28 November, 2019 • • 41.1LiteraturePoetry

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The Limits of the New Laity

Emma Gattey

Steven Toussaint
Lay Studies
Victoria University Press


From a poet immersed in Ezra Pound’s concept of melopoeia—‘wherein the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning’—one would expect lyricism, logos activated by music, something mellifluous. And in that regard, Steven Toussaint’s Lay Studies (Victoria University Press, 2019) does not disappoint. Ripe with auditory pleasure, coming alive through rhythm and cadence, this anthology rewards reading aloud, as does his earlier work. (I will end, however, with a few caveats.)

No stranger himself to intellectual complexity or devotional verse, Toussaint’s previous publications (Fiddlehead [2014], The Bellfounder [2015]) are acts of reverence and masterful composition. Like Lay Studies, they explore the porous boundaries of aesthetics and ethics, theological soundscapes, and the corporeal and cognitive dissonances of human life. Toussaint’s oeuvre recognises music as a primary, fundamental language which braces and undergirds all language. His verse erupts with birdsong, liturgical music, echoes of classical compositions, scordatura/mistuning, and lyrical refrains linking within and across poems. These études are all set against our contemporary reality: an era of spectacle, violence, and the climate crisis. In short, Toussaint has been playing with theodicy for a while.

Pound is a constant referent in Lay Studies, along with holier brethren: Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, Dante, Hegel, Messiaen, Kierkegaard, Weil. Toussaint is deeply influenced, also, by the Radical Orthodoxy (or ‘postmodern critical Augustinianism’) of Catherine Pickstock and the ‘Cambridge School’ of philosophical theology. His academic training is immanent, unavoidable, everywhere, in these poems. And he is an honest disciple, honouring Pound’s diktat: ‘Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.’ The ‘Notes’ section abounds with Great Minds and their Greatest Hits, while some intellects hide in plain sight within the stanzas themselves. 

The automatic comparisons are Charles Wright and the late Geoffrey Hill, with all three poets drawing deeply from the wells of spirituality and Pound’s Cantos. Unlike Wright, however, Toussaint is self-professedly recondite in his mysticism, neither affectionate nor sympathetic to readers. Toussaint does not explain concepts or gently introduce his literary and spiritual mentors to the uninitiated. He writes for an unclear, but unmistakeably erudite, audience. Much like the work of Hill, former Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Toussaint’s verse is characterised by seriousness, a high moral tone, uncompromising allusiveness, and devotion to history, theology, and philosophy. Certainly, Lay Studies straddles the (almost impenetrable) allusive thicket of Hill’s densest, knottiest work (see Canaan [1996]) and the accessible, narrative versets of his Mercian Hymns (1971). Within this latter, brilliant camp falls ‘Yes or No’, as well as the gardening poems, those lusty, earthy, tactile works of wordsmithing (‘The New Laity’, ‘St. Francis’, ‘Mount Eden’, ‘Hymn Before A Feast’, ‘In Memoriam’). 

‘Yes or No’ is truly remarkable. Full of tricksy inversions (‘Have you been waiting long / in our baffled room?’), and astute cultural, political, and socio-economic commentary, the poem opens with wry humour (‘Are you in the market / for something like / but not precisely / eternal return?’) and progresses through a series of questions, building to various crescendos of crisis and panic: ‘Are you watching / not a little / terrified / as advertising / bromides / slowly embalm / the once / in a century mind / of your favourite/ Thomist / on Twitter?’. This poem is something special, in a category of its own. It rewards lingering over, and I recommend it unequivocally. 

We, the readers, are addressed as ‘The New Laity’, with ‘hands immersed in soil / up to your wedding / band to introduce to all below the things with which / you feel. This is the seminal / trespass.’ In this way, we introduce ourselves to the earth, apprentice ourselves to her. How might each of us treat this tender apprenticeship? Will we ‘dig / a single plot, and pour them [berry seeds] in, because / you find it beautiful / that creatures couple up to live?’ This temporal caress, this solace from and in the earth, recurs continually. The climate crisis comes to the fore, albeit veiled, in ‘St. Francis’, a dirge to ‘this funeral earth’ wrapped in the observation of bees: ‘from the way the workers’ / dance had changed […] I recognised / the once good air / had weaponised’, and that ‘the rain / of atoms overhead erase the easy /credit of the dead.’ 

Outdoors again, ‘Mount Eden’, named for a suburb in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, is a paean to the mundane pleasures of domestic life—raking, sweeping, gathering up autumn leaves—while listening to the ‘indifferent signal’ of the radio, which reports gratuitous, senseless, ceaseless violence. Having changed the station to hear the weather report (‘to find the season’s violence / sensible again’), we, the listener, protract our outdoor labour so as not to hear more violence: ‘anything to stretch this needless / peace another hour. / The trees are not deciduous / enough.’ Regarding the violence underlying this poem, Toussaint could have been writing about any atrocity. But my mind went, unbidden, to the horrific mosque shootings in Ōtautahi/Christchurch on 15 March 2019. The mass murder of innocents by a white supremacist who sought to glorify himself and his agenda via the media. Of course, I get it: the peace—elusive, ephemeral, unreal—of changing the station, of switching off; the appeal of distraction, of focusing your attention elsewhere. But this turning away from the world is unsustainable. (As an aside, it’s debatable whether, given the tangible, destructive impacts of the climate crisis, the ‘weather whisperer’s / impartial mysticism’ is really a violence more ‘sensible’ or familiar than the regular news.)

Beyond melopoeia, Toussaint also plays powerfully with phanopoeia (‘a casting of images upon the visual imagination’) and logopoeia (‘the dance of the intellect among words’), thus combining the Holy Trinity of Pound’s poetic typology. Toussaint is a miracle worker with imagery: in ‘Jesus Green’ (that Cambridge den of iniquity), for example, ‘[t]he wind is animal with cannabis.’ Conjuring up pungent, feral odours carried aloft/made airborne, by spectral beasts, Toussaint creates an engrossing synaesthesia in a single line. We feel national precarity in ‘Saint Mary the Less’, with the narrator’s certainty that ‘the rivers of this country / sing with cancelled sterling.’  Meanwhile, ‘Hymn Before a Feast’ conjures up the charnel houses supplying the world’s stomachs and supermarkets: ‘Inconceivable that hunger / whose satisfaction swells / the sanguineous channels / of factory farms.’ (And yet, Toussaint retains his potential appeal to committed omnivores in ‘Agnus Dei’, by recording a happy cognitive dissonance: ‘I long ago reconciled / instinctive sympathy / for the perfect innocence of animals / with an equally ardent carnivory.’ Savvy.) Intellect dances, as mammon sings, through ‘Chicago Sketches’: ‘Given the means / their mother would recast / the master bathroom […] more perfectly perform / the golden ratio / of what they earn / to what they owe.’ 

Many of these poems display a deep, embodied love of nature, plants, birds, the myriad intricacies of the world; they elicit a sense of kinship with, and connection to, the natural environment, whether woods or manicured garden. But, because of the elite language and tone, this sensibility does not always land. Not everyone can—or has to—be Mary Oliver. There are many routes to mastery, infinite ways to please and instruct. But Toussaint’s language, however melodious, is profoundly alienating. It becomes carapace, not connector. Privy to nothing, we are held at arm’s length, distanced by jargon. We are not brought close, as readers, either to his mind or to the countless Great Minds influencing these canticles. As a result, several poems miss out on real connectivity and empowerment. (When the former Archbishop of Canterbury calls your theological poems ‘demanding’, surely there’s something awry.)

So, expect to be overwhelmed by allusion, by cultural references you detect but simply do not grasp. Toussaint is incorrigibly gnomic, intentionally so. Honestly, this anthology needs annotation and an index as compendious as Shade/Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Or The Waste Land. For members of the laity, Lay Studies is exclusionary in its allusion and intertextuality. To understand these poems without annotation, you would need to be situated precisely in Toussaint’s mind, location, and life experience. Are any readers outside philosophical theology faculties likely to understand the precise references peppered throughout this book? Who, for example, will understand the Trinitarian and Thomist allusions within ‘Pickstock Improvisations’ without being familiar with Radical Orthodoxy? In ‘Kettle’s Yard’, does the reference to the Gaudier-Brzeska statue mean anything to those who haven’t visited that art gallery and seen the crisp, bronze musculature in mid-dance? This is the effect: ekphrasis which doesn’t bother to capture the entire artwork, which offers you a teaser, a half-vision, a fragment. For those in the know, it’s self-affirming, validating, pleasing. For those out in the cold, it leaves you precisely that: cold. Do these fragments detract from the other, indubitably brilliant aspects of Toussaint’s composition? This, of course, will depend on the individual reader. While his writing is warm, generous, and far from parochial, it cannot be universal. 

‘Aevum Measures’, perhaps the most complex and confounding poem, exemplifies this gnomic tendency. Its title refers to Aquinas’ exploration of an intellectual problem: how to measure and distinguish the experience of two fundamentally different kinds of corporeal and spiritual reality. Per Aquinas, aevum is the mean between mortal Time and divine eternity. Toussaint has elsewhere described aevum as ‘an ancient cliché that psychologizes the artist as striving to create something “eternal” as his or her consolation for a transitory existence’. Thrashing against physical impermanence with art as a weapon, Toussaint wonders whether the artist’s ‘ideal object, [is] in fact, the manufacture of an angel?’ Although beautiful in its propulsive, isorhythmic force and aurality, ‘Aevum Measures’ is a cruel and distant angel, withholding meaning while offering salvation. 

Rife with Christian symbolism and liturgical elements, these are all, ultimately, devotional works. An often-incredible blend of metaphysics and poetics, meditation, and prosody. The issue is, many of the poems within this anthology are hymns-for-one, almost elitist in their determined difficulty.

This is never an easy or kind thing to say (and has repeatedly been said of Susan Sontag and John Berger, amongst other creative greats), but Toussaint is a far better communicator as critic than as poet. The clarity of his critical writing is exponentially better (and more enjoyable) than wading through some of the more enigmatic poems in Lay Studies. In a magisterial assessment of contemporary poetry in Aotearoa/New Zealand earlier this year, Toussaint wrote that a talented cohort of young writers, ‘many of them women, LGBTQ, and people of colour, have exploded onto the scene in a searching and incendiary spirit, and have transformed the literary landscape irrevocably’. Reviewing the mind-blowing work of Hera Lindsay Bird, Tayi Tibble, Chris Tse, and Hannah Mettner (amongst others), Toussaint seemed completely on board with the aesthetic of this electrifying current in Antipodean verse: the new, ‘ostentatiously self-reflexive’,‘too much information’ anti-tradition of poetry. And yet. Toussaint thinks the TMI acolytes doth protest too much. Politically, he is troubled by the inherent conservatism and self-deprecation of this ‘new’ school, which, in denouncing its role or classification as ‘intelligentsia’, he sees as deferring to the hoary national essentialism that ‘being well-read, asserting an ambitious artistic vision, aspiring to a uniquely “poetic” eloquence are simply not conceivable Kiwi traits.’ Instead of conforming and cowing themselves to ‘rather provincial and populist’ standards, Toussaint asks: ‘[w]ould not a truly transgressive and revolutionary poetry actively position itself against the compulsory nonchalance and bumptious inarticulacy that so many politicians and pundits sell to us as quintessentially Kiwi?’ Essentially, he sees the TMI vanguard as so many lemmings, over-eager to ‘chant the litany that literature is … a mystification promoted by bourgeois institutions’ (Bloom, The Western Canon) and to retreat, safe within their chainmail of irony and cynicism, to the empty shallows of simplicity. 

Toussaint here clearly aligns himself with Hill’s position that ‘[t]here is no reason why a work of art should be instantly accessible, certainly not in the terms which lie behind most people’s use of the word […] difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools.’ Rejecting allegations of ‘over-intellectualism’, Hill has also argued that ‘genuinely difficult art is truly democratic […] tyranny requires simplification.’ This mantra reverberates throughout Toussaint’s body of work and his extra-poetic apologetics. Lay Studies, then, is a push-back, a cultural revanchism: a reassertion of the right to be difficult, inscrutable, inaccessible. To be worked for. Taking up formidable metaphysical and melodic arms against anti-intellectualism, Lay Studies is a recommitment to Toussaint’s own metaphysical territory, rhythm, and language. Unfortunately—erring on the side of absolute inscrutability—some of this work overcompensates for what he sees as a slippery slope to tyrannical simplicity and homogeneity. 

While I am sympathetic to the writer’s desire for thematic and linguistic complexity, and cognisant of the merits of art which challenges, extends, and expands its audience, there is a difference between the difficult and the alienating. Granted, it is a fine line to walk, but it has not been successfully navigated here. Poets who are truly concerned with the democratic potential of literature can write about classical figures, myths, religious iconography and orthodoxy/heterodoxy, literally anything, without leaving their audience behind. Kate Tempest managed to write an entire book about Tiresias without making readers feel ignorant or excluded (cf. ‘Pound’, this collection). Ali Smith is another obvious example. 

Toussaint clearly wishes to be ordained as cantor in Aotearoa/NewZealand. Thank God not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. Lay Studies is an aesthetic delight, with wonderful poetic mouthfeel and musicality. But without a grounding in theology (or a Thomist consultant), the academic side of this collection is forbidding. These poems alienate in an age which is already alienating enough.

***Instruction manual: — Caveat lector: Exegesis required. Have someone read these poems to you aloud (they must speak passable Latin, some Italian, and have a good feel for western European languages in general). Have a dictionary (and encyclopaedia) to hand. One philosophical theologian required. If you can’t assemble the above, simply listen to Toussaint himself. Enjoy.***


Emma Gattey is reading for an MSt in Global and Imperial History at Balliol College, Oxford.