Poetry review: 20/01/20
THE STOCK EXCHANGE OF IDEAS
by John Gohorry
Our reviewer finds this collection a delight of ideas.
Upon reading John Gohorry’s book The Stock Exchange of Ideas, one is left with a vision of Gohorry himself, sitting at a tidy desk, his own younger self peering over his shoulder, probably thumbing his nose. We meet the childhood version on the first page, a boy who “lit fires; / threw stones at windows; broke glass”. At first glance, it’s hard to reconcile that wild image with the considered, scholarly writer Gohorry proves himself in this collection, yet on closer reading the schoolboy makes his voice heard.
His youthful alter ego is often found in nature – “I lost myself in the spinney, made up a brushwood shelter while I was growing teeth” – in ‘The Spinney’; and “jump off the roundabout/and play hide and seek in its stones” at 'The Gorsedd Stone Circle, Porthmadog'. In ‘Good Eye, Bad Eye’ he’s invisible, until the bad eye reveals him “the boy / I once was, walking the towpath to the colliery school”. Even in the poems in which he makes no appearance, a strong authorial voice is generally evident.
There are birds here too in abundance. His “thoughts are a flock of birds” on page two, a jackdaw “attacks your window / a beak-rapper, a would-be / glass smasher, a frame-batterer / full of fury” in ‘Wallace Stevens Visits a Makers’ Convention’; in ‘Men and Birds’ “What is beautiful is neither human or bird / but human as bird”, and in ‘The Headdress’, which veers towards magical realism, a professor makes himself a costume from discarded feathers and wears it on his daily run, discarding his teaching duties and academic rivalries, finding instead “the broad flight of mind above circumstance” – a fine description of the endorphin-inducing, care-thrashing properties of running, or flying, through nature.
And yet Gohorry’s verse is often marked by a deflected intimacy. Often the poems mention he, she, we or you, but seldom I. Although in ‘The Echo Room’ it’s definitely Gohorry in the first person, “on my left side, as instructed” whilst “Daniela has fixed three electrodes / and now a cold gel, not unpleasant”. We follow as his mind is cast back to when he saw scans of his own children. “The technician could tell, as I / could not, which was boy, which girl.” This joyous moment which marks the start of life is contrasted ruefully with the “splash gurgle / of my grandfather blood pushing its way / through….willing it / to stay out at sea for a while longer.” It’s a beautiful, poignant look at the intimacy of the medical examination which, with brisk, impersonal efficiency, may signal life’s start, or its finish.
Gohorry is still furious as a schoolboy at any perceived injustice. In his poem for migrants, ‘At sea’, he writes verses that spit and fizz sarcasm:
It’s calm tonight on Dover Beach
gulls punctuate the strand;
the border force maintain their watch
Over our moon-blanched land.
On Dover strand alone we stand
unwelcoming and free;
along the coast our proudest boast
a government at sea.
The simplistic rhyme scheme and rhythm are instantly incongruous, and work perfectly with the scathing, satirical, slam-ready tone of this piece. Look out also for ‘You Sit on the Back Row’, which blasts those in power who sit back and watch human suffering as though it were sport. Frenzied and compelling in its passion, it ends with an exhortation to action by everyone able to think and choose something better.
As the title suggests, Gohorry seeks to barter ideas with other poets and thinkers: this is a scholarly work, a feat of intellect as well as imagination. There’s an homage to the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, whose work I’m now eager to discover, and two reflections upon the Chinese poets Chi Lingyun and Fo-Yan, so obscure even Google shrugged. This is a learned man, eager to share his knowledge and build upon it with fresh creations. Towards the back of the book you find several wonderful ruminations upon the work and plight of Sappho, beginning with ‘Sappho in Letchworth’, in which Gohorry wonders if the poet and the “Greek lyre / you melted hearts with” was spirited back to Lesbos by “Pathia honey-tongued, strange-cadence Rhodopis, Phyllis, all sunlight, / Anactoria, with the buttery lips / and eyes to die for”; or was it “rough men, scrap metal merchants lusting for bronze.” Next we find Rhodopis, the Greek slave, addressing Sappho – “they fed me the filthy script / I spoke that they took for love lines”. The Sappho section ends with an examination of modern Lesbos, the refugees who crowd it and a reflection on their contribution to our way of life, and an invocation to Sappho, that in a thousand years “Syrian songs in England / praise all our island is famed for.” It’s a beautiful reflection on what it means, both politically and poetically, to be on the right side of history. A lesser poet would have made it preachy or, worse, twee; instead Gohorry’s ‘A Letter from Lesbos’ is incredibly moving.
The title track itself is a witty demolition of the free market, at least as it pertains to artistic work: “Cliche did well….Imitation was bullish.” It ends by recommending “poetry playgrounds”, places to learn and share, and does it well enough that the idea seems inspiring, and, more impressive, possible.
This is his twelfth collection, and aside from the emphasis on interacting with great artists and thinkers within one’s work, there are repeated references to the passage of time – the boy he was, the grandfather he’s become. In ‘Eight Septains after Octavio Paz’ he writes powerfully of the rhythms of his heart, the noise of which recalls the “hiss” of the ice skating blade, and bring back a carefree, wintry memory: now, however,
latex gloves resting soft as snowfall
on your neck, where the carotid artery
unreels quantities of iambic so steadily
you’d have them thought inexhaustible.
With a legacy of this power and magnitude, inexhaustible is a fair summation.
Review: Melissa Todd.
John Gohorry – The Stock Exchange of Ideas