“What Light Becomes: The Turner Variations”

by George Looney


Red Mountain Press, 2019

  • ISBN-10: 173265011X

  • ISBN-13: 978-1732650114



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]

Dr. Mike