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

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets

1. Burnt Norton

Recently, at a poetry reading, someone asked me who poets wrote for and why. This question chimed with my rereading of T.S.Eliot’s The Four Quartets. The questions which arose in my mind, were to do with audience and purpose. Who was Eliot writing the poems for and why did he write them at all? Unlike The Waste Land, where there is a variety of voices and the poet appears absent or occluded by them, in The Four Quartets there is a controlling first person presence, who sometimes seems to be a rather magisterial donnish or public figure, sometimes an agonized private consciousness riven by guilt and doubt. T.S. Eliot is said to have come to Christianity through a long and, in his own view, consistent process of intellectual exploration: In his introduction to Pascal’s Pensées (1931), he wrote

[The Christian thinker] finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory: among religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world and especially for the moral world within; and thus, by what Newman calls ‘powerful and concurrent’ reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation.[1]

Eliot’s conversion seems to have been willed, a choice rather than a Damascus moment, and it seems that following his intellectual commitment he struggled to subdue his emotions and sentiments to the commitment he had made. Nevertheless, it seems also that he was attracted by the discipline of Anglo-Catholic practice, by the Sacrament of penance and by the various mortifications expected of the devout adherent, from the period of fasting before Holy Communion, the insistence on eating fish on Friday all the way to the vow of celibacy he apparently took in 1928 at the time when he was separating from his wife. He claimed that nothing could be ‘too ascetic’. He believed that the exercise of his faith should involve not only the rigorous observation of outward forms but also the persistent spiritual and intellectual battle to sustain faith against the scepticism and doubt which were always with him:

 

For him, religious belief was in constant tension with scepticism: ‘it takes application, and a kind of genius, to believe anything, and to believe anything …will probably become more and more difficult as times goes on… There is always doubt.’[2]

 

Thus we may see The Four Quartets, at least in part, as a spiritual exercise or even a penance; a prolonged effort by the poet to order his ideas and his emotions in order to approach the spiritual freedom and certainty he yearned for. Nevertheless, the voice of the poems is also infused with Eliot’s sense of himself as a public figure, a social critic, almost an elder of the tribe; this is increasingly true in the three last quartets, published in wartime, in 1940, 1941 and 1942. I should like to consider these questions of voice, tone and audience by looking more closely at the way in which the poems address the reader at different points, specifically through the way in which the poet makes use of personal pronouns. This post will be concerned with Burnt Norton and I intend to discuss the three subsequent quartets in three further posts.

 

Burnt Norton was originally a stand-alone piece and completed considerably earlier than the others, in 1936. The poem opens with a fairly bald statement of the theme or argument and only introduces a personal pronoun in line 12, ‘the passage which we did not take’. This ‘we’ may be inclusive, allowing readers to recall their own missed opportunities, although it could also be as A.N. Wilson suggested in his recent television documentary, Return to T.S.Eliotland[3], a reference to his relationship with Emily Hale, to whom he had been close since a young man and who was with him when he visited Burnt Norton while walking in the Cotswolds. The subsequent lines

‘My words echo/ Thus, in your mind.’ would then seem personal, with the ‘your’ addressing a specific other, rather than a generalised public. This reading also sharpens the regret and feeling of futility in revisiting the past, so that the first use of the first person singular ‘I’ sounds vulnerable rather than vatic:

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

However, Eliot’s immense reserve and his doctrine of impersonality tend to deter us from looking for such specific references or readings, while his very conscious evocation and acknowledgement of cultural and theological reference propel us towards a public or universal explication. Roses and gardens, especially secret or lost gardens, have resonances far beyond a particular manor house in Gloucestershire which may serve to enrich the poem through the symbolism attached to them[4]. This huge cultural burden on the poems works to mask or hide the poet, as Eliot might have hoped, but the intellectual trawl through references and sources may dissipate the emotional power and impact of the poetry. Thus, the subsequent vision of ghostly visions from the past may seem to be a shared moment of enlightenment: ‘They were as our guests’, ‘we moved, and they, in a formal pattern’ ,‘And they were behind us’ but this apparent intimacy is lost in the closing lines when authorship is given to the bird ‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality’ and the poem reverts to the pedagogic pronouncements of the opening. The lyric passage which follows has an aureate style which repels emotion and demands an analytical, decoding response. The ’we’ in line 58 ’We move above the moving tree’ , which is magisterial, the voice from the podium, disappears in the final three line resolution of this section:

Below, the boarhound and the boar

Pursue their pattern as before

But reconciled among the stars

 

The poem moves back to a more philosophical tone and longer line with a series of negative paradoxes attempting to define the ‘still point’ which refers us back to the idea of axis or axle in the previous passage but also connects to the Aristotelian idea of the Prime Mover who does not move, a way of speaking about God. Apart from a rather tetchy imperative ‘And do not call it fixity’ there is no sense of a personal poetic voice in these lines which build to the assertion ‘Except for the point, the still point/ There would be no dance, and there is only the dance’. However, immediately following this, the ‘I’ reappears, yearning for the visionary but indefinable moment which may have been shared ‘there we have been’ or which the poet may be asserting to be an experience which many will recognise. After some further fairly abstract discussion, the poet gives specific examples of these out of time moments of vision or full consciousness: ‘the moment in the rose garden/The moment in the arbour where the rain beat/The moment in the draughty church at smokefall’. The appeal of these examples is that they are both sufficiently specific and general for readers to feel that they do recognise them. Thus we are unsure whether Eliot is here in an internal dialogue with himself, or addressing readers in general or thinking of one specific interlocutor.

 

In Section III of Burnt Norton, there are no personal pronouns at all. The disembodied, disimpersoned voice presents a gloomy vision of modern life , located in ‘the gloomy hills of London’, a phrase which a friend of mine finds hugely irritating as she remembers the London of William Blake.[5] However, this is a very subjective view of London, which perhaps the Blake who wrote ‘London’ in The Songs of Experience might have recognised. Compare Blake’s ‘And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe’ with Eliot’s ‘strained, time-ridden faces’. Section III seems to be a repeat of the description of the ‘Unreal City’ in The Waste Land where the London crowds are shown as inhabitants of Limbo. Here too the citizens are in Limbo, or even Hell: ’Tumid apathy with no concentration, Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind’. Although the poet never uses the pronoun ‘they’, the figures described are criticised as prisoners of the material ‘twittering world’ ( a horribly prescient phrase) who have not discovered ‘the ‘true darkness’. At the same time, the passage only gains its power because we recognise that the ‘unhealthy souls’ here presented are not really ‘they’ but ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘I’, the poetic voice. So in the second part of Section III, when the poet again resorts to the imperative ‘Descend lower, descend only/Into the world of perpetual solitude’ we understand that he is exhorting himself, and that this ‘via negativa’ is not only theological, the approach to God by saying what God is not, but also an attempt to escape the material world, not by rising above it but through a process of mortification which is indicated through the nouns Eliot uses: ‘deprivation’, ‘destitution’, ‘dessication’, ‘evacuation’, ‘inoperancy’, most of which begin with negative prefixes. This takes us back to the biography of the poet and his declaration on conversion that nothing could be ‘too ascetic’. After this denunciation of the world, with its ‘metalled ways/Of time past and time future’, the extraordinarily sensual and natural imagery of Section IV comes as a surprise. Perhaps this is another ‘other’ way; not the path down and away from the senses but the path through them. There is an extraordinary ambivalence in these lines: yearning for the sunflower of the clematis to ‘turn to us’, ‘us’ here being either Eliot and his companion in the Burnt Norton gardens or ‘us’ humankind but also fear and almost repulsion in the verbs which follow ‘clutch and cling’. This is followed by ‘Chill/Fingers of yew’ reminding us of our mortality but somehow in their vegetal nature reminding us of renewal. The passage reaches its climax in the allusion to the ‘kingfisher’, which in its startlingly beautiful and fleeting appearances has traditionally been associated with visionary and idyllic moments.

 

This very short passage is followed by a recapitulation of the key themes and images. Again this section abounds in abstract and paradoxical language which attempts but, at least for me, does not succeed in capturing the mystical or theological ideas about time with which the poet is concerned. Although we may know that the poet is referring to St John of the Cross, for example, and the language may reflect theological and mystical belief, they do not always carry poetic conviction, especially to the untutored reader. We can recognise the following lines as a description of God, but they are poetically unconvincing, providing as they do, a dry-as-dust definition of Love:

Love is itself unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless and undesiring

Except in the aspect of time

Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

In two places emotion breaks through and the writing moves from versified philosophy into poetry. The first is the cry of frustration at the inadequacy of language:

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

The second is in the final lines, where a sense of hurt, having been shut out, excluded from a community, of being oneself the disregarded other, transcends ideas about different periods of time co-existing, or childhood as a type of Edenic innocence. Somehow, for Eliot, it seems always too late; the children will always hide from him and thus he is perpetually condemned to ‘the waste sad time/Stretching before and after.’[6] Thus, although the first person is nowhere used in this section, the poignant ending reflects a poem which is concerned with the personal and spiritual travails of the writer and whose primary audience may have been himself –or God.

[1] Quoted by Benjamin G Lockerd in the Introduction to T.S. Eliot and Christian Tradition 2014, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

[2] Barry Spurr, ‘T.S. Eliot and Christianity’ in The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot, edited by Jason Harding (2017) Cambridge University Press

[3] BBC 4, 9th October 2018

[4] See Annotations to T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets, by Herman Servotte/Ethel Grene, iUniverse, 2010

[5] Conversation with Dinah Livingstone: Jerusalem, ‘To the Jews’ by William blake

The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Her little ones ran on the fields,

The Lamb of God among them seen

And fair Jerusalem his bride,

Among the little meadows green.

Pancras & Kentish Town repose

Among her golden pillars high,

Among her golden arches which

Shine upon the starry sky.

 

[6] Peter Ackroyd (T.S.Eliot by Peter Ackroyd, 1984)suggests this imagery may be based on hearing the voices of schoolgirls in the next-door schoolyard of the Mary Institute. While this may be too reductive, this earlier example of the hortus conclusus is an appealing prefiguring of the gardens at Burnt Norton

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

prunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversity from Oxford

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

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

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

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

and then back into second:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Dustie-Fute

               eftir Eugenio de Andrade

he cam fae a fremmit land,

had kent thrist an the watter o Mairch bere

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

 

The dour snaw cam eftir.

 

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

he could see her- or him –exactly.

Yes, it was him

or her –

that is his nose

her jaw –precisely.

Orpheus, section 3

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

Felix aa bronson

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

 

trees that hung your voice

among these patterns

wrap your quilt in foliage;

 

a dog barks through the branches

a girl’s arm passes like an oar

across the sunlit patches;

 

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

 

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!

O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum in Ohr!

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

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

 

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

 

Rivers become the towers,

hooves of all the little people

bob among the eddies;

upended trees, dishevelled wigs

root among the waves.

‘I, Giraffe’

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

Noo the nicht-hawk

flauchters thru brainches,

 

dieback an leesions

hap ma hide,

 

the parawd

intae the untholeable licht.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Anyway,

dark before the rain-spattered exit,

I or someone else stood. You could not make

me out. I stood and saw

how, on the single track over

the machair, with a sad look,

the woman turned to follow him

already walking back along the path

to the vast absent view, his footsteps

echoless, so gentle, so patient.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Third Person, First Person and the Holes in the Wall

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

.301254-david-harsent-getty

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

rock-wall-repairs2

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

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

slipping into your hand; the way you try to make

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

(Salt, p.5)

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

 

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

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

held ready, bare walls, weight

of silence, a glass of water cut by sunlight.

(p.83)

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

 

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

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

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

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

petals on a wet, black bough.

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

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

jorie graham

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

12

as the apple builds inside the limb, as rain builds

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

as the meaning of the story builds,

 

13

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

 

14

taken from her, this freedom,

15

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

16

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

 

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

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

outside it more than before, are you not inside?

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

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

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

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

natural?

‘The Post Human’ from Fast

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

 

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

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

To show him something of how it would look

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

(p.37)

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

[2] In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell