John Milbank's The Legend of Death: Two Poetic Sequences

2008 978-1556359156 Price: £14.27 182pp Eugene, OR: Cascade Books

Reviewed by Peter Larkin

In the course of his recent mammoth debate with Zizek (The Monstrosity of Christ (2009)), in which parallax and dialectic spar with paradox and coinciding opposites, John Milbank strikingly takes us into his own poetics of landscape:

"Suppose I am driving my car one cold and misty morning southward toward the River Trent…along roads which constantly twist and pass up and down hills on their tortuous ways to the eventual descent to the river valley. Everything is univocally bathed in a beautiful, faintly luminous vagueness, tinged at its heart with silver…the near has been rendered somewhat obscure and impenetrable, while the distant has been brought relatively close by its equal shade to that which lies close at hand…On the other hand, against the background of the mist, differences stand out all the more sharply…I distinguish different colors all the more distinctly, and observe all the more strongly how their being associated with different shapes and different entities is an entirely contingent matter…It is therefore material 'mistiness' which at once hides and then reveals – and then reveals only through concealing…So that which 'transcendentally dominates' the local scene…is…the interplay between the univocal and the equivocal – it is the weaving of things in and out of the mist…I would not be registering things at all were I not also seeking to know these things hidden by material 'mistiness' and yet also disclosed to me through this very same density…For what I see within the mist is incomplete to me only because the beautiful as such is suggestive…of something shown and yet withheld: this 'vertical' circumstance is at one with its 'horizontal' inscrutability whereby we cannot generalize into a formula of belonging-together of the disparate…Because of the impossibility of truly thinking the paradoxical, this dynamic tension will even be conceived by thought in somewhat dialectical terms…as the likeness of the trees to the mist in contrast to their unlikeness. Yet at the same time, a nondialectical attempt is made truly to hold onto both affirmation and denial at once, and this is most realized through the deployment of metaphor – the mist becomes the trees' own white, wintry foliage; the trees become the mist's own thickening." (pp. 160-171)

Here, in terms reminiscent of Romantic organicism and Newman's essential nebulosity of the formative idea, Milbank is showing his own thought to metaphor and letting his intellectuality be composed out of it. The thinning out of formal precision (not without its own cost) is here allowed to seed an ontological thickening, a sensory take-up speculative beyond the self-binding schemes of "critical" reflection. This collection brings together two sequences: the first (and longer) titled "On the Diagonal – Metaphysical Landscapes" numbers about 70 individual poems (many with local occasions) is followed by the title-sequence with its own palimpsest of mythic sources and regional travel nodes. The volume itself prompts the question whether interesting poetry is all that often in the hands exclusively of poets, or whether it is not more copiously echoing the grain of shared modes of writing as it certainly was for Coleridge or David Jones (two obvious influences on Milbank). Broader concerns of writing, ranging through politics to theology in Milbank's case, might well demonstrate more acutely just where the poetic can't be avoided, where it is knocked up against or called out to. For Milbank poetry seems to erupt where formal counter-sayings in fact turn negotiable, where a whole set of betweens with no followance of logical terrain in themselves allow ontological relations to minister to experience, and so outflank the scratchy oppositions (though the scratches are themselves overwritten on the figures of site and situation).

Milbank, who is arguably the most original British catholic-tradition theologian since Newman and as deeply immured in controversy as his predecessor, doesn't shy away from a range of discourses in his poetry, which at the very least allows these echoes full play. Terms like eidos and mimesis are not edited out but remain in jubilant italic, while a misty landscape arouses passions that curdle "to the bitter-sweet cream of methexis" (42) or a more common terrain is known to be such "by a lingua of asphalt". If "serried rows / of bare trees" under an emerald light become "a vivid creature / of intelligent limbs" we can be sure that latter adjective is not thrown in for effect but is an integral part of Milbank's Platonic materialism. Prose itself is not exiled in this collection with two punchy introductory essays. The opening preface entitled "The Eight Diagonals" is a strikingly succinct and non-technical introduction to much of the author's thinking, the crux of which is his notion of "diagonalizing out" (derived from Cantor and Badiou) whereby an uncensored hunger for the vertical is restored to being a deeply embodied experience and as such curves out the world's fabric and is in turn bent back by that same world's resistance and fragility but in what is an inclusive (though not conclusive) tension. This is ontologically hopeful but not superficially optimistic: if organic matter and with it human culture depends on a thin crust of earth, the crust of the spirit, however concentrated, is likely to be even thinner (2). Our very diagonals of desire and aspiration are themselves folds in the "fragile surface of earth" (6). Together with its companion preface to "The Legend of Death" sequence itself, these essays are not marginal asides but with their bold topographic and cultural contours place full confidence in the broad mesh of the poetry which they are here inter-collating. As such Milbank's poetry reads like an emergent corpus trailing backwards or pushing forwards across his own intellectual horizons which remain co-implicit. As such the poems do risk being swamped by more resonances than they can easily economise and there can be premature dives with no re-surfacings but more often this poetry survives its deliberate compound milieu and robustly laps against it: any intellectual add-ons are already poetically attentive and so open up to the compositional supplements challenging on the page itself.

If trees can rise for Milbank to intelligent limbs they don't thereby lock into schematic armatures: the poetry attends as easily to "an effect of dark green like that of firs / inside a winter chamber. I cannot say / what it is" (35). Knowing is not always a form of intelligence, and though an indoor scene is also a site of definition, here the dark green is more definitive of an excess contingency that isn't simply to be neutralized by pure randomness. In another poem "Green in such stresses" is "offered as aureoles" but by this marmoreal phrase Milbank in fact means the "Pure height of green. / Green above growth's height." (37) Height is ontologically mysterious before it is generative or comparative. At his best, Milbank goes beyond pointilliste description to tap into something more perceptually speculative, in a way which delivers on the programme of his preface. Here he had identified a sensus communis or "bastard sphere of poetry" as the "original illegitimacy' of human thinking that refuses Kantian limitations to what can be objects of thought (4). Objects, one might think, come with their own resistances but much of that obduracy is already internal to metaphor as such.

At times, Milbank's landscapes resemble the liveried corridors of a heritage England busy with professional retreat-commuting; any sense of ecological damage is not uppermost in these poems despite a more general awareness of fragility or the presence of a poem entitled "Global Warming"... Most read more as the car poetry of a busy intellectual rather than walk poems from a more hand-to-mouth writer, but a compromised pastoral is indirectly signalled by mist itself complicitly veiling the sort of commonly worn-down genera which wouldn't really function as significant poetic quiddities. However, in a striking conceit, what metaphor itself swerves from is a "tarmac" which "cannot disappoint / in its literality" (22) which neatly chimes with a definition of poetry later in the collection as that which is "itself named by the trope of the literal" (173). For Milbank metaphor is thought in the process of out-thinking itself where any ornament of style is valued for its ontological reference rather than as an effect of fine description. The brown earth as such "casts its furrows for multiple pathways" (49) but this includes "a new mechanical rigour / forcing fields into richer ruptures" (51) which does brush up against an aesthetic finesse more dubiously earned, but at the same time is not excused the sacrificial burden of creation or "so much terrible, infinite redundancy / of unnecessary details" (50). Milbank's bias is towards an ontological landscape which doesn't as such detour through ecological quandaries, being already immersed in a redemptive process which goes "From the robbed to the robed" (66) – a line cheeky enough to avert portentousness. There is no strictly human decision involved in "the given graphs of tufted woodland" – rather, what allows for "infinite dispersal" is taken to be "the unison of redeemed bodies" however much exposed to the face of a sea which "binds the world ./ in weeping" (70).

For all the fragility of the world's organic membrane, Milbank builds great things from least suggestion; when he writes:

yesterday's light
today dares to linger
for a longer interval

of dispersed intensity,
with the bird's song registering
the pain of aspiration

this is not merely rounded phrasing that might sound better in French but follows through a conviction that the primordial instinct of life is towards greater fullness, a factor which overdetermines narrower functional patterns in favour of an inveterate tendency towards enhancement and complexification, a point finely argued in a previously published essay "Glissando". Green itself is diagonally ascendant in Milbank's poetry, part of a vision of nature that deviates beyond naturalism, often at marginal moments like dawn or twilight which are conventional enough but here form part of a deliberate pressure of imaginative expectation as a willingness to weave both from within and towards the outer side of experience, so as to make teleological speculation itself a visible imaginable:

and yet the ease
before the plunge sideways
by the green sheltering deviation
that lies still higher yet before us (126)

Here a potential abyss (the sideways plunge) is implicated in a coincidence of protection and drift which is precisely what impinges on the vertical. If less that eco-friendly in disposition (Milbank's prose has been highly critical of eco-theology), the poems evince a strong regional emphasis which even includes the occasional environmental feature in Nottinghamshire dialect, such as "dumble" for a sunken stream or "wong" for a low-lying concave meadow. Sherwood is a county that "extends only / to the wood within it" (71) or is the one "collapsed back / into its own forest" (72). Threddlethorpe Sands defeat any "entire standing within the dome of existence" but is a site awaiting coincidence and completion "which is why all the Midlanders / visit this partial vastness as if it were their oldest home" (84). Milbank's earth is not a placid surface, however much "new leaves" are "laid out / in bond series" (8) which also recall the page that might retard "my linear hurtle towards death" but it's also the open page on the writer's desk which calibrates the "unique arrangements of twigs' partings" (8). In another poem, the "cliff's edge plunge to the waters" is just what is "unannounced in the earth's language" as one might expect, but the earth is wrapped in sea which is a fold of compensation: "the sea delivers the earth / by a gradual landing" (12)

Milbank is a strongly revisionist poet openly extolling magic and metamorphosis which might irritate some readers who expect disillusion to be finely naturalised by experience, whereas these poems make moves like:

It is never good to change a basic pattern,
Your only chance lies with more variations (14)

This is a couplet that could serve as a motto for Radical Orthodoxy itself (the theological movement with which Milbank is most associated) with its attack on received notions of modernity and postmodernity as promoting unsourced reinvention or surface revision. Milbank has his own brand of materiality, one which sensorially exults in form and intellect:

We have seen ideas, floating perfectly.
We have received them
within our bodies invisibly. (104)

If ideas can enter into the body's own invisibility as it were, it is only because their own inherent materiality simultaneously launches a perfect flotation, rather like Geoffrey Hartman's "elation" as a lifting up which is also the lightening of a burden. Milbank has no doubt that the flows and pulses of the world constitute a

transfinite basis
for an infinite arched cerulean and an infinite
stately imperceptible inrush (83)

This provocatively reinvokes the monumental or ceremonial but insists its source lies in the self-excess of materiality itself, the paradoxical contingency of which is also porous to a more integral nexus. Is even the trans-finite still a violation of the material? I would say no, because the very redundancy of materiality is sufficiently self-vexing to be a wounded one, but that is in itself a road to a measure of concretion otherwise inaccessible and with it a glimpse of consummation. These poems attempt to celebrate a materiality which if it erupts does so in the midst of its own problematic but not less than hyperbolic sphere of relations, negotiations which can't be reduced to smooth constituents but provoke a transition towards horizon and ritual elaboration:

Original gratuity, as old as us,
unevolved and unevolving
in its hold upon the inexhaustibly eternal

we find not death
but that which life has left
surpassing death itself (80)

The rather shorter second part of this collection preludes the text of "The Legend of Death" with another prose introduction. In many ways it is as interesting or more so than the poetry which follows, the sort of jibe that was often levelled against the US Language poets at one time but which failed to rouse them and probably wouldn't faze Milbank either. His poems don't require modernist autonomy but arise from and flow between more abstract theoretical concerns so that neither discourse is self-sufficient but might offer another set of differences which "belong together". The poetic sequence opens at an off-shore Britain (ie Brittany) and then travels along the English South West, up through North Wessex and Southern Mercia attracting Celtic and Scandinavian mythic residues on the way before panning out across East Anglia. The poem is modernist enough to list its scholarly sources in the manner of The Waste Land or The Anathemata but to that extent is also knowingly belated. "The Legend of Death" never quite resonates on the scale of its predecessors for it is covering well-trodden ground in several senses which here frankly needs more than a purely poetic resource to make its way. This poetry calls for the supplementation of its preface in a way that is refreshingly disparate but also exposes it to a certain weakness. At its best though that preface offers us patient and fairly crisp re-enchantment as it reminds us that one finitude is always interrupted by another as one place leads through to another, and then swerves to insist on an analogy with the preternatural: it is the overlain and largely worn-out world of middle spirits or local presences which might be best placed to mediate between finitudes and infinity. These ideas lift off best from actual places because they are already signs (and signs are always based on material gift for Milbank). The poem counter-balances this with a record of current journeyings never merely antiquarian: contemporary conditions partly peel off the laminae of inherited landscape which can be refingered between their layerings but don't really resonate until once again seen together and through each other where conditions allow (it's at this point that some greater ecological acuity might have been handy). The railway itself becomes a lyric skein cast across the palimpsest of recall:

The train is a corridor of warmth
entering the ice landscape
which it reads as emplotment
whereas the road knows it a labyrinth

In the meantime the river
has decided to keep surprising the railway
which is there to celebrate its meanderings

Their boundaries intact though
across the sacred distance.
So the railway was really the new work of angels. (162-4)

This is Victorian landscape narrative nostalgia raised to apocalyptic pitch but doesn't re-peddle Betjeman-like regret so much as challenge uninhabitable indifferences or any crass linearity of obsolescence which drifts into modish non-recognition. What corrugates Milbank's landscapes is what also resists the lava of globalization, precisely from across the incorrigible granulations by which one region indents another, leading from difference to trans-dimensional inference. But contingency as such can't register this degree of particularity and it is implicit invocation which succeeds description to be mediated by the effluvia of the middle spirits. As words get thicker they refrain from discreet reference and bend to the choric:

Flecked fair these feuilles.
Fertile foliage, faerie. (139)

This is to draw near to the terrain of David Jones' "The Tutelar of the Place" but Milbank's own poetic materia is not always so richly rifted and some stretches of "The Legend of Death", though always agile and pertinent, can still feel lack-lustre. But there are sharp flashes as in the Jones-like "gustings of wind-light" or the marvellous couplet:

digs into man's encircler (172)

This is ravishing and really engrosses the reader but inevitably Milbank's language is for much of the time more drily programmatic and doesn't always get beyond the illustrative, but it is a risk the poetry doesn't protect itself from. It takes poetic courage to revisit the "now" of places that may have had any template for re-imagination already stripped from them. As such, "The Legend of Death" is also a journey in the midst of induration and obstruction and its very ingenuity can corrode its surfaces in ways which frustrate the currents being sensed. Rich parallels and echoes remain but they flutter as wafers as much as they resonate across a more elastic texture. It's not for nothing Milbank rather grimly intones:

The past is given, silenced forever.
It will need all of the future
in which to be understood. (164)

These powerful horizons can leave the present perfunctory or barren at times, or some of Milbank's conceits can misfire at close range without vivifying the distances he wants to remain in touch with:

Celandines are so much yellow strong butter
licked firmly such that it sticks out
in several radiant tongues silently. (118)

Rather like Newman himself one might judge Milbank to be not a poet of the first importance but always a fascinating one, with compensations in abundance arising from a trenchant and riffling mind drawing on a poetic which doesn't always realise poetry. At his best, however, it is how a landscape, itself less than adequately registered, withdraws and then dissipates distinctively that can offer renewal and speculative passion:

Immense tunnels of trees: gradually more misted.
The woods darkening. More waters trembling.
Tunnels and torrents of trees.

Silvered ruby shimmer.
Gloss of brown woodland.

They are plunged downwards
into quarries of order


All the mists resume
their feeble strategies
for comprehension.

The landscape obsesses them
like the final bed they long for.
Never, never could they have done
with its risings and unfoldings. (157-9)

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