Rarely does one come across a book that is both intensely ‘literary’ – stylised, sophisticated, deeply engaged with its antecedents – and achingly moving, so viscerally raw that it takes one’s breath away. A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina – an elegy-sequence for Tina Kane, to whom Paul Kane was married for thirty-six years – is such a work.
Kane’s use of the ghazal is an inspired choice. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1965) notes that the ghazal is an Arabian form that brings together the amorous, the elegiac, and the mystical, all elements central to A Passing Bell. Kane does not use the monorhyme of the traditional ghazal (aa ba ca, and so on), but the repeating twelve-line structure that he employs gives form to the poems’ intense expressions of grief.
Tina Kane – who died of motor neurone disease in 2015 – was a conservator in textile conservation at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. She was also a textile consultant, writer, translator, and critic. (ABR published a late poem of hers in December 2014.) The word ‘text’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘tissue’ and ‘woven fabric’. Kane does not belabour the link between his work and that of his late wife’s, but it is movingly apparent: ‘You knew the way of working, Tina, how – in your hands – / the smallest thread could ravel up the world’. The image of shared work, and a shared life, runs throughout the collection, and its loss produces a melancholically repetitive process of ravelling and unravelling: ‘There are threads of you everywhere I go because they hang off me, barely visible. / Tug at one and I unravel. But then, every morning, I gather myself together’ (Ghazal 109).
The importance of the loss of mutual activity is seen in the way the poems repeatedly stage the poet’s grief within the domestic sphere. The Kanes’ houses and gardens (in North America and Australia) figure throughout the collection. One of the exceptional features of A Passing Bell is the way in which its rich domestic imagery exists in both abstract and concrete realms. The flower motifs may call to mind the laying of flowers on the dead in pastoral elegy (just as the references to drunkenness call to mind that conventional motif in the ghazal), but Kane’s elegiac world is never merely conventional, however informed it is by the weighty literary precedents of the elegiac tradition.
But neither are things ‘merely themselves’. The poems’ focus on time, space, and the weather engages simultaneously with the physical and the metaphysical. This is particularly notable when it comes to the figure of light and those bodies and processes that produce (or rely on) it: the sun, the moon, comets, stars, fire, mirrors, photographic film, and lightning. The symbology of light is, of course, deeply associated with life, as seen in Ghazal 27: ‘As the storm blew in, prismatic light shone, flat and horizontal. / Then – just now – a vertical rainbow appeared.’ But light is, paradoxically, also associated with the afterlife, as a moment in Ghazal 116 suggests: ‘I know you live in a luminous body, Tina, for I’ve seen it and – touched – been lit as well.’ One can read this as visionary or everyday as one likes, but the relationship between life and afterlife suggests the centrality of paradox to this collection. Such paradox can be found throughout: ‘The more I try to be alone, / the more public my grief’ (Ghazal 56); ‘I realize that you have become my solitude’ (Ghazal 79); ‘My daily round is a sort of tomb, a place I’ve buried myself in to survive’ (Ghazal 93); ‘My life borders on paradox, Tina, a land you travelled through before me’ (Ghazal 106). Mourning, as A Passing Bell so powerfully shows, is inherently paradoxical, bringing the playful, bound freedom of creativity to the melancholic confinement of grief. The work of mourning, Kane shows us, requires time, and the weaving together of apparently disjunct things: life and art; light and darkness; self and other; life and death.
Throughout the collection, the ambiguous figure of the ‘Master’ is referred to. This silent figure, to whom the poet repeatedly turns for answers, could be a religious teacher, or a personification of poetry, or even death itself. But this collection does not traffic in religious dogma or (ultimately) literary conventions. At the collection’s most heartbreaking moment, the poet asks, in his simplest language, the question that all bereaved people ask: ‘Why did you die?’ (Ghazal 116).
In its use of the ghazal to represent what we might call modern grief, Kane revises a number of that form’s key features. One of the most notable is the convention of including the poet’s name in the final line (a way for the poet to both break the ghazal’s ‘spell’ and claim authorship). In all but one of the poems in A Passing Bell, Kane places not his name but the name ‘Tina’ in the closing couplet. The cumulative effect of this is deeply moving. Its repetition calls attention to the poet’s loss but also to his unshakeable love.
There is another key antecedent evoked in A Passing Bell: the figure of Orpheus, the musician–poet who went to the underworld to bring back his beloved Eurydice. But here it is – as the extraordinary epilogue of A Passing Bell puts it – the beloved who has led the poet out of the underworld of grief. This is a powerfully affecting ending. It must be little consolation for a writer to be told that he has written his masterwork, if that work cannot be read by the person for whom it was written. Such a bittersweet paradox seems wholly – if sadly – appropriate for this extraordinary work.
(A tick means you already do)