Experiments in reading: Simon Jarvis' Night Office.

Part Three.

There is now a blurb on the Enitharmon Night Office page:

Night Office is the initial publication from among a small set of long poems for which the collective title is The Calendar. Each poem relates to the others as the points, not in a line, but of a star: none need be considered as first or last. Each explores those manners in which the invisible life of the soul throws off from itself tunes, colours, times, histories and nations; each, from verse constraints upon syllable and intonation, works towards the concrete freedoms of poetic thinking. Night Office listens out, through its long white night, for the silencing of human sounds - as these last fall asleep into their signs. - S.J.

This is an odd mixture of help and hindrance, you feel like you understand these emanations from the soul and this ties in with your understanding of the first few pages. You also grasp the verse constraint / concrete freedom statement but this may take a bit more thought. The last sentence however is much more problematic and mystifying.

You are about to write this off as an overly lyrical way of saying Not Very Much and then it occurs to you that the 'signs' of the human sounds may be written words representing, recording what is spoken. If this is the case then this fits with the original conceit of acting as a mouthpiece for the dead. You decide to put this to the test.

After what appears to be a digression on Russian verse there is:

  I sit here in the dark, and through my bones
  each instant of me rocks with silent tones.

  We were assembled on the station platform.
  He told us not to leave, but rather wait
  for his return, whose signs would take that form
  we should know when we saw them. We should wait,
  wait only, for that certain day; no storm,
  however violent, should now create
  an instant's doubt of his assured return.
  It was magnificent; we felt that we should learn

  in due course every needed detail, nor
  should we at this time question him, but stand
  receiving & accepting, and know more
  at just those times and seasons when his hand
  should by his agents from that further shore
  send news, signs, tokens, which might still strike land
  here in our clandestine assembly, tell
  us of the last new happenings in hell.

It seems fairly obvious that these are the words of one of the disciples recounting Christ's ascension to heaven and the prophecy of the Second Coming. You realise that you need to be careful in your head with this because the opening of 'The Anathemata' deals with the Last Supper and with signs, in fact Jones' work can be thought of as an extended exploration of the nature and potency of signs. You then recall that Dionysus Crucified, that most experimental of experimental poems, refers to the harrowing of hell and you then start to rethink what the above might be describing. You know nothing about the Stations of the Cross except that they marked the route of Jesus' agonising walk up to the site of His crucifixion. You then decide to use the interweb which very quickly tells you that this is the case but that it also includes the placing of the body in the tomb and some newer versions add on the Resurrection. You also discover that the harrowing took place between the burial and the resurrection. You then become confused because the Last Supper is not a 'station' and yet this reads as an edited version of Christ's sermon to his disciples as recorded in John's gospel.

Either way, this would appear to be the soul of a disciple that is making these sounds which Jarvis has recorded for us as an example of what the soul throws off from itself. You know that the harrowing of hell is not in the bible but dicover that i appears to have been adopted and popularised in England during the medieval period. It strikes you that the first reference to signs is a bit awkward - "we should know when we saw them" - and seems out of kilter (technical term) with the rest. You think that this may be an example of where constraint falls flat on its face. There is however the fact that this is one of the most written about 'scenes' in human history and it is therefore very hard to do anything original.

You then decide reluctantly to give some thought to signs and it occurs to you that there are some signs that give you information and thenthere's the signs that stand for something else. One of the most potent series of signs is the celebration of the Catholic Mass which functions both in its individual actions as well as a whole 'event'. Jarvis has in the past taken a strong interest in road signage and in the lettering that is used on those signs but it is unlikey that this is the kind of sign that he is utlising here. He is rather evasive about what kind of signs that the disciples should wait for. Of course, everything can be viewed as a sign of something else and Jarvis in his blurb describes all written text as something that 'stands for' human speech. It is the voice of this disciple that is made into the signs of text but the figure of the disciples at the time of the crucifixion is packed with meanings and signage which theologians have delighted in arguing about since the event itself. You've been giving more thought than usual to the interplay between text and image and what each does or can do in the presence of the other. In this instance, the scenes are so pervasive that the poet doesn't need physical images because all of use carry an image of the Last Supper and of the Crucifixion in our heads. The distribution of wine and bread is a symbol of Christ's sacrifice, the crucifixion is, amongst many other things, a symbol/sign of universal redemption and the beginning of a new covenant between man and God. Most of us will have some version of the da Vinci image in our heads and everyone will surely have the image of a cross. The harrowing of hell is much less well known, you thought you knew what it meant but you were/are completely wrong.

You then make a conscious effort to get away from theology and focus a bit more on the poem. The station image is pursued over the next few stanzas ("The train began to leave", "a cloud of steam / took up his car, when with a soft sharp cry / the train receded") which may describe Christ's death on the Cross. It is lyrical but almost underplayed. You have to remind yourself that this material rhymes. This stanza has these line endings:

You are now struck by something that you've previously missed- the use of the same word ("I") to achieve the rhyme. You think that this might be a one-off but then you notice that the rhyme at the end of the next stanza is "now / now" and on the following page you find "and / and" and "me / me". To your untaught way of thinking this seems to be cheating although you readily acknowledge that Jarvis' expertise in this area is unsurpassed. You try v hard to recall whether anything was said about this same word rhyming in Why Rhyme Pleases but all you can remember is the observation that a greater effect can be obtained if the rhyming words are different parts of speech, which doesn't seem to be the case here. You decide to look elsewhere for material on this apparently complex subject.

You know that you've taken the 'theme' that most appeals, that you're drawn to most but there's also what you're thinking of as Russia and several things Russian. Some of the references your are familiar with and you are grateful that Jarvis provides translations after the use of Russian phrases:

  That tune is not the one that I can hear.
  A different line is running in my head.
  It has no music it is spoken, clear;
  at any minute I will recollect
  exactly what it is, and then its dear,
  yet bitter, knowledge will correct
  this written memory, however sweet. -
  V polsednij raz nam musika zvuchit!

  'For the last time we can hear music'. Yes,
  that was the sound of it, but were those words
  just the correct ones, was what they profess
  just the real thought I had, when those loud thirds
  and sevenths brought me almost to confess,
  to say 'descended into hell' (absurd)
  and bring me to the bread and wine to eat? -
  V poslednij raz vy molites' teper'.

  'It is the last time you will pray'. Thus spoken
  or as though whispered to me in the night
  that line came to me like the unwoken
  presentiment of total loss, foresight
  whose truth I taste just here, in broken
  breath, not now bread. It was the right
  premonitory cadence, even though
  I now mismingle it with Cochereau

'That tune' is the one emanating from the cathedral, a few moments on the interweb reveal that the Russian may well come from a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev and that Pierre Cochereau was a French organist and composer. You've never heard of either and, were it not for the interweb, you would have no opportunity to find out. You now arrive at the obscurity problem which is most often encountered in the lateish work of Sir Geoffrey Hill. It goes like this- how much time would you need to fully explore either of these figures and will this be rewarded in terms of getting the most out of the poem? The answer in this instance is 'no' although you may feel the need to reconsider as you progress. You don't really have any genuine interest in either 19th century Russian verse or 20th century organ music.

There's also these recurring references to the Eucharist (which, according to Neil Pattison, is the subject of Jarvis' "Dinner) and to the harrowing of hell. These are of greater interest especailly as a closer reading reveals that the speaker finds himself on the verge of conversion ('almost') but pulls back and the last stanza seems to refer to an existence without religious faith. Of course, you may be leaping to the wrong conclusions but it is at least a working guess. The next stanza repeats previous imagery of the cathedral music acting as a violent resuscitation on someone who is close to death and this does seem to relate to conversion.

The obscurity issue continues to nag away, you decide that this is a bit too far:

  you are deleted, like the Severn Tories
  or like the works of Golokhvastov, and

A slightly more extended sojourn with the interweb reveals that these particular Tories may well occur in a Nabokov novel and that the second was a poet who left Russia in 1916 and settled in New York and wrote an epic called "Death of Atlantis". What deletion has to do with either of these is a complete mystery. Things are however beginning to cohere and you are sufficiently impressed / intrigued to carry on.

Coincidentally, and for entirely different reasons, you've been immersing yourself in Russian political history between 1900 and 1940 so you do have some context and you do have more than an interest in a range of writers and artists who 'straddled' the revolutions of 1917 so you are drawn in by mention of Bely, Blok and an apparent allusion to Mandelstam ("vwese brought from Moscow or from Voronezh / along the Chinese Eastern Railway...."). There's also reference to a number of prominent Russian prosodists who were concerned with rhyme. You recall that many years ago in the dark North East of England you tried in vain to track down the poems of Alexander Blok and you now find that this stuff is available for free over the interweb. You decide to re-acquaint yourself before moving on to Melrose and Biltmore.