31 March 2011
I had the good fortune to encounter this book by virtue of my wife being an administrator at Winchester University where the author is based. When she bought home a copy from the book launch on spec, I leafed through it and formed the immediate impression that I was holding something of great ambition, that would prove either disappointingly pretentious or startlingly refreshing. I'm happy to say that once underway it quickly became apparent that the latter case emphatically applied. As someone raised with a deep love of poetry, but whose background was in astrophysics, I have always thought it a manifestation of C.P.Snow's `Two Cultures' that we had yet to see an earnest attempt to bridge of the gap between the two. Modern poetry, oft-touted as a quest for truth and beauty, has so far failed to successfully grapple with the manifest beauties revealed by modern science, or the rich extensions of language that support it. Masters attempts to do this by harnessing the modern creation myth of Big Bang cosmology; not so much as an explicit source of imagery, but as a guiding metaphor through which to structure his two epic poems, which take us into the minds of key figures from intellectual history. These are used as vehicles with which to explore themes of culture, art and civilisation, but most movingly, to put us into vivid connection with the time and place of acute and extraordinary minds.
To understand the book's construction imagine Eliot's `The Wasteland', with all its trailing references made explicit. This is what Masters does in his `Hemisphere 2', which follows the two poems given in `Hemisphere 1'. In this latter section he presents fascinating commentaries on the minutiae of the lives of his chosen subjects, and on the roles they play in the architecture of his poems. Now, we imagine coming back to Eliot's poem, as I have tried to do over long years, having followed up the references, and how much richer the experience becomes with increasing knowledge. Likewise, returning to Master's poems, they are all the more luminous for having journeyed into the lives and minds of his subjects. The commentaries are dense but not remotely dry. Being written by a poet they are not without a rhythm and momentum of their own, that makes the journey through their prose as enjoyable as the poems they elucidate.
The first of the two poems takes us into the disintegrating mind of Friedrich Nietzsche, as he succumbs to his final syphilitic madness, crossing between psychosis and lucidity. We move back and forth between Nietzsche's time and a semi-historical classical Greece, where we meet with Dionysus, and his bright shadow, Apollo, and their votaries, including a bibulous Socrates. Nietzsche has never been such fun, and as I read it struck me that this would make a fantastic libretto to an opera on the life of Nietzsche, with the panoramic spectacle of the Athenian Dionysia opening up inside his mind.
The second poem takes us into the lives and minds of three characters; the volatile Caravaggio, the flagellant St Jerome and, most lovingly portrayed, the coldly beautiful genius of Leonardo. I found that the `Hemisphere 2' commentaries on Leonardo gave me a great deal to pause and think about. It was most intriguing as I sought to inhabit his mindset, and feel how his acute analytical faculties, untainted by Aristotelian physics, struggled to make sense of the material world through an unscripted empiricism, that he was inventing for himself.
What Masters gives us then, is a veritable `glasperlenspiel'; a glass bead game that takes fragments of ideas and of consciousness, and weaves them into a working model of the universe. It comes about as close as it is possible to get to a gesamstkunstwerk, while remaining confined to the medium of ink on paper. It evoked for me intense personal resonances with the mythic ritual operas of Wagner, Tippett and Birtwistle, helping to define an aesthetic meta-domain in which these things coexist as an intense interweaving of spiritual meaning. I hope I have managed to impart enough of an idea of what awaits inside this extraordinary book, and the two extraordinary poems at its heart, to entice a fellow reader or two to assay a voice that deserves so very much to be heard.