I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen, Steve Ely
New Walk Editions, 2019 £5.00
The poetry of penitence
Readers familiar with Steve Ely’s dense but syntactically exquisite and knowledge-laden language will be unsurprised by the hallucinogenic power of this pamphlet. Heavy with scripture, it’s an extended, almost unbearably gut-wrenching expression of contrition. The poems, of which there are (uncoincidentally) thirteen, illustrate Ely’s repentance at having drunkenly suggested to his partner, twenty-five years ago, that the pregnancy of their third child should be terminated, only for the child to miscarry, and then his guilt and shame at being secretly relieved:
Surely perfect love is felt there, which comes
from perfect understanding. Where sinnes unfetter
and leap to meet annihilating grace: a wretch like me,
scum of the sphynxy earth.
[‘The Feather of Ma’at’]
Ely’s poems occupy a textual space perfect for the subject-matter, laid out on the page like hybrids between poems and prose-poems.
At times, guilt deepens into total despair mixed with metaphysical inquiry — ‘Where do our lives go when they exit from this world? / I leapt from the cliff to find out’.
The conclusion is unforgiving:
sentimental narrative balm for the hopeless,
sick and grieving.
Let each one hope and believe what he can.
[‘A Dog Speculates on the Mind of Newton’]
‘Goe, and Doe Thou Likewise’, its title deriving from the parable of the Good Samaritan, wrongfoots the reader as it goes on to portray a hinterland West Riding inferno of diverse horrors and self-condemnation:
sharp bin. Sid Cooke, Tim Bonner, Beverly Allitt
and me. Life without — full term.
All this is foul smell and blood in a bag.
In exemplary fashion, Ely assists the reader to contextualise these references via generous end-notes.
The final poem, whose title (‘Hæc Nox Est’) loops back to the first, has an epigraph from a tale by Isaac Bashevis Singer about diabolical goings-on. Its strangely beautiful, musical and supra-natural history possesses a Blakean (yet utterly contemporary) quality:
I stepped from the cliff into ocean’s
up-thrust, and plummeted in the darkness.
Clap-rattling gannets leapt from the crag and circled
their crosses. Auks dropped from their cracks
and exploded. Fulmars squirting vomit. I flapped
like an oily eagle, and fell.