Michael Lee Rattigan is a poet of a clarity spent in the relative formedness of the mind-body’s attentions. The intense world of feeling he evokes in the poems of ‘Liminal’ feels, to me, like something of a refreshing change in English language poetry. Is this because he is obviously schooled in work from other languages? Spanish and Portuguese particularly. Perhaps the question needs no answer. The word ‘Liminal’, in starting to read, throws off some interesting parallels where a critique of the book might be explicated. I re-read the poem ‘To Write’:
Life in words beyond
“…l’habitat de la solitude”,
desired with fingertips
from nowhere, anywhere, everywhere:
“dragnet fishermen gone mad”
imagination, stalked and fled
an ever open valve
marginal things wanting to live.
Emblematic, in some ways, of a number of probings contained in the book. Here, a kind of alchemic chemistry, the poetry as process-reflection. The theme of the motions of the mind also set up. And we see a kind of macrocosm folded back on itself in the ending. There’s a clearness here, both in expression and in the moment of being-expressed, a theme that’s also vital to this writer; motion, in relation to new conceptions of the temporal. Indeed, we see this in a poem of that name, ‘Temporal’:
by static points
that never come
…an argument, or thesis, slowly unlodges itself from the book of the world through this book of poetry. Here, Rattigan concerned with notions of appearance and recognition, as in those thoughts on writing itself. A tension with the whole problem of dualistic modalities embedded precariously in the mind,
[…] a gulf
separating two worlds
An ambivalence of voice, between these two poems, that creates an interesting dissonance on re-reading. In both the abstract and the concrete he takes the overheard as well as the given (assumed?) voice of the poet as BOTH forming the voice of the poem, which, in turn, ushers in a great variety of narrative choices. Attitudes of dualisms played off against each other for creative purpose. Languages, too, are bound up in this unique freedom. And a music created there… a particular brand of complexity Rattigan seems expert at, words, in novelty, as toys, breaking over the reader in simplicity of statement (perhaps the word simplesse, from the French, is implicated here? The delicate balance between complexity and simplicity of utterance). The poems do not suffer meaning over music nor music over meaning, which is to say he worlds his objects as though they were phonemically and physiologically part of him (and they are part of him, if we wanted to stray into metaphysics).
There is a serenity, and a unity, in the way he moves from the general to the specific and back again… does this summon a project of disturbance underneath the lyric repose? A fabulous convergence of sight and sound provides pleasant dissonances. He is conducting away from Joyce’s drunkenness, the central concrete fact of imaginative leaps, in tune with the phonetic value of thoughts in motion, turning more toward the imagistic sobriety of an Octavio Paz or a George Oppen. In ‘Window Sketch’, where one expects to hear ‘Still motion / tanged with salt’ one actually gets the wonderful:
tangled with salt
so that the movement of attention becomes a physical character in the fixed drama of adjectives. And, amiably reduced to the vital disturbances of this lyrical mode, the didactic voice stands both before, and inside, things seen, as in ‘Incognito Fragments’
A match unstruck
in deep time
beyond heat and pulse
and all thought
benevolent or otherwise
…perhaps there is a debate of emphases here? Which reminds me of ‘The Good’ of Plotinus, or Eriugena’s ‘Nothingness’ (both notions perhaps unknowingly re-born, in different ways, into the 20th Century through the philosophies of Whitehead, Heidegger and Sartre). The great speech of ‘the match’ moving in reduction (and the attendant association, meaning-wise, of the word ‘match’; what Stevens called ‘the danger of metaphor’).
This magnetic rumour I find, more and more, in my reading of a great problem inherent in notions of measure, continued here:
Yet no “final result” either,
as terms belong to dark vocabulary
time’s inevitable arrow –
The poem finds Rattigan at his most abstract-instructive-best. ‘Thanatos’ unfortunately, finds me moved, more negatively, away from the assertion: ‘One day earth won’t be. / Water will have its way / and air will breathe through bones.’ What travel appears here? An overdose of entropic prophecy, on first reading, at least for this reader. But this is perhaps missing the point… the final two lines seeking a performance of the poem’s title, suggesting the poem as dramatic character in the drama of book and world. It also sends me to Valéry’s Eupalinos, which, in similarly dramatic mode, employs the voice of Socrates:
Here I am, says the Constructor, I am the act. You are the matter, you are the force, you are the desire, but you are separate. An unknown industry has isolated and prepared you according to its means. The Demiurge was pursuing his own designs, which do not concern his creatures. The converse of this must come to pass.
I relate The Demiurge, in Valéry (and a key feature in certain gnostic writings) to the Entropy implied in Thanatos (it then morphs into Satan through Christian symbology and is left in its most modern formulation in Milton, with the most recent usages being simply intellectualized manipulates, broken up by cold corporations, as moral excuses for endless war in a kind of skewed post-modern Cabalese)… yet there is no total conclusion, in the poem (which, ironically, sets up part of its theme, the poem as endlessly re-defined character, or beginning) and I’m happy to defer to Valéry’s Socrates on the topic of the physics of entropic forces (which, in the ideal human realm, and in the absence of The Demiurge, seek balance over preference?)
One can always look upon a work that has failed as a step which brings us nearer to the most beautiful. Which, I’m sure Rattigan would approve of. Regardless, I often wonder if the most horrific thing, for men, is the notion that the world will not ever end, so desperate he sometimes seems to encircle character with absolutisms in an effort to afford despair’s surfeit of want. The notion of the ultimate, somehow, not where the field of focus should lie? Having said all this, these tensions are rewarded in the mirror of each poem’s constellations, the balance and poise of them… as we find, later, in Rattigan pre-empting these apocalyptic tensions through the precision of this line from ‘Autre’:
you could pin it
down, as definite
as the face still there,
…the face still there, / turned away; re-painting the famous closing of Rilke’s eighth elegy from Duino?
Wie er auf dem letzten Hugel, der ihm ganz sein Tal
noch einmal zeigt, sich wendet, anhalt, weilt—,
so leben wir und nehmen immer Abschied.
(Just as upon / the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley / one last time, he turns, stops, lingers—, / so we live here, forever taking leave —trans. Mitchell). A kind of pinion seems implied here, where even dualism and non-dualism co-exist; a co-terminal janus-face of both inertia and movement.
Still, before the energetic assertions of both ‘Thanatos’ and ‘Autre’ I discover the ancient totem of the pomegranate through these lithe lines:
from tart pith
in clotted fullness
to offer the blood’s
Not often does a poet dare to celebrate the blood, so tainted by the associations of war and torture, as we have found via the word, re-convened and cornered by violence, in the 20th Century. The blood, for me, is not a bodily offering. It is the soul’s infused being manifest in the corporeal world so as to give symbolic and energetic weight to God, the object, and projection, of its passion… the blood echoed in the formation of matter, particularly fire and air, as any good student of Pythagoras and the pre-Socratics might imagine. The poem, while not lost to these auto-didacticks, seems simply to intend a re-introduction to the poetic discourse of this sacred image and, as ever, succeeds in finding it amongst the pleasing flux of these lines.
I also notice, too, the almost total absence of an ‘I’ in the book… another example of the ‘Liminal’, in different hues, throwing off the image of bridge… rather than societal station. In this, Rattigan is more photographer than narrator (a fore-knowledge of the reader as ultimate narrator in a larger sphere of textual spheres?) with the ‘Liminal’ also being the communality implied in the bridge… as in a beautiful poem, written for the poet Paul Stubbs, ‘Hubble,’
10,000 galaxies bloom
to our unseeing sight
and all our knowledge a step
further into wonder
The poet’s strengths eminently made visible here.
One of the greatnesses of Rattigan’s poetry is the immense respect he engenders in setting himself before the objectia of the world and, again, what gives him, often, the soul of the photographer, particularly in accessing the neo-Platonic awareness of Being, as opposed to the measured (though necessary) successes and failures of knowledge, existing as process.
And perhaps this is where I discover my final ‘Liminal’… between those two fields, as exemplified in the Heraclitean poem ‘Flow’:
open windows and doors
on dappled spaces
maybe this is the most keenly explicated presentation of a working philosophy for this poet; the eminence of flux:
by what separates
‘it’ from the world […]
“en formas, colores, vibraciones”,
Is there a final triplicate there? Or perhaps the bird has flown into an entirely Other arena? An offering to the poetry-book god at the end of the rainbow, a more-than-full verbal explosion?! The poem feels like an ambassador for the book as a whole; a kind of treasury, or bestiary, animal-like, dressed in its own lingual clothing… moving toward the between of its title.
–Andrew O’Donnell, October 2012
Michael Lee Rattigan is a poet and translator, and regular contributor to The Fiend. His most recent work can be found in ‘The Black Herald 3’. ‘Liminal’ can be ordered here: http://www.rufusbookspublishing.ca/ http://www.rufusbookspublishing.ca/authors/rattigan_michael_lee/index.html