Simon Jarvis’ Night Office is a timely reminder of poetry’s capacity for extraordinary reach and intensity. Night Office is a 7000 word, rhymed poem which seems to formally arrange the thoughts and feelings encountered over one night of wakefulness. These referenced prayers, spoken through the night, offer waking consciousness as a form of devotion that has drifted from liturgy in terms of content but which retains a formalism comparable to canonical devotion.
Formally, Night Office maintains a fairly loose pentameter in ab rhymed octets with a final couplet. The rhyme scheme in particular might first threaten, over the course of 7000 lines, to deaden the reading experience, to transmit dullness. Yet, sometimes the rhyme asserts itself, as does the pentameter (most strongly on the opening line of each stanza), whereas other times it retreats, foregrounding narrative content, image or linguistic play. The result is a similar shimmering awareness as to the rhyme present in Shakespeare: enhancement rather than over-assertion:
Every last person in this book is dead, –
including me. I’m talking to you, yes,
thanks o my poet; he, thanks to me; my head
shakes and reverberates, while, less and less,
the wave of sound diminish, and, instead,
a lasting silence fills me, and I rest.
Now in this blackness I begin to sing.
Invisible is every little thing…
Jarvis’ technical mastery is a joy to read, and tracing the dense, metaphysical syntax that tricks and turns in a “labyrinth of infinite evasions” is a pleasure. It is an intensely concentrated, phenomenological account of mourning, poetic experience, and Christian belief. Indeed, night and eventual dawn are correlative to the experience on the cross and the promise of resurrection. Inflected with scepticism, “It’s not enough/ to eat the break or drink the bloody wine:/ this meal of detail is the hourly feast/ into whose each least desecration shine/ all still miscopied doctrines”. The problem is immediate: belief that the dead have a place will exorcise them from the poet’s head. It is doubt that animates the pen: doubt as to the processes of life and death, and doubt attending to the possibility of poetry, the “miscopied doctrines”.
Jarvis is interested in the anxiety surrounding accuracy, the possibility of communicating thought on the page. In the last stanza he reflects: “Not every mediation can be held/ together at all moments; not each wound/ kept open always.” The office for the dead, the opening of the self like a conduit for experience, is taxing, approximate and cannot be separated from the disorientating penitential act of staying up all night. However, if it is to be written, it must all be written: “Each night/ I prop these lids up so my sleepless clog/ of dates and times may etch its names in light/ on to fear’s retina, may think which dog/ is proper to me”.Thoughts’ mundane wanderings twist inseparably with their profundity. Thought does not walk straight lines, but is corralled by Jarvis’ verse, transmuted through the formal workings into beauty. Form is not the false imposition of linear sense but a synthesis: the form is the content, shapes and is shaped by it into beauty.
Jarvis’ poem is very long, and very dense. It merits repeated reading, extended study, the gift of time much longer than the “single night” that is its premise. Beauty, redemption and the desolation of solitary thought – the only type our species is capable of – dances across the page. This is a wonderful work, and Night Office is a testament of the vital role poetry occupies in finding ways to communicate ideas.