“Holding Unfailing” Edward Ragg (Cinnamon Press) – poetry review

holding_unfailing“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

rushing obliviously
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

“IV

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,

“VI

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”,

“I

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
calcareous hills.”

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“.

“Holding Unfailing” is available from Cinnamon Press.

“A Force that Takes” Edward Ragg (Cinnamon Press) – Poetry Review

A Force that takes Edward Ragg book cover

Edward Ragg’s default style is a spare, three short lines in each stanza with use of enjambment to move the reader onto the next line or idea. It’s not his only approach, but seems to be the one where he’s most comfortable. The advantage of this approach is that it gives him space to advance an idea and then think around it and/or give the reader space to think, while the enjambment moves the poem forward. The title poem thinks around the theme of comprehension:

“Each poem has its drama,
whether minuscule or minute,
wherein one voice

or another, the reader
at its table, the paper-weight
and impressing heel

become a force that takes.
The intellectuals and the merchants,
the currency between them.

Theirs is the larger drama
touching the minuscule,
or forced from there,

not prehensile, but feeding,
multiplying, digesting,
like the autolysis of yeast.

One has felt the force
of the offices and shipyards
and sheet metal,

another scorched words at a
study wall, the fury between
them, as a force that takes.

What I have in mind is
your comprehending touch,
waltz of a woman’s hips,

that if the poem has
comprehended anything
it has told us, in so many

words, this is the force
that runs through it, this is
the minuscule we comprehend.”

The poem explores how a reader brings their own baggage and instincts to a poem, taking the relatively small focus of a poem and expanding it into a bigger idea depending on their interpretation and understanding of the poem’s words. This also places a limitation on the poem as the reader restricts their reading to their own interpretation and understanding, potentially closing discussion to another reader’s interpretation. Or creating an argument in a situation where there is no one correct answer: the poem is open to whichever understanding the reader has. It sets the philosophical tone of many of the poems. It’s also difficult to quote extracts from these poems because they present an intact theory arrived at organically and the thread of understanding can get lost if a reader focuses on only one stanza. Their strength lies in their use of a plain vocabulary: Edward Ragg’s intention is to provoke thought in the reader and engage debate. He doesn’t intend to baffle with jargon or multi-syllabic words, an approach which can send a reader to reference books and search engines and the suspicion that the choice of obscure words was deliberate to shift the burden of work to the reader, a little like a pedagogue patronising a student rather than a poet to a reader.

“The Meaning of Failure” considers the necessity of failure to learning and ends:

“If all argument ends
in death, the argument ends.
Yet its very terms

as from a child’s world,
if they will have one, is
of argument without end.

Success is so inessential
and failure a condition
in which we may begin

to make again a world,
as when you pour the tea,
you kiss my cheek,

you walk from room
to room moving in a kind
of triumph barely seen.”

Edward Ragg grew up in England and moved to Beijing in 2007. Some of the poems mark the transition from being a foreigner, hesitant in a new language and customs to settling in and making Beijing home. “Chongwenmen Market” finishes

“I intone in snail Mandarin the prices of eggs,
pork belly, mutton, counting change in the abacus
of a new speech and would like to say more:
something about the colours of the aubergines,
the less recognised fruits, the tastes of them.”

The last line recognises the irony of the fruits being less recognised to the Englishman not the stall holder and the regret at wanting to try what to the speaker are new experiences but frustrated by an inability to find the words to ask. There’s a beautiful tenderness in “For the Love of,”

“and yet the woman I love,
her Chinese hair now bending
under the cooker hood

has made me forget winter,
the month of May, the willow
trees bending the water’s way.”

Edward Ragg manages to combine the philosophical with personal observations without becoming didactic by a careful choice of words aimed at engaging the reader. His is an assured, undramatic voice that allows his poems to speak for themselves. “A Force that Takes” is available from Cinnamon Press.