent ("poison-honey, hived in a skull"), could well have taken their places instead of being placed among 'dreams'. Moreover, A Dream Of Beauty is hardly misanthropic. Nevertheless, overall the groupings are useful guides to content and themes.
Considering the poetry as a whole, as with the work of any poet, brings the risk of over-generalisation - although this particular writer's overall consistency of material, and approach to it, is such that the risk is much less than with more diverse talents. That consistency - bordering dangerously on a tendency to sameness - was just one reason why encountering CAS' work in bulk proved a very different, opinion-refocusing, experience to my previous limited knowledge of extracts of longer works plus a handful of anthologised pieces, and far from a wholly positive one.
The book's blurb says CAS "could be considered one of the great poets of the 20th century." Having read the whole of The Last Oblivion, I was left feeling that, even if qualifying words like fantasy or science fantasy were inserted between 'great' and 'poets', it would still require ruthless selectivity from among his poems to justify the statement.
It may seem curious to begin a discussion of the poetry contents of a book which I firmly believe is important, by drawing up a charge sheet against CAS' work. Nevertheless, because my first reactions were ones of disappointment, and it was only later that I came to more appreciation of the genuine achievements present, and of the power in whole or part of at least a significant minority of his poems, it seems most honest to discuss the cons before the pros in this particular case.
The difficulties I found in responding wholeheartedly to much of the content, perhaps the majority, do not lie in the form. Almost all his work was rhymed and metred, mainly in strict form, including many sonnets, intricately enlaced rhymes etc, also some blank verse. However, although (to intrude a personal note) I myself seldom write in such closed forms. I certainly do not feel prejudice against them. It can be said, though, that rhyme in particular can have an agendaing effect, wording being forced into a straight jacket, sometimes with unhappy, incongruous, or sense-mangling results, in order to access a rhyme, regardless of its natural suitability to the poem's flow. Sadly, instances of this phenomenon certainly exist in CAS' work. To cite a handful of examples: in Shadows: "patchouli-shadows crawl/ On the mottling of boas that bask/ In the fire of a moon fantasque" - an ugly final inversion focusing even more attention on that jarring final word; in Memnon At Midnight, again clumsy inversion combines with a flatulent, empty rhyme as "Beneath the star-borne canopy extreme" succeeds the lovely "Carven of silence and colossal dream." In The Outer Land, again, turgid rhyme flattens and banalises the lines "What marble limbs have gleamed as thine/ Slow-sinking into sand or brine!" While in Lament Of The Stars, the needs of rhyme produce an outcome not far removed from doggerel: "All darker forms, and dubious forms, or pallid,/ Are met and reconciled where none is valid."
Probably the biggest single problem I found encountering so much of CAS' poetry together, is, as already suggested, a degree of repetitiveness of idea and image startling in its extent. The most extreme instance of this is what appears to have been a total obsession on CAS' part to get the dying and/ or death of suns/ stars into as many poems as possible, apparently irregardless of whether this trope in fact belonged naturally, or indeed at all, in any individual piece, or added anything to it. In response, I found myself, against my will, playing a game whereby I was waiting to see how long it would be before a terminal or already corpse-turned stellar object turns up in any given poem. In turn, that trainspotter-ish urge, almost impossible to fight off, driving me to tick off each new appearance, that mechanistic 'eureka' moment process, tended to distract from appreciation of other strengths in individual pieces. I also felt driven to speculate as to the why of this compulsion to what might be called 'stellar fatality imagery syndrome' on CAS' part. Given that his first mentor was an older contemporary in San Francisco. George Sterling, whose 1903 The Testimony Of The Suns, a long narrative of conflict between astronomical bodies, made much use of the death-of-suns trope; it is possible that CAS was simply tributing, albeit excessively, a personal hero by echoing a key feature of his most sustained achievement. However, the constantly repeated obsessiveness of this inclusion, often even to the point of spatchcocked intrusion, its King Charles' head-alike nature would seem to imply some powerful role for it in the poet's inner life, a clue to deeper psychological needs or wants.
There also all-too-frequently occurs in CAS' poems a clear inability to know when to stop, so that an initially powerful poem can peter out into anticlimax. To cite just a couple of instances, in the 'misanthropy' section poem Ode On Imagination, the lines "the movements of essentiality/ Of ageless principles" surely do not need the tatutological spelling out of "that alter not/ To temporal alterings," while the last line of Remembered Light cries out for kill-your-darlings culling of its irritating statement of the unneeded obvious: "like pain's last cry ere oblivion."
A widely pervasive vagueness, too, detracts: very rarely is there any sense of 'a local habitation and a name': even in poems tributing named individuals there is little to show that person as having been seen in any clear light of individuality, instead leaving a mere abstraction. It might even be speculated that the solipsism often present in the speaking voice of poems here - unwise as I know it can be to assume that the sentiments of a poem persona are precisely, or at all, those of its author - reflects an inability on CAS' part to focus clearly on the reality of others apart from, and outside, himself and his own imagination's inward visionary workings. A particularly intriguing variation on this apparent lack of empathy is to be found in To HPL: the poem takes the peculiarly noncommittal form of a list of questions, in a sense the ultimate evasion of specificity of recognition of another person as having meaningful separate identity.
To return for a minute to those dying suns, they too never achieve any precise identity. Almost never do they even have names, let alone physical descriptions precise enough to even begin to locate them, their size, colour and age never referred to along the Herzsprung-Russell sequence! And, at the most basic level of description, all too often CAS resorts to attempts at frisson-creation by such meaninglessly vague clichés as 'shapeless', 'formless', or 'nameless things'.
Such vagueness, too, can be one of the doubtless good artistic intention paved, routes that intermittently lead to the hell of banality, as, to take an acute example of such slackness, where, tributing Sterling, he writes "As music from a more enchanted period." Another form this takes is the cumulative piling up of imprecise images of 'atmosphere copy', a bland feast of, as it were, 'the higher vaguery' - tottering card houses or cloud castles without real foundations in idea or purpose, reminiscent of the painter Douanier Rousseau's jungles, ostensibly formalised but still inextricable tangles.
Adjectival excess, too, can blur and muffle an otherwise vivid piece. For instance, in the 'dream' section's Shadow Of Nightmares, after the effective unexpectedness of a noon "plagued with whirr/ of bats..." in comes marring adjective overload, with 'abhorrent' and 'slowly crawling', in the lines "In hieroglyphics of abhorrent doom,/ Is trailed the slime of slowly crawling toads." Similiarly, too many adjectives detract in the 'strange landscapes' poem, The City Of The Titans, with its "An archetypal Titan-builded Rome," and "terrible strange love/ And doom-fraught arsenals in lampless keeps."
Such adjectivalism at times destroys sense - with a different poet, one whose aim was sound and effect exploration rather than conveying meaning, this could be thought deliberate, but, given that CAS can hardly be seen as an experimentalist, such phrases as, from The Dark Chateau, "Startle memorial spiceries" ... "By oriels charged with stifled stains" ... "With drumless ear no lute annoys," come across as unfortunate accidents of inattention on the writer's part.
A more general point is the element of what could be called pulp magazine slickness, the sort of surface gloss at the expense of the 'added value' of inner depth which led James Blish to unkindly describe CAS at his worst as a "chrome-plated Eblis." This can be oddly reminiscent of the more meaningless lyrical excesses of psychedelic-era rock, the 'California dreaming' that came along so soon after his own death (given one poem's passing reference to honeyed cannabis, he might well have found himself in sympathy with at least some aspects of their world, elements of lifestyle continuity existing between the San Francisco bohemian world to which CAS belonged and later west coast counter-cultures).
Again as a general point, reading too many of these poems at one stretch can feel cloying, like eating too many sweet things in one session, cloyed by, ever mellifluous, as it is, a ubiquitous Swinburn-esque, twilit decadence. Too, there are elements of rhetoric for rhetoric's sake, turning at times to overdone resort to rhetorical questioning, as in the sonnet Retrospect And Forecast's payoff "Sickening, will Life not turn eventually, or ravenous Death at last be satisfied?"
Moreover, the glossary already mentioned proves absolutely essential. This is because CAS' default mode, indeed almost mania, was to use an obscure or archaic word in his verse at every possible opportunity, whether or not it was genuinely necessitated by the absence of a more commonly-used term to convey the precise meaning or atmosphere sought, indeed causing this reader to wonder if he was even aware of the existence of that distinction? Perhaps a kinder way of looking at this aspect would be to say that this book could do wonders for your vocabulary, although opportunities to use the words thus learned may well prove few and far between: even in crossword puzzles or pub quizzes, opportunities to employ, for example, crotali as a term for desert snakes, or nenuphars for water lilies, are likely to be infrequent, and those are just two of hundreds of instances of his arcane verbal selections.
Even more familiar genre-favoured words, like rune or charnel, he tends to overuse to the point of irritating, while he also falls victim to a curious phenomenon, amid flotillas of exotic words, of at times reaching for words of an entirely different register, disconcerting because more at home in the military strategists' techno-speak known as Pentagonese, or the dryly obfuscatory jargon of business reports. To cite some specific instances, in the 'dream' section, 'unauthentic' in "birds strange-plumaged, unauthentic, dart" ... 'all-deleting' in "Night's all-deleting hand," in Shadow Of Nightmares, the 'unswervable' of "near, unswervable eclipse," 'alternating' in Ode To Matter's "alternating tide," or the psychobabble-ish 'tensions' within Nightmare's "Eternal tensions numbed the wings of time." In The Star-Treader, too, we find 'units' in "The units that had builded me" and, even more jarringly, 'systems' qualified as 'triplicate'. There are tendencies, too, to the "said plonkingly," an ex-cathedraism come out of nowhere rather than grown naturally out of organic poem development, and, too, sometimes, a flatness, particularly that of a plodding statement gone on too long. Such long-windedness, even baroque windbaggery, can give the impression of prose uncomfortable in fancy dress. Moments of schmaltz's falsity of emotion become the more painful when they combine with the bogusly antique, as where "Of thee/ The pearle'd fountains tell" makes even more unconvincing the unreality of an OTT personal tribute. Then, as if to allay suspicions as to genuineness of feeling, and demand the reader acknowledge undeserved impact, CAS at times resorts also to unnecessary use of exclamation marks, reminding of their print nickname of screamers in the overemphasis these impose.
Put vagueness and OTTness together, and a poem ending like "things we dare not know, and dare not dream" can result - clearly CAS would not have been tempted to join the SAS!
Which segues to a guiltier pleasure to be found here, namely spotting instances (and there are not a few) of vulnerability to the unintentionally comic that could at times blindside his choice of words or images, implanting amid onward rolling billows of his ever-mellifluous lines the bizarrely daft, like the sheer incongruity of "Desert Nereids" (The Outer Land) - what suffering to be a Sahara mermaid indeed! To take a few more instances - as said, spotting these became a guilty pleasure - from "Soliloquy in a (sic) Ebon Tower" (addressed to a picture of Baudelaire) - "The owl... Has pounced upon his gopher," while, air traffic controller-ishly, "Hecate has grounded all the witches/ For some glade-ridden Sabbat" The Dark Chateau's lines "ghosts of gales that blew/ At eve from vintages antique" conjures a startling image of super-belching wine, while misuse of a weapon could be the charge levelled at an action to be found in The Abyss Triumphant: "Within the Abyss God's might had not immured/ (He could but thwart it with creative mace...)". The Witch With Eyes Of Amber provides an even unlikelier activity - "Who slowly sang a scarlet rune" What 'fooooothooorrrrrkkk'!?
Lament Of The Stars conjures unlikely bodily movement - "The faltering feet that grope," while Revenant has a B-movie image of the MP for Pyramids South in action: "Mummied & ceremented,/ I sit in councils of the kingly dead." The Medusa Of Despair combines the physically implausible with a forced rhyme follow-up, "Where even the swart vans of Time are stunned" being succeeded by "proud demonian capitals unsunned." Is this next one person or two? "Ancient queen and lass./ Risen vampire-like from out the wormy mould." And gratuitous tautology, a most unlikely sound effect, and a hint of eyes in the back of the head combine to almost McGonegallish effect in "Though at my back I heard the lips of Night/ Puff out the flaming flambeau of the Sun."
And yet, and yet - despite finding it easy to assemble such a lengthy indictment, it remains nevertheless equally possible to find within this volume strong evidence in defence of his glowing reputation, the means to see convincingly just why CAS achieved such legendary status as a genre poet, because here there is work of real power and impact.
Provided, as previously said, the reader does not overdo it, in the same way that it is unwise to indulge in a whole box of chocolates at one sitting, when too many at once can lead the samenesses to become over-facing and stale on the whole, but instead explores no more than a few of these poems at a time, the impact of some at least can be truly memorable. There is indeed work here which gives reason for reading it considerably more compelling than just mere curiosity about a 'roots figure' sprung to fame nearly a century back.
Among the particular strengths CAS at his best demonstrates is the ability to seamlessly, and apparently effortlessly, achieve dreamlike transitions amid huge, terrifying settings, universe-scale locations filling the widest of wide screens, awe-inspiringly able to rouse a genuine sense of wonder (and terror) as they shiverily overhang the most vertiginous of bottomless 'fear of falling' gulfs.
Where, then, to begin in illustrating such of CAS' strengths? First, some examples I found particularly outstanding, then a more detailed look at some memorable instances in different theme sections. The Star-Treader itself, incidentally, I found disappointing, one of those legendary texts perhaps, in hindsight, better left known only by reputation, if that means illusion might remain unspoiled. On the other hand, a somewhat later long work by CAS, 1920's The Hashish-Eater, is a stunning mind-voyage, illusory transformations, swift as dream, on the vastest scale that culminate, for the voicing protagonist, in ultimate monstrosity of encounter.
Nero is a persona poem that remains highly relevant for its powerful insight into the mindset of tyrant (or terrorist) fixated on destruction to escape from the dull repetition, the "long littleness" to quote another writer, of everyday life. Medusa, with its extraordinary evocation of the landscape in which the Gorgoness operates, her summoned lightnings blackening her victims even before her eyes stoneise them, is just one of numerous effective, sometimes notable, being-in-setting pieces. Several of these are of a Luciferist (i.e. more subtle than Satanist!) nature, depicting god-opposing entity, the most memorably unusual of these, After Armageddon, a particular visual feast of dark heresy.
Even in those poems that work less well as a whole, unforgettably striking images abound, as with In Slumber: "tumbling harpies (...) tore my breast/ And wove from these" (long tatters) "their crimson wattled nest."
The poem that lends its title to the collection as a whole, a sonnet in the Eros section, illustrates well, despite suffering from some of his characteristic verbal vaguenesses, CAS' ability to manipulate science fantasy imagery as objective correlative for internal emotion: "I shall forget you in the future stars/ And take of time an alien recompense/... Till in some strange and latter planet, wrought/ From molten shards and meteor-dust of this/ My hand shall pluck an unsuspected bloom (...) That lifts again the scarlet of your kiss." Despite those problematic aspects, then, there is real fascination to be found in this book, which certainly belongs in the library of any with an interest in earlier genre poetry.
To still further illustrate the positive pleasures to be found, then, first another personal selection of particularly striking lines and images, to whet your appetite by illustrating the evocative power CAS at his best achieves, followed by a look in rather more depth at a selection of content from each of the thematic sections noted earlier.
From the same poem addressed to Baudelaire's picture which, again illustrating CAS' unevenness, also provided a moment of unintentional comedy quoted earlier, comes this notable image: "Our ironies./ Like marbled adders creeping on through time,/ shall fang the brains of poets yet to be" long after he too becomes a "crumbling wicker of old bones."
Again from the tributes group, To Omar Khayyam offers, hauntingly, "The mournful rumour of an iron wing" while Tribute To Nora May French (a fellow San Francisco writer and suicide) includes the Khayamesque precept: "..wise/ To kiss an ardent breast... avid mouth/ some girl... Before the broken cup/ Be filled and covered up/ In dusty seas of everlasting drouth."
Among the Eros group (while finding it irresistible to mention in passing an unintended anticipation of lip-piercing from Strangeness - "0 love, thy lips are bright and cold./ Like jewels carven curiously") there is an effective, albeit perhaps over-antiqued, echoing of the 'Song Of Solomon' in Cleopatra: - "pervadest me with thy love/ As the dawn pervadeth a valley among mountains." Indeed, it's not the only effective Biblical echo - To The Darkness' ending has just such resonance (as well as yet another outing for those dead suns!) - "They sleep the sleep of the suns/ And the vast is a garment unto them."
CAS' occasional use of imagery of nature can be elegantly precise in its Gothicism, as in Adventure: "follow after/ Shattered lace of waters spun/ On a steepy and stony loom/ Down the depths of laurel-gloom" to where, ingeniously providing a natural phenomenon the poem elsewhere parallels with the stealthy onset of the ghosts' returnings memories bring, "The mists of the valley reach with wavering, slow/ Malignant arms from pine to pine."
Avatar presents a startling, grotesque coupling, balanced memorably between sinister and blackly comic: "ardour undeterred/... By the strange mottlings of her body white,/ By the things that crept across us in her den./ And the dead who lay beside us through the night," while Bacchante, playing with the body as vessel trope, convincingly conveys experience-based louche San Francisco bohemian experimentation: "From the cupped hollow of your delicious bosom,/ We have drunk wine."
Again illustrating his unevenness, a poem earlier decried for weaknesses, Ode On Imagination, also employs a powerful mind-journey image: "Matter's walls reveal the candent" (i.e. incandescent) "ores/ Rock-held in furnaces of planet cores."
The 'misanthropy' poems offer curiously hypnotic sound effects with In The Desert's "prone monotony/ of the null forgetful sands," (even if neighbour to the clumsiness of "some Cimmerian primogeniture") and the dark appeal of "stars/... unnumbered steely eyes of Death/ Seeking the lost necropolis." Again, To The Daemon Of Sublimity offers a puzzling yet compelling image of time as "a chasm-riven sea."
Inferno's final lines hint how those ubiquitous dead or dying stars must link with CAS' inner self-image: "each wanderer/ Preserves the jealous flame of sad, infernal suns."
The Incubus Of Time, despite ending anti-climatically, has a powerful core image: "As an iron clod,/ were bound about the monstrous throat of God," while Lunar Mystery, a rare, for CAS, tripletted poem, draws on synaesthesia for "a wind that briefly gleamed" and is vividly visual in "moonlight fluttering like a moth/ Amid the sway'd, enormous flowers."
Among the 'dream' poems, A Song Of Dreams, again very Biblical in feel, intrigues with the unexpectedness of "doors... concealed with clarity" and "hollowness of the unharvestable wind," although again the end rather peters out.
In the 'Medusa and other horrors' characters section, the star has to be the three-page Nero, already mentioned briefly. Working as a unified whole which sweeps the reader forward, absorbed into the workings of a mind ingeniously bent on justifying destructive purpose to itself, it is difficult to meaningfully extract. However, some sense of the flavour, and power, can be gained from those lines in which the Roman Emperor lavishes praise on the prospect before him: "on destruction hangs but little use/ Of time or faculty, but all is turned/ To the one purpose, unobstructed, pure./ Of sensuous rapture and observant joy./ And from the intensities of death and ruin/ one draws a heightened and completer life," some consolation for his future powerlessness: "kings.../ have no power in death save what the wind/ Confers upon their blown and brainless dust/ To vex the eyeballs of posterity." How he longs for godlike immortal power so he could wreak far more universal wreck (warning: more dead suns approaching!): "watch/ Destruction crouching at the back of Time (...)/ A Samson-principle to bring it down/ In one magnificence of ruins (...) I would tear out the eyes of light, and stand/ Above a chaos of extinguished suns(...) Hardening the feet of time with cast of worlds/ Like careless pebbles" (Sadly, yet again CAS then insists on having an impact-weakening superfluous end stanza).
Of the three Medusa poems, as already mentioned that with her title unadorned is the strongest, full of powerful description: "Her head is throned upon a heap of monstrous rocks (...) Her eyes are clouds wherein black lightnings lurk... The gazers come, where, coiled and serpent swift./ These levins wait.../ Her victims lie, distorted, blackened forms smitten into stone (...)/ And given to all the future of the world." Naturally, CAS' pet obsession gets in at the end - "The guttering stars are wild as candle-flames/ That near the socket." (Of the other two, The Medusa Of The Skies images her as the moon, while The Medusa Of Despair has a "face/ Lethal as are the pale young suns in Space" - notable as just for once here are stars not on their last legs!)
Saturn, telling of the Titans, "Vague and immense at first like forming dreams," provides a suitably dramatic backdrop for their last stand: "the hard clouds,/ Molten among the peaks, seemed furnaces/ In which to make the fetters of the world (...) chaos ravening past the verge/ Of all the world, fed with the crumbling coasts of Matter (...) Tissue and twisted in chaotic weld (...) a world.../ The nurse of infant Death, ere he became/ Too large, too strong for its restraining arms/ And towered athwart the suns (...) across a land like doubt." Witnessing the final defeat, "Spectrumed wings of Time had made/ A truce with.../ White Eternity, and both/ Stood watching from afar," while, strikingly, "cast by their own light.../ The gods' own shadows moved like shapen gloom." (There is, however, inevitably, no escape from a triple onset of the poet's favourite image syndrome: first a "glare of shattered suns," then "senile suns that grapple with the dark,/ And reel in flame tremendous, and are still" and, yet again, "the ghostly, muffled noon/ Of mightier suns that totter down to death.")
Satan Unrepentent sets defiant rebel against frightening divine despot: "hears/ Enraged suns bellow down the deep/ God's ravenous and insatiable will" yet "I, that am of essence one with His./ Though less of measure. He may not destroy." The poem has a twin in its sentiments in A Vision Of Lucifer: "the spirit's sun:/ A column of clear flame, in lands extreme./ Set opposite the darkness that is God."
The Ghoul And The Seraph, a disputation between the two characters, sees the ghoul have best of it and depart singing a song praising its own lifestyle, including, in the lines: "In new-made graves I delve for sustenance/ As man within his turnip fields," a rare, for CAS, reference to the practicalities of life - those turnip fields. After specifying a preference for black and curdled corpse-blood, the ghoul ends with a resounding paean to the force Spenser proclaimed as Mutabilitie: "Change... made the very gods from slime/... will fling/ Gods and their builded heavens back again/ To slime."
The Witch In The Graveyard (in fact it features two witches, one interrogating the other) incorporates a powerful metaphor-cum-transferred epithet, "watch the weighted eyelids of each grave," effectively grim description of nature's opportunism, as represented by how a medicinal herb, "the parching fumitory" grows, "leaves, root-trellised on the bones of death/... rasp and bristle to the slightest wind."
In The Envoys, CAS employs a popular cosmic poets' theme, namely that of alien ambassadorial visitors: "They passed as might the pillared flame/ of lightning loosened on the tomb (...) Their eyes.../ filled of alien worlds... What embassy were they from suns/ Of Algebar" (Arabic for Orion) "or.../ From out a four-dimensioned world."
Nyctalops is a list poem, of such ingredients as "Strange atoms/ Trysting on the air/... dust of vanished lovers/ Long parted in despair (...) flowers... withered/ In worlds of Otherwhere (...) bosoms of the succubi (...) crystal/ Of dead Medusa's tears," and finally a genre image inherited from alchemy, of 'black suns,' here "Pouring forth the night."
Necromancy ends powerfully: "from black aphelions far and cold,/ Swimming in deathly light in charnel skies./ The enormous ghosts of bygone worlds arise."
In The Witch With Eyes Of Amber, shiverily apt description of the paradox of how she "clove and clung/ Burning like a furnace-flake" while her breasts had the "many-needled coldness/ Of a glacier-taken land" goes alongside a line that is a mini exotic vocabulary fest: "parterre of dwale and deathly hebenon" (parterre: formal-pattern garden, dwale: deadly nightshade, hebenon: poison-juiced plant).
Not Theirs The Cypress-Arch neatly reverses expectation, contrasting: "the dead.../ slow-crumbling (...) charnel morris stilled by chanticleer" with: "we, their fleshly ghosts."
The Hashish-Eater, Or, The Apocalypse Of Doom, despite having odd weak or irritating phrases and lines - the clichéd "I list, too late," the wildly OTT - "my memories, intolerably clad/ In light the peaks of paradise may wear," the unconsciously comic - "My hordes of thunder-vested avatars" or (what could he have been thinking of here - surely he wasn't influenced by Dada?) "teaks a-chuckle in the loathly gloom," and the pointlessly self-contradictory - "sailed/ From a sea-fled Haven," as well as outings for that maddening vaguery - "Things unseen," and, worse still, "nameless prisoner/ Moans with a nameless torture," even a mini invasion of Pentagonese with the word 'subverted' in "plague of lichens... crept/ Across subverted empires," and of course those King Charles' heads have to make an appearance, with "Born from the caverns of a dying sun" or "stream of broken stars" (and there are repetitiousnesses of other words/ images, as e.g. 'brazen', 'worms', and in the un-frightening would-be frissoner of "a dreadful wind/ falls from them like the wind before the storm.") is much more than the sum of these oddities.
Indeed, read whole, this, as noted earlier, is a powerful, almost compulsive feast of dreamlike transitions (I would find his claim of having conceived a complete poem in a dream much more plausible if CAS had made it of this, rather than the shorter, much less individual, The City In The Desert, in which only the OTT line "Where flaming suns walk naked and alone" stands out). There is an air almost of automatic writing, as images tumble out, morph, intertwine, with the irrational credibility and clarity of visions welling untamed from CAS' subconscious. Interestingly, the poet comments on his relation to its source dynamic from within the poem, in a way that today would be seen as postmodernist: "If I will/ I am at once the vision and the seer."
Commencing with the command to "Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams," the poem conjures extraordinary images galore, including the beautifully surprising "moonquake-throbbing bird," and, again unexpected in the extreme, a nesting of temples within temples - "Within whose fane the fanes of Hecatompylos/ Were arks the Titan worshippers might bear," expanding upon this with a lovely evocation of extreme size - "Who calls the fleeing clouds/ into the nave where suns might congregate." Effective strangeness, too, in 'gnomons' - sundial arms - "with their swords of shadow guard/ My gates and slay the intruder?" while the oddity of "A chuckle sharp as crepitating ice/ Upheaved and cloven by shoulders of the damned/ Who strive in Antennora" too works well. "On the throne/ There lolls a wan, enormous Worm" may employ a genre image familiar even then, but provides an effective shock in context. Vagueness is made viable for once by adding mystery meaningfully in "Beating on coasts of unknown metals," music is imaged by music of word-sound appealingly in "multitudinous horns/ Amid whose maze the winds are lost," while multiple repetition does, instead of jarring, succeed in working strongly in a prolonged treat of a visual, then aural, descriptive set-piece which calls out for extensive quotation: "and through the sable plain/ A hundred streams of shattered marble run,/ And streams of broken steel, and streams of bronze./ Like to the ruin of all wars of time(...) With ripples loud and tuneless as the clash/ Of a million lutes... come to the precipice/ From which they fall, and make the mighty sound/ Of a million swords that meet a million shields."
The poem culminates in a final encounter with "A huge white eyeless face/ That fills the void and fills the universe,/ And bloats against the limit of the world/ With lips of flame that open," completing the sensation of unwilled dream motion by offering a satisfactorily all-encompassing solution to the problem, for the poet, of how to bring to closure a hitherto unstoppable-seeming sequence of unwilled-seeing transitions.
In the 'cosmic voyagings' section, at nearly four pages the longest is the famous The Star-Treader. This cross-cosmos mental voyage has the variation that it traverses time as well as crossing space, albeit the time journey past-wards is in the most general terms, reflected in such lines as "Retraced.../ The twisting of the threads of years," revealing to the poet, in "years reversed and lit again," via a relighting of past suns, the re-illumination of their soul parallels within individuals. The alchemical 'serious pun' of the inner sol/ soul as an aspect of hermetic 'as above, so below' belief, is thus expressed by CAS; "Each sun had radiance to relume/ A sealed, disused and darkened room/ Within the soul's immensity." Reincarnation links then enable the poet to know "mine ancient lives... each forgotten mind (...) those anterior ones/ Whose lives in mine were blent," before return to "The brain's familiar prison-bars./ And raiment of the sorrow and the mirth/ Wrought by the shuttles intricate of earth."
The Abyss offers an almost Gnostic definition of God's will as "law to conceal and disperse/ The tangled tissues of the universe," then pictures the ultimate star-extinguishing abyss of chaos even God cannot conquer, in terms reminiscent of what we today would think of as a black hole (although when the poem was written, in 1912, the concept was still undiscovered): "What light in thine embrace of darkness sleeps" etc.
Nirvana includes an intriguing picture - "They passed to some eternal fragment-heap (...) Drawn voidward by the vampire-lips of sleep," while The Song Of A Comet mainly stands out, even against the fierce competition elsewhere in CAS' work, for its sheer density of dead suns references - "mighty wrack of stars undone" ... "aimless forms, whose once far-potent blaze/ In ashes chill is now inurned," ... "unimplicated in their doom/ The final and disastrous gyre/ Of blinded suns" ... "What wraiths of suns extinguished long ago!" and "Snatch at the flame of failing suns," also the irritatingly unnecessary archaism 'adown', and the curiously worded description of cities as "long unlitten." It does, though, feature a notable visioning of the earliest stages of planet formation: "I pass the thickening brume/ Of systems yet unshaped."
Shadows is a rare CAS instance of locational specificity, with its "dim star-dials/ By the peoples of Pluto wrought:/ ..shifted vials/ Of a sorceress of Fomalhaut;" delicate indirection, too, makes vivid Ice Age onset: "On the towns of a doomed race/ The shadows of glaciers mount."
After Armageddon, briefly mentioned earlier, is a heretic's picture of ghoulish divinity: "Pale with His splendour as the frost in a moon-bleached place;/ God sees the tombs by the light of His face./ He shudders at the runes writ thereon, and His shadow on the sky./ Shudders hugely in space/... talks briefly with His armies of the tomb-born worm (...) the pale moth has fed/ Couched in a secret golden fold of His broad-trained cimar" (i.e. robe) etc. The Abyss Triumphant, in a sense the previous poem's sequel, comeuppance for a death-revelling deity, passes via an end-time "Mordant at pillars rotten through and through/ Of Matter's last, most firm abiding place" to a compelling (if unnecessarily quotation mark ended) payoff: "..the void Abyss/ Caught like a quicksand at the feet of God!"
Ode To Matter's creation/ destruction cycle shows CAS refreshing, for once, his death-of-stars rut: "arms of darkness, rising from the void/ Drag down the pillared suns again." The 'exotic/ strange landscapes' section again combines interest and oddity. Atlantis strikingly depicts "welded lips pressed down by weight/ Of the upper ocean." The City Of Destruction's couplets (for once unrhymed), grandiosely vague in "horns that lift the heavens' doom... huge as the night of hells extinct," also equals Ode To Matter in managing a new twist to those omnipresent dead stars: "Quarried from the core entire of suns that night and ice entomb/ Their secret furnaces relume the stone that once was stellar fire."
The Melancholy Pool images its trees as "priesthood of the Night's misrule/... shadow-cowled, imprecatory (...) wet and cool/ as with a mist of poison," around "black deeps" in which "the pale moon" seems "A haggard girl, with dead, despairing face." Another with a watery - marshland - setting, Solution, atmospherically describes the "touch/ Of the blind air," calling it "dank and wet/ As from a wounded Thing that bleeds/ In cloud and darkness overhead."
Outlanders, with its "red, primeval gold/ For which we fight the griffins in strange wars," conjures real mystery. The Outer Land depicts an oddly memorable "nippled dune" (albeit along with an irritating inversion, "Entire.../! scan the realm of my duress"), while The Moonlight Desert, "seen through the burnt-out atmosphere," could be another planet's.
Amithaine, its slender towers finely "Swan-throated," evokes by paradox with "in her wild eyes/ Full many a sunless sunset lies." The Dark Chateau is neatly sinister in its second person adjuration to "stir the blurring tapestries (...) By rotting portraits that were you,/ Pass on," while Averoigne, despite the illogicalities "the chime/ Of changeless bells equivocal/ Clangs forth" - a chime is not a clang, a clang is hardly equivocal! - is full of compelling pictures, of "ivy-hooded towers" ... "tomb-fat leaves," the surreal strangeness of "He hears the termless monarchies/ That walk with thunder-echoing shoon/ In iron castles past the moon/ Fast-moated with eternity," even if the poem ends in a sadly anticlimactic dying fall, with "tarnished strings/ that tell archaic things."
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Emperor Of Dreams
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