Versions of Masculinity 2: Paul Muldoon

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

hotwaterbottle

Here is the poem:

 

How often have I carried our family word

for the hot water bottle

to a strange bed,

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

in an old sock

to his childhood settle.

I have taken it into so many lovely heads

or laid it between us like a sword.

 

An hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.[1]

 

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

 

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

 

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

Once they collect his smithereens

he doesn’t quite add up.

They’re shy of a foot, and a calf

which stems

from his left shoe like a severely

pruned-back shrub.

 

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

Gallogly, or Gollogly,

otherwise known as Golightly,

otherwise known as Ingoldsby,

otherwise known as English…

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

Her grand-mère was once asked to tea

by Gertrude Stein,

and her grand-mère and Gertrude

and Alice B., chère Alice B.

with her hook-nose

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

 

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

 

She was standing at the picture window

with a glass of water

and a Valium

when she caught your man

in the reflection of her face.

He came

shaping past the milking parlour

as if he owned the place.

Such is the integrity

of their quarrel

that she immediately took down

the legally held shotgun

and let him have both barrels.

She had wanted only to clear the air.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

I was awestruck to see in Asher’s glabrous

face a slew of interlopers

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

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

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

would shortly pin a star of yellow felt.

 

 

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

 

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

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

that still rings true

despite that ‘T’ being missing from its sign

where a little nook gives way to a little nookie

when I give way to you.[6])

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

 

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

 

Uncle Arnie, Arnold Rothstein, is into:

Racketeering, maybe. Extortion, maybe.

Maybe vice.

 

But not throwing games.

 

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

 

Asher sleeps on, attended by two teddy bears

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

that it is self-delighting.

 

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

with a dink and a dink

and a dinky dick

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

and threw up in the hollyhocks.

Too late to figure out if the Tokugawa clan would refuse

 

a plainclothes escort

to a less than fully-fledged geisha.

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

than a temple with its banner gash

 

though both stink to high heaven.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

p.201

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Unavowed Engagement: Paul Muldoon as War Poet

Warman, April

2009 | Oxford University Press

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

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

 

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

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

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

In the shadow of Brexit:’Wretched Strangers’ edited byAgnes Lehoczky and J.T.Welsch

wretched strangers

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,


Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes


Would feed on one another….

http://theshakespeareblog.com/2015/09/shakespeare-sir-thomas-more-and-the-immigrants/

 

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,

criss-crossed

double-crossed.

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.

 

Remember

B says

The border is just a line.

 

The notion that borders are a paper-based colonial imposition emerges also in Seni Seneviratne’s poem:

Some maps

            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

endless now

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.

L’italie L’ondon

 

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:

 

Did you

 

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

People circulating

Making music

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.[1]

 

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.

 

 

 

           

 

 

[1] From the Introduction to The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, 1982.

 

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets 4

Little Gidding

I remember being electrified in my O-level year at school when I first read ‘The Hollow Men’. From then on, Eliot’s work became one of the most important presences in my experience of poetry. A few years later, at university, I recognised that this hero had feet of clay and that his political views, particularly as expounded in his critical and cultural writings, were miles apart from mine.

Nevertheless, his work remains a significant element in my mental landscape and I hear his lines in my head, as I hear lines from Shakespeare or from the Bible. (They often are lines from Shakespeare or the Bible, or at least from somewhere else.) I think this is because I recognise his struggle through poetry to deal with modernity and to find ‘right action’, and I think that the poetry still works in the 21st century and for post-modernity because it matches the emotions and confusions we are still experiencing. For example, the passage from Section V of The Dry Salvages with its reference to ‘sortilege’ and ‘tea-leaves’ seems as relevant to the disoriented muddle we are living through after the Brexit vote as effectively as it did the trials of World War II.

 

It is this feeling that Eliot still matters that sent me back to The Four Quartets, not in a spirit of adulation but in an attempt to engage with a work I had read many times but never really got to grips with. Reading it now, I am struck by Eliot’s wrestling with himself and with language and form, and by his compulsion to bring structure, resolution and conformity to a set of poems developed from Burnt Norton, which was originally intended as a single independent long poem. This struggle with form and the wilful drive towards resolution is very evident in Little Gidding and the strain is often apparent, particularly where beautiful, quasi-mystical imagery is employed to paper over the cracks. I find the serenity of tone in the last section beguiling but unconvincing as it asserts a conclusion not actually achieved:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

The predominance of ‘and’, rather than stronger, more syntactically definite conjunctions, reinforces the tone of inevitability and relaxation into acceptance. Moreover, the identity of the fire and the rose, for me, now, is too neat and formulaic

little gidding

However, the beginning of the quartet is more interesting. It has its basis in beautifully observed physical detail of winter: ‘the brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches’, ‘the hedgerow/Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom/Of snow’. The exactitude of the images allows the poet to move towards traditional conceits and paradoxes of ice and fire, darkness and light and to explore once again ideas about time. The metaphor of snow as ‘blossom’ introduces the possibility of two kinds of time, that related to earth and the seasons and metaphorical or spiritual time which is ‘not in time’s covenant’ and which has its ultimate target as ‘the unimaginable/Zero summer.’ Different readers offer different interpretations for this striking phrase; perhaps it is intended to suggest a perfection which is not achievable in earthly life. The ‘unimaginable/Zero’ carries with it connotations of absolute zero which bring us back to the contrasts of heat and cold.

 

The poet pursues ‘the intersection of the timeless moment’ , situating it in Little Gidding, the place where Nicholas Farrar founded a religious community in 1625 and where Charles 1, the ‘broken king’, is said to have prayed after his defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. In the second two paragraphs of Section I, he addresses ‘you’, presumably the reader, but also himself. The tone is instructional, even severe:

You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

The purpose is not intellectual, but devotional; the reward will be communication from the dead whose messages are redeemed through prayer. Eliot refers to the dead being ‘tongued with fire’ a reference to Pentecost, but Pentecostal fire in this quartet is fused with the Purgatorial fire which purifies the soul.

 

Section II opens, as in the other quartets, with a formal poem in three stanzas. This one seems to be an apocalyptic annihilation of all four elements preceding a Dantesque vision set in the London of the Blitz where Eliot was a fire warden. Once again, this passage gains its power from its foundation in the actual. Eliot writes of the ‘dark dove with the flickering tongue’, a terrifying depiction of a bomber plane, which gains extra force through the ironic negative image of a symbol usually used to represent the Holy Ghost, particularly when conferring the Pentecostal gift of tongues. On patrol amidst the fires of the bombed city, the poet, mimicking the figure of Dante, speaks in the first person to a figure he encounters, ‘a familiar compound ghost’; originally, this was to have been Brunetto Latini, Dante’s dead teacher whom he met in the Inferno, but Eliot revised the poem to make it a much more general representation of the voices of the dead. Also, it may make more sense to place this passage in Purgatory as the poet is concerned with purgatorial fire as the path to redemption. Although there is dialogue between ‘I and ‘you’ and most of the passage is in the voice of the poet’s interlocutor, Eliot recognises the fictional nature of this device when he writes:

So I assumed a double part, and cried

And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! Are you here?’

Although we were not. I was still the same,

Knowing myself yet being someone other –

And he a face still forming;

 

Thus the dead do communicate, but only through the voice of the attentive living. The division of the poetic self into two voices reflects Eliot’s predilection for drama or ventriloquism, so noticeable in The Waste Land, but also a force here. It is a device which energises the verse and pays tribute to Dante, but it is also a way of escaping the personal, of donning a mask or masks. The spirit visitant delivers an unpalatable message in a tone of savage irony:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age

To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.

In addition to physical decay as ‘body and soul begin to fall asunder, and the painful sense of powerlessness to affect events, the listener is told to expect the ‘rending pain of re-enactment/Of all that you have done and been’. The displacement of this threat to the voice of the ‘familiar compound ghost’ cannot disguise the emotion of guilt which emanates from these lines.

 

There is one point in Section 2 where the ghost’s address moves from second person into the plural first person, when he identifies a shared purpose:

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us

To purify the dialect of the tribe

It is the ghost who includes the poet in the tradition of the creators and preservers of language and connects this custody over language with the tasks of ‘aftersight and foresight’. This returns the poet to his theme of time as well suggesting a prophetic function to his work. However, the ghost moves fairly quickly away from the consideration of ‘the tribe’ to the future facing the poet, or ‘the exasperated spirit’ which can only be ‘ by that refining fire’. The soul must suffer the fires of purgatory, but must at the same time ‘move in measure, like a dancer’. This image may refer us back to the dancers in East Coker , whose movements, apparently unwittingly reflect divine order; it may be a suggestion that the tortured suffering of the soul in purgatory is beautiful because it leads to redemption and because it is part of the Divine Plan. I cannot help being reminded, when I read this quartet, of the fantasy children’s novel, The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, which employs the images of fire and roses to purify and cleanse animals and humans. MacDonald was a Scottish Victorian clergyman whose stories were enormously popular and influential.

white dead nettle  purpureum02-17-2015 stinging-nettle-pic-1024x768

Section III opens with a botanical image which is very difficult to construe: ‘indifference’ is said to be ‘between two lives –unflowering, between/The live and the dead nettle.’ Richard Mabey, whose Flora Britannica is a comprehensive and definitive guide to British plants, notes in his entry on the stinging nettle, that it ‘marks the sites of many deserted villages, Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire for instance…’. This seems like a sly nod to Eliot but may indicate again that the poet’s imagery stems from observed detail in a specific setting. Stinging nettles do flower, but not so obviously as the dead-nettle which, whether red or white, has a similar leaf. It is unclear whether Eliot is distinguishing these benign plants from the stinging nettle or whether he is making a distinction between different stages in growth of the stinging nettle. The poet is saying something very complicated in this passage but the simile or analogy does not quite work, perhaps because it is not quite sure if it is poetry (simile) or philosophical exposition (analogy). As so often, Eliot reverts to paradox: ‘History may be servitude,/History may be freedom.’ This assertion is followed by an instruction, ‘See’, as if Eliot seeks almost to drag the reader with him into a moment of vision:

See, now they vanish,

The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Reflections on history and the dead are followed by a reiteration of the words of Julian of Norwich which indicate the conclusion towards which the poem is moving:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

By the purification of the motive

In the ground of our beseeching.

 

The ‘ground of our beseeching’ is how Christ described himself to Julian.

julian of norwich

Section IV is made up of two formally condensed and strictly patterned stanzas which bring together Pentecostal and Purgatorial fire and identify pain and terror with Love. The theology is clear but the lines are too neat. Eliot insists on the path to God through suffering, offering us the fires of Hell or the fires of Purgatory

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

Some readers may reject the ‘we’ of these final two lines. The poet is pushing the work to a conclusion, trying to tie up all the ends in the ‘knot’ of the last two lines of Section V.

 

A lot of this final section is a recapitulation of the earlier quartets and begins again with what seems like, but is not, an excursus on the composition of poetry.

 

(where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new.

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Although the prescription sounds slightly prissy, this pursuit of the moving pattern of dance in language reflects Eliot’s apprehension of the divine order as dance and measure, a dance the poet can partake of through language. The dominant pronoun of the last section is ‘we’ and while the reader may not always go along with this inclusiveness, we recognise that the conclusion of the poem posits communion and commonality.

In this series of posts, I have attempted to engage with Eliot’s poem as a lay person, neither academic nor theologian. I recognise that many of the complexities of the poet’s thought have escaped me as have a multiplicity of allusions in a work which is dense with echoes from ‘familiar compound ghosts’.  Nevertheless, I have been rewarded by working towards my own reading of The Four Quartets, which I continue to treasure even as I reject much of what it says.

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets 3

The Dry Salvages

the dry salvages

The Dry Salvages is the quartet devoted to water. The first section is dominated by two aquatic entities: the river and the sea. The river is surely the Mississippi, the river which dominated Eliot’s childhood in St Louis, while the sea is the Atlantic where it meets the coast of Massachusetts:

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite

Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses

Its hints of earlier and other creation:

The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;

This is the most American of the four quartets and has a continental scale and range which is found again in poets as diverse as Charles Olson and Jorie Graham.   While time is a central theme for the entire work, here the emphasis is on historical and geological time:

The tolling bell

Measures time, not our time, rung by the unhurried

Ground swell…

 

The sea-time described here may not be our time, but it is nevertheless time ‘from the beginning’ , not before the beginning; there is no ‘eternal note’, as in the looser language of Matthew Arnold.

 

The ‘I’ which is the first word of the poem confirms the autobiographical context as does the reference to the ‘nursery bedroom’. However, as the poem moves to the relationship between human time and evolutionary time, the poet switches to the plural first person speaking of ‘us’ and ‘our’. ‘The river is within us, the sea is all about us’ suggests that we are both part of nature and apart from nature; the reference to ‘our time’, human time allows him to identify with the ‘anxious worried women’ waiting for morning and the return of their men. The sea, on the other hand, with its ‘different voices’ becomes the sound of that other time, which swallows up and rolls past individual human times and histories. The view of history Eliot presents is extremely bleak. The quasi-sestina which begins section 2 imitates, with its repeated rhyme pattern and stanza form, the repetition of disasters and bad news. The poet asks ‘Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage’, signalling not only that there is no end but also that there is no purpose

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless

Or of an ocean not littered with wastage

Or of a future that is not liable

Like the past, to have no destination.

The ‘we’ indicates the universality of the experience, while the personal detestation of aging is slipped in without any pronouns in the third stanza: ‘failing powers… in a drifting boat with a slow leakage’. There is probably a term for the poetic device of evoking something by declaring its absence, a technique Eliot uses repeatedly: ‘wailing’ is ‘soundless’ and yet we hear it; flowers ‘drop their petals’ but remain ‘motionless’, yet we see the flowers as they wither. Eliot creates a powerful sense of the Atlantic and of the experience of those who go to sea, but at the same time we realise that this is all metaphorical, all a way of thinking: ‘We cannot think…’, ‘We have to think…’ In the fifth stanza, this thinking becomes an effort of will, an attempt to interpret some kind of meaningfulness and certainty which quickly collapses as what we have to think gives way to what we cannot help thinking: the fishermen are ‘making a trip that will be unpayable/ For a haul that will not bear examination.’ Three out of the six stanzas end on the word ‘annunciation’. Only the last of these is capitalised to refer obviously to the Christian concept. Even then it is proffered as the hardly credible, scarcely imaginable hope that can be an answer to death: ‘Only the hardly, barely prayable/Prayer of the one Annunciation.’

 

As the poem proceeds, the gloomy and non-progressive view of history becomes even clearer. Having acknowledged evolution in section 1, here he dismisses it as being in any way connected to progress: ‘development [is] a partial fallacy/Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution’. In Burnt Norton we were told that ‘human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.’ Here it seems that reality is agony, repeated and permanent, the agony the poet recognises in others: ‘We experience this better/In the agony of others, nearly experienced,/ Involving ourselves, than in our own.’ As so often, the plural ‘we’ seems to hide the rawness of personal experience while at the same time aspiring to reach the audience through shared experience. ‘People change, and smile: but the agony abides’. ‘Time is no healer’, we are told in Section III. Rather time preserves or memorialises what it has destroyed and, at this point, without God or faith, nothing is redeemed:

Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows, and chicken coops,

The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.

And the ragged rock in the restless waters,

Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;

On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,

In navigable weather it is always a seamark

To lay a course by: but in the sombre season

Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

 

Despite the prevailing gloom, we cannot help but be carried along by the energy and zest of Eliot’s language, propelled by a strongly marked rhythm underpinned by repeated alliteration. To set against the misery, Eliot offers ‘moments of happiness…’sudden illumination’. These moments are to be seen as qualitatively different from ordinary forms of contentment: ‘the sense of well-being/Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,/Or even a very good dinner’; however, as soon as the poet analyses these moments, whose meaning he implies he missed at the time, he recognises that they have nothing to do with happiness. The suggestion is that they are visionary, intimations of the divine, little annunciations. It is interesting, however, how many of the discarded examples of happiness seem themselves to partake of the divine, or to be connected to our ideas of the divine. ‘Affection, security and a ‘very good dinner’ all suggest love and communion, while ‘fruition’ and ‘fulfilment’ suggest a form of grace where in some way perfection is achieved. [1]

Sadly, we never feel that Eliot is totally convinced by his moments of vision, be they ‘shafts of sunlight’ or ‘bird voices’ or whatever. All the way through his work, I have the impression that he has chosen Christian faith as the least worst option and that he has the greatest of difficulty in believing it. A happy-clappy Evangelical he is not; his faith is effortful, a matter of will and he doggedly pursues his Christian duty through his dramatic works and the struggle with himself in these poems. Thus, when he refers to Krishna, at the beginning of Section III and again towards the end, where he quotes and adapts the words of the Bhagavad-Gita

“on whatever sphere of being

The mind of a man may be intent

At the time of death” – that is the one action

(And the time of death is every moment)

Which shall fructify in the lives of others:

he is asserting the importance of right action, regardless of consequence. The statement that ‘the time of death is every moment’ does not only remind us that we cannot foresee the hour of our deaths and therefore we should live every moment as if it were our last, but also returns to Eliot’s insistence throughout the quartets that time past and time future do not exist, that we have only the present moment. This message is reinforced by the long passage reflecting the words of Heraclitus and his philosophy of change, although Eliot substitutes a train journey for the river of Heraclitus:

You are not the same people who left that station

Or who will arrive at any terminus

After the opening apparently casual allusion to Krishna which is in first person, the whole of this section seems to be addressed to the audience, to you, the other: “You shall not think’ , ‘ You are not those who saw the harbour/ Receding, or those who will disembark’, ’You can receive this’. However, we recognise that in fact these injunctions are not the words of the poet but are in the voice of the sea (or God or time) – ‘a voice descanting (though not to the ear,/The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language’. Indeed, lines 149 -165 are inside quotation marks. Once more, Eliot manages to have his cake and eat it. This voice is displaced from him and he becomes as much part of the listening and instructed audience as we do -‘Fare forward, travellers!’, but at the same time we are told that this is not a real voice, or at least it is not heard and it is not in any language, so it must be a voice which is inner to the persona of the poem. So we seem again to be witnessing the poet’s dialogue with himself.

 

Section IV is very short and, rather unexpectedly, is a petition to the Virgin Mary. The shrine standing ‘on the promontory’ is apparently the Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles, an imposing church with the figure of the Virgin on top presumably looking out to sea. I wonder if Eliot also had in mind the Our Lady of Good Voyage Church built by the Portuguese fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As a boy, Eliot spent his summer holidays in Gloucester where he was a keen sailor. The figure of the Virgin in that Church is shown cradling a fishing trawler instead of the infant Jesus and figures significantly in The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. It is a startling coincidence that this fairly minor city should figure so importantly in the lives of two major but extraordinarily different American poets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Notre Dame de La Garde, Marseilles

lady of good voyage  Our Lady of Good Voyage, Gloucester, Mass.

 

Section V, however, brings us back to London in wartime with an opening passage which satirises but also reflects the deep uncertainties and anxieties of the time. He chooses words from the semantic field of forecasting the future such as ‘haruspicate’, ‘scry’, ‘sortilege’ and refers to various means of foretelling the future in language which is often Latinate or unfamiliar, giving an impression which comes close to contempt: ‘all these are usual/Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press’. However, the air of superiority collapses in the second part of the section when the poet places himself not with the saints, much though he might to aspire to their access to ‘The point of intersection of the timeless/ With time’ but with ‘most of us’ for whom ‘there is only the unattended/ Moment, the moment in and out of time’. Exemplifying these moments, he returns to some old favourites, the ‘shaft of sunlight’ , the ‘wild thyme’ and introduces some new ones including the experience of listening to music: ‘music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts.’ These moments hint at, or are instances of, Incarnation. ‘The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.’ Eliot certainly had a theological understanding of the idea of the concept of incarnation, but that is not what he means; he is speaking of the possibility of an apprehension of Incarnation which is not simply rational, but emotional and spiritual. For someone who, like me, stands to one side of Christianity, it is difficult to see why these moments are not a sufficient joy in themselves; apart from the music, they are all drawn from nature and in that sense they are all incarnate, all material, but all inspire joy and wonder as they are perceived. The example of music is different because it is a human creation with which the writer has found himself totally in sympathy or communion and by the use of ‘you’ –‘you are the music’ has indicated that we, ‘most of us’ will also have had this experience, suggesting the possibility of communication or indeed full communion between humans. For Eliot, though, these moments must do more than transcend the individual, they must give access to the divine, and, specifically, to the Christian Revelation.

 

Eliot gives himself a hard time; he imposes a life of ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.’ However, this hair shirt view of life seems to have answered a psychological need. Yet as he works through his argument he returns to the idea of ‘right action’, the right action to be aimed for in every moment. He concludes in language mostly very simple, very far from the wordiness of the beginning. “Most of us’ …

…are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying;

We, content at the last

If our temporal reversion nourish

(Not too far from the yew-tree)

The life of significant soil.

This commitment to perseverance, particularly in the wartime context, is in itself noble. The identification with a wider society, ‘we’, ‘most of us’ and the recognition of the place of the human in the natural cycle as well as the specific mention of the yew tree[2] with its connotations of the graveyard but also as an indigenous English tree creates an earthly and human resolution to this quartet, perhaps in spite of the writer’s intentions.

[1] Dinah Livingstone discusses the meaning of grace in its theological context and as a human attribute in her forthcoming article, ‘Grace’ which will appear in Sofia 104 (Christmas 2018)She quotes Thomas Aquinas: ‘grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.’

[2] Nevertheless, the yew tree has associations with Christianity from its earliest days in Britain and aside from its longevity and ability to regenerate which gave it symbolic Christian values, it was even associated with the Cross in some folk belief, This verse from a ballad in the oral tradition is quoted by Tim Partridge:

And they went down into yonder town

and sat in the Gallery,

And there they saw sweet Jesus Christ

Hanging from a big Yew tree.

“Yew Trees and their Inter-relationship with Man” – a BSc dissertation in Rural Resources Development (1993) By Tim Partridge, https://www.ancient-yew.org/mi.php/trees-in-mythology/79

 

Personal Pronouns and Audience in The Four Quartets

1. Burnt Norton

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

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

Below, the boarhound and the boar

Pursue their pattern as before

But reconciled among the stars

 

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

 

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

 

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

Love is itself unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless and undesiring

Except in the aspect of time

Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

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

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

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

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

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

[3] BBC 4, 9th October 2018

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

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

The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Her little ones ran on the fields,

The Lamb of God among them seen

And fair Jerusalem his bride,

Among the little meadows green.

Pancras & Kentish Town repose

Among her golden pillars high,

Among her golden arches which

Shine upon the starry sky.

 

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

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

prunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorie Graham: finding my way through her poetry

This will be the first of four posts in which I attempt to come to some understanding of the poetry of Jorie Graham, a poet whose work is entirely new to me. Versions of these posts will also appear on the website of Oxford Stanza II.

jorie graham

Jorie Graham 1

Jorie Graham is a poet I had barely heard of until I came across her most recent collection Fast in Blackwell’s bookshop. I discovered that she was an eminent American poet who has succeeded to the as Roylston Chair of Rhetoric at Harvard, formerly occupied by Seamus Heaney. However, reactions to her poetry are mixed. Apparently , Heaney did not care for it and she has been described as one of the most overrated writers in America, although these criticisms have the familiar ring of objections to the new, the difficult or the avant-garde.

 

Graham has said: “I do not see my work as difficult, or even experimental. I think it is pretty straightforward – although, as with any artist’s work, you might need to be acquainted with their body of work to have learned their vocabulary, as it were.”[1] My first glance at Fast had shown me that I needed to get to grips with the poet’s ‘vocabulary’. Nevertheless, she has written a lot and I had to ask myself was my trawl through two volumes of selected poems worthwhile. The back-cover blurb for the first of these, The Dream of the Unified Field, speaks of “ a poetry which brings into tense equilibrium science, philosophy and history. Graham’s is a new kind of narrative, offering open forms which are full of possibility.” This seemed to be a language that I recognised from my study of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Moreover the title has a similar epic reach; unified field theory according to my lay understanding is the physicist’s as yet unrealised search for a theory of everything, a sort of ur-theory which will accommodate all the different and often contradictory theories about the forces and nature of our universe. This desire to get everything in, philosophy, history, science through the medium of one consciousness is reminiscent of Olson’s Maximus Poems, a project so grandiose that, at least in my opinion, it eventually collapsed and fell apart. Einstein failed in the pursuit of a unified field and Graham’s title acknowledges that it is unrealisable. However, there is a constant tension in the poems between the acknowledgement of the separateness and disjunction of different aspects of the phenomenal world and the subjective desire to make connections.

 

Many commentators have written about this tension between ideal and real, subjectivity and the existence of an external natural world evident in her poetry. Dan Chiasson argues that “Poets tend to graduate from the particular to the abstract, moving from observable reality toward its clandestine laws: from daffodils to solitude, from waves and minutes to Time. Graham works in the opposite direction, moving down a steep slope from abstraction to concrete experience.”[2] This comment might be equally applicable to the trajectory of Graham’s work as a whole. Her more recent collections, for example in Never and Sea Change are increasingly concerned with existential challenge, not only for humanity but for the planet, which takes the theme of subjectivity in a new direction.

 

The earlier poems are filled with sharply observed natural detail, but characteristically these are included in a discourse which operates at many different levels, switching from the tangible to the philosophical and emotional in a way which is like a development from the insights of mixing up sense impressions through synaesthesia or an extension of metaphor to a point where it is impossible to distinguish vehicle and tenor. For example, in “ Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]” she writes “ a wind moving round all sides, a wind shaking the points of view out like the last bits of rain….” This part of the poem is evidently set in Eden before the Fall and we are uncertain whether this is a real or metaphorical wind; it becomes metaphorical as it shakes points of view but we are brought back to the real by the simile which seems to refer back to the previous section, 6: “Every now and then a quick rain for no reason”. Nevertheless, the use of a concrete simile seems to imply that the wind’s actions are not natural, but ideal. ‘Self-Portrait’ is a title which appears in several other poems in the selection from The End of Beauty, including ‘Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne’ and Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay’ [Penelope at her Loom]’. It would seem that the poet is using core myths to explore her own psyche or states of consciousness, although at the same time she is, perhaps inevitably, reinterpreting the myths she has chosen to engage with. Thus, the Adam and Eve poem is a feminist representation of the ‘fortunate fall’.[3] Adam and Eve are represented as becalmed in the Garden of Eden: “But what else could they have done, these two, sick of beginning.” It is only through error, through abandoning perfection, that there can be development or a way forward: “liking that error, a feeling of being capable because an error”; “that error, …that filial form, that break from perfection” enables the new, “ the stranger [who] appears in the clearing.”

 

Jorie Graham has said in another interview: “I am not the only, or best, reader of my own work, let alone new work, and I don’t want to oversimplify it.”[4] This step–aside from the personal “I” is typical of Graham’s project, but it means that the reader, and especially the new reader, must strike out on their own paths across the writer’s field, hoping that the ground will prove solid beneath them. I propose to look at a couple of poems from the earlier collections, namely “The Dream of the Unified Field” from Materialism and “End” from PLACE.; I will go on to consider two poems from the most recent collection, Fast.

 

We may guess that “The Dream of the Unified Field” is perceived to be significant by the poet as it is also the title of her first major Selected Poems. It gains its power and its effect through a progressive form which moves through a repetitions or overlayering of words and images which set off synaptic but not necessarily enduring connections. The poem has been much discussed and I have leant on previous analysis to create my own reading.. There are seven sections in the poem, the first of which is set in a ‘here and now’ where the poet appears to be recording an experience as it occurs, taking a leotard to her daughter in the middle of a snowstorm. This device, which is typical of Graham’s work, already distorts reality as the poem is always written retrospectively. This is acknowledged through the use of the past tense, ‘I watched’, “I looked up’ but set against tenseless verbs, ‘Praise this. Praise that. Flash a glance up’, which might or might not be imperatives as well as an abundance of present participles, ‘embellishing’, ‘flourishing’, ‘going’. The grammatical uneasiness becomes an overt exploration of time towards the end of the section:

In-

scribed with the present. As if it really

were possible to exist, and exist, never to be pulled back

in, given and given never to be received. The music

of the footfalls doesn’t stop, doesn’t

mean. Here are your things, I said.

snowstorm

Not only does this effectively evoke the ‘out-of-time’ sensation of walking through a snowstorm, it also creates the sense of moments continuing to exist in the space-time continuum, while the individual subject is returned to her own reality by an end point and a definitive past tense: “I said.” Although at one level this poem presents a mother-daughter relationship, reflected in the frequent first and second person pronouns: “black lycra leotard balled into my pocket,/ your tiny dream in it, my left hand on it or in it/ to keep/warm”, already the poet is reflecting on her own relationship to her environment: “Me in it/and yet/ moving easily through it”. She is both part of the natural world and the observing subjective eye/I.

 

The second section continues the narrative as the speaker begins the journey home, when she encounters a mass of starlings gathering in a tree. Again, the poet uses past tense but makes the moment seem immediate through the deictic use of ‘these’ in “these days” and through recurrent present participles: “bothering, lifting, bothering”, “sprouting”, “filling”; in the second part of the section, the verbs move into the present tense as the moment is uncoupled from its place in the narrative timeline: “the leaves of this wet black tree at the heart of the storm-shiny-/river through limbs, back onto the limbs, scatter, blow away, scatter, recollect”. I take “river” to be used as a verb here, intensifying a ramifying metaphor where the starlings have become the leaves of the bare oak tree. The vividly realized description of physical experience segues into a metaphysical exploration, ”Foliage of the word’s waiting.” The poet returns to the actual but imputes significance to it: “Of blackness redisappearing into/downdrafts of snow. Of indifference. Of indifferent/reappearings.” The poet suggests that nature is indifferent to her, though “indifferent’ also reinforces the notion of sameness and repetition. As if intimidated by this “indifference” the poet moves from description and reflection back to direct address, the dialogue of her daughter:

I think of you

Back of me now in the bright house of

your friend

 

This refuge in the human underlines that the phenomena of the actual world are apart from our subjective experience and that we cannot properly account for them.   The last line of the section seems to represent the dilemma or dialectic that Graham is engaged in:

 

I watch the head explode then recollect, explode, recollect.

 

She simultaneously acknowledges that the phenomenal world cannot be contained in the subjective experience while creating metaphors and associations which are inevitably subjective. The violence of the fragmenting explosion is set against the ambiguity of “recollect’ which may equal “come together again”, or which may be a reference to the operation of subjective memory.

 

Sections 3 & 4 concern a crow which is individuated amongst the starlings: “One syllable – one – inside the screeching and the skittering”. The crow is seen as an entity, its singularity emphasized by the repetition of “one” and the adjective “single” yet it is also recognised as belonging to the pattern of repetition. Then through associative jumps which I don’t quite follow the voice of the crow becomes a voice in the head which may be the head of the tree, the head of the crow or the head of the poet, but is also the poet’s pocket, empty of leotard but full of her hand and fingers “terrified inhabitants.” She watches her daughter dance although the daughter cannot see her through the dark window, an image which in section 5 will become Madame Sakaroff’s mirror. Why the terror? Is it no more than the parent’s fear for the future of the child, born out of greater knowledge of the present and the past? In section 4 the poet details the crow, explores its variety of blackness, attempting to describe it objectively, even scientifically “the chest in which an eye-sized heart now beats” but is forced again to recognise how artifice imposes on reality: “ one ink-streak on the early evening snowlit scene – / See the gesture of the painter”.

 

Madame Sakaroff was apparently Graham’s dancing teacher and apparently a Russian émigrée but it is not entirely clear how much of this scene is fictional, how much autobiographical. It centres on the confrontation between the dancer and her image in the mirror as witnessed by the unseen eight-year-old poet and presented through the gothic imagery of childhood terror, reinforced by the memory of the crow in the previous section:

 

I watched the two of them,

black and black, in the gigantic light,

glide at each other, heads raised, necks long –

me wanting to cry out – where were the others? – wasn’t it late?

the two of her like huge black hands –

 

The reflection of the dancer’s face and mirror face are “like a meaning” but at the end of the section, the writer declares there is “no signal in it, no information”. Again the poet struggles with the human desire to read meaning into experience, made especially acute by the wish to protect a child:

Child,/

what should I know

to save you that I do not know, hands on this windowpane? –

 

 

If Section 4 was black, Section 6 returns to white, the white of sleep, storm, snow, cloud, immensity. The opposition between inside and outside continues:

“The storm: I close my eyes and,/ standing in it, try to make it mine. An inside/thing.” Perhaps wrongly, I think the poet is referring to the writing of the poem “gripping down to form” which becomes “ a splinter colony, new world, possession”, the imposition of form on observed phenomena being compared to the imposition of government and order on a colonised territory. The poet suddenly visualises herself and her location in the dimensions of space and history, “ my body, my tiny piece of/ the century” in a way which seems distinctively American, “vast/white sleeping geography” and connects to the final section which seems to be taken from the records of a conquistador (identified by other commentators with Columbus). The break between the final two sections comes mid sentence at the beginning of what appears to be a long quotation of a ship making landfall and contact with American Indian women, “one who was young and pretty” and may be an echo or a type of the poet’s daughter. The quotation is also set in a snowstorm and it also contains the sense of contiguous worlds, as well as referring to the economic basis of conquest: “there was/gold/ in that land” –

 

This section reminds me of the John Smith passages in Olson’s Maximus Poems and I am not quite sure why it is there, except that it develops the notion of colonisation and possession in the previous section and that it develops Graham’s preoccupation with the ‘other’ which or who we cannot know, but nevertheless seek to possess and control “The Admiral ordered her clothed”.

The presiding theme in this poem as in much of Graham’s work is the impossibility of reconciling subjective experience with the independent reality of the external world, which she paradoxically acknowledges through a blatantly autobiographical, first-person approach.

 

 

 

[1] Interview with Sharon Blackie. Earthlines, August ,2012

[2] Dan Chiasson, “Beautiful Lies: The Poetry of Jorie Graham” New Yorker,March 30th, 2015

[3] See Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 12

[4] Interview with Sarah Howe, PRAC CRIT

Edition Eight – January 2017