Carol Rumens’s new collection, her eleventh (the first was published in 1973), is prefaced by an epigraph from the Welsh poet RS Thomas:
To be alive then
Was to be aware how necessary
Prayer was and impossible.
“Prayer” here signifies the overt intention of Rumens’s poems, which work as invocations to some higher order of morality which is found, by and large, to have surreptitiously absented itself from the worlds of which she writes, which in turn are left floundering in the various forms of destructive chaos of their own making. Prayer is both necessary as a palliative, and impossible as a luxury, an indulgence implicitly no longer available to us.
The final poem in Hex, “The Turnstile”, closes with the lines:
‘At last, I’ve caught you up, caught on to the rhythm that says
there are no new starts outside the various fictions.
Our lives have one beginning: that is their shape.
We’ll be on track, embedded, wherever we go next,
separating as we move through the turnstile.’
In between these opening and closing declarations of possibility and impossibility lies a range of poems whose thematic concerns vary through a series of responses to life as it is experienced, and life as it is represented to us in art (in John Constable’s paintings, in poetry by Pushkin and Ovid). Rumens is a careful, thoughtful poet, whose righteous outrage at the horrendous stupidities and injustices of the world is always present at or just below the surface of her poetry, but never obscures the delicate craftsmanship that clearly modulates her poetic responses.
The necessity and impossibility of prayer is just one of the moral double binds that Rumens explores in this book. It’s a manifestation of the broader political obligations that she outlines in the preface, summarized in her tentative but succinct hypothesis that “the Western powers are morally out of control” in the wake of major, out-of-control events like September 11th. Poetry is, for Rumens, both a means of exploring this new and alarming moral condition, and a means of re-establishing some kind of control, even if it can be seen working only at the level of formal constraints and linguistic choice. We must be careful with the words we use, she implies, and the forms our expressions of outrage take may ultimately determine the possibility of our continued existence. So, in “The Perfect War Machine”, we see a proto-fascist vision of para-military conformity used to allegorize the distorting effects of human conformity on human nature:
‘They run with the herd, and every herd is the same
As far as they know. This lack of significance frees,
Surely, the blind white horses, who gallop and die with abandon,
Having no myth of themselves, and no desire but the sea’s?’
These are the last four lines of a thirteen line sonnet, incomplete but otherwise formally conventional. So far as form is a means of imposing structure on emotion, Rumens follows conventions but is willing (and wholly capable) of subverting them in order to subtly emphasize her point. The “lack of significance”, the reduction of the world to pre-programmed choice, constitutes a kind of freedom (that prized so much by the “Western powers” of which she writes) that is ultimately, the poem argues, merely the freedom to be like everyone else.
This connection between notional freedoms and the dominance of consumerism is most pithily observed in “Just as in 1914”, a short poem that indicates certain aspects of the tradition that Rumens sees some of her poetry operating in:
‘Name it ‘gallantry’ or ‘martyrdom’,
You can sell it. You can sell the young.’
“The young” are both subject and object here, and the “you” is colloquially ambiguous—it’s us and them, and we’re all complicit in the perpetuation of the moral crimes that Rumens meditates upon. There are distant echoes here of Wilfred Owen’s “old lie, Dulce et Decorum est / Pro Patria Mori”, tempered by some of the rhetorical styles of post-war protest poetry and song.
Rumens displays an assured command of numerous poetical styles in her negotiation of poetry’s position between necessity and impossibility. The “Hex” of the book’s title is both curse and prayer, spell and wish, as the collection’s center-piece, “The Quest, The Hex, The Alkahest” indicates. Here Rumens writes in a style reminiscent of Sylvia Plath in its expression of vitriolic anger:
‘I had you hexed,
hoaxed, on fire, hung from a spike,
gnawed out by cancers
. . . I’d kill tomorrow.
But no-one’s there.’
Plath herself returns later to personify Rumens’s muse in “Letters Back”, a sequence of eleven sonnets which sustains a superficially humorous tone (“And don’t come on all tragic”, Rumens admonishes herself). This tone nevertheless masks a more unsettling anger. “Letters Back” is Rumens’s reply, via Plath, to all those who have slighted her, as the titles of the sonnets suggest—“To the Critics who Judged me a Fake”, “To a Rival”, “To a Young Narcissus”—culminating in “To Any Poet or Would-Be Poet”, which ‘celebrates’ in brutal form the achievement in adversity of the modern woman poet:
‘With every year my corpse looks less like death
Because it’s made of poems. And love. Who knows
How hard it might have been sustaining that.’
Rumens lays her cards on the table in this sequence, and clarifies her own position as politicized, feminist and still angry. Her poetry achieves levels of genuine anger, expressing through gritted teeth an avowed intention to redeem, in art and love, the contemporary world that helped create them, against which they pitch themselves.