Sep 10, 2020 | Reviews

Review of Paul Kane’s ‘A Passing Bell’

“Paul Kane is a poet, critic, scholar and librettist” who splits his time between Australia (principally rural Victoria) and the USA and is well-known in the former as a driving force in the Mildura Writers Festival, along with Tina Kane, a textile artist and conservator who “has published numerous essays, translations and reviews” in both countries. “Tina died in Australia on 25 July 2015” after a two-year battle with motor neurone disease.

“The road I walk is one of sadness/ …. /Every time my step falls upon the road, I admit my bondage.” (Ghazal 72)

“Our love was always a response to the anguish of this world/ … / How could our anguish not be beautiful?” (Ghazal 73)

Paul Kane’s A Passing Bell abounds in phrases that could be extracted as summaries of the work. I chose the above to capture the tones of litany, compulsion and grief that pervade it, and the striving for some species of beauty that is part of all poets’ motivation.

A Passing Bell is book-ended by a Prologue in the voice of a third person commentator, witness or presence – a God or a God-substitute, the unnamed Master (perhaps Hafiz ), the spirit of love – that frames the ghazals that follow as involuntary exercises shaped by “a loss so fundamental he is shocked to be alive.” There is also an Epilogue, which is in Tina’s voice and which acknowledges her role in leading him out of his “underworld” “of cavernous grief” at her death to a point where he can turn his Orpheus away from her Eurydice.

Tina was (remains?) Kane’s wife and collaborator in the 2014 translation and illustration of twelve Hafiz ghazals, so the choice of the ghazal form within the Sufic remit seems natural and even an extension of that earlier work. (Kane mentions Hafiz by name in Ghazal 8, though he does not venture equivalence between himself and the great poet in any way). It might even be viewed as another joint project of his words and her animating spirit. This may speak of a deeper affiliation, it may hark back to collaboration, or it may be the product of aptness to themes. There are signs suggestive of the former– the work’s character as a verbal pilgrimage of sorts, the congruence of earthly and spiritual love, the marriage of truth and love, the invocation of a Master presence, the implication of stages in the grieving process (à la Kübler-Ross) and/or stations of enlightenment, e.g. “Passing” in the title, and references to an afterlife.

The ghazal’s last bayt (couplet) usually mentions the poet or narrator by name or requires a reversion to him or her in some way, whereas this occurs only in the Prologue, and then in the voice of the third person. All the ghazals in the body of the work revert to Tina and the Epilogue reverts to them both. This variation is consistent with the work’s inferred joint authorship, and its devotional and Sufic compass – the lover becomes the beloved and both manifest love itself.

While I am not overly familiar with Kane’s other poetry, internet samplings (Cordite, Snorkel, for example) make clear that A Passing Bell is a conscious, if natural, departure from all but the Hafiz translations. These samplings are quite different in construction and tone, and more modernistic, though there is a not infrequent correspondence in themes. Kane’s career demonstrates both a deep and broad interest in collaboration and cross-cultural forms, such as his and John Kinsella’s Renga: 100 Poems; and it is worth noting that Ouyang Yu has translated Kane’s poetry into Chinese.

There is a concept in the Qu’ran known as tawhid that signifies the uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe and is sometimes interpreted in Sufism as making us all part of God – in Attar’s A Conference of the Birds, for example, the birds resolve their pilgrimage to find their king, Simorgh, by peering into a mirror.

These comments are not intended as a religious or form-centred reduction of A Passing Bell. It so pulses with emotion and both light and dark humanity, and so alternates between the dirge-song and the lyric that it can be savoured without religious overtones and resonates beyond the form’s strictures. Nor do I want to stray into arguments of appropriation. The poetry is too organic to sustain such an accusation. Despite its deeply personal content, there is no sense of voyeurism in reading this book, though readers will naturally reach out to their own experiences and that is perhaps intended.

By the publication of A Passing Bell, Kane reasserts his faith in poetry – he is no Laura Riding – despite the traumatic disjuncture of Tina’s death. Meaning is neither necessarily singular nor requires certitude. Poetry is living by “words whose purpose is to say what cannot be said” (Ghazal 8), though “poetry” is itself “merely a word”. Poems are “like newborns shocked by the harsh alien air” of utterance and “part of a larger life which includes death, naturally,/ but only because, for them, death is another kind of life”, a life to be treasured “for it has touched you, Tina, and I cannot let it go” (Ghazal 46). In any event, “I wrote everything for you and waited like a child for notice” and this long poem is “at most a hint, perhaps an invitation or petition” for an acknowledgement in absentia and thus a “prayer” (Ghazal 130).

We all might be warmed by a prayer said by or for us, be it religious, secular or a simple contemplation of nature. Paul Kane has been brave and caring enough to share his and Tina’s.

To read this review in its orignal context click here.

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