Does it matter if you don’t understand Medbh McGuckian?

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Who knew? Marine Cloud Brightening, the title of Medbh McGuckian’s most recent collection is actually a thing, the name for an experimental programme that would seek to make clouds brighter by reflecting some of the sunlight they absorb back into space and so reducing global warming, or at least that is my lay person’s understanding of it. The discovery that this phrase has such a clear reference clashes with the cover of the collection which presents a painting of cloud, sky and land in a seascape which looks both generically Irish and tonally emotive but vague.

 

I have been trying once again to get on terms with this poet, both through her new Selected Poems, The Unfixed Horizon, (Wake Forest University Press, 2015) and Marine Cloud Brightening, (Gallery Press, 2019). McGuckian’s work resists interpretation but her poems have a weight and a rightness which refute hostile assertions that they are beautiful nonsense, apolitical, too political, plagiarising, restrictively female and hermetically private. Nevertheless, I think it is impossible to seek for a singular valid reading for any of her poems and the attempt to achieve this is misguided though always tempting in the way that we are always tempted to construct meaning for a Rorschach blot.

 

Like McGuckian, I grew up in Belfast although she is slightly younger than me. For me, as for her, the special place has always been Ballycastle. Our experiences have been totally different, not least because I am a Protestant and she is a Catholic and because she stayed in Northern Ireland and I have lived most of my adult life in England. Nevertheless, there is that uncanny and symbolic awareness of two titles to the same place which means that sometimes her words crawl around the inside of my skin. In the title poem of her collection, Marconi’s Cottage, I recognise lines and phrases from my own memories of many visits to Marconi’s cottage, the place where the coast road stops on the way to Fairhead. When she describes it as ‘Small and watchful as a lighthouse’ and as ‘Bitten and fostered by the sea/and by the British spring’ she is speaking my memories and my conflicts. I do not know whether she is writing about a house or a person or even a plant; in the last stanza the object of address has acquired leaves. Nevertheless, I read this as a love poem which refracts my own love for the same place.

 

Herein lies the danger or the opportunity of poetry so wilfully obscure. Readers are forced either into a process of pedantic search for sources or to impose their own reading of the texts in front of them. Some critics have gone down the route of an exhaustive exploration of sources. Others have defied the writer by hunting for a definitive singular reading. An interesting exploration of both these strategies was adopted by Kenneth Keating in his article: ‘Medbh McGuckian’s source texts and the challenge to authorial identity in “The Good Wife Taught her Daughter”’[1]. Keating turns to Jacques Derrida for his underpinning rationale:

According to Derrida’s différance, as a signifier no word has an ideal             relationship to the signified, all words, through their positioning within a chain    of signifiers which find meaning in opposition to one another, inherently       represent an absence of that which is signified. All terms, as Derrida declares,           are dependent upon one another for their meaning, reliant on the chain in its entirety to gain understanding, and yet this chain is infinite and in constant           flux, therefore a complete understanding is impossible. External to the chain,             outside of this process of differentiation, the signifier is meaningless. As a        result of this, there is no single pure meaning of a word, and it is this             impossibility to find such a meaning which thus applies to all linguistic acts,         of which McGuckian’s poetry is one. Différance refers, therefore, to the        difference which is held within a single term and the multiplicity of meaning            which composes all linguistic acts. McGuckian’s uniquely opaque and          challenging poetry encapsulates this différance as it continuously interrupts            itself and prevents a reductive, singular coherent interpretation. Multiple        interpretations are to be found within a single text just as within that text multiple meanings of a single word or phrase are to be found. As Derrida’s   deconstruction works within Western metaphysics in order to undermine it            and render a single transcendental truth possible, McGuckian works within   poetic language and symbolism to undermine it and render a single absolute          interpretation impossible.[2]

 

Although McGuckian’s own comments on her work are almost as impenetrable as the poems, she might seem to be signaling an acceptance of this approach through gestures like the title of her most recent Selected Poems, The Unfixed Horizon.

 

Keating goes on to provide two readings of ‘The Goodwife Taught Her Daughter’ which, on the face of it, is a relatively unpuzzling poem:

 

The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter

 

Lordship is the same activity

Whether performed by lord or lady.

Or a lord who happens to be a lady,

All the source and all the faults.

 

A woman steadfast in looking is a callot,

And any woman in the wrong place

Or outside of her proper location

Is, by definition, a foolish woman.

 

The harlot is talkative and wandering

By the way, not bearing to be quiet,

Not able to abide still at home,

Now abroad, now in the streets,

 

Now lying in wait near the corners,

Her hair straying out of its wimple.

The collar of her shift and robe

Pressed one upon the other.

 

She goes to the green to see to her geese,

And trips to wrestling matches and taverns.

The said Margery left her home

In the parish of Bishopshill,

 

And went to a house, the which

The witness does not remember,

And stayed there from noon

Of that day until the darkness of night.

 

But a whip made of raw hippopotamus

Hide, trimmed like a corkscrew,

And anon the creature was stabled

In her wits as well as ever she was biforn,

 

And prayed her husband as so soon

As he came to her that she might have

The keys to her buttery

To take her meat and drink.

 

He should never have my good will

For to make my sister for to sell

Candle and mustard in Framlyngham,

Or fill her shopping list with crossbows,

 

Almonds, sugar and cloth.

The captainess, the vowess,

Must use herself to work readily

As other gentilwomen doon,

 

In the innermost part of her house,

In a great chamber far from the road.

So love your windows as little as you can,

For we be, either of us, weary of other.[3]

 

McGuckian clearly signals her use of other source texts by her retention of middle or early modern English usages, so the charge of plagiarism does not arise. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of how far the extracts from the source texts have directed the poem and how far authorial choice has been exercised in selecting and collaging them in the new work.

 

In Keating’s first interpretation of the poem, he embarks on an erotic reading which, in my view, stretches the text to breaking point, as when he suggests that the word ‘talkative’ implies open lips, therefore vagina and that ‘be quiet’ is an allusion to the female orgasm. In the second reading, he provides an interesting number of sources, but in neither reading does he offer any sort of certainty. This is totally in keeping with the thesis of his article that McGuckian’s poetry resists determined or singular readings. Keating provides a convincing argument against dismissive and reductive approaches to the poet’s work, but his own readings are so personal, so tentative and so hedged with qualifiers like ‘somewhat’ and ‘almost’ as to undermine the validity of his effort, even though that , to some extent, is the point.

 

Much has been written about McGuckian’s use of intertextuality, as well as her reading and working practices. I have read that she notes down phrases from her reading and crosses them off as she employs them in her poems. I don’t know if this is true and, in any case, I doubt if she is systematic in her selection of sources. I suspect, like many poets, she absorbs what is to hand during the process of gestating a particular poem, in a process like that described by T.S.Eliot in his essay on 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.[4]

 

Eliot’s description is perhaps too mechanical and objective in that it plays down the process of interaction and change by suggesting that the poet’s mind is a vessel within which these activities take place with the outcome of ‘wholes’ which are discrete in the world. It might be better to think of the poet’s mind as an organ interacting with the external world so that both it and externality are changed through poems which are never fully detached. This is not to say McGuckian’s poems are unfinished; on the contrary, her endings, although often unfathomable, are nearly always totally convincing. It is more that every poem is a process which may end in a very different place from where it started. One example is the poem quoted above. Another, more recent, is ‘A Handstitched Balloon’ , which concludes with two mystifying but intuitively right lines:

 

as a stove can be disguised as a statue of love

and, in place of her breasts, two flowers.[5]

 

Although the quest for a theoretical underpinning to justify or explain McGuckian’s project can be helpful or even reassuring, for me it is more interesting to explore what is happening in the poems themselves, to use the procedures of close reading, not to offer an interpretation which proposes a single meaning, but to clarify the procedures by which the poems come into being and link those to what they may mean or say to the reader and also, perhaps to explore what is being withheld.

 

The idea of hand-stitching a balloon is counter-intuitive but suggests love and intimacy; perhaps a gift for the dedicatee: ‘for Michael, in Ward One South’. As the poem appeared in a tribute volume to Michael Longley published in 2009 (Love Poet, Carpenter: Michael Longley at Seventy edited by Robert Robinson) we may assume that the poem is written for Michael Longley. The connection of the title to the body of the poem is unclear, but it may be picked up in the image of the moon which opens the poem: ‘Arils of peace-engorged late moon freezing/on the water,’. An aril is a biological term referring to an extra seed casing as with a pomegranate, a lychee or a yew seed. Arils tend to be red and this together with the adjective ‘engorged’ suggests that the moon is red, thus perhaps like a balloon. (Something which is red and engorged clearly has sexual connotations but I can’t do anything with this, so I have chosen to park it.) Moons are seen as red during a lunar eclipse, a relatively common occurrence; ‘peace-engorged’ could also be one of McGuckian’s oblique political references to a Northern Ireland post Good Friday agreement. The sense of late time is reinforced by the repetition of ‘late’ in the first two lines, ‘late moon’, ‘late dawn’. Of course, ‘late’ also connotes death. The opening of the poem also traces the passage from night into day which may make us think of a bedside vigil or may lead us to the idea of star-watching or astronomy which is associated with the ‘he’ who we take to be the focus of the poem.

 

At this point, I was seized by anxiety and the need to connect Michael Longley with astronomy and/or trees; the urge to discover sources and find external points of reference is, I think, mistaken. My reading of the poem needs to be made from where I am, not based on an attempt to worm myself inside the poet’s head. We know that McGuckian’s work responds to and interacts with other Irish poets, especially those from the North. Keating demonstrates convincingly that ‘The Goodwife Taught her Daughter’ is, in part, a response to Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Field of Vision’. Different readers with different degrees of proximity to the poet and her personal world will be able to take different things from the poems. Nevertheless, I have to trust the poems and myself, rather than engaging in constant research for fear of being told I am ‘wrong’. So I resolutely decided to stop worrying about the identity of ‘he’ or even whether it was the same ‘he’ throughout the poem. I also have to consider who ‘we’ are and whether this too is consistent as well as to explore the relationship between the ‘he’ and ‘we’ which only comes into play in the second part of the poem.

 

The first stanza creates a sense of tranquillity and age which is only slightly undermined by the jarring notes of ‘peace-engorged’ and ‘freezing’. I have a notion that this stanza might be connected to Longley, one of the ‘the veteran old trees’ with an ‘orchard practice’ and recognised as a ‘high, honest capturer’. If so, there are reservations, only hinted at in ‘the closed canopy/they made out of larch trees.’ The second stanza blows away any feeling of peace , with the arrival of a big wind which changes everything; the ‘north-south zigzag’, takes on a political dimension, the moon shifts and the earth changes shape like a balloon, or ‘like a lemon. There is menace in the ‘heavier’ sounds of the taller trees and ‘The cider trees in the lee/of the hill show a thin branch of appleness/over the lane…’ It is impossible to tell whether we should be pleased or anxious about the presence of ‘appleness’. I wondered if the apples were green and if they could be related to the ‘snake of orange motion’ in ‘Smoke’, one of McGuckian’s earliest poems. If so, this would increase the political impact of the poem, but there is not enough there to confirm this suggestion.This second stanza ends with an ellipsis while the third moves from present to past tense: ‘Countless journeys have made that path’. We may choose to identify ‘that path’ with ‘the lane’ of the previous stanza although the use of ‘that’ distances it. The alliteration ‘flow and flutter of limbs on a flowered/floor covering’ seems to intensify the lightness of passage which nevertheless has been sufficient to create a lane; we may think that the floor covering, which is terminology more fitting to indoors, is created by the fall of apple blossom. The humanity, almost the domesticity of the first three lines, is set against the reference to the wind and the sea at the end of the stanza which is described as ‘begrudging/in its beauty’. At one level, this works perfectly as an evocation of place; at another, it juxtaposes the human and the power of nature, or possibly even the femininity of ‘flowered’ and ‘flutter’ with the masculinity of the sea and the wind which has already disrupted the orchard world of the first part of the poem. In that case, reading retrospectively, the ‘thin branch of appleness’ would also be under threat, its vulnerability emphasised by ‘thin’. Against this reading is the fact that for McGuckian the sea is often a female presence. Perhaps the stanza is proposing two possibly antagonistic forms of femininity.

 

The fourth stanza moves further back into the past perfect tense and introduce a ‘he’ whose actions must be viewed ambivalently: ‘He had wanted to cut down all the trees’. His motives are ambitious and wide-ranging as he wanted to ‘collect stars from all over space’. When we are told that ‘he’ wants to be attuned to ‘the dark crater thirty miles wide/on Venus’ we have to infer a sexual meaning, particularly in the light of McGuckian’s earlier book and eponymous poem, Venus and the Rain. ‘He’ is dominant and overreaching; his attempts at charting the stars go wrong and the strategy of trying to control the whole of the night sky from three adjoining houses is apparently unsuccessful. It would be possible to impose a rather clunky political, post-colonial reading on these lines but I am hesitant to take such a route. The stanza ends in a colon which opens out into two similes or analogies, which are very hard to understand but which return to the imagery of the opening, to the pronoun ‘we’ and to the present tense:

as each grave seems to have its companion tree,

when we consider a field,

as a stove can be disguised as a statue of love

and, in place of her breasts, two flowers.

 

 

In the first stanza, the ‘companion trees’ were paired with ‘worker trees’; here, they are found with graves and the orchard seems to have become a field which is a graveyard. Both of these are enclosed places, possibly symbols of the female, but in the first instance the space is fruitful, in the second, it harbours death. So, finally, we come to the last two lines. How can a stove be disguised as a statue of love? My first thought was of the Willendorf Venus, a dumpy figure which, if enlarged, might bear a passing resemblance to a wood-burning stove. This may be excessively unlikely, but we need to examine the idea of a disguised stove. A stove is something which has fire inside it and which burns; in that sense it could be a statue or representation of love, but it is also an image of consumption and destruction. Why, though, are flowers substituted for the statue’s breasts? The Willendorf Venus is very well-endowed with breasts and to substitute flowers would be to prettify the image but to deprive it of its power. I have travelled a long way through my reading of this poem and have ended up somewhere quite different from my starting place. The more I reflect on it, the more words and images reverberate with different connotations, often conflicting. ‘Arils’ sounds like and can relate to apples, which also encase seeds, as, I suppose, do testicles. The ‘loose bellying’ of the wind which ‘rends and peels back the air’ could be an image of parturition rather than partition. The poem may say something about or to the Michael of the dedication, who may or may not be Michael Longley. It may comment on Irish politics and British colonialism, it may reflect conflicts over gender and sexuality, but it is not prepared to tell me explicitly about any of these things because it is written in code.

stove          Willendorf Venus

By code, I don’t mean that there is somewhere a cypher which we could discover and use to interpret the work. It is rather that she chooses to withhold from us as much as she reveals.  There are political and personal reasons for this practice. McGuckian lives in the province of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, a motto which has become the only sustainable way of engaging in a society so divided. To announce your political views in such a context can not only be awkward but actually dangerous. At the personal level, McGuckian is writing about the most personal traumas of gender and sexuality, parenthood, family and friendship. Moreover, she is not just writing, she is exploring, trying to make sense of experience, a process which can never be final. I think it would be literally impossible for her to say what she wants except through the medium of slippery words and shifting symbols. There is a path through each poem which she has taken although as I suggested earlier the course of the poem is probably influenced by the components included in it. We cannot be privy to the decisions over direction which she has taken and we must refrain from readings which reduce the poems to torn vulvas and orgasms. The words and images she selects, so often natural or domestic, are also the poem and the poem’s meaning.

So, while McGuckian may have had a meaning or thought process on which a poem is threaded, the meaning we receive is the whole of the poem as it is put into the world. It is difficult to accept that our grasp or understanding of that poem may always be limited, just as, perhaps our grasp or understanding of any other person will be limited no matter how much we care for them.

 

I am baffled and excited by McGuckian’s poetry. Some of the poems in the second section of her book which is dedicated to the memory of Seamus Heaney, I find almost unbearably moving without really knowing why. However, I have reservations about this hermetic approach to writing as I have always felt that the poet’s job is to communicate and reveal through language rather than to conceal. I feel that the poet uses their own experience, no matter how indirectly, to produce poems readers will recognise as having meaning for them. I don’t think this is always true for McGuckian, although I believe her poems have meaning, however unfixed that meaning may be. Her poetry is unique and I think it should remain so. The danger of a poetry so private is that it invites self-indulgence on a massive scale. The power and the pain in McGuckian’s poetry show us that this is not a trap she has fallen into but she would be a very dangerous act to follow.

 

 

 

[1] Irish Studies Review, Vol. 23, Issue 3, 2015

[2] Keating, op.cit.

[3] The Currach Requires No Harbours, Gallery Press, 2006

[4] T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

[5] Marine Cloud Brightening, pp. 27-28.

 

Alice Oswald’s first Oxford lecture and her recent collection, Nobody

alice oswald

I did not manage to attend Alice Oswald’s first lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry but I have just listened to the podcast: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/art-erosion . The title of the lecture was ‘The Art of Erosion’ and in it Oswald made a distinction between poetry which builds up and that which erodes, the latter being what she is more interested in. Erosion as a metaphor captures the forces of nature and time central to her poetry. She argues that the poetry of erosion is not a construct but the uncovering or discovering of what is already there. Poets (and critics) are fond of dividing poetry into categories; this one reminds me of Charles Olson’s dictum that the poet could either make something up or be ‘equal to the real, itself’. This, in turn, reminds me of Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy, and, more significantly for Oswald, of Keats’ discussion of the egotistical sublime and the chameleon poet.

 

In her lecture, Oswald chose to quote poetic extracts concerned with nature and time, from Wyatt through Herrick to Wordsworth and back to Homer. She blithely dismissed five out of six stanzas of the Wyatt poem as being ‘love poetry’ while she analysed and treasured the first few lines which capture the process of erosion:

Processe of tyme worketh suche wounder,

That water which is of kynd so sot

Doth perse the marbell stone a sonder,

By little droppes faling from aloft.

 

I am not sure how well Oswald’s distinction works as a critical theory and she lost me when she appeared to contrast the way Wordsworth wrote about Nature with Herrick’s writing. I feel her theory is more of an enabling myth which underpins her own approach to writing poetry and which particularly works in relation to her sea poem, Nobody. This book-length work was commissioned to accompany watercolours by William Tillyer and was originally published with the watercolours as an art book. However, it has been edited and republished as a successful stand-alone poem.   We recognise many elements from Oswald’s other work. Like Memorial with which this might be paired, the one as Oswald’s take on the Iliad, this as her version of the Odyssey, the poem reflects her enduring interest in the classics. It is also, like Dart and A Sleepwalk on the Severn, an ecological poem, a poem about landscape or waterscapes and people, about Nature and culture. In her writing, the individual “I” does not disappear, but becomes the recording eye, the listening ear open and receptive to everything in the location. This is Keats’ ‘negative capability’ which leads to the view of himself as a ‘chameleon poet’, who

has no identity – he is continually in for, and filling, some other body- the             sun, the moon, the sea, and men and women who are creatures of impulse                   are           poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet          has none;              no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.

Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818

keats

The central figure in Nobody is similarly ‘nobody’ – a poet, the nameless poet exiled by Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, or even our poet, Alice Oswald, taking on different shapes like the sea god Proteus in order to convey the shifting shapes and times of the sea and the myths and histories with which it is imbued.

NOBODY

One would probably require a greater knowledge of Greek mythology, Homer and the classics than I have to pick up all the allusions in the poem. Helpfully, most of the relevant names are printed in grey uppercase at the end of the book and it does not take too much effort to look them up and revise their stories. However, the stories and figures all belong to the island-spattered Mediterranean and Aegean seas, so that the poem has a specific location.

 

In her lecture, Oswald was excited by poetry which captured the passage of time and the changes of the seasons, in particular, by poems which seemed to capture the effect of a natural force through time, which actually recorded the process of erosion, rather like those nature films where the budding and flowering of a plant are speeded up so that we can see them happening. In Nobody the writing seeks to be open to the fluctuation of the sea, so that the voice is constantly changing its identity, sometimes perhaps the poet ‘I know a snorkeller found a bronze warrior once/ with the oddest verdigris expression’, perhaps Odysseus:

a blue came over us a blue cloud

whose brown shadow goose-fleshed the sea

the ship after a little rush stopped moving

the wind with a swivelling sound began to rise

and here I am still divided in my decision

whether to heave-to or keep going under half-sail

but the water is in my thinking now

We may notice the exactitude and incidental brilliance of Oswald’s writing – ‘verdigris’ the grey-green coating of brass exposed to damp, ‘goose-fleshed’, an emotive but precise description of a change in the sea’s surface, while at the same time recognising that as the water is in the thinking of Odysseus so it is also in the thinking of the poem.

Oswald is much preoccupied with simile, particularly Homeric simile, a device she used structurally in Memorial; the similes in this poem are also remarkable, often pulling the stories and myths of the past into the present: the stranded poet paces ‘dry as an ashtray’; later a swimmer floats ‘like a wedge of polystyrene’; seals ‘bob about like footballs’. Such similes contribute to our feeling that past and present coexist in the constant change and movement of sea water.

 

This book-length poem makes excellent use of the printed page and white space. However, Oswald is a poet who writes for the voice and the ear. I have never heard her read her own work, but in the lecture it was notable how she read each of her quotations at least twice, allowing her voice to caress the words and phrases. The way this poem is set out allows us to guess at how it should sound, where the voice should linger, where it should gather pace and momentum.

 

In her lecture, Oswald remarked that Herrick was a minor poet, whereas Homer was a major one. She suggested that the difference lay in the fact that Homer (if he actually existed) had a single or unified vision while Herrick did not. Whether or not this distinction holds, we could recognise that Oswald writes from a single vision; she is a poet of ecology. There are many things she does not write about and her determined openness to landscape and waterscape, her commitment to her way of poetry have a rigour which may sometimes seem almost dispassionate or inhuman. I think this is because she displays the quality of ‘negative capability’ and the subordination of personal identity to such an extraordinary extent. Although, of course, she is the shaping force or maker of this poem, she manages to make it seem as if she were merely a conduit for the voices and forces of the sea. Thus it is fittingly titled Nobody.

 

 

Geoffrey Hill 2

geoffrey hill

In this post[1], I shall be considering poems from Tenebrae and Canaan. I have omitted Mercian Hymns because I have discussed it in a previous post and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy because it is too long and because it is in some respects relatively straightforward.

 

When I first read ‘The Pentecost Castle’ which is the opening sequence in Tenebrae I had three thoughts: one was that the poem was beautiful; the second was that it sounded like devotional love poetry, akin to St John of the Cross or, further back, the Song of Solomon; the third was that the language was extraordinarily old.

 

It is comparatively easy to work out how the poem works its effect of loveliness. Hill uses beautiful images, many drawn from nature or from the traditional nature images of poetry: flower, briar rose, trees, aspen, river, wind, high rocks, goldfinch, hawk, heron, sparrow, sparrowhawk . There are images of heraldry and romance: gold, ermine, lily, candles, sword, citadel. The diction is poetic: slain, ,forlorn, passion, distress; the form reminiscent of ballad and folk poetry with four line stanzas and a plethora of patterning devices.

 

Hill acknowledges his debt to Spanish poetry in the notes, in particular, to the Penguin Book of Spanish Verse edited by J.M. Cohen and a number of poems are almost straight translations. This may account for the old-fashioned effect of the language so much at odds with, for instance, the language of Mercian Hymns. Tom Paulin notoriously refers to this style as ‘visionary mustiness’. For me, this is an apt description of a number of poems in Tenebrae which seem to combine the atmosphere of The Four Quartets with the nostalgia of various Agatha Christie movies. Having said that, Hill recognises and engages with the inauthenticity of nationalist nostalgia in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy where the dangerously attractive myths of the ‘terre charnelle’ are both celebrated and debunked:

This is no old Beauce manoir that you keep

But the rue de la Sorbonne, the cramped shop

Hill is always more complex and complicated than I am suggesting but the language in many of the poems in Tenebrae is alienating because of its stylistic archaism. Using the analysis of syntax as a way in, I will explore one poem,‘A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook’. Hill has said that it was written quite early, in the sixties or seventies, and it may be flavoured by a young man’s desire to shock. I am not sure how to explain the title, whether it is intended to come from the notebook of a Pre-Raphaelite artist or whether it is from a notebook which is concerned with Pre-Raphaelite painting. I am unaware of any specific work of art with which the poem might be associated. Here is the poem:

 

A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook

 

Primroses; salutations; the miry skull

of a half-eaten ram; viscous wounds in earth

opening. What seraphs are afoot.

 

Gold seraph to gold worm in the pierced slime:

greetings. Advent of power-in-grace. The power

of flies distracts the working of our souls.

 

Earth’s abundance. The God-ejected Word

resorts to flesh, procures carrion, satisfies

its white hunger. Salvation’s travesty

 

a deathless metaphor: the stale head

sauced in original blood; the little feast

foaming with cries of rapture and despair.

 

The poem opens with a sequence of words and phrases separated by semi-colons, suggesting some kind of equivalence between each. However, the items are very different. “Primroses’ might indeed suggest some sort of Pre-Raphaelite outdoor painting, celebrating spring, but it is followed immediately by ‘salutations’ which floats free of syntax and explanation. To whom, from whom and on what occasion are there salutations? Why is there such a formal choice of lexis? What has this to do with the ‘miry skull/ of a half-eaten ram and why are there are ‘viscous wounds in earth’? Syntax and line endings work against other to create greater ambiguity. Perhaps the viscous wounds are in the ram’s skull and the skull itself has found an ‘opening’ in the earth. ‘Viscous’ reaps the additional benefit of looking and sounding like ‘vicious’ which introduces an idea of evil to set against the ‘seraphs’. The placing of ‘opening’ on its own at the beginning of the line extends the range of its meanings, possibly allowing for the issue of seraphs into the poem in the next sentence which takes up half a line and ends in an understated full stop, rather than affording us the clarity of a question mark or an exclamation mark which would tell us if ‘what’ was acting as an interrogative or as an intensifier. The poeticisms of ‘seraph’ and ‘afoot’ become heavily ironic when we realize what he is actually talking about. The next stanza maintains the highly poetic register with the repetition of ‘gold’, ‘seraph’ and the introduction of ‘pierced’ with its connotations of the Crucifixion. The inclusion of the ‘worm’ might stir unease. This may be another acknowledgement of the problems of dualism, body and spirit, or to put it another way, of Incarnation. A colon is followed by ‘greetings’, perhaps picking up from the ‘salutations’ in the first stanza. The next fragment sentence with its compound theological noun ‘power-in-grace’ suddenly hints that this may be a form of annunciation. Be that as it may, it is interrupted by the first unambiguously declarative sentence in the poem, which apparently comes from Pascal. This is the pivotal point of the poem from where realization grows that we are looking at blowflies and maggots.

 

The third stanza opens with another sentence fragment, like a caption or an exclamation: ‘Earth’s abundance.’ We can see in these two words Hill’s ambivalent attitude to the world of matter and flesh, where for him beauty so often seems to be accompanied by disgust. The version of Incarnation which follows is replete with sleazy nuance. ‘God-ejected’ simultaneously suggests ‘rejected’ and ejaculated’ while the triplet of verbs, ‘resorts’, ‘procures’, ‘satisfies’ seem better suited to prostitution than religion.

 

I take the ‘white hunger’ to be the maggots busy in the ram’s head. There is an echo of the image of the Samson’s riddle of the lion and the bees alluded to in an earlier poem.[2] This emergence of life from the body of the dead ram is taken to be ‘Salvation’s travesty’ and, in a bitter pun, ‘a deathless metaphor’. The poem reverts to ambiguous enjambment and fragment sentences, in parallel to the opening stanza. The final lines are both disgusted and disgusting, a disgust which seems to include sexual disgust, where the phrase ‘the little feast’ could suggest ‘the last supper and the communion feast’ or echo ‘the little death’ (le petit mort). ‘Foaming’ is a further visual reminder of the activity of the maggots but in conjunction with the ‘cries of rapture and despair’ could again be taken as sexual. The tenor of this poem recalls the bitter realization in ‘Genesis’, the first poem in For the Unfallen, that the flesh cannot be renounced:

So, the fifth day, I turned again

To flesh and blood and the blood’s pain.

Canaan was published in 1996; the poet’s New and Collected Poems were published in America in 1994. In the decade since his last published collection, many things had changed. Hill’s first marriage was dissolved and he then remarried; he moved to America. Nevertheless, the poems which open Canaan share the concerns of earlier work, although arguably they are less lyrical and more academic. For the most part, the poet has abandoned rhyme, in contrast to the careful and sustained rhyme scheme in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. However, the poems are as cryptic as ever, in part because of the range of learned allusion, in part because of the ambiguous syntax. The second poem in the collection seems to explore the role of the writer:

 

That Man as a Rational Animal Desires The Knowledge Which Is His Perfection

 

Abiding provenance I would have said

the question stands

even in adoration

clause upon clause

with or without assent

reason and desire on the same loop —

I imagine singing I imagine

 

getting it right — the knowledge

of sensuous intelligence

entering into the work —

spontaneous happiness as it was once

given our sleeping nature to awake by

and know

innocence of first inscription

In a careless first reading, it is easy to read ‘provenance’ as the much more predictable ‘providence’, which would give the opening words of the poem a churchy or religious resonance. However, having realized that the word is provenance we are left with a number of questions, not the least of which is what is the question referred to in the second line and who is ‘abiding’? Grammatically, this is a detached participle which could qualify ‘I’ or, if we take “I would have said’ as parenthetic, we can attach ‘abiding’ to ‘the question’. ‘The question’ may or may not be the title of the poem, even though this is presented as a proposition rather than as an interrogative. In fact, the provenance of the concept of the ‘rational animal’ is quite hard to pin down. Some trace it back to Aristotle, while others argue that the words ‘political’ or ‘social’ come closer to Aristotle’s meaning than ‘rational’. It appears in the writings of the neo-Platonist, Porphyry and becomes a staple of scholastic philosophy. We can see it in the dualism of medieval belief systems where rationality raised the human towards God while emotion and desire dragged him back down towards the animal.

 

One of the factors making this poem particularly difficult to interpret is the way so many of the lines float free of syntax so that it is almost impossible to work out how they relate to each other. Nevertheless, the third and fourth lines ‘even in adoration/clause upon clause’ could be interpreted as a defence of the place of reason in religion, as a support to rather than an opponent of faith. This seems to be an extremely theological poem, where much of the ambiguity proceeds from the use of specialised theological terms which also have a more ordinary, everyday use; for example, ‘reason’, ‘desire’, ‘sensuous intelligence’ , ‘happiness’, knowledge’, ‘nature’. A dense theological argument is further disguised by colloquial phrases, ‘on the same loop’ and suppressed syntax. Thus ‘desire’ could be human desire, including sexual desire, or it could be the Aristotelian desire for happiness which in Thomist philosophy equates to the Christian desire for God. ‘Sensuous intelligence’ could be some idealised mode of apprehension as put forward in Eliot’s theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ or it could be a much drier epistemological summary of the idea that we experience the world through our bodily senses and then use our intelligence or power of reason to generalise and understand, to acquire ‘knowledge’.

For Thomas Aquinas, this knowledge acquired through the experience of the body and the application of reason can lead to God, but must be distinguished from the knowledge of God which comes through divine revelation. Thus, the ‘rational animal’ in desiring happiness is desiring the knowledge of God but that can only be achieved through revelation. Moreover, the desire for knowledge is brought into question by the story of the Fall. The ‘spontaneous happiness’ Hill seems to yearn for was lost when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It may be that the last lines of the poem look back to the Garden of Eden when humans were happy in their knowledge of God and where Adam, in ‘the innocence of first inscription’ named all the creatures.   On the other hand, the phrase ‘our sleeping nature’ seems profoundly ambiguous. Does Hill simply mean that humans once awoke to the happiness of knowing God; or does the awakening of our sleeping nature, suggest the Fall and suggest that it is, in fact, a fulfilment of our nature. ‘Sleeping nature’ somehow suggests the half-truth of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

The poet is literally at the centre of this poem, straddling the ‘turn’ in a distorted sonnet., in which a tortured sensibility struggles with his role and his own ambivalences.

I continue to find much of Hill’s work rebarbative, when it is not simply incomprehensible because of the huge range of reference and learning. Nevertheless, I find myself becoming more sympathetic to the convoluted workings of his poetic imagination as he battles with the problem of evil, survivor’s guilt and his disaffection with the contemporary world in which he found himself. However, I need to come up for air, so I am taking a break from Hill to look at other poets before, I hope, returning to his later works.

 

[1] Thanks to colleagues from Giles Goodland’s course on Poetry and Syntax (OUDCE)who have contributed to my discussion of these two poems

[2] See discussion of ‘Two Formal Elegies’ in my previous post.

Trying again with Geoffrey Hill: 1

On my bookshelves, I have a row of books by Geoffrey Hill, half-read and less than half understood. Every five years or so, I read the reviews and buy another, thinking I will have another go, but every time I fail again. I first encountered Geoffrey Hill at a poetry reading in the late sixties when I was a student. I was struck by the ‘passionate intensity’ with which he read, I think mainly from King Log, when he gave the impression that he was ready and expectant himself to be carried off to martyrdom. Ever since then I have believed that he was a serious poet, albeit one I could not get on terms with. My failures have felt the more shaming because of the almost universal praise he received, even as his work became (for me) ever more obscure and inaccessible. The most recent blow was reading two reviews of The Book of Baruch in the current issue of PN Review.[1] I have held back from rushing out to buy this admittedly incomplete work, which I know I will find incomprehensible. Instead, I have resolved to make another attempt to read the poet’s work. My starting point will be the Selected Poems of 2006. I will post my efforts in chunks, as I can see this project may take a long time.

 

Now, having read the selections from the first two books, For the Unfallen and King Log[2], and surveyed a number of exegetical commentaries, I continue to be frustrated. Those who write about Hill tend to be apologists for his work and their arguments are often as convoluted as the poems they discuss. Also, they exercise the critic’s privilege of only explicating the bits of poems they think they understand. To my mind, much of the writing in For the Unfallen, although accomplished, is overblown and burdened by the influence of predecessors and contemporaries against whom the young (ish) poet was trying to establish himself. In King Log the voice is still assertive, still cross-grained but the dense texture of the language is becoming less orotund and more individual. From the outset, Hill’s work has been difficult; in fact, he espouses difficulty as the appropriate way to respond to a difficult world. However, his constant use of irony, his frequent shifts in register and tone, his many puns and his adoption of a variety of often inimical personas leave the reader at a loss while exonerating him from the responsibility of having actually said anything.

 

The poems in For the Unfallen and King Log explore history and morality in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, the period of Hill’s youth and young manhood. I want to consider in detail the texts of three very well-known poems from these two volumes where Hill treats the fate of the Jews in Europe: ‘Two Formal Elegies’ from For the Unfallen and ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ and ‘September Song’ from King Log. Although I have read interpretations of these poems, I shall attempt to go back to the text in order to arrive at my own response.

 

The two formal elegies are written as sonnets and from the outset, alternative or even multiple readings are in conflict. The title and epigraph immediately make the reader uneasy. The elegies are ‘formal’ in that they are both sonnets, an observation of dignified tradition that might indicate respect; on the other hand, they may be merely exercises in form, ‘formal’ in the sense of unreal, or insincere. We wonder at the arrogance of the writer in supposing that two fourteen line poems could be adequate as elegies ‘for the Jews of Europe’; we wonder also how this writer , non-Jewish, non-combatant, can take it upon himself to write elegies ‘for the Jews (all of them, undifferentiated) of Europe’.

The first line of the first sonnet starts with a strangely confident present participle:

Knowing the dead, and how some are disposed:

The reader will assume, without indications to the contrary, that this ‘knowing’ is first person and attached to the ‘we’ in line 5. It is only later that we suspect that Hill has created a first person persona or avatar whom the poem will turn on in contempt, allowing the poet to evade criticism. At this point we merely question how the speaker can ‘know the dead’ and what is meant by ‘some are disposed’; it could mean that he knows where the bodies are and this is what the next two lines suggest; however, some have suggested that ‘disposed’ refers to attitudes and may imply the ambivalent attitudes towards Jews still held by many, even after the Holocaust. The next three lines also open with an ambiguous participle:

Subdued under rubble, water, in sand graves,

In clenched cinders not yielding their abused

Bodies and bonds to those whom war’s chance saves

Without the law:

The different burial places mentioned here could refer to all the war dead; only the ‘clenched cinders’ have immediate connotations of the slaughter of Jews. “Subdued’ stands in apposition to ‘disposed’ and half rhymes with the later ‘abused’. Is ‘subdued’ a way of saying ‘controlled’ by being killed and buried or does it suggest that all these bodies are out of sight and therefore out of our minds? It is unclear whether it is the dead or the ‘clenched cinders’ who do not yield their ‘abused bodies and bonds’ . The adjective ‘clenched’ produces a horrific onomatopoeic echo of ‘crunched’ but it also suggests ‘held on to’ or ‘withheld’. The phrase ‘bodies and bonds’ creates a sonorous alliteration but is so elliptic that it dodges interpretation. I do not understand what is meant by ‘abused bonds’ whilst ‘abused bodies’’ seems to operate at a much more obvious level. ‘Those whom war’s chance saves’ are presumably survivors, but we are not told what ‘law’ they are ‘outside’; it could be the law of Moses, so that the reference is to non-Jews, or it could be Nazi rule, in which case he might be referring to those who did not live in occupied territories or in the period of Fascism. The ponderous and inflected final three monosyllabic stresses in line four create a gnomic gravity which topples without explanation into line five.

 

Finally, half-way through this line, we come to the main clause:

 

we grasp, roughly, the song.

‘We’ should be the subject of the first five lines, with this half line as the conclusion of an elaborate periodic sentence. This reading is unsettled by the placing of a colon where we might expect a comma. ‘We’ might seem to declare an affinity between the voice of the poem and its audience, but as ‘we’ comes under attack, the perspective of the poet seems to disappear, hidden by the smokescreen of an apparent first-person statement. The reader has been cozened into identifying with the ‘we’ who may or may not be ‘those whom war’s chance saves’ but who seems increasingly unworthy of admiration. Nearly all the words in this line are ambiguous: ‘grasp’ can mean ‘seize’ or ‘take hold of’, or it can simply mean ‘understand’; ‘roughly’ is in parenthetical commas which leaves the reader dithering between the notion that ‘we’ only ‘roughly’ or ‘approximately’ understand the song or that ‘we’ with great insensitivity have seized hold of the song.

 

The sentence, which moves over the next three lines, is a further example of the evasion of meaning and responsibility:

Arrogant acceptance from which song derives

Is bedded with their blood, makes flourish young

Roots in ashes.

 

‘Song’, which may be a synonym for poetry, or even these poems, depends on ‘arrogant acceptance’, presumably acceptance of what has happened. After all, you cannot write an elegy without death. ‘Arrogant’ suggests the appropriation of something to which one is not entitled. The verb ‘is bedded’ seems to be an agricultural metaphor as it develops through ‘flourish’ and ‘young roots’. Blood and ash are both known fertilizers. However, ‘is bedded’ has sexual connotations and the grammatical analysis of the sentence suggests that it is the coupling of ‘arrogant acceptance’ with ‘blood’ which gives rise to poetry. The tone is baffling; we cannot make out if the writer is blaming those who dare to write poetry after the Holocaust or whether this is savage self-criticism. The way in which sex, death and blood sacrifice hover over the poem, and indeed the entire collection, is discomfiting for the queasy reader.

 

Lines eight and nine, straddling the volta, and double-spaced indicate that there is a turn:

The wilderness revives,

 

Deceives with sweetness harshness.

I feel this must be a reference to Samson’s riddle in Judges 14,xiv: ‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness’. Samson refers to a lion which he slew and in whose carcase honeybees made their nest. Not only is this a metaphor for poetry arising out of war and slaughter, the context of the riddle is the bloody conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines. In the first poem of For the Unfallen , Hill announces his commitment to blood:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,

To ravage and redeem the world:

‘Genesis’

 

Differently phrased, this may be the message of the sestet:

 

Still beneath

Live skin stone breathes, about which fires but play

Fierce heart that is the iced brain’s to command

To judgement –studied reflex, contained breath-

Their best of worlds since, on the ordained day,

The world came spinning from Jehovah’s hand.

 

We can pick up the references to hot and cold-blooded behaviour –‘fires’ and ‘fierce heart’ opposed to ‘stone’ and ‘iced brain’. The suggestion seems to be that the ‘iced brain’ is ruthlessly in control in lines which could as much be about poetic composition –‘studied reflex, contained breath’ as any historical event. The phrase ‘best of worlds’ should be ironic but in conjunction with Jehovah and ‘ordained day’, it is not clear that this is so; even less clear is who ‘their’ refers to. It could be the Jews, or it could be all of us as the poet abandons any pretence at first person involvement. There is a possible interpretation of this poem where the Holocaust is seen as necessary, the harshness from which sweetness can grow. Through the ambiguity of his language, Hill prevents us from discarding this reading. The final line of the poem is highly rhetorical but still mysterious; it calls to mind the early Robert Lowell and the final line of ‘A Graveyard in Nantucket’, ‘The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.’ What Lowell meant was fairly obvious; Hill’s line is more oblique. There is a suggestion of loss of control on the part of Jehovah together with a disconcerting undertone of the language of cricket.. The command to judgement may allude to the Day of Judgement but it is far from clear who is going to do the judging.

 

The second sonnet is more transparent (slightly). It seems to deal with the aftermath to the War and the process of judgement, earthly this time.

For all that must be gone through, their long death

Documented and safe, we have enough

Witnesses (our world being witness-proof).

This seems to be a reference to the Nuremberg trials; again the dead are absent, ‘subdued’, this time being ‘documented and safe’. The notion of witnesses is used ironically as the poem goes on to recall what was ‘witnessed and not seen’ (l.10). ‘We’ is used almost impersonally here, in opposition to ‘they’ the guilty ones. Hill goes on to describe these ordinary people, in tones of dislike bordering on disgust. They are ‘pushing midlanders’, ‘men,brawny with life, /Women who expect life’; they have ‘thickening bodies’ they ‘relieve’ themselves on ‘scraped sand’. People are reduced to their physical needs and appetites. At the same time, there is an extended metaphor to do with sea and fire running through the octave which is not present in the sestet: ‘The sea flickers, roars, in its wide hearth.’ “Flicker’ and ‘roar ‘ seem to be opposites but may refer to different or successive aspects. ‘Hearth’ is surprising but introduces us to the idea that this may be a sea of fire, at which ‘yearly, the pushing midlanders stand/To warm themselves’. It could be that these midlanders, a word suggesting average citizens, are being confronted annually with the hell fires of the Holocaust which they succeeded in ignoring. On the other hand, ‘warming oneself’ is a pleasant experience. Could Hill be suggesting some sort of schadenfreude, where the survivors actually take pleasure in being reminded of what has happened? In the sestet, he appears to question the practice of confronting people with their past:

Is it good to remind them, on a brief screen,

Of what they have witnessed and not seen?

In the last three lines the poem drops the division of us and them as it discusses the process of formal memorialisation:

To put up stones ensures some sacrifice.

Sufficient men confer, carry their weight.

(At whose door does the sacrifice does the sacrifice stand or start?)

Erecting a memorial will cost something and will involve an appropriate number of people who will endure some sort of discomfort or inconvenience in the process. This is one reading; however, the ambiguity of the words in line 11 makes it very uncertain: ‘sufficient’ may mean enough men, or men of adequate quality to ‘carry their weight’, which might mean strong enough to carry the stones or might again be referring to the quality of the men and their fitness to be the creators of the memorial. The breakdown of certainty in the last line is shown by its question form, the brackets and the final, struggling half-rhyme as the distinction between ‘we’, including the poet, and ‘they’, the silent midlanders,[3] dissolves into ‘whose’.

 

Hill’s second book, King Log was published in 1968 although many of the poems date from much earlier. It opens with ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, a disconcerting poem even after you accept that it is written in the persona of Ovid in an imaginary scenario where he is transplanted to Hitler’s Germany. The voice is that of one of those who ‘have not seen’ and here the not-seeing is presented as a deliberate choice:

I have learned one thing: not to look down

This line is typical of the way Hill exploits the tension between poetic line and the sentence. Here, the opening lines of the second stanza continue thus:

So much upon the damned

allowing the poet to capitalise on the two meanings of ‘look down’. At first, he seems to be sustaining his life of comfort and complaisance by deliberately failing to see what is going on around him in a kind of mental high-wire act; as the stanza continues we realise that he is postulating the necessity of evil, and of evil-doers as part of the divine scheme of things. ‘They, in their sphere,/Harmonize strangely with the Divine/Love’. No wonder ‘God/ Is distant, difficult.’ In the first stanza ordinary human love is presented as a lower-case verb: ‘I love my work and my children.’ This contrasts with the abstract noun Divine Love with its dramatic capitalisation. The speaker, Ovid, seems to suggest that he is playing his part in creating the harmonies of the divine plan by ‘celebrating the love-choir’ in his own ‘sphere’, implicitly that of the saved. Such a mealy-mouthed excuse is a response to the half-confessed awareness of guilt in the first stanza:

Too near the ancient troughs of blood

Innocence is no earthly weapon.

Even leaving aside the inverted syntax, these lines are puzzling, particularly because of the choice of adjectives. Why are the troughs ‘ancient’ when the crimes of the Third Reich are contemporary? Perhaps this suggests that there are always ‘troughs of blood’ and that this kind of violence is inevitable. Why ‘earthly’? Are we supposed to think that ‘innocence’ can be a heavenly weapon even though the very idea of innocence has been compromised by the epigraph which opens the poem and which suggests that guilt only comes into play if the sinner is discovered or admits to his guilt? Perhaps the suggestion is that the persona is ‘too near’ the ‘troughs of blood’ to be able to deny guilt, despite the helpless impotence of the second line: ‘Things happen.’ Hill leaves us to struggle with the moral ambivalence of this poem, while removing himself from the scene. If we choose to condemn ‘Ovid’ for focusing on his own concerns, his family and his poetry, then we seem to be condemning any production of poetry during or after the Third Reich which does not confront that evil, which is not directly and suicidally political, and Hill seems to be condemning his own project. If, on the other hand, we go along with ‘Ovid’s rationalisation which accepts the existence of the ‘sphere of the damned’ and his own ‘love-choir’ as part of the Divine harmony we find ourselves condoning a view which may or may not be that of the poet but which is very hard to swallow. Certainly, Hill’s presentation of Divine Love is never less than uncomfortable.

 

‘September Song’ is probably Hill’s best-known Holocaust poem. Like the others, it is a relatively tiny piece that relies for its effect on its own inadequacy, indicated in the last of fourteen short lines where the writer seems to rebuke himself for straying into the area of the unspeakable:

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

 

This poem differs from those discussed previously in that Hill places himself at its centre in the awkward parenthetical admission of the third stanza:

(I have made

an elegy for myself it

is true)

Much has been made of the fact that Hill’s own birth was only a couple of days different from that of the unnamed Jewish child but I think it would be shallow to interpret these lines as empathetic identification with the victim. Surely Hill is rather saying that the poet always writes out of his own needs and for his own gratification, no matter how much he may seem to refer to what is beyond himself.[4] The poem is one of contained horror but also of a frighteningly implicit determinism. The child is not ‘passed over’, a grim even offensive allusion to the Jewish Passover, because it is ‘the proper time’, ‘Things marched,/Sufficient to that end.” The ‘things’ here may remind us of the ‘things’ which ‘happened’ in ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’; there may also be an echo of Matthew VI, 34: ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’. In any case, the sorrow in the poem is marked by acceptance rather than protest and the penultimate, very beautiful, stanza reflects a survivor’s guilt but no sense that the events could have been or could be other.

September fattens on vines. Roses

flake from the wall. The smoke

of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.[5]

 

In what I have written so far, it will be clear that I do not particularly like or enjoy Hill’s poetry or his perspective but that I am intrigued and challenged by his work. As I move on to later volumes as represented in the Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006), I hope my understanding of his work will deepen though I doubt I will come to share his point of view.

[1] Articles by Jeffrey Wainwright and Jon Glover in PN Review 249

[2] Very helpful for these early volumes: English Association Bookmarks Number 75

The Early Work of Geoffrey Hill Part 1: For the Unfallen by
J.D. Hughes , https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/publications/bookmarks/75Hill.pdf

 

[3] As Hill was born in the Midlands, this word could be self-referential.

[4] I use the masculine pronoun, because I am discussing a male poet.

[5] It is interesting that the greater directness and less traditional shape of this poem is accompanied by a decision not to capitalise line beginnings unless they also begin a sentence.

 

A Comparison of ‘Why Brownlee Left’ by Paul Muldoon and “Lavandare’ by Giovanni Pascoli

Coincidentally, I was rereading the work of Paul Muldoon (see previous post) when I was introduced to the work of Giovanni Pascoli by Danielle Hope, who has just published a selection of his poems.[1] Of course, Muldoon and Pascoli are very different poets. Pascoli, 1855-1912, was a contemporary of d’Annunzio though less well-known outside Italy whilst Paul Muldoon, born 1951, is younger than me and one of the great post-modern poets. Nevertheless, both poets hailed originally from a rural background and I was struck by the similarity in imagery between these two poems.

 

IV Lavandare

 

Nel campo mezzo grigio e mezzo nero

resta un aratro senza buoi che pare

dimenticato, tra il vapor leggero.

 

E cadenzato dalla gora viene

lo sciabordare delle lavandare

con tonfi spessi e lunghe cantilene:

 

Il vento soffia e nevica la frasca,

e tu non torni ancora al tuo paese!

quando partisti, come son rimasta!

come l’aratro in mezzo alla maggese.

Giovanni Pascoli

Pascoli

 

IV Washerwomen

 

In the half-grey, half-black field

a plough without an ox waits

forgotten in the mists.

 

Beside the millstream women intone

to the rhythmic squish and pummel

of soapy clothes on washboard panels:

 

The wind blows and leaves fall

like snow. You do not come home.

Since you left I remained alone

like the plough, amidst fallow soil.

Translation by Danielle Hope

 

 

 

Why Brownlee left

 

Why Brownlee left, and where he went,

Is a mystery even now.

For if a man should have been content

It was him; two acres of barley,

One of potatoes, four bullocks,

A milker, a slated farmhouse.

He was last seen going out to plough

On a March morning, bright and early.

 

By noon Brownlee was famous;

They had found all abandoned, with

The last rig unbroken, his pair of black

Horses, like man and wife,

Shifting their weight from foot to

Foot, and gazing into the future.

Paul Muldoon

 

 

‘Why Brownlee Left’ by Paul Muldoon and ‘Lavandare’ by the Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) are both poems with rural, even agricultural settings which are presentations of absence. In both cases, the main character has gone and the poem goes on to describe what they have left behind. Both poems feature a deserted plough, although in ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the team are still hitched up whereas in ‘Lavandare’ the plough lies ‘senza buoi’ and seemingly forgotten. What the two poems share is a sense of mystery as in neither case is the absence explained. In Pascoli’s poem there is a suggestion of a failed love affair, but this is no more than implicit.

 

The positioning of the writer is different in each poem. In ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the speaker reports an event in which he is not directly involved using third person: ‘He was last seen’, ‘They had found all abandoned’. The event is described like a local legend. In ‘Lavandare’, however, the speaker is involved in the poem although this only becomes evident in the last stanza: ‘quando partisti, come son rimasta’. This line reveals the speaker to be female, (rimasta) suggesting that she has been deserted by a lover. Although the dramatic conflict between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is missing from Muldoon’s poem, the feeling of abandonment is equally strong.

 

Both poems are written from the perspective of the status quo and both present the experience of having been left behind. In ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the members of a small traditional society cannot understand why anyone should choose to leave a situation when, in their terms, he has all he could want:

two acres of barley,

One of potatoes, four bullocks

A milker, a slated farmhouse.

The detail has the effect of a primitive painting surrounded by a tight border that no-one is expected to transgress. The fact that Brownlee has left is met with complete bewilderment but as the poem closes the point of view of the community is replaced by the comment of the poet as he describes the

Horses, like man and wife,

Shifting their weight from foot to

Foot, and gazing into the future.

Brownlee leaves in March, early spring, an intimation that he has a future but that it has to be elsewhere.

 

Pascoli, like Muldoon, explores the transition from the known and traditional rural society of the past to the unknown future beyond the bounds of paese or parish. In ‘Lavandare’ traditional practices are shown through mention of oxen used to drive the plough and the age-old washing of laundry in the millstream. The tone is immediately melancholic, from the opening lines with their monochrome colours ‘mezzo grigio’ and ‘mezzo nero’ and ‘vapor leggero’ through the dirge-like ‘cantilene’ of the washerwomen to the lament of the deserted woman in the final stanza who feels herself as useless as the abandoned plough. However, the final word of the poem ‘maggese’ – fallow land or fallow soil – , while it suggests emptiness also points towards the future. Land is only left fallow temporarily in order to recover condition which will improve future cultivation. Thus, though, in contrast to the season in ‘Why Brownlee Left’, this is an autumnal or even wintry period -‘nevica la frasca’, especially for the woman speaker, the concept of the future is still implicit, whether or not she will be involved in it. The speaker herself, in the last line of the poem, identifies with the plough, although behind this image it is easy to equate the abandoned plough with the man’s abandonment of his responsibilities towards the woman and the woman herself with the unploughed fallow land.

 

Both poets have used scenarios or tableaux of leaving the native place in which the one who leaves is already absent but is nevertheless the protagonist, the one who has taken action. ‘Why Brownlee Left’ is a sonnet while ‘Lavandare’ exploits the tropes of pastoral. In both poems traditional forms and conventions are used to reflect the transition from a traditional way of life to modernity.

[1] The Last Walk of Giovanni Pascoli translated and with an introduction by Danielle Hope. It can be bought direct from the publisher

https://rockinghampress.co.uk/

Or from their distributor Inpress..

https://inpressbooks.co.uk/collections/rockingham-press-1/products/the-last-walk-of-giovanni-pascoli

 

Versions of Masculinity 2: Paul Muldoon

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I have just read Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-2014.This has been a revelatory experience of a body of work that I had previously found so intimidating that I had avoided it as post-modernist whimsicality. Not that it has got any easier, and the poet continues to change shape and evade capture like the trickster Gallogly, or like the poet of negative capability it seems that he aspires to be. I don’t have the ability or years left in my life to offer any kind of sustained reading of Muldoon, but I have found it interesting to explore different versions of masculinity he offers, starting from the eponymous poem ‘Quoof’. When I first read Quoof, both the book and the title poem, I was struck by Muldoon’s exploitation of the sonnet. I even used the poem in teaching as a contemporary example of the form. A colleague (male) to whom I showed the poem objected to its attitude to women. This had made me a little uncomfortable but as a woman reading and teaching love poetry mostly written by men, this was a familiar feeling .

hotwaterbottle

Here is the poem:

 

How often have I carried our family word

for the hot water bottle

to a strange bed,

as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick

in an old sock

to his childhood settle.

I have taken it into so many lovely heads

or laid it between us like a sword.

 

An hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.[1]

 

There are two male figures in this poem: the first is presented as perhaps innocent, the speaker’s father as a child preparing an old-fashioned substitute for a hot water bottle to take to his child-hood settle. The second, the speaker, a liberated post-sexual liberation male is boasting of the number of women he has slept with. In the sestet, we are given a specific example; the cosmopolitan speaker in ‘New York City’ is with a woman he barely knows, and certainly cannot communicate with as she ‘spoke hardly any English’. Perhaps this is all about sex; if so, there isn’t much of it, or what there is is unsatisfactory. Back in the octave, the father’s behaviour may be interpreted as a lonely act of adolescent masturbation, as he juggles his ‘red-hot half-brick’, while the Don Juan son must have a strange love-life if it so frequently necessitates a hot-water bottle. Even if we consider the ‘quoof’ to be a phallic substitution just as the sword so often is, we might recognize it as anti-erotic and question the appearance of the ‘sword’ simile in line 8. In traditional romance, the sword between a man and woman in a bed was to prevent sex, as in the case of Tristram and Isolde.

 

Moreover, the presentation of the male lover in the sestet is also problematic; his hand seems to have become the ‘quoof’ as it is ‘smouldering’ , but though its presence –‘spoor’ – on the woman’s breast might seem proprietorial and animal-like, it doesn’t get very far, particularly as it is juxtaposed with words and phrases like ‘one-off’, ‘shy’ and ‘yet to enter’. Since the poem resists its superficial interpretation, the reader is forced to explore other dimensions. It is impossible to avoid the echo of Yeats’ ‘rough beast’ in “The Second Coming.’ However, whereas Yeats’ speaker dreads the coming of the beast, Muldoon’s speaker is the beast or identifies with the beast in an incident of non-communication which conveys not only failure both sexually and in terms of colonization, but also the inadequacy of the domestic or private upbringing as preparation for life in the wider public sphere. ‘Quoof’ was never going to be widely disseminated as a household word. Therefore, in this poem, we see not the assertion of predatory masculinity but an interrogation and subversion of it.

 

“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” is the long poem which comes at the end of the same volume. For me, it reads as Muldoon’s take on the Troubles presented as an arena where different events, ideas, emotions can play off each other. Muldoon is sometimes described as apolitical, disengaged, even amoral. His work, on the contrary, seems to me extremely political although I think he leaves moral judgement to the reader who must ingest and sift the multifarious elements he has patterned into the poem. How can you not react morally to the description of the councillor blown up by a car bomb:

Once they collect his smithereens

he doesn’t quite add up.

They’re shy of a foot, and a calf

which stems

from his left shoe like a severely

pruned-back shrub.

 

The tone and black (gallows/ gallowglass)humour of the poem remind me of Adrian McKinty’s crime thrillers featuring a Catholic RUC officer based in Carrickfergus, a set-up unlikely enough in itself to fit a Muldoon poem. Muldoon has two protagonists, both shape shifters, apparently enemies but who eventually seem to merge in a final catastrophic explosion at a garage. Gallogly, who is on the run, is identified as a gallowglass, a type of mercenary soldier which had its origins in the Norse-Gaelic clans of Scotland although the name came to be used for any Irish mercenary. Gallogly’s identity is not simple; he can be both the son of the King of the Moy which brings him closer to Muldoon himself or he can be

Gallogly, or Gollogly,

otherwise known as Golightly,

otherwise known as Ingoldsby,

otherwise known as English…

The series of pseudonyms or noms de guerre not only reflect the figure of the trickster but also represents the murky world of double and triple agents in the Northern Ireland conflict. Gallogly is presented as the epitome of the male desperado: tough, cunning and as ready to exploit opportunities for sex as for vehicle theft. In the opening sections of the poem, women appear only as sexual metonyms: ‘a froth of bra and panties’, ‘your still-warm wife’s damp tuft’ and again, a ‘lovely head’ this time ‘chopped and changed’. This image of brutal transformation through tarring and feathering suggests women as victims, while the male protagonist powers nonchalantly on his way; however, there are increasing contra-indications. First of all, the language: the woman changes from being ‘The scum of the Seine/and the Farset’[2] to ‘her ladyship’ albeit this phrase is generally ironic. However, her social status increases as we are told her ‘fathers/knew Louis Quinze’ and that she was first encountered on the ‘Roxborough estate’ saying ‘Noblesse oblige’. Admittedly, this could be any kind of estate, from a housing estate to a stately home to a plantation on a Caribbean island. She even becomes a milkmaid –goddess in the allusion to Leto and the frogs. The female figure becomes increasingly literary, given the names Beatrice and Alice and associated with texts and writers as various as Dante, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gertrude Stein. The sighting of the child on the Roxborough estate parallels Dante’s first encounter with the child Beatrice and signals the role of the woman as muse. Alice is both Alice in Wonderland (Alice A?) and associated with Alice B Toklas who has had tea with Beatrice’s grand-mère, thus arguably providing an independent female literary tradition of foremothers.

Her grand-mère was once asked to tea

by Gertrude Stein,

and her grand-mère and Gertrude

and Alice B., chère Alice B.

with her hook-nose

Alice also links to the Aer Lingus check-in girl at Logan who wears an embroidered A in an allusion, I suppose, to The Scarlet Letter. For the most part, however, these women, who morph into each other as frequently as the male characters, are shown to have power over the men. Beatrice/Alice seems to hold the key to hallucinogenic drugs. At the beginning, it is suggested she is growing cannabis in her garden though that may be the least of her offences as she is wearing a ‘bomber jacket’. She is punished by being tarred and feathered, traditionally the punishment for sleeping with the enemy so that the message pinned to her jacket ‘Keep off the Grass’ is ambiguous. She is also associated with magic mushrooms, both at Queen’s University and perhaps in a dream vision where she appears to Gallogly asleep: ‘I am gathering musheroons/to make my mammy ketchup’.

 

Women have an increasingly symbolic function in the poem and become increasingly unreal except perhaps for the UDR man’s wife who blasts Gallogly away with a shotgun:

 

She was standing at the picture window

with a glass of water

and a Valium

when she caught your man

in the reflection of her face.

He came

shaping past the milking parlour

as if he owned the place.

Such is the integrity

of their quarrel

that she immediately took down

the legally held shotgun

and let him have both barrels.

She had wanted only to clear the air.

 

This sonnet is a perfect vignette of sectarianism. The Protestant farmer’s wife lives in a ‘hacienda-style/farmhouse’ which underlines the idea that she does not belong although the architectural style referred to is, unfortunately, a feature of the rural landscape north and south of the Irish border. Gallogly ‘comes shaping past’ perhaps a reference to his trickster shape-shifting, ‘as if he owned the place’. This suggestion of the Nationalist claim to the land is backed up the Churchillian quotation about the ‘integrity of their quarrel’. However, when we examine the section more closely, the situation and the quarrel become more complicated. This woman too is in the grip of mind-altering substances and inhabiting two worlds. I feel there must be a reference to Lacan in the description of her reflection in the window, as the woman sees herself and through herself to the figure beyond. She is associated with milk, picking up on the references to the milkman, the milkmaid and the breast milk implicated in Alice/Beatrice’s mushroom magic on the university lawn.

 

Women in the poem are sometimes tutelary, sometimes dangerous but to an extent remote, remembered from the past, just departed or seen through a window, a peep-hole or a drug-induced vision. Ian Gregson has compared Heaney and Muldoon in terms of how they represent gender, a comparison in which Heaney comes off worse as he is accused of adhering to traditional archetypal imagery of male and female. However, in this poem we can again see women reduced to traditional roles – muse, goddess, whore, femme fatale though interestingly there is no reference to mothers unless it be through the imagery of milk. Nevertheless, women are ancillary to the main drive of the poem which is to do with heroic action.

 

The version of masculinity Muldoon offers here is that of a (literally) deconstructed epic hero, mediated through myth, legend, film noir, cartoon and tall tale and the apparatus of the Troubles. Gallogly can be seen as a figure of Odysseus[3] who is making his way homewards to the Moy[4] in an action which involves his shadowy alter ego or arch-enemy, Mangas Jones Esquire ‘who is, as it turns out, Apache’.   It is often difficult to make out whether the protagonist of any particular section of the poem is the Apache or Gallogly, particularly as the action moves confusingly between the US and Northern Ireland. Whether or not Mangas Jones is also the Oglala Sioux who may be seeking revenge for the Massacre of Wounded Knee is also unclear. Gallogly and the Apache are united at the end of the poem at the moment when they are both most thoroughly fragmented in the garage explosion. His/their last words are those attributed to Henry Thoreau: ‘Moose…Indian’ and the hand which could belong to either or both of them is still clutching the pebble of quartz or mescal button, perhaps even, given some of Muldoon’s other references, an obol for the ferryman.

 

‘At the Sign of the Black Horse’ is the long poem which concludes Moy Sand and Gravel, Muldoon’s ninth collection. Unlike ‘The More a Man has the More a Man Wants’, this poem is written in propria persona, or at least makes use of the persona of father of a fairly new son. At one level, the poem appears to be exploring an identity crisis on behalf of this half-Jewish half-Irish baby:

I was awestruck to see in Asher’s glabrous

face a slew of interlopers

not from Maghery, as I might have expected, or Maghera, or         Magherafelt

(though my connections there are now few and far between)

but the likes of that kale-eating child on whom the peaked cap, Verboten,

would shortly pin a star of yellow felt.

 

 

Muldoon has been criticised for treating the topic of the Holocaust in this poem[5], but it seems to me that he would have been more at fault to have turned his back on it. The poem works to confront and accommodate his children’s dual heritage, which becomes, at one remove, his own. It is interesting, though, that this poem arises from the birth of his son, not of his first child, a daughter. He has written a number of poems about her, but not this one. Thus, inheritance, lineage and history are appropriated as masculine concerns.

 

Several critics have identified one of the sources of the poem as Yeats’ ‘Prayer for My Daughter’ June 1919 and there are a number of quotations from the earlier poem in Muldoon’s text. The device, like the title which alludes to W.H. Auden’s ‘September, 1939’, is used to place the poem within poetic tradition. (I am not sure what the ‘sign of the black horse’ refers to, apart from what seems to be a private connection mentioned in another poem, ‘As’, in the same volume:

and the rough-shod give way to the Black Horse avern

that still rings true

despite that ‘T’ being missing from its sign

where a little nook gives way to a little nookie

when I give way to you.[6])

Similarly,the poem’s task is to place the child in his tradition, by teasing out the Irish and Jewish threads of his American heritage.

 

In the phantasmagorical drama which arises out of an actual flood caused by Hurricane Floyd near Canal Road in New Jersey which is where Muldoon actually lives, the Irish parts are mainly nameless extras, identified as the ‘ground-breaking Irish navvies’ or ‘Irish schlemiels’ who laboured to build the canals and much of the rest of the physical infrastructure of the US. The name parts are given to patriarchal Jewish figures from the child’s mother’s family, the most significant being ‘great-grandfather, Sam Korelitz’ ,who is presented as an authority figure and custodian of Judaic practice, and ‘Uncle Arnie’ who is portrayed as a bootlegger, semi-criminal figure but well-connected, particularly to members of the demi-monde. These two are Jewish American male stereotypes. The women who appear in the poem seem much less central or confined to traditional roles: Helene Hanff, ‘Jean’s distant cousin’ spends the whole poem preparing the ‘white-lipped peccary’ for cooking by rubbing ‘a mix of cumin and baby talc’ into it. The peccary is simultaneously an impure food source according to Jewish rules as it has a cloven foot but also a miscarried or aborted foetus whose loss is an undercurrent throughout the poem: ‘the kebab-babby we had lost a year or two back’, which then becomes a metonym for all the lost ‘child-kin’ of the Holocaust. It seems that the pain of this loss can only be confronted through outrageous images and associations. “The red stain on the lint/ that covered whatever it was in the autoclave’ is associated with the crematorium at Auschwitz and the astrakhan hats worn by both Helene and Fanny Brice, the other main female character, hats said to be made from the wool of still-born lambs. Fanny Brice is the stage name for Fania Borach who was the model and star of stage and screen on whom the Barbara Streisand film, Funny Girl, was based. In the poem she is a friend of Uncle Arnie and also, for some reason, of Bulwer Lytton. Helene Hanff is famous for the book, 84 Charing Cross Road, a connection which allows Muldoon to circle back to the British connection with references to the threat of the pram in the hall which he attributes to ‘whichever Waugh’ although the phrase comes from Cyril Connolly.

 

Uncle Arnie, Arnold Rothstein, is into:

Racketeering, maybe. Extortion, maybe.

Maybe vice.

 

But not throwing games.

 

Despite this unconvincing denial, Uncle Arnie represents the unacceptable face of Jewish America, but he is nevertheless active, a doer, a successful entrepreneur. Sam Korelitz, on the other hand, berates the poet-father for his failure to offer his son a bris (the Jewish rite of circumcision) and cites scripture in his support. The ‘Goy from the Moy’ seems to quiver between these two powerful figures, overwhelmed by the tragedy, weight and multifariousness of his child’s Jewish inheritance. The history on the other side of the family is equally problematic, derived from the Irish immigrants who fled repression and hunger in their own country to labour in America, to become the victims of Uncle Arnie who was ‘running rum/ to those thousands of Irish schlemiels/ who dug the canal.’ Different images create an equation between these Irish masses and the victims of the Holocaust: ‘as the creel carters piled more and more clay, hay, hair, spectacle frames, Willkommen’; ‘that little gore, that little gusset/of ground into which my cast/of thousands of Irish schmucks have been herded, Halt.’ The poem reels with the inability to absorb the flood of history and the reference to Yeats becomes bitterly ironic:

 

Asher sleeps on, attended by two teddy bears

his soul less likely than ever to recover radical innocence and learn at last

that it is self-delighting.

 

This is a tremendous poem in which Muldoon addresses the agonies of the Holocaust in a way which is non-exploitative because he allows himself to be the vehicle through which the poem is created. Muldoon’s frequently expressed view that the poem works through the poet, as if the poet is some sort of Shelleyan Aeolian harp, may seem startlingly Romantic in a writer so strongly associated with post-modernism, but it does allow an escape from self-consciousness which enables the saying of the unsayable. The concern with masculinity is of secondary importance, although it is clearly present as the father broods

with a dink and a dink

and a dinky dick

over the failure to circumcise his son or provide him with a mohel.

 

The third poem I wish to consider is ‘The Humours of Hakone’ from Maggot, 2010. The voice in the poem is first person, but this time the persona is of a detective or forensic scientist in Japan. I think the central premise of the poem, or metaphor, is the equivalence between a dead girl and a failed poem, or even the failure of THE POEM.[7] Along the way (the ‘corduroy over a quag’)corduroy

there are references to St Columbanus of Bobbio, lepers and various Japanese places and cultural customs, not to mention the humours (wet or dry) and puzzling allusions to a ‘great world at which this one may merely hint’ or ‘that great world of which this one is a sulphur cast.’[8] This may chime with Muldoon’s rather tentative argument in The End of the Poem:

 

‘I want to go further than [Robert] Lowell and propose (1) that the “poetic translation” is itself an “original poem,” (2) that the “original poem” on which it’s based is itself a “translation” and (3) that both “original poem” and “poetic translation” are manifestations of some ur-poem. I shy away from this last idea, of course, since it smacks of a Platonism I can’t quite stomach.’

-Chapter 8, L’Anguilla /The Eel, Eugenio Montale

 

The poem, made up of nine sections, each with five alternately rhymed quatrains is full of ideas which the reader, and maybe even the writer, can’t quite stomach or digest, including some fairly revolting images of decay and decomposition consonant with the collection as a whole. Be that as it may, I want to focus on the presentation of the ‘male gaze’ in the poem and how it dissects and dehumanises the female. She appears first as a stomach, then as a clog, a hair and shreds of panty-hose. The poem continues with references to a breast implant, an eyeball, belly, foot-soles, ‘fancy-freighted skull’, purge fluids. This process of dissecting a woman in a poem is very traditional, going back through Marvell and Donne[9] to the courtly love blazon. However, in this poem the gaze is acknowledged and foregrounded by its presentation as the forensic and analytical stare of the scientist, yet nevertheless a scientist who is passionately involved with the object of his study. I have assumed the scientist speaker is male, partly because of the sometimes salacious tone of his comments: ‘By day four the skin would have peeled from her thigh like a fine –mesh stocking’ ; it is not clear if the voice is Japanese as sometimes the tone is that of an outsider, or even a tourist:

‘I’d read somewhere…’. It is also difficult to tell whether the girl is saintly or secular:

It was far too late to reconstruct the train station bento box

she bought at Kyoto-eki the night before the night she took her vows

and threw up in the hollyhocks.

Too late to figure out if the Tokugawa clan would refuse

 

a plainclothes escort

to a less than fully-fledged geisha.

Too late to insist that the body of a poem is no less sacred

than a temple with its banner gash

 

though both stink to high heaven.

 

‘Gash’ could be a cut or wound, but it is more obviously a disparaging reference to female genitalia usually employed by men. In this extract from Section VI, the girl is again identified with the poem and whether she is taking vows to become a nun or a geisha is deliberately obscured. Noticeable is the speaker’s repeated lament that it is ‘too late’: too late to recover the girl or her body or to find out the truth about her death; too late to recover the poem or reconstruct it from its fragments. Perhaps both ‘stink to high heaven’ because of their corporeality, their mundane transitoriness, identified in the poem by Columbanus, cited earlier, De Transitu Mundi.

 

The idea of the female as the poem, rather than the muse or inspiration for the poem is unusual. It allows Muldoon to set up a set of correspondences which are no less successful for being forced. At the opening of the poem, the dead woman/poem is ‘decomposing around what looked like an arrow./Her stomach contents ink.’ Later the arrow becomes a quill, synonym for pen, so that it requires limited acquaintance with Freudian symbolism to recognise who bears responsibility for the crime and how the writing of the poem is equated to a sexual act. Similarly, ink becomes a noxious fluid, purge fluids given off by a decomposing body or the poisonous toxin secreted by the globefish or fugu. If the girl is the globefish, whom the speaker has failed to find, it explains why he is absolved from his abjuration of his ‘right to eat globefish later that night in Santora’. This suggests, in a confusion of double negatives, that he is now free to dice with death again, but why? Perhaps to continue the tricky task of negotiating a pathway over the quag, a metaphor for writing poetry. At the end of the poem, all the speaker has left, or all he has found as forensic evidence is ‘a single maggot puparium’, the shell of a maggot egg. Is this also a figure of the purikuru or sticker-photo booth image which again the speaker has only known at second-hand, ‘the impression left on a sticker-photo-booth wall’? And is this again an image of the ‘ur-poem’ the poet has failed to achieve, but succeeded along the way in creating a different poem.

In the same chapter of The End of the Poem, Muldoon explores the idea that the poet gives himself over to the poem,

‘going with and, insofar as it’s possible, going against the flow. The “helmsman” is acutely aware of having given himself over to a force of nature which is likely, from moment to moment, to overwhelm him. However much he might imagine himself to be its master, he is at the mercy of that force…

…all texts might properly be thought of as “translations of translations of translations” often to an extent which is shocking to the conscious mind of the writer who has given him- or herself over to the unconscious.’

p.201

 

This is clearly an intimation of Muldoon’s writing process, a giving of himself over to the force of the poem, which he controls through formal constraints. It is hardly surprising therefore that the reader finds it so difficult to work out what the poem is doing or what it is about. However, as far as I understand Muldoon, this does not allow us to relapse into the comfortable notion that any interpretation by the reader can be equally valid. Muldoon demands recognition of authorial intention and it would seem that the best close reading and the best translation will apprehend the ur-poem of which the poet him- or herself is in pursuit. As I have remarked before, this seems to be a view closer to the Romantics than to post-modernism, despite the poet’s eclectic and fragmented style.

 

In the past, Muldoon was met with baffled incomprehension and often accused of being merely whimsical. More recently, critics have continued to acknowledge his unfathomability, but recognised the seriousness of his project. For Muldoon, the confusion and difficulty of his verse reflects the difficulties and contradictions of the world we live in. This is apparent in his presentation of aspects of gender and masculinity in the poems discussed above. By allowing his poems to include a range of gender images and stereotypes but then manipulating and challenging them, he creates a radical uncertainty typical of his work and appropriate to our times.

[1] Despite Muldoon’s apparent insistence that there is a ‘correct’ reading for the poem, intended by the author, I have read at least three not entirely contradictory interpretations of this one.

[2] I’m not quite sure if this means the girl is half-French half-Belfast, or if she is fully French and it is the male who is from Belfast.

[3] It could be argued that the UDR man’s wife is an alternative version of Penelope who has grown fed up of waiting for Odysseus and has married one of the suitors.

[4] He is referred to as ‘the son of the King of the Moy’ but there may be an allusion to local hero , John King, who was lost in the Australian outback and almost starved to death, an image of the theme of hunger and food which recurs through the poem and reflects the struggle of the hunger strikers in the Maze. It is also an allusion to a traditional song or poem, collected by Myles Dillon.

[5] Unavowed Engagement: Paul Muldoon as War Poet

Warman, April

2009 | Oxford University Press

The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, Chapter 38

[6] Whether or not, there is a link to Lloyd’s Bank, or banking generally, or even goldsmiths, I have no idea. The sign of a black horse was used in medieval times as a street sign to indicate a goldsmith’s shop, and goldsmiths were the predecessors of bankers.

 

[7] The End of the Poem (2006) is Muldoon’s title for his Oxford lectures. The title is a multilayered pun, but as in this poem, poetry seems to be alive and kicking.

[8] Sulphur casts are used to conserve images made in snow. This is one of a number of forensic practices mentioned in the poem.

[9] Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Donne’s Elegy to His Mistress Going to Bed

Versions of Masculinity

Recent reading of  Steve Ely, Geoffrey Hill and Basil Bunting have made me think about the male perspective in poetry and about how different aspects of masculinity are represented in contemporary poetry by men.[1]  I don’t think poetry can be gender neutral, no matter how generous, inclusive or aware of the other the poet attempts to be.  Nor do I think gender can be seen as binary; there must be as many versions of gender in poems as there are in the people who write them.   Nevertheless, there are certain traits in poetry, as in life, which are traditionally regarded as masculine, and may include attitudes to violence and sexuality as well as specific ways of using language.

  1. Simon Armitage      

simon armitage

I used to be very bothered by Simon Armitage.  Is it time I changed my mind?

Some years ago, when I was a teacher, I used to have to teach Simon Armitage’s poem, “I am very bothered” to successive classes of GCSE students. Here is the poem:

I am very bothered when I think

of the bad things I have done in my life.

Not least that time in the chemistry lab

when I held a pair of scissors by the blades

and played the handles

in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;

then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin

as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,

then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,

the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say

that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,

of asking you if you would marry me.

This is a poem which commemorates, or even celebrates, a sick and cruel joke. Apologists for this not even half-hearted apology will make all sort of claims for it. They will argue that the poet is not the persona in the poem but is exploring a particular type of callow youthful behaviour; they will point to the (not very) subtle uses of language and wordplay such as “played”, “eternity”, “branded”.  They will even say that this is a kind of love poem presented in the form of a botched sonnet.  In my view, the poem depicts an act of gross harassment, where the male asserts his right to the female as a piece of property by setting his mark on her, an act which the perpetrator enjoys “the unrivalled stench of branded skin”. It presents a horrifying concept of marriage. The perspective is totally that of the perpetrator; the victim’s shock and pain is not even imagined.  The use of reductive, casual language , “very bothered” –not “deeply ashamed”, “butterfingered”- not “deliberate and sadistic”, seeks to engage our sympathies for the protagonist, to diminish the severity of his action and to exculpate him. The final stanza plays the classic poetic trick of negation, “Don’t believe me, please” in order to excuse both writer and reader from judgement or responsibility.  I don’t understand how this poem has become canonical and why it is considered appropriate to set it before  GCSE students for their admiration. It has prejudiced me against Simon Armitage for twenty years; perhaps it is time for a rethink.

Unlike Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin who are often cited as his forerunners, the figure which Armitage projects through his poetry and other writing is that of Everyman. However, the persona is definitely everyman rather than everyone and what I should like to explore is how this perspective is created and operates in his work.  The first topic to consider is Armitage’s use of a demotic which is peculiarly masculine: “ I have not bummed across America”, “Harold Garfinkel can go fuck himself”, “Batman, bigshot,” “him whose arse I whipped” “Sod it.  We drive to the pub,/ it drinks, so yours truly has to drive home”, “I stuck the boot in”.  This goes along with a subject matter which is often male Middle England; for example, in Paper Aeroplane – Selected Poems 1989-2014,there are poems about cars and driving, football and cricket, homeownership and DIY, male bonding and male competitiveness (including fighting and war).  Even when the topic is not specifically masculine the tone and phrasing are. In “The Present” from The Unaccompanied, a tender poem about climate change, he begins with a robust “I shove” followed by ‘stride out’, verbs suggesting a male heartiness which is supported by the rollicking rhythm of the first stanza:

            Rotten and rusted, a five-bar gate

            lies felled in the mud, letting the fields escape.

The detail is vivid and immediate, in keeping with one meaning of the title; the metaphor describing the larches “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs” is almost too much but perhaps fits in with the idea of quest, again usually a masculine trope, which is present throughout the poem.  The speaker is on a quest to find an icicle to show to his daughter, but the only ones he can find are too insubstantial to survive the journey home and melt in his ‘gloved fist’. This image, almost a cliché, appears in the first two lines of the last stanza which have connotations of male violence and guilt:

            These are brittle and timid and rare, and weep

            in my gloved fist as  I ferry them home.Icicles

We may think of classic episodes such as the rape of the Sabine women; this stanza implies that the destruction of the environment is gendered masculine and leaves nothing to be handed on to future generations, here represented by a girl. Perhaps it is significant also that the daughter in the poem is passive, that she waits at home for the adventurer to bring home the prize, an figure of courtly love which is subverted by the fact that the prize has been destroyed. To push the reading even further, we can say that the male persona has sought for a ‘diamond-like cold’, a certainty which pins the “sense of the world” in place, but has been left with nothing but water which has run through his hand, reflecting feminine fluidity which evades and escapes him. Indeed, we could also point to the phallic symbolism of the ‘six-foot tusk’ icicle of the past, no longer to be found, as another expression of masculinity which has lost confidence in itself.

In “I Kicked a Mushroom” the same self-conscious uneasiness manifests itself. The poem describes an act which is magnified to represent all acts of mindless violence:

            but I stuck in the boot then walked away

            with its white meat caught in my tongue and lace.

The remains of the mushroom lie on the lawn all night , “showing the gods what I am”.  It is as though the poet is discovering and admitting his complicity in the sorts of thoughtless cruelty and vandalism which he has described in third person or in other personas throughout his career, one notable example being  “Hitcher”, where an ordinarily depressed wage slave vents his frustration on a hitchhiker:

            I let him have it

            on the top road out of Harrogate – once

            with the head, then six times with the Krooklok

            in the face –and didn’t even swerve.

Perhaps Armitage is attracted to medieval poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Death of Arthur because they allow for plenty of hacking and hewing as well as a degree of verbosity that would not go unexamined in a contemporary poem.

The concern with sexuality and gender appears again in “You’re Beautiful”, a Mars and Venus poem, which is an uncomfortable exploration of male and female stereotypes. The contrasts between male and female range from the horrific to the trivial. The purpose and context for the poem are not given and are unclear, apart from the fact that the source collection Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid is based on the notion of oppositions and conflicts. Be that as it may, the perspective in this poem is relentlessly masculine, one has to hope, ironically.

            You’re beautiful because you drink a litre of water and eat

                        five pieces of fruit a day.

            I’m ugly for taking the line that a meal without meat is a

                        beautiful woman with one eye.

This piece, like many other Armitage poems, bothers me because of its slightly shabby machismo, its moral ambiguity and the sense it projects of being a try-on.

“You’re beautiful because for you, politeness is instinctive, not a marketing campaign.”  Armitage, for all his bluff, man of the people stance and language, is extremely evasive. His poems often seem to be making a pitch rather than saying something real. This is partly because he often adopts personas which are clearly distant from himself, and because he enjoys dramatization and translation which again take him away from the lyric or confessional “I”.  This is probably a good thing, especially if we view it in Keatsian terms of “negative capability” and the “chameleon poet”. On the other hand, Armitage is an extraordinarily prolific writer who seems to accept an inordinate number of challenges and commissions. Let us hope that this because of inclination rather than necessity:

            I should resist this degrading donkey work in favour of my

                        own writing

            wherein contentment surely lies.

            But A. Smith stares smugly from the reverse of the twenty-

                        pound note,

            and when my bank manager guffaws

            small particles of saliva stream like a meteor shower

            through the infinity of dark space

            between his world and mine.

“An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”

This poem, from The Unaccompanied, is typical in the anxieties about identity which it establishes. Probably, the speaker is not Armitage, if only because no-one really has a bank manager any more. However, if it is a satire of Grub Street hackery, what is the point? It seems primarily to backfire on the poet himself, revealing a consciousness which is perpetually uneasy – uneasy about gender and sexuality, uneasy about social status, uneasy about the very fact of being a writer. In Walking Home, Armitage’s prose account of his journey along the Pennine Way, he describes a conversation with the Pennine Way Ranger assigned to guide him for one part of his journey:

walking home

“What did you think I’d be like?”

“I don’t know, to be honest.”

“Some kind of bespectacled, fragile intellectual in a velvet jacket and unsuitable shoes, right?”

“No”, he says unconvincingly, then a moment later, “OK, yes.”

The exchange reveals some of the inconsistencies and uncertainties which perhaps underlie and fuel Armitage’s work.  He writes about ordinary people and often purports to be just an ordinary bloke.  At the same time, he has intellectual aspirations as evidenced by his choice of career, his forays into Middle English and classical texts as well as, most recently, his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry.  He is resolutely hetero in his work, as though seeking to overthrow the notion of poetry as effeminate. Yet the masculinity he projects is not assertive or arrogant like that of, say, Ted Hughes or more recently, Steve Ely.  Rather, it is awkward, conflicted, representative of everyman in the present day.  This is one reason that he is suited to be the Poet Laureate; he is already writing a lot of public poetry which takes on and explores current issues in a safe and socially acceptable way. An example is “Remains”, another poem which has made it onto the GCSE syllabus. Here, Armitage explores, effectively and sympathetically, the PTSD of a soldier who has taken part in the shooting of a looter while on overseas service, possibly in Iraq.  It is part of The Not Dead, poems originally written to be part of a Channel 4documentary about the experiences of being a soldier in different wars.   Armitage has said, more than once, that he considers poetry to be a form of dissidence, that poets are members of ‘the awkward squad’.  These public poems are not dissident or transgressive but mainstream in the same way as the Help for Heroes charity and Prince Harry.

Where Armitage does transcend his public service role is when he adventures into the surreal.  He has said that his poems often begin with him telling himself stories and many of his pieces do seem like short fictions rather than lyrics. The collection Seeing Stars is made up of a series of prose poems which travel in strange and unsettling directions. One of the best is “I’ll be There to Love and Comfort You” which seems to be about a couple who have lost a child: “And out of the void, slowly but slowly it came: the pulsing starfish of a child’s hand, swimming and swimming and coming to settle on my upturned palm.”  It is a powerful end to a powerful poem, with connotations of evolution, revulsion, hope and responsibility carried by an extraordinary visual and tactile metaphor.

I have read a lot of Armitage in the past couple of weeks but only a small part of what he has written.  I still have not made up my mind. I think The Unaccompanied is a fine collection although I could have done without “To-do List”.  The uncertainty of tone, swithering between genuinely sharp wit and tacky or sometimes offensive punchlines seem to me to reflect an uncertainty of purpose and identity which is perhaps representative of our times.


[1] Since writing this introduction I have come across Kate Clanchy’s review of Gendering Politics by Vicki Bertram.  Bertram analyses poems by male and female poets, including “Snow Joke” by Simon Armitage (PN Review 165, Vol.32, No.1, September-October 2005)