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Review by David Russell

Review by David Russell

seven luminous paths by Tom Rubens

Happy London Press 2022 ISBN: 978-1-921951-37-6 

David Russell is a writer of poetry, literary criticism, speculative fiction and romanceEarlier poetry collections include Prickling Counterpoints (1998) and his poems have been published on-line in the International Times. His main speculative works are "High Wired On" 2002; "Rock Bottom" 2005. In 2013, he published a translation of the Spanish epic "La Araucana" (Amazon).

Watching ‘Spartacus’ – yes: I did so. Very interesting opening Stanza on the power of Cinemascope to convey a true sense of the past, and ‘. . . burn into the present/by its difference.’ Searing survey of gruelling life-cycles of slave labourers, surviving ‘fractured sleep and sickness’, to head for mass graves – and of the privileged, but still horrendous, lives of gladiators. Then a celebration of those who rose firm against the oppression – the honoured few, who force reflection about the silent majority. The final stanza in a way indicates the apathy of the cinema audience, going comfortably home after the show. The final couplet is ironic ‘. . . the reliving of/What has largely been outlived.’ Oppression and exploitation continue. Is it perhaps some sort of sedative to put it into an abstracted compartment at a safe distance.

Dockland Once – The closure of the docks, and the drastic refurbishment of the former docklands areas, must have been a major trauma for masses of people: being dragged into the future through the disintegration of a long-standing past and present – ‘futuristic fuselage of glass and steel’. But most depressing are the shells of the warehouses, their windows bricked-up – ‘Blocked-in squares that/Slowly suggest eye-sockets/bereft of pupils’. The spectacle catalyses a flashback to the days when the docks were throbbing with activity – when people lived very much in the present, with little thought for the morrow. But what has replaced the docks does not constitute a vital present: “Now’s silent precincts of disuse./These seem to belong as much to past/As ramparts of some ancient town.” Much food for thought in the last stanza. Behind the glitter of hyper-modernity lies the accumulation of past generations ‘Purblindly steeped in perspiration’ – their memory now brutally suppressed.

Brandt’s Cancer – I am an unreserved admirer of Brandt; among his many achievements, he managed to defuse what could have been a bloody insurrection. The first stanza celebrates his resistance to Nazism. The second stanza refers to the ‘moral citadel’ – this, to me, suggests the Berlin wall and the like. It then proceeds to honour Brandt’s supreme sensitivity to the totality of his society, behind the glamorous facades of reconstruction and Wirtschaftswunder: “So was shown that spaces/Beyond our high and sturdy handiwork/Should never be discounted, no matter/How obscure compared with/The crystal lights of towers and domes.” Unflinchingly, Brandt faced what lay behind and beyond our ‘edifices of order’. The final stanza suggests to me that there are sculptures of Brandt’s features.

Winter Night of Brixton Road – This relates to colour issues. In some sense, it repeats the message of the Spartacus poem: ‘The contrast between the freely unfolding/kaleidoscope of the present/and the past, steeped in the static shadows/of servitude.’ The poet’s Vision embraces the slave trade, ‘the stockades of past oppression’, and refers to the difference between the Brixton landscape and those parts of Africa from which the black inhabitants originally stemmed, and the slave markets at which their ancestors were bought and sold. A woman makes a vague overture for a date to a passer-by. He did not notice her, just went back to a bleak home. The poet feels compassion.

The Freize Around the Base of the Albert Memorial – contemplation of the relationship between the gold and the grey marble. Again the recurrent theme of the fusion of past and present: ‘A chiselled vista of life-size figures/Come from every point on/history’s compass… Their differences in context dissolved/Into a present tense they all inhale.’ The figures feel wonderfully alive: “. . . each seems able to step out/From its stone moorings but/chooses not to . . .” I had to ponder ‘The nearness which never threatens identity.’ They can always be huddled together in that sanctuary, without any one of them losing a sense of individuality. It is indeed a panorama of humanity ‘As it scans the larger alphabet/Of countenances and postures which/Spell zeniths of attainment/in every major art.’ The perspective of construction is presented, the smelting furnace for the gold, and the chiselling for the marble – cut paths to free it/from anonymity.

St Paul’s at Summer’s Peak – a celebration of the luminosity of this building. ‘Corundum’ is a new term for me. I am grateful for the introduction. This grand edifice seems blended with nature – ‘Drenched in noon-stream . . . across garden railings,/The crimson of the rose-whorls/festooning pale-green bushes/is velvet deep.’ The sun illuminates the golden icon.

Ripostes – a sense of natural splendour, in blazing colours, but in some way detached from humanity: “those spectra unfold/not for our response.” Another side of air travel – ‘Planes ply unheeding spaces’. ‘. . . gleaming, lengthening diagonals of white.’ Vapour trails? This is followed by a seeming flashback to the frieze of the Albert Hall. This is followed by a celebration of the architecture of orchestral music – shades of Robert Browning’s Abt Vogler. That celebration seems to have an affinity with successful completion of a manuscript. But is the author finally to be ignored by the rest of humanity: “These and other articulations,/since meant to reap response./Define themselves against/The far larger motions of the sky,/Which unravel in/crossways free fall,/Without intention to be watched.”

Thames Valley Night – I very much appreciate the painterly quality which pervades Tom Rubens’s work. Lovely opening here: “. . . watercolour/Shades of difference, grey-blue in sun haze.” I am also impressed by his sense of optics: “Distance fully declares itself/In plethora of points of light –/Pale amber, emerald and red –/Which range crosswards and outwards,/Like a hundred Heathrow runways linked . . . Each light is tremulous continuous,/Faintly pulsating across the miles/Between it and retina receiving it:” He celebrates a child’s fascination with Christmas tinsel, which cannot translate into adult years. But the child and adult mind are linked by ‘. . . the fecund sense of promise/always felt at/Such stellar spread as this/of electric sequins . . .’ The spectacle engenders optimism: “This array unfailingly/Braces the breast for whatever/Length of future lies ahead.”

The Silent Orchestra relates statues to music. This artistic cross-referencing is one of Tom Rubens’s great strengths. He also venerates geometry, senses of straightness and verticality. Striking figure with ‘Palace, like a shaded diadem’, Music and architecture have physical fusion in ‘Domed auditoria’. Concomitantly, he refers to statues ‘Whose names echo without limit’. He sees strong orchestral music as having elemental power ‘. . . like that of/Gusts battening mountains/and churning seas/In free-wheeling joy at themselves.’ A brilliant Oxymoron: “Soundlessly, the orchestra/Pushes every instrument to its/utmost articulation:/Then, to our ears hints at itself/Along a groove/perception has finally cut.” Much food for thought here; there must be some element of soundlessness in the preparation of an orchestral score.

Poetry Group certainly tallies with my experience. I am one of so many with ‘A need for unseen paths of words’. Each participant has a precious ‘inner landscape’, the privacy of which is totally respected. “No wish is felt, or effort made,/To invade other places of origin./Territorial integrity is by all/Respected, each seeing that/alternative regions are beyond/Not only access but,/even were that possible,/Also use.” Selection and focusing have taken place: “Standing figures/have been fashioned/From the throng of shapeless daily events/- from our unique vibrations to them.” There is tension between the desire for personal privacy and the need for audience/readership: “We lift them to public hearing in hope/they may be shared,/Whilst knowing their source cannot.”

Finality ponders the creative process – to penetrate ‘. . . the human-tissued edifice/Of basic and distinct expression.’ He rightly considers that the primal urges of childhood should be ‘not denied but harnessed’. Then he relates individuality to universality: ‘Self’s diffusion into/That plural structure which,/To individual effort, is/frieze to single profile.’

Powers Beyond Ours – A fine verbal painting of sunlight and cloud, and bare boughs at ground level. A sequel word-painting of flocks of birds in this location, followed by a brightening of the sun, sharpening the contours of the landscape. Some slate roves. Then ducks and gulls on a lake – ‘In bold and cavalier denial of cold.’ – admirable! Back to the sky – “Overhead, blue remains/Fragmentary, lacking tenure sure;” Tom is emphatically one of those ‘whose medium is water or sky’. He contemplates the landscape in terms of a fusion of music and painting: “That just a few of the notes/Which day may sound/suffice to pipe them/Along the path of affirmation.”

Below Snowdon – a sense of mystery because of cloud cover. A sense of hard hiking – ‘. . . gradients of green/That steadily steepened, hinting/harder trekking ahead.’ Nature seemed menacingly animate – ‘Seemingly hewn in hostility to/the half-hearted.’ The pioneering spirit has been aroused: “Those distant walls which drew/Us on by growing taller . . .” Then there is espied another lake, supreme painter’s inspiration – ‘A sinuous interval in hardness of stone,/Its water rendered sea-green/By distance and the surrounding grass escarpment.’ Its green is off-set against the pure white of the gulls. Another splash of colour – ‘Through the bluish-grey, streaks of green appeared.’ The intrepid explorers realised that they could not make it to the summit of Snowdon; they ‘. . . savoured the nether spaces:/The mineral echelons, aeons sculpted.”

South Downs opens with an astute fusion of the visual and the auditory: “That of the Downs summit./Its gaunt contour, neighbour/for miles to fluid sky,/Suggests, as we all look up, a final/Authority in soundlessness.” Incisive portrayal of physical tensions – “as lung-lift/heavies, thigh-muscles tighten,/and wetness spreads across the back. . .” The ascent is completed, the summit reached. Wonderful perspective of the land below: “Squares of field compressed to streaks/Which form a single surface:/Linoleum flat, silvered in parts by sun,/Its smoothness going into mist.” The descent is easy-going, highly agreeable in tactile terms – ‘. . . the eye vista-filled./and ear by degree freed from wind-cling.’ Visually endearing too: ‘The brown and black flecks of/Cattle scattered across a grazing basin.’ Combine harvesters cutting corn. Other hills are there, presenting a similar challenge, which can be met at ease.

South Downs (2) opens with a spectacular optical illusion/vision – “. . . each thigh-straining stride/up the long escarpment/Was slowly lifting blue-tinged fields/Towards sky’s sapphire. April-fresh.” Some sense of geographical novelty – ‘faintly differing horizons,/prairie-like;’ And Tom certainly knows his fine art – ‘head-drooped horses,/Their Vandyke brown made pristine/by play of sunlight’ Very strong sense of perspective – ‘where sheep were scurf-dots/Casting tiny shadows; as did/A line of tree-lets, their arms/again wind-groomed.’ I would describe the final stanza as the poetry and geometry of perspective: “Slow-arced horizons were now reached:/Then these lowered, to evince/a vista/Of small plateaux.” An exciting illusion of motion – ‘The slope of one dropping as/another rose,/In miniature hint of highland grandeur.’ Then the splendour of the implicit visual: ‘. . . the sea,/Unseen, but inferred from/A slight-gleaming patch of white/Nestled on a green contour . . .’

The Sea at Marazion – another painterly-poetic seascape. I love the phrase ‘faintly shifting mosaic’, and ‘. . . coloured glass/Sports countless fleeting points of/pin-sharp light.’ Great metaphor of ‘black flecks/Of people . . .’ Wonderfully aesthetic view of the coastline: “. . . the eye is/Lulled by the pale transparency/Of the shallows at edge of /beach and rock./There is almost a wish that/This delicate clearness could/Replace the iridescent sheens/opaque and further out. /But the thought passes as/Eye arcs over the total spectrum.” Fantasy about an ideal landscape – I like it! Another panoramic view from a height – this time from the castle walls of Michael Mount. The colour spectrum is honoured again: “Near mauve is now near-silver,/As sun weighs the heavier on/the greater distance.” The horizons herald the great spaces ahead.

Earth’s Sea and Sky’s Sea – we must never forget that the sea mediates between earth and sky. But whereas the sea-bed, however deep-seated, feels solid and tangible, the upper boundary of the sky trails off amorphously. Vivid portrayal of sea travel ‘enclosed in/windowed shafts of steel.’ Startling comparison of clouds with ice-caps, portraying the sky as an aerial ocean, which can only be navigated ‘with artifice’. As broached at the beginning of the poem, the sky's sea has no bedrock; there is a strange anomaly here: burial coffins can encounter a solid bottom, whereas the sky – where souls purportedly go on decease, has none such.

Penetration is a survey of the activities of gales. More of the colour scheme: “opal dapples of day linger/High above the diffusing dark . . .” Penetration is also felt by a sweating nude body. Stunning cosmic metaphor – ‘August sun,/Whose molten diaphragming/Pumps harsh brilliance to the watching, wavering eye.” Super-tactile image in ‘Like the tip of a slender icicle into flesh’, and humanity related profoundly to the cosmos: “. . . sky’s variations/Voice nothing; are massive non-utterance, below which we,/in our minuteness, speak’. Human articulation is a vital, if limited, counterweight to the amorphous ‘data overhead’ – ‘radical sound, our pauses special silence . . . Our contrast to/Wordless immensity’.

The Worthy Goal – more ‘cloud cover’ – ‘The cumulus plenitude . . . Like a numberless fleet of/mythical ships of white.’ There is then the sense of an expedition, beset by obstacles. But now “a path is finally clear,/Since now the self-sheltering wall of fear/Has fallen’. There is a sense of enlightenment, and a figurative sense of ascent into the sky ‘Not careless of self but seeing/Self as only part, not whole.

Early Years – Pre-School – bedroom facing a nice garden, contrast between quiet home and crowded playground. He jostles with a crowd of other Children. More sensory peculiarity – “Though the distance from their mouths to me/Is short, the air-vibrations feel/Come from a long way off.” He then presents the idea of ears saturated by sound. Then the ‘decibel-tumult’ of the playground ends, and silence prevails, and ‘delicate timbres thread their way’. He ends with an expression of sympathy for the other children; he wishes them peace and quiet.

Watching ‘Los Olvidados’ – yes: also a ‘root film’ for me. A ground-breaking documentary of deprived children, who have a strange sense of dignity – ‘Miniature lords . . .’ The film captured the shanty-town shambles – ‘Fissured house walls and makeshift/doors and fences.’ Powerful expression with ‘encaved’; the ‘urban hinterland’ stifles any vision of the future. Tom then ponders on the state of that environment 60 years after. Will the people under scrutiny perhaps know ‘no difference between decades’? He also thinks of the state of the then child actors, who will now be approaching old age.

Watching Children Play – See-saws, helter-skelter, sandpit – these all make a nice spectacle. Children without a care in the world, not oppressed by forebodings of the future – ‘The impulses of a present tense which for them/Is utterly unmoored . . .’ – a blissful state which, sadly, cannot be shared by adults. With ‘The unrefined spontaneity of the playground’, achievements are supremely accessible, with ‘Skipping rope, ball, plasticine and pencil’ – free from aggressive competition and unattainability. The last stanza seems to celebrate the continuity of child-like enthusiasm, through life-cycles and generations.

Film Posters – Yes; I feel some nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of the cinema in the 1950s. Posters still exist, but have lost their former force. This was a time when a weekly, or twice-weekly visit to the ‘flicks’ was a necessary uplift. Interesting point with ‘The spaces beyond the posters/Have grown clearer’. In those days surface impressions were much more dominant; now there is far more common knowledge of what lies behind the scenes. There is now much more awareness of the processes: “Those who wield the small power/Of extracting and mastering/Some elements only . . .” Because of advances in the media, the old feeling of unavailable perfection has been undermined. Film-star looks are now disseminated far more widely among the population. Very accurate observation: “Your scale and speed of thought/Have out-spaced what the poster-subjects/Called for. For Tom, the book, once fully approached, excelled any film in quantity and substance. Film posters retain some magnetism, but only as one medium among many.

Grounds for Prediction – one is reminded of childhood days when watching children. The process of growing up is unidirectional. There is well-wishing, with some regret – ‘Without malice, but also/without a smile.’

By-Ways of Love – Renoir’s The Luncheon Party – Tom thoroughly grasps the sensual/tactile essence of painting, and venerates ‘the canvas’s archetypal/Clustering of the hopeful young.’ He explores the relationship between painter and viewer – “all that look/Are the ironic mosaic of points/Which make up/The picture’s implied and brief/subtitle.”

Café – The poet has a fascination for the counter-hand. There is minimal eye contact, and a smile which enhances her allure, but which is also defensive, ‘The concealing smile’. The poet finds a ‘vantage-point table’ from which he can keep her under observation, exploring her features at many angles, and registering the modulations of her voice. She is fully aware of her admirer’s feelings. She stands aloof, but is respectful. If at any point she would respond, she would absolutely take precedence over any rivals.

Already Spoken For – standard angst about the out of reach. For her, the expression had a routine, catchphrase quality – ‘A quick handful scooped/From the liquid flow of time’, but with depth meaning for the admirer – ‘a new current to it.’ Their minds seem far apart – ‘Deepening in this direction,/While she did in another/which he could not follow’. He imagines scenarios where he felt she should have been located. He is transported in time back to his adolescence, and his first responsiveness to ‘Woman dignity’. His first obsession seemed to last for several years. The state of reciprocation remains shrouded in mystery, though there are ‘nodal points of promise’. Although she was finally unavailable, her power over him was forever unabated.

The Message of the Miles – Yet more of the painterly touch with a sylvan landscape. Botanical/cosmic analogies: “The sky . . . Is tundra, with ridges of grey and/lakes of fading blue.” Humanity is very much at a distance – ‘Less a presence than an idea’. The ‘outstretched miles’ speak words of consolation to one without a companion. The final stanza perceptively explores the relativity of distance. In the absence of ‘a genuine sharing of lives’ – “blue-tinged land-lines are really/No further off than the talking faces/Which roll across the hours between/Lone opening and closing of eyes”. He laments ‘the weight of self’, but posits the idea that the self will become weightless ‘At the touch of a committed hand.’

Crowded Do – Romance story. Set in a bustling, trendy, up-market New Year party. The protagonist took some food, and kept his other hand free for handshakes. He had an introduction and was circulated among the crowd. His movement threw his mind back into the past. There is a suggestion that he may revisit a scene from the past in this gathering. This seems to come about with the sight of a beautiful woman. He asked one of the other participants about her name. The vision caused a time-leap of 20 years into the past, when he had this same vision in the course of a Saharan Safari. She had changed very little, remarkably well-preserved. It is then revealed that she shares his working environment: she is a new lecturer at the university where he taught. They meet up for coffee and chat. His hopes rise when he sees she is not wearing a ring, then subside when she says she has a husband in England.

Another flashback to the Sahara. It is here revealed that they were working colleagues, and keep within the bounds of professional cordiality. Naturally, he did have thoughts ‘That lover might well replace husband/For her for whom I longed no less.’ They say farewell at the airport and she leaves by plane. She had a large male entourage, but consciously or not ‘Filled for me a separate space as/Source of my first-ever love pang.’ The memory of her would ‘Mingle with later ones of like impact . . .’ A fascination can be a composite, particularly if the foci have some features in common. The re-encounter had a great sense of destiny – ‘Dropped into place by some uncanny/Wing-beat of circumstance/passing overhead.’ He plucks up the courage to introduce himself. She asks if she knows him. They then confirm their past, superficial acquaintance. He tries to think of the intervening twenty years. The upshot of their discussion was that he had no real place in her thoughts and memories. She turned away from him to have an animated conversation with someone else. Interesting spatial and temporal concept: “So, the few feet of separation stood for/the score of years –/Space for time, the small for the large –/and were in essence as/unbridgeable as an ocean.” He turned away, bumped into an old friend whom he minimally acknowledged, and left the gathering. His solitary walk home caused him ‘To ponder an even wider time-expanse than twenty years.’

End Point – Turn Away – the sated eye can turn away from the most enchanting spectacles. Not all memories have an indelible optical image: eye and mind have a delicate relationship: “Distance-from balances closeness-to,/Then sinks lower, so that/Vision is at any time/Ready to relinquish its objects/And resist their beckoning.” Some turning away is ‘wise rehearsal,/Action with foresight.’ Crucially, ‘Acceptance of darkness is not/rejection of light.’

Brute Slide of Circumstance – first of all an avalanche, and then rainless skies. Their sensations are analogous to murder and torture. There are no obstacles to these horrors. Recognition of the same ‘Is to cease all invocation’ (give up hope).

Upwards While Downwards – Descent from a mountain top, elemental analogy: “We should accept the final dashing/Into dark, deep water, but/not inertly.” Then, in fantasy ‘We may fashion a self-extension’. Also in terms of this fantasy ‘The denser the weaving into empty space,/The higher into sunlight it rises;’ the poem ends with a vision of golden strands free-floating in the atmosphere.

The Window – initially, the window gives a feeling of permanence, but “The huge pane/Will finally show its corner. The viewer, formerly captivated, will now accept the fact of relative, restricted vision.

Different Scenes, Different Lights – Wrong Job Etc. – A significant part of every day is taken up dealing with strangers, and a significant part of light is taken up by sleep. He contrasts the long-distance focus of the ‘travelling sky’ with the ‘close-up’ of ‘coffee-break level’. This is followed by vignettes of parting from a partner, and wondering about employers’ pressures on them both, then a plodding journey back home, to be greeted by a reminder about overdue rent.

Endwarfment – the sky changes from being a ‘mere backdrop to the human face’ to claim its true essence, as ‘a frontal vastness dwarfing it.’ The eye, which once felt ‘measureless’, infinitely expansive, is now ‘brought down to size’ within the skull. The expression of the whole face pales into insignificance: it is now ‘The lower and only edge of boundless air.’

Ashen Hair Long and Thick – A bustling part-top café, into which comes an attractive, mature woman – ‘her eyes glint tension.’ She gazes at ‘The high, wide glass of the café wall’, and orders some desultory fish and chips. The observer wonders about her marital state, or the lack of it; also about how she sees the world ahead, of which she gives no indication. She leaves.

Iron Dark – Neon lights – ‘like a row of big/imitation gems . . .’ When out of range of the artificial lighting, the eye “dilates without evasion/At darkness dense as iron.” Strong definition of the boundary of the lighting: “Hard black bolts the join between itself/And the city’s glimmering roof . . .” Fabulous portrayal of darkness: ‘. . . the opaque/canopy of space/Like the inside of a jet stupendous helmet.’ Darkness remains in absolute control, and ‘slides the lock on hopes/That only thrive in the dance of light.’

Money – Figures on a balance sheet can feel animate, personalised, but not so much as with old photographs. A parallel is drawn between anxiety about finance, and anxiety about ageing. They have their hold – ‘. . . they seem to/ lock to you/Like a shadow to a solid figure. The second stanza refers to the sense of calm which ensues from ceasing to worry about money: “. . . The cord between you and them/Can be cut at any time, at call of/The blood-quickening task/Which hurls security aside.”

More Aware and Chastened Self – Someone who has deeply hurt another, guilt and remorse feeling like being imprisoned in a dark cavern, being blocked off from one’s counterbalancing ‘gentle, generous gestures/which also comprise your past/and tell of another you . . . your present, more aware and chastened self’. One may escape from this confinement, but it retains its hold in the inner recesses of the mind, which cannot be penetrated by the enlightened state.

The Persisting Link – A widow of mature years, who gives some company to a fellow pensioner and widower. In the past she prepared the Sunday roast and took her son to the park, or to see relations. She faithfully keeps her family photographs. Her son visits her occasionally, but does not feel the deep attachment that she does. He senses her isolation, as old friends and neighbours have moved on and died. She leans on the television for company. Although he keeps his distance, he recognises the bond: “Our point of origin fills a unique space,/As do the kin-figures ranging either side;/All making a corridor of time/that bears a family name.”

Sunday Silence – novel description of cloudy sky as ‘water-turgid’. There is an unsatisfied need for sound, ‘Decibel absence’. Silence is especially distressing on a Sunday, because on this special day” There lingers habitual hope/Of choicest chimes/From somewhere far/past people . . .”. The silence takes on a positive quality – ‘. . . the tonnage of anti-sound, its density granite-like. There then arises the urge to groan, to counteract that silence; this has its validity, however limited – ‘a scoring of the surface of/silence’s rock-face.’ One one’s own, one may only scrape the surface. Hope for the future lies in ‘people-decibels’.
This far-ranging collection has my absolute approval.

David Russell

This post first appeared on What Tiger King Can Teach Us About Writing A Good Story, please read the originial post: here

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Review by David Russell


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