The Mute Bride
This review by Jeremy
Hooker appeared in PN Review 122
Volume 24 Number 6, July - August 1998
IN THE SPIRIT OF WILLIAM BLAKE
ANDREW JORDAN, The Mute Bride (Stride) £7.95
'Buried, 'ancestral', 'decoded', 'invisible', 'mute': the adjectives Andrew Jordan has used in the titles of his books of poems indicate his persistent concern with the hidden, the repressed, that which lies under. Jordan is a 'poet of place', but not in a conventional way. He writes from passionate knowledge of southern England, and creates a palpable and luminous sense of specific landscapes and places, such as Winchester and Southampton. But Jordan is anti-picturesque; he does not depict appearances but the forces that shape them, and the possibilities they contain. His subject is the human mind, which constructs prisons for being, and has the capacity to destroy them. He is as far from sentimental regionalism as are Roy Fisher or John Riley or the Geoffrey Hill of Mercian Hymns. He has a political imagination, a religious sensibility hostile to established religion, and, like the poets named above, he has an idea of 'England' that subverts the stereotypes, and writes of self and nation and society in the spirit of William Blake.
Unlike many English poets, Jordan risks taking on an intellectual role, and articulates his ideas with lucidity and wit. He uses postmodernist terms for his own purposes, rather than allowing himself to be used by them, as may be seen in 'A Nonist Manifesto' (Angel Exhaust 15). There, he proposes 'That all myths of place must be exposed'. The project is libertarian, as in Blake; and in the poems in The Mute Bride it takes the form of using myth to deconstruct myth, in order to release energies - imaginative and communitarian - imprisoned in constructions of self and society, energies with which human beings can remake their lives together and in harmony with life on earth.
'A collective unconscious, a powerful underworld, shimmers beneath the ground.' This is the force latent in Jordan's landscapes, giving them a numinous quality. The otherworld that shines through his ancient places is not a faery realm, but a source of renewal: human potential, 'enclosed' by repression, the power of contained desire. A landscape that has been unmade, literally, is at the centre of the book: Twyford Down, where Jordan participated in resistance to the M3 road development. And, close to Twyford Down, St Catherine's Hill, site of a medieval chapel dedicated to St Catherine. In the remarkable sequence in 19 parts, 'Larksong Over Twyford Down', which concludes the book, 'archetypal St Catherine' with her 'flaming wheel' is described, as 'representing: / besieged nature, a goddess of hilltops; / an older solar deity - resistance'.
One might expect the poet to despair at the unsuccessful outcome of resistance on Twyford Down. The opposite is rather the case. Evidently the experience of resistance reinforced Jordan's belief in the spirit of community. I would also surmise on the basis of internal evidence that witnessing the massive effort of unmaking strengthened his awareness of the constructed landscape and of the human power to imagine and to build differently, so that the failure of resistance was not only an end, but also a beginning. Moreover, Jordan has, in more than one sense, a saving sense of humour. Indeed, his hope is founded on a sense of the absurd, embodied in 'Green Men' who 'Laugh at how our symbols of hope, / nature, divine power, are always made / alive for us by suffering again'. Such laughter is not the mockery of despair, but a fertilising energy.
'St Catherine spins her wheel of desire / over Winchester, a decayed Jerusalem.' The Blakean spirit informing The Mute Bride does not depend upon such references, but is present in the desire itself. Jordan's 'places' are where imaginative vision is opposed to mere seeing, archetypal creativity to history:
Impossible to imagine such desire cooling,
like a sun becoming old and massive,
a red giant in the sky above St Catherine's Hill.
Then, all that we can hold will be history —
a broken goddess on a stilled wheel;
a landscape finally, utterly, destroyed;
no forest anywhere, no orchids, no huge
insects hanging in their webs, no bright birds,
no cross of hope with anyone's plan
nailed onto it, no sovereignty, despair —
just angels wiping their faces away,
with no more need to see forwards,
blinded by the lack of any future.
I have emphasised the English tradition to which I believe Jordan's subversive use of myth belongs. Another influence at work in The Mute Bride is that of Rilke. Blake and Rilke are potent influences, of course. They have in common a spirit of independence, with which they remake tradition, and a consequent sense of possibility, of the human capacity to create anew. That Jordan can come under their influence without resorting to pastiche is a tribute to his own independence of mind. A necessary independence, born in a poet who is passionately involved with the area he knows, and who is acutely aware of the dangers of neo-Georgianism, and of sentimental and picturesque treatments of ancient landscapes, which, unlike Roy Fisher's city, have been seen and seen again.
The Mute Bride takes risks, and is an ambitious book with little interest in small perfections. It combines personal and political materials, and is craftily organized. It begins with 'deep stirrings' in the poet's early life, which are treated indirectly, showing that sexual desire is a force that pervades human life and nature. Andrew Jordan's muse is St Catherine with the flaming wheel, and his concern is with liberating the creative power that unites human beings with one another and with nature, and enables them, even in a time of destruction, to imagine Jerusalem.