“Holding Unfailing” is the second collection from Edward Ragg. Stylistically, it takes a similar approach to his first collection, “A Force that Takes”, in its use of short lines and stanzas, which leave space on the page for a reader to absorb and interpret what’s being said. An Englishman now settled in Beijing, it’s unsurprising that many poems explore travel and arrival. “From Our Own Correspondent” places itself “where light-skinned city folk// brush obliviously/ past dark-skinned arrivals”
“A new dance writes
its marks upon
the kaleidoscopic lights
of midnight floors
where youth moves
on bubbles and adrenalin.
The sleek high-speed train
touches 300 kilometres per hour
past channels of lore and algae.
That we may each move
upon the earth and leave
such marks with ease
and be forgotten.”
The repetition of “obliviously” acts as a reminder that life carries on despite us. Whether we are at the stage of being newly-arrived somewhere and wishing the pace of life would slow enough for us to adapt and catch up or at life’s end where others continue even though we’ve passed on. Similarly, the repetition of “marks” is also an echo. The marks of a current dance craze will give way to the next and the marks we make on life will also fade as “Ozymandias” did not take into consideration when he ordered his monument be built. Edward Ragg’s thoughtful, philosophical approach works well in “”The Human Chain”, a sequence, in memorial to Seamus Heaney
We breathe the same air and breathe
in the language across the waters
you made and made your own singing
the disinterred marvels of a planet
lit with the precision of cut turf
like sparks from the sharpened edge
of Beowulf’s steel. Each vowel seeping
from the peat-rich bog, each poem the miracle
of a sluice suddenly watering the earth.”
It’s a reminder that talent can overcome barriers and remind readers of their own humanity, a great poem can live on by speaking to a common identity or universal truth and voice can overcome the barriers of language. Seamus Heaney’s poems weren’t dressed with overly poetic language and were often rooted firmly in landscape but nonetheless, their truths and voice endure. That final image suggests the poems will continue to inspire and enable other poets to grow. Mortality also creeps into the sequence, “Arrival at Santiago,” that also marvels at Santiago’s wonders, but part VI acknowledges something more sinister,
But to speak differently in the shade of lemon trees:
in love I arrive, haunted by the news today
of a flight of limitless souls blown out
of existence over the Ukrainian fields.
Primary school kids running screaming
from a playground where death fell from the sky.
Not the earth’s end, but a preserved strip of it,
their echoes discord the songs of Santiago’s streets.
And, as we walk back past Cruchero Exeter,
low Andean foothill fog makes
of the late afternoon another sunrise.”
The narrator is right to acknowledge the act of terrorism and find delight in lemon trees and Santiago itself. It’s when fear governs us that terrorists have won. Although it’s difficult not to let that fear intrude. The section ends on “another sunrise”, a reminder of continuance and how little effect one individual may have.
Naturally, contemporary China is a big focus in the collection. In “Illuminations of Beijing”,
The first light is the dullest light
reflecting the uncertain brightness
of a winter’s day. The first light
reveals buildings and trees
and the cracked earth
of winter fields.
The first light is suggestion,
conception, then realisation
or so it seems. For I can
never say precisely where
this city begins:
only that it ends
in these gently illuminated
It catches someone very much aware of his place in a city where he knows the boundaries but not the full history, someone aware of their mortality.
Edward Ragg’s poems explore personal landscape through observation and memory, questioning how memories and personal response shape and project onto the landscape. However, the poet does not restrict the reader to considering only one view, there is space for interpretation and thought. The use of plain, precise vocabulary supports the poet’s desire to communicate and reach out to readers. “Holding Unfailing” consolidates and builds on the foundations of “A Force that Takes“.