The Mask by Anthony Costello (Lapwing Publications, 2014)
A review by Nick Cooke
To enter the world of The Mask is to take part in a treasure hunt, a search that is both inward- and outward-bound. Among Costello’s many talents is the way that right from the start he fills us with the desire to know him better, so we can unlock the secrets of his evidently myriad mind. We soon realise that this means having to turn away from the direct scope of his book, and follow up on all the clues he leaves, most of them in the form of the names, mainly of other poets, which appear at the head of almost every piece. Thus Gregory Corso puts in an immediate appearance at the top of the opening poem, ‘Written on the Eve of My Fiftieth Birthday’, and the allusion makes us consider links between Costello and the beat poet boy-wonder, who among many fascinating life-details, spent much of his adolescence in prisons, where he learnt to avoid gang-rape by using dazzling wit and humour to ingratiate himself with inmates, and went on to lead an existence that gave new meaning to the word “itinerant”. Costello would not claim a direct parallel, despite his own varied past as a sheet-metal worker, gardener, teacher and voyager, but the searing honesty of his self-introductory confession is lent added poignancy by the implied comparison:
“49 & divorced. No children. Is there time?
A girlfriend died and there my baby died.
I don’t act the fool no more – so I have few friends.
What happened to the old Anthony they say.
They don’t like it when I talk about body dysmorphia and dying.
They can all go to Glastonbury.”
Costello cuts through the niceties with a notable rejection of small talk as he launches into his debut collection. That “Is there time?”- perhaps referring to the individualistic, even self-absorbed life of a generic writer and traveller, or to Costello’s own future parental possibilities, or both – is typical of the shifts in focus and perspective that occur, always between poems, but very often within them, and multiple times over at that. Costello’s voice, tone, diction, theme, are all in constant flux, every change handled with consummate skill and authority. Should we ever make the error of thinking we have his measure, and can predict the next move, he makes a point of wriggling free from all presuppositions, and presenting yet another piece in the increasingly engrossing puzzle of his own world-view.
With his onetime, fairweather friends in Glastonbury (a new version of Coventry, as far as he’s concerned), he follows up this first citing of what is perhaps his key theme – isolation, willing or otherwise – by introducing its close associate, spiritual awareness:
“I like to think fate had it I tipped the tin.
The answer lies in this immodest declaration:
I am a good example of soul…..
I love poetry because it makes me love
Myself and others more…it gives me life.
Of all the dreams that die in me
This one ‘burns like the sun’;
It might not make every day bearable
Or help me with people
Or improve my behaviour toward society
‘But it does tell me my soul has a shadow’.”
With that the extraordinary, almost Donne-like exordium ends, but the soul, of which he soon proves himself to be a good example indeed, stays centre stage, as the heading of the next poem reads: Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates. At this point the reader commences the requisite Googling – or at least this one did – and discovers that the gates in question refer to poet Hirshfield’s “soul doors”, various angles of the specifically spiritual connection that she sees poetry as being unique in making, to which Costello now adds a tenth.
“What if what you see
maidens cleaning your wounds
a hero’s welcome
the village rising to greet you in Technicolor
is not within
is over the horizon, is out of bounds” .
We are challenged to think about how far our accepted world of perception actually goes and whether the soul, if we acknowledge and fully utilise it, can take us further in the realm of seeing than our limited ordinary senses. But there’s nothing New-Agey about Costello’s means of philosophical enquiry; he is muscular and lithe as you can be, not an ounce of fat or an airy truism on him:
“What if the view you have been asked to consider
is black and white:
a town a precinct a café a table and coffee
and no-one looks at your face
and nobody knows your name”.
One answer might be that you would feel isolated, even lonely, but to Costello’s emerging mind this can be turned on its head and transformed into spiritual empowerment. Suddenly we are in Wordsworth territory, and the poet is viewed as someone who is alone, both perforce and by an act of will. It can be a great thing to be an ignored observer. However, there is an alternative/additional reading embedded within the poem, because he is also saying, “Being black and white, i.e. dull, colourless, monotonous, non-spiritual, makes you anonymous; if you want to make an impression you need to unlock your imagination and dream of the village greeting you like a movie star in glorious Technicolour….” The paradoxical suggestion appears to be that cutting yourself off is relative, no one can or wants to be truly alone, not if they want to live fully, but you have to be prepared for a largely solo flight if you want to be a poet. The reward could ultimately be the opposite of hermit-like status, because poets can be as heroic as wounded soldiers.
Two poems on, in ‘Winter’ is Robert Hayden, the black American poet who ended up suffering isolation of a particular form, due to his religious beliefs leading him towards a commitment to “unity of humanity”, which precluded embracing black separatism, and so earned him the contempt of more politically confrontational writers in the 1960s. The poem, however, is about Costello’s parents, in childhood and since, and ends with a very different kind of alone-ness:
“I know I’m loved by you, and Dad, loved,
but I am content with my life of solitude.”
Does the nod to Hayden mean Costello feels himself to be persecuted by his own kind, as was the American? That would be a banal reading, but there is presumably some truth in it. The poem certainly asks us to reflect on what it means to be out in the cold:
“In the unheated bedroom, the damp room
above the passageway, I had embraced
cold as a friend, a way to independence;
Dad’s ‘I’ll lock ya out t’ouse’ punishment
diluted. I can now walk barefoot
on ice and snow, endurance feats,
and I don’t need jumpers at this time of Year.”
Hayden didn’t need jumpers either, the corollary would seem to be, because he too learnt to walk scantily clad, having been locked out of the house of Negro/Civil Rights solidarity, but still feeling himself to be in the right, and embracing the cold of rejection as his own way to independence. A poet needs courage and integrity, so must be prepared for solitude, and its corollary, spiritual and physical toughening up, with which he will come to be “content”, if not exactly happy.
Next up is one of the finest poems of an extremely fine collection, ‘Crazy Ghazal,’ the title referring to a form of lyric poem Middle Eastern and Indian literature and music, with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love. This one does not rhyme (perhaps that’s why it’s ‘crazy’) and is not strictly on love, but it has some beautiful and highly musical lines that bespeak a love of poetry and all it can bring:
“Far away a song never before heard,
Is limbering up, holding the arc of long submissions,
A prisoner cleans out the inside of a melon
As if teeth and tongue were born for nothing else,
They call life a thing of distilled essence
As if a novel could be reduced to an alphabet,
Water runs into the mouth of bigger water
All is lost, even the reason you were there.”
Yet for all the euphonic pleasure it brings – a touch of Tennyson in that “Far away…” – the poem ends with what another reviewer (Paul Goring in Sabotage Reviews) rightly saw as a key line. Costello’s spiritual and poetic quest has moments of lyrical beauty, just as did Wordsworth, but it is in essence grittily sensuous:
“If left with only garlic I would be happy,
Happy to keep the peel under my fingernails.”
In ‘Written in a Hospital Waiting Room’, Costello confronts the untimely death of his friend and writing partner Anita Marsh in the context of an Alice Oswald poem, ‘Walking past a rose this June morning’. The final verse mentions the spirit, this time in close relation to the heart, and there’s an interesting play on ‘How’ as both a question word and an intensive:
“Now blow your breath into the air.
How visible is it? Can you trace a rose there?
How determined is the spirit of the heart,
The truth around its centre. How determined
Everything whirling around us. Stop.
Is my rose at the centre? How hard it is to follow Alice.
How unforgettable Anita. Her heart a rose.”
“How determined” of course combines resilience with fate – just how strong is the heart and the world, and how pre-ordained are their respective spirit and movements? In “Everything whirling” we hear Wordsworth once again, in elegiac mood for Lucy –
“No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees” –
but in Anita’s case there are no rocks and stones, only hearts, as though Costello is so hemmed in by grief that he can look no further into the natural world than the immediate surroundings of her body and soul.
In the rest of the book Costello makes less frequent direct references to matters spiritual or issues of isolation, but I would argue that that’s because he doesn’t need to, having established these as dominant themes so early on. We read all that follows through the dual prism, so that the shifting and writhing between one style and another, from one persona to the next, comes across as a manifestation of the poet’s restless soul seeking out his true settling point, in what sometimes resembles a desperate game, and on other occasions is more like genuinely playful enjoyment of one’s own distinctness, however painful that might sometimes prove. Just as a mask’s primary function is to hide, so it also has the purpose of entertainment.
So Part Two, entitled Inhabitations (the other parts, in another glimpse of Costello in intellectually provocative but playful mood, are Imitations, Inhabitations and Ruminations) opens with ‘Identity’, where we delve into another of the poet’s areas of keen interest, the wold of cinema. The Invisible Man is the lead role here; his bandages are constantly being swapped for other objects belonging to other film characters in a bizarre comedy of onion-like layering and re-layering:
“The Last of the Mohicans swaps Buffalo Bill’s
The Man in the Iron Mask’s The Invisible Man’s bandages
for The Invisible Man’s The Man in the Iron Mask’s iron mask…”
This is followed by ‘Who Da Ya Fink Ya Are,’ narrated with sleight-of-hand charm and verve by a chameleon-like African male persona who is linguistically between various worlds just as he is physically between various countries:
“I aint gotta problem wiv my Bafana lin
Or my Comoros and Mayotte mince pies
Come to fink of it my long upright
Somalian nose pleases me no end
I’m ear to ear all Madagascarn, mate,
Get it!? The cake-ole’s Cameroon…”
He is the ultimate refugee whose sense of identity, presumably even to himself, has become so slippery it makes the Invisible Man look easily recognisable.
A few poems on we are on stage at a mid-1950s lecture by Heisenberg, not the code-name of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but the real ‘uncertainty principle’ deal featuring in Michael Frayn’s famous play, Copenhagen. The piece, reminiscent of Browning in its fluid and comic unreliable-monologist’s style, begins and ends with the legendary physicist’s premise (and conclusion) that
“What we observe is not nature itself
But nature exposed to our method of questioning”,
itself a useful take on Costello’s own poetic viewpoint. He is similarly locked into uncertainty by the power of his own questioning skills. And Heisenberg’s shadow is cast over one of the less agonisingly playful pieces, three pages later. ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’, alluding to a thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, relating to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, posits a theoretical cat that may be simultaneously alive or dead, a state known as quantum superposition:
“I could play with what you call ‘Universe’
With one paw, treat it like a bone, a morsel;
Jump out of this box and scratch out your eyes,
Have a caterwauling screech fit for a Queen’s dignity
Violated, imprisoned, deemed powerless, unwise”.
It’s indeed unwise to assume that a creature deemed powerless might not scratch out your eyes, and in another sense this particular cat has become immensely powerful by virtue of the experiment’s fame. In its central play between life and death, the poem leads us to ask whether and in what way Costello also considers himself alive and dead at the same time. The collection’s opening piece has told us that the “old Anthony” has gone for ever, effectively dead, but a new one has been born, partly out of grief and loss but partly also because poets naturally regenerate and reinvent themselves. The “body dysmorphia” his friends don’t like him talking about is actually revealed to be not simply physical change, possibly decay, but a different form of spiritual and psychological shape-shifting.
A darker side of this undercurrent emerges a little later on, in one of the book’s most chilling poems, ‘Jack’, with its heading William Blake, Jack the Ripper. Rarely can the poet/artist’s mind have been so closely associated with psychopathy, as Jack moves towards the scene of his crimes with Blake acting as a form of mentally diseased pied piper:
“I leave the stench of Soho
And follow the scent of Blake’s sick rose
Thru midnight streets.
I chart a course bequeath’d by Wren
and follow my nose East…smoke and meat.
I will take the image of God
But clothing shall be my cruelty.
Weak in courage is strong in cunning.
I step out of a Hansom Cab. And smell the air.”
That ending dimly suggests the end of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ – “And I eat men like air” – and the entirely healthy rose of the poem about Anita Marsh (via Alice Oswald) seems a long way away.
In being compelled by the nature of selectivity to omit many poems from one’s critical gaze, it almost seems as if a sin were being committed, so rich, multi-levelled and stimulating is almost every piece here. I will therefore skip regretfully over nuggets of ever-varying shapes and sizes inspired by the likes of Charlotte Bronte, John Cage, Stanley Spencer, Mark Rothko and J.G. Ballard, along with characters such as the waiter turned porn star whose ‘English meat’ was devoured by a Latin American MILF, and a remarkable alphabet-based poem consisting of a catalogue of firms and products that together make up ‘i-America’. But I cannot and will not conclude without picking out two more of the collection’s other high points. First, ‘Water-Lily – Wat Na Luang’, referring to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, where Costello shows himself in the guise suggested earlier by ‘Crazy Ghazal’, an accomplished lyrical poet capable of heart-stopping beauty:
“in reams of gold a water-hovering haze of precipitation
forming a circle around the palette of green leaves,
the nature of supplication in the flower, the pink hands
of the lake as ‘here and now’ as the powder in the sky
and a novice’s gift of poetry for dharma Luangphor Thornbai,
a walking meditation of faith and wisdom awakening,
a glimmer of non-suffering in the jungle of mind.”
Perhaps the last line is less than felicitous, showing us that Costello, by his own humble admission, has not yet achieved consistent mastery of his craft, but the preceding passage combines a gift for musicality with a rare level of philosophical inquisitiveness in a way that is beyond the average “novice”.
Secondly, ‘Fate’, the closing piece, which tries to wrap things up while being acutely aware of the likely inadequacy of the attempt, given the richness and complexity of the preceding 69 pages. This time, though neither is named, the initial inspiration might be the Yeats of ‘Long Legged Fly,’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and possibly ‘An Irish Airman’, later superseded by the Eliot of ‘Four Quartets’:
“Somewhere a child is playing with a stick
and a ball, for a minute or an hour
of a lifetime as she imagines it
knowing of nothing that is to come,
reading into the clouds only the clouds’
rapid movement, her matchless game….”
“….for what is hope but the inkling of desire,
that we are alone
and ‘strangers to ourselves’,
the gift is that we came this far
and that listening
is the meaning of silence
what of the rituals and affiliations
and allegiance of belief? And what
of the allegiance to renunciation?”
Faith and renunciation; doubt and belief; fate and free will. The book ends, in one way, where it started, but we have moved from the intensely, chest-baringly personal, to the same or similar questions and paradoxes being aired on a more objective philosophical plane. The way this last poem goes from a child’s view (or view of a child) to a more adult perspective perhaps suggests that Costello feels he has undergone a similar process during the journey traced by the book. At any rate, one can only look forward to his next literary steps with great excitement and hope of even greater things.