The Sixco Kids: why Belfast poets are still writing about the Troubles.

It is fifty years since I lived in the North of Ireland and I still don’t know what to call it. I am sensitive to my status as no more than an interested outsider when I come to write about poetry and literary issues in the Six Counties.  My attention was caught by the apparent cancellation of the novelist, Rosemary Jenkinson, following publication in Fortnight magazine of an article where she argued that young writers should stop writing about the Troubles and that to do so was a form of regressive cashing in. The article met with a degree of outrage in some quarters and was followed by the cancellation of the writer’s publication contract with Doire Press which the publishers denied was a consequence of the article.[1] Nevertheless, this was a deplorable occurrence and while I disagree with Jenkinson’s views, I see no reason why she should not express them. At the same time as I heard about this controversy, I was reading the recent poetry collections of Padraig Regan and Gail McConnell, two young Belfast poets. Then came the war in Ukraine and the pronouncements of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, justifying the Russia invasion as a defence of ‘Holy Russia’ and Orthodox Christianity against liberalism and LGBTQ+ values, [2] suggesting that in the West there was organised genocide of those who refused to allow Gay Pride Parades.  Such opinions are equally familiar from the far right evangelical Christians of the United States whose influence has become global and has, indeed, long been part of the ideological fabric in Northern Ireland.

Padraig Regan and Gail McConnell were both nurtured in the Seamus Heaney Centre of Queen’s University, Belfast.  Both would claim Ciaran Carson as a guiding influence and mentor. Yet both are generationally different from either Heaney or Carson. Both belong to the LGBTQ+ community but one has a Protestant heritage, the other a Catholic. These are two contemporary poets writing in an idiom which is 21st century and yet both are steeped in the experience of the Troubles.  How could this be otherwise when the truth of what happened is still suppressed and, if the British Government has its way, will continue be suppressed, and, as a result, peace and reconciliation seem as far off as ever?  

Padraig Regan’s first full collection, Some Integrity, (Carcanet ,2022) contains at its centre a prose essay ‘Glitch City’ which ponders queerness and violence and the uncertainty of boundaries, taking in the mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the vagaries of Pokémon computer gaming and finally the fractured weirdness of the city of Belfast.  The three conditions of queerness, the nowhere land of the computer game’s Glitch city, and a Nationalist Catholic identity in a divided community, overlay each other so that the poet can write:

I thought to myself I’m used to this.  I am as much at home in a fractured maze of visible & invisible walls as anywhere. I’ve learned what every little queer must learn: to be alert, to be aware of where you are & are not safe.

The consciousness of being ‘not safe’, which recent events have made ever more prevalent, permeates this collection of guarded, aesthetic and ambiguous poems in which boundaries are never certain and shapes are constantly changing. The opening poem, ‘50ml of India Ink’ is a manifesto as it describes how the lac-bug discovers a new existence and significance as ink which makes meaning on paper:

            It performs its tiny fractal

            creep through the paper’s

            knitted capillaries,

            & finds itself astounded

            with significance. It means

            I am not yet dead.

So far, so good, one might think, but then the writer backs away from statement or assertion, with the classic ‘not un-‘ formation of the cautious:

            I was not untempted

            To leave this blank.

I did wonder if Regan, with this very emphatically black ink, was obliquely alluding to or challenging the notion of ‘white ink’ found in theories of écriture féminine developed by Hélène Cixous. Be that as it may, many of the poems in the book take up this theme of shifting identity, something particularly evident in the food poems, where transformation is necessarily key. In ‘A Machine for Harvesting Olives,’ the anthropomorphised olive tree laments for its denatured children, once so securely the signs of themselves: ‘You think I do not know/what happens in the press? There my children weep & die;/ their oily souls are wrung/from the pulp that once/they called their selves.’  There is violence and terror here, but it is subverted by the final Mandy Rice Davies allusion, ‘Well,/ it would say that, wouldn’t it?’  Well no, it wouldn’t, because it’s an olive tree and olive trees don’t talk. ‘Risotto’ sets out to disgust us with ourselves, our own bodies and how we transform or subject others to metamorphosis. This must be a chicken risotto, although I think I have read that Regan does not eat meat; certainly, this is enough to convert the faint-hearted to vegetarianism: ‘I try to stop my thoughts from turning/ to the bird whose bones I’ve commandeered & put to use in a way quite unintended.’ Regan recognises the process of cooking as the destruction of identity: ‘Everything I do, I do to rob them of their nature.’ Form, shape and identity are presented as fragile and impermanent; this could be, and is elsewhere, a recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender.  In this poem, the poet/cook/human is greedy, tyrannous and full of self-disgust: ‘I add the fat I’ve stolen from some calf I’ll never meet.’…”I eat it & I think about the moment that it will become// not it but I. & not without regret, I feel this process taking place.’ This is literally visceral and feels like too much information. The poem ends: ‘I hate/ my commitment to making more self to hate. It is not without regret.’  At one level, this sounds like the declaration of an anorexic; at another, we notice how these destructive and self-destructive lines are elegantly styled in a form of chiasmus, which perhaps reflects the contradictions inherent in haute cuisine and fine dining. 

The poet is writing about bodies, bodies of mushrooms, squid, chicken and even rice grains making us aware how vulnerable they, and by extension we, are to degradation and change. ‘A Roast’ is an extraordinary reflection on the crucifixion, where Christ becomes identified with a spatchcocked chicken in a way which manages to be both ironic and sacramental. The poet weaves two narratives, the cooking and eating of the chicken with work on ‘a study of ‘The Christ of the Foundations’: /the crucifix Saint Teresa carried /from Avila to Arévalo’. The medium is charcoal, itself a denatured material and it is ‘on my fingers & on everything now’. I connect the charcoal to the ‘smudge of shadow where His ribs/meet His abdomen’ so that boundaries once again are blurred; the smudging of charcoal makes everything unclear.  The pervasiveness of the charcoal also suggests guilt, or even sin, the shame which accompanies the eating of the chicken, presented through juxtaposition:

            There is a scraping of forks on plates,

            a clicking of knives.

            I’ve been having trouble with His face.

The poem reminds me of ‘The Feast’ by Robert Duncan (Passages 34) in Ground Work (New Directions, 1968). 

            –but the true measure is hidden in the fingers’ feel for the taste of it—

  and garlic

  rosemary   ground in the mortar

              salt, pepper, and drops of oil      workt into the emulsion…

                                    We have come to the Festivities!

 In both poems we are made to recognise that at the back of celebration, ritual and festivity is the eating of the sacrifice: in Duncan’s poem it is a lamb (possibly the Paschal lamb) ; in Regan’s, it is downgraded to a chicken.  At the end of the poem, there is a typical pulling back as we find ourselves outside, in what should be the real world:

            The buddleia creaks over the back wall

            & the moon, for the occasion,

            has dressed as the moon.

However, the literalness of the scene is subverted by the linking of the moon to the light which has preoccupied the previous stanza, and by the suggestion that the moon is not so much itself but has ‘dressed’ as itself, which takes us back not only to the various symbolic significances of the moon but to the notion that all identities are forms of posing, or passing or dressing up.

We could say that Regan’s poetry dresses up as the work of an aesthete, relishing the finer things of civilisation, art, literature, the pleasures of the table while it explores violence, sexuality, what it is to live in a body, disgust and fear.  A very large proportion of the poems relate to food and many others are to some extent ekphrastic, connecting in some way to works of art. The poem which ends Section II of the book and precedes the prose essay is ‘The Barberini Faun: A Partial Reconstruction’. Reconstruction is a particularly apt title because the classical sculpture has been patched and reconstructed by a number of artists since its rediscovery in the 17th century.  Perhaps what draws Regan to this image, apart, obviously, from its erotic beauty, is the inauthenticity  or lack of integrity of the body which is presented. It is a body which can be what its audience, owners, exploiters want it to be, from the time when, reputedly, it was used as a weapon and hurled at the beseiging Ostrogoths because ‘stone//was stone & useful/ for its own hard quiddity’. Regan moves from a summary of the various repairs done to the statue to a meditation on what they can read into it: the hair is ‘calligraphic’, demanding to be read, the ‘nubbed horns’ are there if you are looking for the satyr, as is ‘the twisted cord/ of his diminutive tail’, if you can actually see it; the ‘one //remodelled foot’ is indeed human not cloven. We can see the poet approaching and withdrawing from meanings: ‘I’d rather not believe//that he would spend/ his waking hours/knee-deep in rape, /despite the evidence.’  What evidence? Is this a reflection on war, on sexual violence as represented in art through satyrs or fauns? Is it a wistful hope that this powerfully physical image of male sexuality can be other than cruel or rapacious, despite the physical ‘aleatory’ mutilation of the phallus.  In the last section, the poet invests the statue with their own desires.

            Confronted with this

            immanent tonnage

            taking the shape

            of my desires

the poet considers their own reactions and interpretation,  the possibility of ‘one more revision// on the disputed/ & brutal text/that is his anatomy –‘.  The words ‘disputed’ and ‘brutal’ are almost antithetical; ‘disputed’ recognises the ambiguities of the figure while ‘text’ acknowledges that it no more than the uncompleted sum of different readings, but then ‘brutal’ takes us back to perhaps inescapable realities about physicality, sexuality and power. In the final lines of the poem, the poet concedes an intractable otherness:

                   …if he woke & saw

            the way I gazed at him

            he would break my neck

            as soon as look at me.

Section IV has more fruit and vegetables, much of it fairly squishy, although there is a ‘meat-shaped stone’ which might seem more resistant to deconstruction, except, of course, it is already something masquerading as something else. ‘A Pumpkin’, at the end of this section, is an extended sexual metaphor where violence and bad faith are again toyed with. This pumpkin is raped with a knife, but it ‘wants to split’ (my emphasis); it was asking for it: ‘It exposes its creamy interior.’ The poet enacts a violence on the pumpkin which is made more horrifying by its sensuality:

            & because I want a violence

            more intimate, I do this with my hands

            & feel its wet potential turn to pulp

            beneath my nails.

They then declare ‘a vicious sympathy’ with their victim, confessing a ‘want’ to ‘hold a space/ at the centre oneself, & have it filled;’ there is an unfulfilled wish for sexual union, ‘to bend the self around the presence / of something not-quite-other, not -quite-I’.  The eviscerated pumpkin is further mutilated, ‘I cut the pumpkin’s two bright domes/to crescent moons’ and this is done:

                                                …in the hope

            that when the resurrection comes,

            everything I have subjected thus

            will be returned inviolate

            & I’ll be nothing & forgiven.

This sounds like a wish to be unfallen, or possibly never to have existed in the fallen world of mutability, eating or being eaten. 

‘Ireland’ a two page poem in the final section is at once a train journey and something like a dream or nightmare sequence where nothing is as it is expected to be and nothing holds its shape. Again, there are a lot of vegetables, here behaving grotesquely, though I’m not sure why.  There are phallic carrots and macho ‘steroid-bulked marrows’ as well as pretty lettuces ‘graceful in their long dresses’ and pregnant turnips with ‘rippling bellies’ – although they might just be overweight. Regan seems pursued by human bodies but not at all comfortable with them.  I take this train journey to be from Belfast to Dublin or perhaps the other way around and the city which features in the poem with its references to ‘North Street’s burnt arcade’ and the ‘itinerant rivers’ I take to be Belfast, which for the poet is possibly as problematic and inescapable as the body.  ‘Ireland’ is a powerful poem where the use of fog and phantasmagoria convey the sense of uncertain and shifting identities at the proprioceptive and political levels.

Gail McConnell’s book, The Sun is Open (Penned in the Margins, 2021) is at first glance, much more avant garde at least in terms of form. However, it does not tolerate the nebulous ambiguities of Regan’s collection; rather, it battles against them in a mode which is as much that of investigative journalism as of poetry. McConnell’s collection is really a long poem where she explores, not for the first time, her father’s murder. William McConnell was a deputy prison governor at the Maze prison, where many IRA prisoners were held. He was shot dead by the IRA in 1984 outside the family home, in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter, Gail.  The full story has never been made clear, any more than have the details of his role inside the prison. An earlier long poem, ‘Typeface’, describes the poet’s compulsive trawling through the internet trying to find answers more satisfactory than those provided by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report.  The quest for truth beyond the endless official fudges and whitewashes is what drives this book-length poem. It is only with truth, however uncomfortable, that the individual can find peace and reconciliation, but in the six counties, as for this poet, the truth remains elusive.

The difficulty in working out what the truth is from the fragments available to her is evident from the very first page and reflected in the forms the poet chooses. Here she uses a mixture of grey and bold text to describe her own method, which is outlined in the bolded words: ‘easier to/take what I have found and break/it up…glue it back/ the wrong way…’ (p.11). The book becomes the DAD BOX (p.23) where she keeps old documents relating to her father and memories of childhood all of which appear fragmentary and lacking in coherence; the poems do not so much achieve order and coherence as present the experience of incoherence in an ordered way.  Various typographical and formatting devices emphasize how hard it is to get at the truth: there is what appears to be part of an incomplete witness statement from the poet’s mother, but a combination of erasure and vertical lines suggest that this statement has been suppressed. (p.60-64) Erasure is also used to undermine existing texts, such as the 23rd psalm which loses its quality of reassurance to become threatening.  I have photographed page 48 to convey the effect.

Elsewhere, pp.78-79, the pages are made up almost entirely of vertical lines, to give the effect of massive redactions or prison bars, again suggesting the difficulty of reaching the truth.

McConnell looks back at a childhood where the huge stain of her father’s death taints everything she experienced; on page 18, she writes about Brian, ‘our neighbour six doors down’ who may also have been her own alter ego, ‘there was a time when I was/ Brian’. The poem explains how ‘we knew not to say [Brian’s dad] was in the police’ and continues

            that day he must have been dead

            scared hearing the shots they’re

            coming now for him for me

Again and again, the poet returns to the murder which she cannot actually remember. Images of terror and violence permeate everything from computer games to dreams, as memories are interspersed with newspaper fragments, legal documents and papers belonging to her father.  The book conveys very successfully the experience of growing up in the Protestant community of Belfast. The family was apparently devoutly evangelical, Baptist in allegiance, so that Gail grew up in an atmosphere of Bible classes and summer holiday seaside missions. The writing is steeped in scripture references, and memories of church going.  On p.106 there is a description of baptism through total immersion, while earlier there is a visit to a friend, Katherine’s church, presumably Church of Ireland ‘mum says it’s higher’; it has angels and ‘men in white dresses’ but it is still within the Protestant fold.  The curious thing about this book, as also of Regan’s, is that there is almost no reference to the other community, except in vague and general terms. Regan’s essay referred to ‘Sandy Row, one of those gaps in my mental cartography of the city, where I rarely go and if I were to venture to I would affect a name less revealing of my background…’. What the poet does not say is that Sandy Row is a notoriously Protestant Loyalist working class street.  Similarly, McConnell refers several times to her father’s murderers, but always anonymously; she never mentions the words IRA or Catholic.

            Around noon, the men sent out

            for fish and chips and as they sat

            eating they watched the lunchtime

            news to find out if they had 

            killed their target

It is as if, like in The City and the City, the novel by China Miévillethe circumstance of two different communities living in the same place had become so existential as not to merit mention.

McConnell’s poem worries endlessly at the circumstances of her father’s death, showing how its impact on her has carried through her childhood and into adulthood. There are emotions of anger and loss at the absent father who becomes identifies with or confused with the ‘Father in Heaven’:

            O Father

            my father

            my Father in Heaven

            Father alone

                        who remains in me

                                                            p.94

However, at the same time the poet is trying to work out who her father was, a man she hardly knew and can barely remember.  She needs to know what her father did but the pain in exploring the reasons for his death, his job as assistant governor in the Maze prison, notorious for its brutal regime and repression of Republican prisoners, means that her approach is oblique. The word ‘screw’ appears first on p.22 where it refers first to the screw worm, apparently a flesh-eating fly, but then to a ‘screw eye’ which is a type of metal fastening but which introduces the idea of looking, searching, prying into that which is underneath – the slaters (woodlice) hiding under tiles.  The poet recognises that there is or has to be ‘dirt underneath my nails’ and towards the end of the book she attempts to deal with the dirt. On page 73 there is what seems to be a summary of the contradictions in the personality of a prison officer, who might or might not be her father.

            an eminent Christian worker

                                                            a bad man 

            a man of high morals, honest, loyal, dedicated

                                    organised and directed beatings in the jail

Then, on page 80, the word ‘screw’ returns, this time with the primary meaning of ‘prison officer’.  

for so long it was hard

to mourn thinking from that side

of things bad bastard screw

in the mechanism the

panopticon     the architecture

of brutality knowing the theory

the cruel ingenious cage thinking

shit that’s him on the wrong side

of the gaze

The greyed words (bolded here because I can’t do grey)in the text are followed by grey bars or vertical lines which continue to the bottom of the page, again closing off the truth.  It is much easier to write about the past from the position of victim, much harder when you think you may have to identify with the oppressor, if that is indeed what your history is.  At the heart of O’Connell’s book is the need to know the truth, the whole truth.  Only by fully understanding her father’s role in the Maze, can she hope to reconcile her grief with her anger.  The book ends by returning to the image of the slaters in a present where violence is still an everyday reality

            as the robin sings the 

            lunchtime news reports another

            crash a bomb scare …

The slaters are at home, scurrying across the

            greening grouting lining tiles to

            what lies underneath it all

            comes up and out and in

            the window to the bit without

            the sun is open

The poem ends with the words of the title, insisting that what lies under must come up however much that entails dirt under the fingernails. Both these poets were born long after the Troubles began, both are adults in a supposedly post Troubles era.  For both, however, the Troubles are very much part of their present reality. Regan writes about the condition of precariousness which is reflected in the precarious society in which he lives; McConnell digs up and worries at what cannot be honestly left buried.  It would be bad faith for either poet to turn their back on the troubled history of Belfast or Norn Iron.


[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/rosemary-jenkinson-hits-out-at-publisher-who-dropped-her-after-controversial-article-1.4802892

[2] See article by Rowan Williams: https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/03/putin-believes-he-is-defending-orthodox-christianity-from-the-godless-west

An Orca on the Lawn: two books by Stephen SextonStephen Sexton

I have come late to Stephen Sexton’s magnificent book-length poem, If All the World and Love were Young,which won the Forward Prize for the best first collection in 2021.  This book astonishes by its range and coherence, even though I don’t understand half of it.  The book is an elegy for the poet’s mother but has for its structure the computer game, Super Mario.  As my own knowledge of that game is confined to a hazy image of a dumpy, moustachioed Italian plumber occasionally glimpsed on a child’s Gameboy or Nintendo consol (and I’m not even sure I’m using the right terms here), most of the specific references to the game are lost on me, and I have no inclination to remedy that deficit.

The poem may make me feel old, but I welcome the way the poet has successfully and unobtrusively used strict form in a novel and exciting way.  His long lines despite their appearance and frequent absences of punctuation and elliptical transitions are all 16 syllables in length and if Joyce can use the Odyssey as the structure for a novel, why shouldn’t a poet use the levels of the Mario games as the framework for his poem?

You can open this book anywhere and be rewarded with a frame/stanza/ section which on its own stimulates the imagination with its multi-layered language and levels of reference> Take this, for example:

            Chocolate Island 2

            As Dürer sees it under the hides of carburised iron thick

            as armour plating fixed in place with rivets pinned along the seams

            a polished gorget at the throat the rhino is mainly passive.

            What he got wrong hardly matters since he’d never seen one himself

            having just a poem a sketch imagination to go on

            making magic of the mundane.  And so the sun sets in the west

            which is to be expected there over the marshes and deltas

            I should like to describe to you having never seen them myself.

Even after googling Chocolate Island 2 and discovering how to find the secret exit, I am none the wiser about how the poem relates to the game.  But it doesn’t matter. This is a self-conscious piece of meta-writing where the poem comments on itself.  Dürer, like the poet, goes beyond the everyday real world to present something which may not be a rhino but which is an imagined construct based on a rhino as the Mario world characters and obstacles are also imaginary constructs derived from aspects of reality. The poem justifies our right to make things up and to use them to communicate: ‘I should like to describe to you having never seen them myself.’  Conversely, the poet’s use of Super Mario imagery conveys meaning to readers who have never seen it themselves.  The language used to describe the rhino also seems to straddle the two worlds of imagination and reality; the rivets and armour plating suggest heavy industry and, without too much of a stretch, may evoke the Belfast shipyards, while the ‘polished gorget’ suggests the armour of knightly romance.  Perhaps the sun setting in the west is mundane but the extension of the vista through the imagination ‘over the marshes and deltas’ has rendered it magical.

The necessity and interrelatedness of the two worlds is one of the continuing themes which gives the work its coherence and consistency.  However, it is the momentum of the long lines, simultaneously waves of energy and surges of grief, which carry us onward through this extended threnody.  The poem is double-faced, celebrating life and imagination while recognising and mourning a death; this is reflected in the second-hand title, If all the World and Love were Young, taken from Sir Walter Raleigh’s response to Christopher Marlowe’s poem ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’. The hypothetical conditional admits the possibility of the two worlds -the fantasy world of pastoral, not unlike the fantasy world of Super Mario, and the real world of everyday life, suffering and death.

Perhaps the Super Mario world is escapism, offering a brightly coloured and safe alternative to reality, where death can be cancelled: ‘once I was falling to my death/once I survived the fall landing in a trench scooped and jigsawed out/of the earth hello earth nice to see you amazed to be alive’. This alternative world is ‘as shallow as a pane of glass’; there is even a touch of nostalgia or self-pity in the way the writer looks back at his boyhood self:

            I remember myself being remembered a little lotus

            a cross-legged meditant for whom the questions floating in the air

            are for a future self to voice decades from now…

The passage refers to a photograph the poet believes to have been taken of him sitting in front of the television screen playing Super Mario; the unreliability of the memory is typical of important moments of childhood which we are often unsure whether we really remember or only think we do because we have been told about them. The Super Mario game is obviously presented as a form of comfort food, or like a brightly coloured familiar teddy, something which allows the protagonist to muffle the pain he is experiencing: ‘the beloved is gone but there is always the story.’  However, this is only one layer of what the game represents; the persisting story is the persisting imagination which is implicated through references to high and popular culture, Dante to Roy Orbison. The affirmative, inclusive nature of the poem, ‘I adore you I adore you world’ makes it very different from other kinds of elegy, such as the unremitting gloom of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Nevertheless, the poem has almost unbearable moments of sadness like the memory of the mother halving a grapefruit:

            my mother who cannot sleep halves a bright grapefruit whose feet whose toes

            whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire

The brightness of the grapefruit intrudes like a technicolour splash into the dark pain of the night and the mother’s illness. Something about the slightly misplaced relative pronoun makes us linger on the fruit before recognising the extremity of suffering endured by the mother.  The final poem seeks but does not quite manage to reconcile the two worlds: the coffin cannot quite become the television and the bright world of fantasy is relegated to the past, as the ‘if’ becomes ‘when’ and hypothesis or memory become equally unreal in the past indicative ‘was’:

                                                                        And now I think I 

            remember what I meant to say which is only to say that once

            when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing

            once in the corner of the room once when I was sitting in its light.

After an achievement on this scale, it is difficult to see where the poet could go next, and it was with some trepidation I approached his second book, Cheryl’s Destinies. Certainly, this collection is a collection rather than a single poem and because it lacks a single driving subject, it is probably more difficult to read. Again, Sexton’s imagination makes links which the reader cannot always follow, or, at least, a reader of pensionable age, living in Oxford.  Sometimes I recognise this is a failure of my imagination; sometimes, I feel excluded by a private or coterie frame of reference. For example, ‘O Lavery’s’ which appears to be about the game of pool will, I suspect, mean an awful lot more to its dedicatee, Dane Holt, than to me. The poems I do get, I like; ‘My Second Favourite Locked Room Mystery’ made me laugh. I don’t know about ‘The Burdens’, but I do know the goat in the ‘piebald sweater’; and I can recognise the possibilities of escape to other worlds only just suggested in the last stanza. ‘Café Cependant’ and ‘Romantic’ read like holiday poems. However, I am in danger of being too disparaging. In all these poems, even when they seem most obscure, there are brilliant moments of  observation captured through the language: ‘an apprenticeship/of skateboarders chiselling/shivers of concrete from our civic spaces’ (The Impossible).  

I don’t get Part II which purports to be ‘composed in collaboration with Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892-1968), who revealed to me the identity of one of her many ‘communicators’ and the influence of The Smashing Pumpkins on the poetry of W.B. Yeats.’   This is a collage of quotations from Yeats, his wife and the lyrics on The Smashing Pumpkins album, Siamese Dream.  Perhaps you need to be a Smashing Pumpkins fan, perhaps you need to be more invested in the poetry of Yeats. Each poem in the sequence is titled by the length in minutes and seconds of each of the songs on the album.  It is probably very clever and it does take in some by now familiar ideas about imagination dissolving the space-time constraints of reality:

            Is this heaven, says W. B. Yeats.

            Virtually, says Billy, this is Georgia.

                                                                        ‘4:58’

Why are there two poems in the collection with the same title, ‘Orthodox’, one in the first and one in the third part of the book?  Are they about the same person, a playground bully in the first poem: ‘with his middle knuckle breaking rank/the boy jabbed me in the thigh’. In the second poem, he, or someone like him, has died: ‘the circuit breaker/faulty.’ The death and the memory of the boy’s physical violence prompt a reflection on the nature of physical identity when considered in relation to the ‘alien body-brain/of the octopus,’ which we are now told is highly intelligent but which experiences consciousness in a completely different way from us. 

The third section ‘Mysteries’ is the part  I found most rewarding. It includes a number of moving and effective elegies, including the powerful poem for Ciaran Carson, Sexton’s mentor, which concludes the book. ‘Gomez’, another elegy, is in ‘affectionate memory of Raul Julia’, the actor who played the part of Gomez Addams in The Addams Family. The two things to notice are that it is ‘affection’ which makes all these elegies remarkable, even when they swing furthest from reality; and secondly, how strongly the poet is influenced by the fictional worlds of film, tv and videogames, and how he acknowledges the truths they offer.

‘Mysteries’, contains many poems I do not understand but which nevertheless some part of me gets. They tell me stories and show me pictures which take me to places I don’t know but where I am moved and enchanted, without knowing why. Such poems are ‘The Dancers’ with its wonderful last lines, like the closing scenes from a foreign language film:

            And you’ll say what a thing to share this flake of time

            In their company, what a thing wild lavender

            Can still flourish in the grounds of the derelict church.

I don’t know how the first stanza and the second relate to each other and I don’t know why the first word of each line is capitalised, as is customary in pre-20c verse though not usual here, but I don’t care, because the poem has lifted me up into its own world which is derived from the joys, sorrows and injustices of the real world.  Similarly, I love ‘Terror’ which tells a tale of persecution and haunting which leads to a family abandoning their home to protect their son: ‘For Albert we left./ The world still has a big soft place for him/so we packed our things and set out for it.’  What convinces about these poems is, as Sexton himself has suggested, following Marianne Moore, these are fictional narratives with real toads in them, although in Sexton’s ‘imaginary garden’ there is an Orca on the lawn.  In this poem, a family was driven out by persecution perhaps inflicted by their neighbours, who perhaps experience remorse

            some tomorrow morning the people

            stand naked in their mirrors

            saying I’m sorry, for everything. I’m sorry.

As in Sexton’s first book, the worlds of dream, of fiction, of video games are not, in the end, an evasion of reality, but a method of accommodating and acknowledging truth. 

How much should we care about trees? Two books by Lynne Wycherley

I love my smart phone. I love the internet. I even love Zoom! All of these have brought me a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of the world that goes back before the Pandemic. I suppose I am a certain kind of person, a natural social distancer, who finds these virtual relationships safe and empowering. I know, but choose to ignore, that I am being trailed by algorithms so that I am offered new trainers in online advertisements before the thought that the old ones are worn out has surfaced in my conscious brain.  I know, but choose to ignore, that the internet can be a bad place, where bad people can do bad things, whether at the level of state, corporation, gang or individual.

I also love cows, especially in the early morning of early summer when their grazing shapes emerge from the haze that precedes sunlight.  And I love roast dinners, cheese, woolly jumpers and organic cotton. Blood, sweat, death. 

I’m very fond of trees, seeing in them that reassuring recurrence of green celebrated by Philip Larkin: 

            Last year is dead, they seem to say,

            Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

A false reassurance, perhaps; the promise of renewal that Nature has offered for so long seems increasingly less credit worthy.  Wanting, like any other entitled, white middle-class senior, to have it all: i.e. trees and the internet, good food and a clear conscience, I was brought up short by reading Lynne Wycherley’s collection, The Testimony of Trees (Shoestring, 2018). In this book, Wycherley is the advocate for trees, speaking often in first person, adopting the tree’s perspective. She believes that trees are damaged by the radiation from mobile phone masts and that wireless radiation, more generally, is a threat to all natural organisms, including ourselves. My immediate reaction is sceptical: 5-G protesters, anti-vaxxers and Q-Anon gather together in the darkness of my prejudices and I seek to dismiss Wycherley as a tree-hugger.

Two things force me to think again: the first is the quality of Lynne Wycherley’s poetry and of the intellect which informs that poetry; the second is the scientific evidence. It is not that the evidence is conclusive either way; rather it is that the jury is still out and we have to ask why the vast increase in different kinds of radiation which we are experiencing would not affect the well-being of animals, plants and ourselves. Moreover, there is much stronger evidence for some of the imputed effects than others. For example, as far as I can see from my superficial and uninformed consultation with Google, the claim that phone masts can cause dieback in trees is much more substantiated than the diagnosis of electro-hypersensitivity, which is a condition that sufferers believe is caused by wireless radiation.

Wycherley has done a lot of homework on this, which is reflected in the sources she mentions in her notes.  Some of her poems and her comments sound impressively scientific, but despite the popular slogan, ‘Follow the science’, scientific papers often reflect the bias of their authors or those who cite them. Here is a screenshot of the Google response to the question, ‘Is 5 G harmful’.

References are equally balanced, with the sources reassuring us that 5G is safe often coming from interested parties, e.g. media broadcasters, while the voices of doubt are often singular or associated with ‘alternative’ organisations.

Nevertheless, The Testimony of Trees is passionately, almost polemically opposed, to the phenomena of the digital age. One of her main targets is the phone masts which she says are causing die-back in trees:

            We are floss, we are frail, in the ever-wind,

            stems, serifs, pared back,

            laterals lost to sky-wolves

            as if a gale has shorn us from one side…

…         In digital storms we are fraying

                                                                        ‘As If A Gale’ p.4

In this poem, as in each of the first four in the sequence, the poet speaks on behalf of the tree, in a first person advocacy. I’m not sure why the poet includes ‘serifs’ a term which is, as far as I know, specific to printing, in the description of the effects of wireless radiation or whether it is anything more than a visual metaphor. Wycherley has a penchant for unusual vocabulary choices, sometimes words which are very specific to a particular field of study, sometimes words which are unfamiliar because they have been displaced from their usual context. The breadth of reference and urgent need to proclaim her cause sometimes, paradoxically, lead to a failure in communication.

What might prompt a poet to speak up so passionately on behalf of trees?  Some ecocritics see human exploitation of natural resources as a form of injustice on a level with other forms of social and human injustice:

‘For most ecocritics, human abuse of the natural world is best understood as the corollary of unjust or oppressive systems of government and economics, and forms of social organisation ( hierarchy, plutocracy, patriarchy) that both abuse other human beings and which have no hesitation taking a similar stance towards anything else.’[1]

When we think of ‘hierarchy, plutocracy, patriarchy’, we can see Donald Trump as a symbolic figure representing all three; a man whose contempt for other people, especially women and non-whites, whose worship of capitalism and whose status as an arch-plutocrat (even if most of his wealth is an illusion) was necessarily accompanied by his disregard for the environment. Exploitation, for him, was always the name of the game.  However, while we can acknowledge the destructive forces which lie behind the different forms of exploitation and oppression, it is too easy to lump them all together.  Just at an emotional level, I can’t feel the same way about a damaged tree as I do when I see the terrified and hopeless face of a young girl fleeing the Taliban with her family. Perhaps this is because I am a woman, and human so while I empathise with Afghani women, I feel sorry about the destruction to plants and trees in a less visceral, more secondary way, and in part my distress arises from the impact on my environment, rather than a concern for the non-human being, in itself.

*** BESTPIX *** KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – AUGUST 10: Displaced Afghan families head into Kabul from the northern provinces desperately leaving their homes behind on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Is it possible for the human to speak up for non-human entities, like trees or birds, in a truly disinterested, ‘biocentric’ way?  I believe that our concern for the environment and the natural world is inevitably anthropocentric.  No matter how profound our horror at the damage humans have inflicted on the earth, our concern is still primarily for ourselves. We want to live in an environment which supports human life, an environment which is pleasant rather than toxic.  Our fears for trees, birds and other wildlife are fundamentally fears for ourselves.  The deep ecologists who insist otherwise, who advocate anti-human measures such as enforced population reduction, or who project, beyond a human apocalypse, the survival of a cleaner, somehow purer planet, are either disingenuous or deeply misanthropic.

Lynne Wycherley is very far from being a misanthropic poet; her vision in her most recent two collections is ecological and humane. Immediately following the first four tree poems she moves to a number of pieces which express her fear for children in a digital age:

            adverts! adverts! – 

            ‘set phasers to stun’

                        click-rates – war-games 

                        children in screens

                        their neurons firing, firing

            while the slow wonder

            of a primrose waits

            its silk word held to heaven.

                                                            ‘Amulet’ p.7

Most of these poems have quotations from scientists, or other writers, including William Blake, Rudolf Steiner and David Jones, as explanatory epigraphs. They are often essential to understanding the gist of poems which tend towards broken, exclamatory fragments and juxtaposed sharp contrasts between the world as the poet remembers it to have been, or would like it to be and the reality of the digital present:

            Selfies: humanity in a mirror-house

            404: lost in device, S4L: spam for life

            husked in pixels, URLS, a second skin.

            Not a child but an end user.

            Not a carer but a high-speed interface.

            Not eyes but an emoticon

            and the rivers tears

            running.

                                    ‘The Mirror-house’, p.10

Sometimes the poet’s familiarity with the very horrors she is presenting lead her into a sort of private shorthand, which make her meaning elusive; for example, I don’t know what she means by ‘husked in pixels’. The downside is that we hear a sort of shrill anger which is not always effective in hitting its target, and I am sure that Wycherley, in this sequence, does want to hit her targets. It is a campaigning work of eco-political engagement where the poet rejects the ivory tower of aestheticism for the often brutally harsh language she abhors:

            Life/not life, an eerie dance

            WYRN? (‘what’s your real name?’)

            L09, RU18? 

                                    ‘Vigil (II)’, p.19

The poems in the final quarter of the book, ‘Coda: a gift, a grace’, provide some kind of respite and contrast as they celebrate the beauties and healing powers of the natural world. The protest is still here, but it is less strident, and sometimes stunning:

            The sun drifts down

            like an angel from Chagall

            our world still burning in its arms.

                                                            ‘On Midsummer Hill’,p.36

These lines are the more powerful, because of their ambiguity. In the context of the poem, ‘love’s long moment’, the ‘burning’ could be passion; in the context of the book, it could be ecological disaster. The Coda pieces are a bit of a mixed bag; some commemorate individuals, like ‘The Bee-keeper, Buckfast Abbey’, some recall the past ‘Poacher’s Child’ which ends with a splendidly robust cock of a snook at the rich and powerful:

            and filched from those who’d thieve us – 

            overlords, offshore funds – 

            a pheasant’s sheen

            still warm.

                                    p.38

The final, rather mysterious, poem, ‘Waiting for the Stars’, attempts to pull together the different strands in the collection.  The first stanza has a typically end-of-day, onset of dusk peacefulness, that is until the last line, ‘a chain of rooms log-on.’  Thereafter, the poem seems like a struggle between the power of starlight to soothe our souls and the agitation caused by a plethora of different electronic devices.

            Star-sleet soothe

            Our fast-lane lives, screen-shot lives.

Ambiguity returns in the last stanza, which could describe the emergence of stars in the evening sky but could equally refer to words on the screen in a dark room.

            I wait for ice points to

            crisp in the blue –  

            lit words in the rushing darkness.

                                                                        p.44

I don’t imagine that Wycherley thinks we can return to a pristine, pre-digital age; it’s not as if the threat to nature started with wireless and the internet. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described the destructive effect of chemicals and pesticides; Dickens, in many of his novels, describes the life-shortening pollution and smog caused by industry and domestic coal fires.

Nevertheless, this collection seeks to shock us into realisation of the possible harm arising from our electronic technologies and an awareness of our own responsibility to take action. However, there is a strand of nostalgia in her work which is more apparent in her next collection, Brooksong and Shadows, inevitably so because a large part of the book is taken up by poems commemorating the impact of World War 1 on Otterton, the Devon village where she now lives. 

There is no reason not to explore the past in poetry. In these poems, the lives of the villagers and the young men from Otterton who died in World War 1, become part of the four-dimensional fabric of the place which Wycherley is learning and exploring through her work. Nevertheless, the way in which she presents this past, particularly when she juxtaposes it with digital and electronic realities of the present, may suggest that regression to that time is desirable, an idea which is nostalgic and unrealisable.  In a beautiful poem, ‘Making, Un-making’,  she shows how the skills of the farm boy adapt awkwardly to his new role as a soldier, lamenting the ‘hands that once shaped/ carriage-wheels’. She seems to see the war as a water-shed between the past and modernity: ‘on the Front/the weft of life sky-blown.’ She contrasts past and present:

            Violas, home-tooled,

            the Carters lofting notes in the air

            as if a string was drawn across the woods.

            So deft, it shimmers, shames us.

            Our digits numb, dull with disuse,

            our senses lost in pixels, screens,

            the day’s wild honey flown.

The poem emphasises the connection between the villagers and their environment; they have made their own instruments, and when they play it is as if they were mediating the music of the woods. Against this harmony of human with the natural world, she sets our present alienation from that world caused by our obsession with screens. She points up the contrast by comparing our fingers unskilled by the digital revolution through a pun ‘our numb digits’ to the musical dexterity of the past. However, the pursuit of an earlier idyllic period when humans were at one with nature, goes back to Wordsworth and the Romantics, and further back than that to traditions of pastoral, where country life is contrasted favourably with the corruption of the city, through a deliberate blindness to the whole truth of rural society and rural poverty.

I recognise that my own resistance to Wycherley’s campaign against electronic technology may make me hypercritical of the implications of her writing, which is less doctrinaire than I may have suggested. For instance, in the second part of the book, “Path of the Dancing Hare’ she widens her range and in the moving ‘Skyline with Tractor’, shows clearly that she is not totally opposed to modernity or even the internal combustion engine, as she describes a farm worker operating complicated farm machinery:

            His hydraulic ballet,    

            working the fears, 3-point hitch,

            raising the tines as he turns.

Here, man and machine are shown to be in tune with the land, writing ‘a grooved beauty, combed/ like corduroy, wood-grain.’ In contrast, agriculture today, just a few decades on, is presented as ‘data analytics, farming/ through screens; sensors,/drones, swarming.’ There is a cold irony in the last two words which use the language of nature (bees) to refer to the unnatural.

In many of her poems, Wycherley uses language or imagery which merges human and non-human. For example, in this one the vocabulary of ploughing describes the farmer’s hair, ‘furrowed hair.’ In ‘The Fire-step’, from the war poems sequence, soldiers are equated to plants, ‘trench-mates draggled/burr-reed and heath-rush’.  Throughout there is a sense of kinship between human and non-human, so that the otherness of plants and animals and other non-human entities is reduced. The Feldgrau of the German uniforms might be ‘ghost-sleet’ as the dusk melds natural and human; the terrified soldiers are ‘fern-like’.  It is hard to say how far these images identify a kindness that humans share with the non-human on the earth and how far they appropriate natural phenomena in an anthropocentric drive towards expression.  For example, in the first part of ‘Tremble of the Tide’, ‘A Stranded Jellyfish’, the poet explores the difference between herself and the jellyfish:

                        At the river’s mouth

                        two worlds clash,

                        saline and fresh, my

                        footsteps’ dust: your sheen.

The difference between the water creature and the land creature is then used to create a likeness through simile: ‘You gasp for water as I for air.’  In the final lines, the focus has moved all the way to the human speaker: ‘If I wear my soul like a veil/will I look like you?’

What, after all, have jellyfish to do with souls? This, I think, illustrates how difficult it is for the poet, more than for the journalist or the scientist, to write about a non-human being without revealing a personal, or anthropocentric, interest. Lynne Wycherley writes with such passion about the natural world using herself and her own experience as her instrument and her perspective. Her fellow feeling for the non-human is partly unavoidable anthropomorphism and partly a recognition of a shared identity. We may not be the same kind of creature as a tree or jellyfish, but our DNA will show that we are not entirely other either. Moreover, we are more and more realising that our own health and wellbeing rests on our preserving the health and well-being of the organisms around us. Wycherley’s poetry is challenging, not necessarily because it is particularly difficult, but because it forces us to confront many of the assumptions with which we feel too comfortable.


[1] Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism, Cambridge University Press, 2019

Writing about Nature: poets and the non-human: John Clare, William Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney, Steve Ely.

Awareness of climate change and the growth of ecocritical theory have placed a new value on poetry which foregrounds the non-human.  This may lead to the revaluation of past writings about nature or to the emergence of conscious attempts to acknowledge non-human forms or beings as themselves rather than as appendages or furnishings for the human perspective.  Fundamentally, however, we, as humans, continue to impose our own views, needs and ways of understanding on the world around us, although our ways of representing that world may be changing with changes in our knowledge.

One wing of ecocriticism links the ecological battle to other struggles against oppression and for social justice as expressed in feminism, post -colonialism and LGBTQ+ theory. This alignment of the environment with other ‘victim’ categories, has led to an upgrade in the status of the poet, John Clare, who has become a favourite of ecocritics, perhaps at the expense of his more middle-class predecessor, William Wordsworth. For example, in The Value of Ecocriticism Timothy Clark claims:

The case of John Clare exemplifies how ecocriticism is altering the literary canon.  Clare’s status has risen substantially in the last twenty years, precisely because his work offers a less human-centric view of life, giving moral standing and value to individual birds and creatures of the field, openly persecuted.  At the same time, the reputation of Clare’s contemporary William Wordsworth as a ‘nature poet’ has become contestable, with the realisation of how deeply a problematically human- and even male-centred stance structures a poem like the famous ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ For this is concerned with natural phenomena (daffodils in this case) overwhelmingly as a psychic resource, to be celebrated in almost consumerist terms for their contribution to personal growth and pleasure (‘I gazed and gazed, but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought’ (emphasis added) – a ‘great wildlife spectacle’, in effect.[1]

The John Clare poem which Clark chooses counter Wordsworth is ‘The Ballad of Swordy Well’ where the poet speaks in the voice of a personified tract of land threatened with enclosure and over-exploitation: ‘When grain got high the tasteless tykes / Grubbed up trees, banks and rushes’. Clark argues that Clare’s poem ‘demonstrates a rhetorical, conceptual and narrative inventiveness sensitive to the claims of non-human entities’. This may be so but Swordy Well or Swaddy Well as it was more commonly known cannot be held up as an example of nature uncorrupted by human influence.  The area had been a quarry since Roman times and was therefore shaped and marked by anthropogenic activity for centuries. 

Clark rightly recognises that ‘Clare bestows Swordy Well mainly with the language and perspective of a labourer who would formerly have lived with and from the land, but who is now fallen in want upon the parish.’[2]  Clare’s poem recognises the parallels between the exploited habitat and the exploited peasant, both victims of what we would describe as oppressive capitalism. However, despite the poet’s strong feeling for the land, this is not really a biocentric or non-human-centric poem.  Swordy Well becomes an alter ego for Clare himself, and for the people whose lives and livelihood had been destroyed by the new agriculture, the demand for corn during and following the Napoleonic Wars and the appropriation of common land by larger farmers who could afford to finance the legally binding acts of enclosure.  Even so sensitive a portrayal as this cannot be more than a human perception of what the land has suffered and felt; it can never really represent the voice of the land.  Moreover, much of what Clare describes is presented in terms of the damage it has done to people and community: 

            Lord bless ye, I was kind to all

            And poverty in me

            Could always find a humble stall,

            A rest and lodging free.

            Poor bodies with a hungry ass

            I welcomed many a day

            And gave him tether-room and grass

            And never said him nay.

            There was a time my bit of ground

            Made freemen of the slave.   

            The ass no pindar’d dare to pound

            When I its supper gave.

            The gipsies’ camp was not afraid;

            I made his dwelling free, 

            Till vile enclosure came and made

            A parish slave of me.

This is a poem of political protest which recognises the injustice of the social system into which the poet was born, just a few steps away from villeiny or serfdom, which was to some extent mitigated by the existence of common land which made ‘freemen of the slave.’  It is most certainly anthropocentric but perhaps differs from other poetry of its time in that the poet recognises his kinship with the land and nature and identifies with it in fellow victimhood, rather than being awed or charmed by it as spectacle.  If we compare this poem with the famous passage from the stealing the boat episode in Wordsworth’s Prelude where the poet becomes aware of powers and forces in Nature which are terrifyingly other: 

   huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

we see a difference in perspective which may in part be connected to the types of natural phenomena the poets are writing about, in part to do with the difference in class of the two poets. 

The notion that the forms of Nature or behind nature ‘do not live/ Like living men’ contrasts sharply with Clare’s ability to empathise and identify with the creatures and even the land itself. Further insight into Wordsworth’s perception of Nature as ‘other’ is provided in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Discussing his choice to use simpler language, stripped of poetic artifice, Wordsworth wrote:

Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

This now seems a very peculiar idea, derived more from the poet’s poetic, psychic and philosophical needs than any empirical evidence. Nevertheless, it became ingrained in the Romantic credo and goes some way to explain the initial popularity of the poetry of John Clare and other peasant poets, who were seen to be closer to the elementary feelings and forms of Nature.  It is an attitude which, I feel, persisted into the reception of Seamus Heaney’s early work, a somewhat condescending admiration for the lowly, even oppressed figure, from a rural background who somehow had the authority to speak with authenticity about and even for the phenomena of the natural world.  However, neither Heaney nor Clare primarily seek to portray the non-human as separate from the human; rather they use their detailed knowledge of the natural environment to express their own condition or plight; Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first book, is largely to do with growing up and moving from innocence into experience, while Clare’s beleaguered gipsies, birds and tracts of land represent his own sense of displacement and loss.  Clare nevertheless shares with the modern ecologist the sense of nature as impermanent and threatened, in contrast to Wordsworth who speaks confidently of ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.’ Granted, it is never quite clear whether these forms are real and phenomenal or underlying ideas.  

Clare, Wordsworth and Heaney must all be seen as writing anthropocentrically. They can do no other, because they write as humans. The quest for a biocentric poetry can be little more than a poetic conceit or enabling device to allow us as humans to devise new human ways of presenting non-human forms to ourselves.  There is a growing body of ecopoetry in which writers do search for new, less egocentric ways of writing about the environment and the non-human life forms with which we co-exist. [3] It may be instructive to compare two texts, written about fifty years apart, which present the life of the eel. The first is Seamus Heaney’s “Lough Neagh Sequence’, a group of seven poems which were included in his second collection, Door into the Dark (1969)[4]; the second is Steve Ely’s book length poem, The European Eel (2021).[5] I should say that I think that this is not Heaney’s best work, whereas I was extremely impressed by Steve Ely’s poem. Nevertheless, both poets work through their perceptions of the eel, its otherness, its strangeness which is so very not human, to present a world where human and eel co-exist and do have a relationship.  In the end, both poets use the eel as a device to say something about humans, because it is impossible for humans actually to assume the voice or perspective of the eel.

Most of Heaney’s sequence makes very little attempt at the eel’s point of view. The poems are dedicated to the Lough Neagh fishermen and it is with them that Heaney identifies. 

  Only in the second and sixth poems does he focus directly on the eel and its journey. Interestingly, in the second poem his eel is male:

Dark

 delivers him hungering

down each undulation.

This poem, like the sixth, where his eel becomes female, is written in a form of free verse where the beginnings of lines are not capitalised and the short, enjambed lines slither down the page imitating the shape and motion of the eel.  ‘Undulate’ is a word which seems intended for the eel and both Heaney and Ely make use of it. 

 However, in Heaney’s poem, the attraction of the word as an appropriate end to the poem does not compensate for the vagueness of meaning. We know that eels prefer to feed in the dark and shun daylight, so in this sense Heaney is accurate; furthermore, this image is thematic for the collection in which the poems appear. ‘Dark/delivers’ seems to be a metaphor of birth, while dark, as always, has connotations of fear, death and the unknown, all of which are shared by the eel. However, what undulation is the eel ‘hungering down’?  His own body? or the riverbed or  ditch where he is lurking? The ambiguity is annoying rather than enriching.  Ely uses the word to describe his eels at an earlier stage, when they are known as ‘glass eels’:

                                                            each travelling 

            in the flexural power of its new undulatory wiggle.

These lines are as idiosyncratically Ely as Heaney’s image is characteristic of him.  The combination of scientific and colloquial language, ‘flexural’, ‘undulatory’, and ‘wiggle’ as well as the repetition of the ‘əl’ sound which creates an auditory image of the newfound wiggle make the eel simultaneously strange and recognisable.

Heaney too presents the eel as strange and ‘other’; indeed, the choice to use free verse for the two eel poems creates a forceful contrast with the ‘human’ poems, which are written in one or another carefully rhymed fixed stanza forms, where the beginnings of lines are capitalised. The first and last poems are written in quatrains, whilst 3,4 and 5 are in tercets.The eel becomes the antagonist in Heaney’s poems, where the fishermen or the poet himself are the protagonists. This sense of conflict, pitting the human against the eel, carries over into the language: ‘The fishermen confront them one by one’. In this first poem, Heaney seems to be trying to establish an epic struggle, man against the elements, in a battle which has chivalric rules: ‘There is a sense of fair play in the game’. However, the heroic flavour is undermined by Heaney himself, when he criticises the fishermen’s fatalistic attitude to drowning, expressed in the repeated line: “The lough will claim a victim every year.’ The implication that this is some kind of sacrificial tax, exacted by the lough in payment for the harvest of eels is countered by the poet’s common-sense argument that on inland water, even on Lough Neagh, a fisherman who could swim would be able to stay afloat long enough to be rescued.  The apparent timelessness of eel fishing is put in doubt by reference to new gates and sluices put in place at Toomebridge.[6] This doubt reappears in the fifth poem, Lifting:

            And when did this begin?

            This morning, last year, when the lough first spawned?

            The crews will answer, ‘Once the season’s in.’

The folksy wisdom of the fishermen is again undermined by the vagueness of the expression. In normal speech, ‘Once the season’s in’ would refer to a question about the future, i.e. ‘When will this begin?’ rather than responding to one about the past, as here. Further, it is unclear what is meant by ‘when the lough first spawned’ which recalls the mythic origin stories of the first poem. How can a lough ‘spawn’? Does the poet mean the fish within it spawn, even though we know that eels, which are at the centre of this poem, do not spawn in the lough? Throughout this sequence, we feel that the poet is struggling, on the one hand, to present an accurate picture of eel fishing while, on the other, to work out what the eel means to him. 

                                                            Each eel

            Comes aboard to this welcome:

            The hook left in gill or gum,

            It’s slapped into the barrel numb

            But knits itself, four-ply,

            With the furling, slippy

            Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly

            That stays continuously one

            For each catch they fling in

            Is sucked home like lubrication.

‘Welcome’ is a strange word to use in this context; perhaps it is ironic. The lines which follow, however, are visually and aurally effective as the poet describes the brutality of the hooks, and uses a combination of slithery ‘l’ s and plosives to convey the sound of the wet fish ‘slapped’ into the barrel. I can’t help asking how he knows the eel is ‘numb’ but am won over by the enjambed, coiling lines ‘furling, slippy/Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly’ only to be brought up short again by the confusing simile in the last line. How can a catch be ‘sucked home’ like ‘lubrication’? Although the image of slipperiness is maintained, the exact meaning is unclear. 

This is one of several places in the sequence where the poet swithers between empathy and revulsion. In the third poem which shows the fishermen collecting worms for bait, we can see the same fascinated disgust as he first describes the capture of the worm: “Nab him, but wait //For the first shrinking, tacky on the thumb’ and then sympathises with it, ‘Innocent ventilators of the ground’. The tactile language of the first quotation contrasts strangely with the Latinate vocabulary in the second again, to my mind, creating an uncertainty of tone in the poem.  Perhaps Heaney finds the solution to his dilemmas in the final poem where he stops trying to write about fishermen or eels in any objective sort of way and reveals the place of these amphibious images of land, water, worms and eels in his own psyche.

            Vision

Unless his hair was fine-combed

The lice, they said, would gang up

Into a mealy rope

And drag him, small, dirty, doomed

Down to the water. He was

Cautious then in riverbank

Fields. Thick as a birch trunk

That cable flexed in the grass

Every time the wind passed. Years

Later in the same fields

He stood at night when eels

Moved through the grass like hatched fears

Towards the water. To stand

In one place as the field flowed

Past, a jellied road, 

To watch the eels crossing land

Re-wound his world’s live girdle. 

Phosphorescent, sinewed slime

Continued at his feet. Time

Confirmed the horrid cable.[7]

Interestingly, in this early version of the sequence, this poem comes first and I think that it illuminates the poems which follow. As the sequence stands, in the published version, we have to read meaning back into the group from the final piece. We are presented with a small child, recognisable from Death of a Naturalist although distanced from the poet by the use of third person.  This is a very vulnerable and insecure child, ‘small, dirty, doomed’, terrorised by the bogey threat used by adults to force compliance.  It is easy to see how the lice who ‘gang up/ Into a mealy rope’ metamorphose into the ‘four-ply’ oneness of the captured eels.  The ‘riverbank/ fields’ previously simply the place where the fishermen found their bait are revealed to be places of terror, where the wind rippling the grass suggests the ‘thick cable ‘ which is the monstrous rope, be it lice, worm or eel, which will drag the child down out of his own element into the water.  Migrating eels, even for the adult, are ‘hatched fears’ and their sinuous oneness is said to have ‘re-wound his world’s live girdle.’ This line may, to some degree, explain the line about the worms in the third poem ‘Making the globe a perfect fit’.  The ‘live girdle’ is an ambiguous image; it seems to take in the figure in the poem and the world, perhaps binding them together in a recognition of the continuity between human and the natural.  However, the final three lines and the curiously anticlimactic shudder of the last three words, suggest that this is not a happy resolution and that this ‘horrid cable’ of connectedness is a threat to life and identity. The sense of flux and disorientation is powerfully conveyed as the stationary becomes mobile and the solid turns liquid: ‘the field flowed past’, ‘eels crossing land’. Whether placed at the beginning or the end, this is by far the most successful poem of the sequence. At the same time, it confirms Heaney as a poet who is using the imagery of the non-human and the world around him to explore his own place in that world.[8]

If, for Heaney, the eel is the antagonist, in The European Eel it is presented as the protagonist.  However, like Heaney, Steve Ely is concerned to show the creature as other, non-human and he takes considerable care to avoid anthropomorphism or sentimentality, specifically through the use of a vast amount of scientific and technical vocabulary, which creates the effect of objectivity and in forcing the reader to look up so many words, makes the eel and its environment strange.  This is a poetic device; it may allow for accuracy of detail and allow the poet to say things about the life of the eel which could not otherwise be conveyed, but no matter how latin or greek and unfamiliar, this is still human labelling, not the language of the eel itself.  There is, however, a relish in bringing this scientific lexis into the poetic realm:

                        the bluefin persist into open ocean,

            harrowing the holocaust photocline with xiphius,

            macrocephalus, savage architeuthis. 

                                                                        p.47

The notes tell us that xiphius, macrocephalus and architeuthis are swordfish, sperm whales and giant squid, all names with which most readers are more familiar. Ely subdues the jaw-breaking terms to the music of his propulsive unrhymed lines with their ancestral memory of blank verse.

The poet counters the estranging, alienating effect of scientific language with sudden incursions of the familiar, for example, when he describes how the minute leptocephali, eels in their larval stage, begin to feed: ‘hunts /in the eutrophic blizzard, seizing diatoms, /dinoflagellates, polyethylene microbeads’. This has the same shocking effect as Chris Jordan’s photographs of the guts of baby albatrosses that have died from ingesting plastic. It also reveals the human purpose of Ely’s poem. He is not writing as the eel, or even directly for the eel, but for, or to, humans, showing us how we have created the toxic environment which has made the eel, like so many other non-human creatures, an endangered species.

At one level, this is an epic like the Odyssey, recounting the maritime journeys and adventures of its hero and celebrating miraculous escapes and astounding achievements; as in the Odyssey, the initial group of voyagers reduce to one.  However, unlike Odysseus, Ely’s eventual protagonist is neither male, nor human and although her journey brings her home and unites her with a ‘nuptial’ partner, it results in new life for her progeny but in her own death. At another level, though, this is a poem which seeks to inform and persuade. It is a protest poem and as such, employs some techniques which are as much journalistic as poetic.  Ely provides a detailed set of notes, which go some way to absolving him of the charge of obfuscation. In addition, he frequently uses journalistic or didactic similes, as opposed to purely poetic ones. In a poem we are accustomed to seeing the simile used to draw a comparison between two known elements so that we see one or both of them in a new light.  Heaney very few similes in his sequence, although there are many metaphors which work in a similar way: ‘Thick as a birch trunk/ That cable flexed in the grass’ (Vision). Here the cable which has already been introduced  in the first stanza as the ‘mealy rope’of lice is given dimension by being compared to a ‘birch trunk’, something which we can also relate to.  In the didactic simile, one of the terms is unknown. Showing us the feeding leptocephali, Ely writes:

            A month or so since hatching, the size

            of an April tadpole, they move in the plankton

            like Pac-Man’ 

                                    p.11

This is a brilliant simile, because it is so visually effective but also smacks us straight back into the realities of the Anthropocene which are listed in gruesome detail at the bottom of the same page:

            oestrogen-saturated sewage, methamphetamine

            neurotoxins, chromosome-warping

            neonicotinoid run-off.  The leptocephali soak it up,

            and tumble to Hatteras with the flotsam

            of the current – single-use Canaveral

            space junk, the strip mall’s car-tossed,

            fast-food trash and radioactive manatees.

Such passages, which could be described as merely eco-rant, are redeemed by their rhythmic force, their skilful deployment of assonance and alliteration and by the surprising juxtapositions which keep us alert and make us want to know more.  I think the manatees are radioactive because they seek refuge in the warm waters created by nuclear power stations.

As the eel reaches England, the landmarks and ecological disasters become more familiar and homegrown. Ely seizes the opportunity to show his political hand: ‘they’ll travel north and west/ into the PRIVATE salmon and brown trout streams/ of Northfield’s Tory spots day;’ and 

            Barely a cordon, hardly a shoal, they move into the kingdom

            of the Amazon Fulfilment Centre, its clear-fell

            devastation of investment, jobs and growth.

                                                                                                p.20

Ely’s distaste for consumerist modernity sometimes topples over into growling misanthropy as when he fantasises a cultural avatar of the eel, the Bentley Worm:[9]

                                                seizing tribute

            from the ranks of the High Street’s drunks

            and the grave-yard’s coked-up, shrieking children.

                                                                                                p.25

Nevertheless, despite the devastation of the deindustrialised landscape the eel travels through, when she eventually reaches Frickley Beck, there is enough goodness left to sustain the survivor and perhaps the faith of the writer in the ‘dark pleroma’ defined by him in his notes as ‘the fullness of life and spirit on Earth’:

                                    you can still tickle trout,

            and river fish flee before your bootsteps – 

            dace and gudgeon, bullhead and barbel,

            the odd patrolling pike. And eels, of course,

                                                                                    p28

This is one of only a few authorial intrusions into the poem, where we understand that he has brought the eel to his own place, somewhere he knows personally and where, we learn from the prose interlude between the two sections of the poem, he has captured the eel which he kept in an aquarium for three months in order to study its behaviour.  

Generally, the poet keeps himself out of the eel’s story, fulfilling his intention of foregrounding the natural object and avoiding anthropomorphism. Sometimes, though, the empathy seems so strong that it becomes a form of anthropomorphism, as in the final three page long account of the eel’s mating and orgasm which matches Molly Bloom’s in intensity. The eel is described as shivering ‘in the warm,/aphrodisiac current, every nerve-end tingling,/ each tender tip engorged.’ ‘Aphrodisiac’ is surely an adjective which is culturally human and just as I found myself asking how Heaney knew his eel was ‘numb’ so I wonder how Ely knows his has ‘tingling’ nerve-ends. I suppose the description is physiologically justifiable but the arousal and excitement of these final pages draws on human feeling and experience.

In the reflective essay which appears in the blog of the Longbarrow Press, Ely presents three hypotheses which underpinned the writing of his long poem.[10]

My first research hypothesis asserted that grounding the writing of the poem in scientific research, ecological commitment, and direct, sustained experience of the natural object would provide the basis for writing about nature that would have scientific as well as literary credibility, and might therefore contribute in an informed way to debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene. I think the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The engagement with research that informed the piece is clear, as is the ecological commitment. The natural object is foregrounded, protagonism[11] is limited to the structurally necessary middle section, and the piece is, I hope, not exploitative or parasitic. The poem has the potential to educate and inform the poetry reading public and be an adjunct to scientific research.

Ely hoped that researching the eel as a scientist or scientific journalist might have done would allow him to write in a way which would have scientific as well as literary credibility. He believes he has done this and this may well be the case.  However, the poetry -reading audience is at best, fairly small and it is questionable how far this poem does more than could be done by a good, popular science writer.  For me, this poem does succeed in foregrounding the representative endangered species and so contributing to ‘debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene’. However, I can’t help wondering if the poetry needs the eel more than the eel needs the poetry. In other words, are poets seeking to justify their endeavours by taking on the mantle of the scientist and the eco-crusader? And, if so, is there anything wrong with that?

The second hypothesis asserted that writing emerging from an engagement with scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will show the influence of those factors in the foregrounding of the natural object, the nature of the language used, the forms and structures adopted and in an expression that seeks to create its effects as much by the artful deployment of empirically, experimentally and experientially derived knowledge as by rhetorical means. Again, I feel that the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The poem is replete with scientific and technical language to the degree that a distinctive register is achieved, and the engagement with research that underpins it echoes through its structure and language. The natural subject is foregrounded, in a largely non-anthropomorphic manner. The poem’s epic monology, a deviation from my usual dialogic, polyphonic practice when composing longer poems, emerges directly from the ethos and praxis implied in this hypothesis.

This is where I think Ely justifies his project.  His poem is ‘replete with scientific and technical language’ and does create a ‘distinctive register’.  This is not simply through the acquiring of empirical and experientially derived knowledge, which is surely what we do all the time to some extent anyway, but by the artful deployment, using the poetic skills, traditionally called rhetoric, of the unfamiliar scientific and technical vocabulary.

The third hypothesis asserted that it is possible for writing that is shaped by the first two hypotheses to nevertheless demonstrate a sophisticated and reflexive artistic subjectivity that constitutes affective, but non-didactic art. I believe that the principles embodied in the first two hypotheses led directly to the vindication of the third hypothesis, in the specific and unexpected sense that the decision to imagine in detail the lifecycle of the European eel paradoxically highlighted the elisions, lacunae and uncertainties in our knowledge of the species, and created in me an overwhelming sense of its enigma and otherness. This produced a speculative expression that infuses a religious or spiritual aspect into what began as a strictly scientific project and broadens the focus from the European eel to the cosmic context of life on Earth. I’ll conclude with some reflections on this unexpected development.

Ely suggests his poem is ‘affective but non-didactic’; this contradicts the intention, stated in the first hypothesis, to educate and inform. As far as I can see, the poem is both affective and didactic, but not preachy.  The rest of this paragraph refers most obviously to the last part of the poem, which presents the part of the eel’s journey about which least is known, that is, its return to the Sargasso. As the poet himself admits, in another authorial intrusion: ‘I’m making it up as they go along.’ (p.44) What the poet seems to be acknowledging is that the unsolved mysteries of the eel have propelled him into writing not a treatise, but a poem. He takes this further by suggesting a ‘religious or spiritual aspect’ which is indeed reflected in some of the language in the final pages, which abound in aureate expressions almost as ornate as the gold leaf on a medieval icon: ‘her gold load’, ‘glittering golden ova’, ‘cornucopean flame’.  I’m not sure about this; I felt that the poem was working very well without this dimension and that the poet had conveyed his respect for the eel’s ‘enigma and otherness’ very successfully by the scientific language mediated by explanatory or didactic metaphor and simile found throughout the poem.  

I admire this poem because Ely has succeeded in presenting and foregrounding one of the natural objects with which we share our world in such a way as to show how the human and the non-human co-exist and to emphasize the damage inflicted by the human on other species. By presenting the eel’s life in the recognisably human form of epic, just as Clare chose to represent Swordy Well through a recognisably human first person voice, Ely has shown us which side he is on – the side of the oppressed and the threatened, whether it be by capitalism, industrial and agricultural revolutions or consumerist pollution.  The poem attempts to be with and for ‘nature’ whilst respecting non-human otherness, rather than distinct from and threatened by nature and indeterminate but terrifying natural forces, which is what we see in Heaney’s ‘Lough Neagh Sequence’ and in the boat-stealing episode from The Prelude.


[1] The Value of Ecocriticism by Timothy Clark (Cambridge, 2019), p.11

[2] Ibid, p.8

[3] The very awkward locutions I use here arise out of the attempt not to refer to Nature or the natural, terms which are always problematic.

[4] Faber

[5] With artwork by P.R. Ruby, Longbarrow Press

[6] The poem implies that these measures are intended to maximise the catch, rather in the manner of factory fishing, and so this might seem to be an ecological protest., or a romantic protest against an industrialising   process. However, the sluices and gates have a more complex purpose and are used to allow a certain number of eels to escape and to maintain numbers of eels arriving into the lough where they will spend years maturing.  https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjV9fzdxZfyAhWMJMAKHfZ-B-cQFnoECAMQAw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fuk-northern-ireland-33892222&usg=AOvVaw2o9MoLRD0qH30ceMCYxcYN

[7] https://belfastgroup.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/groupsheets/heaney1_10415/

[8] I don’t intend to suggest that Heaney should have been writing eco-poetry, or been more aware of the eel. When he wrote the sequence, the eel was not an endangered species and awareness of what is now referred to as the Anthropocene was in its infancy.

[9] Google does not seem to recognise this creature but in behaviour it seems to resemble the Lambton worm, a monster from medieval legend which terrorised the Durham countryside until eventually vanquished by the man who had first discovered it as a small, elver-like creature.

[10] https://longbarrowblog.wordpress.com/2021/07/02/body-of-dark-steve-ely/

[11] Ely uses ‘protagonism’ to mean authorial intrusion into the poem.

Waiting to be interrupted: an exploration of some of the work of Louise Glück

A Nobel prize winning poet, writing in English, that I had barely heard of. Shamed by my ignorance of the work o, I started to read her in bulk. I started with A Village Life, 2009, which is comparatively recent, and which I will return to. I followed up with The First Five Books (Carcanet, 1997) which includes all her work up to Ararat(1990). The prevailing impression from this collection was gloomy. In fact, when I read ‘The Undertaking’ , the opening poem in ‘The Apple Trees’ which is the second section of The House on Marshland (1975), I was surprised by how upbeat it was. 

            The dark lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.

            …

                                    the sun is shining,

            everywhere you turn is luck.

At the same time, I asked myself how long this sudden cheerfulness would last. 

Five pages later the poem ’12.6.71’ opened and closed thus:

            You having turned from me

            …

                                    the snow

            which has not ceased since

            began

Gluck repeatedly rejects the idea that she is a confessional poet, yet many of her poems are clearly based on the material and suffering in her personal life.  However, when we read her work, we are forced to agree that she is far from confessional in the manner, say, of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell. Somehow, even when poems include details which seem most intimate and personal, they seem strangely impersonal, detached or even cold. Some of the poems carry a tremendous punch, but although they shock, they don’t quite move. For example, poems on the death of a father:

            For once, your body doesn’t frighten me.

            From time to time, I run my hand over your face

            lightly, like a dustcloth.

            What can shock me now? I feel

            no coldness that can’t be explained.

            Against your cheek, my hand is warm

            and full of tenderness.

                                    ‘For my father’ in Metamorphosis in The Triumph of Achilles (1985)

Grief is undermined by self regard. The speaker is looking at herself, the one who is still living, the survivor, with a truthfulness that shocks and disturbs. The pieties surrounding grief, death and burial are further subverted in ‘A Fantasy’, where the widow is imagined after the funeral:

            In her heart, she wants them to go away.

            She wants to be back in the cemetery,

            back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows

            it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,

            the wish to move backward.  And just a little,

            not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

What seems at first to be grief, resolves into fear of the future, the wish to have things the way they were, rather than any kind of celebration of love or the marriage.

We know that one of the most significant factors in Glück’s life occurred before she was born, the death of her sister as an infant.  She writes about this in her short essay ‘Death and Absence’(1984, reprinted in Proofs and Theories, Carcanet,1999):

I have always been, in one way or another, obsessed with sisters, the dead and the living both.   The dead sister died before I was born. Her death was not my experience, but her absence was. Her death let me be born.  I saw myself as her substitute, which produced in me a profound obligation towards my mother, and a frantic desire to remedy her every distress.

She says that she wrote about her sister’s death only after the birth of her own son. Although the lost sister appears in several poems, perhaps the most powerful is ‘Lost Love’ from Ararat (1990):

            Something did change: when my sister died,

            my mother’s heart became

            very cold, very rigid,

            like a tiny pendant of iron.

            Then it seemed to me my sister’s body

            was a magnet. I could feel it draw

            my mother’s heart into the earth,

            so it would grow.

What strikes me again in this poem is how clipped and reserved it is, how controlled. The language is simple with a metaphor that extends through two stanzas but becomes part of the massive understatement about the poet’s mother and the complex mother-daughter relationship. Perhaps the adherence to rhyme in her first book, Firstborn, which more or less disappears from the second book onwards, was an early manifestation of this need for control. There is also a frequent sense of holding back and distrust.  This is particularly evident in ‘Mock Orange’ and ‘Night Song’ both of which appear in The Triumph of Achilles (1985). I find ‘Mock Orange’ viscerally shocking:

            I hate them.

            I hate them as I hate sex,

            the man’s mouth

            sealing my mouth, the man’s

            paralyzing body – 

            and the cry that always escapes,

            the low, humiliating 

            premise of union – 

These stanzas have a truthfulness which is hard to acknowledge since they present a fear of losing control and a distrust of the body that may remind us of ‘the syndrome of anorexia that for years shaped [her] life’. [1]  The Triumph of Achilles contains many poems about love, but its poems are not exactly love poems as they wrestle with the conflict between individual autonomy and union with another; in this sense, ‘Mock Orange’, the opening poem, has an admonitory function. The sequence ‘Marathon’, in particular, reveals this ambivalence about love:

                                    And in each of us began

            a deep isolation, though we never spoke of this,

            of the absence of regret.

            We were artists again, my husband.

            We could resume the journey.

                                                                        ‘Summer’

Ararat, the fifth book, is constructed on a family very similar to Glück’s own family, three generations: parents, daughters and the daughters’ children. Structures, emotions and relationships are dissected and analysed in a manner that would be raw if, again, it were less controlled.

            They always said

            I was like my father, the way he showed

            contempt for emotion. 

            They’re the emotional ones,

            my sister and my mother.

The justification for this laundering of family pain seems to be the poet’s conviction that her experience is general, that her familial structures are archetypal, a belief which becomes true through the enaction of the poems. However, not all of her poetry is as apparently transparent as Ararat and I will consider three later books where family or personal tropes persist but within the artifice of an overarching book-length concept. These are The Wild Iris, 1992, A Village Life, 2009 and Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014.

The Wild Iris is an exploration of religion or at least of theology by a poet who has previously seemed profoundly agnostic. ‘Celestial Music’, the penultimate poem in Ararat, puts a clear space between her and a friend who is a believer.

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.

Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,

she thinks someone listens in heaven.

The clear implication is that belief in God is stupid, yet in The Wild Iris God is a key player. The collection, set in the garden, a locus immediately resonant with religious and mythical archetypes, is shared between the voices of plants, the poet and God. However, the plants, God and the figure of the poet come across as dramatized arguments rather than as real, even when the detail is accurate and convincing. The collection reads like a series of thought experiments and indeed there is a heady excitement in taking on the voices of God, who is presented through a variety of different human perceptions.  In ‘Clear Morning’ God is transcendent, ‘thinking matter could not absorb [human] gaze forever’ but ‘prepared now to force / clarity upon you.’ In ‘Midsummer’ there is a stronger sense of incarnation, ‘You were/ my embodiment, all diversity’. Most of the time, God is the disappointed Creator familiar from Genesis:

            ‘I couldn’t do it again,

            I can hardly bear to look at it – 

                                                            ‘The Garden’

We have to remember that God is in dialogue with the Poet who is also the Gardener, an ambiguous figure, halfway between creator and curator. Moreover, the Poet is ventriloquising the voice of God just as she ventriloquises and anthropomorphises the plants to make up the tapestry of her debate. The plants follow the natural seasons from early spring through to late Autumn, rehearsing a cycle of death and resurrection the poet acknowledges as Romantic: ‘let them/ bury me with the Romantics’. (‘Matins’ p.13) Two pages later, in ‘Retreating Wind’ a disappearing God points out the fallacy of an over simple identification of the human with the seasonal:

            Whatever you hoped,

            you will not find yourselves in the garden,

            among the growing plants.

            Your lives are not circular like theirs:

            your lives are the bird’s flight 

            which begins and ends in stillness –   

Nevertheless, it is in the plants that Gluck finds images for living or for expressing human yearnings or dilemmas. ‘Trillium’ discovers grief, ‘Snowdrops’ faces the pain of re-engaging with the world, Scilla celebrates community over individualism, whilst Lamium seems close to a self-portrait:

                                    Some of us

            make our own light: a silver leaf

            like a path no one can use, a shallow

            lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples.

            But you know this already.

            You and the others who think

            you live for truth and, by extension, love

            all that is cold.

The disingenuousness here is the failure to acknowledge the passion and emotion which is found throughout this collection although suppressed by the austerity of the diction and the control of the lines. The book shows the poet making ‘[her] own light’ and the two long lines ending the second and third stanzas attest to the quality of this light; it is derived from the sun but it pings ‘like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon’ and it is ‘silver’ not golden.  The poet aspires to the coldness of intellectual rigour which is metallic and inorganic but recognises implicitly that this is far from enough, that her ‘lake of silver’ is ‘shallow’, an idea emphasised by the placement of the word at the end of the line.

Despite the rejection of the parallel between humans and plants, the dialogue between plants and their human gardeners mirrors that between the human and God and the plants seem to move from birth through adolescence to eventual old age. Whereas the snowdrops at the beginning of the sequence dare to ‘risk joy’, the white rose near the end faces bleakly the uncertainties of death in unanswered cries to the human,’ you are not the light I called to/ but the blackness behind it.’  This is not the last word, however. The final two plant poems move through the despair of the crucifixion – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’:

                                    are you

            close enough to hear

            your child’s terror? Or

            are you not my father

            you who raised me.

                                                ‘The Golden Lily’

to the hope of resurrection:

            Hush beloved.  It doesn’t matter to me

            how many summers I live to return:

            this one summer we have entered eternity.

            I felt your two hands

            bury me to release its splendour.

                                                                        ‘The White Lilies’

We may note in this final image of the poem and the book that plant and gardener are at one. The relationship between the human and the god she has created is more problematic. In ‘Retreating Light’ God is leaving, job done, because the humans have finally learnt how to live ‘like independent beings’ and how to create, how to be their own god.

            Creation has brought you

            great excitement, as I knew it would,

            as it does in the beginning.

            And I am free to do as I please now,

            to attend to other things, in confidence

            you have no need of me anymore.

Yet the sequence does not end there. In ‘Lullaby’ the god who withdrawing from the world is also withdrawing the world as creation is reduced to flickering appearances:

            You must be taught to love me.  Humans must be taught to love

            silence and darkness. 

In ‘September Twilight’, the last God poem, the god has become a grumpy poet unhappy with his flawed creation, ‘a draft to be thrown away,/ an exercise// because I’ve finished you, vision/ of deepest mourning.’  The last two lines evade explanation but, at the very least, convey a sense of terminal dissatisfaction. The voices of God and human go past each other, each wanting more than the other can give.

The ‘human’ poems are usually titled either ‘Matins’ or ‘Vespers’, placing them within the tradition of Christian prayer and meditation. Some have likened the collection to the medieval books of hours. Certainly, the voice of the human echoes the spiritual travails of figures such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as it struggles with a God which is at first  the ‘unreachable father’, unknowable and impersonal: ‘I am/ at fault, at fault, I asked you/to be human’. Then about halfway through, there is a change in perception as the view of god does again become human. 

                        I am ashamed

            at what I thought you were

            distant from us, regarding us

            as an experiment: it is

            a bitter thing to be

            the disposal animal,

            a bitter thing. Dear friend,

            dear trembling partner, what 

            surprises you most in what you feel,

            earth’s radiance or your own delight?

            For me, always

            the delight is the surprise.

                                                            ‘Matins’ p.31

In this poem, the poet is on the same level as her God who she is constructing in her own image. It contrasts strangely with God’s final poem, ‘September Twilight’ quoted above. We move from Matins to Vespers, morning to evening where the poetic voice torments itself with its relationship to God. On page 43 she describes how God appears to her:

                        I climbed

            the small hill above the wild blueberries, metaphysically

            descending, as on all my walks: did I go deep enough

            for you to pity me, as you have sometime pitied

            others who suffer, favoring those

            with theological gifts?

Here, the poet appears to be inviting a ‘dark night of the soul’ in order to achieve the ecstatic vision:

                                    your fiery self, a whole

            pasture of fire, and beyond, the red sun neither falling nor rising – 

However, the ending of the poem reverts to rationalism:

            I was not a child; I could take advantage of illusions.

Glück allows herself to construct a faith to set against her nihilistic idealism, where the natural world and the garden she loves are always on the point of disappearing to leave noting but darkness behind them.  Towards the end of the book, in ‘Parousia’, she remembers childhood belief which she is trying to recover:

            I try to win you back,

            that is the point 

            of the writing.

But she adds, a few lines later: ‘What a nothing you were’ and then concludes ‘you are everywhere, source/ of wisdom and anguish.’ In the next poem, winter is approaching as is death and the poet’s sense of having been admitted to the divine presence has been cancelled: ‘you have drawn/ a line through my name.’ The poem ends with an ambivalent restatement of the relationship between God and human.

            When you go, you go absolutely,

            deducting visible life from all things

            but not all life,

            lest we turn from you.

                                                ‘Vespers’, p.55

I suggest that Gluck is an idealist because in this book, plants, garden, the world of nature, even the bit players, John and Noah, her husband and son, are all constructs, fictions dramatizing the struggle of a mind or soul to know or redeem itself through the possibility of a relationship with a god which is itself fictional. It is a metaphysical exploration of ideas which is the very opposite of materialism.

A Village Life is even more clearly a fictional setting where the writer can work through her ideas. The blurb suggests this village is Mediterranean, but it is not any place that ever actually existed. It made me think of my grandchildren’s favourite computer game, Minecraft, where it is possible to construct your own house, estate, town, world. The poet works out emotions and ideas through her avatars who are given a gapped narrative that the reader feels must exist but struggles to follow. The first poem gives some sense of the abstract quality of the entire collection. It begins in the third person, describing the meditations of, apparently, a mill worker as he looks out through his window to see ‘not the world but a squared-off landscape’. The poet is indicating already that this is a selective and constructed picture, and our perspective is further skewed when she moves to first person in what seems to be some kind of renunciation which may anticipate old age or death

                        I open my fingers – 

                        I let everything go.

                        I let it go, then I light the candle.

Is this the old man at his window coming into his own voice or the poet consciously substituting the light of her art for that of the real world?

There are a number of different characters, some still living in the village, some who have moved away, some old, some young, or possibly the same individuals presented at different times in their lives. The pervading perspective is of jaded, rather sour, rather plastic wisdom. The setting is stylised: the village has a central fountain to which all roads lead at the same time as they lead away towards the mountain:

            The roads don’t gather here anymore;

            the fountain sends them away, back into the hills they came from.

            Avenue of Broken Faith, Avenue of Disappointment,

            Avenue of the Acacia Tree, of Olive Trees,

            The wind filling with silver leaves,

            Avenue of Lost Time, Avenue of Liberty that ends in stone,

            not at the field’s edge but at the foot of the mountain.

                                                                                    ‘Tributaries’

The poems reflect the seasons and the weather which are made to echo the ages and stages of the characters in a conscious use of pathetic fallacy which the writer had exploded elsewhere. There are recurring events, two poems from the earthworm, two from bats, and four about burning leaves which seem to signal the cycles of life and death, destruction and phoenix-like resurrection. The image is so persistent that I wondered if it might originate from the poet’s experience of losing her own house to fire.

            So it’s finished for another year,

            death making room for life,

            as much as possible,

            but burning the house would be too much room.

                                                                                    ‘Burning Leaves’ p.26

Reflecting the sense of decline in the book, the balance of the burning leaves tips towards death in the later poems

                                    it is obvious they [sparks] are not defeated,

            merely dormant or resting, though no one knows

            whether they represent life or death.

                                                                        p.35

            Maybe this is how you’ll know when the earth is dead – 

            it will ignite.

                                                                        p.61

For me, the imaginary world of this book is mostly grey or sepia coloured, but there are momentary glimpses of real toads, as in the rather curious poems about adolescence which depict boys and girls on the cusp of sexual awareness.

            They know people who’ve done it, as a kind of game or trial – 

            Then you say, no, wrong time, I think I’ll just keep on being a child.

            But your body doesn’t listen. It knows everything now,

            it says you’re not a child, you haven’t been a child for a long time.

            Their thinking is, stay away from change. It’s an avalanche – 

            All the rocks sliding down the mountain, and the child standing underneath 

            just gets killed.

In this poem, where the Edenic companionship of boy and girl is under threat from their growing consciousness of their sexuality and there is a powerful sense of loss, one of the oddest things is the fluidity of the pronouns. The first stanza is all ‘they’ before moving to direct address in the second ‘you can spend the whole day’. Later, even the body gets a voice ‘it says you’re not a child’, and towards the end of the poem the unity of the two children separates into ‘he’ and ‘she’.

            Today she’s folding the blanket alone, to be safe.

            And he looks away – he pretends to be too lost in thought to help out.

                                                                                                            ‘Noon’

This confusion of voices, where the writer seems to intrude upon her creation, once again undermines the autonomy of the imaginary world. In a companion piece, ‘At The River’, a young girl describes, or mocks, how her mother has told her about sex:

            she went on holding my hand as she made her speech

            which was more like a speech about mechanical engineering

            than a conversation about pleasure.

She and her friends gather by the river where they laugh about this and the book, Ideal Marriage, which her mother has given her. They are preoccupied with sex which they discuss endlessly without, most of them, having any actual experience. Running in parallel with this, is the story of her parents’ marriage, the father who pours himself two glasses of wine every night, one, suggests his daughter, for the Holy Ghost who never shows up. At the end of the poem, she asks him:

                                                Did your friend go away?

            And he looked at me intently for a while,

            then he said, Your mother and I used to drink a glass of wine together

            after dinner.

The particularity of this detail and the sadness it reveals contrasts with the preceding stanza where the protagonist, returning from the river, comments on the reflections of the stars in the water:

            But the ones in the river – 

            they were like having some idea that explodes suddenly into a thousand ideas,

            not real, maybe, but somehow more lifelike.

The ‘like’ in the second line is unexpected and ambiguous; it could reflect the idiom of an American teenager (not a Mediterranean one) or it could signal the introduction of an elaborate simile. Either way, the reality of both the actual world and the imaginary world are undermined by the primacy of ideas.

The final poem is also the title poem and it features an older man, perhaps the same one as in the first poem and probably the same one as in ‘A Warm Day’. He may even be looking out the same window as in the opening poem. However, in this poem he speaks in first person as he ruminates over his daily routines, the different stages of life and approaching death. It is hard not to see him as a stand-in for the aging poet.  His instruments are locked up but he still hears ‘music coming from them sometimes’. He thinks back to the tension of the pre-adolescent. ‘Soon it will be decided for certain what you are, / one thing, a boy or a girl.’ Although written before trans issues became so prominent, this foreshadows, perhaps accidentally, the angst of binary sexuality. The light in the poem fades and reduces to firelight, then moonlight and the moon becomes a symbol of the soul:

            It’s dead, it’s always been dead,

            but it pretends to be something else,

            burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes

            it could actually make something grow on earth.

            If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.

This concluding notion seems both religious and Platonic, although earlier in the poem he has decried his neighbour’s religious faith: ‘She believes in the Virgin the way I believe in the mountain, / though in one case the fog never lifts.’ The soul is seen as a deception, ‘pretend[ing] to be something else’, but nevertheless deriving its truth or being from a remoter power. 

The village of A Village Life, with its stylised setting and characters, is a device which allows the poet to clothe and develop her ideas. Faithful and Virtuous Night exploits a different convention partly through a deconstructed quest narrative where there appear to be at least two protagonists: one is an aging male artist who remembers his life going back to his childhood as an orphan, living with his aunt and his brother. There are accounts of episodes in boyhood, living in Cornwall and undergoing psychoanalysis. However, another voice belongs, apparently, to the poet herself, notably in ‘Visitors from Abroad’ and ‘Aboriginal Landscape’ in which the recurrent themes of her relationship with her mother and the sister who died in infancy reappear. It is quite difficult to work out what is going on and whether we should see the male figure as detached from, complementary to, or an alter ego for, the poet. The quest imagery and indeed the title of the book derive from the old man’s childhood memories of his brother reading Arthurian romance: ’my brother was reading a book he called/ the faithful and virtuous night’. This misunderstanding is the foundation for the image of night as death or at least the harbinger of death: “I became/a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart/became the steed underneath me.’ In this book, Glück is much possessed by death, but not particularly gloomily; in fact, this poem even includes a pun:

            Neigh, neigh, said my heart,

            or perhaps nay, nay – it was hard to know.

                                                                                    ‘An Adventure’[2]

If the old man’s adventures all seem to be episodes on the journey towards death which becomes itself the object of the quest as suggested in the opening poem ‘Parable’, the utterances which come from the poet appear in one way or another to be a reaction to the death of her parents, or particularly, of her mother.

            We read your books when they reach heaven.

            Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.

            And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,

            tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

            But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.

            And your sister – you have your sister’s soul.

            After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

                                                                                    ‘Visitors from Abroad’

Along with the characteristic austerity and control, manifest here in the clipped, end-stopped lines often backed up by full stops which are used for emphasis rather than to demarcate sentences, Glück exhibits again an almost gleeful, if macabre, dark humour.

However, most of the book is devoted to the novelistic development of the central character, who is reminiscent of other hyper-refined male sensibilities, a sort of cross between Henry James and Philip Roth.  He is embarked on the quest for, or journey towards, death which is neither a real quest nor a real journey, as to paraphrase Beckett, he would have died in any case. This is the message of ‘The Parable’:

                                                            we had changed although

            we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling

            from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed

            in a strange way miraculous.  And those who believed we should have a purpose

            believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free

            in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.

I don’t know quite how to regard this, admittedly very readable, narrative thread. I have to see the old man as a pretext rather than an autonomous character, partly because at times he seems to merge with the other speaker, partly because, like her, he is preoccupied with the relationship between art and life. In ‘The Past’ and ‘A Summer Garden’ there is reference to a mother who has died, apparently recently, although the old man’s mother was killed when he was a small child. This might suggest that the poems are in the voice of the poet except that their preoccupations seem to echo that of the male character. In fact, ‘A Summer Garden’ is primarily an elegy for the poet’s mother, Beatrice Glück, who died in 2011, aged 101: ‘Mother died last night, / Mother who never dies.’ The poem goes from the day of her death when the bereaved daughter reflects on her loss, echoed in the songs of, presumably, an au pair:

            We could hear

            Maria singing songs from Czechoslovakia – 

            How alone I am – 

            songs of that kind.

            How alone I am,

            no mother, no father – 

            my brain seems so empty without them.

These songs may remind us of the Jacques Brel song which haunts the old man:[3]

            The little cat is dead, meaning, I suppose,

            one’s last hope.

            The cat is dead, Harry sings,

            he will be pointless without his body.

            In Harry’s voice it is deeply soothing.

            Sometimes his voice shakes, as with great emotion,

            and then for a while the hills are alive overwhelms

            the cat is dead.[4]

The tug between life and death carries on throughout the collection and comes back to a celebration of a moment of life earlier in the life of the poet’s mother, when she took her grandchildren to the park:

            The children held hands, leaning

            To smell the roses.

            They were five and seven.

            Infinite, infinite – that 

            was her perception of time.

            She sat on a bench, somewhat hidden by oak trees.

            Far away, fear approached and departed;

            from the train station came the sound it made.

            The sky was pink and orange, older because the day was over.

            There was no wind. The summer day

            cast oak-shaped shadows on the green grass.

This not the last poem in the book. The final piece is a short prose text which picks up some of the threads in the whole collection, including, I believe, an underlying interest in the delimitations of gender. This brings together, or perhaps it doesn’t, a man and woman, who might perhaps or perhaps not be the two voices in the poem. Figures from a photograph, they are imagined meeting:

She drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes a little ballerina made of wood.  I have created this, the man thinks; though she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.

                                                ‘The Couple in the Park’

The ‘puzzling music’ refers to an earlier poem, where the male artist meets a woman who tells him about walking in a garden where she would hear final notes of The Marriage of Figaro. She tells the artist that all her walks are circular, and she always ends up where she started, at her own front door. The artist attempts to interpret this experience but concludes

                                                that whatever message there might have been

            was not contained in speech – so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me

            her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastising me – 

                                                                        ‘A Sharply Worded Silence’

The ‘sharply worded silence’ which is something we may all recognise becomes even more resonant when we remember that the artist’s mother is dead. The overlap between the man and the woman reappears as we question our first assumption that it is the male who is speaking.

It may be the limitations of a prosaic mind which drives the reader of poetry to seek for logical interpretations and explanations. There is an instinctive quest for meaning which may be one of the pursuits this book is challenging, but only if you plump for the most negative reading.  The poem travels beyond logical prose in expression and, if we trust the poet, we may see that what she is saying now in verse we may be able later, in our enlarged experience, to translate into prose. Death is on the horizon, and the horizon may always be coming closer, but it is the process of the quest which matters.  Louise Glück beguiles us with the language of childhood, with stories and images, which are cut loose to drift across each other in a way that is productive in challenging assumptions, but which does not offer any definitive alternatives.


[1] ‘Death and Absence’ in Proofs and Theories

[2] Perhaps this is an allusion to the words of Peter Pan: ‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’

[3] You can hear Jacques Brel singing this song, Les Vieux, on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMxvAY54_Vg

[4] Presumably from The Sound of Music.

Light-fall by Lucy Ingrams

I came to Light-fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets, 2019) after hearing the poet read.  I was immediately struck by her attention to text, to meanings, sound and cadence so that every syllable seems to justify its location.  Most of these poems are set outside, in the woods, in the fields, near the sea but the texts work at different levels,  hinting at human stories and drama played out in a context where natural detail is of profound and felt importance. 

‘Today’ is constructed around an opposition of self and a loved other where:

            you watch the sea from the doorway, while I study grasses…

Self (the poet) is content to focus on close-up detail outside and ‘come back tuned to fine-jointed staves,/ shy-coloured panicles.’ The other, however, looks out to sea and notes the loss of the horizon; together they mourn as ‘a low fleece/  of fog wraps the chord-line between’ sea and sky. Ingrams’ ability to combine figurative language with scientific exactitude ‘shy-coloured panicles’ gives her writing extraordinary authority. The musical imagery is an undernote suggesting the loss and recreation of harmony between the couple which is led by the speaker who shows the other ‘the frail/fastenings, like hair, weaving Earth to the air’ so that their shared vision becomes whole gain, or ‘regains curvature’. It is not clear what the subject of this final verb is; it could be the Earth or it could be an unstated whole which is either a human relationship or a view of the universe. As we reach the end of the poem, we realise that we have been reading a slightly deconstructed love sonnet.

Indeed, many of the poems are unobtrusively love poems where emotions are worked out through the language of the natural world. In ‘Signs’ the poet demands to read nature as a code, echoing the childhood game of pulling petals off a daisy to discover ‘whether you loved me   loved me not’. Ingrams plays with and contrasts the covert meanings in the signs written in letters with the natural language of ‘fields/hung with signs of their own’. The poem reaches no conclusion but it adds lustre to love through the beauty of the images which are looked to for answers

                                                                        sure only

            I’m not            whether you love me   love me not

            flowering stars on the blackthorn bars        and at dusk

            Sirius setting   Leo rising   or neither and both.

This is an example of the poet’s attention to lineation and spacing, which I have not managed to repeat accurately here. She is careful to use the way the text appears on the page to bring out its emphases and music.    

‘So will there be apples’ is another love poem which seems to open with the hopefulness of spring:  ‘all thought of  / him rinsed with light… the hedges whisper in / new viridian dialects’.  In the second stanza, doubt sets in with the desire for rain ‘when will it rain?’ and the threat or promise of fire ‘this blue match / to a log – flame licking /the emerald evenings.’ The third stanza invokes with all its connotations the mystery of the ‘greenwood’ which has somehow been there all along.  Love becomes dangerous as perhaps the object of love is dangerous, or unnatural ‘”frost in May”‘ and the fire of passion is in danger of becoming a ‘conflagration’ but the protagonist of the poem persists in her quest despite the dark warnings of her friends: ‘she goes out      she goes looking’. What is she looking for? – love, the forbidden apple, the mysterious promise offered by the greenwood?

‘Ship carver’ is a tribute to a craftsman and a reflection of the poet’s love of the sea which uses sea-related imagery with astonishing skill to convey the dedication of the carver to his work: ‘coiled shavings …foam at the door’, ‘dusk closes over, swift/as the sea takes a skiff’. Somehow the poem evokes maritime history as far back as the Vikings as she describes how the woodcarver dresses ‘a prow for the wind’s/hoops’ and all this although he is working in a ‘workshop keep / seventy miles from/the tidemark.’ 

Ingrams excels in conveying emotion through the phenomena and cycles of the natural world. In “August letter’ she appears to be grieving for someone who is lost to her, probably through death. She celebrates the meaning of August, as a pivotal point leading to winter:

‘I peer into its tunc/and trace a tiny counterpoint: snow hyacinths on a tablecloth,/winter coats on chairs pushed back, the smell of pears.’ I’m not sure about ‘tunc’; I assume it’s Latin and not as the online urban dictionary tells me, ‘male genitalia’. Occasionally, I feel Ingrams takes her adventurousness with language too far; I was also uncomfortable with the adverbial coinage ‘latticely’ (‘Blue Hour’) although I knew what it was saying. Here, conversely, I’m not sure what the word is saying but I enjoy its sound and positioning.

I will quote the last three stanzas of ‘August letter’ which brilliantly combine images of nature, ourselves in nature, light, death and loss.

            The evenings here are long still, are they with you? Yet I find

            I plant mine up with candlelight, burn apple wood – watch 

            the mirror catch and flush.

            This month’s like that, a flare I want to boost.  That even so

            will carry summer out upon its bier. My fingers flutter like

            the leaves to think of it.

            In the dream, your hands were empty – full of your touch. If you

            were here, I could put mine out and you could take them.

Lucy Ingrams has already won The Manchester Poetry Prize , 2015, and the Magma Poetry Competition, 2016. This is a pamphlet of outstanding quality from a poet whose work continues to develop and excite. I very much look forward to a full-length collection.

Thinking with feelings: a reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ compared with the prose of ‘The Country Mouse’.

Elizabeth Bishop described writing poetry as ‘thinking with feelings’[1]; in the conventional division between logic and emotion, this phrase seems to be an oxymoron; from a different point of view, it is a representation of the ‘unified sensibility’ which Eliot identified in the metaphysical poets. Many readers have recognised the elusive nature of Bishop’s work, even when it seems most straightforward.[2] This arises partly from the accuracy of her descriptions which often seem to have the objectivity of science combined with her use of these observations as part of the process of thinking through what she is feeling so that what she describes always resonates with what lies under the surface. Her poems are notable for how they travel, for their ‘journeys’, even when they are cast in forms as static and restrictive as the villanelle (‘One Art’) and the sestina (‘A Miracle for Breakfast’).[3] Despite her skill and fluency in using fixed forms, many of her poems, particularly the later ones, are in free verse. Most of them are based on personal experience, events or periods which she may also have recorded in memoir or autobiographical fiction, in prose which, like her verse, conveys an observer’s cool objectivity even when what they recount is deeply subjective. 

‘In the Waiting Room’ which appeared in Geography III, (1976), revisits some of the same material as found in the autobiographical memoir, The Country Mouse (1961). Both pieces describe a visit to the dentist with an aunt which triggers a traumatic recognition of selfhood. ‘In the Waiting Room’ is written in free verse and is quite long, nearly three pages of verse; the incident described in prose takes half a page, and uses just over half as many words. Here is the paragraph:

After New Year’s, Aunt Jenny had to go to the dentist, and asked me to go with her. She left me in the waiting room, and gave me a copy of the National Geographic to look at.  It was still getting dark early, and the room had grown very dark.  There was a big yellow lamp in one corner, a table with magazines, and an overhead chandelier of sorts.  There were others waiting, two men and a plump middle-aged lady, all bundled up.  I looked at the magazine cover – I could read most of the words – shiny, glazed, yellow and white. The black letters said: FEBRUARY 1918.  A feeling of absolute and utter desolation came over me.  I felt…myself.  In a few days it would be my seventh birthday.  I felt I, I ,I, and looked at the three strangers in panic.  I was one of them too, inside my scabby body and wheezing lungs. “You’re in for it now,” something said.  How had I got tricked into such a false position?  I would be like that woman opposite who smiled at me so falsely once in a while.  The awful sensation passed, then it came back again.  “You are you,” something said.  “How strange you are, inside looking out.  You are not Beppo, or the chestnut tree, or Emma, you are you and you are going to be youforever.”  It was like coasting downhill, this thought, only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree. Why was I a human being?

The prose, which uses very simple language and syntax in a way which suggests a child’s language or a spoken anecdote, conforms to Labov’s framework for oral narrative,[4] both in structure and linguistic features. It opens with an abstract, telling us what the story will be about – the visit to the dentist. It continues with orientation, with lots of descriptive detail building up time and place ‘the waiting room’, the ‘big yellow lamp’, the ‘overhead chandelier’. Past progressive tenses are used to set the scene: ‘It was still getting dark early’, ‘There were others were waiting’. These are succeeded by simple past verbs indicating that the complicating action of the story has begun; ‘I looked at the magazine cover’, ‘I felt I, I, I, and looked at the three strangers in panic’. The actions are interspersed with evaluation, the writer’s comments on her own story. These feature modal verbs and comparisons with unrealised events: ‘I would be like that woman opposite’, ‘It was like coasting downhill’ as well as intensifying evaluative adjectives such as ‘absolute and utter’ and ‘awful’. The resolution or final action of the story ‘it quickly smashed into a tree’ reveals the writerly nature of this story because the subject of the simile in the ‘unrealized comparison’ ‘it was like coasting downhill”  becomes the actor in the final action, transposing the whole story from literal to metaphor. The message or meaning of the story is carried in the coda: ‘Why was I a human being?’ The writer has simultaneously recognised her own selfhood and that she is a member of a species.  She is both ‘you forever’ and ‘one of them’.

Bishop’s story or anecdote differs from the account of the same incident as presented in the poem, but neither of them are factual accounts of what actually happened. [5] Although both are very carefully located in time and space, they describe a subjective experience or memory which is unverifiable.  Despite shared features, which make it clear that they are different explorations of the same event, we can see that in each, Bishop thinks with feelings which take her and her readers to different places and that these differences are realised through differences in content, structure and form.

In the prose paragraph, Bishop focuses on her self, on the discovery of her selfhood, ‘I felt… myself’ and thinks through what it is to have that feeling. The ellipsis and the italics emphasize the shock of recognition as does the second use of italics and repetition, ‘I, I, I’ as she struggles to understand the significance of the first person pronouns. Italics are used again for ‘you’ and ‘one’, as she tours around the idea of self.  There is a peculiar dialectic at work as she moves between the feeling of individuation, separate from the world, ‘not Beppo[6], or the chestnut tree, or Emma’, and recognition of herself as part of the species, ‘I was one of them’. Part of this unwelcome realisation is a strong awareness of the restriction of physicality. Just as the middle-aged woman opposite her is ‘all bundled up’ so she is confined ‘inside her scabby body and wheezing lungs.’[7] The sense of revulsion she feels against the others in the waiting room becomes self-disgust. As well as the restrictions of the flesh, and of clothes, she also anticipates being bound into the social code, of smiling ‘falsely’ as she accuses the middle-aged woman of doing. 

This is a dramatic story, presented, as we have seen, in narrative form; even though the events are thoughts not deeds and entirely subjective, they are given a setting and then recounted in a succession of past simple verbs: ‘I looked’, ‘the black letters said’, ‘ a feeling…came over me’, ‘I felt’, ‘the awful sensation passed…came back’, ‘it quickly smashed’.  As in oral narrative, the author evaluates or comments events as she recounts them.  In the poem, however, the sequence of events, while still present, takes second place to the thinking through and expanding on the feelings experienced.

The poem opens with the same setting as the prose, in a dentist’s waiting room on a winter afternoon. The language at the beginning of the poem is paratactic, using short sentences and clauses connected by ‘and’:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early.

This could create the effect of a child’s perceptions, but it also suggests that the writer is tiptoeing around the experience before she begins to explore the feelings it evoked.  Notably, the poem is firmly placed in Massachusetts, home of Bishop’s family on her father’s side whom she lived with after her early years in Nova Scotia with her mother’s parents. She never felt as comfortable in this second placement so the emphasis on location may prepare us for the sense of alienation later in the poem. Although at this point the poem is following the narrative structure of the prose, already evaluation is coming to the fore as the writer examines the significance of her story for her, rather than simply telling it. The modal verb in the parenthesis, ‘(I could read)’, may suggest the adult looking back at the child’s experience, perhaps with a sense of pride, but possibly also reassuring herself about the moment or stage in her own development.  When she notes that she ‘carefully’ studied the photographs, we are again detached from the child’s experience and shown the adult looking back, rather as if the camera had pulled back from a shot of the magazine to show the whole scene: a precocious child sitting on a chair with a magazine which is not appropriate for her surrounded by adults she doesn’t know. 

A major difference from the prose version is the importance of this National Geographic magazine. In the prose, we never get past the cover but here we dive straight into the content of what is implied to be the February 1918 issue. Apparently Bishop checked the magazine in 1967, when she was near to completing the poem, confirming ‘a photo essay on  “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” that “has been haunting me all my life, apparently”’.[8] The pictures in this essay, which was about Alaska ,have been conflated with many other images from elsewhere. For instance, Osa and Martin Johnson, an American couple who were explorers, were in the Pacific in 2017 and the story of their adventures was made into a feature film but I can find no trace of them in the contents of the National Geographic in February 2018 or any of the issues for the previous year. I can remember from my school library, or possibly also from dentist or doctor waiting rooms, those yellow bordered and often dog-eared National Geographics, which were supposedly educational but provided insights into the truths about adult human bodies, so decorously clothed in everyday life. I also remember pictures of African women with their necks impossibly extended by an accumulation of neck rings.  After the protracted, almost fearful orientation stage of the poem, she plunges from a colon into a collage of photographs which opens with a terrifying, hell-like description of a volcano:

the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.

This is one of several dizzying and disorienting moments in the poem. Suddenly, it is as if we are no longer in the waiting room but inside the volcano made more terrifying by the active verbs which convey movement despite being based on a still photograph, quite probably in black and white. It functions as a transition and is paralleled by the transition at the end when the protagonist emerges from her altered state back into the here and now of the waiting room:

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth 
of February, 1918.

The way she presents the return to everyday consciousness in the poem is very different from the metaphor of smashing into a tree in the prose. It is an inward-looking attempt to describe a loss of control or even of consciousness and creates a sense of vertigo and nausea through the blackness of the wave which complements the blackness of the volcano, two elemental and overwhelming images of fire and water.

The volcano is succeeded by a succession of pictures, which could represent the way the little girl turns the pages,[9] focusing mainly on the photographs, despite her reading skills. The impact of these images is to make her recognise her nature as a human, specifically as a human animal and a gendered human animal at that.

Rather strangely, the first image Bishop notes is of Osa and Martin Johnson, ‘dressed in riding breeches,/laced boots, and pith helmets.’  It may be that she is trying to diminish or dismiss gender difference: she names Osa first, and presents the pair in unisex clothing. However, the following pages or images, which show people undressed, defeat this attempt: ‘black, naked women’ with ‘horrifying’ breasts.  It is striking that so many of the images she details are connected to mutilation: ‘A dead man slung on a pole’, ‘Babies with pointed heads/wound round and round with string’, ‘women with necks/ wound round and round by wire’. The impression of humanity which the child is forming is one of ugliness and vulnerability. The theme of pain and mutilation is transferred from the magazine to the dentist’s surgery through the verbal equivalent of a sleight of hand:

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain

It is not immediately clear whether the pain has come from inside the magazine or inside the surgery, so that ‘Aunt Consuelo’ is put on a level with the ‘black, naked women’. The choice of name for her may also contribute to this, whether deliberately or not. The change from ‘Jenny’ in the prose, comfortably white Anglo-Saxon, suggests Latino, and a lower, oppressed class, an ‘other’ type of humanity. The ‘othering’ of Aunt Consuelo is intensified when Bishop describes her as ‘a foolish, timid woman’. Being foolish and timid, like having ‘awful hanging breasts’, may be part of the condition of being a woman from which Bishop seeks to detach herself. Almost immediately, the perception of the other is overwhelmed by the perception of sameness:

What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt

Again, as boundaries blur and disappear in a fusion of first person plural and singular, there is the sense of vertigo: ‘I- we – were falling, falling’.  In the following stanza, Bishop explores further this new confusion over ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘them’.  She splits herself into ‘I’ and ‘you’ in order to conduct an internal dialogue: ‘I said to myself’; this is a process of ratiocination, used to stave off the existential nausea she is experiencing:

I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.

Although she is thinking, she is thinking with feelings: 

But I felt:[10] you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.

Bishop succeeds brilliantly in showing not only the child coming to an awareness but also the terrifying instability of that self. Recognition of self demands the recognition of, and implies the perpetual struggle to maintain separateness from the other. The result is a confusion which resists language:

How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here

‘Unlikely’ resonates first because of its inadequacy and understatement and then because of its root which is the theme of the poem, ‘likeness’ and ‘unlikeness’, together with the second meaning of ‘unliking’, not enjoying or not being pleased by something, an emotion which is much stronger here than in the prose. The poem ends as it began, with an orientation. However, in this case, the protagonist is orienting herself, establishing the ‘here and now’ which she has so dizzyingly been removed from.


[1] Quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[2] In the Bloodaxe collection of essays, Elizabeth Bishop – Poet of the Periphery, ed. Linda Anderson &Jo Shapcott, 2002, Linda Anderson says that ‘her value seems to elude definition’ while Deryn Rees-Jones admits the ‘mixture of love and resistance’ which has made it hard for her to write about Bishop’s work.

[3] Bishop’s effective use of the sestina and the villanelle have almost won me over to these forms, to which I have previously expressed my antipathy.

[4] Labov’s narrative model
Table and exercise adapted from Sample Unit, Simpson, Paul. Stylistics. London: Routledge, 2005 http://www.routledge.com/textbooks/0415281059/  https://webpages.uncc.edu/~bdavis/LabovHymes.pdf

[5] Bishop’s aunt was not called Jenny or Consuelo.

[6] A dog

[7] Bishop suffered from asthma and eczema.

[8] Letter to Robert Lowell, quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[9] Even though the images included may come from a variety of times and sources. The photograph below from Megan Marshall’s biography was taken by Bishop in her exploration of the interior of Brazil in 1958. ‘Pointy-headed babies’ is probably also an image from the South America. The Olmec people of Mexico apparently bound their babies’ heads to produce a shape like an ear of corn. (Neil MacGregor, History of the World in 100 Objects, Radio 4, repeated 27.08.2020)

[10] My underlining

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

Unknown

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.

 

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.

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