Norman Jope’s Aphinar is not an easy read. It is a collection which requires full investment from the reader. It is ambitious. The diction is complex and the content rich – dense, even. As far as first impressions are concerned, Aphinar is, without doubt, intimidating. Yet, it is also immediately captivating – cohesive, intricate and distinct.
Aphinar explores and intertwines themes of travel and mortality. The collection is separated into five sections and there is a traceable journey even in the very titles of these sections: the reader progresses from the opening “Set One… to open a road through sand” to the final “Set Five… beyond every shade of all”. Jope takes the reader on a tour of diverse locations, from his hometown of Plymouth in “The Cattedown Carnival”, to Bristol in “The Mariner’s Path”, to the Sahara, in “Cockpit”. Particularly interesting, however, is the method in which he conveys the reader to these locations. His writing is characterised by such an insatiable desire for travel that at times the journeys move beyond the realm of reality and become virtual – “I close my eyes for a moment and am there” (“The Shortest Night”). Art, in its many forms, becomes a means for travel. The train journey described in “The Shortest Night” remains “inside [him] still, / is the real-time film of that night”. “Lantern Coast”, on the other hand, takes on a metapoetic dimension as poetry is identified as a means of transporting the reader:
I, who conveyed you here
am already back in port,
protected from all weathers
on the page’s nightside.
Jope’s poetry is innately conscious of the dimensions of time and space and through this consciousness emerges the notion of mortality. Unsurprisingly given the strong presence of travel in Aphinar, many of the poems depict a constant movement through time – “How many years, / days or words is beyond my grasp” (“The Shortest Night”). In other instances, however, a poem captures and freezes a moment. Again Jope takes inspiration from art. “Sable Star” portrays a moment through painting:
She was warm once, when the gold of her hips
attracted the brush, its alchemic ochres
grasping at permanence.
“Pose” sees a woman captured in a photograph – “See how the fragrant zest of her skin / collapses into focus.” Ironically, though a particular moment is detailed and though art strives to immortalise, the notion of time remains an ever-present reminder of mortality. In “Sable Star”, the artist fails to achieve real “permanence” for “the real owner of that flesh”, and remain “Chronos. Ankou. Tupapau.”– a trio of grim reaper gods – in short, time. As for the woman captured in ‘Pose’, “[…] her eyes / light up at the edge of the space-time curve, / as if we were not small and could not die”, inferring the exact opposite; we are small and we do die.
Throughout the collection, the reader is confronted not only by the prospect of mortality but also by this concept of the individual’s insignificance. “Cockpit” – one of the collection’s most structurally interesting poems, 324 lines long and written entirely in couplets – details a gruelling journey through the Sahara, only to end with a reminder that “the desert is as complete without them”.
In turn, although the night of the “The Shortest Night” “illuminate[s] life’s track to a destination none can avoid”, the persona thinks of that very night and “embrace[s] the journey once more”. This is a difficult collection, but ultimately, it is a highly rewarding one. The true power of Aphinar lies in its awareness of mortality and, paradoxically, in its passionate love of life. In that acceptance, “All Europe seems open to my gaze at last, / sunlit, tangible, exalted, endless / to the wide-open soul I’ve become.”