Thus Spoke Zarathustra
By Mark Wilson.
Ex Nihilo, Paul Stubbs, Black Herald Press, 2010
The poetry of Paul Stubbs is like a severe volcanic eruption within the landscape of British poetry. In fact, to say that this small corpus of work (as to date, three books) is part of ‘British poetry’ seems a massive perversion of terminology. His radical syntax, on more careful inspection, reveals closer ties to European and World masters (Rimbaud, Jozsef, Benn, Trakl, Pilinszky, Vallejo). This volcanic simile holds true as Stubbs’ work is both ‘visionary’ (in its sheer verbal/metaphorical pyrotechnics) and a searing critique scalding the jaundiced pastures of a British poetic terrain that Stubbs has long since viewed as insular and infertile. His outspoken essay ‘The Mirage of Poetic Evolution in Britain Since Eliot’ lays down his frustration with a ‘corpse-tradition’ inherited from Eliot which has gradually petrified through Auden and Larkin to contemporaries such as Simon Armitage. There is enough molten lava in Stubbs’ essay to submerge quite a number of Bloomsburys and NewGens. Continental Stubbs, now a resident of Paris, is the self-styled exile-poet lambasting the white cliffs of a ‘little england’ that had once harboured him. Stubbs declares quite emphatically that his ‘Waste Land’ was/is Blok‘s ‘The Twelve’ and/or Mayakovsky‘s ‘The Cloud in Trousers’.
In a review of his previous collection The Icon Maker (Arc Publications, 2008) I called Stubbs an ‘Iconoclastic Visionary’ for, in his verse, he sets up icons and idols only to demolish them mercilessly in the very next stanza. Rimbaud‘s ‘seer’ with the ‘disordered senses’ is certainly floating within the stratosphere of Stubbs’ poetics in this respect (or, at any rate, Stubbs makes a fascinating ‘twist’ on this Rimbaudian theme). A ‘negative theology’ appears indeed to permeate the whole of Stubbs’ vision. This ‘theology’ stamps its ironic ex cathedra with an outrageous liturgy of irreverent images that explode within the reader’s imagination like lexical gunpowder. His autochthonous energy reminds one of Nietzsche flailing in Zarathustrian robes and spewing out his disgust at the ‘untermensch’. For, in his poetry, Stubbs seems to concur with Nietzsche that ‘art is the last metaphysical activity within European Nihilism’. At any rate Paul Stubbs possesses a prophetic imagination that can slice piecemeal through the most compromised, god-absented void and make it sing or, at least, scream. Not surprisingly the painter Francis Bacon is a tutelary spirit hovering above his poetry. A number of Stubbs’ poems have been inspired by, and have their starting-point in, Bacon’s paintings. The Icon Maker was an unstoppable convoy of complex theological set-pieces, linguistic carriages in an excruciating white-knuckle ride through the Apocalypse. A book so intense and claustrophobic that most readers must have needed to put it down every couple of poems to catch their breaths. They were then able to contemplate more clearly the dizzying parade of sick atheists, fallen priests and aborted messiahs strutting out their godforsaken lives in a desolate cosmos about to be utterly re-configured. In The Icon Maker Stubbs was like a leering ventriloquist both relishing and lamenting the Lucifer-like fall of his reprobate dramatis-personae.
Paul Stubbs’ third book, a long poem Ex Nihilo, is published by his own Parisian press, Black Herald Press (co-edited with poet Blandine Longre). The first thing to notice about Ex Nihilo is that it is more reflective in tone than The Icon Maker. The overbearing intensity has been tempered slightly by an exquisite lightness of touch:
(as I unclench my fist, and in an act of
legerdemain, produce from my palm a first rib,
laying it on a stone or any object I describe)
In his preface Stubbs states that Ex Nihilo is a poem that enacts a poem coming into being. The theological overtones of ‘ex nihilo/out of nothing’ are particularly resonant here with the poet playing the role of God in the act of creating a linguistic poem from a non-lingual ‘nothingness’. The Edenic ‘rib’ is almost like a recurring talisman in Stubbs’ work for the alchemical act of semantic creation. Paul Stubbs knows that the language of poetry is, and always has been, a protean creature that has developed over millennia. It is a slippery, untamed, chameleon-like creature which grows and bifurcates, shedding skins of language as it goes. Ex Nihilo embodies this evolutionary process and teems with imagery of this kind:
I, the self-resurrecting, uttering and muttering
myself to myself, and turning over the pages of the
dictionaries of tomorrow;
Ex Nihilo is a wild behemoth that does not play by staid, conventional rules of versifying. As is befitting for his subject-matter Stubbs invents new undisciplined forms for his language to writhe and prowl in. The ‘self’ is constantly dividing into another ‘self’ and its attendant doppelganger. One is reminded of Rimbaud’s ‘I is another’. As in a Cubist painting we are never quite sure who or which part of the poem is speaking to us.
The ‘self’ a ruptured nebulae
imploding in the escaping mind
Ex Nihilo is, therefore, open-ended and in a constant state of ‘becoming’. And as the poem will never arrive at a moment of closure the language remains dynamic and supple rather than static or stagnant. Stubbs has a penchant for certain pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘its’ which at first appear jarring but, after a few pages, take on a rhythmic role in the poem. A pulsing heart-beat for his ungovernable ‘creature’ that offsets some of the more radical and jagged aspects of his syntax. Stubbs’ repeated use of ‘I’ in the poem is, therefore, something of an ironic tease:
pen dictating rain, as I, I eyeball its wetness, and
This pronoun becomes just another one of the poet’s personae in a depersonalised, Modernist reaction to the tyrannical ‘egotistical sublime’ of Romanticism. Astonishingly, the subjective ingenuousness of Romantic naval-gazing still needs to be challenged even in the early 21st Century and Stubbs has made this repeated, mocking ‘I’ one of his poetic leitmotifs.
Semantic regeneration, of course, reflects the ever-replicating layers of history and civilization, and how these are mythologized in the collective imagination. Stubbs is extremely adept at freezing an epoch of history or the clash of two civilizations into a few, highly-charged lines:
born into the biblical tract of my own
voice (a voice dictated
from the drafts buried like papyri beneath
By sheer implication this compressed vignette seems to evoke (within an abstract fashion) ancient Israel enslaved in Egypt in Old Testament times, lamenting on the banks of the papyrus-producing Nile. Here we have the mythologizing of something which happened within history and voiced ‘biblically’ and subliminally by the poet. The sediments of archaeology and secretions of anthropology are also both implied. ‘Papyri’, of course, suggests the beginning of a written, hieroglyphic language which is entirely appropriate for a poem about language and poetry ‘coming into being’. Stubbs is here working within the tradition of Rimbaud and the contemporary Chinese poet Bei Dao in attempting to compress history, civilization and myth into startling vignettes. The ‘voice’ here suggests the oral transmissions of the ‘seer’, poet or ‘bard’. The fact that this ‘voice’ is ‘biblical’ though certainly infers the prophetic. For there is a certain underlying ‘gnosis’ in all of Stubbs’ utterances:
(all assetoric knowledge
of myself, gods and religion
subtracted by the zero of my
This recalls Rimbaud again (who is certainly Stubbs’ true master and spiritual mentor). For Stubbs, poetry is always an act of faith even in a cosmos after God (or the gods) have faded from sight or apprehension. If the Nietzschean edict in ‘Zarathustra’ of ‘God is dead’ must be accepted to some degree then a new religion, or religions, must be created by the artist, poet or ‘over-man’. Stubbs usually leans towards a form of Deism in his poetic ‘theology’. Even when he depicts the fallen or marred Creation there is always the gnostic suggestion of a redemption or re-birth:
or by chance, a cracked basin (that looks like
but which implies the notion
of a baptism.
Although everything physical appears to be irreparably damaged Stubbs perceives a spiritual ‘otherness’ which transcends this. ‘Baptism’ suggesting the renewal in this particular quotation. Stubbs’ poetry can sometimes read like a glossary of theological terms or a manual outlining theological states of being. Nevertheless there is an irony to much of this which Stubbs milks for absurd, Beckettian ‘effects':
and with nothing but my own rapacious
and eschatological look upon their face.
This absurdity is itself a brilliant black comedy which allows Stubbs’s poem to be a genuine truth-telling rather than a glib, straight-faced ‘gnostic’ pamphlet trying to proselytize. Michael Hamburger‘s ‘truth of poetry’ and its pervading tensions and ironies are never too far away. So Stubbs as poet is simultaneously ‘blasphemer’ and ‘apologist’, he is both ‘priest’ and ‘fool’ (to use Hamburger’s terminology in The Truth of Poetry – Tensions in Modernist Poetry Since Baudelaire). Paul Stubbs is a poet who has digested the best of Modern European poetry and also skillfully interpreted the paradoxical signposts of what it means to be truly ‘Modern’ in Hamburger’s incomparable volume. Ex Nihilo reflects this study and is Stubbs’ finest, single poetic utterance to date.
One last word on Stubbs’ ongoing fascination with the body. There are constant references to anatomical structures and somatic mutations in his work. An ongoing obsession with biological phenomenon with a simultaneous spiritual ‘vision’ places Stubbs firmly in the ranks of the great Metaphysical poets. And especially with John Donne. A poet whose exalted company I am sure Stubbs would be glad to share. For his poetic ‘vision’ is always anchored in the flesh and bone of human reality. Meaning that his poetry is always ultimately concerned with the human condition and its ongoing metaphysical dilemmas. Like in Nietzsche, we have in Ex Nihilo a ‘heroic’ hope that man will ultimately ‘overcome’ and surpass himself even if the future is shadowy and unknown:
But creation will come, will come…
fibre by fibre, entwined by rope-vein, entrails,
and bone: then more bone, innards, ligaments,
form, shadow etc.
Stubbs declares, in ‘The Mirage of Poetic Evolution in Britain Since Eliot’, that ‘the great innovative poetry of the 21st Century will be forced to assimilate new religions, genetics, nanotechnologies, robotics’. We can clearly see in Ex Nihilo how he is incorporating certainly the first three on this list.
In short, there is real accomplishment here. Ex Nihilo re-defines the metaphysical geography of poetry itself. As a bold declaration of linguistic anthropology it announces a new beginning for British (and, indeed, World) poetry. One which is truly universal in its scope and an escape from parochialism. What we see here is a poet in full control of the rudiments of his form. Just like Valery’s potter Paul Stubbs has sifted out the gravel and shaped something truly remarkable. Maybe this book is the first installment of a ‘poem of some length’ that Stubbs will add to as he progresses in his poetic career. A 21st century equivalent to what The Cantos was to the 20th Century or The Divine Comedy was to the 14th. A long poem that seeks to encompass everything in the cosmos. We can but wait and anticipate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Wilson is a poet who lives in Peterborough, a city located somewhere in the lost kingdom of Middle England. His poems have appeared in The Black Herald, The Shop and Le Zaporogue.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 30th, 2011.