The promise of the New World to those arriving from the old was the possibility of space, of horizons thrillingly distant, in the prairie lands of the USA and Canada. Sheri Benning is a Canadian poet who writes about Saskatchewan while Carrie Etter, from the USA, sets her poems in Illinois.
Etter traces the etymology of ‘prairie’ in the first poem in the second section of The Weather in Normal linking it to Arcadia and eclogue, before declaring that ‘Illinoisians were never raised for hills’
prairie the horizon the very edge of the world 
For her, the prairie of Illinois is the location of home and of an idealised, almost prelapsarian childhood, preserved in memory and language, ‘you’re merely there in imagination’.  Although one of the purposes of the book is to highlight the threat to the ecology of Illinois from climate change, its imaginative focus is on the recreation of home in language. In this second section of the book, in particular, she itemizes the details of her childhood home, giving it a figurative structure and resonance reminiscent of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
The poem on the page has the shape of a house, with the right and left margins justified to create the solidities of the walls, and the three-storey structure reminding us of Bachelard’s concept of ‘verticality’, ‘the polarity of cellar and attic’. The importance of the crawl space as a feared and unvisited but important place echoes Bachelard’s description of the cellar, as ‘the dark entity of the house’, which connects us to ‘the entire earth behind its walls’; it is the site of irrationality and, following Jung, the unconscious which is a source for imagination.
The three parts of this collection take us from a memorial to the poet’s parents in section one, to the home at the centre of memory and imagination in section two, and from there outwards to the threatened space of Illinois where the house is located. Section two has its own sense of movement towards and away from the centre as it moves from the prairie to the house where the poet conducts an imaginary inventory before finally being able to leave and yield ownership to the new residents:
It is as though she needs to reiterate her history in this childhood place in order to grow up. Etter has not actually lived in Illinois since she was 19, so what she describes in these poems is very much her ‘first universe’ her place of ‘being-well’. When she has recreated and preserved this place in language, she is ready to confront the realities of Illinois now, in the time of climate change. In the poems in Section 3, she simultaneously recognises her kinship with the flora and fauna of the prairie, ‘I am animal // amid’ while accepting human responsibility for the damage done to the eco-system,
In the final poem, which returns to the open spaces of the prairie, ‘common, cornstalk & flatland’, paradoxically she returns to centre, to the body, to the song in the body which she has earned, the body of the place and the body which is her own:
a song in the body, the body in Illinois
The vision of the land and the nature of home seems darker and more oppressive in Sheri Benning’s Field Requiem, overshadowed by the destruction caused by agribusiness, by the weight of Catholic liturgy and the desperate struggle to survive of the early farmers, many of whom were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Behind this burden of history lurks another guilt-stained shadow, the displacement of indigenous peoples which although rarely explicit in the poems is mentioned in the notes: ‘The Dominion Lands Act effectively granted free land to settlers as part of a process that displaced Indigenous and Métis peoples from their traditional homes.’ Benning herself grew up on a small farm and the book, on one level, mourns the loss of this home which was sold, like so many others, when her parents could no longer compete with agro-industry: ‘Hailstorm, flood, drought. / Interest rates. Debt loads. Go big, or // get out.’ However, although the poet is personally connected to the matter of her poems, she is not engaged in an exercise of memory. She says explicitly, at the end of ‘Compline’:
These are not my memories. Unless
Memory is what we call the longed-for.
What did not come to pass.
She reinforces this idea at the opening of Section III where she quotes Eavan Boland: ‘I am writing this/not to recall our lives, / but to imagine them.’
She is engaged in a process of commemoration, whereby she uses imagination to help her record and create a history of the community she grew up in. The importance of accurate record is reinforced by the photographs of derelict homes, taken by her sister, Heather Benning, and by the map references used as titles for several poems. Like an archaeologist, the poet puts together forgotten lives from these scraps of evidence. In Benning’s work, the safety of the house and the possibility of ‘well-being’ seem infinitely precarious. Babies die: in ‘Vespers’, which may be an elegy for a grandmother of great-grandmother, she addresses the protagonist: ‘Oldest daughter, you prepared your sisters/for earth, wiped vernix from fists and eyes.’ This woman is now buried off ‘Highway 5’ in a graveyard surrounded by the ugliest features of intensive agriculture. Only in imagination can the family rebury her in the same place as her sisters: We’ll gather in dusk’s blue hour, take up your bones,/walk through mist and cricket throb rising / from sloughs, the pasture’s low spots,// deliver you to the braid of your sisters.’ There are references to illness, hunger, poverty and horrific farm accidents. Yet, at the same time, there are epiphanic moments, all the more precious for their momentariness. In ‘Nativity’ an ironically titled poem she celebrates probably a parent’s recovery from surgery and a walk in the snow which seems like rebirth: ‘Snow, a cool chrism/ on last season’s wounds. You laughed // as a child can, unburdened,/ face to sky…’
The centrepiece of this volume is Section IV, ‘Let them Rest’, a long sequence with the suitably bleak epigraph ‘Dies irae, dies illa / solvet saeclum in favilla’, which reconstructs the stories of vanished farming families whilst confronting the devastation to the land caused by the chemical pesticides and fertilizers and the major agri-businesses.
Farm subsidies smashed by Intercontinental Packers,
We could compare these lines about a farm, possibly the poet’s own, which has been sold to the more comforting vision of Bachelard: ‘The lamp in the window is the house’s eye and, in the kingdom of the imagination, it is never lighted out-of-doors, but is enclosed light, which can only filter to the outside…. By means of the light in that far-off house, the house sees, keeps vigil, vigilantly waits.’ Benning has extinguished the lights and undermined the possibility of the house or home in this sequence which is so clearly of the last days. In ‘Zephaniah’ she lists threatened species and attributes blame:
In one of the final poems in the sequence where she describes a gruesome subterranean feast in the grave, ‘St Scholastica’s fall Supper, six feet deep in the earth’, she may cast the blame more widely: ‘Don’t mention the bread was salted with tears./ Don’t mention the bowlfuls and bowlfuls of tears.’ This could be a reference to the displacement of the indigenous peoples, which is picked up again in Section 5 of the book: ‘Where coyotes licked the blood/of those whose land you broke, they’ll lick yours’
It would be wrong to characterise this collection as being all gloom and doom. In its passionate depiction of the farmlands of Saskatchewan and its anguish at what is happening to them, this poetry is powerful, invigorating and challenging. Like Etter, the poet returns repeatedly to the imagined home:
Both Etter and Benning, in their representation of prairie spaces, are attempting in their poetry to be ‘equal to the real itself’ as required by Charles Olson, himself a mapper of spaces. However, Etter approaches her vision of Illinois through the prism of her childhood memories and her current understanding of ecological crisis, whereas Benning seeks to create a reality which will answer or be equal to the experiences of the voiceless immigrant farmers who struggled to subsist in the prairies of Saskatchewan. Both poets express a sense of ecological loss, an awareness of the destruction of environment through human agency, although Etter seems to take some of the blame upon herself while Benning turns her guns on industrial farming practices.
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. 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, 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
& 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—
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
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 novelby China Miéville, the 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’:
my Father in Heaven
who remains in me
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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
‘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?’)
‘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
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.
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.
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:
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.
 Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism, Cambridge University Press, 2019
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
which has not ceased since
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’. 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.
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 –
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’:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Maybe this is how you’ll know when the earth is dead –
it will ignite.
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.
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
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:
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:
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 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.
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
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 poemwhich 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.
At the moment, there seems to be a lot of poetry about. Online magazines and small presses proliferate; even the small print magazines seem to be keeping their heads above water. Some of this may be due to corona virus; people have time to write and even read poetry. However, as I pick my way through Zoom poetry events, I find myself wondering how it is possible to read with discrimination, or even enjoyment, under this onslaught of words. I am not complaining about an excess of bad poetry; on the contrary, much of what is available is, thanks to poetry workshops and courses, pretty good. What is difficult is to discover and recognise the very good, the authentically new, the lastingly valuable. With an ever-growing pile of magazines, pamphlets and first collections on my desk, I have been tempted to flee, to look backwards and to reconsider some of the older names in the poetry world.
Thus it was that I started reading, or rereading Elizabeth Jennings. Why? For a start, she once lived at the bottom of my road. Secondly, she is a woman poet who has dropped out of fashion but who had known considerable success, was moderately famous, but never, sadly, rich. In my mind, she was the sort of poet whose work turned up in GCSE and A-level anthologies. I remembered her poems as thematically unthreatening but with plenty of technical features to be identified in the pursuit of good marks.
Engaging now with the full range of her poetry, I find her more interesting but strange, in the sense of alien. She suffers by being out of tune with her time and even more so with ours. What concerned her has been pushed to the very margin of our concerns today. On a line drawn between Christina Rossetti and Sylvia Plath, she would come much closer to Rossetti, not simply because she was a single woman and deeply religious, but also because she clings to some outmoded nineteenth century poeticisms. She is a little too fond of the exclamatory ‘O’. In ‘In This Time’, lamenting the loss of myth and legend which she seems to attribute to excessive introspection and self-absorption, she includes a somewhat startling and metrically unnecessary inversion: ‘Hardly we hear the children shout outside’ as well as an equally unnecessary undirected apostrophe three lines further down, ‘O let the wind outside blow in again’. She is confident with form and her earlier poems were mostly written in carefully organised and rhymed stanzas, made more subtle by half and near rhymes. Even so, sometimes the form pushes her towards conclusions which are too pat, or a rhyme can seem forced, or a line is padded. In ‘Poem in Winter’, the pronoun ‘it’ is awkward in the first stanza as it buckles under the demands of end rhyme:
Today the children begin to hope for snow
And look in the sky for auguries of it.
In the first three lines of the second stanza, there is another awkward ‘it’ forced into prominence by the iambic pattern, while ‘And’ and ‘still’ seem to be there to preserve the metre and ‘indeed’ does more for the rhyme scheme than the meaning.
And even if the snow comes down indeed
We still shall stand behind a pane of glass
Untouched by it,
The last stanza, as rather often in Jennings’ poems, takes on a didactic function, which more contemporary poets would perhaps avoid. Nevertheless, her work is underpinned and strengthened by her vision and sense of vocation, by her ideas of what it was to be a poet. In her case, the poetic vocation was bound in with her Catholic faith although the relationship between her religion and her poetry was not as smooth as she would sometimes have had it appear. Like T.S. Eliot, whom she much admired, she yearned for the mystic’s union with God, and she explored the relationship between mysticism and poetry in Every Changing Shapewhich, although written relatively early in her career, provides a key to understanding her own poetic vision. She seeks to show, through a study of writers from St Augustine to Wallace Stevens:
Not only …the usefulness of poetry as a vehicle for mystical experience but also …some kind of demonstration, however, tentative, that both mysticism (contemplation) and poetry (making) spring from the same creative source.
She goes on to argue, and here she is close to David Jones, also a poet whose Catholicism is central to his art, that poetry:
…is itself a kind of contact with God. And it can be a contact with God because all art is a participation in the eternal act of creation.
Jennings is careful to maintain the distinction between poetry and mysticism, but values poetry for its power to use the imagination (and imagery) to convey experiences otherwise beyond language. However, although she holds this exalted view of what poetry can do, only a minority of her own poems are directly concerned with religion. Her themes are childhood, relationships with parents, friends, lovers, nature, loneliness and death. Her poetry is always written out of her own experience and although she abhorred ‘confessional’ poetry, it is difficult to read her work as anything other than autobiographical. Indeed, because she disapproved so strongly of letting it all hang out and washing the family dirty laundry in public, it is often quite difficult to know what she is talking about in her poems, if, for instance, she is addressing Christ, a friend or a lover in “Transformation’:
I am inclined to think that this poem is actually addressed to a friend or one of her quasi lovers, as so much of her work seems prompted by actual incidents, even though, as here, it borrows the language of religious or transcendental experience. The only poem I have found where Jennings does seem to be writing about a personal mystical experience is ‘A World of Light’. The title acknowledges the mystic poetry of Henry Vaughan and in it she describes the sort of encounter which she explores in the work of many of the mystics and poets she considers:
However, unlike Vaughan she becomes self-conscious and the final stanza suggests that she feels that her language and her imagery are second-hand and inadequate:
Yes, fire, light, air birds, wax, the sun’s own height
I draw from now, but every image breaks.
Only a child’s simplicity can handle
Such moments when the hottest fire feels cool.
And every breath is like a sudden homage
To peace that penetrates and is not feared.
Incidentally, Jennings skill is demonstrated by the way she has used the same end sounds in all five stanzas of this poem. Despite this virtuosity with form, the imagery is less convincing. The ‘hottest fire’ that ‘feels cool’ recall simultaneously the cleansing fires of purgatory and the oxymoronic language of courtly love. We might wonder why in the last line ‘peace’ should be ‘feared’ and question whether she is talking not about a peace but a penetration that need not be feared. Jennings was known to have a fear of sex and it is doubtful if any of her various love relationships were ever physically consummated. Rather conveniently, she transfers the responsibility to one of her loves, apparently a Catholic priest:
I don’t really know what the last lines of this stanza mean and the final stanza of the poem also strikes me as a fudge:
A touching, then a glancing off.
It is your vows that stretch between
Us like an instrument of love
Where only echoes intervene.
Yet these exchanges are enough
Since strings touched only are most keen.
There is a feeling that she has successfully worked through the metaphoric vehicle, but that the actual experience, the underlying tenor remains stubbornly unchanged.
Of course, she was completely aware that sexual imagery is often used as a way of conveying mystical experience, something that she acknowledges in her discussion of St John of the Cross. I am wary of tipping over into prurience when discussing Jennings but the tone and content of her love poetry, which often seems to have an adolescent intensity, would be easier to understand if more was known about her life. The only biography, The Inward War by Dana Greene, while it supplies possible names and dates, does very little, despite its title, to illuminate the poet’s inner conflicts. Perhaps biography shouldn’t matter, and the best poems can be appreciated without it. Nevertheless, so much of her work clearly springs from the day to day events in her life that a better knowledge of what was actually going on would be beneficial, partly because the less successful work does not detach itself fully from the context. Jennings’ poetry invariably strikes us as searingly emotionally honest, but she keeps a great deal from us. Some of her most compelling poems draw on her experience of mental illness in hospital. In ‘The Visitors’, Section V of ‘Sequence in Hospital’ she describes the difficulties of dealing with visitors, whose ‘kindness makes [her] want/ To cry’ but whose visit leaves her feeling ‘limp and faint’. However, the poem ends with an address to an unnamed you:
Your absence has been stronger than all pain
And I am glad to find that when most weak
Always my mind returned to you again.
Through all the noisy nights when, harsh awake,
I longed for day and light to break –
In that sick desert, you were life, were rain.
In this case, the imagery of light, life and rain incline me to think she means Christ, but there is an almost coy awareness of the traditional overlap of language in the treatment of sacred and profane love.
The themes which emerge most strongly from Jennings’ work are a yearning for the innocence of early childhood which is linked to a prelapsarian view of Nature and a pervasive fear which is never made specific but overshadows her entire oeuvre. These ideas come together in an early poem, ‘Reminiscence’, where she speaks of childhood as ‘cloudless and gentle’, as life experienced through the senses before the life of the mind introduced ‘something’ which ‘made [her]numb with fear’. This disabling fear may be related to the growth of consciousness, it may be related to her difficult relationship with her father, it may be a fear of sex or of God derived from her early and unhappy perception of the Catholicism she was born into, or it may be simply an existential dread.
On the other hand, ‘The Fear’ hints at something more specific:
It is known that as a young person she found her religion oppressive, and this was something she only overcame when she went to Rome and discovered a joyful way of living with her faith. Nevertheless, the memories of childhood unhappiness were enduring as shown in ‘First Confession’, a poem from the 1990’s.
Despite her apparently unquestioning acceptance of her religion – she protests, she struggles, but never denies it – it does not seem to have brought her happiness even though she used it to underpin her poetic vision. It seems to me that her first loyalty is to poetry even though she longs for the mystical experience which would reward her faith. Her vocation is poetic, not religious. In ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’she considers the differences:
Your vows enfold you. I must make my own;
Now this, now that, each one empirical.
My poems move from feelings not yet known,
And when the poem is written I can feel
A flash, a moment’s peace.
She makes comparisons elsewhere between the experience of vision of transcendence which the mystic may seek language for and the momentary achievement of vision which the poet feels, having written successful poem. The poem’s final stanza suggests that the darkness which for the religious is the absence of God is for her the silence when the words for the poems do not come.
Yet with the same convictions that you have
(It is but your vocation that I lack),
I must, like you, believe in perfect love.
It is the dark, the dark that draws me back
Into a chaos where
Vocations, visions fail, the will grows slack
And I am stunned by silence everywhere.
Silence is identified with chaos, whereas the poem is a device for creating order. I think this is why Jennings was so prolific, writing compulsively, up to three poems a day, even when most ill or unhappy : ‘Coins, counters, Towers of Babel/ Mad words spoken in sickness too – / All are considered, refined, transformed / …And stored and given back – and true.’ In another poem she says ‘poetry must change and make/ The world seem new in each design’. The stress is on design, form, number and imagery, the power of the imagination to create pattern and order, however fleeting. This ‘flash’ is the poet’s participation in divine creativity. Rebecca Watts argues that Jennings did not write in order to heal her wounded psyche, but because ‘she felt that writing poetry was “ the one thing I can do”’. I think this was a way of overcoming the fear, the darkness and the silence, or at least holding it at bay.
We can see that Jennings had an elevated view of the poet’s calling and that her ‘vision’ was coherent throughout her career. Childhood is Edenic and associated with the joy in the natural world; it is destroyed by fear and guilt and Jennings accuses adults of creating this sense of fear in children much too early. She values friendship, love as agape, but suffers from unfulfilled desire, fear, guilt and loneliness. She yearns for the solace of her religion but only rarely can she reconcile the demands of her ‘hard creed’ and her impulse to poetry:
Alice Oswald argued, in her inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, that great poets had a unified vision, whereas minor poets did not. This is a debatable distinction and I would suggest that while Elizabeth Jennings did have a unified vision, she is only occasionally great. Often her language and her form do not hold up under the strain she puts on them; sometimes she drops back into banality. Nevertheless, she had a lifelong commitment to poetry and there are many ‘flashes’, whether whole poems, stanzas or memorable lines or images.
This brings me back to my feelings of uneasiness when contemplating the current poetry scene. What is required to be a poet? What is poetry for? These are silly questions, because they are so wide-ranging. Poetry has been used for everything from trying to seduce a lover (though it is unlikely that many seduction poems were written primarily for this purpose) to entertainment, to recording and celebrating a shared history to praising God. The training to be a Bard in ancient Ireland was long and rigorous and involved a huge amount of memorising as well as learning complicated traditional rhyme schemes, metaphors and similes. A sixteenth century Elizabethan gentleman would have been expected to be able to compose verses as well as wield a sword. John Donne, whose verses were circulated among friends, could be described as an amateur poet: Shakespeare was obviously a professional. No matter what the background, any decent poet will have learned from their predecessors. Even John Clare, isolated in rural Helpston, was desperate for books and found his early inspiration in The Seasons by James Thomson. Whether the poet starts young or comes to poetry later in life, they will develop as they assimilate the work of the past and of their contemporaries. Some writers will become central to them, touchstones they regularly return to, as, for example, Alice Oswald does to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Poets also learn by sharing their work with their contemporaries and accepting constructive criticism. This is a process which has become almost industrialised through Creative Writing Degrees, poetry workshops and institutions such as the Arvon Foundation and The Poetry School. The fact that these organisations seem to flourish reflects the level of demand. There is also a multitude of small presses, print and online little magazines and local poetry nexuses, many of them surviving on minimum funds through the energy and hard work of dedicated enthusiasts. The Alchemy Spoonis a new print magazine, a courageous venture at a time when our entire lives seem to be going online. Its inaugural edition includes some impressive poems from writers well-known and not so familiar. The introductory editorial by Vanessa Lampert is also interesting. She explains the magazine’s commitment to ‘welcoming older unpublished and new phase writers to our pages’. The phrase ‘new phase’ apparently refers primarily to those who have come to poetry later in life, although Lampert also suggests that the ‘new’ of ‘new phase’ refers to poets who have ‘remained alert to the athleticism of poetics and the potential of poetry to branch out and articulate the ethereal and changeable feeling states of our lives.’ This seems admirable, but I am more concerned by her earlier suggestion:
The art of poetry offers writers the opportunity to abandon the conformity embedded in the way we learn to use language, to reach out and seek invention. Additionally, poems can free us from the tiresome constraint of always being required to tell the truth.
In the world of Trump and Johnson, where the tiresome constraint of telling the truth seems to have been rendered null and void, it would seem preferable to suggest that poetry is indeed a way of telling the truth, albeit through such lying devices as metaphor and imagery. The emphasis on playfulness also worried me, although I recognise that poetry and all art does have a ludic function. The quality of the poetry in this magazine, the level of engagement of the interviews and essays belie these suggestions of hobby writing, or poetry as something to do when you have retired. I doubt if Elizabeth Jennings would have welcomed a description of her work as either untruthful or playful and, as someone who had devoted her entire life to her art, she might have been lukewarm about the notion of ‘new phase.
‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’
This famous statement by W.B. Yeats reflects the appeal of his most powerful poems. The poems which I go back to or am rediscovering often possess this quality of emerging from the writer’s internal struggle, which not only elicits an emotional empathy but also creates a dynamic which carries the poem forward. It is this sense of struggle that I responded to as I reread Eliot’s Four Quartets and which I recognise again in Yeats.
I was brought up on Yeats, particularly the early poetry and the drama, so, in one sense, his work feels as if it were part of my DNA. On the other hand, I find many of his ideas antipathetic, offensive or just plain daft, and I have no wish to immerse myself in them. I have read many demolitions of his romantic ideas about big houses and the role of the aristocracy as well as articles challenging his status as an Irish writer, given his Protestant Ascendancy background, and these have flavoured my attitude over the years. Rereading him now, I recognise that he belongs indisputably, wilfully and complicatedly, to Irish history and culture; I recognise also the heights of sheer brilliance he reaches in language; finally, I recognise and respond to the element of struggle which runs through so much of his poetry but which is perhaps most apparent in his later work.
At a philosophical level, this struggle has been described as dialectic, a process which Yeats inherited from the Romantics, most particularly William Blake, who remained one of his heroes and whose work he championed: ‘Without contraries, there is no progression’. At the emotional level, we might think of Keats and his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where the conflict between the desire for the ageless immortality of art is set against the warm but fragile flesh: ‘breathing human passion’ versus ‘Cold pastoral”. Keats’ poem seems very much a fore-runner of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.
Given the breadth, depth, range and sometimes passionately controversial nature of writing on Yeats, I feel reluctant to offer any analysis of his work beyond an attempt to explore this idea of personal struggle or felt conflict in a few poems. ‘The Stolen Child’ is a very early poem which I have a vague memory of reciting in choral speaking lessons at school and the chorus remains in my head:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
Aside from its wisps of Celtic Twilight, the poem presents the conflicting attractions of the purity and primacy of Nature with the comforts and sociability of human society. The Nature which is shown is that of Ancient pre-Christian Ireland, rich in wildlife and fruit. As in Keats’ faery world in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, nothing here is cooked; only in the last stanza, which describes the world the child is leaving, is there mention of human crafts and artefacts: ‘the kettle on the hob’ and the oatmeal-chest’. The ancient but persisting natural world is offered as an escape from the trials of human life which the child has not yet experienced. Yet all the attractions of the outdoor faery world which stretches from lake to hill to ocean and which is mapped in Irish place names, ‘Sleuth Wood’, ‘the Rosses’, ‘Glencar’ are matched by the security and warmth of the limited homestead evoked with yearning in the final stanza:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
The poem opposes the longing for freedom, space and unity with Nature or what is beyond to the physical and joys and pains of being human.
In ‘When You are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep’, Yeats’ version of a sonnet by Ronsard, Love (or the rejected poet) ‘fled/ And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars’. Although the opening of the poem follows Ronsard quite closely, in these final lines Yeats moves away from the French which has a carpe diem theme:
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.
Yeats, on the other hand, shows both lover and beloved left wanting. The beloved woman is left with nothing but dreams of the past as she nods by the fireside, while the lover/poet has retreated to what is lofty and beautiful, the mountains, stars and grandeur of nature but has lost the possibility of physical human love and companionship.
The dialogue or debate poem has a long history in the context of Christianity, where, as Marvell put it, the ‘resolved soul’ is in conflict with ‘created pleasure’. This struggle between the soul’s heavenward aspirations and the physical joys of materiality reappears, minus the Christianity, in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, in 1933, when Yeats was already in his sixties. The conflict between Self and Soul in this poem has variously been described as between intellect and lust, mind and body, life and death. Part 1 of the poem is self-consciously embellished with Yeatsian tropes such as Sato’s sword, ‘emblematical of love and war’ or ‘the tower/Emblematical of the night.’ Most of this part of the poem could be described in Yeats’ own terms as ‘rhetoric’. The argument is balanced and the language and pace stately rather than passionate. There are vague expressions such as ‘the basin of the mind’ and reference to philosophical abstractions such ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ which signal but do not evoke. In places, the passion and the poetry break through and in doing so, reveal the poet’s profound ambivalence. “The winding ancient stair’ is a symbol Yeats chose to make real in his purchase of the tower at Ballylee. The paired adjectives ‘winding, ancient’, ‘broken, crumbling, ‘breathless, starlit’ accentuate the difficulty of this ascent. ‘Breathless’ seems ominous, foreshadowing death, while the darkness ‘where all thought is done’ and is finally indistinguishable from the soul signifies the annihilation of the individual self. The soul seeks its own extinction, something the self recoils from. Indeed, such is the self’s rejection of the soul that it is banished from the second part of the poem, where the passion of the ‘living man’ shines through. Yeats seems to be considering the possibility of some form of reincarnation where the unredeemed or unenlightened self would have to repeat his life. The first stanza of Part II is a rending recapitulation of childhood and growing up which through its devastating frankness becomes recognisable beyond that individual self and time:
What matter if I live it all once more?
Endure that toil of growing up;
The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood changing into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;
Here is the sense of struggle and of pain which makes us cherish the poem; in the third stanza, he continues to switch between relish and disgust: ‘I am content to live it all again… to pitch into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch.’ This is the very antithesis of ‘starlit air’ or ‘beautiful, lofty things’, but there is pleasure and even profit in it as revealed by the surprising adjective ‘fecund’: ‘that most fecund ditch of all,/The folly that man does/Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.’ Isn’t this another way of saying that poetry comes out of personal conflict?
At the end of the poem, in the view of Carol Rumens, ‘the poet finds resolution by discarding remorse in favour of self-forgiveness’. She applauds the conclusion`:
The final, gloriously childlike “We must laugh and we must sing” rings out after all the turbulence like the Ode to Joy at the end of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
However, I am less convinced by the ending; it is not so easy to banish remorse and the language which is a reprise of Blake’s ‘For everything that lives is holy’ sounds forced:
We are blest by everything, Everything we look upon is blest.
‘Forgiv[ing yourself] the lot’ can only be a very temporary sweetness and is only convincing in the presence of its contrary.
In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from the earlier collection, The Tower (1928), the overt opposition is between the mortal, subject to age and decay, and the supposed ‘artifice of eternity’. The poet seeks to escape the natural world and the aging process by moving to Byzantium where he will be transformed into a singing golden bird. This resolution is obviously faulty since the equation of artifice with eternity is false. In the story of The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson, the artificial singing bird breaks, and we know that works of art are subject to decay, even if the process is slower than in nature. Behind this desire to be transformed into a work of art, we hear the demands of Soul to survive the body it is shackled to: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing…unless/Soul clap its hands and sing’. However, the real quarrel the poet has with himself in this poem is revealed in the phrase where he describes his heart as ‘sick with desire’. The sickness of desire is produced from the powerful conflict between desiring and desiring not to desire. Despite conjuring the sages to ‘consume [his] heart away’, the strength of desire and the poet’s longing to be able to fulfil his desires are displayed in the gorgeous lines of the first stanza:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
Compared to the abundant list of living things, the monuments of intellect seem stony and unappealing even when, as if for reassurance, they are referred to again in the next stanza. Yet, as the poem proceeds, it enacts itself as a ‘monument of magnificence’. From his quarrel with his own mortality and the effects of age, Yeats creates a splendid fiction. We do not need to believe in Byzantium, the golden bird, or the poet’s elaborately constructed philosophical system; the bird of ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ is the metaphor for what the poem becomes.
‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is a difficult poem on whose interpretation no two critics seem to agree. Although it reflects feelings of disappointment, anger and horror in its “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ (the original title), it may be regarded as rhetorical in that the poet’s quarrel here is more with the times than with himself. It is significant that the dominant personal pronoun is ‘we’ as he places himself alongside his peers who, in the days before World War 1, before the Eastern Rising, before the Civil War, hoped and planned for a better world, ‘but now/ That winds of winter blow/ Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed’. Set against these regrets is Yeats’ belief in historical repetition which he expresses elsewhere in his theory of the gyres and alludes to here with his reference to ‘the Platonic year’ which ‘Whirls out new right and wrong,/Whirls in the old instead’. This poem has much in common with ‘The Second Coming’ with which it shares the expectation of the end of an era and the advent of a new barbarism, but it would be wrong to call either apocalyptic since they do not anticipate the end of time but its continuation, albeit in unwelcome ways.
The first person singular ‘I’ only appears in the third section of the poem; the poet declares his satisfaction with the comparison of the solitary soul to a swan, describing the image he would choose:
The wings half spread for flight,
The breast thrust out in pride
Whether to play, or to ride
Those winds that clamour of approaching night.
This is an odd image for the soul, in that it seems both egotistical and supremely physical. The reader cannot but be reminded of ‘Leda and the Swan’ which appears in the same volume. This is perhaps where the quarrels with himself re-emerge, in the conflict between the spiritual and intellectual search to divest selfhood and the temporal in the journey towards death: ‘if our works could/But vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death’, an idea which seems at variance with the assertive image of the swan. The poet switches from the quietist idea of ‘ghostly solitude’ to an annihilating rage ‘to end all things’. In the same way, we feel the pull between public and private: this poem is a public statement, a verdict on the times, made by someone who has been involved in public life; at the same time, it is private, even esoteric. The end of the poem is prophetic and rhetorical but filled with references to Yeats’ own elaborate and almost hermetic system of symbols. The last five lines seem to undermine their threat by the obscure reference to Robert Artisson and Lady Kyteler, so that the poem is simultaneously public and private. The final line, with its suggestion of perverted sexuality and black magic, evokes a brutal return of barbarism and irrationality, but through symbols of male beauty. Is this another way of saying the noble will be sacrificed to the rogues and rascals, that ‘ingenious and lovely things’ will be lost? If so, it is revelatory of the cast of Yeats’ mind rather than the conclusion to his argument.
Helen Vendler says that where ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is philosophical, ‘Among School Children’ is autobiographic. Certainly, it is a poem where Yeats looks back over his life, although the autobiographical elements have been scripted for dramatic effect. I find Vendler’s reading of the poem convincing, so I will hold back from extended comment. In the first stanza Yeats seems self-conscious and ill at ease in his skin as he presents himself from the outside, ‘A sixty-year-old smiling public man’. The ‘comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ which the world sees is at odds with the poet’s passionate and self-tormenting memories and reflections. The increasing sense of the futility of all human endeavour and activity is arrested in the final stanza where in Vendler’s words there is
a massive re-conceiving of life. Hitherto, life has been indexed by its two determining points- its promising inception and its betrayed close. Now, with a mighty effort, Yeats begins to think of life in two new ways.
The two images he turns to in celebration of creativity and the life force are the chestnut tree and the dancer.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Although these lines are famous as an affirmation of life, they are almost disjunct from the rest of the poem and the fact that they are framed as questions suggests that they represent a hope or an aspiration rather than a certainty. The struggle and disillusion, the bruised body, the beauty born out of despair, the blear-eyed wisdom, all survive into the last stanza.
There is a recording on You Tube of Yeats reading his own poetry where he refuses to read his work as if it were prose, because it took him ‘a devil of a lot of trouble’ to get it into verse. I don’t think he was just talking about versification. What I value in Yeats is the sense that a resolution like that in ‘Among School Children’ has been hard fought for in a battle to shape his disparate and messy realities into an art which is the product of life, not distinct from it.
 ‘Anima Hominis’ in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 1918.
 Poem of the Week, The Guardian, Monday, 11th February, 2008
 See, for example, Eamonn Dunne in J.Hillis Miller and the Possibilities of Reading: Literature after Deconstruction,(Bloomsbury ,USA, 2010) and Foshay, Toby A., and Toby A. Forshay. “Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: Chronology, Chronography and Chronic Misreading.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 13, no. 2, 1983, pp. 100–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30225063. Accessed 13 July 2020.
 Yeats did provide an explanatory note when the collection first appeared, but the last lines remain vague in their menace, although they seem eerily prescient in the present trepidatious times:
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend…’
 Helen Vendler, ‘The Later Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats edited by Marjorie Howes and John Kelly, C.U.P., 2006.
In this post, 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. 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
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.
 Thanks to colleagues from Giles Goodland’s course on Poetry and Syntax (OUDCE)who have contributed to my discussion of these two poems
 See discussion of ‘Two Formal Elegies’ in my previous post.
I have just read Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-2014.This has been a revelatory experience of a body of work that I had previously found so intimidating that I had avoided it as post-modernist whimsicality. Not that it has got any easier, and the poet continues to change shape and evade capture like the trickster Gallogly, or like the poet of negative capability it seems that he aspires to be. I don’t have the ability or years left in my life to offer any kind of sustained reading of Muldoon, but I have found it interesting to explore different versions of masculinity he offers, starting from the eponymous poem ‘Quoof’. When I first read Quoof, both the book and the title poem, I was struck by Muldoon’s exploitation of the sonnet. I even used the poem in teaching as a contemporary example of the form. A colleague (male) to whom I showed the poem objected to its attitude to women. This had made me a little uncomfortable but as a woman reading and teaching love poetry mostly written by men, this was a familiar feeling .
There are two male figures in this poem: the first is presented as perhaps innocent, the speaker’s father as a child preparing an old-fashioned substitute for a hot water bottle to take to his child-hood settle. The second, the speaker, a liberated post-sexual liberation male is boasting of the number of women he has slept with. In the sestet, we are given a specific example; the cosmopolitan speaker in ‘New York City’ is with a woman he barely knows, and certainly cannot communicate with as she ‘spoke hardly any English’. Perhaps this is all about sex; if so, there isn’t much of it, or what there is is unsatisfactory. Back in the octave, the father’s behaviour may be interpreted as a lonely act of adolescent masturbation, as he juggles his ‘red-hot half-brick’, while the Don Juan son must have a strange love-life if it so frequently necessitates a hot-water bottle. Even if we consider the ‘quoof’ to be a phallic substitution just as the sword so often is, we might recognize it as anti-erotic and question the appearance of the ‘sword’ simile in line 8. In traditional romance, the sword between a man and woman in a bed was to prevent sex, as in the case of Tristram and Isolde.
Moreover, the presentation of the male lover in the sestet is also problematic; his hand seems to have become the ‘quoof’ as it is ‘smouldering’ , but though its presence –‘spoor’ – on the woman’s breast might seem proprietorial and animal-like, it doesn’t get very far, particularly as it is juxtaposed with words and phrases like ‘one-off’, ‘shy’ and ‘yet to enter’. Since the poem resists its superficial interpretation, the reader is forced to explore other dimensions. It is impossible to avoid the echo of Yeats’ ‘rough beast’ in “The Second Coming.’ However, whereas Yeats’ speaker dreads the coming of the beast, Muldoon’s speaker is the beast or identifies with the beast in an incident of non-communication which conveys not only failure both sexually and in terms of colonization, but also the inadequacy of the domestic or private upbringing as preparation for life in the wider public sphere. ‘Quoof’ was never going to be widely disseminated as a household word. Therefore, in this poem, we see not the assertion of predatory masculinity but an interrogation and subversion of it.
“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” is the long poem which comes at the end of the same volume. For me, it reads as Muldoon’s take on the Troubles presented as an arena where different events, ideas, emotions can play off each other. Muldoon is sometimes described as apolitical, disengaged, even amoral. His work, on the contrary, seems to me extremely political although I think he leaves moral judgement to the reader who must ingest and sift the multifarious elements he has patterned into the poem. How can you not react morally to the description of the councillor blown up by a car bomb:
Once they collect his smithereens
he doesn’t quite add up.
They’re shy of a foot, and a calf
from his left shoe like a severely
The tone and black (gallows/ gallowglass)humour of the poem remind me of Adrian McKinty’s crime thrillers featuring a Catholic RUC officer based in Carrickfergus, a set-up unlikely enough in itself to fit a Muldoon poem. Muldoon has two protagonists, both shape shifters, apparently enemies but who eventually seem to merge in a final catastrophic explosion at a garage. Gallogly, who is on the run, is identified as a gallowglass, a type of mercenary soldier which had its origins in the Norse-Gaelic clans of Scotland although the name came to be used for any Irish mercenary. Gallogly’s identity is not simple; he can be both the son of the King of the Moy which brings him closer to Muldoon himself or he can be
Gallogly, or Gollogly,
otherwise known as Golightly,
otherwise known as Ingoldsby,
otherwise known as English…
The series of pseudonyms or noms de guerre not only reflect the figure of the trickster but also represents the murky world of double and triple agents in the Northern Ireland conflict. Gallogly is presented as the epitome of the male desperado: tough, cunning and as ready to exploit opportunities for sex as for vehicle theft. In the opening sections of the poem, women appear only as sexual metonyms: ‘a froth of bra and panties’, ‘your still-warm wife’s damp tuft’ and again, a ‘lovely head’ this time ‘chopped and changed’. This image of brutal transformation through tarring and feathering suggests women as victims, while the male protagonist powers nonchalantly on his way; however, there are increasing contra-indications. First of all, the language: the woman changes from being ‘The scum of the Seine/and the Farset’ to ‘her ladyship’ albeit this phrase is generally ironic. However, her social status increases as we are told her ‘fathers/knew Louis Quinze’ and that she was first encountered on the ‘Roxborough estate’ saying ‘Noblesse oblige’. Admittedly, this could be any kind of estate, from a housing estate to a stately home to a plantation on a Caribbean island. She even becomes a milkmaid –goddess in the allusion to Leto and the frogs. The female figure becomes increasingly literary, given the names Beatrice and Alice and associated with texts and writers as various as Dante, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gertrude Stein. The sighting of the child on the Roxborough estate parallels Dante’s first encounter with the child Beatrice and signals the role of the woman as muse. Alice is both Alice in Wonderland (Alice A?) and associated with Alice B Toklas who has had tea with Beatrice’s grand-mère, thus arguably providing an independent female literary tradition of foremothers.
Her grand-mère was once asked to tea
by Gertrude Stein,
and her grand-mère and Gertrude
and Alice B., chère Alice B.
with her hook-nose
Alice also links to the Aer Lingus check-in girl at Logan who wears an embroidered A in an allusion, I suppose, to The Scarlet Letter. For the most part, however, these women, who morph into each other as frequently as the male characters, are shown to have power over the men. Beatrice/Alice seems to hold the key to hallucinogenic drugs. At the beginning, it is suggested she is growing cannabis in her garden though that may be the least of her offences as she is wearing a ‘bomber jacket’. She is punished by being tarred and feathered, traditionally the punishment for sleeping with the enemy so that the message pinned to her jacket ‘Keep off the Grass’ is ambiguous. She is also associated with magic mushrooms, both at Queen’s University and perhaps in a dream vision where she appears to Gallogly asleep: ‘I am gathering musheroons/to make my mammy ketchup’.
Women have an increasingly symbolic function in the poem and become increasingly unreal except perhaps for the UDR man’s wife who blasts Gallogly away with a shotgun:
She was standing at the picture window
with a glass of water
and a Valium
when she caught your man
in the reflection of her face.
shaping past the milking parlour
as if he owned the place.
Such is the integrity
of their quarrel
that she immediately took down
the legally held shotgun
and let him have both barrels.
She had wanted only to clear the air.
This sonnet is a perfect vignette of sectarianism. The Protestant farmer’s wife lives in a ‘hacienda-style/farmhouse’ which underlines the idea that she does not belong although the architectural style referred to is, unfortunately, a feature of the rural landscape north and south of the Irish border. Gallogly ‘comes shaping past’ perhaps a reference to his trickster shape-shifting, ‘as if he owned the place’. This suggestion of the Nationalist claim to the land is backed up the Churchillian quotation about the ‘integrity of their quarrel’. However, when we examine the section more closely, the situation and the quarrel become more complicated. This woman too is in the grip of mind-altering substances and inhabiting two worlds. I feel there must be a reference to Lacan in the description of her reflection in the window, as the woman sees herself and through herself to the figure beyond. She is associated with milk, picking up on the references to the milkman, the milkmaid and the breast milk implicated in Alice/Beatrice’s mushroom magic on the university lawn.
Women in the poem are sometimes tutelary, sometimes dangerous but to an extent remote, remembered from the past, just departed or seen through a window, a peep-hole or a drug-induced vision. Ian Gregson has compared Heaney and Muldoon in terms of how they represent gender, a comparison in which Heaney comes off worse as he is accused of adhering to traditional archetypal imagery of male and female. However, in this poem we can again see women reduced to traditional roles – muse, goddess, whore, femme fatale though interestingly there is no reference to mothers unless it be through the imagery of milk. Nevertheless, women are ancillary to the main drive of the poem which is to do with heroic action.
The version of masculinity Muldoon offers here is that of a (literally) deconstructed epic hero, mediated through myth, legend, film noir, cartoon and tall tale and the apparatus of the Troubles. Gallogly can be seen as a figure of Odysseus who is making his way homewards to the Moy in an action which involves his shadowy alter ego or arch-enemy, Mangas Jones Esquire ‘who is, as it turns out, Apache’. It is often difficult to make out whether the protagonist of any particular section of the poem is the Apache or Gallogly, particularly as the action moves confusingly between the US and Northern Ireland. Whether or not Mangas Jones is also the Oglala Sioux who may be seeking revenge for the Massacre of Wounded Knee is also unclear. Gallogly and the Apache are united at the end of the poem at the moment when they are both most thoroughly fragmented in the garage explosion. His/their last words are those attributed to Henry Thoreau: ‘Moose…Indian’ and the hand which could belong to either or both of them is still clutching the pebble of quartz or mescal button, perhaps even, given some of Muldoon’s other references, an obol for the ferryman.
‘At the Sign of the Black Horse’ is the long poem which concludes Moy Sand and Gravel, Muldoon’s ninth collection. Unlike ‘The More a Man has the More a Man Wants’, this poem is written in propria persona, or at least makes use of the persona of father of a fairly new son. At one level, the poem appears to be exploring an identity crisis on behalf of this half-Jewish half-Irish baby:
I was awestruck to see in Asher’s glabrous
face a slew of interlopers
not from Maghery, as I might have expected, or Maghera, or Magherafelt
(though my connections there are now few and far between)
but the likes of that kale-eating child on whom the peaked cap, Verboten,
would shortly pin a star of yellow felt.
Muldoon has been criticised for treating the topic of the Holocaust in this poem, but it seems to me that he would have been more at fault to have turned his back on it. The poem works to confront and accommodate his children’s dual heritage, which becomes, at one remove, his own. It is interesting, though, that this poem arises from the birth of his son, not of his first child, a daughter. He has written a number of poems about her, but not this one. Thus, inheritance, lineage and history are appropriated as masculine concerns.
Several critics have identified one of the sources of the poem as Yeats’ ‘Prayer for My Daughter’ June 1919 and there are a number of quotations from the earlier poem in Muldoon’s text. The device, like the title which alludes to W.H. Auden’s ‘September, 1939’, is used to place the poem within poetic tradition. (I am not sure what the ‘sign of the black horse’ refers to, apart from what seems to be a private connection mentioned in another poem, ‘As’, in the same volume:
and the rough-shod give way to the Black Horse avern
Similarly,the poem’s task is to place the child in his tradition, by teasing out the Irish and Jewish threads of his American heritage.
In the phantasmagorical drama which arises out of an actual flood caused by Hurricane Floyd near Canal Road in New Jersey which is where Muldoon actually lives, the Irish parts are mainly nameless extras, identified as the ‘ground-breaking Irish navvies’ or ‘Irish schlemiels’ who laboured to build the canals and much of the rest of the physical infrastructure of the US. The name parts are given to patriarchal Jewish figures from the child’s mother’s family, the most significant being ‘great-grandfather, Sam Korelitz’ ,who is presented as an authority figure and custodian of Judaic practice, and ‘Uncle Arnie’ who is portrayed as a bootlegger, semi-criminal figure but well-connected, particularly to members of the demi-monde. These two are Jewish American male stereotypes. The women who appear in the poem seem much less central or confined to traditional roles: Helene Hanff, ‘Jean’s distant cousin’ spends the whole poem preparing the ‘white-lipped peccary’ for cooking by rubbing ‘a mix of cumin and baby talc’ into it. The peccary is simultaneously an impure food source according to Jewish rules as it has a cloven foot but also a miscarried or aborted foetus whose loss is an undercurrent throughout the poem: ‘the kebab-babby we had lost a year or two back’, which then becomes a metonym for all the lost ‘child-kin’ of the Holocaust. It seems that the pain of this loss can only be confronted through outrageous images and associations. “The red stain on the lint/ that covered whatever it was in the autoclave’ is associated with the crematorium at Auschwitz and the astrakhan hats worn by both Helene and Fanny Brice, the other main female character, hats said to be made from the wool of still-born lambs. Fanny Brice is the stage name for Fania Borach who was the model and star of stage and screen on whom the Barbara Streisand film, Funny Girl, was based. In the poem she is a friend of Uncle Arnie and also, for some reason, of Bulwer Lytton. Helene Hanff is famous for the book, 84 Charing Cross Road, a connection which allows Muldoon to circle back to the British connection with references to the threat of the pram in the hall which he attributes to ‘whichever Waugh’ although the phrase comes from Cyril Connolly.
Uncle Arnie, Arnold Rothstein, is into:
Racketeering, maybe. Extortion, maybe.
But not throwing games.
Despite this unconvincing denial, Uncle Arnie represents the unacceptable face of Jewish America, but he is nevertheless active, a doer, a successful entrepreneur. Sam Korelitz, on the other hand, berates the poet-father for his failure to offer his son a bris (the Jewish rite of circumcision) and cites scripture in his support. The ‘Goy from the Moy’ seems to quiver between these two powerful figures, overwhelmed by the tragedy, weight and multifariousness of his child’s Jewish inheritance. The history on the other side of the family is equally problematic, derived from the Irish immigrants who fled repression and hunger in their own country to labour in America, to become the victims of Uncle Arnie who was ‘running rum/ to those thousands of Irish schlemiels/ who dug the canal.’ Different images create an equation between these Irish masses and the victims of the Holocaust: ‘as the creel carters piled more and more clay, hay, hair, spectacle frames, Willkommen’; ‘that little gore, that little gusset/of ground into which my cast/of thousands of Irish schmucks have been herded, Halt.’ The poem reels with the inability to absorb the flood of history and the reference to Yeats becomes bitterly ironic:
Asher sleeps on, attended by two teddy bears
his soul less likely than ever to recover radical innocence and learn at last
that it is self-delighting.
This is a tremendous poem in which Muldoon addresses the agonies of the Holocaust in a way which is non-exploitative because he allows himself to be the vehicle through which the poem is created. Muldoon’s frequently expressed view that the poem works through the poet, as if the poet is some sort of Shelleyan Aeolian harp, may seem startlingly Romantic in a writer so strongly associated with post-modernism, but it does allow an escape from self-consciousness which enables the saying of the unsayable. The concern with masculinity is of secondary importance, although it is clearly present as the father broods
with a dink and a dink
and a dinky dick
over the failure to circumcise his son or provide him with a mohel.
The third poem I wish to consider is ‘The Humours of Hakone’ from Maggot, 2010. The voice in the poem is first person, but this time the persona is of a detective or forensic scientist in Japan. I think the central premise of the poem, or metaphor, is the equivalence between a dead girl and a failed poem, or even the failure of THE POEM. Along the way (the ‘corduroy over a quag’)
there are references to St Columbanus of Bobbio, lepers and various Japanese places and cultural customs, not to mention the humours (wet or dry) and puzzling allusions to a ‘great world at which this one may merely hint’ or ‘that great world of which this one is a sulphur cast.’ This may chime with Muldoon’s rather tentative argument in The End of the Poem:
‘I want to go further than [Robert] Lowell and propose (1) that the “poetic translation” is itself an “original poem,” (2) that the “original poem” on which it’s based is itself a “translation” and (3) that both “original poem” and “poetic translation” are manifestations of some ur-poem. I shy away from this last idea, of course, since it smacks of a Platonism I can’t quite stomach.’
-Chapter 8, L’Anguilla /The Eel, Eugenio Montale
The poem, made up of nine sections, each with five alternately rhymed quatrains is full of ideas which the reader, and maybe even the writer, can’t quite stomach or digest, including some fairly revolting images of decay and decomposition consonant with the collection as a whole. Be that as it may, I want to focus on the presentation of the ‘male gaze’ in the poem and how it dissects and dehumanises the female. She appears first as a stomach, then as a clog, a hair and shreds of panty-hose. The poem continues with references to a breast implant, an eyeball, belly, foot-soles, ‘fancy-freighted skull’, purge fluids. This process of dissecting a woman in a poem is very traditional, going back through Marvell and Donne to the courtly love blazon. However, in this poem the gaze is acknowledged and foregrounded by its presentation as the forensic and analytical stare of the scientist, yet nevertheless a scientist who is passionately involved with the object of his study. I have assumed the scientist speaker is male, partly because of the sometimes salacious tone of his comments: ‘By day four the skin would have peeled from her thigh like a fine –mesh stocking’ ; it is not clear if the voice is Japanese as sometimes the tone is that of an outsider, or even a tourist:
‘I’d read somewhere…’. It is also difficult to tell whether the girl is saintly or secular:
It was far too late to reconstruct the train station bento box
she bought at Kyoto-eki the night before the night she took her vows
and threw up in the hollyhocks.
Too late to figure out if the Tokugawa clan would refuse
a plainclothes escort
to a less than fully-fledged geisha.
Too late to insist that the body of a poem is no less sacred
than a temple with its banner gash
though both stink to high heaven.
‘Gash’ could be a cut or wound, but it is more obviously a disparaging reference to female genitalia usually employed by men. In this extract from Section VI, the girl is again identified with the poem and whether she is taking vows to become a nun or a geisha is deliberately obscured. Noticeable is the speaker’s repeated lament that it is ‘too late’: too late to recover the girl or her body or to find out the truth about her death; too late to recover the poem or reconstruct it from its fragments. Perhaps both ‘stink to high heaven’ because of their corporeality, their mundane transitoriness, identified in the poem by Columbanus, cited earlier, De Transitu Mundi.
The idea of the female as the poem, rather than the muse or inspiration for the poem is unusual. It allows Muldoon to set up a set of correspondences which are no less successful for being forced. At the opening of the poem, the dead woman/poem is ‘decomposing around what looked like an arrow./Her stomach contents ink.’ Later the arrow becomes a quill, synonym for pen, so that it requires limited acquaintance with Freudian symbolism to recognise who bears responsibility for the crime and how the writing of the poem is equated to a sexual act. Similarly, ink becomes a noxious fluid, purge fluids given off by a decomposing body or the poisonous toxin secreted by the globefish or fugu. If the girl is the globefish, whom the speaker has failed to find, it explains why he is absolved from his abjuration of his ‘right to eat globefish later that night in Santora’. This suggests, in a confusion of double negatives, that he is now free to dice with death again, but why? Perhaps to continue the tricky task of negotiating a pathway over the quag, a metaphor for writing poetry. At the end of the poem, all the speaker has left, or all he has found as forensic evidence is ‘a single maggot puparium’, the shell of a maggot egg. Is this also a figure of the purikuru or sticker-photo booth image which again the speaker has only known at second-hand, ‘the impression left on a sticker-photo-booth wall’? And is this again an image of the ‘ur-poem’ the poet has failed to achieve, but succeeded along the way in creating a different poem.
In the same chapter of The End of the Poem, Muldoon explores the idea that the poet gives himself over to the poem,
‘going with and, insofar as it’s possible, going against the flow. The “helmsman” is acutely aware of having given himself over to a force of nature which is likely, from moment to moment, to overwhelm him. However much he might imagine himself to be its master, he is at the mercy of that force…
…all texts might properly be thought of as “translations of translations of translations” often to an extent which is shocking to the conscious mind of the writer who has given him- or herself over to the unconscious.’
This is clearly an intimation of Muldoon’s writing process, a giving of himself over to the force of the poem, which he controls through formal constraints. It is hardly surprising therefore that the reader finds it so difficult to work out what the poem is doing or what it is about. However, as far as I understand Muldoon, this does not allow us to relapse into the comfortable notion that any interpretation by the reader can be equally valid. Muldoon demands recognition of authorial intention and it would seem that the best close reading and the best translation will apprehend the ur-poem of which the poet him- or herself is in pursuit. As I have remarked before, this seems to be a view closer to the Romantics than to post-modernism, despite the poet’s eclectic and fragmented style.
In the past, Muldoon was met with baffled incomprehension and often accused of being merely whimsical. More recently, critics have continued to acknowledge his unfathomability, but recognised the seriousness of his project. For Muldoon, the confusion and difficulty of his verse reflects the difficulties and contradictions of the world we live in. This is apparent in his presentation of aspects of gender and masculinity in the poems discussed above. By allowing his poems to include a range of gender images and stereotypes but then manipulating and challenging them, he creates a radical uncertainty typical of his work and appropriate to our times.
 Despite Muldoon’s apparent insistence that there is a ‘correct’ reading for the poem, intended by the author, I have read at least three not entirely contradictory interpretations of this one.
 I’m not quite sure if this means the girl is half-French half-Belfast, or if she is fully French and it is the male who is from Belfast.
 It could be argued that the UDR man’s wife is an alternative version of Penelope who has grown fed up of waiting for Odysseus and has married one of the suitors.
 He is referred to as ‘the son of the King of the Moy’ but there may be an allusion to local hero , John King, who was lost in the Australian outback and almost starved to death, an image of the theme of hunger and food which recurs through the poem and reflects the struggle of the hunger strikers in the Maze. It is also an allusion to a traditional song or poem, collected by Myles Dillon.
The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, Chapter 38
 Whether or not, there is a link to Lloyd’s Bank, or banking generally, or even goldsmiths, I have no idea. The sign of a black horse was used in medieval times as a street sign to indicate a goldsmith’s shop, and goldsmiths were the predecessors of bankers.
The End of the Poem (2006) is Muldoon’s title for his Oxford lectures. The title is a multilayered pun, but as in this poem, poetry seems to be alive and kicking.
 Sulphur casts are used to conserve images made in snow. This is one of a number of forensic practices mentioned in the poem.
 Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Donne’s Elegy to His Mistress Going to Bed
When I went to a launch reading of the anthology, Wretched Strangers, I was a little puzzled by the title. This is a collection, mainly of poetry, of work, mainly in English, by people who have been displaced or who live away from their countries of origin. However, when I looked at the readers, all very estimable poets, I saw people who were far from wretched, mostly with established or budding academic careers, winners of awards, fellowships, university posts. As one of the editors, J.T. Welsch, explained, and I read later in the introduction, the title comes from a speech, apparently by Shakespeare, in which Thomas More makes a plea on behalf of immigrants persecuted by xenophobic Londoners who felt the foreigners threatened their jobs.
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
The opportune relevance of this speech is irresistible and if you follow the link you will see that Sir Ian McKellan has not resisted it. Nevertheless, I still feel that it misrepresents the nature and quality of this anthology. Although many of the poems draw attention to the plight of those forced to flee their own countries, the overall effect of the collection is to open a window to the world, particularly necessary in these isolationist Brexit days. The book was not originally intended as a reaction to Brexit, but it is impossible to read it now except in that shadow. This writing, which includes contributions from established poets such as Sujata Bhatt, Mimi Khalvati and George Szirtes as well as rising stars like Mary Jean Chan and many others I have never encountered before, ranges from fairly traditional forms to experimental avant-garde work veering between boundary breaking and self-indulgence. Some of the poems are slight, some are unreadable; yet they force the reader to engage with a literary and political reality which fizzes with life and which represents the fluidity and uncertainty of a world beyond national borders.
Borders, in fact, are a recurrent image in the anthology, whether as barriers or in the process of breaking down. For example, Draft 112: Verge by Rachel Blau Duplessis explores the concept and effects of border in a poem which references the borders dividing Cyprus and Palestine but can be recognised as relevant to anywhere such lines have been drawn:
Everyone, it seemed, had realigned,
Maps had scratches, ridges, edges
that they never before,
it seemed, had.
In the right –hand margin of the poem there is a column of significant single words in italics. Close to this extract appear the words borders, atrocities, crossed.
Astrid Alben also explores the idea of border in a dream poem where the imagery of flight and migration becomes perhaps the transition between life and death:
Across the border one foot easily
Forgets the other but that’s neither here nor there.
It isn’t one thing or the other.
The border is just a line.
The notion that borders are a paper-based colonial imposition emerges also in Seni Seneviratne’s poem:
tell us nothing about the lies
of the land or how straight lines
came to be drawn in places where
once, contours marked out borders
so that the land and its people curved
into each other like sleeping lovers.
The challenge of crossing a border carries with it the theme of transition, of moving from one place to the other. This anthology opens our minds to the possibility of transition, of being between places, ‘in transit’ as a mode of being. This is explored wittily in the (I think) slightly tongue-in-cheek essay, The Right to be transplace by Lisa Samuels. She criticises the commonly held assumption that everyone must be from somewhere, and argues that ‘transplace’ people should be thought of as ‘being from movement’: ‘transplace as movement states that when movement happens between one body/place and another, the movement itself is a real condition of being.’ Thus it resists, among other things, nation-state identification. This idea of being ‘transplace’ which must be recognisable to many of the writers in this book, is the very opposite of Theresa May’s assertion that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere. Moreover, the anthology reveals how this ‘transplace’ identity has become increasingly common. Sometimes, a person may have such a mixed heritage that none seems particularly theirs; sometimes, a person may have travelled around so much in childhood and/ or adulthood that nowhere ever seems to be ‘home’, the place of origin; sometimes, people may have been driven out of their place of origin with no hope of ever returning but with no particular feeling of belonging to the place where they have ended up. These writers are showing us identity in flux, but it is not a flux which should terrify us, or which we should regard as some kind of tabula rasa on which we must impose ‘British values’, as the Government has tried to do in its education and citizenship policies. To be ‘from movement’, ‘transplace’, is a 21st century reality and an enriching reality which is the antithesis of Brexit. However, the recognition of such a ‘transplace’ identity should not be considered to undermine the value of local culture and sense of place, but rather to combat the destructive force of nationalism.
Moreover, many of the pieces in the anthology reflect loss of place, the impossibility of return. One of the most horrific contributions comes from Zimbabwean writer, Ethel Maqeda. In a prose piece she describes how a young woman attempts to return home:
I had wanted her [her mother] to say ‘I’m glad you came, my child’ and to erase the last ten years into nothing and make it 1997 again. Instead, she just wrenched the small bag I was carrying, almost ripping my shoulder out of its socket, turned away and marched back into the hut. ‘You have to leave tomorrow, first thing,’ she said, not looking at me.
Not only does this demonstrate the Heraclitean impossibility of return, the story goes on to show how reality can become too unbearable to inhabit as it recounts the protagonist’s experience of rape by guerrilla militia men:
They roughly pull me back on the ground. One pulls my legs. The other holds my arms. There is more cheering and clapping. I hear roars of laughter. I hear the screams.
This time I am going to do something about it. I decide and start to walk away. I have a sudden urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother. I will pick nhedzi, tsuketsuke and even the rare, sweet chikunguwo. I have the time to search for it despite the thickening fog and the approaching darkness. I hear whimpering after they leave to bring the next woman but I keep walking. The urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother grows stronger still.
In other poems, ‘being from movement’ seems to bring about an existence which is hallucinatory and unstable. This is Ana Seferovic:
this city is everywhere
its borders fading into
A City is a Persistent Desire for a Another City
and here is Ariadne Radi Cor, somewhere between London and Venice:
‘Don’t fear my love”
Should I get shot on Oxford Street, I wouldn’t die
Because this isn’t my life.
I’m still living in a Burano glass globe
I twirl and the snow falls.
This condition of betweenness is often represented through language, as in this title and in Mary Jean Chan’s poem Hybridity which, if you don’t know Chinese, reads like a Cloze exercise where the blanks are filled by Chinese characters. As I have no idea how to type Chinese characters, I have used blanks where they would appear. This poem is overtly post-colonial political, hardly surprising considering the history of Britain and Hong Kong:
Think it was by chance that I learnt
your ____ _____ for decades, until I knew
it better than the ____ ___ I dream in?
The use of direct address as well as the veiled accusation of cultural spoliation draws attention to the role of colonialism in bringing ‘trans-place’ people into existence. Other poems are also overtly political in how they present ‘betweenness’. Luna Montenegro’s poem this country is/is not your home is an imaginative representation of a confrontation between a xenophobe/racist and a child on a 355 bus. This poem comes with reading instructions and is clearly intended for performance like another overtly political poem, David Herd’s Prologue. In fact, Herd’s piece declares repeatedly that it is not a poem:
This prologue is not a poem
It is an act of welcome
It was written as an introduction to Refugee Tales, a project in which the writer was co-organiser. The first two lines declare it to be performative, as if it were a counter weight to the type of behaviour shown in Luna Montenegro’s poem. Herd weaves in many quotations from Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as he details the experiences of refugees arriving in the UK. The ambition of this poem is to create an atmosphere of openness and welcome:
And why we walk is
To make a spectacle of welcome
This political carnival
Across the weald of Kent
Listening to stories
People urgently need said.
The reference to The Canterbury Tales serves to remind us that people have always been in motion for whatever reason, that the English of Chaucer was created from a multiplicity of languages and that Chaucer, himself a traveller, was influenced by the literatures and culture of the rest of Europe. Agnes Lehoczky suggests, with many qualifications, that language can become a kind of home, polis or place to belong:
I suspect that perhaps bringing together perspectives, bodies of poetries, and encounters to name, document or take notes of our own collective emotion, triggered by such quests for a home or polis (collective inasmuch as it is a place or a country we have never been before, with country signifying less a specific ‘place’ than a zone of time, thought, desire or experience) does ease one’s misery inasmuch it is a collective misery.
Her essay or notes, Endnotes: On Paper Citizens, Disobedient Poetries and Other Agoras is illuminating but very academic. It reminds me of the image of a locked door which I used to find at the end of Andrew Laing Fairy Books which was intended to discourage child readers from looking at the scholarly notes. There is a slight whiff of academic cleverness from the whole collection which can become another boundary that needs to be breached. Other things which bothered me slightly, especially at the beginning, were the number of contributions and the decision to order the collection alphabetically rather than thematically. The size of the collection is quite daunting especially when the print is fairly small. There are also a number of proof-reading errors which become significant in the context of so many different linguistic backgrounds and the experimental nature of much of the writing. We need to know that the inclusion or omission of punctuation or transgressions of conventional English grammar are deliberate. I did, however, change my mind about the order feeling that the decision to go with the random and egalitarian alphabetic listing was the most satisfying. I remember The Rattle Bag:
We hope that our decision to impose an arbitrary alphabetical order allows the contents to discover themselves as we ourselves gradually discovered them –each poem full of its singular appeal, transmitting its own signals, taking its chances in a big, voluble world.
There is much in this anthology that I don’t understand and quite a lot that I don’t particularly like, but it is doing what poetry needs to do –dragging me out of my comfort zone. It is exciting, challenging, politically relevant and against the current. It should be read.
 From the Introduction to The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, 1982.