Thursday, May 11, 2017

“The Reader as Mediator”: A Review of Rupert M. Loydell’s Dear Mary

 (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2017), ISBN-13: 978-1-84861-519-9
Dear Mary, Rupert M. Loydell’s twentieth collection of poetry, is a series of meditations on the Virgin Mary and the circumstances of her miraculous conception. True to form, Loydell, a painter as well as poet, approaches the mystery through the dual lens of words and images. And one does not have to be raised Catholic like myself to appreciate the large number of images available to us that take as their subject Mary’s receiving of the news from the angel Gabriel and her subsequent life as mother of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
Indeed, “the appearance/of the angel,” as Loydell says in the poem “A Process of Discovery”: “the event/the moment/as pregnant/as the Madonna” (18). With this encounter heavily weighted from the onset, Loydell explores the crafting of the image, as in “Colour by Numbers,” although he does not take the elitist angle of painting as something only for the highly trained—especially with religious matters as its subject—but something for everyone, something as simple as a color by numbers painting, which you can “take… to the next level” (26). This is more Bob Ross than Old Masters, and refreshingly so.
In the poem “Cimabue” he writes: “everything in Italy/is a love letter to God” (28) a statement that recalls to me the atmosphere and impact of the art in the Martin McDonagh film In Bruges. Even the lowest and bleakest of souls are not immune to such pervasive and powerful displays of Holy, Heavenly art. The next poem, “Hidden,” continues and expands this theme: “There are hidden angels/everywhere in Tuscany./If you find one keep quiet/and speak of it only to yourself/let meaning turn to whisper” (29).
Given that the Angel and Mary are the lead characters in Dear Mary’s narrative, we have to ask who or what serves as the Mediator between the Spirit and the Flesh. The very act of the Immaculate Conception (real or metaphorical) elevates Mary to near-Spirit, but she is still (and importantly) Flesh. Loydell’s poems and the vast array of paintings out in the world serve as Mediators, but the Reader must function as Mediator as well. I left the  Catholic Church at 21 to become the Mediator of my own experience, rather than relying on priests, nuns, and long-gone prophets.
“How to Say It” uses the Painter as Mediator: “He does not know how to say it,/how to talk about the moment/he has been asked to paint,/so he simply colours the story in” (39). Loydell leaves ample space in his poems for the Reader to do the same.
Let us not confuse “simple” for “easy” here. On some level, even the Writer “colours the story in” with a transcendent element beyond words, if the angels/Muses are kind and the artist remains open to the experience, as Mary was. Extending this metaphor, the Inspiration fills the artist’s vessel like the Savior fills Mary Mater’s womb.
From pages 51 to 59 is a multi-part poem titled “Shadow Tryptych” (“after Francis Bacon”), a rich tapestry of insight on the Vision and Voice of the artist. It sits at the exact midpoint of the collection and serves appropriately as the central Furnace and Core of Dear Mary.
A highlight of the collection is “Alien Abduction.” The nexus of angels/demons and aliens is inescapable to ponder, and Loydell’s well-informed but tongue-and-cheek take will get you smiling while you think.
“How Grey Became” takes us back to color, and keeps you thinking. Loydell writes: “The colour grey is preferred by people who are indecisive;/grey is also the colour of evasion and non-commitment.” He then goes on to say: “Grey is the colour of intellect, knowledge, and wisdom” (65). This latter interpretation is the one I tend to favor. It’s a proposition put forth even further in the Live song “The Beauty of Grey.” As I exist day after day mourning the death of Complexity, I wish there was more grey. More mix. More middle. Given that, perhaps both interpretations work.
“Out of the Picture” is about none other than Joseph. My namesake. The biblical character I have most pondered in my life. Loydell gives him a voice too long in coming. Talk about Complexity…
A more modern take on Mary and Gabriel is “Surveillance System Annunciation.” What if it all was recorded. Would it clarify or even further muddle?
The collection is bookended by two essential pieces.  First is the Preface by Dr. Jim Harris, who is the Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford. I highly recommend taking the time to read it, even if it means reading it after the fact so that your own experiences of the poems are not colored by his insights, sound as they are. 
The collection ends with a Notes section, which illuminates the source material and inspiration for various poems (for instance, “Dear Mary” is assembled from the song lyrics of 11 musical artists and other texts).

Like Catholicism itself, the sources and inspirations that make up Dear Mary are myriad, and the Mystery is left to the Reader as Mediator to ponder.