Head of a Man
by John Gilmore
Reality Street; Paperback; 134 pages; ISBN: 978-1-874400-48-6
John Gilmore’s first novel, Head of a Man, is not a work that engages with healing, but rather with endurance. ‘In this vigil is my salvation. I must persist. I know no other way’, claims our narrator, from his position of what seems to be safety after ‘a recent trauma he is unable to remember clearly’, according to this slender volume’s blurb. It is, he tells us, in this recuperative space of apparent safety, attended to in various ways by various unnamed female figures,‘in which I prepare myself. Rituals in solitude. Creases smoothed. Lines aligned. Words rubbed against words’.
Words are difficult companions in Head of a Man. The space, the narrator’s room, is created by the opening bars of the novel in an echo of the cosmogonic act – ‘first, a room. There must be a room’. If this space is a stable one, it is nevertheless most stable in its muddle, as with Eliot’s heap of broken images – fragments shored against ruins. ‘There is no edge, no border to step over into trespass.’ writes Gilmore. ‘There is only the blunt, dull weight of darkness. You step into it, and down’. The moments when this is alleviated, if brief and epiphanal, are all the more striking in their singularity: ‘Sometimes it is given to us. One moment of clarity. One word laid down, cold and clattering, beside another. Ribbon of wet stone’.
As such, this complete consort of order and disorder, dancing together, offers an immersive experience of the inherent tension of the confessional, the desire for, and resistance to, the cathartic impulse; the longing to relate lived experience, and the simultaneous fear of misinterpretation and the inadequacy of words, written or spoken. ‘But to get back to this idea of confession. Yes. (Cold water first.) Bare the flesh, there the story. Can’t say can’t say can’t say’. Or, perhaps, can’t say, so must write, as if control over the letter, the word, the line, and the page, presents possibilities for control that are somehow more beautiful and thus more true. And thus it seems inevitable, when failure is glimpsed, that it is all the more terrible:‘ I dreamt failure last night. Failure and the unavoidable consequences. I fell back to sleep and dreamt again. I was looking for a word. Creation. (The book held full in the palm.) I could not find it. The more I looked, the more the words tumbled out of order, until order itself collapsed, and creation was nowhere to be found’.
In our time traumatic experiences are often, as ever, described by uninventive and lazy writers and journalists (not to mention those who unwittingly echo their vocabulary), as leaving ‘emotional scars’. Sometimes the adventurous will extend this metaphor further, sagely observing that just as time heals all wounds, so too will each scar stretch and fade in time. Gilmore, who is not one of these writers by a long chalk, whose vocabulary is vital and ever-moving, pushing against itself from within in a form of poetic calisthenics, engages in a discourse which appreciates and understands the value, necessity, and inevitability of repetition. In the acknowledgements to Head of Man, he writes that: ‘This is a work of fiction. Echoes of other works, sometimes muddled, are the doing of the narrator’s mind. I know he meant no harm’. And there is no harm in this echoing, this repetition, because it is the echoing and the repetition of a common human experience of suffering, and endurance.
Hence, or so this reviewer felt, the novel’s repeated invocation of snatches of the Gloria Patri – ‘as it was in the beginning’, here, and ‘world without end’ there, are phrases belonging to the same doxology and of the one body, but disjointed in such a way that they survive as echoes of something incomplete, ‘Descent into details: parts named, positions held’, and something which is perhaps incomplete in translation: ‘Latin, here: an incantation. Dead words linger’. This repetition, as the novel concludes, takes up its own life, pouring forth from the depths of the narrator’s consciousness unbidden:
‘I hear my voice incanting. Words I cannot explain. Catechism. Kyrie. All manner of dead meanings. As if repetition will illuminate something. (Maketh me to lie down.) Déo. Profundus. Long tones lift on a column of air. Throat songs. Prayers. Imploring the grace of language. The words that all men know.’
These words precede those which conclude the novel:
‘(Cold rain. And hard.)’
And it is these words which seem hardest, after a fashion. Is this hard rain cruel, or is it longed for, or is it both? Has Gilmore’s thunder spoken? An apparent pun in the lines before, on the opening of psalm 130, one of the canticum graduum (‘songs of ascents’) which begins with the words de profundis (‘out of the depths’), appears here instead as ‘Déo. Profundus’; ‘God’, and both ‘the deep’, but possibly also ‘the high’. Rain is cold, and hard, but it is still release, and thus a thing both great and terrible.
However easy it may be to read this unassuming volume, it is not an easy book to read. Those who grant it the time and attention it deserves may find its truths moving, and perhaps troubling, in equal measure. This may be because the reflection it offers of the human condition is so sharply defined, with the desire to turn from its pages being surpassed only by the ease with which the pages turn, offering grief and consolation with the same hands. I look forward to seeing where Gilmore will go from here.