Catherine Woodward reviews
Monastery of the Moon
by Norbert Hirschhorn
Monastery of the Moon is written in the diasporic tradition of memory and displacement, it is about love and statelessness and the lack of distinction between the two. The collection takes place on a huge multinational and multicultural stage, where Hirschhorn plays out some of the appalling sufferings of man with a sensitivity always poised on the edge of its opposite, never once quashing the nagging anxiety of (non)belonging that the flesh is heir to in all matters of love and politics.
Two quotes from Monastery of the Moon encapsulate the book for me ‘homesick for places unvisited’ (Qaseeda – A Love Song) and ‘I’m lonely as a stone’ (My Thesaurus Amplifies ‘longing’)
There is a lovely streak of foreignness in the imagery, always on the verge of, but ultimately refusing to become familiar ‘Scimitar moon’ ‘curtains furled like gardenias’ ('Lebanon') ‘Outside,/a tropical squall/pummels rice rows/into green obeisance’ ('On a Guesthouse Veranda in Surakarta, Central Java'). The collection is perched precariously on the borderlands at all times.
There is a strong sense of scale and eventually circular movement in this collection, and it gives the impression of being as meticulously professional an object as a clockwork pocket watch. Hirschhorn is a very experienced poet and his experience certainly shows through, this third collection is masterfully written, highly polished, with excellent timing and impeccable sense of balance. The firmness of his style encourages the reader to put their trust completely in the poet, yet there is a wild, unpredictable streak that keeps the experience tantalizingly uncertain. This book speaks authority and well-roundedness, never chaotic, never over eager but constantly threatening to be. Reading it was like watching good contemporary dance.
The almost scientific achievement of this authority was perhaps what stood out most for me in this collection. The nature of its authority is exhaustively masculine, it is deeply rooted in a tradition of writing belonging to male greats and drawing on a deeply masculine style. In the second poem, 'Lebanon', we see nods to Eliot and Celan (‘April’s anemone’, ‘marguerite, friend of the night’) their presence does not dissipate throughout the collection. There is reference to Barthes (‘I exists only in the/moment one writes, I -’) classical allusions, folksiness to the colloquial. Even in the more urban poems there’s a wildness that reminds me of the mysterious deep hill poetry of Kerry Shawn Keys and an aggressive strength that makes me think of Ted Hughes. Something in the balanced madness reminds me of Rilke and the memorial nature of the poems makes them brother to those of George Szirtes. Monastery of the Moon is relentlessly, sternly well-written and well-rooted in its influences. While I was reading this book I described it to someone as a master class in a certain traditional kind of writing and because of that I find it slightly disconcerting. It’s almost too clean, too commanding, too in control, although that’s obviously not going to count for much against it. In fact, I think that this almost oppressive masculinity sits perfectly with the pervading sense of loneliness and alienation which is key to these poems.
As Monastery of the Moon shrinks from the global stage to the intimate stage of man and woman, or more accurately, one man and a number of different women who are failing to be The One Woman, it is hard to resist drawing the comparison between woman and country. While Hirschhorn’s love poems are accomplished and breathtakingly beautiful, the female is none-the-less an unwinnable territory, a country which will never be comprehended or for that matter conquered (‘how long will you say no to me?’ ‘I enter her as into glorious mystery’ 'Qaseeda – a Love Song'). The love poems are so voyeuristic, full of wounded ego and at times self-pity, perfectly appropriate to the horrible sensation of increasing age and impotency which often crops up as the subject of these poems. This colossal collection is as heart-rending as it is politically engaging, it is entirely pervaded by the hopeless, almost solipsistic baroness of an old man; the women, the children, are all perfectly written, masterfully designed pantomimes and puppets. This mastery avails nothing in the shadow of disaster and I think that is the point, in the case of both love and nationality. Crawling out of the debris and the never-ending crowds of refugees to Progress, is a poet in search of a wife/mother/country, whom he will never find to his dismay. It’s horrible and wonderful.
This shrinking from the global to the personal stage gives the collection a very pleasing movement, tying the poems in so well with the enigmatic title of the collection. By that, I mean that the poet’s appalling horror and appalling love for the world appears to drive naturally to a kind of hermitage, the desire for private worship cloistered from chaos, a worship of the Earth/Mother from the sanctuary of the Moon/Female, as if by drawing back, one could move closer to one’s home. You will see the problem(s) here. The impossibility of this hermitage is possibly the great tragedy of this collection and what makes it so deliciously galling.
Monastery of the Moon is an extraordinary expression of love, loneliness and exhaustion. I can’t help wondering though if its masterfulness is also its slight imperfection. The poems were at their most intense just when they seemed about to down tool and wail in the rubble, but composure is always reined in by the right phrase, the right nudge back into place, caught by the net of the title. It’s a frustrating balancing act; but frustration is part of the pleasure. I wanted to see an explosion, but of course I was appropriately denied. The way Hirschhorn can guide the trajectory of the reader’s feelings is really quite admirable.
This is a formidable collection which makes the reader feel a stranger in their own country and in every country for that matter. The desolation in it is appalling but at the same time it contains a fierce love of live, making all aspects of life, catastrophic/peaceful/global/intimate as strange and exotic as a mango.
Catherine Woodward is a young British poet.