Review: Lawrence Durrell's poetry

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Isabelle Keller-Privat

Lawrence Durrell’s Poetry: A Rift in the Fabric of the World.

Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 331 pages.

Writing poetry is a way of life. A tough way of life. The writer who sets out to capture his innermost sensations, thoughts and the impressions of the world outside in short and measured lines, is destined forever wondering whether anyone truly understands him.

Writing a review of poetry and especially a review of a poet’s life’s work is like trying to recapture that elusive spirit which had guided the poet along the path of chasing butterflies, to requote Durrell who warned future readers lest their interpretation damages the delicate process of appreciating his art by handling it with coarse hands.

Isabelle Keller-Privat’s recent book Lawrence Durrell’s Poetry: A Rift in the Fabric of the World, is an awesome effort of paying an in-depth academic homage to Durrell’s poetry in historical and cultural contexts. On top of that she performs a minute and closely argued analysis of his body of poetry as a whole and of many individual poems.

To continue with the butterfly metaphor, reading Keller-Privat’s study is indeed akin to wandering through an array of rooms where butterflies fill the air with their lovely colours and movements. It is best to allow the senses to soak in the atmosphere without too abrupt movements.

Keller-Privat’s main argument, laid out very clearly in the introductory chapter, is to place and analyse Durrell’s poetry in and alongside the context of his prose work. Thus, she elegantly refers and perhaps even resolves, the quandary T.S. Eliot set out before young Durrell when he advised him that he would do best if he made up his mind whether he was a writer of poetry or prose. She asserts that Durrell’s poetry collections “appear to map out a new poetic experience that develops in symbiosis with the prose” (p. 4).

Durrell published his first poetry collection Quaint Fragment in 1931 and the last one, Vega,in 1974. All in all, Durrell was less prolific as a poet than as a prose writer, having published dozens of prose works, this perhaps again suggesting another resolution to T.S. Eliot challenge. But does quantity matter when it comes to works of art?

Many would agree that Durrell’s work was always poetic, even when writing prose, as any reader of the opening pages of The Alexandria Quartetcan testify.

Keller-Privat divides her study into seven chapters, where she painstakingly delves into Durrell’s poetry with a keen eye for detail, relying upon her evident expertise in analysing, contextualising and interpreting his poems.

The first chapter A Private Country: The Poet’s Secret Cartography focuses upon Durrell’s first major collection published in 1943. Keller-Privat rightly identifies this period as his “exile from exile” (p.9) In it, Greece assumes that so very important essence in Durrell’s work – an inspiring absence which will nourish his work until his death. Keller-Privat asserts that it is during this period that Durrell fashioned his “secret cartography” (p. 15) which will serve him in his quest for meaning both as an artist and as a man. As in the following chapters, once she outlines the general context of the period, Keller-Privat then proceeds to dissect particular stanzas from various poems written during the period, applying with great skill her literary analysis tools.

The second chapter Cities, Plains and People: Lands of Exile and Introspection examines the collection of poems published in 1946, and finds Durrell dealing with his experience in Egypt, later to appear in his major prose work The Alexandria Quartet. References to that work abound, not least in the very first poem in the collection, Eight Aspects of Melissa. Keller-Privat refers to some of Durrell’s inspirations for these poems in his earlier work, thus beginning to weave the web of his poetic landscape, showing some of the recurring themes that will originate in earlier work and reappear later on. Moving back and forth between his prose and poetry, she directs the reader’s attention to themes so dear to Durrell – birth, love and death, as appear, for instance in the poem For a Nursery Mirror which she juxtaposes with his first, and very autobiographical, novel, Pied Piper of Lovers. She urges the reader to skip from one poem to another and to not only absorb their content but also listen to their music, focusing upon their structure.

The third chapter On Seeming to Presume: The Dream of a Secret Belonging, deals with the collection of poems published in 1948 while Durrell was living in Argentina. It was written during a relatively fertile period in Durrell’s life, which Keller-Privat finds is reflected in the tone and structure of the poems themselves. Many of the poems in this collection reflect Durrell’s experience in Rhodes which will also appear later in his prose work Reflections on a Marine Venus, and achieve what she claims to be “the art of the poem… to unfold what is precisely not ‘discernible’: the refraction of a thought pondering upon the death drift of our world.” (p. 91).

The fourth chapter “Dreams bursting at the seams to die”: The Tree of Idleness, The Mauled Dream, deals with the collection of poems published in 1955 and sketches both Durrell’s time in Cyprus as well as the increasingly dominant influences of Eastern philosophies upon his work. Keller-Privat quotes Richard Pine’s assertion that the poems in this collection needs to be read as a part of a poetry cycle which began in 1931 and run parallel to Durrell’s first four novels. At the heart of this chapter, which is rife with detailed and observant studies of the various poems, is Keller-Privat’s excellent observation regarding the way Durrell used poetry as the space within which he would continue to explore his world.

The fifth chapter, The Ikons: Greece in the Mind’s Eye studies Durrell’s collection of poems published in 1966, after the huge success of The Alexandria Quartet and after the publication of his Collected Poems in 1964. It departs from the previous collections in that it is not located in a specific time nor place, two elements which were so dear to Durrell’s endeavour. As a collection, it is more abstract in its treatment of the familiar themes of antiquity, myth, icons and the existential pursuit of meaning.

The sixth chapter The Red Limbo Lingo: “Thus words in Music drown” studies the collection published in 1971. It is a puzzling collection, which Keller-Privat tries to contextualise by linking it to Durrell’s prose of the period. She focuses on Durrell’s intention of viewing poetry as form and bravely attempts to make sense of this often bizarre and very difficult to read collection. The themes of this collection will reappear in Durrell’s final giant prose work The Avignon Quintet. It is work written in blood and flesh.

The seventh chapter Vega: The Star of Poetry examines Durrell’s last poetry collection published in 1974. It is described by Keller-Privat as “the climax of this writing of the rift, of the repetition of cleavage and loss, of the process of dissemination sketching out the poet’s irrational and raging hope.” (p. 268)

To conclude, Keller-Privat’s study is unique in the field of Durrell studies in its dedication to deeply explore his poetry. Her positioning of the poetry collections alongside the prose works allows the reader to be impressed by the wide canvas of his output. Keller-Privat is the president of the International Lawrence Durrell Society and her study should be read by anyone who is keen on his work. It is written with a gentle yet observant style, delving into the depth of Durrell’s flesh and blood, when necessary, but at the same time, maintaining a perspective which allows the reader to fully appreciate both the poems and the contexts in which they were written. It is a loving homage to a great author, written with much love and it deserves to be read with equal love and passion.

Rony Alfandary, Ph.D.

The University of Haifa, Israel

Author of Exile and Return: A Psychoanalytic Study of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (Routledge: 2019).

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