Review: Ray Givans – The Innermost Room

The Innermost Room is the 22nd release in Poetry Salzburg’s Pamphlet Series from the University of Salzburg. It follows Givans’s first full-length collection with Dedalus Press, Tolstoy In Love, which was shortlisted for the Eithne Strong Award.

Scanning the titles alone, it’s clear from the get-go that we are in for a history lesson of sorts: Katerina von Bora, Jon Donne, Samuel Johnson, William Cowper, Emily Dickinson, Helene and Albert Schweitzer, T.S. and Vivienne Eliot, David Jones (the artist/poet, not Bowie), Hart Crane, Thomas Merton, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jean Stafford, Robert Lowell and Marilyn Monroe all make an appearance. Joining them are an array of spouses, lovers, doctors and family members. Some names may be more familiar than others, although it is clear Givans is well read and a man of many interests.

The question for the reader is: do we need to know first of these people before we can get anything out of the poetry? Givans blends biography and poetry together very well. In each piece, we have enough context to understand the emotion and feeling, if not the entire history; and since poetry’s primary function is to evoke, the reader is not left empty or poorer for not first doing a Google search and a quick scan through Cowper or Crane’s Wikipedia entry.

A triptych of poems commenting on the Eliots’ “marriage of frost and mist” excellently uses nature to convey their distance. TS places his deckchair “on the dividing line | between estranged shale and pockmarked sand”, happier to be at the beach that come warm the “cold sheet” of their marriage bed. Vivienne is seen briefly alone in the bedroom, the song of a nocturnal bird out of harmony with the rest of the night. We next see TS in front of  Michelangelo’s Pietà, Mary holding the body of her son Jesus, and TS inspired (“was this the catalyst to release you upwards?”) to break free from “an abandoned wife”, perhaps as Christ was released from the torment of his crucifixion. It’s a bold and shocking analogy, and testament to Givans’s unique approach to his subject matter.

Helen and Albert Schweitzer: A Marriage uses an ABAB rhyming scheme, with verses divided into tercets to convey union and division. Again, there is this idea of discord.

+++On our wedding day the bells may have sounded
+++a little discordant, for at Gunsbach manse
+++my welcome was lukewarm, the Schweitzers astounded

+++that Berty, ready for mission, should take a chance
+++on marriage with me: my father German, a Jew
+++and rather brusque. Not the background for romance

+++to flourish – though my father chose to
+++baptize me as a Christian. There were of course
+++other women to fill my shoes, I knew

The poem moves into defiance – “but it was I who had his ear and resources | to complement his vision”, “I was the first for whom he opened” – before slipping into resignation: “I have shaken | the last confetti from my gown, returned || it to the wardrobe”. It’s far more interesting to talk and speculate on an unhappy marriage rather than a successful one. Helen’s fate, as a “counterweight” to her husband, is a common note, shared by Elizabeth Johnson; so much so, that in the poem that gives her voice, she is only titled as “Samuel Johnson’s Wife”. Elsewhere, Monroe is merely showcased via the fashion labels and perfumes she wears. The picture painted, possibly by an adoring fan, is elegant, glamorous, but wholly lacking of the woman within, and Givans is wholly aware of this.

There is little happiness to be found in The Innermost Room, rich with madness, suicide attempts, affairs and unacquainted loves. It would not be a stretch to label the collection as a feminist text, as Givans shows again and again the maltreatment and injustices led by men of power and influence to the women in their lives. When Dorothy L. Sayers laments over the idea of an open relationship, the result is equally heartbreaking and inflammatory.

+++and I, who would have let you devour me,
+++want more: fidelity, marriage, your child,
+++God knows I might have settled for passion

This is not to suggest that playing happy families is the pinnacle of a fulfilled life. Neither is is a condemnation of them. Rather, the collection is a catalogue of warnings from history, tied down firmly by personality. Jean Stafford’s eye is attracted to “a threatening, dark-edged cloud” on her wedding day with Robert Lovell. The same dark clouds “swirled within” Hart Crane’s head, which Peggy Cowley tries to relieve. Elizabeth Johnson declares she is “married in name only” while Samuel gets “up to God knows | what roguery”. There is little mercy shown to the gallery of husbands, and the tone and direction of the poems leave us in no doubt that they are not deserving of it.

Where we might feel sorrow and more mercy is with those touched by madness. A Child’s View of Emily Dickinson is unlikely to be compassionate, the child’s imagination full of rumours and gross stuff reminding us of snails and puppy dog tails. However, she is espied “dressed in white, just like an angel”, and for a brief moment, the reader is allowed to entertain this idea. William Cowper, recalling the daintiness of his mother’s satin shoes against the “nightmare feet” of his father, confesses his nightmare.

+++Perhaps, that oafish youth opened a door
+++to all the demons whose feet rampage
+++across the darkened rooms of my mind.

‘Oafish’ is a fitting choice of word here, heavy with damnation but old fashioned. The language suits the time period of the subject matter, something that Givans is careful to do throughout. The speakers are believable, their voices their own, varied and individual. Jumping from character to character, point to point throughout history, The Innermost Room finds Givans fully in control, sympathetic in one century, damning in the next, and always conscious of the weight of words in others’ mouths.

The Innermost Room is available to order now from Poetry Salzburg, 32 pp. ISBN: 978-3-901993-62-6, £6/€6 (+ 1.50 p&p)

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