As prevalent as it has been in popular culture since Babylonian times, the zodiac has inspired but a dearth of recent visual art, and even fewer texts. Lord Byron is one of the few notable poets who paid it any attention at all. The vast bulk of alluringly story-bolstered mainstream myths is probably the reason why so few writers have turned to the wheel of the zodiac as a wellspring of poetry.
There is nothing derivative in John Gosslee’s style, even if a number of the twelve sonnets that make up this collection (Gival Press, 2011) possess a slightly Yeatsian flavor. One sometimes thinks of “Sailing to Byzantium” or “Lapis Lazuli”: readers will find themselves entering exotic temples, overhearing gong-tormented seas. The most beautiful ancient depictions of the zodiac wheel contain Greek-Byzantine elements. Accordingly, Gosslee’s “Taurus” opens with Hellenistic abstraction, going beyond the realm of strictly zodiacal mythology at times:
The world of worlds portrayed in pastel blue
Hangs from the rafters of the temple dome
I marvel at, bow to, this inner home—
And ask the copper Venus: please make true
Stout violet blades and topaz drops of dew
Gosslee’s language is fraught with sonnetfuls of sensuality. One sometimes finds oneself wishing the author didn’t let us emerge from these warm cascades of eroticized word-water toward the somewhat drier, abstract conclusions proffered at some of the clinching points.
The collection’s strengths also lie in its surreal recreation of the stock creatures of the zodiac: “A red robed ram in pentacle flames, / Floats along cliff and mountain range, prancing / With a diamond skull and iron leg games” (“Aries”). These animal-centered mythological invocations beautifully evoke the mysteries of wildlife. “Scorpio” opens with a vivid description that Ted Hughes could have penned: “Leaving the soft eggs, drinking the aloe, / Then scurrying back to the laden nest—.“ It ends with the exalting phantasmagoric power of St John’s Apocalypse: “And as your skeleton’s smoke gently spools, / It’s inhaled by a vulture that will pass / Over forest fires, phoenixes swarm.” These luscious zoomorphic sonnets constantly remind one of the etymology of the word "zodiac," which in ancient Greek meant "circle of animals." The sonnet form itself is a well-rounded structure that fits this circular theme.
It makes sense when dealing with such an ancient theme to write in a semi-fixed form also passed down through the centuries. Gosslee’s collection is further proof that New Formalism is still alive and well. The poet's flawlessly regular ten-beat English sonnets are also translated into French and Spanish within the collection; impressively, these translations often stick to the traditional twelve-beat Alexandrines of Latinate tradition, thus adapting culturally on a metrical level as well. In formal echo to the length of lines, the rhyme scheme plays on variations of the English and the Italian sonnet forms. Consecutive rhymes are cleverly used to create mirror effects, as in the sonnet entitled “Two Fish/Pisces”: “With amethyst eyes and golden physique / Ahead of my lifetime and of this week”.
Not since witnessing Ernest Procter’s 1925 painted depiction of The Zodiac at the Tate Gallery in London have I been as interested in ancient astronomy. John Gosslee’s twelve cosmic sonnets can make the most skeptical critic of horoscopic astrological signs look at the zodiac with a keener, different eye, one now attuned to their potential beauty and narrative possibilities. These poems bring the seemingly fossilized symbols to life, fleshing them out, making the ruby pool flow up their veins. They made me want to go and see the Dendera Zodiac at the Louvre. Gosslee’s collection goes to show that original art can still be made out of the most conventional of allegorical symbols.
Erik Martiny is a reviewer for The London Magazine and the Times Literary Supplement. He teaches in Paris Sciences et Lettres and the International School of St. Germain en Laye.
12 Sonnets for the Zodiac
by John Gosslee
Gival Press, October 2011
$15 paperback, ISBN: 9781928589587