Katabasis, Jay G Ying
Smith/Doorstop, 2020 £5.00
The theatre of war: poetry as drama
Katabasis — meaning descent, particularly into the Underworld, but also descents of other kinds, such as a gradual lessening of emphasis in a line of poetry — is a riot of settings, images and voices. Most notably, Ying juxtaposes the story of Inanna’s descent into the Underworld with notes of modern-day warfare in Iraq. (Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of fertility and war)
Approaching the work can be challenging. In addition to their foundation in an ancient mythology, the poems defy much of what might usually be expected. They’re mostly written in long, prose-like lines. They’re punctuated with a variety of rupturing devices such as multiple colons to break passages into chunks of phrases. They’re full of self-conscious erasures, such as the ‘unknown no. of lines damaged’ in the poem ‘...War, sweet is your praise.’
It may be helpful to approach the collection as a series of dramatic monologues or set pieces, almost akin to Mark Ravenhill’s epic cycle of plays about modern warfare, Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat. Many of Ying’s poems can be read as dramatic monologues.
‘Animal Vegetable Mineral’, for example, is spoken by a distressed narrator of possibly hybrid identity. Part Inanna, part contemporary equivalent, the speaker tells of the sickness that has accumulated within and without themselves — ‘my black phlegm was as rotten as one long civilisation just ended.’
The pamphlet is replete with vivid, theatrical imagery. In particular, it’s haunted by the image of turning, severed heads:
I witnessed three monstrous apples made
of metal, like heads in their dark display cases, turned
The poems are also interspersed with italicised passages that tell Inanna’s story more directly. These act almost as chorus pieces. With their flow interrupted by the afore-mentioned colons, they take on a chanting quality. ‘Where is my child: Where is my man: Where is my Sister: Where am I: Where’ (in ‘...War, sweet is your praise.’).
Of course, as bardic tradition indicates, poetry and drama have always been closely interlinked. By creating a pamphlet which inhabits a borderland between the two forms, Ying has heightened the intensity, invoking a landscape of chaos, and vividly capturing the sick immediacy of a theatre of war.