Wednesday, 19 December 2018

A review of Bragr, Poems by Ross Cogan (Seren, 2018)

Bragr, Poems by Ross Cogan (Bridgend: Seren, 2018)

After his review of The Song Weigher, we are delighted to welcome back Brian McMahon to assess another recent addition to the growing collection of work featuring or inspired by Old Norse poetry. A poem from Bragr was featured as a Weekly Poem recently, and you can read it here.

Bragr, the title of Ross Cogan's new collection, is the Old Norse word for poetry; and although the forty-five poems presented here are all written in English, the more of the collection you read the more this unifying epithet proves to be singularly appropriate. In recent years there has been a spate of revisionist retellings of the Old Norse myths, drawing in particular on three medieval sources: the Prose EddaPoetic Edda and Völsunga Saga. Modern versions of these ancient stories have included A. S. Byatt's Ragnarök (2011), Joanne Harris' The Gospel of Loki (2014) and Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology (2017). What Cogan attempts is less overt than each of these, but in several ways more ambitious: to capture and appropriate something of the majesty of these wild and rough-hewn stories, rather than simply to make of them a coherent and cohesive narrative.

Although Cogan writes in English, many of the cadences, rhythms and characteristics of Old Norse poetry pervade this collection. At times these are deliberately made to jar with intrusive references to the modern world, such as when the pagan god Baldr (Cogan prefers the Old Norse spelling to the modern anglicised 'Baldur') is tormented by prophetic nightmares and receives comforts both ancient and modern: 'Odin cast the runes | over me. They tried me on Prozac, | Zoloft, Luvox, Lexapro and Paxil' ('Baldr's Dreams'). The same jarring effect is repeated in the poem 'Kvasir's Blood' which revisits the story of the murder of Kvasir whose blood is drained from his body, leaving him to appear, to modern eyes, 'like a leaking lilo'.

The result of this economical but repeated contrasting of ancient and modern is to confer on the collection a sense of timelessness through which different mythologies, philosophies and perspectives are conflated and condensed. In the first section of the book, 'The beginning', which consists of seventeen poems, Cogan draws his imagery variously from Old Norse myth, from modern cosmology, from Christianity and from Daoism to generate a sense of transcendent universality. These are poems which reward the curious reader, who will whittle away at their rugged exteriors to extract the nuggets of wisdom and profundity which they encase. Cogan overtly encourages this approach by opening his creation narrative with the compound noun image of 'Onething' ('The beginning') – simultaneously the logos, whatever fuelled the big bang, the void, and the concentrated potential for the universe. It is a deft and assured beginning; from the moment 'Onething' fragments the reader is sent hurtling with ever increasing momentum through a cornucopia of legends, a bestiary, a conflation of past and present ages, to the inevitable climax of Ragnarök, the apocalyptic extinction event which once more eliminates all distinctions between matter ('The sea gives up its dead', 'The wolves eat the sun') and leaves us back where we began. The final poem in the collection, 'Wreath', ends on a note of hope as the cycle of life survives even this epic catastrophe: its closing imprecation being, 'that this sad, small, withered and wilting wreath | might be a charm against, or cure for, death.'

There is so much to admire in the collection. Cogan's willingness to preserve the fragmentary Norse myths intheir fragmentary state, and not to impose some new narrative structure or interpretative schemaon them (an interfering editorial practice which goes right back to the writings of the thirteenth century antiquarian Snorri Sturluson), allows them to retain that inaccessible, mystical rawness which so entranced authors like William Morris and Walter Scott. Cogan makes no attempt to explain the actions of the gods either in metaphysical or human terms. The fourth poem in the collection, 'Ash', begins with an assertive cadence which Viking Age listeners would have recognised clearly: 'From a downed tree spread-eagled on the beach | Odin carved a man.' Why did he do this? What is the association, then, between men and trees? Are we to infer a link between men and the world-tree, 'flourishing, suffering Yggdrasil', later mentioned in the same poem? Cogan does not tell us. The alien unknowability of Odin is thus preserved in all its ancient grandeur.

Other habits of the Old Norse poets are also manifested in Cogan's writing, notably his occasional propensity to mirror the alliterative conventions of medieval Germanic poems, which he does sparingly so as to suggest a distant lineage rather than a direct relationship between his work and its ancient inspiration. Thus in 'Time thaws' we read that 'Black Surt sat | and still sits, safe in his rock-like hide'. The same device repeats at the end of the poem: 'Can you hear a tick, ticking, | an urgent tap, water on stone?' Here the wording and the alliteration conspire together to remind us of the inevitable progress of time, the unrelenting and unstoppable march towards the prophesied end. This preoccupation with the ineluctable nature of fate is a staple theme in Norse mythology, and Cogan returns to it in 'Idun' when he describes the apples of eternal youth which 'will tame time | dam up minutes, redirect ruffling days | down other courses'. Here the alliterative pulse tells a different story from the one the poem is overtly expressing; the apples may stop time in its tracks for an interval, but the final reckoning is no less avoidable in spite of all the gods may do to prevent it – even by 'fold[ing] space in time's amber', a gloriously evocative image from the bathetically named poem 'Aurendil's toe' (possibly a myth-derived moniker for the pole star, as Cogan explains in his brief and helpful end notes).

The middle section of the collection, 'Bestiary' is the least grand in scope but possibly the most arresting in terms of ideas and imagery. We are introduced, in sequence, to bees, a calf, a chicken, ducks, goats, a hare, lizards, moths, an otter, a pheasant, a pigeon, a rat, ravens, a seagull, snakes, a swan and a toad. Each poem in this sequence it taut and visceral, embodying the organic nature of these birds and beasts in contrast to the more ephemeral, transcendent first and third sections of Bragr ('The beginning' and 'Ragnarök'). One of the most effective recurring motifs likens the lives and deaths of these animals to the lives and deaths of stories, which are exhumed and, in some sense, resurrected through re-telling. Here is the motif as expressed in 'Pigeon': 'When we untie | fossils from the layers of shale amid | which they've waited like phrases in a book | that's what they show: those granite lines; that look.' The connection between animals and stories is all the more insistent when we recall that the parchment upon which medieval poems were ingrained was manufactured from animal hides. This fact is not lost on Cogan, as witness the opening line of 'And the rest': 'The poem wounds the page.'

This is an exciting, dynamic collection which reaches for the spirit more than the sense of these foundational Old Norse myths. It is playful at times, but consistently vivid, insistent, forceful and muscular. It is a collection which rewards re-reading and is loath to render up all its secrets to the reader's casual glance. A powerful piece of work.

Brian McMahon is a teacher and academic based in Oxford. His DPhil in Old Norse Literature explored the figure of the itinerant storyteller in eddic and saga literature.