The Cleansing Tang of Otherness: C. S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’

By 1956, C.S. Lewis was famous as a Christian apologist, literary historian, critic, BBC broadcaster and a writer of science fiction and children’s books (the Narnia books appeared almost yearly from 1950 to 1956). He had long been a confirmed bachelor, living with a housekeeper and his brother in Headington, just outside Oxford, since 1930. For most of his life he’d been a don at Magdalen College, Oxford. Just the year before, in 1955, he had accepted a new professorship at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but remained living in Headington. An establishment, if eccentric, figure whose views on so many things are scarred by the era in which he grew up, nevertheless he is a writer capable of remarkable insight.

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He first met Joy Gresham in September 1952 and the two grew closer over the ensuing four years. Gresham was an American whose marriage was collapsing. By 1956, she wanted to remain in the UK with her two children, but the Home Office refused to renew her visa. To secure her residence, Lewis offered to marry her in a civil ceremony in a registry office. He seems to have suggested that he already loved her in all ways but one – the erotic – and he would continue to do so. In fact, they had just four years of marital happiness (and a love that seems to have included the erotic) before Gresham died of cancer in July 1960. Lewis jotted thoughts down after the event, referring to it as a record, “a defence against total collapse, a safety valve”. What he wrote was published in 1961 (under a pseudonym) as A Grief Observed. A version of these events is played out in the film Shadowlands (1993).

A Grief Observed does what it says on the tin. Lewis observes the progress of his own grief after the death of Joy Gresham – she’s referred to in the text as Helen. For example, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” A little later: “I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts – real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.” It’s these thoughts about a closely observed mental process that particularly interested me.

 

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Lewis with Joy Gresham

 

Way back in 1926, in a now mostly unread long poem of ‘scientifiction’ (as he called the sci fi genre) called Dymer, an individual who for years has been refined, clipped, moulded and adorned by an oppressive regime suddenly acts freely: “Then came the moment that undid the whole – / The ripple of rude life without warning”. On that occasion, the rebellion of real/rude life takes the form of an almost inadvertent violent action. But this pattern of the mental/social construct being breached by an undeniable and more authentic reality seems for Lewis to have been one of those magnetic norths that serve to guide any reflective individual’s thinking. In Lewis’ religious thinking, the authentic was, of course, the presence of God. Epistemologically, he never doubted a real presence behind all perceived phenomena. And this is the point he makes in relation to his recall of his wife.

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The accumulating false image of Helen would, of course, be founded on fact, nothing fictitious as such, but the composition of the image would become more and more his own. He compares the process to the settling of snowflakes: “little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end”. Eventually, if the process continues uninterrupted, the image “will do whatever you want. It will smile or frown, be tender, gay, ribald, or argumentative just as your mood demands. It is a puppet of which you hold the strings”.

Lewis wonders if this is the real meaning of all those ballads and folk tales in which the dead return to the living to inform us that our mourning somehow does them wrong. Counter-intuitively, he argues it is our passionate grief that actually cuts us off from the dead. In such moments, because of the power of our emotion, all is “foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by [our] miseries”. The real presence of the lost one is swamped and submerged beneath a passionate egotism. Lewis observed something resembling this just a week after Joy’s death. An American, Nathan Starr, who he’d not met up with for years, visited him in Oxford and, in his notes, Lewis wrote: “don’t we often make this mistake as regards people who are still alive – who are with us in the same room? Talking and acting not to the man himself but to the picture – almost the précis – we’ve made of him in our own minds? And he has to depart from it pretty widely before we even notice”.

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This matters less when the real person is on hand to breach and explode the fictional composition we make of them – though Lewis is right to note how tenaciously we hang on to our précis before accepting its divergence from the real. But in the case of the dead? “The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me”. In some of his most moving lines, this ageing don and once-confirmed bachelor argues: “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real”. One of Lewis’ great gifts was his ability to communicate. He often declared his belief in the vernacular, even (or rather especially) when it came to religion, arguing the vernacular was the real test – if beliefs could not be turned into it, then either you didn’t fully understand them or you didn’t truly believe them. In A Grief Observed, he describes what he misses of his wife’s real presence, “the rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness”. In contrast to the puppet-like, “insipid dependence” of the image or précis created by the person left behind, the lost one’s real presence was “obstinate, resistant, often intractable”.

 

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Lewis’ house in Headington, Oxford

 

Moving from this particular to the general, it’s here that Lewis memorably declares “all reality is iconoclastic”. Our true acquaintance with reality or real presence is the only way to cleanse and scour our egotistical preconceptions whether of the dead or the living: “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour”. In William Griffin’s hyper-episodic biography of Lewis, he reports a 1944 BBC broadcast given by Lewis in which he refers to Christians as “new men”, a new step in evolution. This is because they have abandoned their own personalities and allowed God to inhabit them. In looking for your self, Lewis argued, you find only hatred, loneliness, despair and rage. In turning away from the self we find “Him, and with Him everything else thrown in”. This is interesting as it’s a later (though ironically more traditional) version of Keats’ Godless explanation of the importance of negative capability (which I have discussed at length elsewhere).

Whether in Keats’ or Lewis’ view, what the individual – whether we think of ourselves as artists or not – must always bring to the table is our attentiveness. The etymology of the word attend shows its roots lie in the Latin verb tendo – to stretch, to stretch out. The effort implied is the energy and precision with which we must perceive and this energy breaches the accumulated shell, the snow-cover of our preconceptions. At the close of A Grief Observed Lewis says “Attention is an act of will. Intelligence in action is will par excellence”. The willing poet, of course, must apply attentiveness in 3 directions – to the outer world (including the living and the dead), to my inner conditions, to my language.

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14 Ways to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

Ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) are on my mind a great deal as I have been planning the all-day workshop I have been asked to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath on the 25th February, 2017. This particular exhibition, ‘Breughel: Defining a Dynasty’, opens on the 11th February and was in the news recently as it will include, among many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. I’ve been reading a variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I wondered if there was a way of categorising the various approaches. There are probably many – but these 14 ways (in 5 subgroups) are what I have come up with and they might usefully serve as a way to kick-start ekphrastic poems of your own. Try one a day for the next fortnight!

Through Description

  1. Describe – and do no more. This is always the poet’s initial desire, to put into words what has caught our attention visually (and because attention has been visually caught there is something about this image or object that chimes with the writer’s subconscious). In terms of the poet’s intention, the wish to describe may be sufficient (the subconscious may do the rest). Examples might be Michael Longley’s ‘Man Lying on a Wall’ (from Lowry’s poem of the same name) or William Carlos William’s ‘The Dance’ (from Breughel the Elder’s ‘Peasant Dance’).

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  1. Describe but imagine beyond the frame – Derek Mahon’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ (after Munch’s painting of the same name) does this, beginning with description of the scene but then wonders where the road leads away to in space, asks what the next day will bring (in time) and concludes with allusions to Munch’s more famous image ‘The Scream’: “bad dreams / You hardly know will scatter / The punctual increment of your lives”.

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  1. Describe but incorporate researched materials – an easy option in the world of Google where the artist’s life or love life, the political context etc are easily accessed. Edward Lucie-Smith does this in ‘On Looking at Stubbs’ ‘Anatomy of the Horse’’, working with the gossip of local people in the Lincolnshire village where Stubbs worked at preparing the horse’s carcass: ‘His calm knife peeling putrid flesh from bone”.

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Through Ventriloquism

  1. Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach as famously done in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’ (from Georges Braque’s ‘Bather’). Thomas Hardy makes the Elgin Marbles speak in ‘Christmas in the Elgin Room’.

 

  1. Make Minor Figure/s Speak – UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Not my Best Side (Uccello’s ‘St George and the Dragon’) might be considered a hat-trick of the category above but her decision to make all 3 characters in the painting speak, casting side-lights to and fro, means I put it here. Delmore Schwartz’s ‘Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine’ – while more free indirect speech than ventriloquism – has a similar effect, visiting each of the characters in Seurat’s picture and allowing their perspective to be aired.

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  1. Make Objects Speak – this is an obvious category though I’m a bit short on illustrations of it. BC Leale’s ‘Sketch by Constable’ almost does it by concentrating attention on a tiny dog sketched in the corner of an image of Flatford Mill. Ann Ridler also comes close by largely ignoring the foreground figures and focusing on the landscape only in ‘Backgrounds to Italian Paintings’.

 

  1. Make the Artist Speak – writing about Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’, Robert Fagles makes the artist speak, denouncing photography and preferring the expressive qualities of paint: “Of the life hereafter I know nothing, mother, / but when I paint you what I feel is yellow, / lemon yellow, the halo of rose”.

 

Through Interrogation

  1. Of the Artist – Vicki Feaver’s ‘Oi yoi yoi’ (on Roger Hilton’s image of the same name) starts with description but quickly begins talking directly to Hilton (“You were more interested / in her swinging baroque tits”). Interestingly, ekphrastic poems need not always stand in awe of the work; looking at Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed’, Thomas Blackburn has a long one-sided conversation with the artist, charting a growing disenchantment with Bacon’s work, accusing him of “uttering, with superb, pretentious / Platitudes of rut, that you have said and said”.

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  1. Of the Figure/s – I have always admired Gerda Mayer’s poem, ‘Sir Brooke Boothby’ (after Joseph Wright’s image), in which she addresses with Sir Brooke about his languid pose, his copy of Rousseau, his intense scrutiny of the observer. Peter Porter’s many poems about art objects are hard to categorise but ‘Looking at a Melozzo da Forli’ (an image of the Annunciation) interrogates both image and the figure of Mary herself.

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  1. Of Yourself – probably all ekphrasis is a sort of self-interrogation but some poems make this more clear. The address often takes the form of admissions of ignorance or obtuseness in the face of the image or the asking of rhetorical questions. Robert Wallace on ‘Giacometti’s Dog’ once again begins in description but asks questions about the fascination of the image, eventually concluding “We’ll stand in line all day / to see one man / love anything enough”.

 

Through Giving an Account

  1. Of Your Encounter – Wallace’s poem spills across these artificial categories and might be placed here, among poems where the poet explicitly records details of his/her encounter with the work of art. Yeats famously does this in ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, looking at images of Augusta Gregory and John Synge. David Wright (who lost his hearing at the age of seven) movingly describes his visit to Rome to see Maderno’s sculpture of St Cecilia (patron saint of music) in his poem ‘By the Effigy of St Cecilia’.

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  1. Of Gallery Visitors – poets often comment on the behaviour or experiences (imagined) of gallery visitors (and even the gallery attendants!). Gillian Clarke does this in ‘The Rothko Room’: “In this, / the last room after hours in the gallery, / a mesh diffuses London’s light and sound. / The Indian keeper nods to sleep, marooned / in a trapezium of black on red”.

 

  1. Of Others – admittedly a catch-all category this one, but sometimes (especially when the works of art appear in churches) the poet can be interested in speculating about the responses of more ‘ordinary’ people. Thom Gunn does this toward the end of ‘In Santa Maria del Popolo’ where Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of St Paul’ is displayed. Having recorded his own response to the image he ends by staring at the old Roman women who come to kneel before it: “each head closeted // In tiny fists holds comfort as it can. / Their poor arms are too tired for more than this / – For the large gesture of solitary man, / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness”.

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Come At a Tangent

  1. Finally, the ekphrastic moment can be presented as if an after-thought, or illustration of a poem already half composed. There are famous examples of this, especially Auden’s ‘ Musee des Beaux Arts’ which spends most of its length contemplating in very general terms the way old paintings present suffering. Only towards the end does Auden refer to Breughel’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ which he describes in some detail to suggest how “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”. RS Thomas’ ‘Threshold’ does something similar, only concluding with allusions to Michaelangelo’s painting of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. And Seamus Heaney’s ‘Summer 1969’ records a visit to Madrid as the Troubles boiled in Northern Ireland, and only latterly does the poem focus on Goya’s ‘Panic’: “Saturn / Jewelled in the blood of his own children, / Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips / Over the world.imgres

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1 – Ron Carey

This is the first in a series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press)
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press)
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Revival Press for providing a copy of Ron Carey’s book for review purposes.

On the cover of Distance a male figure has already travelled well down a track through flat, open countryside. He’s heading determinedly away from us, hands thrust in his coat pockets. I think this is Ron Carey and though the image pretty literally evokes one aspect of the book’s title, it contradicts the stated direction of the poems within which hope to “bring us a little closer”. An epigraph from Elizabeth Burns suggests a more philosophical “sense / of time and place dissolving” so that (in an image that would have pleased Antonio Machado) “we are all / drops of water in this enormous breaking wave”. Ron Carey’s first collection sticks more firmly to the former, more commonplace, more personal of these formulations but is at its most interesting when it ventures an almost magic realist evocation of the latter.

The dissolution of strict linear time provides occasions for many of the most appealing poems here. They are acts of recall of a twentieth century childhood in Ireland (in this Carey invites comparisons with Heaney and, before him, Kavanagh). The boy who is the focus of these recollections is both highly observant and very imaginative. His conviction that there is a leopard in the coal-shed as he is tucked up in bed is grounded in vivid details of it tiptoeing “through the tin-pot Dulux jungle, on / Quick, painted feet”. ‘Breakfast’ is also troubled by imaginary big cats (lions this time) who chase his father from the house, their “claws pinging the spokes of [his] bicycle”. The idea of a ‘water-table’, as discussed by Driller Flanagan and the boy’s father, unleashes images of a real “table of Marian blue; its top shimmering” but when the geological reference is clarified for him, the boy swears never to ask “questions that have / The possibility of such dull answers”. We see the birth of a certain type of poet here, though Carey’s long wait for a first book reassures us that such unbridled (if vivid) fantasy will not be the whole story. So watching Aunt Babbie wring the necks of chickens, while blithely questioning him about his day at school, gives rise to more troubling childhood experiences as the birds’ “squawking souls” pursue him home and (the writing of the poem confirms) continue to haunt him forever.

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Everyday remembrance seldom loses sight of the gulf between then and now, but Carey’s poems occasionally record more profound moments of the collapse of the temporal. ‘Moving’ records the day a family move to a newly built housing estate. All their belongings piled in a horse-drawn cart (old world), as they approach the house the boy’s mother runs ahead with a “100-watt Solus” light bulb in her hand (new world). The electricity that runs metaphorically through the boy’s hands as he is given the horse’s reins and literally through the bulb filament so that the “black eyes of the front-room suddenly blazed” form an instantaneous circuit in which the whole family experiences renewal, the mother now “a young girl” calling from an open window ahead. It is the intensity of the emotions which supercharges such changes in perception. ‘Kilkee’ sees the six-year-old boy partaking of the grief of another Aunt’s broken heart, lying like lovers themselves on sand dunes: “He put his finger into the ring of the sun / And pulled it down the sky till it entered the water”. This drawing down of blinds is a fantasy of sorts but far more profoundly linked to the truth of the moment than the boy’s water-table imaginings. It’s in ‘Upstairs’ that Carey brings this technique to its apogee where the boy (now grown but of an uncertain age) agrees to wear his father’s old coat and lie beside his ageing mother. It’s her desire to re-live earlier days and intimacies that dominates, but the poem cleverly reveals the boy’s own uncertainty of identity: “We pretend to sleep, Danny and me”. He feels he can’t get up, though she’s now asleep, “Because she will not let go of his hand” (my italics).

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The figure of the father is a powerful one and recurs throughout the book. We see him relishing “pig’s toes with a pint”; elsewhere he comes home from work: “Your cold, great hands shocking / Our new skins; your goat’s kiss rough as love”. Even more memorably, in ‘My Father Built England’, he works as an immigrant labourer, a “solid Paddy full of gristle”, learning how to harden his hands with urine, then with the onset of World War Two, returning to Ireland to work for Hogan and Son. He is one of many characters who populate this enjoyable book – Miss O’Mahoney, a pub quiz-master, an irregular Postman, several Aunts, Grandmother and Grandfather – most of them firmly enough grounded in close observation to avoid caricature. And it’s the quietness with which Carey achieves his aims which is notable. New technologies are alluded to in the context of the past. ‘Churchfields’ makes familiar use of a photographic image but in ‘Background’ an image of a Grandfather is set as background on a computer screen, allowing Carey to “click a short-cut icon on his broad shoulders” in another striking image of the collapse of time differences. Elsewhere, the sweep of a dry stone wall is compared to the curve of a “Large Particle Collider” (unlikely, but successful). And a visit to Patrick Kavanagh’s grave yields an encounter with his ghost, in fact on film, “rasping and jumping on a screen”.

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Unfortunately, there is a rather soft middle to this book in the sections titled ‘The Beloved’ and ‘New Oceans’. The first seems a rather brief, miscellaneous collection of poems only vaguely linked to the theme of love and includes an up-dating of the Icarus myth and an incongruously Yeatsian lyric, ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’. ‘New Oceans’ appears to be an ill-judged venture into exotic climes and idioms (I think Central America). But there are more interesting poems in the final section of the book, ‘The World Will Break Your Heart’. Here Carey is less intent on conventional narrative and (in contrast to the youthful recall of earlier poems) focuses on the moment as it passes and on last things. ‘Lineage’ is a confident celebration of the Irish landscape – confident enough to admit ignorance of names as well as to leave the poem more open-ended, with no evident pay-off. ‘Catching My Death’ is short-lined, elegant, unpushy. Sounding more like Michael Longley here, the boy has grown up, encountered much:

 

I find life now – much the same

As the robin does – wriggling

In my mouth

 

Mortality is now envisaged as a return to the earth, though some sort of reawakening into the future is imagined:

 

Until

The earth warms

And the soil opens

To the resurrection of the worms

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Philip Gross, Carey’s supervisor on the South Glamorgan Creative Writing MA course, has written of the tenderness and detail of his work and this is true. He has a long list of competition wins and placings behind him and individual poems are touching and colourful and well-done. Distance covers a great deal of ground between childhood and old age and Carey is above all honest. But as a first book there are trails here which come to nothing and others which promise poems of a more adventurous kind. I hope that’s where the man in the coat is really heading.

An interview with Ron Carey about his work can be read here.