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Review: The Icon Maker, by Paul Stubbs

Paul Stubbs writes like nobody, but nobody in contemporary British poetry. For influences you have to go to European poets like Georg Trakl, Gottfried Benn, Janos Pilinszky, Ungaretti, all of whom provide epigraphs for poems in this his second collection. Even so, Stubbs is his own man and writes, as I've said, like nobody else.

This makes it hard to characterise his work. It is also partly because he is actively engaged in a struggle to comprehend spiritual matters (what the blurb calls the unrefined materials of his imagination) in a world which has largely abandoned them, partly because he writes in a variety of contesting voices, and partly because language can only approximate to what he has inside him to say. I enthusiastically reviewed his first collection The Theological Museum (Flambard, 2005), which I described as original to the point of idiosyncrasy. There I could see a kinship with the paintings of Francis Bacon (a number of poems in the present collection take paintings by Bacon for their starting point) and the plays of Beckett and Pinter; I also said that the only writer in English I could think of as tackling such cosmic material was the novelist Philip Pullman. Behind Pullman, of course, lies Milton and Blake, great poets who tackle great cosmic themes. The nearest we get to them in Stubbs is his references to Yeats's rough beast (a version of Blake's Tyger) slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

Reading the book through at one go is not an option: you have to stop reading, get your breath back, and then come to it again. Even so it feels as though you are in a vertiginous free-fall in outer space, subjected to a bewildering bombardment - swirling bits and pieces of religious iconography. Are they visionary or hallucinatory? As Stubbs distrusts the idea of a stable Self, we can never be sure. What we are aware of is a heroic struggle to make sense of a recalcitrant world. We are in a sphere where religion no longer works, a world of floundering Popes, misguided scientists and philosophers, in which the last relics of human inhabitation of Earth are up for auction or where the maker of icons, a descendant of the sculptor Phidias, waits for the next and final god to die. The blurb correctly states that in this work the principal theological players in a world 'beyond' religion (are) called to account and made to face uncomfortable transformation into corporeal beings. This is Cormac McCarthy's end-of-the-world scenario taken further and played out against a cosmic backcloth.

And if all peoples have become

now exempt, and all the minds clashed, then there
can be now no new understanding of the self,

no future explorations of the soul,
while now, today, like a cymbal, the
sun is resounding, the last human

shadow from the sundial has passed,

And only our ego, circling us,
like a satellite, remains.

from Without Philosophy

Stubbs is a highly distinctive and original poet, one whose voice has to be listened to. As I said in the previous review, he is not a comfortable read but he is certainly challenging.