Europa’s Flight, John Greening
New Walk Editions, 2019 £5.00
A crowning achievement
To write a crown of sonnets — 14 sonnets, each (from the second onwards) beginning with the last line of the preceding one, plus a fifteenth consisting of the first lines of the first 14 — requires skill and organisation. (The last poem has to be written first.) John Greening manages this while maintaining thematic unity. He began the poems on the flight to Crete for a holiday at Knossos, so naturally they’re chock-full of ancient Greek mythology. But they also, as the title hints and his introduction confirms, allude to Brexit and the European refugee crisis.
Readers unfamiliar with Greek myths needn’t be deterred. From the first poem onwards, Greening’s poems are set in a mixed-up world where mythology intertwines with the particulars of the present:
The captain gives
a jaunty commentary from his unseen throne
up in the cockpit where the gods must live,
among the sunny curls and advancing fronts,
since gods can do whatever god-lust wants.
The third sonnet features ‘the Cretan cleaning woman who looked on’ as Greening (and his wife) left their home in Cambridgeshire: ‘unfurling / the Dyson Animal’. The founder of Dyson is an expatriate arch-Brexiteer, who has an ally within another poem: ‘A bull-faced minister / is crouched in Brussels with his nemesis’.
Several poems concern Daedalus, inventor extraordinaire (equivalent for Dyson?) of a ‘secret wire’, and the fateful end of his son Icarus:
Some hours of cool
before the creature can again be raised,
cranking its throb-throb songs of Tyre and Troy
to the wind from Africa that whips the maze
and whistles news about that wax-winged boy.
This is vivid, musical writing of the kind that Greening has trademarked over the years. It nods to the refugee crisis, which is made more explicit in the eleventh sonnet:
poisonous in all parts, we welcome wanderers
from Africa, parched as you are, sit here.
The many drowned are swimming in his head
as he powers up and down.
Such fine sonnets, marinated in Greening’s erudition, constitute a considerable achievement and make an admirable pamphlet.