Joseph Gordon Macleod, The Ecliptic.
In astrology the concept of personhood is a curious thing. Attached to the shifting valences of the stars, a person's life suddenly has a terminal value: responsibility for the self lies determinedly in the weathers of social situation and personal circumstance, and free will is seemingly evacuated from the picture.
In the poetry of Joseph Gordon Macleod, personhood and astrology align at just the right degree of compositional value, producing a system of the self that is equally nebulous, equally predetermined. Macleod's The Ecliptic, a "lost modernist classic" published in 1930, narrates what its editor Richard Owens describes as the development of "a single consciousness in twelve parts, each of which corresponds to one of twelve constellations in the Western zodiac." A long poem written on the astrolabed fissures of a piecemealed mind, Macleod's work reflects the modernist concern for fragmented consciousness and the dissolvable, irresolute aspects of personality. Indeed, Basil Bunting had approvingly sent it to Ezra Pound, and Pound encouraged T. S. Eliot to publish it at Faber & Faber; Virginia Woolf had been close to publishing it for Hogarth Press; and Louis Zukofsky, another player on the stage of refraction, demonstrated some admiration for Macleod's brand.
Despite these associations, the poem is oddly anachronistic. Its hermeticism mixes high modernism's elliptical difficulty and cultish formalism with late nineteenth-century Symbolism (think Arthur Symons translating the evocative knots of Stephane Mallarme). In his preface Macleod rationalizes the poem's length by citing poetry's need to rival the vogue for novels with a version of Pound's "prose kinema": prolonged narrative arcs undergirded by archetypal symbols. "All literature is born symbolic," says Macleod, and the "symbol, being an idea, should be allowed to develop as ideas do," across long stretches of "autobiographical indulgence." Macleod approaches astrology with the Symbolists' fervor for occult prognostication as a readymade for poetical association. He takes the astrological signs as dramatis personae, constructing a range of personhoods beginning in Aries and ending in Pisces. A powerful hermeneutic for personhood in The Ecliptic, astrology also leads Macleod into the obscurantism of horoscope riddles. "Aries, or, The Ram," the first part of the poem, exemplifies some of the sonic pyrotechnics Macleod excels in. We enter a vision of spring (Aries's month is April):
Spring is anticipated honourable and fresh. It comes. The frosts are gone. But impulsive purple and yellow Yet are slaves to the ground. When time folds over again, Dire in the midst of lilies adored the disciplinary lily Hangs its head fulfilling the legal balances, Not balances that embrace all, being all-comprehending; But balances that exclude, being but compromise. Sap rises. The hedgehog wakes.
Macleod tends to be highly alliterative in his verse, using sound patterns to evoke significant connections. In the fourth line above, "Dire" calls attention to the d sounds in "midst," "adored," and "disciplinary." But in the midst of "disciplinary" there is also the counterpoint of the softer consonants in "lily" and "lilies." The discipline in question here is that of the lily taming the harsher notes of d by spreading a silkier music of I sounds: "fulfilling," "legal," and "balances." Meanwhile, the participle of "adored" works in favor of either the undifferentiated lilies or the differentiated, and highly disciplinarian, lily. Macleod is ratcheting up his evocative powers: "adored" evokes two simultaneous figures or actions without specific corralling. Many of Macleod's lines perform this equivocation, just as often in the diction as in the syntax. His ingenuity places much pressure on the prismatic effect of such words as "strabismus," "tragomaschality," "triforium," "erythroglot," and "metanairesis," whose preciosity and difficulty add to the poem's lyric drive. In his stellar moments Macleod exploits the aural capacity of these select words in companionship to generate novel forms of expression that evoke rather than affix poetic meaning.
In spite of its evocative ingenuity on the level of sound, The Ecliptic's pretensions at narrative integrity are bogged down, sometimes unnecessarily, by the modernist prerogative for remixed Hellenisms. "Taurus, or, The Bull," the second poem in the series, takes the "ceremony of the Bull murder at the Athenian Dipolia," as Macleod notes, citing James Frazer's The Golden Bough, and gives it a neoclassical rendition:
'Goodly Bull, come, Hero Dionysus, To Elaeans' shrine, a pure shrine, pounding Oxhoof graced, Goodly Bull, O Goodly Bull,' so to herself hummed exiled Pyrrha Pent in sorry school in ugly Scyros ...
Pyrrha, we learn, is the young Achilles hiding out on the island of Skyros, dressed in drag and feigning womanhood, and spending his (her) time with the daughters of Lycomedes. Pyrrha's relation, and equally Taurus's relation, to Aries emerges here only through a collation of seasonal tropes. The figure of the finch in "Aries" is reworked here in the image of the goldfinch, each one denoting the springtide wake of replenishment. But the force of these transitions is diluted unnecessarily by the minutiae of ornamental language. The self that the poem strives to build up, sign by sign, is resultantly obfuscated by a clutter of antique Greek furniture and mythological commonplaces that don't specify so much as disperse.
The next poem, "Gemini, or, The Twins," is comprised of couplets that mimic the dual nature of the Gemini sign, while "Cancer, or, The Crab" is composed in the sidewinding manner of the crustacean:
How can I be hardened when the whole world is fluid? O Aphrodite Pandemos, your badgers rolling in the moonlit corn Corn blue-bloom-covered carpeting the wind Wind humming like distant rooks Distant rooks busy like factory whirring metal Whirring metallic starlings bizarre like cogwheels missing teeth
Despite the hardened exterior of the crab, its sideways motion gets mimicked in the fluid patterning of these lines. The end-word of each line flows into the opening phrase of the next: "moonlit corn" reappears as "corn blue-bloom-covered" (presumably huitlacoche, or "corn smut"), and so on, until whirring metal, now missing teeth, metamorphoses into starlings. In the midst of the crab's motion "the Zodiac itself ... dissolves like a sandcastle into acidity." The disintegration is significant. Personhood, in Macleod's argument, is of value when it is multiple; the crab's failure at direct motion results from a hardened unchanging personality, one that cannot embrace the nebulous multiplicity of being a person dictated by the multifaceted Zodiac.
In the final poem of the series, "Pisces, or, The Fishes," the hardened personhood of the crab is offset by the fluid personhood of the fish. Pisces, the Crab's water-sign counterpart, offers "the poem of redintegration / To some souled, parallel epipedal crustacean." Redintegration, or the restoration of the whole from the part, is the culmination of Macleod's long poem: all the signs of the Zodiac are but stages in the becoming-whole of personhood. It takes a madeleine sometimes to jumpstart the constitution of an entire memory, leaving a novel in its wake; in Macleod's case, it takes a vivid inhabitation of each of the houses and symbols of the Zodiac to establish individual consciousness, and the long poem is its embodiment. Macleod's final lines leave a testament to this belief: "I use the stars as wisely as I can / With migrant man as faith to migrant man." Macleod's "migrant man" offers a useful caption to the incommensurability of personality in the face of astrological movement and planetary eclipses. What migrates above, migrates below.
The Ecliptic turned out to be eclipsed by its author's own incommensurability, because personhood came to mean a lot of things for Macleod. Following the disappointment of his subsequent book of poems, Foray of Centaurs (1931-1932), whose baroque symbolism failed to find a publisher, Macleod turned to acting and the theater. Given the actor's ability to change personhood, it's appropriate that this became the chief passion of his life. Astrology, with all its chance happenings and fatalistic weather patterns, however, did not leave Macleod alone. Electrocuted while performing stage work, he had an epiphany and devoted himself to socialism and a life in politics, becoming chairman of the Huntingdonshire Divisional Labour Party and later a candidate for Parliament. Personhood shifted repeatedly for Macleod: at different stages of his life, he was a newsman and filmmaker, a literary critic, and a barrister. Most tellingly, he even adopted a pseudonym, Adam Drinan, and under that name composed and published poems with a Scottish nationalist verve, strikingly different from his earlier occultish verse. Indeed, Macleod embodied multiple personae throughout his life, and The Ecliptic may hold the key to all of their diverse motivations.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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