Translated by Ada Donati
This dual language edition was Published by Schifanoia Editore, Ferrara, 2002
Review article by Italo Evangelisti
The title of the book, Arabesque, provides a reading key to the text if we think that an arabesque is an elegant, sinuous graphic sign, and a calligram as well, that includes a rich range of meanings.
Calligrammes is also the title given by Apollinaire to one of his major works. In the case of Ron Smith’s long prose poem, arabesque suggests also the idea of a labyrinth, of a polyphonic structure, hierogliphs of the soul. His poetry is iconography speaking to us through black and white flashes. His poetical language communicates not only on a literal level, but through symbolic implications as well. A symbolical language is rich in multiple meanings, echoes, allusions, and the reader, therefore, finds himself walking in an unmapped territory with many pathways, and it is up to him to choose which one to follow. None of them, however, leads to a precise destination or gives definite answers.
Making an appeal to our unconscious mind, Ron Smith’s poetical language evokes shadows, scents, sounds, colours. In sudden flashes, he conjures up what lies buried deep in that secret cellar where our ideals are betrayed; where our unfulfilled desires and dreams are removed and stored. In exorcising personal demons, the poet invites us to become fellow travelers in his spiritual journey. It is and intriguing, fascinating voyage, but a risky one as well, because the drive that impels and motivates the quest carries a secret disease with it, as in Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose”. It is “and adventure that can prove deadly”; it is like “a feast, the midnight dance” where he goes “dressed in funereal splendour” as if anticipating its fatal consequence.
Death is, indeed, a familiar and constant presence in the poem, as is love, its insidious twin sister. Eros and Thanatos are forever twinned in man’s deepest self. “I am floating towards ambush — we read in one of the paragraphs — trapped in the perfume of this dying day”. The flow of time is the other ever present motif in the poem, like drum beats in a march. The notion of time, however, has nothing in common with the Aristotelian principle of unities, and oblivion has nothing to do with Proust’s conception. In Ron Smith’s poem, time is measured by “the brief darkness of dreams”, or by “fierce constellations”; time rests in the fatal hands that “hoards the shrouds”. The conception of time coincides with memory, both personal and historical; it is the here and now merging with the wider course of historical time, and we are but tiny spots blindly groping in the terrible world of hazards. The now-moment is a dimension characterized by uncertainty, but a virtual ephemeral reality that devours, digests, expels us and our unstable identity on this unsafe ramshackle planet we have inherited. Ron Smith, however, does not indulge in self-pity, nor does he resort to easy escapism. He firmly believes in life — a hard-won belief — the result of disenchantment: “I know an emptiness nothing can fill…” His sober, sound disenchantment breaks the mirror of false illusions and deceptive, superficial certainties. He can look through the mirror, see beyond appearances and face reality. It may be like looking at Medusa’s head, but poetry, through the voice of truth, is like Perseus’ dagger cutting off the snakes’ heads. “A voice cries out, my voice” — Smith writes — “beyond shadows, beyond death…” He is well aware of our limits, self-deceptions, false assumptions: “…like hungry gods we manipulate our pawns in this mock battle”. It is up to us, though, to give the game credibility as a metaphor of life; in fact, he later adds: “…but we are serious in this game”.
Indeed, there is nothing more serious than play, controlled, as it is, by strict rules and moving within a precise time-space pattern, under the guidance of an impartial arbitrator, be it God, Allah, Buddha, chance, destiny or pure energy. That’s why children take their play so seriously. Nietzsche was convinced of it, and Picasso used to say: “It takes a lifetime to become children”, to recover our lost innocence especially when we as adults so often cheat at the game of life, and in such an awkward, cruel way. Poetry itself is play, a sort of ludus amimae that reinstates innocence. In “Arabesque”, innocence is the heart laid bare on the chessboard as on a dissecting table. As the game becomes more and more complex, as a labyrinth of corridors unfolds, opening or closing passageways, anxiety grows along with the fear of being trapped. No revelation comes to help the inexperienced player. It takes great courage to face the hard truth, and Smith proves to have it when he declares: “To know nothing is divine mischief”. The truth lies in the perennial challenge posed to man by life’s maze, and by the silence of the gods. It is the same challenge faced by Prometheus, Ulysses, and Faust; it is the same challenge that brought man to set foot on the moon, walk in outer space. To wander in a labyrinth may be an agonizing experience, but it has its reward: as Hermann Kern reminds us, “in a labyrinth no one gets lost, no one meets the Minotaur, but each one meets his own Self”. The meeting with the Self brings one face-to-face with the fundamental, unconscious drives: self protection, self perpetuation, sex. Sex in fact dominates the long poem in all its different aspects, from tenderness to fiery passion: “Again you body shape…your body’s on fire… the full pleasure of your mouth…we taste these affirmations of youth, of the new body…” or, “We accumulate pleasure as if we were not the target of the assassin’s bullet.”
Other similar passages contain beautiful intense lines that have the hot spicy taste of sex but that, at a closer reading, reveal deeper implications. Once more Ron tries to pull off the veil of Maya and see through to the heart of reality. He writes, towards the end of the poem: “What we smelled was not the salt of your thighs, the song on your lips. What we felt was not the end.” And “there is a lunacy behind this game that lies beyond the edge of the board”, and then, “there is a madness which emanates from these people. At first I am threatened by them, but gradually I begin to see, to understand…”
Madness is the point, the “fine frenzy” that strikes lovers and poets; the life-giving force that can make the body an ontological medium leading to knowledge of the Self through the Other. To reach the sphere of a superior knowledge, one must be a true poet, and be endowed with a visionary faculty, too. What we read in one of the most beautiful passages of the poem is, indeed, no less than a revelation, a striking epiphany: “I lie back and close my eyes. I am walking from blackness into a garden. Black then white slowly blend into different shades. I open my eyes. All the colours unfold in a thunderclap of petals, roses and violets, marigolds and dahlias…I glide carefully through the garden which now opens into a valley far beyond the reach of my sight.”
What we understand through such visionary passages is that looking is different from seeing, from discerning what lies beyond the mirror, beyond pure appearances. It’s an achievement that requires humility and the courage that comes through suffering, understanding and a breaking free from the Ego barrier.
The same message comes from the shorter poems which follow the lyrical prose of Arabesque. They are a sort of corollary, or a controcanto following the main canto — a duet between the natural and the supernatural, reality and vision. These shorter texts, where the self and god, angels and demons balance each other, are strictly related to the higher synthesis of Arabesque, wonderfully set between an alpha and omega of shining whiteness, a paradoxical combination of mystery in full light. From the whiteness of shrouds to that of bodies, of pages, from the radiant light of the sun and snow to that of walls and paper… We are reminded of the great poet Wislawa Szymborska who, on receiving the Nobel Prize, defined the spirit of poetry as a white silence, the waiting of the Self before a white page.
–Italo Evangelisti, Rome, 2002