HOME / THE POETS / ESSAYS / THE NUTS AND THE BOLTS / RESOURCES.


Simon Jarvis, Night Office and God; a Brief Survey.

Night Office was published in 2013 and is one of the most important poems in English so far this century. This is because of its technical strength and the challenge that it presents to the current consensus as to what contemporary work should be 'about'. It's very long, metrical and it rhymes. One of Simon's central ideas is that these kind of formal constraints enhance the power of the serious poem. In his earlier The Unconditional demonstrated this with a (mostly) philosophical theme and here he addresses theological concerns. The central conceit is that of a man who stays up through the night reflecting by various means on the nature of his spiritual desolation.

As I wrote in my introduction to Night Office, this isn't by any means an easy read, the level of suffering and self-castigation on display here isn't uplifting. What this non-believing reader has found, however, is that there are significant opportunities for quite deep reflection as to what might be going on with humanity in these seemingly difficult and intractable times.

I've been putting off writing about the more religious aspects of this work because I don't have the kind of in-depth knowledge that looks as though it might be required. I'm also more than a little intimidated about what Simon had to say about the Russian Orthodox faith in discussion with Rowan Williams at the Night Office launch in 2013. This does seem to be a coward's way out with a sequence that is primarily focused on religious concern s so I've decided to bite the bullet and display my ignorance for all to see whilst trying to do some justice to the work.

Before we get into the poem, I think I need to reiterate that this isn't by any means an easy read. The spiritual desolation is described in unflinching terms, some of the digressions are long and complex, the syntax needs more than a little concentration- in short this isn't a work that can be read with anything but the closest attention. As with all serious and good work, the effort is more than worthwhile.

I think I need to add that what follows is entirely tentative and provisional but hopefully others will find it of some use in their own reading of this stunning piece of work.

With 227 pages to choose from, picking a representative example is nearly impossible so I've elected to try and pay attention to 7 stanzas spanning from p 158 to p 160. These are the first two:


Now watch us fall apart : one cardboard flap
flops to the river, and I must disperse
appeasedly to where a little trap
holds my small fortunes. Yes, it can get worse.
It can get colder : so I shrink, I wrap
my coat around me, while I note in verse
the lift & swoop & then the blank deflations
of all these real & real recalled elations.

If no one atom of the city can
forever be reversed, the damage sticks
inside each wish to mend it : when I ran
right down the street as if hot blows or licks
could break through coldness to a better man,
one cold ferocity, one rill of Styx
slept in my blood so that all fight not mental
turned out to be not just, just instrumental.

The previous stanzas describe the poet's / narrator's involvement in political protest in the form of demonstrations and marches so that here we have a reflection on that kind of action.

This is the sort of stuff that fills me with delight. There's a verbal virtuosity and precision at work here that is, in my view exceptional. In terms of obscurity, I'm taking 'rill' to indicate a stream or rivulet and the river Styx as the place where the Greek gods swore oaths,the boundary between earth and the underworld and (in Christian verse) all things hellish. Previous works would lead me to believe that the 'little trap' refers to the aperture in a cash machine from which our small fortunes emerge. One of Simon's consistent themes is his condemnation of our crass materialism.

With regard to virtuosity, the OED informs me that 'appeasedly' isn't a word but to appease in its general sense is to pacify, to calm things down in order to avoid conflict. It also carries the connotation of giving in esp with regard to Neville Chamberlain's 'peace in our time' agreement with Hitler in 1938. The strength here comes from 'disperse' because it carries the connotation of something breaking up but also in military terms being routed and/or scattered in the face of an enemy onslaught. From my personal experience as a marcher, demonstrator and reasonably activist there did come a point in the late eighties when some of us decided to disperse ourselves and seek to 'do' politics by other means given the readiness of the state to use extreme violence to crush dissent and the acceptance of the electorate of a new economic order. I'm not nostalgic for that period in my life so I have more than a little sympathy with the above even though I would like a longer discussion about 'appeasedly'.

The non-reversal of this urban particle may relate to the poem's concern with ruins allied to the idea of the city in Western culture as the ideal body politic or, perhaps, to Augustine's City of God but this might be clutching at straws.

I'm taking 'it can get worse' (an unusually brief sentence) to refer to the last 25 years of fatuous ideology, the accelerating rise of inequality and the political passivity of the political class in the face of the depredations of the free market. Many of us thought that things couldn't possibly get any worse after Thatcher and find no comfort at all in the fact that they have.

So, much food for thought and a different perspective from my own that entertains by virtue of its verbal intelligence and provokes his reader at least to reconsider his own history of action and self-dispersal. At the launch there was some agreement between Simon and Rowan Williams about being a part of the system whilst at the same time being 'against' most elements of it. I'm taking this as the root of the second stanza which would seem to advocate a course of intellectual resistance rather than physical demonstration. Simon's position as a Cambridge academic does enable this to take place on a fairly public stage but for most of us, marching and demonstrating are often the only opportunity to express opposition on a wider scale than the pub.

The rill of Styx asleep in the blood sounds great when read aloud and is a brilliant image but I wonder if it makes sense, whether or not it's simply a triumph of form over content.

We now come to the rhetorical musts:


Then must these plastic panels and their splits
in brilliant primaries across the grey
make part of my necessity? Lorn chits
slip down out of my hand : must then glad day
forever now be locked, because the pits
exist already, & and the earth's wounds say
they are the vulnerated real, the true
all-irreversible reply to who

would think of Sion when the morning light
shatters the shut face of the sleeping earth,
breaking to colour & to wakening sight
roof, street, hill, valley, warehouse, garage, firth?
Must what has happened be forever right
because it happened, & must ancient mirth
strap the long yoke of prose into its face
forced to strip nature of her single grace?

Must every ring-pull on the bloody road
still self-personify raison d'etat?
Must each trick symbol, each quick sign corrode
trust at the double, roll the round earth flat?
Must I still seal my eyes up, overload
my stuck tongue with its decalogue of chat?
Must each worse step forever and forever
be sweetly tucked up in the box marked Never?

I have to confess that I jumped into assuming that 'lorn' was the same as forlorn and the 'vulnerated' was to be made vulnerable. Fortunately I checked both with the OED and it turns out that I was wrong on both counts the first OED definition for 'lorn' is;

Lost, perished, ruined; doomed to destruction.

Which turns out to be from the Middle English verb 'leese', defined as;

To part with or be parted from by misadventure, through change in conditions, etc.; to be deprived of; to cease to possess; to fail to preserve, or maintain; to fail to gain or secure; to fail to profit by, to spend (time) unprofitably; to use (labour) to no advantage.

To vulnerate is to wound.

Many of my poetry reading friends cannot understand why I chase some of these words down, they see it as being too much effort and either skim over these small difficulties or give up on a poem altogether. I can see that there may be some justification to this view, after all life is short and there may be better things to do than putting some effort into reading, and re-reading, serious work. I would argue that the less than thorough approach misses out on much of what's being said and, as poetry enthusiasts, we must take an interest in the role that words take in creating the poem's various 'effects'. I love words and tracing their development and usage over time because most of them make me smile- I accept that this might be seen by others as elitist, which it may be, but I prefer to think of it as paying the kind of attention that a poem asks for. End of short speech.

So, I'm taking most of the above to be 'about' our relentless march towards planetary death by way of climate change and further environmental deprecation,and the link between this and the internal 'logic' of either capitalism or any kind of cash economy. The other thought that this provokes is whether this self-destruction is inevitable or whether we can do anything about something that seems so complex and overwhelming.

There are a few lines that I have yet to fully grasp, I'm not at all sure as to what this ancient comedy and the use of prose might have to do with anything else, nor am I clear as to the relationship between the Ten Commandments and 'chat'. What again is on display here is technical brilliance coupled with a good deal of anger. Readers may find this passage unduly obscure and syntactically strange but I find it both involving and compelling. It involves me as someone who shares many of these concerns and whose views and actions are challenged (but not condemned) in a rigorous way. I'm compelled by its strength and its invention, both of which keep me reading and re-reading the work.

I now need to pay some attention to Christ's countenance and the poem's central conceit which is that it is narrated throughout by a man who stays up all night in an office. There's also the play on Compline which is the last service at the end of the day. So, perhaps there should be a 'my' before nocturnal. The notion of unsealing closed chambers as a way of expressing what Christ did on earth is an excellent way of avoiding the tired poetic and theological descriptions /summations of the past. It also carries connotations of being stuck and fixed in a place where redemption is impossible. There's also within the moving of the stone prior to Christ's resurrection. I have a few problems with 'repealed' in this context because I think it's a bit weak for what Might be Going On but I'll have to give this further thought.

In conclusion, I think I need to renounce my initial scepticism with regard to poetic constraint. This was founded on my personal belief that rhyme, in any shape or form, is too close to song and that the use of metre adds to this problem. In one of his Cambridge lectures Simon gave the example of Pope's An Essay on Man as an example of how constraints can enhance rather than hinder the quality of a philosophical poem. I'm now coming slowly round to this view, provided it doesn't preclude equally serious and lengthy work in free verse. Now, the arduity line on poetry of most sorts should carry a degree of cadence. This is especially the case in longer work because that requires to be read aloud, it must not just look good on the page, it must sound good as well. Perhaps I'm a bit of a stickler on this but I do read a lot of work in public and try to avoid reading stuff that isn't reasonably cadential ( a recently discovered adjective, soon to get extended use. The only failure in this regard in the above occurs, according to my ear at 'exists already' in the third stanza of this selection. It falls flat any way that I read it and I have tried several different approaches. This, of course, is a very minor quibble as is the natures / creatures mishap in the last two line.

I hope I've given some further indication of this exacting and dense piece of work and the ways in which close attention is rewarded. What is particularly revealing for me is that I don't share much of the Jarvis world view yet this stuff does provoke me into re-considering some of my own fundamental beliefs - which is what serious work should do.