Black Sun by Toby Martinez de las Rivas


Review by Jack Belloli

Black Sun’s dust jacket promises that it begins ‘where Terror left off’, and it seems appropriate to take some cues from the final poem of Martinez de las Rivas’s debut collection: the poet himself proposed it as a commentary on his practice in an interview with James Brookes for Prac Crit. ‘On Stockbridge Common’ opens by paraphrasing Adorno’s definition of ‘the lyric as self-protecting unit of isolation divorcing / us from others as from nature’, before offering a slight critique of it:

what I see and feel,
I hope, is neither illusion nor estrangement, but a recension
whose original, delivering truth this is a fallen variant of.
Once set down, áll things are irrevocable in the great economy:
a falling sparrow, a mite, clouds, the shapes of my children –
even this no self-restoring immediacy or ideological conceit,
but something that bears witness to itself through all time.

According to Adorno’s ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, lyric’s validation of a distinct individual speaking voice goes hand in glove with late capital’s erosion of our ties to each other and our environment – but lyrics that recognise and reflect on this complicity provide a minimal space in which ethically sensitive art might survive. This resonates with Martinez de las Rivas’s double-edged theology, in which the created order is simultaneously sinful and graceful, capable only of glimpsing ‘original, delivering truth’ dimly. Yet he appears to view Adorno’s understanding of the social relations at play – in which lyric’s cure works only, and only intermittently, on its own poison and not on that of the society it inhabits – as no relation at all, but just a ‘conceit’.

In ‘On Stockbridge Common’, poetry comes to participate in the real, conceit-free redemption that is already tentatively at work on Stockbridge Common. It is unclear whether the swallows and ‘sky of cracked tempera’ there are themselves the ‘recension’, offering a glimpse of prelapsarian nature, or whether ‘recension’ should be taken more literally, and refers to this poem’s own variant on the Book of Nature. Once ‘set down’ and ‘irrevocable’ have reinforced the idea of authoritative writing and speech, the poem’s role in settling the ‘great economy’ of salvation becomes surer; the idea of a poem ‘bear[ing] witness to itself’ loses its narcissism because the poem is consubstantial with the nature that it witnesses.

In Black Sun’s best work, the poet’s identification of where life is marked by grace, and of how poetry can cherish this marking, continues to be enlivened by doubt and hesitation, a ‘mystery’ in both senses of the word. In the first half of ‘Diptych: At Matfen’, the swallows ‘snatching a raindrop from the air’ mid-flight ‘are grace / itself’; by the second, the errancy of ‘the swallow switching its aim between / targets’ is akin to that of ‘minds’ and ‘hearts’ caught up in ‘the world’s own mutability’. Poetic diction is where this uncertainty can come to rest, as ambiguity:

…how hard it becomes not to repeat
a jaded metaphor – that nature
in its dream of spring, its riots of growth,
the flower’s deep corolla might be
the image of hís love’s blind insurrection.

(‘Hope/Against Nature’)

This certainly repeats a familiar assertion about nature’s capacity to exceed itself, because it is a divine gift; Martinez de las Rivas believes it’s unavailable to him, in a body ‘that can barely speak its loss to itself’. Yet, as soon as the repetition starts being articulated, something like the gift ‘might be’ retrieved: the jade-d metaphor, and the blindness of the love it reveals, is proper to a body unable to ‘look within the green of its own eyes’. Physical ‘riots’ promise metaphysical ‘insurrection’, but not, quite, resurrection, the foundational gift which would ensure that new life isn’t just a dream. Hope finds itself up ‘against nature’ in the sense of both a combatant and an intimate lover.

However, I can’t help thinking that announcing his difference from Adorno has done Martinez de las Rivas’s project more harm than good. When the whole world is called to express ‘an original, delivering truth’, and once poetry is identified as one way in which that expression can happen, the temptation is to predict or police those expressions. Any practical attempt to define a synthetic ‘great economy’ – in which all of history’s individual swallows, flowers and eyes are, in their very particularity, the expression of some transcendent order – ends up fetishizing certain particulars. This is where the comparisons of Martinez de las Rivas to William Blake deflate: few poets were more worried than Blake by how the poetic animation of ‘all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses’ gives way to an abstracted priestly ‘System’, which ‘enslav’d the vulgar’ by refusing tendencies towards universalism. From the opening stanza of Black Sun, some elements of the world seem fundamentally hostile to redemption, and it is the poet’s role to blast as well as bless:

So long the dragonfly has risen from its deep,
the mouse from its labour, the vole from its sleep,
the girl from her texting, the worm from its sheep,
the king from hís castle and the castle from its keep.

(‘i.m. J.F. 1978-2006, and to O.H.’)

The girl’s idle thumbing sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of this picture, and it sounds the keynote for a collection punctuated by rage against the use of social media. Those with ‘suave faces fixed in the rapturous / cold light of screens’ are condemned for, apparently, rejecting a god ‘that suffers / as we suffer’. While Toby, his daughter and the swallows can swerve into ‘failing’, confident that they might strike grace again, the rest of the pleasure-seekers at Malfen ‘so French with irony, mwah, mwah, mwah, / up for the weekend with endless profile / updates’ don’t have that luxury.

Admittedly, Martinez de las Rivas’s laceration of his ‘metropolitan’ peers is always tied to a fierce self-laceration of ‘that portion of my / self that holds the rod & sits in judgement’. The sense still remains that, as the parable goes, he’s a Pharisee among tax collectors. We are all dependent on a God who will be not judgemental but infinitely tolerant – perhaps like the readers whom Martinez de las Rivas thanks for their ‘tolerance’ on his acknowledgements page. But the ‘metropolitan poet’ is annoying because he’s ‘so ostentatiously tolerant’ (while, in another poem, a cathedral memorial is praised for having ‘no ostentation in sorrow’). This misses the point that part of being tolerant in a sinful world is noticing whose values and sorrows get to be visible, and making space, conspicuously if necessary, for those whose historically haven’t. If your poetry announces ambitions to participate in the redemptive gathering of ‘áll things’, you can legitimately be called to account for blindspots in what you think an exhaustive survey looks like. The hint of Francophobia quoted above is part and parcel of a collection that’s uncomfortably keen to stress the prefix in its Anglo-Catholicism (‘an altar with the kíng as celebrant’); for a collection with so many poems set in Córdoba, it’s notable how rarely and glancingly Andalucía’s Islamic history gets mentioned.

I hope I’ve established that to make an argument like this is, precisely on the terms that Black Sun set itself, not about dodging ‘the poems themselves’. Even if it was, the theological slippage also registers at the level of form. Martinez de las Rivas joins a long tradition of religious poets who compare composition to kenosis, or self-emptying. As the poet expressed it in Prac Crit, this involves him making a kind of resistant counter-self in the poem, investing his energy in the shaping of external material just as God shaped people from clay. Yet his analogy rests on the fact that God and the poet ‘both act with impunity [and] both satisfy their vision’: what is never really abandoned is control of if and how the abandonment happens. Less formally various than Terror, Black Sun takes the sonnet, sequences of which compose its first two sections, as the best possible frail vessel for its graces. While it does allow Martinez de las Rivas to offer some delicate feats of near- and internal rhyme, the overall effect is flattening: the form seems to guarantee the delivery of God’s mysteries to us, rather than contributing to their more immediate discovery with us, on the page. A one-line reference to ‘a wind that […] purrs in the steel tubes of the gate’ compares unfavourably to Terror’s exemplary ‘Blackdown Song’, in which the repeating sound of ‘the gate whose tubes hummed in the wind’ seems to compel the shape of the song he should write about it, Terror’s only poem in tercets. Overdetermination is also visible in the deployment of Hopkinsian diacritical stresses, largely reserved for marking words that already semantically suggest the Incarnation, such as any ‘hís’ that means Christ’s. There’s little sense, as there is in Hopkins’s finest poems, that peculiarities of stress might themselves be enactments of graced embodiment, regardless of the content being stressed.

There’s another way of describing how poetry empties the self, perhaps more kenotic because it refuses self-dramatization, and recognises that kenosis is always going on elsewhere. The more localised business of making discoveries and compromises, as one puts ideas and impulses into an artistic medium, means that the work of shaping was always distributed, never the poet’s alone. This realisation can, like the Crucifixion, be both joyous and agonising – but (like lots of my experiences of prayer, really) it can also be neither, as you’re embarrassingly reminded that salvation isn’t about anything as parochial as your satisfaction. Something like this approach starts to emerge in Black Sun’s final section, as it spreads into longer forms and diptychs of paired sonnets. In a series of ‘allegories’, the margins swell to incorporate so-called ‘minor sonnets’, in which Martinez de las Rivas ventriloquises a much wider range of discourses than usual, including bad jokes and pillow talk as well as Tudor history. The register manages to feel both mocking and self-mocking. The margin becomes a site not for interpretive clues or theatrically suppressed cries, but for passage – as if across an open wound – between the poem and the (ahem) socially mediated language upon which it is dependent for its creation and reception.

Best of all are some of the ekphrastic poems on crucifixion scenes, striking in that large stretches avoid dwelling on the broken body itself. Confident that any drama of self-sacrifice is already completed by Christ, and being continued by the makers of these images, the poet’s eye is freed to rove across particular details and to stumble upon new ‘radical idiom[s] of passion’: the mating rituals of doves, a dragonfly’s prismatic eye, ‘the empty aisles / late in the day’. He ends a meditation on Salvador Dalí’s Corpus Hypercubus by noting that ‘we’ have been embodying its kenosis all along:

No time redounds there – we, watching are time
incarnate: breaking & broken, suffering,
all things between the sea’s distant breath
& the stare of the Magdalene until
our final cry that is a cry of pain
shatters the night with its Laudate Dominum.

(‘Crucifixion with Dragonfly’)

Those final words feel like the only moment at which this fiercely pious poet is actually inviting me to pray with him.


Jack Belloli is finishing a PhD on contemporary theatre at the University of Cambridge. His writing on contemporary poetry has been published in Poetry London, Prac Crit, 3:am Magazine, Review 31 and The Cambridge Humanities Review; his own poetry has appeared in The Salt Book of Younger Poets.

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