When I picked up a copy of The Extasie, by John Gallas I was slightly trepidatious, as I felt it might be just another hackneyed attempt to link subpar, romantic inclined, poetry to those Elizabethan greats. However, John Gallas is not merely a lyric master, but a master of meaning, for each of these poems has the sincerity of an unread love letter.
It is very rare to read such poetry, for normally such clear love is saved for a most select audience, or is clearly solicited through such clichéd language that you come to believe that the only love is for the next commission.
It is also vital to remember that a love poem, need not be consumed with its subject, and can instead approach love obliquely through memories of the everyday. Perhaps every day is a poor choice of words on my behalf, as such a view of the world takes a deep connection and astute eye.
This is a world in which humanity is surrounded by and enthral to the natural world. As such the natural world might be ever-present, but it does not distract from the clear sense of love, for it mirrors and records the inner soul, more faithfully than any speech of analytical introspection ever could.
Some of these poems might at a glance be read as if they had little to do with love. Yet as you read on, or go back over the poem, the essence of meaning becomes clear. The stream of emotion that flows, with shifting currents and the occasional eddy, throughout this collection ensures that the craft of understanding is carried steadily to where Gallas wishes.
It is this sense of flow that captivated me. I cannot actually remember where I was when I read the collection, but I do remember the feeling of being drawn onwards as if I would lose something, some intangible uncountable aspect of meaning if I stopped before the designed place. Perhaps I could overstretch the stream metaphor I used before and conceptualise that feeling as the feeling one might have when sailing unforgiving waters, unable to resist the thalweg without capsizing until a safe mooring is found.
Of course, it is not just some ineffable sense of flow that is worth noting (although for something ineffable I really have managed to ramble for a good paragraph). The poems have a chronological link that provides a narrative. This narrative does not quite fall as a whole, for the collection is broken into two sections, which naturally demark a changing of tone and form.
It is always a very pleasant surprise to find a collection of poems that feels like there is a thread binding the totality together, as normally there are numerous errant poems which for all their inherent worth feel like extraneous sprinkles upon the unified cake that the rest of the collection is.
However, in this collection, no poem is truly errant. Instead, there are a few that act just as eddies in a stream, that is they are powered by the main flow but are driven to change cause for a moment. Without them, it would be a rather effective but ultimately generic collection. Love might have an inexorable pull to it, but it rarely runs without a few juddering separations, steps back and unexpected highs.
That sense of flow, combined with the complexities of love, is also reflected in the form used. This is not a collection of overly constrained poems, pressing at the seams of rigid form. Yet it is not an amorphous blob of free form poetry, for it uses form to heighten the content, altering the form and style to best suit the ideas contained within. In this way, the collection is closer to the poems of Wyatt and Donne than the formulaic mimicry of Elizabethan poetry that you so often see, which clings to a sense of structure that was never more than a frame around which to weave beauty.
But it is not just the form that is so skilfully deployed, the diction and lineation, create poems that just need to be spoken. Now I find that with poetry it is always best to get a feel for how the words feel on your tongue, and so like to at the least mutter away to myself, if not read the poems right out aloud. This provides a little silver lining to having to wear masks on public transport, for masks neatly hide those moving lips and so avoid the normal reticence of being seen muttering alone on the train.
In this case, I feel it is not just good to read them aloud, but almost imperative, for in speaking you must become party to the action of the words and so, for a moment, ventriloquize the poetic voice, with its emotions and lyric sensibility. As such The Extasie is a collection that I feel I will be coming back to frequently, not just to recapture the enjoyment I had when first reading it, but also to fully bathe in the complex understanding of love in all its forms, rendered so skilfully in poems that reward a second reading with subtle epiphanies.