Arc Publications logo

50 years at the cutting edge of poetry publishing

“A meeting point for poets of all latitudes”
— VĂ­ctor Rodríguez Núñez

Review: The Icon Maker, by Paul Stubbs

The Death of the Gods

The journey of Paul Stubbs's second book of poems The Icon Maker is the journey that awaits us on the other side of our conventional religious and atheistic faiths, it is a book that deals with the inevitable communal emotional fallout that attends such realizations, and a book of the future, in that it apprehends and overcomes the subtle flexing of dogmas, as they present themselves to us in the 20th century world.

Over a century and a quarter after Nietzsche's well known God is dead expression it could well be that such material, at first glance, may seem less than current.

It was just
after the announcement,
over the tannoy
that religion had ended,
that I felt
the overwhelming
compulsion to depart
it, heaven.
And why, still, today,
in this chair
I descend.
But whose voice was it
bellowed out such an edict?
nobody knows;
only that, to a man,
like sheep, the majority
of us concurred;

The Pope departs his Heaven

What Stubbs seems to be able to subvert is Nietzsche's overtly intellectual call to arms, burrowing into his theme via intuition and emotion rather than hard logic, or being too bombastic or didactic in terms of actual philosophical lineages.

Having said that it would be a little overly reductive to deem this to be overtly philosophical poetry in the normal narrative manner. It is a long way from the system building of a Lucretius and more closely responds to the realizational and emotional accretions of a mid-period Holderlin. But this is purely to speak of the tonal texture of the poetry as it wafts over you.

The book seems to deal in both societal types or moments of ideological access to religious experience of some order, as well as rolling around in a much more complex (or much more simple?) open-hearted-ness in the face of the eternal. Stubbs's quote from Ungaretti seems significant in relation to the latter:

My every moment
I've lived
another time
in a deep period
outside me

...important because, given this 'way in' the whole narrativizing element of the poetic 'I' will nowhere be found in the book. The 'I' is self and 'infinite selves', which best exemplifies the difficulty a reader steeped in the post-Larkin voices of modern British poetry may have. In fact, it may be that the standard singularity of the poetic voice is simply sidetracked and given up for good in the particular methodology of The Icon Maker.
We are in a land of anonymities, types and archetypes and the eternal flow of the infinite. Accessing this kind of poetry is less like listening to a person talk and more like seeing the watermark on the hull of a boat where tides come in and out... or, as Stubbs himself writes in 'The Mirage of Poetic Evolution Since Eliot', like watching the needle of a seismograph tracking the aftershocks from our societally unwinding psycho-religious earthquakes. Its proto-narrativizing selves seem to live in the gap between the calmness of a natural spiritual process unfolding and the hard sharp jabs and wails of an ideological muscle dying. So we have the finality of Head II:

You no longer need to salivate, or even again
mouth the shape of a tyrant's last word before
his extinction. - Post-world images alone have
concerned you enough to no longer imagine bone.

...combined with the expectance of Imagining a Body:

With an as yet indefinable movement,
behind each shimmering veil of self;
at the altitude always of a God's eye,
where the mind it clears, bone recedes,
and all visible flesh it falls away;
a body that no longer clings onto any precipice,

While creating types to exemplify the post-religious spiritual evolution the modern world is experiencing Stubbs is by no means using the types that the poems represent as closed loops of prediction or analysis, as it were. They seem more like experiential and emotional orbs that probe the future with questions or poetical energetic pulses. In Without Philosophy he questions the role of that arch-displayer of argument and debate; philosophy... and the paradigm of how philosophy should move forward post-Nietzsche and post-Freud (which, if you think about it, has only a thin stream of analytical lineage in poetry)...

[...] 'being' itself it is reduced
to no more here than a slogan; sacrilegious
and apodictic, the pious they
listen out only for the sound
of Satan's skeleton shattering
against a wall, for the world
now it can only be an act of semiotic creation,
an impossible message for all those still unable
to imagine anything other than

...perhaps the indication for new approaches to philosophy, the key to it, is to focus on language itself, and how language moves, manipulates and controls the human mind (surely linguistic etymology should be highly prioritized in any poet's list of required reading just as, when, as a Westerner in Asia, one is asked what one's name means. Within semantics is it fair to say pressure is not put on the right places regarding this whole area of our cultural lineage, and thus our understanding of the present?)

The book's approach is a multi-faceted and mature series of debates and self debates, in this way illumination treads interesting middle ground between religion and anti-religion, and shuns oppositional thinking and easy mental opt-outs or extras. In The Atheist:

But what if it was proved finally
beyond any shadow of a doubt that
God he does in fact exist? What icon
would you apologize to first? what cosmic body would you get
to repair it your still
damaged rib? But no, nothing for
you to do now then go back
to them, your beliefs, to be in
your mind what, in truth, you have
never been here in life: a man;

Even the notion of beliefs and faiths are called into question here, and so the book dares to go further than Nietzsche's critiques in that all forms of oppositional thinking, whether in poetry, philosophy or other discipline (even the notion of 'discipline' or 'area of thought' infuses our fractured mental approaches to how we communicate with each other; what better way to show how we objectify in our wrestlings with our chosen spiritual paths, surely Everything is what interests the human mind?) Regardless, the philosopher Robert Anton Wilson would call this reticence toward any form of dogmatism a dialectic, or line, of consciousness that deals in Maybes, rather than the Yes or the No. We now live in a thoughtful maybe-ish world, in which proselytizing gets little done, and dogmatizing is repellant to the average individual. The newer generations mental lives exist somewhere in between. With the acceleration of knowledge the older generations can mistake this for apathy in the young, as compared with the knowledge available to them in previous cycles, and possibly mistakenly cheer on the overly dogmatic poetic tone as a result. In this way Stubbs is putting pressure on the notions inherent in the tone of Pound's imagist protocols (definite images, clear lines of narrative thought) and trying to strike balances between abstraction and conventional narrativization, the high lyric voice, and the hard-headed and (ironically, in this case?) Biblical tone.

What comes across in The Icon Maker, as in the poetry of James Byrne, is the confidence in which stalwart optimism and a certain cheerfulness of intellect overrides dogmatism.

Stubbs has already attacked the Eliot lineage in print, and other alternatives to the apocalyptic and the catholic conservatism which he finds most nauseating in this line (coming down to us as far as Larkin), and poems like Elegy for Satan exemplify the complex and mature emphasis on finding positive and insightful alternatives to religious and ideological dogmas:

You could have been another you if
we'd have wanted you to have been;
But by clenching in two angry
fists a clod of our inner earth,
you ploughed and ploughed at the core of
a world where no human gene can be resown;
So, instead, you mimicked us,
Using the foreskin of Isaac?
by creating a million finger-puppets of
yourself! A God, enslaved by our own flesh!
which, whenever you looked up,
could be seen hanging there like
a pair of silk stockings from between your
teeth! As then, in the trial of your existence,
you lost your only true alibi;
beauty from you faded, the stars
as if silver-fluff they dropped from the skies;

Apart from the insightful concentration on experiential concepts against the usual objectification and popular reference (a focus incredibly unique to this book) it also correlates with a quote from Northrop Frye I re-uncover, written in a copy of Blake:

There is a real hell in the human mind, and it achieves the physical form of dungeons, whips, racks, and all the miserable panoply of fear. Such a hell consolidates a moral virtue founded on terror with a moral evil founded on cruelty, and it exists because it is believed to be a part of necessity. The more degenerate the society, the more obvious this alliance of moral good and evil against the power of genius becomes. Those who know better can see that, as evil is a negation, this hell would be, in the spiritual world, nothingness, a monstrous multiple of zero.

Stubbs is a person who knows better. In this, there is a great absence at the heart of The Icon Maker, no prefiguring references to, or reverence of the material world as it stands, or as it has been projected by a poetry that is not aware that it is self-and-world fulfilling.

Stubbs, in this poem, knows that Satan, as in all mythological constructs, and as Frye points out, is a product of the mind... but only a product insofar as this mind-icon sits in an oppositional zone; to cure us from Satan we mentally construct The Priest who, in turn, affirms Satan as a present necessity (in order to maintain the societal position/manifestation we have invented for him)... the lowest sociological rung on this same ladder, in our present reality, might be the figure of the social worker or the policeman. These figures exist because we do not have the self discipline to govern ourselves, indeed they are felt 'natural' and even comforting to a society with difficulties in changing self-government, and therefore, as a result, exteriorizing its own individual governing forces.
Satan is the arch-construct of a collective mind ill at ease with itself, while at the same time fostering immense potentialities, and Stubbs's poem gives creedence to the notion that this is simply a temporarily immature psychic disorder, to be gone beyond and not promoted (as in the most dogmatic elegiac atmospheres of The Waste Land, for instance).

But believers are not the only one's to feel the wrath of Stubbs's book:

While the church merely it waits, waits, for say a haruspex
to reinspect man's
entrails and predict another Christ;
for as a member of a race fit only
for extinction, simply you will not
now even contemplate it will you?
that our lives here on earth might
not necessarily be our last? no; so, instead, in the mirror
each morning you ignore it,
(The Atheist)

Vigilance, here, is the watchword. While the imaginations of the Jonathan Edwards's of this world are harangued, so is the directionless poverty of the mind of the Atheist (both religious and atheistic principles are oppositionally dependant on the same tired belief structures... the loss of individual spirit that occurs in icon worship is the same loss of individual spirit directed away from the icon, unfortunately in our current, and dying reality, the materiality of the icon; the fact that it is not a valid spiritual gateway is the indication that our communal psychological inclinations need cleansing). The vigilance promoted here is of a kind endeavouring to find a balance among these unhelpful spiritual oppositions, the religious man and the atheist need to be lampooned because they represent a loss of individual spirituality, and a blinkering in relation to the entire cosmos (a spiritual reality can only be observed communally if individual spirit is not lessened by the worship of the religious God OR man in relationship to religious iconography... again, as Anton Wilson quips: a disciple is an asshole looking for a human being to attach itself to).

Finally, how do we deal with the book on a stylistic level? In my way of looking at poetry tone is perhaps all important, perhaps the defining factor in assessing how nourishing a work of poetry is. In many ways The Icon Maker, through all its assured psychological insights and the ramifications therein, is, in small ways, a book still finding its stylistic feet. Out of syntax and grammar comes the book's tonal atmospheres, though it's hard to tell if all the constructions fit, or please:

[...] when the eye of your next
deity opens, you will be
forced to plunge it your hand
back into nothingness
(Religious Man (in our time))

In plunge it your hand (as in it, heaven in my first quote) I'm caught between imagining Stubbs is 1/affirming the slipperiness of the grammatical object in language (as it is messed with and optioned-out by media-speak) or 2/feeling mildly condescended to. Perhaps 3/is this simply an indication that the constructions come from the pen of someone on the outset of a spiritual seach? 4/Someone still developing and assessing? 5/An attempt to intercut the visionary biblical tone with humour/irony? 6/an undermining of the whole process of creating narratives, or a lampooning of the archetype? Maybe it's all of this. Only there is possibly a danger, here, of falling into arrogance when observing and critiquing arrogance or ignorance in others.

In Ancestral Man we have these curious double nouns: for his shadow // it billows still like a canopy at my ear. Some are hard to quantify, and perhaps are simply a minor quibble, others work well (as in it, heaven) in building up rhythm and narrative tension. In as much as the line breaks are original and daring some lines seem to stall or at least not totally serve the incredibly unique conceptual engines of their narrators. In certain isolated instances, attempts at more personal and conversational structures might serve to aid the mighty critiques Stubbs is attempting, particularly given that pseudo-religious faiths in all their myriad forms take a battering. Is it possible that Stubbs, at times, betrays his overall optimistic conceptual charges with the language of the accuser? Perhaps. Tone is maybe the hardest aspect of poetry for a poet to master. The Icon Maker, regardless of these final concerns, is a book that takes no prisoners nor flatters any egos. It seems, for any faults, to absolutely be riding its own wave, and it will be interesting to see how Stubbs's language and methods sharpen and deepen.