The European flaneur parexcellence

The Book of Bells and Candles,
Norman Jope

     (9.00 Waterloo Press, Hove)

It's been about ten years since Norman Jope's last poetry collection was published so this new book has been keenly anticipated for some time. Although many of the author's preoccupations are evident in The Book of Bells and Candles, it's a bit of a one-off in that the overall collection has a theme, based around Jope's interpretation of the golem myth - here brought into the 21st century, although the old-world tone of the book is intriguingly at odds with its crisp verse-style - and is written entirely in three-line stanzas, each poem being eighteen lines in length. The setting is that of Central and East-Central Europe, a geographical area which the author is personally well-acquainted with, and the ambitious nature of its form and subject seems to suggest a host of literary, and indeed, visual influences. Jope cites Georg Trakl as the main 'leading light' or 'ghostly presence' (this collection is filled with ghostly presence and allusions to the dead) and there is certainly an air of melancholy longing which pervades the book and which those in the know might certainly associate with the tragic Austrian poet. Other reference points would be the Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef - also cited in the notes to chapter headings - another tragic 'Romantic', one might say, Coleridge, Aidan Dun (with particular reference to the verse-form) and the painters Caspar David Friedrich and Marc Chagall. Although Jope distances himself from any 'autobiographical element' in the after-word, he is certainly the author of this book and I see in his version of the golem a sort of fictionalised alter-ego at work. The book is dedicated to one Gabriella - 'my fellow-traveller, hostess and mistress in these parts', and the device of the muse is certainly another central aspect of this group of poems.

As is usually the case with Norman Jope's poetry - his output is prodigious and we can expect a larger retrospective collection in due course - the writing is clear and functional in its expression of a narrative, yet suffused with lyrical imagery and beautiful moments. If there's a fairy tale element of enchantment within these pages - and there certainly is - then it's a charm where the warmth of a summer afternoon is periodically broken by the foreboding presence of dark forests. Bram Stoker, though not acknowledged, is another writer whose work has influenced Jope's writing, as I think is Edgar Alan Poe:

     A lizard flashes. He is stunned by its speed.
     September sun makes sparkling patterns.
     How good to stretch, absorb the birdsong.

     as mountains close before him
     and realisation dawns, that grace
     is only a campfire or a watch-tower,
     that fear of the forest is the secret of Europe
     and that all the walls of monasteries and castles
     were built against the howling of wolves.

In the poem 'Reunion', we are in the Vienna of a sweetly cloying, decaying society, as indicated by the references to Klimt and the more disturbing Egon Schiele, a place where - 'The light is gold, the shadows mauve.' - and where - 'Silence cools around them, like cream-clogged coffee'. Even here among the idling pleasures of civilisation, Jope evokes an other-worldly atmosphere which is  intoxicating and almost timeless, sensual and with a just a hint of chill. It's easy while reading these poems to drift into a sort of dreamy reverie, a languor which is broken by the 'presence' of wolves or by the possibility of an actual seduction:

     She can wear a halo or hold a tower -
     she can also cross her legs on the metro
     and impale a man on the thorn of her eye.

It's the shift between the oldie-worldie feel of much of the description: where there are castles and forests and open spaces, where ghostly figures are evoked and dark histories suggested; and the sometimes abrupt interjections of modern society, that make for what tensions exist in this work. Otherwise, the pace is slow and ethereal, dreamy and elsewhere:

     Then, on the other side, it's night
     and neon goldfish flounder in the streets
     as the rain's vice tightens, at the entrance to the Metro

     where drivers argue, inspecting damage,
     flattened by water as crowds ooze past
     to restaurant, theatre and bar.

Norman Jope is the European flaneur par-excellence, shifting from medieval landscapes to modern cities with a journalistic sweep, punctuated by a poet's eye and pen. I doubt there's another British poet producing work like this at the moment and in that sense some would no doubt call his work old-fashioned and anachronistic. The breadth of his ambition is impressive and filmic in its quality - I'm sure The Seventh Seal
must be a favourite of his - and this sequence of poems is a new departure for him. Where this leads him to next is anyone's guess but I doubt that you'll read another book of contemporary poetry from an English writer that is anything like this.

Waterloo Books are looking good these days, with clear, functional layout and nicely designed covers. The cover artwork, in this case, is by Lynda Stevens, an intriguing balance of texture, shape, line and colour.

            Steve Spence 2009