The Angel On The Page: Quantum Theory For Cats - Ian Stuart
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
It is fitting that Ian Stuart should be one of York's Ghost Trail Guides.
Occupying a liminal space between the living and the dead, past and present co-existent under the same roof and down the same ginnel, wynd or alleyway, ghost tours are outward manifestations of the psycho-geographer's art. Ian Stuart is performing a similar ministry for York as Peter Ackroyd for London, and Ian Rankin for Edinburgh.
And there is a sense in which Ian Stuart, the poet, is on shifting ground, in a region where doubt and uncertainties prevail, and people are caught on 'ground curiously neutral', to sabotage Philip Larkin's expression.
The opening poem, and book title to this emotionally articulate and wise new volume, 'Quantum Theory for Cats', gives notice of uncertainties to follow. Playing hooky with the (un)reality of appearances, and adopting the persona of Schrodinger's cat, the narrator confuses the 'Now and where, here and when' of physical time, before arriving at a conclusion which anchors us to an earth we recognise, a place as palpable and concrete as a stubbed toe, though with more humour:
'I am Schrodinger's dog.
I love you.
Give us a biscuit.
I've just shat on your lawn.'
The same Pavlovian simplicity cannot be afforded the unnamed lady in a Waterstones bookshop who suddenly breaks down amongst the bookshelves. It is a testament to Stuart's skill in this poem that he is specific as to location, 'between Economics / and European History', but not as to cause or outcome.
Working the unexpected outpouring of grief into the capturing of a moment is the poet's mandate, not an explanation: the consolatory sales assistant providing a shoulder to dampen lachrymose eyes emerges as a messianic figure in this hallowed hall of books, as holy in its way as a doctor's waiting room. Counter-intuitive though the strange situation is, the received effect is natural and almost benignly inclusive. Caught between interior grief and the isolation of a public space, the woman finds charity for her touchingly proprietous tears.
Neat evocations of a place and time - maybe the coast of Saxon Northumbria - the two 'Saint' poems also envisage an expectant holiness. Struggling, like the poet, between the worlds of the corporeal and metaphysical, two monks - one in the murky light of an anchorite cell, the other barking at the moon, al fresco - conjure minor miracles in spite of themselves.
'Saint 1', who illuminates scripts for god, is rewarded by the visitation of an angel on the newly written page, and, in the space between words, may lie a submerged metaphor for the poet's own creative alchemy. The symmetry is embedded in 'Saint 2''s 'bawling at the sky' and singing of 'the mackerel in': the invocations of a 'madman' yield boats loaded, unexpectedly, 'with the twitching silver' of plenty.
The plenteous nature of poetic creation is something we overlook at our peril, as Stuart's 'The Poets' underlines. Often achieved by an effort of will which approximates to evisceration, poets 'wear their souls turned inside out', shamans whose acts of creation are also revelations of anxiety within, like Lucien Freud's paintings.
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We return to the shade of Philip Larkin at several points in 'Quantum Theory'. If not derivative in specifics, there are distinct stylistic and thematic parallels, the most persuasive of which emerges in '999'. The poem, a fine evocation of the 'only end of age' and its means of deliverance, distils the curtain-twitching trepidation of an ambulance's arrival, and reeks of the claustrophobia of Larkin's own 'Ambulances'. 'Closed like confessionals' , Larkin's vehicles embark on a journey whose end may only be inferred; Stuart's 'Doors thump shut' in as terminal an indicator of death as the closing of a curtain in the following line is a metaphor for a funeral's conclusion.
Elsewhere, Stuart's work is leavened by both experience, and a preternatural gift for inference where a good imagination is the alternative to experience. An acute awareness of visual and aural detail mark the poems 'Cézanne' and 'Venice'. A synaesthesiac conflation of seductive images warm the reader/viewer to a Provence of the mind in the former poem, whilst 'Venice Morning' and 'Evening' inhabit the submarine spaces between sleep and waking, between chiaroscuro shadows and drifting perfumed diversions, in a time-slowed feline narrative which amounts almost to an act of love. An act of love dignified further by a Keatsian delicacy of touch: 'eyelids tremble open'; 'Breathing in his words, she shivers'; 'Beyond the window, / dawn pales like a bruise'.
Stuart's pastiche/re-imagining of John Evelyn's seventeenth century diaries, 'Lost Child', demands little interpretation if only because words are inadequate to the task of acting as an emollient to the theme, which is the death of Evelyn's child. It is a tribute to the poet's insight that he approaches this task with gravitas and a lyrical simplicity that pays appropriate homage to a beloved son. After a short journey through a frozen landscape in a futile search for relief for the feverish boy, the grieving Evelyn describes the end:
'The river froze; the coach broke down
ere it had gone a mile beyond our gates.
All artificial help failing, he died.
I caused his body to be lapped in lead.
We buried him next night in Deptford church
and all of my joy with him.'
Where words fail, music sometimes gives voice. It is hard not to hear Mahler's 'Kindertotenlieder' (Songs on the death of children) when reading Stuart's measured verse.
'Quantum Theory for Cats' is published by Valley Press
The Angel On The Page: Quantum Theory For Cats - Ian Stuart, 13th January 2018, 9:26 AM