Gary Geddes, Selected Poems From On Being Dead in Venice

You get a good idea of Geddes’ substantial poetic output since the 1970s from this hundred-page-plus selection. There are three parts. The third part bears a name: ‘The Terracotta Army’. We will come to that.


Part One opens with ‘The Tower’ and the cold detachment of an assassin, who chooses his vantage and dispatches his victims with the same cold precision its sixteen-line description, with its four salient features, progresses through: purchase of the rifle; choice of location (the tower); sighting of targets; impact. We cannot say if four, or sixteen, or some other number, is also the number of victims, which suggests perhaps that any degree of intimacy is inimical to contract killing.


We know more about Sandra Lee Scheuer, who, as the poem of that title tells us, was killed at Kent State University on 4 May 1970. Unlike the killer of the previous poem, who remains nameless, we know who Sandra’s killers were – viz., the Ohio National Guard. Sandra was an honours student, whose subject was speech therapy. She did not take part in protests against the Vietnam War, and knew only vaguely of Cambodia, but was caught by a stray bullet intended for those few fellow students with a deeper knowledge of American foreign policy. The bullet severed her jugular, and she died minutes later. That was in spite of the fact that ‘She did not throw stones, major in philosophy / or set fire to buildings….’


In ‘Promised Land’, you know from the litany of things listed what culture is being invoked – not the ideal the twelve tribes longed for. More the place of material glitter, where the purview has an inwardness, but in a concrete sense, of an ethos those tribes wouldn’t have recognised.


Searching goes on, and on. ‘Letter of the Master of Horse’ in its early stanzas is aglow with the connotations of discovery, but – as one of the longer poems of the selection – approaches its end as a voyage gone awry, where the discovery is exile and madness has set in. Look what the horses are asked to do, after Apollo—

Sooner or later hope
evaporates, joy itself
is seasonal. The others?
They are Spaniards, no more
and no less, and burn with a lust
that sends them tilting
at the sun itself.
Ortega, listen, the horses,
where are the sun’s horses
to pull his chariot from the sea,
end this conspiracy of dark?

Or as Milan Kundera has already told us, as Part One’s epigraph: ‘It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: conviction, faith, history. Human life – and herein lies the secret – takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch.’


Part Two’s epigraph reads ‘Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate…. There is nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring,’ words attributed to the late John Berger, the noted art critic, poet, novelist and painter. We may still wonder at the real purpose of an epigraph, a subject Alfred Corn has devoted a generous thread to on his timeline (Facebook), and which the sponsor of the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction, David James, discusses at length in his forthcoming memoir. There isn’t much doubt as to its function here. In Part Two’s opening poem there is a sense of that intimacy as direct contrast to the world’s cruelty and indifference, in the description of a cow and her stillborn calf, or calf partially born, when at Jimmy’s place abortive attempts to free her and her moribund offspring are a sample of life in the raw. There’s a kind of detachment in it – in ‘Jimmy’s Place’ – here as in other poems, in the events closely observed, with less than a soft edge on the Berger quotation.


In ‘Saskatchewan: 1949’, a date we need to know, for this is post-war and an era of austerity, that Canadian province, with its south border to the USA, is invoked with prairie and ocean imagery intermingled, in the person of a homesteader whose grassland and southern plains are subordinate to his landlocked landlubber dreams. He has the visions of a shipwright. One other such interlarding of apparent opposites is in the poem ‘The Quality of Light’, in this case a snow-covered terrain in collusion with that of the Sahara, a mentation paralleled in the action of cross-country skis, and the whole conjured by a poet who knows how the social frame of his country fits into its physical geography. The next, the Gandhi poem (‘Mahatma Gandhi Refuses an Invitation to Write for Reader’s Digest’), is amusing. The Reader’s Digest, a quintessentially US consumer mag, would seem to have no business courting the pen of that once ‘obscure Indian lawyer’, and, later, leader in the movement for Indian independence. Gandhi tells us

a man’s life
cannot be condensed
to a series of major scenes
in lighted boxes
without distortion…

How historically accurate, I don’t know, but as an ‘obscure Indian lawyer’ we are asked to consider that a letter Gandhi had written did not secure the release of Sacco and Vanzetti, a revelation that would have been of interest to the American public. Sacco and Vanzetti have since gone down in US political history, when no end of protest – as apart from Gandhi’s – succeeded in securing their release. The pair were controversially convicted of murder after an armed robbery, in 1920s Massachusetts. The poem has one other fleeting irony, Western values versus East, in the person of Rabindranath Tagore, also an eloquent spokesperson for the cause of Indian independence, and shown here for the succour he had given his people in the embers of Empire.


The Geddes meditation on Ezra Pound is also a meditation on that poet’s last canto, and is a survey of: Venice as compared with Byzantium; American politics contra its poetry; the age and its demands; literary allusion; the necessary superficiality of material the poet draws on; refinement in its descent into the demotic; the voice as essence of music; US abandonment of ideas in favour of possessions; Pound’s pursuit of artistic form, shape and appearance; art as discovery; usury (of course) ; what poems are that poets aren’t; truth as an action of the sword; the art of lying; what is left of the poet after the poet’s death (‘Forget me too: / listen to the poems’); and the Poundian sublime, as acquired in his birthplace, Idaho. It is worth noting too that Pound’s resting place is in the cemetery on the Isola di San Michele, Venice, where Igor Stravinsky and Joseph Brodsky are also interred, among other notables.


The first Pound poem is contrasted noticeably with Geddes’ micro-homage to Toshiko Takada, a Japanese poet (1914–89), whose output consists of ‘Poems / so transparent you can feel the ghosts / of children’ passing through them. Another Pound poem, ‘On Being Dead in Venice’, makes modern banking less a rig-up of London and New York, more an invention of the Genoese (notwithstanding the Medici). Consider yourself chastened, Ezra.


Now Part Three, and that title, ‘The Terracotta Army’. The army in question consists of terracotta sculptures in imitation of warriors and their horses and chariots under the command of the first Emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang. The whole is a form of funerary rite, artefacts buried with the emperor (circa 210 BCE), as protection in the afterlife. The figures were discovered by farmers in 1974, and vary in height according to rank, the tallest being the generals. Estimates from 2007 are of over 8,000 soldiers and 130 chariots, and nearly 700 horses. Non-military figures number officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians.


The sequence of poems Geddes offers is a microcosm of that early empire and the infrastructure that ran it, and as its point of departure lights on the sculptor (Bi) whose task it was to produce these terracotta figures. Actual personnel who modelled for him are in the range of common empire lackeys, in the work they did daily, to keep the power intact and the Emperor in his elevation. We get to eavesdrop on snippets of information, and on the conversations. The first live model we are introduced to is the Charioteer, who tells us ‘Most of the animals were cast from a single mould / and could be distinguished one from the other / only by the application of paint and dyes.’ A Spearman, posing for Bi, is loath to part with the replica of himself. A Minister of War eschews Confucian philosophy, having ‘learned my politics from rats in the latrine’. The Lieutenant is an over-accomplished soldier, but ‘The potter was not impressed. / Learn to write with this, he said, positioning / my hands on the jade hilt of an ornate sword, / the enemy has not yet learned to read.’ The Paymaster was astounded

as usual by the loving attention to detail and asked Bi
what thoughts this assembled spectacle called up in him.
Counterfeit currency, he said. A life’s work
that will never be seen, poems tossed in bonfires.
A poem lives on in the ear, but a single push
will topple all of these.

An infantryman recalls a failed assassination attempt on the Emperor. For the Mess Sergeant Bi’s workshop is the go-to place for gossip and news. A Military Historian recalls that ‘One of the wily magicians at court’

convinced Ch’in he could find the fabled Island
of Immortals, but must take along the price
not only of gold and silver in great abundance
but also a host of beautiful youths of both sexes.
Ch’in complied. Nothing more was heard of them.
The emperor put out that they were lost at sea,
but others amongst us presumed the magician
had set himself up nicely on the islands of Fu Sang.
All this came to light much later, when Ch’in
died at the coast, vainly looking out to sea.

A Blacksmith who has improved the trigger mechanism of the crossbow to a new, deadly lethalness, is juxtaposed with Bi as he fashions a kneeling crossbowman. The Harness-Maker confirms Bi’s workshop as the place where empire news coheres, none more so than doubts cast on the sexual prowess of the Emperor Ch’in. A Strategist tells us empires are built on success in war, making victory in battle essential (self-evident, one would have thought). Whereas a Spy has his focus on alternatives to battle, as a kind of forerunner of Elizabethan espionage, over one and a half millennia later. In ‘Commando’ is the lightness of late T’ang poems, but not the detachment. Detachment is approximated through ambiguity. An Unarmed Foot-soldier, previously a student, has found himself drafted in. Things of the mind give way to the exercise of the craft of unarmed combat, though learning is not entirely jettisoned. What one knows of psychological control over others is useful when it comes to one-on-one conflict.


A Captain of the Guard remarks on the potter’s work and method—

The next thing I know he’s placed the head
of that ugly recruit, now bearded, on the six-foot
frame of an officer and recorded for posterity
my untrimmed growth of whiskers.

The Regimental Drummer notes how Bi has fashioned his own likeness as a master of martial arts, which perhaps tells us something of the potter’s predisposition, when even he, observer of humanity in all its foibles, follies and vanity, cannot escape the deadly narcotic of empire, whose seeds of its own undoing are evident in the observations of a General—

We began, like all the others, with a vision:
unification, call it what you will. The sorcery
of a fixed idea. For this we marched long years,
long miles, until, winning the war, we found we had
lost face. We became the new reactionaries,
eliminating, in short order, all the best minds.

‘The sorcery of a fixed idea’, or should we say the politics we of earth-bound terracotta societies have been straitjacketed in throughout history, and never mind an afterlife….