LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF SORROW
“What Light Becomes: The Turner Variations”
by George Looney
WINNER OF THE 2018 RED MOUNTAIN POETRY PRIZE
Red Mountain Press, 2019
Gazing at stars these days, either it’s the romance of distant light or the science of raging conflagration that we see, depending on which myth we believe. What “light” is has obsessed painters over the history of fine arts, none more so than Turner. Standing back from his work, George Looney, in “What Light Becomes: The Turner Variations,” meditates on this issue through a sequence of free-verse Petrarchan sonnets. The most harrowing arise from his perception of Promethean fire and violence as sources of light in poems responding to Turner’s “The Burning of the Houses of Parliament” and “The Burning of Houses of Lords and Commons.” In “Subtle Guises,” he links the phenomenological images of fire and water:
This tense alliance of fire and water
continues to burn without being
consumed, bolstering all the arguments
for the purification of the flesh…
Religious transformation, however, remains ironic, on the periphery of choice, an option but not a solution. In “Becoming Sorrow,” he notes that “Fire has taken on the structure/of its consummation//…as if to be consumed/is a way of becoming.” There are quite a lot of “as if” structures in these poems, a technique that I think I myself learned from reading Yeats, where an assertion that cannot be defended is conditionally phrased, in a act of wishful thinking. George Looney recognizes that “becoming” is our natural condition, because living is never stable unless dead. For he is haunted by the disappearance of everything around him.
In “Absent The Pale Towers,”
The ribs of an emaciated sky.
exposed, vulnerable to the wind and the whims
of a light no one can claim to predict
or even feel safe under, the dead
curve themselves up into what could almost be
letters, as if meaning to jot down
a hint as to what’s happened, and is
happening. As if meaning could offer
some solace in a world in which loss
roughs up anyone foolish enough
to still care, about anything……
All I have to do is cross off any “as if” and change the conditional verbs to simple past to unmask the underlying sardonic bitterness. Language has become the hieroglyphics of the dead, whoever “the dead” may be. Here, too, I recognize my own defects, since “the dead” is an abstraction that continues to haunt my own verse, and I really have to try, in revision, to make sure I am referring to specific “dead” by name. Otherwise “the dead” becomes a meaningless trope.
As this collection moves toward the end, there is also a subtle shift toward embracing existence as it is, with all its flaws. “In What Little Light Is Left” provides just such an affirmation:
Maybe they finished with one another
just in time to witness the tall ship
disappear in the darkening mist.
Their sweat glistens in what little light is left,
giving their furious bodies outlines
that flash stark white in the dimming landscape.
This couple is the most definite
of objects in a world in which light calls
almost everything else into question.
It’s impossible not to feel passion
in such a world, where the existence of
anything farther from bodies than love
is uncertain, imbued with a haze
that could well be a transfiguring light.
Despite the hesitancies of “maybe” and conditional verbs, “light” finally becomes enlightening, in a most compassionate way. The poems at the end of this sequence move toward resolution without compromise, and, on my first reading at least, make this series of meditations unified and highly rewarding.
[June 9, 2019]