A Spectacularly Original Poet: Deirdre Hines reviews ‘Future Pass’ by John Sexton

Futures Pass by John Sexton, Salmon Poetry 2018

futurespassJohn W Sexton has been the poet of the ever evolving speculative/new weird hybrid genre for some considerable time. His latest collection Futures Pass is perhaps the most interesting result of those journeyings. New weird subverts romantic ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, by creating settings that combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. There are few poets daring to enter her landscapes, although some of the more interesting contemporary fiction writers are beckoning from the rims: China Miéville, for instance.

Sexton created another persona from which to write the sixty-nine poems that make up this book. Much of the Romantic poetry of the nineteenth century charted new frontiers in their choice of subject matter. Like one of the original founders of Romanticism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who used the pen-names Gnome, Zagri and Nehemiah Higginbottom, Sexton adopts the singularly arresting Jack Brae Curtingstall as his, and as a technique to counter writer’s block. All of the poems in this collection are a result of that experiment.

Additionally the new frontier that he traverses throughout the course of this experiment is the blogosphere, that place in cyberspace that Sexton believes is ..’ the last democratic frontier of poets..’, and from which he, as he claims in the Introduction subtitled as ‘ Another Anoymous Poet ‘, he would try to change the world. Few poets who wish to be taken seriously want to waste their poems by publishing them on blogs, like Poster Poems, the blog run by the Irish experimentalist poet Billy Mills. In the first instance, publishers are rarely interested in manuscripts that do not contain publishing credits to reputable and respectable magazines or established e-zines,and in the second, most of the poets publishing on blogs are steadfastly anti poetry-estbalishment. This paradoxical place is according to Sexton:

…It is the last truly radical act left to us. It is the ultimate waste of poetry….

Of course, despite Sexton’s assertions that this is a hopeless venture, the power of the paradox lies in its ability to arrest the attention and to provoke fresh thought. And this definition of paradox was proved true as I read and re-read these so-called wasted poems. The nod to Burns in the opening poem ‘ Famous Mice ‘ is clever. The narrator in Burns poem ‘ To a Mouse ‘ is often identified as Burns himself. In ‘ Famous Mice ‘ the poet appears to identify with the mice who punctuated his childhood. Written in sixteen lines, with each mouse punctuated by backslashes, I particularly loved the invoked odour in these lines:

………………………..…………………the one whose bite/
I nibbled from a half biscuit breathing in its rank whiff/
a coconut macaroon a sweet moon/..

The uncertainty about Burns’ status as a Romantic poet as a consequence of his life and literary career preceding the publication of Willam Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, ties in nicely with the blogosphere and its questioning of the poetry establishment. Wry irony is a stylistic feature in many Sexton poems as indeed is the backslash which he uses as punctuation and as a way of addressing the past. Cats are a strong presence too in the Sextonian landscape, of which ‘ Some Feral Prosodic Felines of the Eighteen-Hundreds ‘ looks at the antipathy between Byron and Keats, imagining Byron’s invective as a bag of cats emanating from the nobleman’s scrotum. Keats was advised that poetry was the provenance of noblemen such as Byron, and dismissed as a ‘ Cockney ‘ poet. Although Byron did come to recognize Keats’ talent, their differences are best explained in this extract of a letter from John Keats to his brother George in September 1819.

.. You speak of Lord Byron and me-There is this great difference between us. He
describes what he sees- I describe what I imagine-Mine is the hardest task. 

Sexton has a similar approach, and I , a long time fan of everything Coleridgean, particularly loved the poem ‘ Southey Visits the Coleridges, 1803 ‘. The poem has a small epigraph from another letter, this time one from the poet Robert Southey to Charles Danver, expressing his wonder at the poet’s son, Hartley. Father son poems are so much a truism one could be forgiven for not expecting much from them. What is refreshingly different here is the arresting handling of an image, and of an uncharted exploration of symbiosis between the two:

…Why, it’s a ringlet butterfly, Hartley!”
“No, papa; a map of the future sky.”
And thus it goes on, Coleridge and his son,
an adult and an infant mind at one.

Sonnets are scattered throughout the collection, nine in all, and it is from one of these that the book takes its title. ‘ Futures Pass ‘ elaborates on the poet’s experience of reading the pop-up book The Melting God of LSD. LSD once denoted English money in pre-decimalisation days. The sonnet elaborates on the psychedelic experience of taking the drug in the following lines from the beginning of the third quatrain;

… Pull Me, Pull Me, and we pull it out, out
from the pages…

The influence of Blake is possibly the strongest of all the Romantic poets, and is evident here. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception  explores his psychedelic experience under the influence of mescaline in May 1953. The book takes its title from a phrase in Blake’s 1793 poem ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ -‘ If the doors of perception were cleaned everything would appear to man as if it is/ Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern’. Sexton too is attempting to open up perceptions. The title Futures Pass  is a loaded one, reminding the reader of a paradox of time travel, known as a casual loop. A casual loop occurs when a future event is the cause of a past event, which in turn is the cause of the future event. Both events then exist in spacetime, but their origin caannot be determined. A casual loop may involve an event, a person or object, or information. In this case, the casual loop appears to be poetry itself, and in particular a type of re-invented poetry with a Romantic twist. These poems could not exist without the poems of the Romantic past and their thematic concerns, and in the paradoxical tradition of the casual loop, these poems are also the cause of Romanticism itself, in its reverence for rebellion, its interest in the past (esp. Medieval),its interest in the supernatural and the occult, an antiquarian fascnation with old songs and its idealization of nature, women and children. It is quite frankly a brilliant conceit, which reveals new meanings on each re-read. In many ways, Sexton reminds me of a mischeivous alchemist. The collection is littered with lyrics, of which my favourite has to be the excellently executed villanelle ‘So Soflty Into Light’. The repeating refrain ;

The dawn will burn the darkest smouldering light

and

Love will tread so softly into light 

is mesmeric and haunts the ear.

Humour in a Sexton poem is puckish, and nowhere more so than in the prose poem ‘A Note to Any Woman Considering Making Advances upon This Poet’. Sexton advises against any would be wooers as he is ‘ betrothed to a princess of the Slua Sí ‘ (faery ) and as he lives in a ‘ thin sally hazel ‘ guarded by a vicious sprite and a tar-furred hound who guard the southern and northern doors of the said hazel, any trespassers will be enthralled by the sprite and made mad by the dog’s spit. I loved its last line-

…Occasionally I leave the dwelling here, to attend perhaps a poetry reading, usually in
some disguise or other and often in the form of a stoat .

When Sexton writes an elegy whether it be one in memory of Harold Norse, the expatriate artist of the Beat generation or in memory of Neda Agha-Soltan, the first casualty of the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009 and who was shot down by a sniper in the street, he tells it like Dickinson at a slant. In the first instance Harold Norse moves backwards and forwards through time with the aid of a crow’s feather , and in the second he focuses on the piano that she ordered before she died and whose music cannot be silenced.

In the Afterword that closes the collection and that is titled ‘The Untruth of Poetry’ ( by Jack Brae Curtingstall ) he maintains that he is the ‘ poet of a poet’ making him a poem. Sexton sees The Kingdom of Poetry as being a circular mountain, another casual loop if you will, and he divides the said Kingdom into ten terraces, of which he believes himself to be on Terrace 7, the Foothills of slippery sheep-shit, from which he can enjoy the vista of the thirty years he spent travelling through the Wilderness ,

which looks quite magnificent now that I am no longer in it.

Fortunately for us, this spectacularly original poet has not given up or evaporated, and we can look forward to more poems from the poem that is John W. Sexton.

 – Deirdre Hines

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Deirdre Hines is an award winning poet and playwright. Her first book of poems The Language of Coats was published by New Island Books in 2012, and includes the poems which won The Listowel Poetry Collection 2011. New poems have appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, The Bombay Review, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Abridged, Crannóg, The Honest Ulsterman, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Boyne Berries, Elsewhere (USA), and The Lake. She was shortlisted for The Bridport Poetry Prize ( 2020). Her reviews of poetry have appeared in PN Review, Sabotage, and Riggwelter. She worked as a Community Worker with the Travellers for eleven years, and studied Aboriginal Performing Arts in Sydney University under Dr. Drid Williams. Her first play, Energies was performed in Sydney as part of Interplay in 1989. Howling Moons, Silent Sons won The Stewart Parker Award and was perfomed in The Peacock Theatre.

Future Pass is available from https://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=472&a=244