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Review: The Icon Maker, by Paul Stubbs

Paul Stubbs wants least of all to reassure his readers. In his latest collection The Icon Maker, there are few cosy signposts, few satellite navigation directions saying where to turn next, few bits of paper dropped by the hare. The balance between the provision and withholding of clues pitches towards the latter and the effect is to have the reader tread water, in at the metaphysical deep end. If each poem comprises its own self-sufficient locale it is one which is discovered by Stubbs line by line, built word by word, mapped spontaneously at the moment of writing, as if no guide book, therefore, has yet been drawn up. Here is the opening stanza of The Changeling:

The same person I could have been,
if my after-image it was identical;
But when without a
Face I am everyone!

In its own idiosyncratic way, as an opener, this stanza breaks all rules of engagement. There is the inconsistent line breaking, the meagreness of provided clues, that seemingly redundant it and, perhaps above all, the overwhelmingly strange, even awkward rendition of an idea made more complex by its expression. What you suddenly realise you have alighted upon, therefore, is a language so personal and so original that it must struggle for survival in the public sector.
The poems in The Icon Maker explore in detail the intensely intimate relationship that exists between poet and his universe: until then finally the God in him / it is lost to us forever, he writes in the titular poem. My reservation about such hieratic language is that it can tend, at its most heightened, towards the private. Witgenstein's idea that a truly private language is both unlearnable and untranslatable, and must not only in fact be understood by one person, but in principle only to be understood by one person, is apposite here. Stubbs's language is a private one because it demands implicitly more acts of intuitive trust on the part of the reader than most languages do, and has been known to slide into the inaudible: Having now yawned your lividity / into a hiatus you call existence. At times I felt Stubbs' very particular English hovering perilously between the private and the public, searching for a signal; it's no accident that more than one poem in this collection attempts to build upon something that Francis Bacon, another priestlike devotee of the personal, has offered. Once the trust is in place, however, once the earshot is adjusted, his poems can be compelling and haunting and I was forced into the conclusion that real originality is always a new kind of difficult euphony.

Stubbs does not easily fit into a tradition. In Global Scene he writes, Upon a high mountain ledge: and empty chair. / Man must be elsewhere. This kind of grandiosity is not often to be found in contemporary British poetry. There is something of the late R.S. Thomas at large in Stubbs' work for sure, especially in the subversive religiosity. There's even a whisper of Les Murray in his to-the-glory-of-god mode, even a touch of Geoffrey Hill, even Eliot, but in the end, Stubbs is very much his own man, talking his own talk. Some will find the lack of tonal variation in these poems something of a problem and might even long for something of light relief. But page for page this is a remarkable book, its diction, its philosophical and metaphysical encounters, unlike any collection I have seen for years.