Toby Martinez de las Rivas

Note: The following is in response to reader feedback on Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s poem “Titan / All Is Still” in the November 2018 issue.

It’s difficult to know how to respond to the views, including accusations that I am a fascist, which have been aired following the publication of my work in the November issue of Poetry. I suspect that one thing that has happened is people have read the poems, looked up the author and found, at some point, a blog post by a critic whose work I have read before and whose readings and criticisms I have often disagreed with, though I admire his overarching aims. I am not going to use this space to rebut his article point by point. That has already been done by the critic Henry King in the most recent edition of PN Review.

What I would like to do in this space is address the key issues which I feel have contributed to this interpretation of my work, and give an in-depth reading of the poems and symbols used. As I see it, there are three issues to address. First is the work in the November 2018 issue of Poetry; second is the black sun symbol; and third is a poem which has been available online for around ten years and which I read at the Dnevi Poezije in Vina in 2010 called “Elegy for the Young Hitler.”

To summarize briefly the poems in Poetry: the first poem elegizes two dead people—my stepmother, and my friend John (also the subject of the first poem in Black Sun)—and broaches the subject of the loss of my children, as well as addressing a lover, Né. The image of the black sun rising “deep in the west of me” could be disturbing if one interprets the black sun as a fascist symbol. I shall address the symbolism later, including the image of the black sun over the repeated word “Judgment.”

The second poem is addressed to my daughter, who I often call “Mouse,” and was written during a legal battle between myself and her mother. “That other life that will be ours” is the life of the body after the resurrection—the body that is bound to the will of God, that no longer has freedom of conscience, cannot form romantic attachments, remember its great loves, beautify itself, take pride in its difference. This is a poem about my fear of losing contact with my daughter and being supplanted. Perhaps, if you have been through a divorce and custody battle, you will recognize it. God (“the dead lord in hís dead city”) is seen as tyrannical—there is a long passage condemning the exercise of hís power in the strongest possible terms. It is a poem of sorrow, regret, and anger at a ruthless and conquering authority. Theology is important to me, but I can assure you: it is a very ambivalent and conflicted theology.

The third poem, about the hounding by police and subsequent death of Mame Mbaye, a Senegalese immigrant in Madrid, further explores the application of earthly and divine authority, and shows ways in which earthly authority can, at the very least, be questioned should it prove unjust.

Perhaps the most difficult element for people to process, however, has been the image of the black sun which appeared throughout my second book, and which I continue to explore. The genesis of this image was utterly banal. Terror was divided into four distinct sections arranged in formal groupings. This constituted a problem: how do you divide them? With titles? Numerals? Diagrams? Each says something different about how readers should approach the text, so it is a significant question. My publishers forwarded to me, as one possible solution, a set of ornaments which were essentially flowery squiggles in a variety of designs. None were suitable for a book called Terror. In the end, I hit on a white circle, then—which I felt was more ominous—a black circle. An eclipse. A black sun. I was happy with the solution, and promptly forgot about it until a year or so later when I started on the first abortive attempts at what would become Black Sun, and which began, in a moment of frustration after thousands of wasted words, with one of the black circles from Terror scaled up. It instantly hit me as I looked at it. It was hypnotic. A hole in the paper. A black hole, which, I knew, would drag things into it: would drag everything into it—as it is doing—but also, I sensed, a door from which things might emerge. A boundary between the living and the dead, between the dreamed and the spoken, both attractive and frightening to me.

As is the way with symbols, however, it became more than that as the book progressed. In one poem, “Avenging & Bright,” it rises as a symbol of vengeance over London—not, as was suggested in the blog post, because London is multicultural, but because it exerts such a powerful economic and cultural traction over the rest of the UK. In other poems, it stood in for history at the bottom of a well, for time burning a ring through dry grass. In another, it was an eclipse rolling over the body of Christ—a brief obscuring between the crucifixion and the resurrection: a symbol of hope. I didn’t, in fact, come to learn of its existence as a symbol associated with Nazism until much more recently. The association seemed to me—and still seems to me—highly tenuous, and amounts to one symbol at Wewelsburg castle which seems to have held no particular significance to the Nazis; in fact, it was not called a “black sun” until 1991, according to Wikipedia. This isn’t ideal, but I trusted the critical engagement of my readership and proceeded. No allusion to the Wewelsburg symbol was at any time intended.

By the end of the book, the symbol had begun to mature and assume its final form—the form in which it appears in the November issue, and here is another problem with reading cultures: the context in which you are working. Say “black sun” to some people now, some infer Nazism. Say it in a theological context, as was my intention, and you may have a very different response. Three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and John—all mention the sun going dark at the crucifixion. I connect this intimately with the point at which Christ cries out “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani,” and receives no response: nothing but a veiled sun, a black hole. For a visual representation, I urge readers to visit Jean Cocteau’s murals of the crucifixion at the Church of Notre Dame de Paris in Leicester Place, London. Here is Matthew 27: 45-46 in the Wycliffe version which I have begun to use as an alternative to the political problems inherent in using the King James Version:

But fro the sixte our derknessis weren maad on al the erthe, to the nynthe our.
And about the nynthe our Jhesus criede with a greet vois, and seide, Heli, Heli, lamazabatany, that is, My God, my God, whi hast thou forsake me?

Here is Luke 23: 44-45:

And it was almeste the sixte our, and derknessis weren maad in al the erthe in to the nynthe our.
And the sun was maad derk...

I was (and am) reading the theologians Jürgen Moltmann, Dorothee Sölle, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who all emphasize the powerlessness and silence of God in response to the spiritual and physical crisis of death. From there it was a small step to seeing the black sun rising over all humanity—that we must all go through this same process of crying out to God, and we must all receive the same answer: silence. Hé cannot come. This is the black sun that is not uniquely mine, but ours—it belongs to all of us. This is the black sun rising over the repeated word “Judgment” in the November issue; because that is the Judgment, as human beings, that we are under. In the book, it is set very deliberately at the back after the final poem which looks up into an ambiguous space “where there is no night, and no dawn.” There is hope there, too—a desperate, small, gigantic hope—the resurrection. The crucifixion—death, loss, despair—I see as a matter of existential fact; the other is a matter of faith. I carry both aspects around with me now, wherever I go. The hole we must walk into and turne not ayen, to the derk lond, and hilid with the derknesse of deth ... where is schadewe of deeth, and noon ordre (Job 10: 22-23) is the hole we may finally walk out of. To what, I can’t say. But, if there is a way through the derk lond this, for me, is it.

Last, “Elegy for the Young Hitler.” For readers who haven’t encountered it yet, it can be found here. The poem was originally part of a series in my first book, Terror. It ultimately wasn’t included as I felt it was out of place with the rest of the poems in that series and I realized that the title was likely to prove provocative. Nonetheless, I trusted the reading culture around me to read the poem judiciously. The key, of course, is the adjective “young.”  This is an elegy for the young Hitler, the Hitler who was a competent artist and whose biography was written by his friend August Kubizek. A man who, according to Kubizek, was capable of kindness, love, and generosity to his friends, and whose future—together with the fate of over fifty million people (including members of my own family)—hung in the balance at that point. I don’t recall the exact research and reading I did for this poem, but I do remember being struck that, among all the grandiose building projects planned by Hitler, I could find no reference to a “Reichgarten.” That surprised me, thinking back to the great despots of Europe, especially Louis XIV, who looked to express their power through the taming of nature. I realized that, to Hitler, a garden would have been an impossible thing—unruly, escaping control, overwhelming its own boundaries: “No Reichgarten: the garden inevitably democratic.” At the end of the poem, I connect the image of the living, unruly garden with the idea of the body, and how one’s attitude to one’s own body is fundamental to one’s attitude toward other bodies. So, as Kubizek noted Hitler’s revulsion at his own naked body, I posited the externalized image of this: a “sterile paved Lustgarten.” The Lustgarten (Pleasure Garden”) was a park in central Berlin that was paved over in 1934 and used as a site for mass rallies by the Nazi party. In contrast, the body to me (“in my tongue”) remains the “garden of pleasure,” a thing of sensual immediacy demanding contact and tending. It is a sad, regretful poem; a portrait of a radicalized young man unable to recognize the promptings of pity within himself—an elegy for the man that might have been (though “the moments of possession” hint at some other agency at work). I think it important to explore the points at which people become less than human; the point at which the living body becomes a piece of concrete to be broken and discarded. For me, these are the very spaces where poetry has to operate: in the difficult and uncomfortable.

I am grateful for the opportunity to provide clarity and context on my work.

Originally Published: November 27th, 2018

Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s books are Black Sun (2018) and Terror (2014), both from Faber & Faber.