Orpheus Ascending

Orpheus Ascending tells the story of the singer who falls dangerously in love, of the beautiful woman who becomes all things to him, and of the underworld king who claims her for his own. It tells how she is abducted and how the hero goes through hell to find her. Like Salman Rushdie, Nick Cave, Rilke Cocteau and Tennessee Williams before him, John Gibbens recasts the Orpheus myth in contemporary terms, this time in a strangely altered version of the London music scene in the late 1980s, a retro–future where violent unrest meets government backlash and where pastoral idyll becomes a precarious refuge from the perilous currents of history. It is a book about music, love and Fascism.

Sample Poems


When the evening singers had all but finished
A wren appeared on one concrete fencepost
And flew to the next, darted from platform
To thicket and, after a moment lost
To view, perched in a diamond of the mesh.
Over the post the bird had graced a calm
Round moon inched up from its branching niche.
Surveying the sleeping river of rails
While behind him in a faint electric hum
The train that had brought him slept, its lights still on,
Paul waited for the nine–thirteen to come,
Steel’s complaining chirp forerunning its wheels.
Parallel, tilted, recurring reflections
Beguiled the short journey, and the petals
Fallen from dwarfed ostentatious cherries,
Bleaching and drifted on the suburban
Ways he walked. Piling himself a plateful,
He sat down in the feast–littered kitchen.
A large–browed man was scorning the Tories;
Another, his dope–wide gaze sceptical
And glistering, mourned art’s difficulties.
He glimpsed her for the first time by the door,
Hesitating, looking in; quizzical,
Timid, and dark–complexioned as the wren
Out of the garden night. The light tussle
Of bracelets accompanied her quick four
Steps between the pairs of silenced men
Reluctantly resuming as before.
Paul studied her smooth profile as she leaned
Over to help herself – then turned to bear
His inspection frankly for an instant.
Fumbling his fork, taken unaware,
He scattered rice on his chair. As he gleaned
And binned the grains, he thought a slight, distant
Smile was on him – amused but not unkind.


London shows to the ebb of day
that blackens the spire–crowned skyline
her moment of tranquillity,
her regal mood. Iniquity
goes on yet, innocence is forced,
the five–year–old child undresses
for the video camera,
and worse takes just a moment's thought.
When Dame Town wears this evening gown,
you leave it out of the picture.
Clad in the eyes of your lover,
black and pale–rayed aquamarine,
she's mistress of forgetfulness,
a hypnotist. Her head weighs down
your shoulder, her spine's cool as night.
Her Soho starts to palpitate
to your spreading hand. You'd abuse
her kindness by comparison.
To her she's him, a darkling prince
under a wasting, penal curse.
The silent toiling river turns	
to oil at your feet, where you bend
together at the parapet
and lean apart to strike a match
for her cigarette and your own,
then fumble the latch of her lips
to learn her mellifluous tongue.
The Thames like a contraband tape
of perpetual nothingness,
glittering, streams and flickers on.
Until we two secretly meet
again, remember me this way,
mouth open like a simpleton
to catch whatever time you say.
Or will it be '... madness!' 'Wednesday,
six o'clock, then?' 'Look who's talking… '
Apart from headlights, streetlights, moon,
neon, pub lights, stars and your eyes,
everything's out. We're in the dark
of fairy–tales and betrayals.


The stars that haven't fallen fade,
mist creeps off the river.
The distraught limbs assemble,
they stand up from the pile
and go back into the yards.
I'm a winnowing, a husk
blown from the sieve of occupations.
The slaughterer changes aprons;
the first calf, pale–headed, totters forward.
Soon the runnels and gutters
are healthy again with blood.
Where is her gate of bronze and lapis?
All the slaughterer's cash in my pockets
is yours if you'll lead me to it.


'John Gibbens' take on the Orphic Mysteries is, by turns, bohemian, pastoral and dystopian, using songs, sonnets, raps and satires. Moving and menacing.'

Niall McDevitt

'Gibbens deploys an impressive range of forms and voices to dramatize a powerful poetic fiction reminiscent of high quality film noir. A skilful and distinctive poet for our time.'

Lindsay Clarke

'Narrative poetry has been essayed by a number of contemporary poets, but few as successfully as John Gibbens does here. Add to this a passionate lyrical impetus and a gift for formal variety and inventiveness – Gibbens is the real thing.'

David Miller

'finely-tuned and astonishingly economic.'

Tears in the Fence