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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Jason Lee, Seeing Galileo


Jason Lee's Seeing Galileo is a provocative and complex book that combines essays, poetry, photography and drama. Although not a poetry of simple, affective feeling, it intellectually examines the relationship between traditional (religious or literary) and modern (scientific or photographic) ways of looking at the human world.

Seeing Galileo is published by Gylphi, a specialist arts and humanities publisher. The discount code GALILEO2010 will entitle readers to a discount of 10% when you order your copy of Seeing Galileo online from http://www.gylphi.co.uk/galileo before 31 December 2010.


In his essay on "The Metaphysical Poets," T.S. Eliot lamented the "dissociation of sensibility," a sundering of thinking from feeling in poetry that, he said, began with Milton. In the earlier, metaphysical poetry, simple language and clear metaphor are sufficient to teach us what the poem is supposed to be about. Like falling in love, or the smell of cooking, one simply knows deep in the gut what is signified by the affective qualities of the poem when one reads. Milton, however, whilst a master of diction, triumphed and influenced with a "dazzling disregard of the soul." His poetry appeals not to the nervous system but to the mind; it is a poetry of ratiocination, of an intellectual tussle with allusion and politics.

It is clearly ironic to find one of the most intellectual of twentieth-century poets railing against just these facets of his seventeenth-century predecessor. And, of course, we now recognise as dutiful postmoderns that we can never simply feel the emotion a poem is trying to make in isolation from the background noise of culture: other poems, our personal experiences, historical knowledge - all inevitably affect the way we both feel and think about a poem.

The same is true of our knowledge of how history itself is always contaminated by culture, so that what did happen in empirical time is somehow less significant than what might have happened in our subjective interpretation of past events. Historians, for example, argue inconclusively about whether, sometime during his 1638-39 tour of Europe, Milton, who would later rewrite the story of the Biblical creation in accordance with radically new political circumstances, met up with Galileo, who would rewrite the cosmology of creation in accordance with the new sciences. The poems in Jason Lee's Seeing Galileo, a book that must surely be described as postmodern, start from the possibility that such an encounter could have taken place. Milton might or might not have met Galileo, who was looking forward and outward through his telescope even as Milton looked backward and inward to the Bible; but regardless of the factual events, their very possibility provokes us to think about the way in which we can see the modern world they helped to inaugurate through many different lenses: through poetry, through drama, through photography, through history, and through all of these forms in a shifting kaleidoscope of conjunctions.

Seeing Galileo is thus more than a book of poems. It is framed, for example, by a brief historical essay on Milton and Galileo, and closed by a bibliography; as with the footnotes to Eliot's The Waste Land, we are reminded that poetry can be an academic as well as an affective encounter. There are two short plays or dialogues amidst the poems. Finally, there are striking black and white photographs of Florence or Pisa set alongside the poems themselves.

I am reminded here of Positives, Thom Gunn's book of poems about northern England, which are accompanied by grainy landscape photographs taken by his brother, Anders. Photojournalism is a media that is most obviously grounded in a sense of place, yet whilst in Gunn's work the poems and images harmonise on the same geographical subject matter, in Lee's the photographs place the poems differently to how we might if we read them blind. For example, the opening poem of the collection, "Technicalities," asks:

Where have all the lost birds gone, have they vanished
Like lost poets in libraries, hunting commas

As originally deleted pigeons, cooing sunken names
In our mothers' gardens, as a Prufrockian move

On the words alone, we might be surprised by the disjunction of the natural and the technological, as if pigeons (like punctuation on a computer) can be simply "deleted" from the world. However, the poem is contrasted with a photograph of an Italian statue, which one imagines is looking out onto some cobbled plaza. Since the photograph is what our attention is first drawn to, this frames the metaphors on the page; now it is hard to read about vanishing pigeons without thinking also of the romantic image of some suddenly departing flock, clearing the camera as if in a Fellini film. At the same time, the self-consciousness that results from putting visual images against verbal ones reminds that this is just my way of seeing things. Whilst the metaphors and ideas in the poems will undoubtedly be affected by the proximity of the photographs, they will do so differently for different readers and viewers. This, perhaps, is one way in which the legacy of Milton and Galileo comes through, since their encounter marks a bifurcation point between the traditional and the new, the literary and the technological perspectives through which the world can be examined. History progresses by paradigm shifts, a long-established idea (such as religion) always being at risk of radical upset (such as by Enlightenment science), and the same in microcosm is true of poems that are ostensibly inspired by history and religion, which we know we read differently because of the images that oppose them.

Even without the images, though, there is a sense of a cultivated arbitrariness in the writing that makes interpretation a slippery, even irrelevant act. Form is in tension with content, there is a dissociation of the poem's verbal effects from any meaning we are to try and deduce. Take the title work, "Seeing Galileo I":

he carved me some corneas
from babies' glasses, glass babies
the undersea grass's, see: serpent belly
moulded me, a Pinky brain, like Pinky

you knew the record, the world, was stuck
your ideas never too soon; Picasso faced;
the myopic.

The internal rhyme here plays a nicely reflective trick, mirrored around that comma between "glasses" and "glass." But what does it all mean? The apostrophe in "grass's," when we might expect "grasses," forces us to try to decipher the syntax, returning to the preceding line to work out what belongs to the "undersea grass's." Reconstructing the possessive apostrophe leads us to conclude that an undersea grass (not that such a thing can be singular) owns glass babies (whatever these are). The poetry continually sets up a line of thought, urged on by repetitions, internal rhymes, and alliteration, only to cut it off or deny it without warning. In the final couple of above-quoted lines, for example, we come up against the barrier of a semicolon, when we might want to read it as an ordinary statement: "Picasso faced the myopic."

Of course, as the illogical quality implies, to decipher them is to respond to the poems in a way they don't intend. F.R. Leavis complained of Paradise Lost that "mere orotundity is a disproportionate part of the whole effect"; Milton cannot say simply what might be said more circumlocutorily. Paradise Lost, though, has a didactic subject at its heart; we understand he is trying to teach us something about God, but this fundamental lesson is often concealed behind rather than elucidated by his difficult form. The historical frame of Seeing Galileo might similarly suggest that Galileo and Milton are to be the primary focus of the work, which all the poems look towards. But in a multimedia collection like Seeing Galileo, we would be wrong to think we need to unpick the snarl of syntax to find out precisely what is being said about Galileo and Milton in their own right. Rather than meaning, it is the form which matters here, and in which we must seek any inheritance of these two figures: the medium here is the message; or, to put it in Eliot's terms, we must try to feel the poem's values in the gut, not deconstruct the significance of the words with the mind.

The poems present a flickering film reel of images, often drawing on the corporeal iconography of Biblical apocalypse: breasts, blood, hair, tongues and, of course, eyes; torture, pain, suffering and a marginal kind of redemption. The short play at the end, "The Four Minute Warning," presided over by a fresco of God looking over the concentric rings of the universe, confirms that the major theme of the book is not historical but modern, a vision of a dangerously liminal world that has been deprived of the religious narratives that explain existence, and which is thus on the brink of self-annihilation. In his introductory essay Lee argues that "Scientific discourse demanded the elimination of the observer, with the absolute conception of reality through a description of things as they would be in our absence. Not only was God now unnecessary, but so was the human. We still feel the impact of this today." Rather than looking at Milton and Galileo through a historical perspective, it is this view from nowhere - an erasure of the human implied by the science that Galileo helped to develop, but also perhaps by Milton's religious transcendence - to which Lee's poems bear witness. Although all the poems allude to both popular culture and religious imagery (witness the aforementioned "Pinky brain" in a poem which also discusses Mary, Catholicism and the New Jerusalem), the book seems to be roughly divided in two, with the more explicitly Biblical or mythical subject matter ("The Feast of St. Agatha," two "Seeing Galileo" poems, "Craven") dealt with before a division entitled "Umbilical - 13 original sins." From here onwards, the poems offer snapshots into particularly modern crises. Perhaps Galileo severs the umbilical cord connecting man to the foundational myths of origin secured by the Church, from which point on he is left alone to find his moral cues.

Certainly, there is a sense of nostalgia for the lost structure of religion, a retrospective resentment which is thus partly Miltonic in its nature. A woman in "The Smear Test" is:

Crushed behind the wheel
Thirteen days overdue now
She splutters
To meet you

And as she drives over the Yorkshire moors:

The biker snakes about her
Slithers then shatters on tar
Placenta plummeting to earth

But against this nihilistic vision, the poem concludes by hopefully gesturing to:

all of us
To believe in the reason
For belief

Lest this seem merely depressing, though, there is comedy throughout the collection as well, brought about by some strange conjunctions. The poem "The Sic-Com" has a gloriously anarchistic air, each three line stanza seeming to listen in to the inane background chatter of television amidst serious human experience:

Hi ho hi ho
Sing TV dwarfs
To the girl with cerebral palsy

Set against a photograph of a fresco featuring women blinded and bitten by snakes, the juxtaposition here of the trivial and the humanitarian suggests a moral cue. Would it be better to have a religious narrative to explain or contextualise disability? Or is the Bible itself a source of vindictive violence done to the body without purpose? But if the latter, isn't it better that at least this has inspired art, rather than the insipid noise of a cartoon?

But I drift towards meaning again, in a poetry collection which resists conclusions through its formal disruptiveness. I cannot help but note, however, the challenge of some of the allusions - which, set against Milton, seem to expect a similarly knowledgeable reader. I am not he. Is it a mark of my ignorance that I ask about the reference to "Melchizedek's manuscripts" or ponder a "Fassbinder strategy of distanciation"? Have I missed something on my Lake District holidays, by failing to spot "Cumbria's Carmel Temple"? Maybe so. But the adjectivisation "a Prufrockian move" certainly has the tone of an undergraduate who wants to sound clever, rather than a writer who expects his readers to make the metaphorical connection between the word and the thing it alludes to. What exactly constitutes a Prufrockian move? A game of chess, perhaps?

The poetry seem to be an exercise in intellectual acuity, but also tests the reader's willingness to dissociate sense or meaning from sensibility. The poems are embedded in a book that is designed to draw attention to the processes by which our understanding of poetry is framed, whether by photographs or by being situated against a historical event that may not have actually happened. Likewise the poems themselves make no claims to a final, objective truth. Instead, we must read for feeling rather than for thinking, allow the loosely-structured metaphors, images, allusions and ideas simply to wash over us.

As a formalist, Eliot would no doubt have disapproved of this book - even if one can imagine his hand scribbling notes in the margins as he identifies the allusions. However, as an innovative endeavour to pitch poetry and photographs, essays and drama, into one volume, it accords with the mantra of Eliot's contemporary, Ezra Pound, making poetry anew, even if it does not make for the easiest of reading, or the simplest of meanings.

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This page was published on December 17, 2010 | Keywords: Seeing Galileo, Milton, poetry, Jason Lee

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