A Review of Beyond This Dark House by Guy Gavriel Kay
by Melissa Mutrux
From the “witched womb of night,” whose images resonate throughout Beyond This Dark House, Guy Gavriel Kay shapes a sense of the mystery (and the mysteries) that pervade our everyday lives. In his poems, we see an engagement with history – not only cultural history, but personal and mythic as well – and the ways in which that history continuously returns, seeping into the present. Memory and loss become prevalent themes in understanding the self and how the past informs the lives we lead in poems like “Night Drive: Elegy” and “Naiad.” What ties each of the poems in the collection together is a common thread of love: for past and current lovers, for family, for literature and place. And if, as the speaker of the “Night Call” tell us, “[w]e have so far to go into what there is of light,” Kay’s poetry, lyrical, subtle, and elegant, lays down a path that guides readers on the journey to get there.
The “ghosts [that] water the night/ lawns, [and] rake leaves under stars” in the opening poem, “Night Drive: Elegy,” echo and recur in various forms throughout the collection. Though, here, they are the ghosts of old neighbors who engage in something as mundane as watering the lawn and raking leaves, the suggestive line break gives us an image of “ghosts water[ing] the night,” three touchstones (ghosts and loss; water, specifically the sea; and moonlit or starlit nights) that Kay comes back to again and again. Here, the ghosts are not only those of neighbors, but also of the boy he was, so “[p]roud, anxious not to show it” as he accompanied his father to “rounds at the hospital,” of the city of his youth, and especially of his father, who was killed in Florida “along the coastal highway/ in too much twilight.” The depth and the inescapable nature of that loss comes through in the repeated references to cars and streets, until the lines, “[t]here seems to be no crossing of streets/ tonight where I can avoid/ hitting my father or myself” become poignantly weighted with sorrow and memory. The last lines of the poem frame a statement that can apply to all the poems about the past, lost loves, the figures of history and mythology that all have “more years and more years/ and more long years of being gone/ still to come.”
And yet the seductiveness and beauty of sorrow is also present, particularly in “Being Orpheus,” which recasts the myth of Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice with an artist’s understanding. In the poem, it is not simply in impatience or doubt that Orpheus looks back despite the inhibition against it that will cost him his wife, but rather because of “a song./ With words of loss to gather even Sirens/ Into stillness and the harrowing of grief,/ And a music that had never been before.// A music that had never been before.” The music that sings of the “harrowing of grief” is there in Kay’s poems, and that harrowing leads to the light, love, and compassion we see in the collection. The poem shifts fluidly between pronouns – he, I, we – implying such identification between the poet and Orpheus (and between the reader and Orpheus as well) that separation becomes impossible; we learn what it is “Being Orpheus” and come to realize that our choices are always complicated and that even the misunderstood or bad choices are sometimes necessary because “what choice had been his?/ Or ours, who follow after?” All of us, the poem suggests, live without the ability to “reach behind ourselves” for reassurance and therefore can only go forward into the “breaking light.”
The same compassion is shown to Guinevere, Medea, the Lady of Shalott, Pan, Psyche. In a mix of third-person narratives and persona poems, Kay redefines the mythology that marks our culture, so that even Cain can want “to weep, and lose himself in regret,” but instead “retreat[s] to the field” for the sake of children who will go “west to where Eden/ was not any more.” And “Guinevere at Almesbury” reveals how a “kingdom/ broke” not because of betrayal or infidelity but because “[w]e cannot be other than we are.” These mythic figures return again and again in the collection, and they bring their history (and a bit of magic) into the modern, everyday world.
The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the remarkable is clearest in poems like “Wine,” where the lights, curtained windows, and a woman’s laughter make small impressions in the night. Although the speaker knows that, “[i]n the morning, the council houses/ will be small, curtains drab,/ women harried and wan,” the town can also be transformed:
But in fog-weighted night
the rush of tires
is a rushing of waves,
and unseen laughter
and releases them.
Something as ordinary as the “rush of tires” is made into the sound of the sea, and the fog shows us the mystery and sense of wonder to be found in our otherwise “drab” lives. It is that wonder, in spite of (and sometimes because of) our sorrow and loss that leads us to seek out the light, whether that light be found in love, compassion, or the consolation of art. Although the speaker in “A Few Leaves” says, “[i]n the process of recovery/ we learn how much was lost,” very little is lost in Kay’s poems. In Beyond This Dark House, our ghosts are never far, we can find understanding for even disgraced figures of our mythic past, and, in doing so, we can learn something of the compassion we need to show ourselves and others in order to see the “mysteries” that form the “centre of/ all turning things.”