What is a ‘prunt? Reflections on Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear.

prunt

If you choose to be a poet, working for the O.E.D. may not be the best day job. Although lexicography and poetry are both preoccupied with language, the sometimes bizarrely esoteric knowledge of the lexicographer may obstruct the aims of the poet. In the work of some dictionary poets, the fascination with etymology and cognates may seem like a parade of cleverness, a way of distancing the reader or even a shield against emotion or feeling. I occasionally felt this kind of irritation when reading Capildeo, generally when the poem seemed more than usually baffling. However, elsewhere I was convinced by the validity of her project and by the way she tied emotion and feeling to thing and place. Take the poem ‘Through and Through’, which is in the section ‘Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis’. Not only does it contain the word ‘prunted’ but also the Italian term ‘incalmo’, as well as a pun on ‘Lattimo’ and ‘l’attimo’: all of these terms are related to the production of glassware and reveal themselves as a coherent extended metaphor in the final lines of the poem:

incalmo joins bubbles blown
separately –two, while hot,
made one – each listed item
here desires liquid, lips;
lights prunted below looped eyes.

This poem comes from the section ‘Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis’, which leads me to consider, first of all, the notion of ekphrastic writing and then to enquire more generally about the practice of poetry.

‘Shameless’ implies an expectation of shame. Why should ekphrasis, the practice of writing a poem prompted by a work of art, be considered shameful? Is it because it is a form of borrowing or piggybacking, exploiting the achievement of another’s creation to give substance to one’s own? This is hardly a valid criticism since all art borrows, or to put it another way, places itself in some sort of cultural context. Perhaps the most famous modern example of ekphrasis is Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts; another which comes to my mind is Robert Duncan’s ‘The Fire –Passages 13’. Poets have always written in response to other works of art; Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ may have been based on a specific work, never identified, or a generalisation derived from the recently arrived Elgin marbles and other Greek sculptures and artefacts., some of which he drew.
220px-Keats_urn

However, we might also remember Keats’ assertion that poetry should ‘come naturally’; at present, ekphrasis is in vogue, and there is a danger of it declining into a workshop prompt, a method of forcing poems that do not need to be written. For me, the test of an ekphrastic poem, is whether it stands on its own. Yet even here, there is a difficulty: the poet may be writing from a different or wider cultural framework than that of the reader. Is she therefore obliged to elucidate all the references in her poem? Obviously, this would be very restrictive; moreover, it begs the question of for whom or why the poem was written. I shall come back to the issue of why these poems have been written but first I would like to consider the idea of audience. The poet’s ideal reader might be a clone of herself, someone who would get all the references, make all the links and appreciate the intention. This reader would also be very bored as much of the pleasure of a poem comes from constructing our own reading of it, independently of the writer and the writer’s purpose. However, the reader may be frustrated when the poem is just too strange, when there doesn’t seem to be enough common ground between reader and writer for the reader to construct their reading. For example, I found the title poem of this collection totally baffling because I was unfamiliar with the Bjork lyric ‘Venus as a Boy’. Admittedly, knowing this did not take me much further forward as I still don’t understand where the bear comes from. Nevertheless, the poem locates itself at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich and appears to be exploring the plight of the cabin boys, who are here presented as victims, an exploited underclass ‘at-risk youth, the trafficked, the fanatics, then known as cabin boys.’ There are hints that the boys, whose voices are ‘treble, breaking, broken’ are at risk from sexual predators “I don’t care to probe the why or wherefore of Lord Nelson’s last words, “Kiss me, Hardy”’ The difference in status between the cabin boy and Lord Nelson is made clear: ‘He wipes his nose on cambric; I wipe mine on my sleeve.’ The cabin boys who are given a voice in this poem are presented as deluded in the same way as Blake’s Chimney Sweeper boys in Songs of Innocence. Both have been given illusory promises of salvation, in this case, reinforced by doses of rum, the sense of duty and a misidentification with the Lord Nelson and the Lord God. Why ‘Venus as a bear’ should represent salvation, I don’t know, but there is a sense of gender blurring or even species blurring in the climactic repetition of the last few lines: “For they believed in beauty; yes, in Venus as a bear; wanted a manifestation; wanted Venus to give salvation; yes, Venus as a bear.’ For what it’s worth, Venus in these lines is in apposition to duty and both are seen as a route (mistakenly?) to salvation. This poem also appears in ‘Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis’ so I am assuming that the artwork is the statues mentioned in the poem, although there could also be a reference to some of the paintings in the Old Royal Naval College. I have found enough in this poem to give me a sense of understanding; besides which, I find its language pleasing, especially the verbal patterning and the collocation of words that fit together through connotation and association, for example, the chapel ‘full of marble caramel, salted with statues’. ‘Salted’ works brilliantly because it connects to caramel and at the same time suggests the sea and that the statues of these boys are a minor ingredient but provide flavour. Again the phrase ‘treble, breaking, broken’ is dynamic with the present participle ‘breaking’, indicating that the boys are passing through puberty but also that they are being forced to endure until the word mutates to the past participle ‘broken’ which suggests that they have been broken, or that they are now ‘broken in’ or that they are now adults whose innocence has been lost.

Other poems totally elude me. ‘Fossil Trade, for Maya’ is one such. It appears as one of a group of poems, all ‘for Maya’ and consists of a block of words in 12 lines of four columns. I do not know whether to read the poem horizontally or vertically, and I can only guess at meanings. The word ‘trade’ occurs 21 times, once as the last word in the first and third columns, nine times in the second column and ten times in the final column. I begin to guess that there is some connection to the slave trade as I spot the words ‘bead’ and ‘trick’ which remind me, perhaps inappropriately, of the Grace Nichols poem, ‘Taint’. I spot other pairs of words: ‘mote/beam’, water/fire’, ‘mother/father’, ‘bread/breast’, ‘trade wind’. I am not sure what to make of ‘fossil’ except that, again probably randomly, I am reminded of Mary Anning, the 19c. fossil collector of Lyme Regis, and the burgeoning trade in fossils arising from the growing interest in palaeontology. Perhaps all the poem is doing is showing us that anything anywhere can be traded, through foul means or fair, by anyone, and that trade is universal. There is private reference in the poem, and I feel that even its block shape is resisting me. I experience this sense of exclusion in other poems and this disturbs me, as I am impressed by the strength and seriousness of Capildeo’s writing. I am forced to ask myself if I am too old, too straight (not just in terms of sexuality), too white or too ignorant to be able to access this poetry fully.

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that reading poetry, just as much as writing it, is hard work and can require considerable commitment from the audience; also, that some poems will always resist some readers and that we may have to accept our own lack of understanding. This is probably what is meant by the blurb which states that the poems ‘require ardent, open forms of reading, in the spirit of their composition.’

The blurb for her previous collection, Measures of Expatriation, quotes Capildeo’s words: ‘Language is my home, I say; not one particular language.’ This is a claim for which she is better qualified than most with her background in linguistic studies and Old Norse as well as her work for the OED. It is an understandable statement from a poet whose own heritage and experience is so diverse in relation to a book which pursues the issue of identity. It is as if language becomes the commonwealth available to all. However, access to this world of language is more equal for some than for others; Capildeo uses the resources of language to construct her own constantly developing idiolect, and thus, in a sense, her self. Measures of Expatriation is a weightier, more painful volume than Venus as a Bear, perhaps because the personal seems less detached.

There may seem to be a danger when a poet commits herself so wholly to the world of language that the physical world and the actual will be left behind. This does not happen in Venus as a Bear which opens gently with a series of animal poems to which most readers can relate and which includes a number of pieces where relationships with friends are embodied in a recognisable manner so that we come to trust her approach to language as sometimes playful but always exploratory. In the sequence ‘Riddles’ the poems are often allowed to develop through sound echoes and associations in order to find their shape and their reference.

I. Chairs. Ruthless cornfield
Counters. Writless canefield.
Lotus. Lotusless CCTV.
Children. Fingers. Children.
Voices. Children. Dodges.
Self-rearranging furniture.
Polytheist plastic. Christmas.
Treble-clef rug.
I don’t know the answer to this riddle, but that is not really the point. The pleasure is in trying to make the links and work it out, rather like the tortuous process of ratiocination on Radio 4’s Brain of Britain quiz programme. I note the phonic transition from ‘Ruthless cornfield’ to ‘Writless canefield’. The first makes me think of Ruth in the ‘alien corn’, therefore of migration, while the second with its ‘canefields’ takes me back to the Caribbean. I have no idea what the Lotus signifies although Google informs me that there is an Indian company, Lotus CCTV –whether or not that is simply coincidence, I don’t know. We are told it is Christmas and there seem to be both a lot of children and a lot of activity –‘Dodges’ and ‘self-rearranging furniture’ but diversity returns in the shape of ‘polytheistic plastic’.

I don’t know exactly what is going on in any of these poems but each takes its place as a locus in the field in which Capildeo works. Again in the blurb, we are told that Venus as a Bear ‘collects poems’ on various topics, but this is to suggest less coherence than there actually is. The poems are firmly located in the world, a fact stressed by the appendix where the poet names the places which are associated with many of the poems. Some poems are not listed and some appear more than once. This device reinforces the impression that the poet is using her poetry to map her being in the world, and who she is might be described as the line of best fit through loci or, alternatively, a constantly evolving dot-to-dot outline.

So if I conclude that Vahni Capildeo’s purpose in writing is both self discovery and self creation, I have to ask again why we might choose to read this poetry. It will not suit those who are looking for ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well-expressed’ since it is poetry which forces us to think in new directions and often to guess at meaning. It will not suit those who are looking for ‘the language really used by men(or women)’ because the language in these poems is often esoteric and academic. It is poetry which destabilises patriarchy as well as the persisting colonial heritage and is designed to make us think in ways which may be uncomfortable but will allow us better to understand the diverse nature of the world in which we live.

Diversity from Oxford

The TS Eliot prize drew criticism for the lack of diversity in its short list, although it was won by the only poet of colour included, Ocean Vuong, who also happened to be gay. However, at the level of the smaller presses, diversity thrives and younger poets from a range of ethnicities and sexual orientations are producing exciting and innovative collections. Two recent publications from poets with Oxford links exemplifying this trend are a hurry of english by Mary Jean Chan, published by ignition press, which is part of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, and Five Storms (smith/doorstop) by Theophilus Kwek, who is a former president of the Oxford Poetry Society and, like Chan, a co-editor of Oxford Poetry.

The blurb to Mary Jean Chan’s book describes her as making a ‘significant contribution to poetry and queer writing in the UK’. Certainly, as a young, Hong Kong Chinese, queer woman, she seems to tick all the boxes. However, there is a danger that her PC rating may obscure the power and strength of her poetry. This is a very strong debut collection which explores and exploits some compelling autobiographical detail. In some ways, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which also mines the process of coming-of-age. As Heaney’s book had the presiding figure of the father, so this one is dominated by the presence of the mother, addressed directly in the opening poem, ‘Always’: ‘You are always where I begin’…
Always the lips kissing
they could kiss those mouths
you would approve of.
Throughout the book, the poem addresses the mother’s life as well as her own. Although Chan was brought up in Hong Kong, her mother seems to have lived in mainland China and experienced the tyranny of the Red Guards. The intellectual oppression is presented in the second poem ‘what my mother (a poet) might say’ where she represents her mother’s ideas and feelings in lines which are cancelled, so that the only line which stands is the repeated and italicised ‘that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy’. The respect for her mother is shown through the tentative ‘might’ of the title. Aside from the typographical innovation of using the strike-through function, this poem is formally beautifully arranged in a series of couplets where the first line is devoted to the mother’s thoughts about her own life, the second to her thoughts about her daughter. In contrast to the glib facility of the refrain, these lines are uncomfortable, acknowledging the complexity of the mother’s character and of the relationship she has with her daughter:
that she dreams about seeing her father’s heart in the doctor’s fist
that I must only write about flowers
Another formally innovative poem is ‘At the Castro’ with the dedication ‘for Orlando’ which I choose to read as an allusion to the bisexual, gender-shifting eponymous protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel. Whatever it may be, the poem itself is set out in two columns which may be a visual representation of two lovers, the space down the centre of the page showing the difficulty of same-sex relationships in a hostile society. The poem celebrates the freedom of self-realisation and ‘coming-out’ possible in a gay club:

the first time you stepped into a gay bar
was the first time you danced

The ‘you’ addressed shifts into third person:
the girl who thought she had to sit down
for the rest of her life broke all the rules
became the wind

and then back into second:

you drank
till you became sober enough not to be
ashamed the boy you never were
smiled kissed
another girl

These changes make it unclear whose experience is being addressed in the poem, whether it is the poet, her lover, or both or whether the figures are generic. Celebration changes to horror as ‘a hand pulls a trigger’, destroying the relationship or relationships. Whether this violence is real or metaphorical, it suggests the risks and fears of being gay but nevertheless finishes with a defiant assertion of the importance of love:
skin is never an apology
but always an act of faith

The collection is woven around the relationship with the mother, with the lover and with the desire to reconcile the mother and the lover. Whereas the title phrase for the book is taken from a prose poem where the mother’s influence is felt as oppressive and English is seen as an escape, ‘My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze’, in //, short-listed for the 2017 Forward Prize, a poem which is perhaps the centrepiece of the book, Chan attempts to construct this reconciliation. The title represents chopsticks: ‘To the Chinese,// you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.’ The poem’s starts with an awkward dinner where the non-Chinese lover is entertained by the hostile family, but moves towards a determination not to be defeated by parental or societal pressure:
Tonight, I am dreaming again
of tomorrow: another chance to eat at the feast of the living

The poem ends by rejecting secrecy and suicide:
I have stopped believing that secrets are a beautiful way

to die. You came home with me for three hundred days –
to show my family that dinner together won’t kill us all.

This idea is reprised in “Love for the Living’ near the end of the book, a celebration of society’s recognition and acceptance of same sex love, which is echoed in the changed attitude of the mother, felt as ‘the ache of pleasure when/your mother mentions your lover’s name.’

The final poem, like the first, centres on the poet’s mother, but the balance of power has shifted. Whilst the first poem is addressed directly to the mother, in an agonised plea for approval and acceptance, in this one the mother is spoken of in third person, as if the poet had succeeded in distancing herself and attaining independent adulthood. She speaks here in the first person, as she recognises her mother’s needs and that she must accept the fact that she cannot solve them or make them her burden.
I can only
invite her to the table: Look,

mother, your hands are beautiful.
Look, mother our tea is ready.

Appropriately, the use of pronouns in this last poem is unambiguous and subtle. The “I” of the daughter ‘speaks confidently to the ‘you’ of the mother, bringing them together in the ‘our’ of the closing line.

**********************************************

Theophilus Kwek is both startlingly precocious and astonishingly accomplished. He seems to have published his first book at the age of 17 and this ‘New Poet’s Prize’ Smith/Doorstop pamphlet has appeared when he is still only 24. Kwek is prolific and has the ability to respond to the moment with poems far removed from the agonized moans or enraged rants so often produced after major calamities. At the same time, his style is distinctly reticent or even elliptical and tends to incorporate allusions which may require research. Admittedly, that is not so difficult in the age of Google, but it does impede the first reading, as in ‘The Passenger’ where the references to Izanami and Izanagi enrich the poem if the reader understands them. Incidentally, either Kwek or Wikipedia has got the names of these Japanese gods the wrong way round.

He is particularly skilled at presenting natural and physical detail. The first poem in the collection is written in more-or-less rhymed couplets with some powerful internal sound effects as in the second stanza:
Light sown
As haw, thawed streams like cracks in the bone.
The internal rhyme of ‘haw’ with ‘thawed’ contrasts sharply with the onomatopoeic ‘like cracks’ and is followed by the final shocking long rhyming vowel sound in ‘bone’ which emphasizes the whiteness of the snow. However, I am puzzled by ‘haw’, which should be the red of the hawthorn berry, but seems here to mean something more like the ‘hoar’ of a hoar frost. Nor am I quite sure why the thrush is ‘hurtling’. The mysterious quality of the poem is also apparent in the ambiguity of its setting. It begins as a view ‘From a window’ and this idea is reinforced at the end, ‘That through a window comes’ but we cannot be sure if this is a window which is merely that of an observer, or whether it may be a train window, in which case, the poem’s speaker is also involved in the action. A ‘cabin’ is stirred ‘to praise, or something like praise’ and we are left uncertain of the location of the cabin; is it outside the train, part of the train or a synonym for ‘heart’ in the next line? The many hints that this is more than a nature poem about snow culminate in the portentous last half line ‘The right and the wronged’ –perhaps a little too portentous after the subtle ambiguities of the rest of the poem. Another piece that becomes suddenly and heavily significant at the conclusion is ‘What Follows Deer cull, Wytham Woods, 7th February 2015’.
Again, the observation of natural detail is beautiful and convincing: ‘bounding across seed-rows they are gone,/the cracked frost making an ashen path/to a gap in the horse-wire thorn’. However, the last stanza, which uses multisyllabic and royal rhyme, also becomes suddenly abstract: ‘struck on the flint of that eternity/more alive than in the burnished wood.’ Something very odd is happening: ‘struck on the flint’ has connotations both of shooting and of making light or fire, while the adjective ‘burnished’ transforms the wood from nature into a work of art. The poet is writing about the creation of an image, the image that he missed with his camera, but which has been captured by the eye, memory and the poem.

There is a wide range of subject matter here, with poems based on anything from biblical themes to newspaper stories. Perhaps it is easiest to engage with the poems which give us more to go on or where there seems to be some kind of personal involvement. For example, in ‘Requiem’/ Grandfather, 1936-2015, although we may not understand exactly what is happening in the funeral ritual, nevertheless we grasp that a family has been brought together in mourning, and recognise the poet’s hope that he can maintain his love for his surviving relatives:
Teach me now to love, at their frayed ends
the left-behind, their washed and ashen fingers.

The language of the previous two lines suggests that these relationships have not always been easy, ‘our sifted, falling silences, the plunge//of numbed hands under frigid water.’

The final group of sonnets, for which the collection is named, ‘The First Five Storms’, appears to be a sequence of love poems, but the reticence mentioned earlier, make this a very different kind of poetry from that of Mary Jean Chan.
It may be instructive to explore the use of pronouns in these poems. The first person plural is dominant. ‘We’ is used in every poem except iv, ‘Desmond’, where it splits into ‘you’ and ‘I’, a split heralded in iii, ‘Clodagh’, ‘I had come here/ to make resolutions, taste the grey/Christmas skies you loved’. In the first two poems, the ‘we’ is unproblematic; it may be the speaker and his friends or his lover, more likely a lover, given the imagery in the first sonnet, ‘the rest of our days reach in to join fingers/ with the season’s slow dusk’. ‘We’ provides a sense of assurance, a platform, ‘safety in numbers’. In ii, ‘Barney’, the ‘we’ becomes exclusive, almost smug, as it celebrates itself and its own escape from the ravages of the storm, with the ‘dog outside’ perhaps symbolising social exclusion.
We stood, then went in our cars to church,
And scraped our shoes, and left the dog outside.
Clodagh describes experiencing the storm on a sea-crossing to Ireland. ‘You’ sleeps through ‘the thick/of it’, leaving the ‘I’ in the sestet, on his own to make new and unexpected discoveries, perhaps about love: ‘but found instead/fine rain, and land underfoot; gold and myrrh’. ‘Desmond’, the fourth sonnet, is a beautiful poem which seems to refer back to ‘The Weaver’ at the beginning of the book. There the bird’s nest-building seems to represent the enduring love of a parent; here, it seems to be a lesson learned by the speaker, again as the beloved sleeps –‘you had gone up to bed’ – about the power of love to endure, through adversity, a lesson which he shares by directly addressing the beloved:
I cannot explain, love, but I knew
how different they seemed, and how they sang
all the louder in the rain, and flew.

Lesson learned, the poet returns confidently to ‘we’ in the last poem ‘Eva’, which, like the first poem in the book, is set in snow. Poet and beloved ‘set out early’ and come upon ‘the scent of January’s mowing/fresh on fallen grass’ which I take to be snow or perhaps frost. It is further significantly described as ‘a season’s dowry’. The melting of the frost is seen as the first stage in the renewal of fertility which ‘ would put dry earth to grass, and then in time/turn road to wood, and sky, and bark, and moss.’ This poem , like the whole sequence, is in many ways very conventional, with its use of the sonnet and natural imagery to celebrate love. Kwek demonstrates his mastery of the poetic tradition while at the same time displaying linguistic invention and an ability to innovate by pushing the forms to their limits so that the apparently naturalistic poem resonates with subtle and often ambiguous meaning.

I, we, you, You? ‘is a gateway’ by Jane Spiro (Oversteps Books, 2018)

is-a-gateway

Jane Spiro’s collection is very accessible but far from lightweight. The book has a carefully considered shape and form, making it much more than just a gathering up of recent poems. The structure is indicated by the headings of the four sections: ‘where we start‘, ‘summer’s lease‘, ‘swimming deeper‘ and ‘a white in us‘. The poems consistently link human life to the elements of nature as the book voyages through the seasons, lives and life, celebrating them but at the same time recognising their fragility.

 

I was most engaged by the first section,  about birth and childhood, and the last, which treats aging and death. The collection opens with an egg, an image of birth, but is at the same time a description of the traditional Ukrainian practice of egg-painting so that it unites the ideas of beginnings with nature and culture:

and the egg emerges

jewel-bright, its turtle-back

an astonishment of colour

 

like the shock of birth.

 

Intriguing in this poem, as in some of the others, is the use of the pronoun ‘you’; here, it is difficult to tell if this is a generalised, instructional ‘you’ –’pencil in the patterns you desire’ or a known, personal ‘you’ who is a skilled practitioner in this tradition. The poem gains resonance if we believe that the writer is addressing someone who she has watched at work.

 

There are other poems about children, the poet’s own perhaps, one about a Turkish child, ‘Divided City’ where the wall is the physical division of the city but also the barrier between the old language and the new language of English which the child has to cross. The poet ‘became his words: hello –goodbye/playtime       dinner time/time for home’. While the child struggles to retain his old identity ‘I am Turkish’ the poet wants him to embrace the new, ‘I, the other side,/ waving, asking him to leap.’  Spiro’s preoccupation with language and the links between language and identity surface here, as might be expected in someone whose own heritage includes the forcible loss of language and home which is reflected more directly in two poems about her father’s childhood in Warsaw, most powerfully in the image of the boy who has an unexpected day off school:

One day, not knowing why,

            you were locked out of school,

found another thing to do –

daytime cinema, delicious truancy,

sitting in the dark in the back row

beside a satchel and a Polish grammar.

 

The date of the poem, Warsaw, 1938, and the Polish grammar say it all.

 

Another childhood poem is apparently addressed to a child, perhaps her own son, and its rather awkward, tricksy approach recognises the difficulty of writing poems to, for or about people when they have not asked you to. This always seems particularly problematic when one is writing about one’s own family, especially children. The writer begins “I promised you/there would be/ no more poems/about you” but goes on to describe poems as “silly shapes/made by grown-ups” which seems on the face of it like a failure of nerve. The poet goes on to describe all the things a poem does not do in terms of the kind of things the child presumably does or enjoys, “chocolate twizzlers”. However, the collection of items seems demeaning both to the child and to poetry and there is a rare uncertainty of tone in this poem where a ‘you’ is directly addressed, although not necessarily with his consent. More assured is a poem slightly earlier in the collection, ‘Learning to be Four’ where third person is used as the poem marvels at the child without attempting to invade his space: ‘All this in not five years/in which time we have grown hardly at all/forgetting how much can come from nothing,/and how soon.’

 

The section ‘summer’s lease’ signals a move towards adult experience, with the first two poems perhaps marking the sorts of transitions physically experienced as house moves. Both poems are concerned with the process of moving on through life while at the same time looking back. Both put stress on the importance of memory while acknowledging its inadequacy. The poem ‘Budapest balcony’ is a brilliant conceit; the poet describes the balcony as an eavesdropper on the politics of Hungary and life in the city of Budapest, poking ‘its iron ear out into the street.’ In some of the other poems, I come up once more against the issue of the second-person pronoun. In ‘The shutter maker’, a beautiful poem, which could be a companion piece to ‘Painting Eggs’, the shutter maker and his craft are described in third person until the end of the poem, when the writer uses ‘you’, in what seems to be both a tribute and thanks:

This measured day, striped now

with light, the musk of warm wood,

 

is your work of art, last man of your craft,

your signature is here, and we will remember.

 

Less explicable, is the use of ‘you’ in ‘Drought’. The poem describes the effects of the sun and drought. In the first two stanzas, the sun is described as ‘it’ but in the third it becomes ‘you’, ‘You have occupied the land’ and is increasingly personified, until at the end of the poem it has become ‘a furious god’. Another slightly strange use of ‘you’ comes in the last poem in this section, where it might or might not relate to ‘butterflies’ as the poem moves through an increasingly diffuse range of ways of being, ‘the different ways/it is possible to be alive.’

 

In Section Three, ‘swimming deeper’, the poet intensifies the search for meaning, and it is here that the links between human and elemental are strongest. There are poems of earth, air and water though perhaps fire has been left behind in the previous section. From ‘Turbulence’, a fear of flying poem, where the poet is at the mercy of air to ‘Onsen’ and ‘On Falling into the River Thames’ where she is immersed in water to the beautiful solidity of stone in ‘Dartmoor Standing Stones’ and wood in ‘My Wooden Men’, Spiro explores the relationship between human and other forms of existence. In ‘Meeting the Green Man’ she presents an encounter with earth at its most ancient, its most human and its most other:

Are you evil giant or trapped prophet,

mindful god or beheaded knight,

bursting from stone or petrified from flesh,

written in stone or the face-in-my-mind?

 

These lines also confront the blur between subjective and objective, our desire to interpret and impose shape on nature and others which robs them of their separate identities and voices. In this poem, the writer is searching for another who can teach or enlighten her, while recognising that the shape of that other is one she has herself constructed:

Stay awhile, he says.

            Stay awhile and hear me.

            Stay awhile and hear what I have to say –

Again, I am worried by the use of pronouns and I do not think that this concern is superficial. The poem begins with ‘you’ used impersonally as if the writer were guiding the reader towards a meeting with the Green Man: ‘At first he leads your eye down’, ‘and then you see him’. However, in the fourth and penultimate stanza quoted above, the ‘you’ changes its identity as the poet directly confronts this embodiment of otherness by addressing him as ‘you’. This must be uttered by the first person ‘I’ who makes only a very oblique appearance in the phrase ‘face-in-my-mind’. In the last two lines, ‘he’ is given a reply and allowed to use the first person ‘hear me’, ‘hear what I have to say.’ In a sense, the fluidity of the pronouns emphasizes the utter subjectivity of the poem and deprives the other of his separateness. The last poem in this section, where the use of pronouns is much more straightforward, also addresses links between self and other, and the barriers created by identity, whether individual or existential and ends questioningly and appropriately among the elements:

from holding a stone

to holding a question about space –

how it has evolved to be this.

 

‘a white in us’ is the fourth and final section of this volume. It deals with illness and endings but also with hope and in a satisfying way brings us back to the poet’s father, first met in childhood, now in age. ‘These last days’, which I assume to be about him, is powerful and moving in its detail and its understatement and the relationships between the ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ are clear and sustaining. The ‘white in us’ which gives the section its title appears in ‘Snowscape’ and seems to represent a state of quietness, ‘a first place’ which precedes individuation but which is also a last place of surrender and acceptance.

 

One of the pleasures of this collection is the sureness of the poet’s ear; the line endings are secure and the choices of language are precise both in meaning and sound. Jane Spiro’s book is humane and positive, always open to possibility as presented in the title poem with its refusal of initiating capital letters or finalising full stops. There is always a threshold, always a way forward:

is a gateway

to a corridor of red pillars winding into the woods disappearing to a

point

 

is a gateway

 

 

Fluid identities: ‘In Search of Dustie-Fute’ by David Kinloch

 

David Kinloch does some strange things in his new book, In Search of Dustie-Fute: sometimes he writes in Scots, sometimes he writes in English; sometimes he writes in verse, sometimes in prose; some of these poems are new, some of them go back twenty-five years or more. Both in form and theme, the collection seems to be a retrospective with, at its heart, the figure of Orpheus for whom retrospective had an unfortunate outcome.

 

Dustie-fute, the Scottish incarnation of Orpheus, is a figure I first encountered in 1992 in an edition of Gairfish magazine entitled McAvantgarde, in which I had an article discussing an apparent recrudescence of poetry in Scots. The sequence of poems entitled Dustie-fute was published as a pamphlet by Vennel Press in the same year. Some of that collection was written in Scots and much of it was engaged with Scots as a literary possibility. The first piece describes Dustie-fute as:

at a loss in the empty soul of his ancestors’ beautiful language and in the soulless                       city of his compeers living the 21st century now and scoffing at his medieval wares.

 

Kinloch was part of a group of highly academic Scottish poets, including Robert Crawford and W.N. Herbert, who were pursuing a literary and, in some ways, highly artificial ‘synthetic’ Scots which allowed these poets at that time to produce innovative and exciting work. Interestingly, most of what I take to be the new writing in this more recent collection is in English. However, as in the earlier work, the perspective is international and European. Kinloch has spent much of his academic working life as a specialist in French literature although he is now Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Strathclyde University. His poetry has always looked outwards, away from England, towards France, Europe and then America. His early Scots poems, some of which are repeated in this latest collection, flaunted their European and modernist or avant-garde connections:

Dustie-Fute

               eftir Eugenio de Andrade

he cam fae a fremmit land,

had kent thrist an the watter o Mairch bere

his feet I the wey of the slaw stour o eternitie.

 

The dour snaw cam eftir.

 

Identity is fluid in these poems; sometimes the poet seems to be Dustie-Fute or Orpheus, sometimes looking for him. As the title suggests, the collection is a search for the lost beloved, be it Orpheus or Eurydice, be it male or female:

he could see her- or him –exactly.

Yes, it was him

or her –

that is his nose

her jaw –precisely.

Orpheus, section 3

I had not realised before that Orpheus was known as a lover of boys, having been so bruised by his love of Eurydice that he foreswore the love of women. That is one version of his story. In the better known one, he dies torn to pieces by women who were unmoved by his songs and who were angry with him for disturbing their Thracian rites, apparently similar to Dionysian orgies. A very strong theme of the collection is the celebration or memorialisation of the lost, the doomed and the dead; the poet is searching the underworld. At the centre of this trawl through the shades is the experience of being a gay man who has lived through the AIDS epidemic alongside those who did not survive. Kinloch devotes almost ten pages in the heart of this book to a prose piece which combines the discussion of a photograph by A.A. Bronson with a personal memoir. The piece is topped and tailed by a poem that the poet acknowledges isn’t new: `It is also a fact that I can’t get beyond this image in my overall response to the series of portraits I have been writing about.’ The photograph shows the artist’s lover just after his death from AIDS.

Felix aa bronson

The photograph, with its patchwork of colours “reminds the viewer of the great AIDS quilt begun in 1985 which now comprises some fifty thousand woven panels, each one commemorating an individual who has died”. This is carried through into Kinloch’s poem in the imagery of stitching: “You thread a sea with your eye”,”trees…wrap your quilt in foliage”, your passport head is pinned in silk.” However, the poem also refers to Orpheus, specifically, to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

 

trees that hung your voice

among these patterns

wrap your quilt in foliage;

 

a dog barks through the branches

a girl’s arm passes like an oar

across the sunlit patches;

 

As Kinloch says, this is a “tortured echo of the Rilkean tree that ‘surges’ in the listener’s ear.”

 

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!

O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum in Ohr!

                                                                                           Sonnets to Orpheus, 1, R.M. Rilke[1]

Kinloch has written about the AIDS quilt before and this poem may be a very successful refashioning of the poem ‘Needlepoint’ in the original Dustie-Fute sequence.

 

The notions of dismemberment, wandering and water recur throughout the recent volume, from the opening poem featuring a giraffe in a Paris zoo, out of place and threatened by floods. He is a figure of Dustie-Fute and of Orpheus, whose severed head in one of the versions of the myth floats downstream, still singing. An echo of the myth can be heard in the penultimate lines of the poem:

 

Rivers become the towers,

hooves of all the little people

bob among the eddies;

upended trees, dishevelled wigs

root among the waves.

‘I, Giraffe’

The second poem, The Parawd o Dustie-Fute, mixes Scots, colloquial language and standard English and includes in its procession a number of endangered species, such as the Aye-aye and the Dhole, whose names are as strange as their characteristics. Some of these miniature portraits are more successful than others; the one entitled ‘MAN’ seems like rather feeble eco-prop, not enriched either by the colloquial ‘pure mingin killer’ or the only bit of Baudelaire everyone knows. In contrast, the tragic image of Dustie-Fute as either a diseased tree or a victim of AIDS is much more convincing, and it is not surprising that these lines feature on the back cover of the book:

Noo the nicht-hawk

flauchters thru brainches,

 

dieback an leesions

hap ma hide,

 

the parawd

intae the untholeable licht.

 

It would be interesting to know whether this is in fact a new poem, or another retrieved from the search of the past.

 

‘Installation’, like ‘Felix, June 5, 1994’, is a poem based on an artwork by an American artist memorialising his dead partner. It is a poem which works by translating the coloured tablets (or sweets) into the Scottish sweeties of childhood, thus making a real connection between the poet’s world and the transatlantic one of the artist.Untitled Portrait

 

‘Untitled’ : Portrait of Ross in L.A. by Felix Gonzales-Torres

 

A number of other poems are also based on artworks by American, usually gay, artists, often featuring very beautiful, very erotic images of young men. I find these poems more interesting though more mysterious than the, to me, somewhat strange preoccupation with figures from the Old and New Testament. Perhaps I’m missing something. The last two poems in the book, however, are very powerful and very moving. ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’ is a reshaping of Rilke’s poem of the same name in relation to a photograph by American artist, PaJaMa. The characters become a photographer, a nurse, or a woman dressed as a nurse and another, who should be Hermes, but who seems more like Orpheus or Dustie-Fute. At the end of the poem, it is this figure who retreats to the underworld under the eyes of the photographer/poet who now enters the poem in first person:

Anyway,

dark before the rain-spattered exit,

I or someone else stood. You could not make

me out. I stood and saw

how, on the single track over

the machair, with a sad look,

the woman turned to follow him

already walking back along the path

to the vast absent view, his footsteps

echoless, so gentle, so patient.

 

This poem is successful on its own terms; it is enriched by being read against the Rilke and by looking at some of the photographs of PaJaMa. The last poem in the collection, ‘Text’ strikes me as being bang-up-to-date, believably in the voice of a poet for whom references to Cavafy and Rilke are as much, or possibly more, part of his personal vocabulary as the Scots diction which features in other poems.

 

So what about the Scots, then? Reading the current issue of Irish Pages[2], I learn that the old debates rumble on. Scott Hames’ article, ‘On snottery weans forever: against dreichism’ inveighs against what McDiarmid referred to as ‘kailyard Scots’. Hames claims that the use of Scots has become a shibboleth, and that “ To most readers in Scotland today, a poem in Scots may as well have no content at all, its linguistic envelope conveying the totality of its possible interest or “message”, largely reducible to heritage or nationalism.’ He goes on to consider different reasons for writing in Scots, as advanced by Scottish writers and draws a distinction between those who include Scots in their writing because it ‘comes naturally’ and is part of the language they daily use and those, on the other hand, who value ‘the strangeness and otherness available in Scots.’ It is, unfortunately, an argument which matters more to those inside Scotland. Outsiders might view the use of Scots as an ‘eye-snagging’[3] barrier to understanding. Kinloch’s use of Scots is anything but ‘kailyard’ as he bumps it up against contemporary life and culture of Europe and beyond. However, he would seem to be using it less than in the past, as if the point about Scots and the avant-garde had been made and no longer needed to be laboured. In any case, given the provision of a useful glossary, the reader does not have to work any harder on these poems than any of the others and may be reassured that the effort put into reading this collection, whether translating the Scots or researching the art, will be rewarded by the encounter with a vision which is melancholy, but ultimately affirmative.

[1] Both Martyn Crucefix and Don Paterson have produced brilliant translations of Rilke’s work.

[2] Irish Pages, Volume 10, No.1; Belfast, 2018

[3] Op.cit. -Hames quoting Alison Miller

Third Person, First Person and the Holes in the Wall

Before Christmas, I went to the Woodstock Poetry Festival to hear David Harsent reading from his recent collection, Salt. He was reading with George Szirtes, an entertaining and urbane performer, who gave an excellent and engaging reading. Harsent, however, instructed his audience not to look at him, to close their eyes and to focus on the sound of the poems as he read a selection from the fragmentary series of poems which make up this latest book.   On a dark night, in the warm and cosy ambience of the Woodstock Town Hall, the inevitable happened to me. My thoughts began to drift and I even dozed off for a moment.

.301254-david-harsent-getty

Nevertheless, when I later read the poems on the page, I found they exerted a magnetic pull even though their reference and the connections between them remained mysterious.

rock-wall-repairs2

Having recently read with interest Jack Underwood’s essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ in the most recent edition of The Poetry Review (January, 2017), I found ideas which seemed particularly pertinent to Harsent’s poems. Underwood talks about ‘deliberately build[ing]your poem as an open habitation;you have to learn to leave holes in the walls, because you won’t and can’t be around later to clear up any ambiguities…’(op.cit.p.43) I am less sure about Underwood’s suggestion that poets may use language imprecisely or ‘smudge’ in order to ‘signal possible meanings beyond the everyday’ (p.46). [1] In Salt, Harsent leaves plenty of holes in the walls, allowing the reader every opportunity to construct their own reading. However, the poems read less as if the bricks had been omitted in the building but more as if they had been removed afterwards to create hermetic uncertainty. Harsent certainly does not smudge language in the sense of using it imprecisely; he is expert in conveying a series of epiphanies through sharply observed physical detail and delicately suggested emotional context:

The way you cut and draw a chicken, that tumble of guts

slipping into your hand; the way you try to make

the best of it; the way ‘carcass’ sounds when said out loud.

(Salt, p.5)

There are a lot of bricks missing here: the repeated phrase ‘the way’ suggests attempts to find the best analogy or simile for something which is not identified or perhaps cannot be expressed; or, conversely, these are all instances or part of the unnamed idea. The first two examples involve direct address to another ‘you’ who I take, rightly or wrongly but influenced by the surrounding poems, to be a woman. In the last example, ‘you’ has disappeared but we are left with the chicken and the confrontation of death. The poem can be about (or linked in to)the physical messiness of life, the practical efficiency of the other, the recognition of death, whether the end of a relationship or actual physical death.

 

To me, these poems seem like the fragments of a narrative, or maybe more than one narrative. They include birth, sex, betrayal, death, guilt and remorse. They may relate to actual events or stories in the poet’s life, the source of his materials, but that is not our business as the way the poems are presented makes clear. There are hes, shes and theys but there is never an I. Harsent works in the tradition of T.S.Eliot, driving a wedge between the person who suffers and the poet who creates, or more properly, between the private process of creation and the public object which is created. To say this is not to suggest a return to some aesthetic concept of the poem as an object apart from life, but rather to see it as something which is available for the reader to construct meaning with, apart from the meaning which the poet may have imagined for it. I don’t know what Harsent meant when he wrote these poems, but some of them capture meaning for me:

Frame it up like this: a door, an inner door, a room

held ready, bare walls, weight

of silence, a glass of water cut by sunlight.

(p.83)

This is very visual, almost cinematic – a thought prompted by the first word ‘Frame’. I don’t know what it meant for the poet or what doors or rooms it may actually refer to but for me it captures a moment of stasis, of ‘beforeness’, a feeling of stillness before something momentous or irrevocable happens.

 

I think there are probably too many of these poems, but the book overall conveys a complex mood or tone made up not of impressionistic fogginess but of constructions of language which, to varying degrees, we are able to match to our experience or even use to extend our experience and understanding. It seems to me that what Underwood is talking about in his essay is the process of metaphor, that his ‘foggy’ language is what happens when ideas from different fields of discourse or semantics are brought together to create or put a name to something which is so far not named. Sometimes a metaphor is explicit; there will be a vehicle and a tenor and the bringing of the two together will enhance our perception of the tenor, as when Humbert Wolfe uses the simile of ‘a small grey coffee-pot” to describe a squirrel. Sometimes, the poem creates a vehicle for a tenor we cannot otherwise put into words, in a way similar to what T.S.Eliot describes in his essay, ‘The Metaphysical Poets’:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Leaving aside the dubious distinction between the mind of the poet and the ordinary person, we can see in this notion a theory akin to Imagism, the capturing of an undescribed experience through the juxtaposition of named things, perhaps still best exemplified by Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station on the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

petals on a wet, black bough.

The fragment poems in Salt work very much as imagist poems, encouraging us to construct our own meanings by bringing our own experience to them, only possible because language and experience are shared as well as individual.

Harsent’s prioritisation of the poem over the poet, evident in his idiosyncratic instructions at the reading I attended, is, I have suggested, in the tradition of T.S. Eliot, and could not be more different from the practice of certain American poets, including the very eminent Jorie Graham, whose work I have recently been reading.

jorie graham

Both poets engage in the blurring or smudging described by Underwood, which I would prefer to see as a metaphorical mixing of fields of discourse. We can see this happening persistently in a brilliant early poem by Graham, ‘Self-portrait as the gesture between them (Adam and Eve)’ which moves forward through a spiral of metaphor and simile leaving from and returning to the central image of the theft of the apple:

12

as the apple builds inside the limb, as rain builds

in the atmosphere, as the lateness accumulates until it finally is,

as the meaning of the story builds,

 

13

scribbling at the edge of her body until it must be told, be

 

14

taken from her, this freedom,

15

so that she had to turn and touch him to give it away

16

to have him pick it from her as the answer takes the question

 

However, the two poets engage with the world, or the universe, in different ways. Graham’s attitude to the phenomenal world has changed over the course of her writing life as she appears to have moved from an idealist position which did not recognise any reality beyond perception to an ecologically based acknowledgement of and concern for the fragility of the earth and its creatures. Throughout, in a particular kind of Americanness, probably going back to Whitman, she has persisted in trying to get everything in, to record events as they are perceived or as they happen, or more recently to include everything she can give a voice to, from robots to deep sea creatures to historical figures. This can result in some astonishingly vivid presentation of experience, or better, experiencing, as in this poem on the death of her father:

Standing next to you, holding the hand which stiffens, am I

outside it more than before, are you not inside?

The aluminium shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it.

The sun and the bedrail – do they touch each other more than you and I now.

Now. Is that a place now. Do you have a now.

The day stands outside all around as if it were a creature. It is natural. Am I to think    you now

natural?

‘The Post Human’ from Fast

Yet we know this immediacy and inclusiveness is a delusion or a device. I do not believe that Graham stood beside her just dead father tapping out a poem on the computer with her spare hand, despite the use of present tense. Similarly, the reflection based on the patterning and repetition of key words ‘now’ and ‘natural’ is artful, not naïve. Nevertheless, there is a difference between her approach and that of a poet like Harsent. Take this fragment from Salt:

 

She asked for a love-knot to be carved on the lid,

as if that had been their token, as if they’d talked it through.

To show him something of how it would look

she drew neatly on the fever-chart: a quick unbroken line.

(p.37)

 

Apparently, this is another deathbed, but so many bricks have been left out and it is up to the reader to supply them, to create their own narrative. Harsent abstracts from reality; Graham includes. Harsent is a third person writer; Graham belongs in the first person but both of them rely on the process of metaphor which is central to poetry.

 

 

Underwood suggests rather plaintively in his article “that poetry, that oft-maligned, wafty corner of dynamic not-knowing, that shadowy Hamlet mooning around on is platform at midnight, strung-out, self-effacing, and spoken to by ghosts, should be acknowledged as the prime medium for the articulation of our knowledge of the unknown. I’m not convinced by the Hamlet imagery –perhaps a subliminal reference to T.S. Eliot’s discussion of the objective correlative in his essay on the play –but I remember that Blake said that ‘What is now proved was once only imagined’ [2] and it was the creative imagination of a physicist that dreamed up the Higgs boson.

 

 

[1] This objection is developed by Martyn Crucefix in a blog post which is well worth reading not only for his discussion but for the citation of the beautiful poem, ‘Lake Water’ by David Ferry. https://martyncrucefix.com/martyns-blog-2/

[2] In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Jorie Graham 4:…and, finally

Having floundered my way through “Fast”, I shall say goodbye to Jorie Graham (at least for the time being) by considering two of the elegies from the second section of  this collection and then trying to pull together some of my thoughts and feelings about this poet.

“Reading to My Father” and “The Post Human” are very closely linked, both having as their starting point the moment of death of the poet’s father. The second poem is more closely focused on this moment and on the father, while the first brings together the poet’s preoccupation with endtime, ecological catastrophe and her father’s death in connections which are not always convincing. There is a sense that the poet’s political and philosophical commentary are strongly coloured by the incidence of decay and death in her own life.

            Listen I say to you, forgetting. Do you hear it Dad. Listen.

            What is increase. The cease of increase.

            The cease of progress. What is progress.

            What is going. The cease of going.

            What is knowing. What is fruition.

            The cease of. Cease of.

            What is bloodflow. The cease of bloodflow

             of increase of progress the best is over, is over-

            thrown, no, the worst is yet to come, no, it is

            7.58 pm, it is late Spring, it is capital’s apogee, the

            flow’s, fruition’s, going’s, increase’s, in creases of

            matter, brainfold, cellflow, knowing’s        

            pastime, it misfired, lifetime’s only airtime – candle says

            you shall out yourself, out-

            perform yourself, grow multiform – you shall self-identify as

                                                                                    still

            mortal – here in this timestorm –this end-of-time

            storm – the night comes on.

           

The poet appears to be apostrophising her just-dead father. The six lines following the injunction: “Listen” appear to mimic the inhalations and exhalations of breath or possibly the systolic-diastolic sound of the heartbeat, both of which, in the case of her father, have ceased. The repetition of “cease” emphasises death and echoes its synonym “decease”. Some of these two part lines could be offering question and answer; alternatively, they may be merely an accumulating list of questions. The form is gnomic and the progression is based on word and sound association rather than argument. “Cease” and “increase” are rhymed to represent one of the fundamental themes of the collection which is the opposition and causal connection between proliferation, abundance, the rapidity of technological change and the depletion of natural resources leading to the starvation  and death of species, including our own.  Graham throws these ideas together, expecting the reader to pick up on them, or perhaps to recognise the jumble of thoughts which come together as she confronts her father’s death. The poem is held together by its location in the moment and the image of the candle.  The poem successfully represents the actuality of this moment, “dusk-end’ when “the night comes on”, showing how mind encounters and engages with the world in which it finds itself. As the poet attempts to come to terms with her father’s death, she recalls reading to him but cannot make the memory coherent, ”the words don’t grip up into sentences for me’. Nevertheless, the matter of what she has been reading is revealed to be an article about the extinction of species: “the blue-jewel-butterfly/ you loved”.  The list of doomed species co-exists with the extinction of life in one man as the writer flicks between her grief, random thoughts about funeral procedures and her fear of accelerating technological advance. She alludes to the MRI, which reappears in Section 3 in “From Inside the MRI”. Here, it seems like one aspect of the technology which increasingly monitors us, knows us and controls us: “I feel the hissing multiplying/satellites out there I took for stars”.  The poem ends in two profoundly ambivalent lines where the poet reveals herself caught between flesh and machine: “I caress you now with the same touch/as I caress these keys.”  Throughout the book, Graham conveys this mixture of fascination and dread for the future.

The idea of life after humanity is evoked in the title of the next poem “The Post Human”, although at another level this is a description of her father’s condition after he has stopped living.  This is a beautiful piece and much more accessible than many others in the volume.  The association of ideas is more transparent and supported by closely observed physical detail which manages to capture scenes, not as snapshots but more as videos, with time incorporated into them:  “the silver morning grow as if skinning night,/that animal, till day came out raw and bleeding./Daylight mended it for now.” This extraordinary metaphor at first seems almost gratuitous but is then recognised as an image of birth which is saying something about death.  As the morning is allowed to dawn in the next few lines of the poem, Graham uses brackets to insert the moment of her father’s death and to question the difference between our relation with a dead person and a living one: [you passed in here][you left] [“you” –what did your you do?]. The italics and the unusual use of the question mark signal the importance of this question.  Given the appearance of a medium in the next poem and the exploration of cryogenics at the end of section 3, it may be that the boundary between life and death seems less absolute to Graham than it does to others.

However, the emphasis on “you” reminds us that the poem is concerned with the nature of identity and selfhood, in what “you” means in the context of the extreme discontinuity of death.  In the last few lines of the poem, she returns to this concern but is able to grant her father a new way of being, an afterlife which exists in the consciousness of those who remember him:

            There on the bed just now – (look, all of a sudden now I cannot write “your”

   bed) – I watch your afterlife begin to

   burn.  Helpful.  Making a space we had not used

   before, could not. Undimmed, unconsumed.  In it this daylight burns.

 

This image of light and energy seems to refer to and refresh the image of the candle in the previous poem. There are biblical echoes in the allusion to burning which does not consume and the discovery of, if not immortality, at least an afterlife is surprisingly optimistic and consolatory.

I like this poem, partly because I can find meaning in it, but it exemplifies a number of the concerns I have about Jorie Graham’s work.  First, there is the immediacy, or apparent immediacy, of the text: “It has been just a minute now”.  This must be disingenuous which is acknowledged in the last lines of the previous poem which refer to the computer keys simultaneously to the body of her father. I’m assuming that she was not writing the poem literally beside her father’s deathbed.  Whether she was or not, I feel that this pose of immediacy can lead to some slack or redundant writing, as in the penultimate section of the poem”

                                    There are so many copies of this minute.

            Not endless but there sure are a lot

The phrase “sure are a lot” seems unnecessarily flabby while two lines further down, the associational thinking and rhyme are so open in their reference that they annoy rather than enlighten:

                        Or, no, cup in hand, end at hand, trying to hide from the

            final ampersand.

“Final ampersand” is a kind of oxymoron but it is so vague it does not delight.

Another problem I have with much of Graham’s writing is the claim that she is trying to escape the tyranny of the subjective “I” and allow the other, the phenomenal world to exist in her poems. She views this as a version of Keats’ concept of Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –“ [1] We could say that Graham’s work leaves the reader with mystery and doubts but it is very difficult not to reach after fact and reason, especially when she often seems to be making statements. Perhaps more relevant is the other famous passage from Keats, often quoted alongside this one, when he describes the poetical character as

not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago  as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.[2]

 

This seems closer to what Graham is looking for, particularly in more recent work. She has talked about allowing voices into the poem (see previous posts) ; a poem can become an arena where different ideas and perspectives are allowed to interact, which can be confusing for the reader.  However, as I have already suggested, this is notional rather than real. Graham is not a Sybil nor a medium channeling the voice of the gods, or the ocean floor, or bots; she is writing consciously and subjectively expressing what she thinks these voices would be, except of course where she quotes directly from another source, as from Columbus or Julian of Norwich.  Even here subjectivity takes control through the way the found material is ordered in the poem.  I would argue that Graham is not an example of negative capability but rather that she has one of the largest poetic egos currently at work.  This is not intended to be an insult but rather a recognition that she uses the first person, her own subjective consciousness and its engagement with the world as her material, and that when she does this well she creates an dynamic impression of the subject interacting with the object in a constant process of change.

 

Graham writes in a tradition much more familiar in America than Britain. The open poem, often appearing to lack form or order apart from its own organic shape, has never really gained widespread recognition here. For many British readers, Graham’s poems might read like drafts, like notes for a poem or even as self-indulgence.  I do not think this is a fair criticism; this is writing which is very exposed.  It entails constant attention to what is going on in the world and a monitoring of how that is being processed inside the writer’s own head.  The attempt to record that is strenuous and difficult and there is no place to hide, as there might be in the shapeliness of a sonnet or other prescribed form.  It only works when it is done well and it would be surprising if all Graham’s work, of which there is a lot, were equally successful.  I think there is a danger, however, of elevating a writer to the status of a guru and then treating all their work as important.  Although climate change and artificial intelligence are obviously of pressing concern for humanity, I am not sure that their topicality in itself makes for great poetry.   Graham is a very serious poet; she is consumed by the fundamental issues of the age.  Reading her work over the last few weeks, I have been both impressed and bewildered. At times I would have just liked her to lighten up.

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[1] Letter to Tom and George Keats, 1817

[2] Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 1818