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Curtal sonnet on the curtal sonnet

In crystal, snowflakes, frost, a tight-furled
  sunflower’s spiral of hulls, a floret
    of broccoli’s fractal beauty, such arrays
and iterations! O baroque arranger of the world,
  clockmaster, maker of matryoska, in secret
    patterning stem, seed, atom, say

that at the heart, the carpel core of the familiar
  flower—red rose of Petrarch’s sonnet,
    petals plucked but golden ratio obeyed—
a figure pf the whole, itself self-similar,

(Reprinted with kind permission)

The golden ratio (phi) represented as a line d...

The golden ratio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Commodore Amiga changed my view of nature. In the ’80s, a vivid imagination was required to enjoy playing video games. The blocky graphics and garish colours resembled nothing in nature but, if you screwed up your eyes and wished, then those now endearingly retro graphics would open up onto verdant vistas of imagination. One day, visiting a flush mate’s house, I clapped eyes on the Amiga. In that computer the faltering first steps yielded to a new generation, a generation which rendered delicately shaded mountain peaks wreathed in skeins of cloud. How? Iterated algorithms baby. Fractals. These graphics weren’t just better, they were easier. If a computer’s given a simple formula to crunch and, if it’s crunched often enough, then a cloud or a mountain is just maths. It’s like Thomasina tells her tutor, Septimus, in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: ‘Each week I plot your equations dot for dot, xs against ys in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God’s truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? Do we believe nature is written in numbers?’ Yet again, while the world thought him mad, Blake was right all along: ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.’

SunFlower: the Fibonacci sequence, Golden Section

SunFlower: the Fibonacci sequence, Golden Section (Photo credit: lucapost)

And so it’s difficult not to love the curtal sonnet, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ¾ reduction of the Petrarchan sonnet, a miniaturization of nature that distills it to its essence like a fine single malt. It’s an uncommon form so, when Osmond’s layout replicates that of Pied Beauty, you’d be forgiven for anticipating an apprentice piece from a journeyman poet. Not so. Osmond’s curtal sonnet sounds its theme in its first few words: ‘In crystal, snowflakes.’ The snowflake under the microscope offers an epiphany of the infinite as, at high magnification, each node and arm offers a vertiginous journey into yet more nodes and arms. Viewed like this, nature’s taskmistress is the Golden Section and art and nature converge in the hands of the ‘baroque arranger of the world.’ Osmond’s curtal sonnet is far from a pale homage. Our incessant miniaturization of gadgets and computing power makes this poem feel necessary, somehow. Hell, even the key mathematical term gets a name check in the ‘broccoli’s fractal beauty.’ This poem may be playful and exuberant, it may wink cheekily at the past but Osmond’s vision requires the curtal sonnet. No other form would fit the bill (and this poem demands form). This vision of the infinite sounds the keynote for this pamphlet, as its main poem, ‘The Fire in the Cottonian Library,’ this time inspired by Hopkins’ ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland,’ treads similar ground as it asks its anguished ‘why?’

lewes bonfire night 2013

Lewes bonfire night, 2013 (Photo credit: http://heatherbuckley.co.uk)

‘The Fire in the Cottonian Library’ takes as its subject the conflagration that licked at the margins of Beowulf as Ashburnham House burned in 1731. The collection’s class marks were referenced against the busts of the classical figures that topped the shelves and so, as Nero once fiddled, he witnesses it again: ‘The Lord alone can tell / what secrets smoke away under Nero’s / bust. As Rome roared once before the ill-reputed // Emperor’s eyes, / again a spark takes hold / beneath his blank stone stare and rises / to consume the corridors, the old / fuel-filled labyrinthine city of forgotten lore.’ It’s beautiful stuff, as Rome’s ‘roar’ is at once both the wind of the firestorm and a city pulsing with life. Fire’s both destroyer and essential force as, once again, behind the Emperor’s eyes, ‘a spark takes hold.’ Just as the Cottonian fire reanimates Nero, dragons fly again as the Lindisfarne Gospels glow in the heat: ‘a dragon came / to Lindisfarne, we read, / loosed, fantastic, from illuminates frame / into the real, thunderous, by Bede. / Brutal-winged, wind-beating beast! / Riot, roar and fire! Fear-fed relic of Viking raids, / nightmare of the North by Noretheast / too cruel, without mythic cloak, in chronicle to name, // it flies again, flitting / on an updraft, drifting. The scrap of hand-drawn / well-scribed script’s stipped back and, swirling, / furls – a flaming sun at dawn.’

Faith never came easily to Hopkins. Far from it, as Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves attests. This goliath of a sonnet comes close to breaking the form under its weight of groaning, as Hopkins was racked by his long dark night of the soul. However, The Wreck of the Deutschland sees him in brighter mood, as God salvages something from the otherwise senseless loss of the Deutschland: ‘is the shipwreck then a harvest, / does the tempest carry the grain for thee?’ Osmond grapples with the opposite: the senseless destruction of beauty: ‘Why, God? Why? Why / grant the lower lyric licence / to pass, past to present, but deny / the right of the unrhymed, dense- / ly alliterative half line to life, and let it die unleafed?’ Well, if poems of this calibre are anything to go by, then the pulse of poetry past throbs in the humble veins of our contemporaries. Conservatism in the arts does no-one any good. We cannot believe that humanity’s best work is behind us and that all that’s left is to re-read Dante and Shakespeare — not that there’d be anything wrong with doing this. Poetry of the calibre of Variant Air should give us hope for the future and, if we keep reading, then nothing will be lost.

Buy Variant Air from HappenStance Press