SNOWLIGHT AND SUNLIGHT: PAULINE STAINER’S TIGER FACING THE MIST

Pauline Stainer, Tiger Facing the Mist (Bloodaxe, 2013).

by Stephanie Green.

Pauline Stainer is noted for her minimalist, acutely precise poetry, working through an accretion of images, a balance of the concrete with the subliminal or spiritual, writing in John Burnside’s words “at the margins of the sacred.” Her range of reference is wide; mythology and Christianity are yoked together with 21st century science, physics, chemistry, astronomy and optics as she seeks to bring the spiritual iconography of the past into the present. Tiger Facing the Mist, her eighth collection, is exquisite, both a continuation of her earlier work and a distillation of style and technique so spare as to be almost “white on white” but there is also a volte face, where she embraces the physical world with an explosion of colour, poems full of “jouissance.” However, she is too fine a poet not to also confront the fear of evil and danger in the world and these poems of colour and sunlight are hedged with poems of hesitancy, of mist and greys, the poet’s self-doubts and the almost impossible and yet necessary task of expressing the inexpressible. The title poem holds physical and spiritual realities in balance; the tiger’s amber eye, the dangerous and fierce world of the tiger “moving / through mountain mist,” is symbolic of the new journey taken in this collection.

At first, we are in familiar territory with Stainer’s lexicon and iconography. Living in Essex, then for some time on the island of Rousay, Orkney and now returned to East Anglia at Hadleigh in Suffolk, Stainer’s obsession with Anglo-Saxon and Viking myth, and Early Christianity in the North of England is reflected in this collection. Poems on George Herbert sit with the early English, Northumbrian Saint Cuthbert and his otters, animals and creatures found in mediaeval tapestries, and legends: white gyrfalcons, deer, white hare, white owls. In this collection she also explores Inuit shaman beliefs and turns east to India, Vietnam and Japan where her creatures include flying squirrels, humming birds, snow-leopards, elephants, geckos, salamanders and parakeets.

The first half of the collection is full of white light. The poet’s struggle to articulate the subliminal or spiritual is explored through images of snow-light, moonlight, mirrors, white-phase gyrfalcons and hares, phosphorescence and luminosity repeated in many poems like variations on a theme:

I want to take the weight
out of language

the way snowfall
on the red planet
vaporises before settling 

outside […]

The white of the page is expressive of silence “the snowfields beyond / untranslatable” (in ‘Reading by snow-light’) so that one fears she is about to embrace Wittgenstein’s dictum “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” However, in her poem entitled ‘Shibui,’ this Japanese aesthetic summarises Stainer’s own understatement and economy, where simplicity balances complexity. The obsession with white light turns into a series of poems hinting at a half-way state of shadow and “displacement of light”; just as Shibui-inspired pottery uses grey, creating a silvery effect that unites disparate colours so Stainer uses understatement, the implied,  and silence:

I keep to the soft greys
of understatement

for it’s not biddable,
the way unrelated things
play havoc;
the contained flame
of a fox on the fire escape.

Stainer Tiger FacingThe Shibui aesthetic walks a fine line between the elegant and the rough, which again sums up Stainer’s incorporation of different registers such as “the exoskeletons of dragonflies” juxtaposed with Dante in ‘On opening the north door.’ ‘The sheep-rustling’ asks whether sheep with “eyes as glass-blanks” are:

men in balaclavas 

or gods
with cloven feet?

There is a further daring juxtaposition in ‘George Herbert plays the lute’ where the 16th century Metaphysical poet and Anglican priest’s lute-playing is a “Japanese way of looking […] notes catching like fireflies” and “the silence between sounds” is compared to “snow along the vein,” which I take to be a reference to cocaine. Modern references to menace and fear are also suggested in poems that feature bikers, their “heraldic” helmets linking past and present, culminating in ‘After Ernst’ inspired by his painting and collage ‘Two Children are Threated by a Nightingale’ where terror “a masked motor-cyclist / hangs level / with the driving mirror / and will not pass.”

Stainer also confronts the horrors of modern chemical warfare in ‘Peregrini’ when her monks on remote islands, though solitary:

detect
voiceovers

telling
how the atolls
glow with pollution
and perfect vaccines.

In ‘Quamaneq’ (an Inuit word meaning “shaman-light” or “seeing with spirit eyes”) the mutations of snow-lion, and caribou, the dying migrating nightingales falling from the sky  mean that the shaman

lays aside
his radioactive masks, no longer risks 

a dreaming act.

That Stainer sees parallels between the poet and the visionary experience of shamans is clear; the failure of their task to protect mankind from evil, some brought about by humanity’s misdeeds against the natural world echoes the poet’s doubts. What these are is not spelt out: the value of poetry perhaps, the struggle to articulate the inexpressible, or to reconcile the evil in the world with the spiritual? A series of poems hints at a half-way state of shadow, and “displacement of light” where the word “fallow” linked with the colour blue, even “blue on blue” comes to mean a necessary period of adjustment. Although Stainer makes no reference to it in her poems, she has said at readings that her previous collection came out of mourning for the death of her daughter; the poems in the central section of this collection may also spring from this source. Titles such as ‘Orkney Epiphany’ and ‘A Kind of Quickening’ suggest hope and rebirth.

Poems of sexual love and spiritual wonder are described in images of phosphorescence and electricity and finally the sun bursts in ‘On opening the north door’ suggesting a pagan and Christian rebirth where “silence is different / in sunlight.” Turning East, the Indian yellows of Krishna’s milkmaids, and the scarlet dress of a Vietnamese bride, burst in with the sun but in ‘The Wedding at Valletta’ there is still a note of caution:

It’s dizzying –
the sun’s ecliptic

through resounding blue,
the crackle of matter,
static of the bride’s
cream silk, that treachery
of perception 

which once turned
water into wine. 

The theme of “treachery of perception” is not only linked with her religious doubts, but also a more literal account of her own eye operation in ‘Insight,’ where during the waiting period of two months she realizes “we are both smitten / and hallowed”. This suggests some kind of reconciliation to suffering through a sense of wonder:

Now my stem-cells are grown
on a tissue of amniotic sac,

transplanted
like gold-beater’s skin
to my cornea. 

The sequence of poems in this collection have been carefully arranged to follow the trajectory of her spiritual journey but it is also an epistemological enquiry, both metaphysical and poetic, into the nature of perception and the poet’s wrestle with language. The last poem, ‘The key and the crystal,’ sums up her task and her method as she describes snowflakes:

I watch them
come into focus 

each a latchkey
to language 

its bright anxiety
never repeated.

It is an intense experience reading these tight and economic poems, where accretion of imagery works by juxtaposition rather than a narrative link and they require “slow reading” for the many layers to emerge. The effort is so rewarding it is clear that Stainer is one of our finest poets.

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