A Great Alteration in My Sensations

I was again visiting my mother in Bath Royal United Hospital at the weekend. She has fallen and broken her right hip at home but is making a good recovery so far (see earlier blog). The hip operation has caused thankfully few problems or pains. She was showing off the scar which looks like something Victor Frankenstein might have managed – a raw purple wound from waist to half way down her thigh it seemed. A closed up gash, sewn together at intervals like the mouthful of grinning teeth in a Halloween pumpkin.

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It really did make me think of Mary Shelley’s novel but in particular of one of my favourite passages in which the newly created Creature stumbles into the world, his senses ill-tuned, untuned, his mind void of language or any categorising facility. He sees a blur which only slowly becomes a recognizable world. And to be brutally honest, it was also in thinking of my father that this passage came to mind. I have written a little about his growing forgetfulness in this blog (see earlier blog). With his wife’s absence for almost 3 weeks now, his confusion becomes ever more obvious.

How strange that two related phenomena have such opposite effects. I love Shelley’s version of the first few years of a child’s perception because of its freshness and original immediacy of observation, to a great extent freed from the categories of language and preconception. But once we have grown used to such enabling props and supporting structures, the loss of them yields not freshness at all but absolute panic, fear, anger and bewilderment. I wondered whether playing over Shelley’s words (in edited form) and then systematically reversing them would evoke something of both states at either end of a life. The result, in the form of a specular poem, is given below, and I hope is an equivocal sort of success perhaps  . . .

  

A Great Alteration in My Sensations

after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

 

It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being

all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct

I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time

and it was, indeed, a long time

between the operations of my various senses

light pressed upon my nerves so that I was obliged to shut my eyes

darkness then came over me and troubled me, but hardly had I felt this when

light poured in upon me

a great alteration in my sensations

dark and opaque bodies surrounded me

the light became more and more oppressive

I sought a place

I felt cold also and half frightened

I knew and could distinguish nothing

I gazed with a kind of wonder

innumerable sounds

on all sides various scents

a pleasant sound, which often saluted my ears, proceeded from the throats of little winged animals

the boundaries of the radiant roof of light which canopied me

the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me

when I was oppressed by cold I found a fire

I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again

how strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects

 

how strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects

I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again

when I was oppressed by cold I found a fire

the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me

the boundaries of the radiant roof of light which canopied me

a pleasant sound, which often saluted my ears, proceeded from the throats of little winged animals

on all sides various scents

innumerable sounds

I gazed with a kind of wonder

I knew and could distinguish nothing

I felt cold also and half frightened

I sought a place

the light became more and more oppressive

dark and opaque bodies surrounded me

a great alteration in my sensations

light poured in upon me

darkness then came over me and troubled me but hardly had I felt this when

light pressed upon my nerves so that I was obliged to shut my eyes

between the operations of my various senses

and it was, indeed, a long time

I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time

all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct

it is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being

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The Month of the Drowned Dog: Ted Hughes’ ‘November’

Though November has just transformed itself into December here, still Ted Hughes’ sodden, rain-soaked poem from Lupercal (1960) comes to mind as I watch the TV footage of floods in the North-West of England. I’ve never thought enough attention has been given to the role of the narrator in this poem. It’s one of the selected poems studied on the Cambridge International Examinations’ A-level. Students are asked to discuss one specific poem in detail or two poems from a more thematic perspective. What follows is a loose version of the first type of question (apologies for some loss of formatting in the poem itself). NB. For another close discussion of an early Ted Hughes poem – ‘Meeting’ – click here.

The month of the drowned dog. After long rain the land
Was sodden as the bed of an ancient lake,
Treed with iron and bird less. In the sunk lane
The ditch – a seep silent all summer –

Made brown foam with a big voice: that, and my boots
On the lane’s scrubbed stones, in the gulleyed leaves
Against the hill’s hanging silence;

Hughes opens the poem with a bewildering mix of images of motion and stasis. Flooding must account for the “drowned dog” (more literal than figurative or colloquial here) and the absence of a verb emphasizes the stillness of death, the burden of the month, the real entrance way to winter. The land is so sodden as to have suffered inversion to become “the bed of an ancient lake”. It’s an alien landscape – trees (as so often in Hughes) are now composed of industrial “iron” and inevitably “birdless”. Yet in contrast to such stillness, the ditch water (which in summer is a soothing sibilant “seep silent”) is now possessed of a “big voice” composed of brown foam and beside it, the narrator’s boots scrape along the lane. These two sounds are all that can be arrayed against “the hill’s hanging silence” and the contrasts of movement and stillness, noise and silence compose the greater world of this poem.

Mist silvering the droplets on the bare thorns

Slower than the change of daylight.
In a let of the ditch a tramp was bundled asleep;
Face tucked down into beard, drawn in
Under his hair like a hedgehog’s. I took him for dead,

But his stillness separated from the death
From the rotting grass and the ground. The wind chilled,
And a fresh comfort tightened through him,
Each hand stuffed deeper into the other sleeve.

His ankles, bound with sacking and hairy band,
Rubbed each other, resettling.

It’s this greater world that the narrator fears and the tramp entrusts himself to. To the narrator, the tramp sleeping in a let of the ditch, is comparable to an animal, a “hedgehog”. In the narrator’s world view, this is no compliment and indeed in the next phrase (line 12), he considers the tramp “dead”. To give the narrator credit he perceives his mistake and next sees the tramp’s vitality, though (in a reversal of our preconceptions) it is his “stillness” rather than animation that “separate[s him] from the death” all around. The animation of the “wind” evokes a corresponding movement in the tramp: “a fresh comfort tightened through him, / Each hand stuffed deeper into the other sleeve”. There is paradox here too in that the tramp’s movements are intended both to shield him from the elements yet also settle him more comfortably among them.

The wind hardened;
A puff shook a glittering from the thorns,
And again the rains’ dragging grey columns

Smudged the farms. In a moment
The fields were jumping and smoking; the thorns
Quivered, riddled with the glassy verticals.

Lines 18 – 23 seem to represent a moment in which the narrator looks away from the tramp. What he sees is a world he might once have been familiar with dissolving before his very eyes. This is partly a result of optical effects brought on by atmospheric conditions, but Hughes’s language systematically destabilizes the solid and still (the farms, the fields, the thorns) and solidifies the diffuse and shapeless (the wind, the rains). Such a renovation of perception is comparable to the stunned narrator at the end of Hughes’ story ‘The Rain Horse’ (from Wodwo, 1967) who, after the terrifying encounter with the horse, sits “staring at the ground, as if some important part had been cut out of his brain”. The poem’s narrator reports in line 24 that he “stayed on under the welding cold” and the colloquialism of the first two words here implies that any sane person might have retired to shelter; whatever transformative process Hughes is representing in the encounter between narrator and tramp is already under way. The narrator seems to surprise himself by staying as if he were watching the actions of another.

I stayed on under the welding cold

Watching the tramp’s face glisten and the drops on his coat
Flash and darken. I thought what strong trust
Slept in him- as the trickling furrows slept,
And the thorn-roots in their grip on darkness;

And the buried stones taking the weight of winter;
The hill where the hare crouched with clenched teeth.

In fact he stays to continue to watch the tramp becoming part of the landscape: “I thought what strong trust / Slept in him”. All the critics you’ll read agree this is the key idea; but as Keith Sagar asks: in what exactly does “the tramp trust?” The image of sleep links this trust also to the fields’ “furrows”, to “thorn-roots”, to “buried stones” and to the hill itself where the hare is “crouched with clenched teeth”. Is this merely a trust in a viable future? A sort of wishful thinking? A consolation? Perhaps it is if the furrows imply next year’s crop, the roots suggest the new year’s growth, the stones will be unearthed to build new walls, the hare will survive to unclench in the Spring. There is something Romantically attractive about this reading and we might remember Wordsworth’s encounter with the Leech Gatherer who also seems part of the landscape (“as a huge stone”). Wordsworth is equally uncertain of the man’s status: “not all alive nor dead, / Nor all asleep”. As their conversation continues, the Leech Gatherer’s voice becomes indistinguishable from “a stream” and in some low level psychic derangement Wordsworth imagines the Gatherer as “Like one whom I had met with in a dream; / Or like a man from some far region sent, / To give me human strength, by apt admonishment”.

Rain plastered the land till it was shining
Like hammered lead, and I ran, and in the rushing wood

Shuttered by a black oak leaned.
The keeper’s gibbet had owls and hawks
By the neck, weasels, a gang of cats, crows:
Some stiff, weightless, twirled like dry bark bits

In the drilling rain. Some still had their shape,
Had their pride with it; hung, chins on chests,
Patient to outwait these worst days that beat
Their crowns bare and dripped from their feet.

But Hughes’ tramp is far less consoling, far more frightening. In the concluding stanzas, the narrator runs away – on the face of it to shelter from the rain though earlier this had not troubled him. He runs into a wood in something of a panic as the breathless, long-delayed verb here suggests: “in the rushing wood // Shuttered by a black oak leaned”. It’s what the narrator encounters in the wood that provides the final piece of the jigsaw for this poem. He confronts death in the shape of a gamekeeper’s gibbet and it is really death in which the tramp trusts, as much as he trusts himself to life. This is the point of the poem’s many transformational oppositions, of stasis and movement, solid and diffuse, sleep and waking, dead and alive. As the “flash and darken” of raindrops on his coat suggest, the tramp’s instinct is to entrust himself to both life and death without making any clear, rational distinction between the two.

I think the narrator has preserved this distinction and perhaps does so even at the end. Of the bodies on the gibbet, some are fresh, others are like “dry bark bits” being twirled in the rainfall. The narrator seems inclined to focus on those retaining their living “shape”, those who he says retain “their pride”, those who seem (like Wordsworth’s Gatherer) to teach patience, and endurance against “these worst days”. But the incontrovertible fact is they are all dead and death is lesson 101 in Hughes’ work as can be seen in Crow’s ‘Examination at the Womb-Door’ (Crow, 1970). It is the denial of death’s reality that leads to delusion and a false consciousness of our own position in the world. The narrator of ‘November’ still hankers after the human scale of virtues such as patience and Wordsworthian endurance. It is the tramp – ironically rather forgotten by the end of the poem, lying foetal in the let of the ditch, still huddled against the month’s elements – who entrusts himself to the risks of exposure and death, but in doing so may hear (what the sheltered narrator will never hear) the reply that Crow gives to the final question he faces:

But who is stronger than death?

                                         Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow.

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Let Me Murmur a Few Spells for My Mother

I have spent these last several days in Wiltshire as my mother has had a fall and broken her hip. Dad is not able to look after himself around the house so we are trying to patch things as best we can for a couple of weeks. She says her feet got muddled as she turned from the microwave and went down hard on one side. The ambulance (from Bath, in these days of centralised medical care) took an appalling 2 hours to reach her. She seems pretty well considering she’s in her 90s but now the ward has been closed to all visitors due to an outbreak of Novovirus in the hospital. I have an atavistic sense that muttering a few spells about her, in trying to describe her in younger more vigorous days might help her recovery (and it sort of helps me too).

*

I am lifted then strapped into the child’s seat on the rear carrier of Mum’s bike. I remember the simple folding mechanism: the two sides inwards, then the back-rest folding forwards on top. She opens it and settles me in while the bike leans in the Passage (the covered pathway along one side of the house, outside the back door). Then I am wheeled out, up the front garden path, a little bump up the step onto the public path, now right and out to the main road. My limbs vividly remember the sense of her scooting for a few feet, gathering speed, then a more violent wobble to either side as she kicks off, begins to balance, threading her right leg through the bike frame onto the peddle. Steadying now, speeding up, the sense of her wide hips beginning to roll there before my face as we start to bowl along, lean into the left hand corner into Horse Road, heading for Trowbridge.

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Perhaps we go to the old market hall. I have the sensation of progressing through it, through the high wrought-iron ribbed roof of the echoing hall with stalls of all kinds around. Then Mum and I emerge into sunlight out of the rear door which overlooks the old cattle market which is suddenly right there, spread out beneath us. There are steps down to the lower level; all the sounds of animals and people welling up from below. It seems a huge and dizzying prospect, an image of a far wider and utterly unmanageable society to a child unused to such things.

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I am moving or more likely being moved in a push chair or (again) on the back seat of Mum’s bike, in through the rectory gate that stands at the corner of Church Street, across from the main gate of St James’ Parish Church. Little more than a sensation of broad lawns with a grand old house beyond them and in the foreground a gathering of people – women mostly, with their high voices – around trestle tables at some sort of sale, perhaps cakes. Perhaps it has been organised by the Young Wives group that meets in the strange narrow gothic building – accessed by a worn flight of steps – across the road.

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The Young Wives is more of a play group really. We go there each week and probably I have been there today but now I am being taken to the rectory, though whether we are going to buy or to help behind the stalls I don’t know. This is where the poet George Crabbe lived the last 18 years of his life as parish vicar, inspired to write whilst sitting under the mulberry tree in these rectory grounds. In one of the town’s earlier, spasmodic efforts at self-harm, the building was summarily demolished in 1964, only a year or two after this memory of the broad lawns of Crabbe’s old house.

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There is a photograph of her around the same time. We must have walked across the main road, down the lane to Oatley’s farm and then on to where the Kennet and Avon canal crosses the flat landscape. Dad has carried a deck chair or perhaps two and set it down, rakishly on the lowest rung for his wife who reclines in her white blouse and flowered skirt. A grassy field stretches into the distance – the shape of a cow, the field edged by darker trees, a brick wall and the whitewashed gable end of a house.

*

The sky is white so there is really no distinction between the upper part of the picture and the thick white border of the print. I am on her lap. Her right hand is at my back, her left reaching towards me as I seem to be twisting away to look at something out of view. Her gaze is fixed on me, mine is fixed elsewhere. Perhaps Andrew is running too far off. Or a bee is buzzing too close in what must be the summer heat. My 1960s children’s top seems the same pure white as hers but in the instant of the shutter falling all my energies are directed beyond the invisible white frame.

Me and Mum

There is knocking at the back door and Mum moves hurriedly, perhaps glancing a moment into the mirror on her way to open it. A figure blocks the light, wearing a brown overall or a working coat of some kind, over his right arm a huge wicker basket. Over his other shoulder, a worn leather money bag is slung. In the basket are loaves and rolls of all sorts. On a different day, a small grocer’s van is pulling up, its rear doors open and the smell of earthy potatoes spills out to where I stand, knuckles pressed to Mum’s skirt. Onions are like dusky suns, cabbages dripping with moisture and in the winter there are brussel sprouts, mushrooms still wrapped in the cold dark in which they grew. Other afternoons, a honking from the main road and the same flurry from Mum which – in hindsight – has something of a woman preparing to meet a lover about it. The callers are always men, punctuating her long days at home with the children, bringing gossip, simple treats, decisions to be made and a little flirting, merely oiling the wheels of commerce.

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Tuesday it’s the Co-op van stopping right outside our house. A folding step or two up into the back of the van, a high counter flap, an array of colours I can barely see. This must also have been the van that brought the pink paraffin for the living-room heater that clanked resonantly when moved and emitted a harsh warmth and oily fumes when lit. More on my diminutive level, the paraffin for sale flowed from a large container into a can Mum brought with her from the outhouse – a pink ribbon twisting and glinting like pop, its acrid smell the only sign of its poisonous combustibility.

*

Her calm rooted in humility – despite her evident brains and the few brief opportunities to exercise them. Her fear of upsetting the balance of a greater world. Her reluctance, as she will often express it while we are children, of ‘saying boo to a goose’. Shy certainly – but her social background was always part of that baggage. Extraordinary that this worked in partnership with his restive nature. That in part due to the pressures of disappointed expectations. Yet also driven by his reluctance to remain too long in one place, to forestall unwelcome thoughts, questions that might slow the skittering across the surface of himself from one completed DIY job to the next.

*

And now without her presence and without the holdfast of his own memory he skitters more and more out of control. All families nurture and elaborate their own particular myths for the hard times ahead.

On Yves Bonnefoy’s ‘The Tombs of Ravenna’

In my last blog I was discussing Keats’ ideas about Negative Capability, provoked by a visit to Keats House and a discussion there about Negative Capability and psychoanalysis. The speakers were Dr Margot Waddell, a child psychotherapist from the Tavistock Clinic, and Dr Toni Griffiths, Trustee of the Keats Foundation. Waddell focused on the acknowledged influence of Keats’ idea on the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. In the aftermath of such major stimulation, the new issue of PN Review fell through the front door, containing John Naughton’s excellent new translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s 1953 essay, The Tombs of Ravenna. Keats and Bonnefoy melded in my mind and I was reading the latter in terms of the former as follows.

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Bonnefoy observes that though many philosophers have discussed death, few have bothered to ponder the places where we traditionally lodge the dead: sepulchers and tombs. The explanation he offers introduces a key term for both his prose and poetry from 1953 to the present day: the concept. The concept, as in conceptual thinking, is a human creation, abstracted from the plentitude, the flood and flux of actual, particular human experience. It is “always a means of escape” into a more fixed abode. The concept denies time and is “a profound rejection of death”. It denies the fact of death as our inevitable fate and constructs an illusory “dwelling place of logic”, a more alluring place of “permanence and identity”. Also, and crucially, the concept is “made of words”. Language is a similar construct, also seeming to promise the same sort of escape into the timeless, the unchanging. All forms of conceptual thinking seem to promise an achievable resolution but, Bonnefoy argues, “what is pondered is no longer the real object”. Instead, we contemplate “a dubious knowledge” though it may soothe our “initial anguish and trivialises that most somber melody with words that mask the reality of death”.

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So the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality” – which, of course, we can and readily do. One reason is that there are general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It “allows thinking” of a certain kind; it is linked with “the vast power of words”. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing “world of things”. Conceptual thinking is “systematized”, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its “flight” from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks “Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]”

Elevation of Tomb of Theodoric, Ravenna

In his letters, Keats calls this sort of non-particular thinking “preresolved” and he encountered it especially in his friend Charles Dilke: “a man who [. . . ] has made his Mind up about every thing” (303; page numbers in brackets are to John Keats: Selected Letters (Oxford World Classics, newly revised 2002)). Dilke is one of the “stubborn arguers” who never begin on any subject “they have not preresolved upon” (303). In contrast, Keats argues the only means of strengthening one’s intellect and identity “is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (303). Keats’ best formulation of this idea arises when several things “dovetailed” in his mind after a frustrating debate with Dilke. The quality that marks out the artist – Shakespeare especially, he says – is Negative Capability. He defines this as consisting of a passive openness to the full range of particular human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, preresolved ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (41/2). Bonnefoy’s insight is that rather than being an occasional tendency, this reaching after fact and reason (conceptual thinking rather than direct, particular, various experience) is our default status. We pass our days in a delusion of resolution and systematization because if we did not we might fry our brains with the overload. In his last ever letter, Keats laments “the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense)” as having become a great enemy to his “recovery” from his present state of illness. (369).

Yet the dully pragmatic ought not to be allowed to displace truth: Keats in better health argued this and Bonnefoy does the same in The Tombs of Ravenna. Bonnefoy’s essay for several paragraphs plays devil’s advocate, expecting to find “horror” in visiting the tombs of the dead, yet admitting that he felt “nothing but lightheartedness”. Initially, he locates this sense of up-lift in the ornamentation of the tombs, the “braids and interlacing [. . .] bows and foliage”. The essay playfully misleads its reader, suggesting that this effect of the ornamentation must be because it is comparable to the “concept” in denying the fact of death. Bonnefoy says he believed (note the past tense here) that ornamentation also abstracted towards the universal from the real, that the ornamentation presented “a closed world”, a world of “harmony”. Hence, just as the concept “seeks to establish truth without death [. . .] It seemed to me that ornamentation sought to build a dwelling place for us without death, and to have death no longer be here”. Visiting Ravenna, Bonnefoy felt lighthearted beside the tombs because its skilled and delicate ornamentation persuaded him of a world of permanence and consoling abstraction (beyond death, other than death).

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But the essay now turns dramatically to deny the validity of such consoling sophistry. It’s invalid because Bonnefoy had failed to understand “the power of stone”. His insight is that it is not the ornamentation which is at the root of his lightheartedness but the very material out of which it has been carved. Stone is “unfathomable, and this abyss of plentitude, this night covered by an eternal light, is for [Bonnefoy] the exemplary form of the real”. What he means is that stone deflects the grasp of conceptual thought; conceptual thought distances itself from stone as it does from death. Stone is or represents “the difficult real” and it is or represents the “dawn of the sensory world”. Stone’s resistance, its very hardness, gestures towards the fullness and particularity of human experience (what Keats calls a “Life of Sensations”), towards “everything that has flesh, heartbeat, immanence”. The stone leads us towards the “truth tenaciously present beneath the truth of the concept”. And it is the latter ‘truth’ that Bonnefoy declares he must “tenaciously contest”.

The battle in Bonnefoy’s thought between the sensory world and the concept reflects Existentialism’s concern for existence rather than essence. His faith in a world resistant to and actually prior to the draining, withering forces of the intellect, his resistance to post-modernism, are reasons why he strikes many as such an inspiring figure. He says: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us. In what can be felt and sensed”. In The Tombs of Ravenna he names this underlying truth, not as existence, but “presence”. It is “what is perceived by the senses” and it was a dimly stirring awareness of this truth that constituted the “lightheartedness” he felt before the tombs of Ravenna. Through an encounter with the stone from which the tombs are constructed, the resistance of both life and death to the abstracting processes of conceptual thought was made clear and the pleasure induced arose from his closer approach to a fundamental truth.

Just as for Keats, such ideas have consequences for art and poetry. For Bonnefoy, poetry seeks to represent the real particular truths of human experience, to convey what it can of the “dawn of the sensory world”, as opposed to succumbing to the lure of conceptual thinking, even that conceptual thinking inherent in the very fabric of language itself. This specific paradox is not explored very far in The Tombs of Ravenna in which he confines himself to declaring that we require “another language than that of the concept” to articulate such truths. He concludes poetry’s only concern is “for that spot in the world I can sense” and because it must, as far as possible, resist the lure of conceptual truths (truth without death) it follows that “poetry and journey are of the same substance, the same blood”.

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What such a poem might look like is suggested in those few moments when Bonnefoy himself resorts to “minute particulars”. On one such occasion, drawing from his own life, he tells us of “the cry of a bird I heard as a child, at the crest of a kind of cliff. I don’t know where that valley is anymore, or why or when I was there. The light is the light of dawn or of evening, it doesn’t matter. Through the brushwood runs the pungent smoke of a fire. The bird sang. Rather I should say, to be exact, it spoke, raucous on its misty height, for a moment of perfect solitude”.

Or as Keats put it in 1819, having listened to a nightingale singing on Hampstead Heath:

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

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Keats’ Negative Capability Clearly Explained

Recently I went with some teaching colleagues to Keats House, London, to hear a discussion about the poet’s idea of Negative Capability and psychoanalysis. The speakers were Dr Margot Waddell, a child psychotherapist from the Tavistock Clinic, and Dr Toni Griffiths, Trustee of the Keats Foundation. Both were fascinating, condensing whole areas of scholarly knowledge into accessible (if intense) 45 minute talks. Waddell focused on the acknowledged influence of Keats’ idea on the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.

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I’m not sure I feel very qualified to comment on that intriguing area without a good deal further reading, but a memorable phrase arose from it: Waddell argued that Bion saw the way that preconception obstructs perception and how this must adversely affect the therapist/patient relationship. Toni Griffiths’ elegant and economical discussion of Keats’ work (not merely the Negative Capability idea) set off several days of thought for me and has produced what I think will be two blog posts. Firstly, and perhaps largely for myself, I wanted to clarify my own understanding of Keats’ idea which has long meant a great deal to me. In my next post, I want to explain how those thoughts have “dove-tailed” (Keats’ own brilliant phrase in the Negative Capability letter to his brothers George and Tom, December 1817) with a recent translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s 1953 essay The Tombs of Ravenna (in the most recent PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015, pp. 58-63).

This second blog is now available to be read here.

What follows below is my assemblage of observations from Keats’ letters, hopefully into a clear argument, indeed, into Keats’ coherent theory of poetic achievement and practice (though Negative Capability of course eschews all such systematizing). Page numbers in brackets are to John Keats: Selected Letters (Oxford World Classics, newly revised 2002).

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In his 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats wishes for “a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” (36). Just a year later, in a letter to James Hessey, he clarifies this distinction, suggesting that poetry is not “matured by law & precept, but by sensation and watchfulness” (146). The language use Keats associates with law and precept is evidently a fixed, a “preresolved” (303) language. What he seeks inits place is rather a language sufficiently flexuous and responsive to “watchfulness”, to attentiveness and often, when Keats discusses this, there is a strong sense of passivity. Writing to Bailey, characteristically using the phrase that an idea had “pressed upon” him (35), he says it has “increased my Humility and capability of submission”. The idea he is referring to is that artists (“Men of Genius”) “have not any individuality, any determined character”, as opposed to “Men of Power” who are replete and resolved in “a proper self” (35).

Keats’ distrust of such self-confident preresolution famously emerges in the 1818 letter to John Reynolds, as his dislike and distrust of poetry that has a “palpable design” on us (58) and to Bailey he contrasts this with an alertness to the “holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination” (36/7). Preresolution pre-packages or pre-limits our emotional and spiritual life, whereas Keats is intent on welcoming “all”. This is what he means in the phrase “a Life of Sensations”, the latter word (rather misleadingly) encompassing both emotional and spiritual life as well as a full, open and alert response to the world about us. Such a full engagement with present experience is where we feel Imagination at work: Keats asks Bailey if he has not felt this in even such common experiences as listening to “an old Melody” and in the “elevation of the Moment” Keats declares we are “mounted on the Wings of Imagination” (37).

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This ideal of a radical openness to present experience and its passive acceptance, was further clarified for Keats in his later dealings with his friend, Charles Dilke, who was becoming something of a political bore (spouting Godwinian philosophy and politics), a man who had resolved upon most issues. Keats again links this state to identity: Dilke is “a man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made his Mind up about every thing” (303). Dilke is one of the “stubborn arguers” who never begin upon any subject “they have not preresolved upon” (303). In contrast, Keats argues the only means of strengthening one’s intellect and identity “is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (303).

Keats’ best formulation of this idea arises when several things “dovetailed” in his mind after another frustrating debate with Dilke. The quality that marks out the artist – Shakespeare especially, he says – is Negative Capability. He defines this as consisting of a passive openness to the full range of human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, preresolved ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (41/2). Once again, the best way to understand this is through Keats’ word “watchfulness”, an attentiveness to the true nature of experiences. In yet another foray into these ideas, he experiments with the word “disinterestedness”. This again implies the absence of a forceful or dominating self, full of preconceived ideas, words, precepts. Writing to his brother George, he says “complete disinterestedness” is a difficult goal. He admits he is himself “far” from it though personally and in social terms he believes it “ought to be carried to its highest pitch” (213).

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Such moments of disinterested perception occur in his observation of a sparrow picking about on the gravel (37). Approached with Negative Capability this mundane moment becomes something that “startles” and Keats says “I take part in its existince [sic]” (37). In this way, the poet is continually “filling some other body” (148). Such is the truth in a “Life of Sensations”, fuelled by Imagination, and one of the delights of a human life is that these happy moments will continue to be “repeated in a finer tone and so repeated”. The mind develops in this way through the repetition “of its own silent Working” (36). These refinements of the mind can occur only when experience is encountered openly, nakedly, even dangerously. To Reynolds, Keats wrote that to become fully “fit for this world”, with all its pains and hardship, a man would have to have “the fine point of his soul taken off” (39). But the poet or artist cannot afford to be so blunted by experiences but must remain radically open, even submissive to them. In the same letter to Reynolds, Keats quotes Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: “As the snail, whose tender horns being hit, / Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain”. Such a reaction of withdrawal must not be countenanced by the would be artist. To Richard Woodhouse, Keats wrote “What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [sic] Poet” (148). The work of the poet experiences “no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one” (148).

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Keats recognizes and accepts the personal, experiential conclusion of such thoughts as he records his own sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me” (148). Yet this absence of a resolved self (pushing and barging over-confidently outwards) leaves room for such delicate encounters as that with the sparrow and on other occasions, catching a glimpse “of a stoat or fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (213). Keats regards such escape from or evasion of this confinement to self as a form of purification: “there is an ellectric [sic] fire in human nature tending to purify” (213). He names Socrates and Jesus as perfections of this state, though “it is to be lamented that the history of the latter was written and revised by men interested in the pious fraud of Religion” (214). Of course, poetry must also aspire to this state and (as David Constantine has argued in his Bloodaxe lectures, A Living Language 2004)) Keats’ “gymnastics” in trying to broaden his native language-use (with its preresolutions) through a variety of foreign poetic experiments suggests he knew this well enough.

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By the spring of 1819, Keats was further developing his ideas about the role and nature of the self with the letter discussing life as a “vale of Soul-making”. He dismisses naïve ideas of the “perfectibility” (232) of mankind, even doubting the real progress made by any “seldom appearing Socrates”. He jokes that fish are as likely to “philosophise the ice away from the Rivers” as man is likely to arrive at a perfect state because “the nature of the world will not admit it” (232). However much happiness a man can experience, there will still be worldly elements that “prey upon his nature”. It is from this conviction that Keats proposes – in stark contrast to any Christian reading of man’s life –the idea that we are born as intelligences (“sparks of the divinity” or “atoms of perception” (232)). Then through a system of “Spirit-creation”, the intelligence develops into a Soul by refining an individuality or identity. This process is an educative one, fuelled by Negative Capability, in that the world is allowed to impact fully on the human heart which is led to “feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways” (233). Man can never achieve a state of perfection but as the world’s school of hard knocks is openly, vulnerably embraced so the process of individuation occurs via emotional experience. It follows that the human heart is “the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity” (233). As various as the lives of all individuals are, so “various become their souls” since individual emotional experiences are the “fortifiers or alterers” of our ever-developing nature (234).

So Keats’ ideal poet must possess Negative Capability to fully experience the world before him without preresolution. Armed with sufficient language skills to express the plenitude of these experiences, the poet’s role is then to re-present them to the reader in such a way that the poem itself contributes to the reader’s own developing emotional life. The work of art is therefore an important contribution to the reader’s own on-going process of Spirit creation or individuation (though this is only going to occur if the reader too is possessed of Negative Capability and is not someone who opens a book of poems with firmly preresolved expectations and ideas).

 

Review: Kate Bingham’s ‘Infragreen’ (2015)

There is a side to Kate Bingham’s poetry that might be (and has been) described as steady, calmly observed, dispassionate, elegant and formally accomplished. But I also see another writer – one largely unacknowledged in Seren’s blurb to Infragreen and the many critical comments arrayed in her praise – for whom the world is endlessly atilt, above lethal undertows, aching distances, the formal wizardry in large part a white-knuckled hanging on in fear of letting go. I don’t mean the latter in any silly psycho-babble way but in relation to that moment when the black gulfs open up under all we thought we knew.

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The more conventional part of this new book is the second section which seems to be visiting a landscape, a house and wooded countryside where the poet perhaps spent time in her youth. We are given reflections on early love, motherhood, the daughter becoming a mother herself, the English countryside, cattle, blackberrying. Most of these poems are obviously viewed through the perspective-glass of time past and time present and this somewhat disrupts Bingham’s more characteristic way of seeing things which is from within and without. One really marvelous poem here assumes the stance of the innocent younger girl encountering an apparently friendly farmer who keeps a bunch of string in his pocket to entertain the child while also using it to keep “his trousers up” (‘String’). It’s the humming, obsessive, ground-base of end-rhyming (string, string, twine, string, mine, strings, string, hem, string, hen, string, him) that evokes the worrying undertow of adult threat without anything explicit being said at all: “He didn’t need the string. / I tugged his arm and trotted after him”.

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It’s the clash of viewpoints or perspectives – using that unsuspecting, unreliable narrative voice – that makes this gem of a poem so disturbing to read. And it is the manipulation of viewpoints that yields such rich dividends elsewhere in Infragreen. On a domestic level this is played out in ‘Next Door’ where the tone is one of some surprise that the neighbours “experience life to the full”, the latter word forming on this occasion the repeating ground-base rhyme that imports irony into the seeming admiration for the “bang and slam” of their lives. But the collection is carefully opened with two brief, curiously abstract treatments of perspective. ‘Ultragreen’ takes the ‘above and beyond’ implication of the prefix to have the narrator observe a water drop “at the end of the garden”. Through a disturbing synaesthetic travelling, the drop instantaneously appears “in my brain”, indeed takes up the narrator’s perspective precisely as it “looks out / and sees what I have seen”. What was without is now within and something “like photosynthesis begins”. As a way of announcing this poet’s basic strategies and as a metaphor for (artistic) generative fecundity this is brilliant.

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This is followed by the six cryptic lines of ‘Infragreen’ itself. I take Ultra to suggest ‘out there’ so Infra is more ‘within’ and here suggests a more harmonious coincidence of perception in which “the sun and I see eye to eye”. However, this frail connection seems always in danger of being broken, “half letting go of itself / half hanging on” and though Bingham does write occasionally of the fertile experience of such connectedness (see below) she more often writes in the throes of its breakdown, of distance and the accompanying sense of loss of control. So the archetypal ‘feel-good’ season of ‘Spring’ seems to be remotely occurring rather than directly experienced, the sun (again) “rising above its various nationalities / and making things grow”. The romantic gift of flowers is undercut in a meditation on tulip harvesting in Holland and the deliberate wrenching cliché of “the international language of flowers”. Even the self, viewed from deep within, has to be recognized through experience and even then not reliably: “it is her face my face projects / and for a moment I look strange” (‘Look’).

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Seamus Heaney has a number of car poems in which the vehicle seems to be working benignly as a mode of travelling into wider experience (my favourite is ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level (1996): “As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”). For Bingham, in contrast, the narrator’s car is a place “I have to return to”, a place of (admittedly rather dull) security, “somewhere to look from” (‘Silt’). So much so that there are occasions, even when “London at night is a blaze of company”, when sitting alone in a stationery car, “seat belt on / and the engine running”, seems the best thing to do, or even the most that can be done. This is from ‘Between’, another of Bingham’s best poems in this collection, opening in the familiar only to end in another dizzying, atomised gulf.

The familiar surroundings, the container of the car, perhaps works in the way that Bingham’s use of rhyme can be seen to work, as providing a firm base from which the poem gazes outwards into the truly disturbing (Tony Harrison has said something similar about his use of metre and rhyme; it also makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Art of Losing’). So the lulling rhymes of ‘On Highgate Hill’ make the stabbing on a London bus more shocking than a more informal, realist treatment. The hypnotic, mono-rhymes of ‘At Night’ (night, white, light, sight, tight, right, bright and so on) evoke a drowsy, sleepiness of thought that ventures closer and closer to the edge. On this occasion, the vision is a brighter one of something (like Edward Thomas, Bingham enjoys the nonspecific of such a word), something “mine and right / and unconditional”.

The unconditional is an escape from the binaries of perspective. It is a fleeting moment – impossible really to be written about because impossible to be disciplined into language – when self and other, those distinctions we lean on and then find ourselves manacled to, vanish. Bingham approaches such moments cautiously, “my hairs on end, my senses trespassing”, occasionally there are successes: [I] look back from where I am at where I stood / and see the wood for the trees, the trees for the wood” (‘The Wood’). On other occasions the plenitude is more overwhelming like the fisherman faced with an overflowing fish farm: “tongue-torn, foul-hooked, half tame / when there was nothing more to take more came” (‘Cull’).

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But there are also a few untitled experimental pieces scattered through Infragreen that seem to be approaching this state of the unconditional in a lower-case, unpunctuated tentativeness. On page 24, a couple wake into a sleepy uncertainty in which bird song and growing buds seem one, as do thoughts and birds on a branch, the human and the natural, “one listening one listening to itself”. The final poem too, page 63, starts by undermining language (“call it what you like”) and proceeds to a car crossing Exmoor, an unaccountable stopping, the driver leaping out into a gale force wind, a slammed door offering a brief framing device, the observing voice trying to “make what I can” of it all, though within and without are bewilderingly blurred, “the other side of the force in the fence // of the foreground”.

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Kate Bingham’s skill in tacking the vessel of form against the breeze of colloquial language is certainly to be marveled at. There is great pleasure to be had from the rightness of her positioning of words on the page. But I also admire her willingness to gaze past what Seren’s blurb refers to as “necessarily” her subjects, “the familiar, the seen again, and the returned to”, to glimpse something far more terrifying and in this she reminds me less of Edward Thomas, less of Elizabeth Bishop, more of Robert Frost.

Review: Tamar Yoseloff’s New and Selected Poems (2015)

Last week, I went to the London launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new and selected poems, A Formula for Night, published by Seren. I have reviewed a couple of her earlier collections and she asked me to contribute a blurb to The City with Horns (Salt, 2011). We’ve known each other for many years and it has been interesting to see her work develop. What follows is a review of the new book, collaged together from new and old thoughts.

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Tamar Yoseloff’s first book, Sweetheart, was published by Slow Dancer Press in 1998. The new Seren collection is dedicated to Lauretta Yoseloff, the poet’s mother, and right from the outset, in ‘Selfridges’ for example, she is a powerfully evoked figure. Here, she leads her young daughter around the up-market department store, brisk and efficient. As often later, the daughter’s priorities lie elsewhere, she drifts away, gets lost, ends standing mesmerized by the butcher’s counter: “lambs’ kidneys, calves’ livers, / sweetbreads, hearts”. The moment becomes a blood-stained Wordsworthian spot of time as even years later the child recalls the meat, “indelicate, hearty, more real laid out there /  than anything that beat inside me”. The mother’s preference for delicacy and propriety and her daughter’s haunting sense of inadequacy and a fascination with death are articulated for the first, but by no means the last, time.

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A second collection, Barnard’s Star (Enitharmon, 2004) contained many successful pieces presided over by the Robert Lowell of Life Studies. This went beyond the drawing on personal material (often from the poet’s American childhood), to the seemingly casual forms of the poems, the telling details, the tentative observer, the reined-in emotional tone, the particulars implying a wider social malaise. In ‘The Atlantic at Asbury Park’, the narrator re-visits a childhood scene now dilapidated (like Lowell’s Boston aquarium). Being told that “Annie and I would sit cross legged / in the bandstand, making plans” is as near as we are allowed to the emotional crux of the poem. Youth, ambition, friendship – Yoseloff’s vision is a mostly melancholic one as now only “the ocean is the same, / black for miles, white caps, grey sky”.

In the poem ‘Partobar’ (sadly not included in the new selection), the narrator rides the horse of that name, watched by an unsympathetic instructor and “the other girls . . . their blonde ponytails / neat down their backs, their jackets perfect”. The social as well as personal battle-lines are effectively drawn up and the poem proceeds in utterly convincing, tangible detail: “I hit the ground, / dirt and blood in my mouth, my head like a bell clap / inside the hard hat”. The sense of ignominy is powerfully real – and frighteningly permanent. Even as an adult, she watches “braver girls trot around the field, / chins up, asses out”. She sees them at parties, with men who “whinny” their approval, while the narrator remains, re-living her failure, still daunted by the explicitly male horse, “my breasts like acorns beneath my vest”.

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A series of poems about her mother conjures a ghostly, curiously unphysical maternal image through the enumeration of clothes and other possessions. In ‘The Delaware and Raritan Canal’ she strides once more ahead of her daughter along the canal. There is no conventional closeness or emotional warmth; the reader gets the impression of a demanding, fierce maternal personality. The final stanza makes the daughter’s admiration clear: “But when she hits her stride, she could walk / all the way to the sea, arms sailing / forward, her course certain”. Yet even here the demands of the heart, of the human seem deflected as she sweeps past “the houses of ten thousand people”.

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In Tamar Yoseloff’s first book with Salt, Fetch, a fetch was defined as a stratagem by which a thing is indirectly brought to pass and (the more obscure meaning of the word) a wraith or double. Using direct and punchy quatrains, in ‘Fetch’ poems scattered throughout the book (but collected together in the new selection), the narrator casts herself as a stay-at-home girl while sending her double out “into the cold dark night”. The fetch cruises bars and is ordered to trail an unidentified man and later sleeps with him. This stratagem seems to allow for the playing out of the narrator’s illicit desires, though the double runs out of control and develops her own independence, leaving the narrator lonely, then resentful, finally murderous. These racy, blunt narratives are thrilling and the exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo makes for vivid, exciting reading.

Salt’s blurb emphasised the dark, edgy, sexy qualities of Yoseloff’s work and other pieces such as ‘Silk’ and ‘Tiger’ and ‘The Dentist’ reinforce this impression, though the latter is as much a study in masculine menace as eroticism:

He is trying not to breathe, and I am trying

not to swallow, as my saliva rises around his

finger, a foreign body. He inserts his mirror

to examine my every crevice . . .

She also continues to experiment in Fetch with a more allusive, imagistic style at its most effective in the sequence ‘The Firing’. Inspired by Julian Stair’s funerary pieces, it opens breathily once again:

I am a vessel, open

to your body. If only you could

move through me, enter

the spleen, the coiled intestine . . .

The sequence moves seamlessly and a little shockingly from passionate flesh to flesh and bone as it arrives at the collapse of a hill-top cemetery: “the graves / fall in on themselves, / marble crumbles to dust. // loved ones tumble / into each others arms, their bones / knit and form a whole”.

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This apocalyptic darkness reflects an essential part of Yoseloff’s gift. She places an impressive series of poems at the beginning of Fetch that reveals preoccupations with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. Experience is always leaking, objects losing their definition (‘Black Water’); monastic illumination only points up the fact that words fail to hold “that moment” (‘Illumination’). If we look behind us, there is shadow, “that / darkness of ourselves born / of days when the sun was blinding” (‘Shadow’). The culmination of these themes is the sequence ‘Marks’. Pushing the imagistic fragmentation close to its limits, the narrative echoes aspects of John Burnside’s work of the early 1990s. Here is the whole of part 3:

A finger blades a line

straight            from throat to womb

peel back my skin        reveal

the workhouse            of heart and lung

blood

slogging           through my veins

my discontented bones

It is this tension between the sassy and the sepulchral that is so interesting in the book. Poets create out of the matrix of their own nature and both elements are integral to Yoseloff’s vision. The choice of the concluding poem of this collection suggests she is clear-eyed on such matters: ‘The Sea at Aberystwyth’ is magnificent. The narrative voice embraces both the impersonal, heart-breaking cry “Oh rain, wash them clean” as well as humour about Norwegian tourists soaked by Welsh rain. The book closes with an unfrequented Indian restaurant as an image of metaphysical bleakness:

What we want

lies broken on the shore, what we can’t have

stays black on the horizon;

the moon of the zebra crossing

flashing for no one.

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The City with Horns continued to break new ground with poems that flow and rush and fizz in ways reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s paintings and his declaration that the good artist must paint what he or she is. From the turmoil of Pollock’s life, Yoseloff powerfully re-creates a vision in which everything knots together, a way of seeing that is intoxicated by embracing “the gift of the street, / the glare of chaos”. But the horns of this next collection are profoundly ambivalent. If the central sequence (responding to Pollock’s life and work) overflows with plenty, then the outer sections of the triptych speak of emptiness and pain in a poetic voice more familiar, curbed and astringent. Here, Yoseloff continues to explore territory she has made her own in earlier collections: snap-shots and “little fables” of up-rooted individuals whose tokens, found objects and souvenirs struggle towards articulacy just as the concrete in her cityscape possesses “no lyric dimensions” (‘Concrete’).

The more recent poems in A Formula for Night continue to offer few consolations. But the pay back for Yoseloff’s reader lies in the works chastening honesty, its ability to evoke a sensibility that feels never less than modern and – a notable achievement paradoxically – not immediately recognisable as the work of a woman. ‘Lace’ and ‘Swimmer of Lethe’ continue the preoccupation with death, treated now so directly that the haunting of Plath’s work is even more evident. ‘Construction’ paints a cityscape in which “the wrecking ball / opens another new vista” and is undeceived in counting the “[m]inutes to trash”. ‘Ruin’ invents a new poetic form in which a text is gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, are gradually edited out, enacting the very process of ruination. Yoseloff perhaps finds her heraldic device in the rampaging habits of the ‘Knotweed’ with its “line of destruction // that moles its way beneath foundations”. Again echoing Plath’s tone of address to her mushrooms, Yoseloff admires the plant’s “calling: the felling / of our failing structures”.

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There are final poems here too about the mother figure. Her death in ‘Clear Water’ is movingly contrasted to another hospital visitor reading Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Anahorish’ aloud in the ward. But even now, facing last things, the attentions of mother and daughter are at variance. The daughter knows and responds to the poetry; the mother sleeps through the whole incident and dies the following day. True to her vision, the poet notes Heaney’s death a few months later; she expresses an on-going concern about the other patient, “if he made it”; but the poem ends with nothing more said about the author’s mother. In ‘Skull’ the mother’s dead body is regarded as “a hollow case, all the life pulled out”. If this is shocking, it also represents a heroic devotion to telling the truth as it is experienced. A Formula for Night is a major collection and career summary and really ought to be both on your wish list and on prize shortlists in the coming 12 months.