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Light And Sound

As Reviewed By: William Gibso

The Sound of Light by John Heath-Stubbs. Carcanet, 1999. 72 pp. £7.99.

I once spent a drunken evening in London with twice short-listed for British Poet Laureate John Heath-Stubbs, OBE. We traded dirty limericks and did not discuss poetry at all. Heath-Stubbs publishes short books of poetry about once a year and has worked on translations of Hafiz and Leopardi. The book in question here, The Sound of Light, is typical of the poet’s deceptively casual style. He has a brilliant memory and his works are laced with erudite drops of imagination; always perceptive, never pedantic. If this book reveals anything about the poet, it is his frolicsome humour, his willingness to handle otherwise serious subjects with the panache of a man who enjoys light verse, even doggerel. Take “The Dandelion and the Daisy, a Fable”:[private]

An acrid, milky dandelion,
Gold coroneted, claimed forsooth,
Descent from an old Norman scion–
From the bold knight, Sir Lion-tooth,
Yet loved an innocent little daisy,
And wooed her with an ardent passion–
Feelings that nearly drove him crazy–
But she just answered in this fashion:
‘Time, he passes with a puff,
As golden turn to hoary locks–
And you will learn it soon enough
When kids play dandelion clocks;
My petals close when light has fled–
So just shut up old Piss a bed!’

Well, there you have it. Heath-Stubbs’ style in this book is, as the tourist would say, quaint. He’s playing, as the title suggests, with sounds and lightness, never turning morose and finding it unbearable. Instead, the anguish of passion and the childish, arch rebuff are diminutive, a garden fable, laughable folly in the cruelest month. Or again, the wonder of nature, and the drive to entangle one’s self with it in the effort to control, is reduced to a punchy provocation; “Rafflesia”:

A parasitic plant, it has
Nor stem, nor leaves. Its rootlets
Infiltrate the trunks of trees, sapping their vital force.
In season it produces a huge flower
Which looks and smells like rotten meat. Flies
Attempt to lay their eggs there. It is a jungle wonder,
That honours the name of the great enlightened
Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore
(Not the gentleman cracksman). God
Has made all things well.

One over on Sir Stamford, then. And again, here is Heath-Stubbs not being indignant, not pushing for larger social meaning, critique, or even significance in his poetry. This is a number on Raffles and an elegantly done one too. So, back to the limericks, and a final example of Heath-Stubbs’s humour; “Yogic Flying”:

Our mystical guru from Katmandu
(Although a decidedly fat man too)
In all kinds of weather
Could float like a feather
Or fly through the air like old Batman do.

Heath-Stubbs’ anodyne cocktail is perhaps just to order against the white noise of e-commerce, sit-coms, the WTO, and hormone-treated beef: laughter keeps you young and pleasant, light and sound.[/private]

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William Gibson was an editor of the Pacific Review for several years, and is currently on scholarship at Leeds University where he is doing research on Tobias Smollett.

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