I started making annotations and sticking Post-its in Steve Ely’s pamphlet about nine months ago. It was a week before the first lock-down, and I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room in Ossett. I used to take novels to read in surgeries and hospitals. More recently it’s been poetry that’s replaced Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward”. More often than not, it’ll be U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Tyndale in Darkness’. Whatever, it will probably feature the themes of suffering, endurance and redemption through faith of one kind or another. It’s a kind of epicureanism, I suppose. I beheld Satan as an angel… was, and is, different, because throughout it challenges the whole notion of the possibility of redemption. I’ve kept trying to write about why it seems to matter so much to me, and failing to nail it, falling short of what I think I mean. There are critical reviews that make an effort to appear objective; I never believed that such a thing is possible. When I read a poem I read it through a glass darkly, through the refracting lens of my preoccupations and memories, and subsequently, the poem ‘reads me’ if it’s any good at all. Afterwards, I see differently, and the poem becomes different. This is a sequence about falling from grace and about the death of a son, about the guilt for the death of a son. One of my sons took his own life by jumping from a tall building. It speaks to me in ways that it can’t speak to everyone.
Sooner or later, though, you simply have to follow the advice of the old Nike slogan, and Just Do It. So, here goes.
The precis on the back cover pulls no punches.
“This sequence is about falling and fallen-ness, thrown-ness and being thrown. It begins in lust and it ends in death, taking in abortion, miscarriage and murder. It excoriates evil, embraces guilt and denies the possibility of absolution…it tries not to flinch, but it does, because it cannot bear the absence of reassurance”
Kim Moore’s endorsement talks of ‘[Steve Ely’s] trademark visceral and multi-layered language…these poems are blistering in their honesty..resting on multiple layers of allusion’
Quite simply, it’s disturbing, uncomfortable, upsetting; it’s as well to know that before you start. And if you don’t know Steve Ely’s work, you probably need some context. If you have the time and inclination you could follow these two links to earlier posts about my enthusiasm for his poetry:
If you haven’t the time, let me identify three or four things that may give you pause.
The first thing may be the voice, its language.It’s packed with archaisms and archaic spellings, with a sometimes violent vernacular, with scatalogical slang (jamrags and johnnies),with disruptive lexis and (sometimes) syntax, and what I think of as a kind of medieval lyricism. Sheenagh Pugh, in an interview, said:
‘You’re very unafraid of words. That sounds an odd thing to say of a poet, but I’ve read so many reviewers, in particular, who seem downright terrified of any vocabulary vaguely out of the ordinary. …….One of the things I like best about your work is how you cheerfully expect your readers to cope with liturgical language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, umpteen bird and plant names, lovely obscure words ….’
Steve’s answer is uncompromising:
Words are my business, and as such, every word, in every language — past, present and future — belongs to me. I’ll use them as I see fit.
Secondly, there’s the business of Biblical reference, because often it’s a Bible you don’t recognise, that no-one ever told you about. If you went to Sunday School, as I did, you grew up with the winsome Infant Samuel. I remember a course when Steve Ely introduced me to the older Samuel. Here he is commanding Saul :
Now therefore go thou, and slay Amalek, and destroy thou all his things; spare thou not him, nor covet thou anything of his things; but slay thou from man unto woman, and little child, and sucking, ox, and sheep, and camel, and ass.
But Saul and the people spared Agag, and they left of the sheep and of the oxen and fat things and the lambs and all that was good, and would not destroy them.
How does Samuel react? In fury he denounces Saul as apostate. Saul tries to make amends. At Samuel’s request he delivers up Agag.
And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women without free children, so thy mother shall be without free children among women. And Samuel hewed Agag into gobbets before the Lord in Gilgal.
You might think ‘well, this is Old Testament.’
But Ely’s pamphlet takes its title from the New Testament’s Luke 10. You may not recognize the Jesus of these verses. You know all about the twelve disciples. Did you know of the 72 who Jesus sent out to spread the gospel, with these words ringing in their ears
Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’
I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! ……. it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.
“Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
He replied, I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.
I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
Gentle Jesus meek and mild? Not remotely.
As a ‘youngish mature student’ Steve Ely took a degree in Biblical Studies after travelling around the Middle East and Europe, working as a fork-lift driver, and being involved in various ways with political activism. A degree in Divinity and growing up in a different, less imbricated, landscape might have generated a different, more emollient, more consoling range of reference.
Two more things.
Be ready for a range of allusion and reference that takes in the Southern Gothic of True Detective, Biblical exegisis, gnosticism, arcana, 20thC child murderers and paedophiles, the biochemistry of sexual reproduction, Near-Death experience, genocidal massacre and the business of designer polo shirts and trainers. Be ready to find that all epigraphs and references appear to carry the same weight, despite the widely varied provenance.
Finally. The key event, the starting point is a miscarriage. It’s easy to see this as the whole point, and it isn’t. Steve said this in a email conversation I had with him:
‘A lot of people have called it a ‘male take on miscarriage’ ….. ‘it’s not really about that – it’s about what we’re capable of, and ultimately becomes a gnostic speculation on the possibilities of life after death’.
For me it’s a sequence of poems about spiritual despair in a world of great moral and physical violence; it’s about damnation and redemption. There you are. Colours nailed to the mast.
I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen begins with five poems which return and return like nightmare to this core moment.
‘Kids 5 and 2,
the third in the womb three months that March
stopped moving after I shattered your joy
by suggesting you have an abortion:
you know and I’ve always known—I wished him dead
and he fled from Herod into Egypt’s plummeting dark’
The joy of annunciation is donkey-kicked into oblivion; a life that begins in a careless act of drunken sex, and threatens the comfortable security of a house and two affordable kids is snuffed out. Marie’s joy is blighted, and all this wretched Joseph can offer is the recognition that
The glamour of Tyre and Sidon, the exaltation
of Capernaum—fitted kitchen, custom bookshelves,
things and social life—he died for me
and freed us for those things.
[The mother of Naim]
He will always remember and be haunted by the moment:
And there I was, stumbling burdened
from the stuttering car, bushwhacked by the dazzle of your joy
But here I am with my life among the living,
my fleets of ivory, apes and peacocks. A worm in my heart
and a snake beneath my tongue.
This, as I said is the starting point. A probably doomed attempt at ‘confession without self-justification’; an act of contrition without hope of any kind of absolution. But from the very start, the hope it denies will not be suppressed. The second poem, The feather of Ma’at makes this absolutely plain, whatever doubts and disclaimers follow. The image from Egyptian myth is of the heart of the dead being weighed against a feather. The pure heart is lighter and is saved. Salvation in Ely’s elision of multiple beliefs is to be reunited with the single flame of the universal spirit or godhead; to be no longer separate and cast out.
Surely perfect love is felt there, which comes
from perfect understanding. Where sinnes unfetter
and leap to meet annihilating grace: a wretch like I,
scum of the sphynxy earth.
Dissolved, they weep
with joy together, the boy, his mother, his sister
and brother: the father freed from outer darkenesse,
still wailing and gnashing his teeth.
There’s no salvation or self-forgiveness here, is there?
Assoone as the voice of thy salutation sounded
in mine eares, the babe leapt in my wombe for ioy.
[ From: Luke 1:41. The Magnificat]
To wish someone dead and not kill them
is cowardice and bad faith. Therefore we must be murderers.
The sin is to stay the knife.
The boy that lit the linnet’s nest,
then blubbered over the fledglings as they writhed
and gaped in crackling death? There’s no forgiveness.
The act can never be undone.
[Ego te absolvo]
The poet/narrator wanders an appalling dysfunctional world of financial collapse, massacres, terrorist attacks, assassinations..ugly death on a global scale…and, in Goe, and doe thou likewise through a hideous Edgelands despoiled landscape that could have been invented by David Peace:
‘ditch-litter of nonces,
wrists cable-tied behind their backs, eyes popped
from broken sockets. Thirty brace of dumped pheasants,
a gargoyled fox in a Tesco bag-for-life.
Ditch litter of blood-soaked Tattershall shirts
and torched Izuzu Troopers’
Like Peace’s Red Riding novels it’s spiritually and emotionally exhausting. When the wanderer appears before the Peacock throne making his lame excuses he gets the short thrift that you may have begun to think he deserves.
‘I had saved a toad’s life, formed the committee
that rescued the Common and given one-hundred-
and-fifty pounds to Smile Train. And as for the other things,
I was always heartily sorry.
And He said,
Your merits are more contemptible than your sins
and your sorrow is self-pity.
The angels lowered
But He stayed their hand, saying,
I will not be complicit in the contagion of his darkness.
Examine your heart and know what you are:
a beast and a murderer. You cannot be redeemed.
Embrace the blackness and kill yourself.
In the instant of death, you’ll know you’ve done
the one right thing—let that be your consolation.
I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen is a short pamphlet of 14 poems. You can see that as as a narrative sequence it could have ended right here. Embrace the darkness and kill yourself. And because of my own personal history I would not be telling you that here’s a collection you need to read. It would have been too bleak to bear. Remember the precis I quoted at the very beginning. This collection:
‘excoriates evil, embraces guilt and denies the possibility of absolution…it tries not to flinch, but it does, because it cannot bear the absence of reassurance.’
If your sin outweighs the feather of Ma’at, what hope is there? I think it lies in the last poem that begins in a landscape the early Christians would have recognised. The black rocks of, say, Sula Sgeirr or Rona to where they sailed their frail boats in a search for God.
Hæc nox est
Fireflies illumined the darkness, and lightning flashed
on the horizon. But there was no thunder. A weird circular
light glowed in the sky for a few moments and then suddenly
plummeted toward the horizon, a crimson tail behind it.
I stepped from the cliff into ocean’s buffeting
up-thrust, and plummeted in the darkness,
face strafed with salt-shot, breath torn-off
by up-flung bolts of foam. Clap-rattling gannets
leapt from the crag and circled their crosses.
Auks dropped from their cracks and exploded.
Fulmars squirting vomit. I flapped and flailed
like an oily eagle, and fell.
Below, the black and heaving sea,
its ghostly freight of fallen stars and shoals
of glittering sturgeon. Above, the all-enveloping night,
the pulsar static of the buffering empyrean.
They say the shock of the fall alone
will stun the head and stop the beaten heart;
else splat on the glass of the marbled sea,
and nothing in that instant. But I just kept falling,
a rope-less bucket, dropped in a bottomless well.
And I thought, perhaps this is it,
the way DMT seeks to ease our deaths
in the moment of transition, that we fall forever,
and forever are spared the shattering shock of impact.
Not like those nights we hit the rocks
and scream erect in freezing sweat, thank God—
it’s all a dream.
It is no dream. The cormorant’s embrace
awaits, this flick-book life of a thousand torn-off
guillemot wings, each plucked from the body
and cast into the mantling dark, where now he falls
and continues to fall, a feather of flame now falling
beside him, a small cool flare of feathery flame
lighting his darkness and feathering his falling,
and now he himself transfigured to flame, falling
beside the spark that found him, and together they fall,
a flaming man and a flaming child, with angels,
falling, feathers of flame flaring from the darkness,
like sparks from a rocket or the tail of a comet,
falling together and joining the fallen, the sobbing father
and weeping mother and all their gathered children:
and now they are falling as a single flame,
a tear of feathery fire, warming the world
like the flame of a beeswax candle, bringing light
to the salt and whistling night, before settling
on the heave like a lotus, or a burning swan,
drifting out on the darkness and sinking.
To ‘embrace the darkness and kill yourself’ was the instruction. To throw yourself into the dark, in a blizzard of torn-off wings. It brings to me the image of the gannet hunters that Robert Macfarlane describes in The Old ways
“The birds are plucked, singed, seared. Then their wings are chopped off, they’re scrubbed again, split open and emptied of their innards, and their evacuated bodies are placed on ‘the Pile’ – a great altar-cairn of guga corpses. So it proceeds. On the middle Sabbath comes rest, prayer and song. If summer storms blow in, the men sit them out in the bothies, for there’s no working the Rock in big wind or big waves. Once the effort is over, they sail south again for Lewis. …..The guga that survive the harvest will, eventually, stagger down the cliff ledges until they fall off and splash into the sea. They are water-bound for a couple of weeks, riding the waves and fasting, until they are light enough to take flight and make their maiden voyages: winging down the west coast of Britain, the north-west peninsulas of France, through the Bay of Biscay, along the Atlantic facade, following their own sea roads – their migration paths – until at last they reach their winter home off West Africa.”
I’ve quoted all of this, not just for the detail of the wings torn from the bodies of gannets, but for the image of the survivors, falling exhausted on to the sea, and amazingly, miraculously, generation by generation, flying thousands of miles, coming home. I think that Steve Ely, a passionate watcher of birds, might appreciate this connection. I love the physicality, the noise and space and texture of the opening, the primaeval star-studded black sky, the salt-shot, and then the way it transmutes into the weightlessness of a dream, that turns out not to be a dream. I like the echo of Thomas Wyatt (who was a master of emotional ambivalence): It was no dream: I lay broad waking:
Above all I love the long twenty-line sentence in its circling, lyrical recreation of falling and falling , flame-light, feather light, gathering into ‘a single flame’, settling on the heave of the sea like ‘a lotus’, or astonishingly, a ‘burning swan’. It reminds me of the final moments of Beethoven’s 6th, that long diminuendo, that leaves you quiet after a great storm.
Thank you Steve Ely, for letting me share all this. I doubt I’ve done justice to its complexity and craft. But it’s as good as I can manage.
I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen: [New walk Editions 2019] £5.00
for details of Steve Ely’s other books use the links to earlier posts (above)