As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’ and another piece was entitled ‘How I Write’. These two recordings are still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this published piece is ‘The Writer and Technology’ – a subject about which I have some experience in relation to the former and not a huge competence in relation to the latter. Nevertheless, I’m not one to duck a challenge.
Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.
Writing and Technology
It frightens me: she gives with one hand and takes away with the other. I become too monogamous. I don’t look up. I google recipes using oregano or the name of the drummer in Coltrane’s 1960s quartet. I love her library of reference all within clicking distance. I email friends, family, writers, publishers (I remember stamps and letterboxes with no fondness). Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime make it a breeze to stay in touch, offer advice, give poetry readings to people around the globe. I’m never lost; I use Google maps. I post and follow on Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook. All this she gives me.
And most days I crave her distractions, her sensational sweep of sights and sounds, her informational vistas at the swipe or dab of a fingertip. I substitute longer, slower satisfactions with a preference for her novelties. Though I’ve read about how our cultural (and fiscal) economies promote such transitory stabs at contentment in the absence of other satisfactions, still – I can seldom resist. I do glimpse vicious cycles – her short-lived pleasures liable to collapse, disappointing anticipation – yet I play her perfect subject, eyes flicking without rest from screen to screen. I do not look up. Her multitudinousness spawns my passive respect for numbers, speed, spectacle, calculation, all of which barely disguises the non-event. I attend with others – but spend as much time watching a screen as the performance. I still tell my friends: I was there, it was huge, so many people . . .
She makes me fear something’s missing. Addicted to her click bait, I love her machines in their elegant black and silver. They seem to promise to breach the ancient laws of time and space. Yet having acquired the newest devices with which I calculate, communicate, translate, find millions of pages of information, actually, I can’t remember what it was I hoped to do with them.
Sometimes I remember. What she interrupts – with her shows of pleasure, power, riches, praise – is the creative impulse to look up, observe (look out!). Once this ceases – prophetically, the poet Shelley said this back in 1821 – new imagery stops being generated, language withers and dies. Only in my relations with the world (not with her) am I truly warmed. Then I’m the matrix through which the world steps – as the world becomes the matrix through which I step – to rediscover myself not ‘me’ (an atom in an empty universe), but ‘mine’ (living in relation to others, other things).
When I leave her, often there’s the startling beauty or strangeness of scenes that draw me away from my ‘self’. Perhaps for a moment, I’m lost for words. It’s not enough to take a picture, post it up, surround it with talk, comments, likes, shares. Poetry expresses such sensations as record, reminder, model and vicarious experience for its readers. Using form, figurative and musical language, I write to re-present such ineffable, inexpressible moments. The French poet and philosopher, Yves Bonnefoy, says: poetry is not about something but it restores the self to the lucid intensity of the truth of relational experiences.
On any criteria, it is a poor photograph. The primary subject – the three young boys in the foreground – are out of focus. The youngest one’s head is just too low for the dated camera’s pre-set focus to find it. Instead, there in the background, but far more sharply defined, is a woman’s bicycle, the chain ring and two slanting elements of the metal frame reflecting the sun brightly. I know the orientation of this house. If the sun is falling this way, the time must be nearing mid-afternoon, the sun is falling on the garden and over back of the house, over the photographer’s right shoulder, into the eyes of the children, each of whom is squinting slightly. Look beneath the large pram under the window, to the left: the shadows of its four spoked wheels and their pale tyres confirm the angle. The black bulk of the pram and the mass of shadow behind and beneath it almost take over the image. It too is in sharper focus than the children.
Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida suggests our viewing of a photographic image has two aspects. What he termed the studium is associated with any viewer’s knowledge and cultural experience, with a body of information and a general interest: ‘a very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste’ (tr. Richard Howard, Vintage Books). It is a mere question of liking, not liking. Here, the studium of the image is open to anyone with a decent knowledge of England in the mid-20th century. The corner of a recently built house (the garden as yet untended, only wire fencing between this and the next house on what looks like a raw housing estate) and the style of bicycle and pram, the clothes the three boys are wearing (what look like home-knitted jumpers – the youngest wrapped up with a knitted hat, buttoning under the chin – so the weather is not warm) are all suggestive of the late 1950s or early 1960s. The youngest boy is also sat in a toy pedal vehicle – the long-nosed bonnet indicative of a racing car – the sun’s angle perhaps catching brightly again what might be headlights at the very bottom of the image.
The outline of this lawn in the back garden remained unchanged throughout my childhood. Its corner – in the image, its apex – falls neatly behind the youngest boy’s head. Perhaps there is some composition here? I’d guess it was my father pressing the white button on the black plastic box of a Kodak camera. Taking such a picture was more the father’s job in those days. His clumsiness in framing the image ought not to be judged too harshly (these were still relatively early days for mass photography) but it stirs in me the thought that he was always a man more at home with objects than words or people. I wish he’d taken the picture again, a little lower, filling the chosen frame with his three children. Forty years later, setting the scene behind the large window in the image, sat around the dining table that (for fully 50 years) looked out onto the back garden, I wrote of him when forgetfulness and confusion troubled him more and more:
Past ninety and still no books to read
your knuckles rap the laid table
gestures beside a stumble of words
so much aware of their inadequacy
it hurts us both in different ways
since a man without language is no man
finding too late the absence of words
builds a prison you’re no longer able
to dominate objects as once you did
the world turns in your loosening grip
So, it may be the general studium of this image stirs some mild interest in you – the period, the clothes, the main objects a little like museum pieces. Barthes’ second element in a viewer’s response to a photo, he termed the punctum, some detail (usually only one) that pierces the viewer, that wounds us, a powerful emotional response. The punctum is often not intended by the photographer – some random detail that for a particular viewer has a disproportionate and very personal impact. It is what moves us.
The fact that this is an image from my own past means there are a number of candidates here for a punctum. Most likely surely is the face of the boy on the left. Under a thick head of hair, a rough-cut fringe, he squints more than the others. His eyes cannot be seen, hidden away in the dark slits beneath the eyebrows. The firm lines on his face slant down from nose to half-opened mouth in a grin that lifts his cheekbones, that might even be the shaping of a word. The long vowel in the word ‘cheese’ perhaps? A version of that face greets me in the mirror even now. In these infant and junior years, my jumpers were knitted by my mother. I seem to be wearing a girlish collar beneath. My right hand is lost beyond the lower edge of the image. My right rests on the racing car, not quite clasping my younger brother’s hand which looks set back a little on the edge of the car. I am the middle child. My younger brother must be little more than a year or two old (born in 1959). My older brother is the one full of animation: right arm around the car, around his little brother, he seems to be exploding into a fit of giggles. But oddly, none of these details quite wounds me…
The bicycle? My mother’s of course. A large wicker basket on the front. Look closely and there on the back is the folding child’s seat I remember sitting in as she pedaled the 2 or 3 miles into town. The vast contraption of the black pram? I don’t have memories of it – even of my brother in it. It remains part of the studium – I remember later discussions about the way pram and child would be left outside for hours on end (sometimes in the front garden of the house where the sun’s absence kept it cool in summer). I think a general thought: such a thing would never be countenanced these days. Even far older children are seldom let out of their parents’ sight.
The house itself? A little tugging of nostalgia here (we eventually sold the house after my parents’ deaths just a few years ago) but mostly I sense information welling up. An estate of 40 such houses on the edge of a Wiltshire town. One of the first ever post-war self-build projects – the 40 men built them with their own hands over 3-4 years in the mid- to late-50s. I have other photos of the house being built. Each dwelling had a little outhouse (ours is middle top of the image; next door’s filling the top right corner). There’s a non-standard coal bunker: it’s what Mum’s bike is propped against. If I remember rightly my paternal grandfather helped build it. I have a vague physical memory of being held by him (over the bunker?). Nothing more, since he died suddenly, I think, before this image was taken.
Oddly – and this is in the nature of the Barthsian punctum – the detail that has particular poignancy (like a dagger, Barthes says) is the shapeless peg bag hanging (where it always hung, it hung there forever) on the bracket attaching the guttering downpipe to the wall. The camera simply records what lies before it. After 100 pages of discussion, Barthes arrives at, what even he confesses is, a less-than-earth-shattering conclusion that a photo’s potency lies in its declaration of ‘this-has-been’, its evidential power. Yet it’s also the case that an image’s power can be contained in what is absent from it or is implied by small details within it. I am pierced by the peg bag because it represents (more than that – it is, it manifests, the touch of) my mother. The only member of the family nowhere here (neither behind nor in front of the lens), she is there in her bicycle, there in the pram (possibly there in the waste bin beside the coal bunker – has it just been washed out? there is a darkening patch of water running on the path?). But most of all in the peg bag. Almost certainly she made it herself. A coat hanger. A few lengths of spare cloth. Some wooden pegs. The washing line ran down the length of the back garden path. There was a long wooden prop with a V cut in the top. In a very early poem, I would see her ‘struggling / to peg out snapping shirtfuls of wind’.
In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she writes ‘[w]hen we are afraid, we shoot’. She means when we fear losing what-is-here we preserve it in the museum of the recorded image. Did my father fear losing this moment? He preserved it badly. But he managed to preserve the children (though the ones in this image are now passed on into something quite other; Barthes would say they have died). Nowadays, a father would turn his camera and include himself in it too. What does that say about fear? The peg bag would still be hanging there though. In the image. On my desk here. Scanned to the screen. In my mind, the peg bag continues to hang in its place on the downpipe though other people’s children play on the lawn, other parents sit gazing out of (what we always called) the dining room’s picture window.
‘I always write that which is not’ says one of Alireza Abiz’s poems, because ‘[t]hat which is is too terrifying / to wear the garment of the word’. To understand what Abiz means here – how can / why should a poet avoid writing of what is real? – we have to understand his historical and political contexts.
Abiz belongs to the 1990s generation of Iranian writers. The unattributed Introduction to The Kindly Interrogator (Shearsman Books, 2021) provides help for those of us who don’t know much about the development of modern Iranian poetry. It was Nima Yushij who, at the opening of the twentieth century, felt the then-current forms of Persian poetry had become too abstract, subjective and metaphysical. He advocated a more modern, objective approach, a more natural diction and the use of forms closer to what we would regard as blank verse. By the 1960s such freshness and freedom had yielded some of the best modern Persian poets, writing diversely, mostly in free verse. But both before and after the 1979 Revolution (which replaced a millennia old monarchical system with the Islamic Republic), poets continued to engage in political struggles and were often prosecuted by the authorities for their writings. Following 1979, and during the 8 years of war with Iraq, the artistic atmosphere continued to be both difficult and repressive.
The political reforms of the 1990s – Abiz’s period – saw a new optimism and revival in the arts, yet still prosecution and censorship remained a fact of life. Many artists left Iran and – especially after the 2009 uprising – there was a considerable migration into exile. Though currently resident in the UK (he lives in London and has a Creative Writing doctorate from Newcastle University) Abiz does not consider himself an exile as such, though inevitably his perspective has an ex patria quality, looking both dispassionately at Iran’s nature and continuing development, as well as harking back to an affective homeland.
In these translations by the author and WN Herbert, Abiz’s free verse poems are not always reluctant to address realities, but they do tend to deploy (what the Introduction calls) a kind of ‘dialled-down or even buttoned up surrealism’. ‘The Tired Soldier’ is brief and universal. His weariness is symptomatic of a lengthy war, as well as his disillusionment with it. Jackals wail, bugles “cough” like roosters – the real and figurative creatures here close to anthropomorphic portraits of societal/political elements, close to the derangement of the surreal which is also signaled in the soldier’s action which (besides the obvious disrespect for his military service) involves an overturning, a literal inversion (feet to head, head to feet) of the norm:
The tired soldier
hangs his boots around his neck
and pisses in his helmet.
The surreal is inevitably emergent when we cease to trust our senses, or our interpretation of what we think we witness (think of Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe). A black cat watches the narrator from the veranda. Given a political context in which persecution (even elimination) has become common currency, the narrator seems to fear for his own life:
It’s been a long time since I was a sparrow,
since I was a dove,
even since I was a backyard hen.
The sense of danger and paranoia here is obvious, but perhaps vague enough, quirkily surreal enough, to elude the censors. The Introduction suggests parallels with the Menglong Shi or so-called ‘Misty Poetry’ generation of writers in China in the 1980s. Then, the ‘Misty’ handle was initially a disparaging one given by officially sanctioned reviewers, suggesting these writers were creating ‘obscure, vague, incomprehensible work’ (for a good account of these issues see Yang Lian’s introductory essay to Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe, 2012) edited by WN Herbert and Yang Lian). But their obscurity was only really in comparison to official Chinese poetry of the period full of banal (but never obscure) sloganizing about the virtues of Socialism and the evils of Capitalism. Yang argues the mistiness of the new 1980s Chinese poets was really a return to ‘Sun, Moon, Earth, River, Life, Death, Dream’ – to the territory of Classical Chinese poetry (Li Bai and Du Fu), though often encoded within it were observations about contemporary political life. So also with Abiz’s poetry in which images of ‘doves, rabbits, ghouls, lemons, feasting, wine’ develop and imply their own slant or misty significances.
Inevitably, death and the threat of it is a preoccupation of many of these poems. The mundane incident of a fly buzzing in a kitchen leads to a meditation on conflict, guilt and futility. Looking through a window into ‘The Anatomy Hall’, the narrator sees a surgeon? a mortician? a torturer? leaning over a body on a table. He senses the man’s fear; he glimpses the flash of a knife. Then:
He bends over my head and smiles,
looking at me like a butcher looks at a carcass.
On the table in the middle of the hall,
relaxed, I sleep.
The relaxation of the victim comes as an additional surprise, but it gestures towards the sense of complicity that is another of Abiz’s concerns. A lengthy quotation in the Introduction, which I take to be in Abiz’s own words, argues: ‘the corrupting influence of dogmas is so insidious that no-one remains entirely innocent, or, if carried along by the paranoias of ideological purity, should be considered completely guilty’.
So in ‘The Informer’ the narrator (in a Kafkaesque sort of world) has been invited to attend a ceremony to select the ‘finest informer’. There appears to be a confident pride in the way he dresses up for the occasion. In the hall, the candidates (those you expect to be on the ‘inside’) are in fact excluded. It turns out, in a detail suggestive of the elusive nature of truth and the levels on levels of surveillance in such a repressive society, that all the seats are to be taken ‘by the officers responsible for informing on the ceremony’. There is a calculated bewilderment to all this as is also revealed in the oxymoronic title of the eponymous poem, ‘The Kindly Interrogator’. Nothing so simple as a caricatured ‘bad cop’ here:
He’s interested in philosophy and free verse.
He admires Churchill and drinks green tea.
He is delicate and bespectacled.
He employs no violence, demands no confession, simply urging the narrator to ‘write the truth’. The narrator’s reply to this epitomises the uncertainties a whole society may come to labour under. He cries, ‘on my life!’. Is this the ‘I will obey’ of capitulation or the ‘kill me first’ of continued resistance? Is this the repressed and persecuted ‘life’ of what is, of what is the case, or an expression of the inalienable freedom of the inner ‘life’? Abiz is very good at exploring such complex moral quandaries and boldly warns those of us, proud and self-satisfied in our liberal democracies, not to imagine ourselves ‘immune from [the] temptation towards unequivocality’. Fenced round with doubt, with a recognition of the need for continual watchfulness, with a suspicion of the surface of things, perhaps these poems never really take off into the kind of liberated insightfulness or expression of freedom gained that the Introduction suggests a reader might find here. Abiz – the ‘melancholic scribbler of these lines’ – is the voice of a haunted and anxious conscience, a thorn in the side of repressive authorities, as much as a monitory voice for those of us easily tempted to take our eye off the ball of moral and political life nearer home.
A friend of mine recently asked what I thought of Alice Oswald’s poem, ‘Swan’ – in fact, what did I think it meant. It appears in her 2016 collection Falling Awake (Cape Poetry). I’m not sure I can give a direct answer to her direct question, but it linked up with two other swan poems I have read recently. Baudelaire’s poem appears in The Flowers of Evil and I have been re-reading a couple of translations of that collection because of the French poet’s influence on Rilke. Rilke’s swan poem (included in New Poems) is one of the poems I have been translating for the projected 2023 Pushkin Press book mentioned in my previous two posts. So – by way of an oblique answer to my friend’s question and because these poems and (two of) the poets relate to my current project and out of sheer curiosity – I thought I’d read these three poems alongside each other here.
Baudelaire’s ‘Swan’ is the longest of the three, divided into two parts. Written in late 1859 and dedicated to Victor Hugo, Baudelaire described the poem as an attempt to “record rapidly all that a casual occurrence, an image, can offer by way of suggestions, and how the sight of a suffering animal can urge the mind towards all those beings that we love”. His definition of those we love is remarkable broad, as we’ll see. The poem is also remarkable for the range of its components: evocations of the modern city (Paris), the creature itself, anthropomorphism, personal memory, literary references and an imaginative and empathetic ‘lift off’ towards the end. I’m looking at Anthony Mortimer’s translation published by Alma Classics in 2016. Here is an older, clunky, but openly available translation.
The reader might be taken aback by the opening exclamation: this swan poem opens with ‘Andromache, I think of you!’ In Book 3 of The Aeneid, Andromache, wife of the killed Trojan hero, Hector, is living in exile (‘we, our homeland burned, were carried over / strange seas’ – tr. Mandelbaum) and now weeps for her husband beside a little stream, a paltry reminder (Baudelaire: ‘a poor sad mirror’) of the mighty river, Simoeis, near Troy. She is an image of an abused and displaced exile, a refugee and it is the narrator’s strolling through the Place du Carrousel in Paris that prompts this literary recall. It’s because he himself feels out of place. Between 1853-1870, the Paris Baudelaire had known was in the process of being re-designed and re-built by Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Cityscapes change ‘more swiftly than a mortal heart’ says the narrator and he prefers to recall the old, ramshackle state of the area, where there was once also ‘a menagerie’. One morning, in that previous era, he caught sight of an escaped swan that ‘[d]ragged his white feathers on the dirty road’.
Rapid cutting from literary allusion to gritty realism to anthropomorphism is part of Baudelaire’s boldly making it new. The swan is ‘doomed’ in a literal sense, yet also ‘mythical’, at least for the narrator, who makes the beast speak: ‘Water, when will you rain?’ The intertextual resonances are further extended: the narrator sees the bird ‘sometimes like the man in Ovid’. This is the moment of man’s first creation: ‘given a towering head and commanded to stand / erect, with his face uplifted to gaze on the stars’ (Metamorphoses, tr. David Raeburn). But Baudelaire’s allusion is ironic, confirming the swan’s standing for itself and humankind in 19th century Paris: the swan stretches ‘his writhing neck and hungry head / Towards the cruel sky’s ironic blue’.
Part II of ‘The Swan’ reverts to the changing vista of Paris. As the new is erected, the old buildings ‘turn allegorical’, working as allusions to objects and experiences that no longer exist. The diffuseness and proliferating resonance of the swan image itself suggests that ‘symbolic’ might be a better word than allegorical. Now strolling near the Louvre, thinking still of the swan memory, the narrator reflects on ‘how / All exiles are ridiculous and sublime’. The earlier Andromache reference now makes sense and it resurfaces. It is the ‘incessant longing’ of all exiles that fascinates Baudelaire and from the (passionately felt) literary figure, he turns to a real black woman, ‘thin and consumptive, / Trudging through mud’ (in Paris, I take it) who yearns for her African homeland, obscured by a northern European ‘wall of fog’. The narrator ‘seeks’ exile we are told or, in his alienation from the modern world, he is compelled to seek it in a (mental) forest in which a ‘distant memory winds its full-breathed horn’. Imprecise as the significance of this image is, it evokes a full-throated, rather nostalgic longing for something long past; somewhat ridiculous and yet sublime in its depth of feeling. But the poem’s final lines expand to encompass thoughts of ‘castaway sailors’ and ‘captives, the defeated . . . and of many, many more’. The memory of the swan has focused (and continues to do so) the narrator’s thoughts on the ubiquity of such states of alienation, of actual and psychological exile.
By comparison, the 12 lines of Rilke’s ‘The Swan’ are astonishingly compact. But, on its smaller scale, Rilke’s poem also opens as obliquely as Baudelaire’s. There are two lines before the creature appears and when it does so it seems to be in a figurative role: as an image of human life, which is itself characterised as a ‘struggling with a task not yet complete’. The contingencies and difficulties of a life lived are compared to the awkward movements of a swan’s movements out of water, weighed down, ponderous, ‘constrained’, as if its legs could not move freely. Baudelaire kept the two sides of his comparison (the swan and the experience of exile) clearly demarcated. Rilke balances the two sides of his comparison more evenly and potentially more confusingly. Is this a poem about a swan that conjures thoughts about life and death, or is it about life and death which now remind the narrator of the movements (in and out of water) of a swan?
Certainly, the initial topic seems to be life (its difficulties) and then in the second stanza, death itself: ‘that sense of our slackening grip / on the earth where we stand every day’. What is bold about this poem is how the final seven lines take off from this introduction of death into a second series of images related to the swan entering the water. But it is a series that does not return from the swan to the probable theme of human life/death. Instead, the poem records, in exquisite detail, the process of the swan entering the water and settling and then swimming away. It has the clarity of an Imagist poem (and I am hoping for that in my translation of it):
so, tentatively, he lowers himself down
and onto the waters that welcome him
gently, already, contentedly letting slip,
retreating beneath him, a moving tide,
while he, infinitely still and assured
and ever more majestic, more mature,
is content the more placidly to glide.
The growingly anthropomorphic quality of Rilke’s description (like Baudelaire’s before) implies the swan’s representative role in reflecting human life and in this instance, human death. Or at least, the idealised image of death that Rilke wants to convey: not something to be feared, but a gradual transition, a becoming, a maturing, an integral part of a life’s ‘struggling’. The poem’s playing with our perception of the swan/life divide is part of Rilke’s intention: life, as much as death, is not something Other, detached from the world of things, but something co-existing alongside it, within it. The creature’s placid transition from land to water, life into death, represents a true death for Rilke. This is not something available to all. In an earlier poem from the Book of Hours – in a poem which shows the influence of Baudelaire – Rilke portrays the poor of Paris, ‘wan-faced and petal-white’, frightened of being admitted to the hospitals of the city, knowing death awaits them. But this is a ‘petty death’, the demise of the body with no spiritual dimension; it is not ‘their real death’ which remains ‘hanging green, not yet sweet / like a fruit within that will never ripen’. So Rilke’s swan, as it glides placidly from life into death, is an image of such an ideal transition.
It’s possible Oswald’s poem, ‘Swan’, has Rilke’s in mind as its preoccupation is also with life and death. Compared to the Parisian perambulatory of Baudelaire’s regular ABAB quatrains and the meditative, imagistic, quasi-sonnet form of Rilke, Oswald’s poem wanders freely across the page echoing the disintegration of her already dead and rotting swan. The poem is composed of two elements: narrative description and the imagined voice or thoughts of the dead swan as it rises away (soul-like) from its own corpse. The only real puzzle here is the final speech of the swan.
The opening harks back to the sound world and imagery of Ted Hughes. The harsh assonance of the curt opening phrase (‘A rotted swan’) is an example, as is the following long line with its splashing sibilance and use of a technological image applied to the natural world: the swan is ‘hurrying away from the plane-crash of her wings’. Also like Hughes, Oswald likes to use the space of the page; the phrase ‘one here’, repeated for each of the wings, is placed as if the material of the words indicated the location of the wings set awry. The plane image is picked up again with the metaphor of the swan leaving the ‘cockpit’ of her own flying machine. The dualism of mind/self/spirit/soul versus body is adopted in what seems to be a simple manner.
Baudelaire’s swan in exile cried for rain in its natural watery homeland. Oswald’s is puzzled by its sudden divorce and alienation from its own body. In its first speech, it does not recognise its wings: ‘those two white clips that connected my strength / to its floatings’. The tone is similar in the second speech: ‘strange / strange’. The swan seems aware here of its own sense of ‘yearning’, experienced in its life, that the body’s ‘fastenings’ (wings? tendons? muscles?) were never able to ‘contain’. As with all these swan poems, the bird is being co-opted to represent humanity; here, our sense of being more than merely physical. The swan sees her own black feet, now ‘poised’ but unused. The corpse is an intricate, marvellous machine, but without whatever is now departing, it appears ‘a waste of detail’. Before the third and final speech, the body and all its ‘tools’ are now abandoned, with all its ‘rusty juices trickling back to the river’.
I think that last phrase is important. This is one of Oswald’s best poems but I’m uneasy with the conventionality of the spirit/body trope. Perhaps what is leaving the body is returning to the environment (an after-life of that sort)? In the final passage, the swan wants to address its own corpse before it ‘thaws’ or rots away. This suggests a desire for some ritual. The perspective of the poem now zooms in on the head, then the eye, which is visible and into its ‘cone of twilight’, the fading gleam within it, and into the cone, almost as if looking into a snow globe. The swan sees a scene there: a bride setting out to her wedding. Is this an image of the renewal of life after death? The ‘trickling back to the river’? But this return journey seems difficult: ‘it is so cold’. I’m not clear if I should be taking this in a narrow way: this individual creature will be extinguished. Or more broadly, the natural cycle of life-death-decomposition-new-life has been compromised (by human actions?). Oswald’s final image is of tolling bells, ringing in the putative wedding venue, bells like ‘iron angels’, insistently, ‘ringing and ringing’. Oswald’s swan is marvellously physical in its demise but its projected commentary on itself feels at times naively anthropomorphic (the death I’m left thinking of is a human death), at others puzzlingly obtuse.
It has been a long time since I last posted anything substantial on my blog. In the great scheme of things pandemic, this will not have been remarked upon; though for anybody out there who has noticed, I send my apologies. A particular disappointment is that I have not been able to review this year’s shortlisted Forward First Collections (and the announcement of the winner is almost upon us). For what it’s worth, I think Caleb Femi will win with his Penguin collection, Poor. I still hope to review some of the shortlist, in the near future.
Though I have managed a couple of book reviews (on Pia Tafdrup’s new Bloodaxe collection, on Charlie Louth’s excellent book about Rilke) to be published elsewhere, alongside this blogging drought there has been a more significant one (for me at least): I have hardly managed to write any poetry of my own for well over nine months now. Even the few things I managed to draft (especially at the height of the Covid second wave (last January)), I have signally failed to return to and they may all now fall by the wayside. In moments, it is as if I have forgotten HOW to write a poem; a questioning of the importance of this solitary business; a simple lack of external stimulation perhaps. The one thing I have been able to do during this awful period is more translation. I have (happily) been commissioned to complete exciting projects for two publishers (publication dates off into 2023 in both cases) and I hope to say more about these in later blogs. Yes, my intention is to get back to blogging more regularly.
It has also been a long time since I gave anything resembling a public reading. But last Sunday afternoon I travelled with poet, Hilary Davies, out of London to Kimbolton School, north of Bedford for an actual in person book launch! The book was the sumptuous new anthology, Hollow Palaces, published by Liverpool University press and edited by John Greening and Kevin Gardner from Baylor University in the USA. The book is the first complete anthology of modern country house poems, including over 160 poets from Yeats and Betjeman to Heaney, Boland, Armitage and Evaristo.
The venue was fittingly grand. Kimbolton Castle is a country house in the little town of Kimbolton, Huntingdonshire and it was the final home of King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Originally a medieval castle, it was later converted into a stately palace and was the family seat of the Dukes of Manchester from 1615 until 1950. It now houses Kimbolton School and this is where John Greening taught for a number of years (alongside Stuart Henson, another poet represented in the anthology).
With the declining sun streaming in through the opened French windows, looking out across the school playing fields, after an introduction from Kevin Gardner, we each read a couple of poems from the anthology. So – amongst others – John Greening read ‘A Huntingdonshire Nocturne’ about the very room we were assembled in, a subtle take on English history and education, Ulster and Drogheda. Hilary Davies’s poem rooted in Old Gwernyfed Manor in Wales, was a fantasy of lust, sacrifice, murder and hauntings. Stuart Henson’s compressed novelistic piece mysteriously described the murder or suicide of a Fourteenth Earl. Anne Berkeley remembered childhood isolation and bullying at a dilapidated Revesby Abbey. Rory Waterman re-visited the ruins of an old, tied lodge-house his grandmother once lived in. Lisa Kelly’s chewy foregrounded language (‘O drear, o dreary dreary dirge for this deer’) shaped itself into a sonnet. Rebecca Watts looked slant and briefly at Ickworth House, a glimpse of bees in lavender. Robert Selby was at Chevening, considering the clash of perspectives between the tourist’s casual gaze and the realities of tombs, time and history.
I chose to read Louis MacNeice’s brilliant, late poem ‘Soap Suds’. Written in 1961, he is remembering the grand house called Seapark which overlooks Belfast Lough. Jon Stallworthy has called the poem a ‘Proustian daydream’, the simple act of washing one’s hands acting as the trigger for remembrance of time past. What appeals to me about the poems is its subtle handling of several times periods: the ageing man washing his hands, looking back to idyllic occasional visits to the house, as well as later, less happy times there (the house belonged to Thomas Macgregor Greer, only brother of MacNeice’s step-mother), the imagery beginning to verge on the nightmarish. (For another blog on MacNeice’s work click here.)
My own poem in the book, as yet unpublished elsewhere, is called ‘Our Weird Regiment’. The poems remembers a compilation of country house visits over the years. One was a visit to the French chateau at Villandry where the formal gardens, I remember, were not conventionally planted with flowers but with vegetables and herbs. I’m posting the text to MacNeice’s as well as my own poem, alongside the phone video (made by Jane Greening) of the 5/6 minute reading I gave at Kimbolton.
Soap Suds by Louis MacNeice
This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.
And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope; Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars; A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees; A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.
To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine And a grown-up voice, cries Play! The mallet slowly swings, Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then
Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play! But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.
Martyn Crucefix is our headline reader. His recent publications include Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019), These Numbered Days, translations of the poems of Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019), which won the Schlegel-Tieck Translation prize 2020, and The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017). O. at the Edge of the Gorge was also published by Guillemot Press in 2017. Martyn has translated the Duino Elegies – shortlisted for the 2007 Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation – and Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke and the Daodejing – a new version in English (Enitharmon, 2016). He is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at The British Library and blogs regularly on poetry, translation and teaching at http://www.martyncrucefix.com
Main Reader – Martyn will read both original poems and from his Schlegel-Tieck Translation prizewinning book of Peter Huchel’s work.
Romalyn Ante was born in Lipa Batangas, in the Philippines, in 1989. For much of her childhood her parents were absent as migrant workers and the family moved to the UK in the mid-2000s where her mother was a nurse in the NHS. Ante herself now also works as a registered nurse and psychotherapist. As a result, this debut collection has multiple perspectives running through it: the child grappling with the parents’ absence, the mother’s exile, the daughter’s later emigration and a broader, political sense of the plight of migrant workers. The economic driving force behind such movements of people is recorded in ‘Mateo’, responding to the Gospel of Matthew’s observation about birds neither sowing nor reaping with this downright response: “But birds have no bills”. So, in poem after poem, the need for money, for a roof, livestock, fruit trees, medical treatment, even for grave plots back home is made evident.
Antiemetic for Homesickness also consequently has two prime locations: the UK appears as snow-bound streets, red buses, the day to day labour of nursing grateful (and often less than grateful) patients, casual racism. But it is the home country that predominates in vivid images of its landscape, people, culture, folk tales, food and frequent fragments of its Tagalog language (there is a glossary of sorts, but I found many phrases not included). So the promise implied by the title poem – a cure for homesickness – is willed, even a delusion, but a necessary one adopted for self-preservation. It’s a great poem. Opening with “A day will come when you won’t miss / the country na nagluwal sa ‘yo” (lit. who gave birth to you), it also closes in the same mood: “You will learn to heal the wounds / of [patients’] lives and the wounds of yours”. But the central stanzas are densely populated by memories of home, the airport goodbyes, the tapes recorded by left-behind children, the recalled intimacies of the left-behind husband, the gatherings and food of the distant place. The antiemetic is proving less than effective.
This is the material for all Ante’s poems here. ‘The Making of a Smuggler’ opens with “Wherever we travel, we carry / the whole country with us” – lines that recall Moniza Alvi’s, ‘The country at my shoulder’ from 1993. Despite Ante’s personal experiences, these poems often speak in this plural pronoun (a sense of solidarity in experiences shared plus a pained awareness of the plight of unnumbered, unknown migrant workers). The ‘smuggling’ image also suggests an illicit action, a coming under suspicion in the destination country. What is being smuggled across borders under the insensitive noses of its guardians are memories, places: “He can’t cup his ear // with my palm and hear the surfs / of Siargao beach”. If these are thoughts on arrival then ‘Notes inside a Balikbayan Box’ evoke the on-going sense of loss, distance, almost bereavement accumulating through years of working abroad. Such boxes – Ante’s notes explain – are used by Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) and filled with small gifts to be eventually sent back home, a kind of ‘repatriate box’.
Accordingly, the poem takes the form of a note – “Dear son” – partly accompanying objects such as shoes, video tapes, E45 cream, incontinence pads, perfume but, just as important, offering life-advice and apologies:
I owe you for every Simbang Gabi and PTA meeting
I could not attend. I promise I’ll be there for Christmas.
I know I’ve been saying this for a decade now.
Scattered throughout the collection are short extracts intended to reflect cassette tape recordings – sent in the reverse direction to the Balikbayan Box – by a child to her distant mother. The risks of attempting such a child’s perspective are many and Ante keeps these little more than fragmentary utterances, not authentically child-like. These were some of the less successful moments in the collection, many others of which also arose from such formal experiments. Ante tries out the forms of a drug protocol, a questionnaire, a concrete poem, centred, right or left justified verse, prose passages, assemblages of fragments, typographical variants. Such moments presumably constitute the “dazzling formal dexterity” alluded to in the jacket blurb, but you’d not read Ante for this but for the poems’ “emotional resonance”, also referred to in the blurb.
The plurality of her subjects also gives rise to poems in several voices. ‘Tagay!’ portrays the migrant workers’ embattled situation and their making the best of it through the communal drinking of Lambanog (distilled palm liquor) – the title is something akin to ‘Cheers!’ Each speaker toasts the others present, going on to imagine their personal homecoming: welcoming smiles at Arrivals, the bringing home of Cadbury’s chocolate, the heat of Manila, home-cooked food at last, story-telling, marital sex. Many of the speakers cannot keep their work out of the moment: “Tomorrow we’ll be changing bed covers, / soaking dentures, creaming cracked heels”… but for the moment, “Tagay!” Something similar is attempted in ‘Group Portrait at the Stopover’, in which migrant workers are briefly thrown together at an airport, in 5 short sections swapping gifts and stories of their labours and abuse, preferring not to think “of the next generation that will meet at this gate, / the same old stories that will hum out of younger mouths”.
‘Group Portrait..’ is one of Ante’s poems that explicitly addresses the long-standing global reality of migrant labour and ‘Invisible Women’ does the same. These are the women, world over, who are seldom given credit or even attention, yet are “goddesses of caring and tending”. Ante’s mother is one of them, a woman who “walks to work when the sky is black / and comes out from work when the sky is black” (the studied repetitions here more effective than many other formal innovations). The deification of such women is part of Ante’s point. The costs of such migration are repeatedly made clear in this book, but the admiration for those who leave home to earn money for the benefit of those left at home is also clear. These invisible women (and as often men) are heroic in their determination, their sacrifices and their hard work.
A poem that returns the reader to the individual is ‘Ode to a Pot Noodle’. Owing something to Neruda’s Odas elementales (1954), the narrator is taking a short break from “fast-paced” hospital duties – a Pot Noodle is all there is time for. In the daze of night and fatigue, images arise (of course) of her distant home, her grandfather, of Philippine food and conversations that, in the time it takes to boil a kettle, vanish as quickly. She addresses those distant people: “this should have been an ode to you. / Forgive me, forgive me”. But the Ode has already been written in the course of Antiemetic for Homesickness. The collection is a testament to the presence of the absent, the persistence of memory, the heroism and suffering of those who we hold at arms’ length, invisible but without whom our modern society – our NHS – would fail to function. In the time of Covid – and after it too – Romalyn Ante’s book is reminding us of debts and inequalities too long unacknowledged.
Miriam Nash’s new, 180 line poem is fascinating in the transformation of its sources in Norse myth, its quiet yet firm challenging of racial and gender hierarchies and in its exquisite presentation by Hercules Editions, accompanied as it is by an essay from Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir and textiles imagery created by Christina Edlund-Plater (in fact, Nash’s mother).
Friðriksdóttir gives those of us not up to speed with the Norse sagas some explanation. It seems the gods were actually not primary but descended from the race of giants. Yet since gaining supremacy, the gods have excluded and denigrated the giants. Generated from a hegemonic point of view (the top people in medieval Icelandic society), these Norse myths (as do most) tend to “justify and naturalise the status quo”, as Friðriksdóttir puts it, and what is being naturalised is a particular view of history, ancestry and masculinity. The anxiety of the Norse myths is a familiar one, tied up with patriarchy and the male control of women. There is a scene of ‘original sin’ in these stories in which the gods, Odin and his brothers, kill Ymir, the first and oldest giant. Out of Ymir’s dismembered body parts, the gods create the earth. This is a Fall from a primordial unitary state; Friðriksdóttir again: “at this juncture, one group becomes two” and conflict becomes the condition of life on earth.
So much for the birth of conflict and violence. The sagas are also notable for the relative absence of the feminine. An exception can be found in obscure references to the god Heimdallr who was born from nine giant mothers (possibly sisters) and it is through ‘writing on’ from these few suggestions that Miriam Nash’s poem develops a richly female addition to the Norse sagas. She challenges the old tales’ defensiveness about race (giant and gods) and gender and offers the modern reader a narrative of nurture, warmth and closeness in contrast to violence and conflict. The battle lines as they are drawn up are pretty obvious and will surprise no-one but Nash’s use of balladic form, of spoken voices and her re-scripting of details from the traditional stories conveys something vital and moving, a new myth for the age of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement with its original purpose of empowering women through empathy.
Nash’s poem opens at the heart of an unorthodox family with one of Heimdallr’s mothers speaking tenderly. The whole family have gathered round a campfire, a hearth, in various states of sleep and wakefulness, cooking, sword-sharpening, comforting and acting as a seer. She tells Heimdallr the story of his remote origins in the primordial time when division was not known: “a tale of giants, a tale of gods / in early time, in frost-fire time”. A time of community and peace: “we lived snore-close, heart-close”. Also a time before language (or at least, language as we now have it) and Nash makes Ymir – the representative figure of this lost age – a “mother-father”, represented by the possessive determiner “their”. As in the traditional stories, Ymir creates/finds Buri in a glacier and Odin is Buri’s grandson. It is Odin who first declares division:
Odin said he was a God
Odin said the Gods were old
older than Ymir or giants
older than the ice-fire world.
This is an example of Nash’s form – loose quatrains of usually 4-beat lines, often part-rhymed at lines 2 and 4. And Odin’s declaration – his myth creation, his propaganda, his re-writing of history, his self-aggrandisement – is at the heart of the world’s troubles. Heimdallr asks who made the gods and the answer is that “They made themselves / with stories”. The poem goes on to recount Odin’s slaying of Ymir and the word “blood” recurs over and over again in the following quatrains.
But it is a blood ocean across which the nine mothers of Heimdallr have protectively carried their child. The child instinctively sees the roots of division and does not want to be “a half”, does not want to be merely “a god”. The comforting mother’s voice offers a startling solution (if we live in the fallen world); “Ymir was mother-father, child / Both might be your path”. The possibility is raised of a mode of living in which opposites may be once again reconciled, male/female, god/giant, fire/ice and the passage towards such a life is evidently through the tenderness and supportiveness of the mothers who advise Heimdallr to: “dream of ice-lands and of flame / sleep, snore-close, heart-close to me”.
(Apologies for any formatting errors in what follows – this poem’s many indents make it hard to represent accurately in WordPress – this link has the full layout)
This poem demonstrates, in obvious ways, what Louis MacNeice called the “dramatic” nature of lyric poetry. In ‘Experiences with Images’ (1949), he says that “all lyric poems . . . in varying degrees, are dramatic”. Firstly, he argues this in relation to a poem’s voice and mood: “though they may pretend to be spontaneous, [they] are in even the most ‘personal’ of poets . . . a chosen voice and mood”. He also says “even in what is said (apart from the important things unsaid) all poems . . . contain an internal conflict, cross-talk, backwash, comeback, pay off . . . often conveyed by sleight of hand – the slightest change of tone, a heightening or lowering of diction, a rhythmical shift or a jump in ideas. Hence all poems … are ironic”.
In ‘Prayer before Birth’, (hear the poem read) the chosen, dramatic situation is obvious as the poem is spoken by an unborn foetus in the womb. And one of the ironies here is to what or whom this ‘prayer’ is directed: “O hear me”. Besides the increasingly desperate tone of the repeated statements which open each stanza, except the last (“I am not yet born”), MacNeice’s foetus cries out, pleading, hear me, console me, provide me, forgive me, rehearse me, hear me (again), fill me, kill me. Though there may be religious allusions in the poem, the evidence does not suggest this is a plea for any divine intervention. In fact, though the “human race” features largely as what is feared by the unborn child, the poem contains the kind of “cross-talk, backwash” that MacNeice finds in much lyric poetry, in that it is also to “humanity” that the poem appeals for protection and rescue. We are therefore present in the poem as both aggressor towards and potential saviour of the unborn child. MacNeice is dramatising the idea of ‘choice’.
This poet’s early work can be read as journalistic, reports on ‘chunks of life’, as suggested by titles such as ‘Belfast’, ‘Birmingham’, ‘Train to Dublin’ and ‘Carrickfergus’. This conception of poetry, consciously contrasted to the Ivory Towers of etiolated Romanticism and fin de siècle Aestheticism, is firmly rooted in MacNeice’s vital political concerns. It produced his (now fatally compromised) description of the ideal poet: “I would have a poet able-bodied [sic], fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women [sic], involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions”. The epitome of this approach in MacNeice’s work is the great achievement of Autumn Journal, published in 1939 (read here by Colin Morgan for the BBC). But the poems published in Plant and Phantom (1941) are already asking to be read more as ‘parables’ in that they combine more nakedly emblematic and moral elements and, as Edna Longley argues, they mark the beginnings of MacNeice’s dissatisfaction with his journalistic verse, with societal panoramas, with ‘chunks of life’. ‘Prayer before Birth’ (published in Springboard in 1944) is also to be read as parabolic, its liturgical use of anaphora/repetition one obvious sign of this shift in style:
I am not yet born; O hear me. Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
xxxxxxclub-footed ghoul come near me.
The ‘this is’ of MacNeice’s earlier poetry has here been replaced by the parabolic, ‘as if’: in this case the imaginative conceit of a conscious, passionate, forward-looking, articulate foetus. MacNeice always liked to exploit the sounds of words and the clattering of the consonants in these opening lines, the internal rhymes and half rhymes, evoke the voice’s fear of brutal treatment.
I am not yet born, console me. I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
xxxxxwith strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
xxxxon black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
In contrast to the soft sounds of “born” and “console”, internal rhyming and alliteration work in the same ‘brutalist’ way in this next stanza. The thumping, thickly clotted monosyllables (tall wall wall / strong drugs dope / black racks rack / blood-baths roll) also achieve an impressive level of evoked threat and consequent fear.
I am not yet born; provide me With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.
The tone here changes as this stanza provides indications of the kinds of consolation mentioned in stanza 2. Comforts are largely pastoral in nature – water, grass, trees, sky, birds – which, given MacNeice’s previous achievements in portraying the realities of mid-20th century life in Britain and Ireland, is rather disappointing. The choice of ‘dandle’ pushes irony to the point of sarcasm. He reaches for an easy option of traditional, Classical imagery here. The vague “white light” is also not altogether convincing or clear. Is this a religious image? Or a more humanistic one – the guiding light of rationality? Or of innate morality? Compassion?
I am not yet born; forgive me For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me, my treason engendered by traitors beyond me, my life when they murder by means of my hands, my death when they live me.
Stanza 4 complicates the moral position of the foetus’ future life because it recognises that s/he will not only suffer but commit sins. The lines suggest a compulsion to commit such acts, a compulsion originating in “the world”, interestingly operating via language and thought control, beyond these standing shadowy “traitors” and other figures unnamed. Probably such figures are developed more precisely in the following lines:
I am not yet born; rehearse me In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom and the beggar refuses my gift and my children curse me.
A compulsion again is prominent (I must play / I must take), here derived from “old men” and “bureaucrats”. This rings more true to the left-leaning, politically radical MacNeice, though the sense of a parable unfolding reasserts itself in the anthropomorphising of the mountains, waves and desert. The beggar’s refusal and the children’s curses are harder to interpret but seem also to derive from actions performed in bad faith – under compulsion.
I am not yet born; O hear me, Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.
My favourite line from the poem appears here in the way MacNeice identifies the roots of evil at opposing ends of a spectrum: men who are bestial, men who believe they are God-like. I’d argue it’s particularly the latter who are the focus of the final lines of the poem , “those” who deny or denigrate the individual’s humanity, turn her/him into an automaton/cog/thing, whose disregard for the individual human life results in (a very effective return of the water image from stanza 3) the spilling of the individual’s worth.
I am not yet born; O fill me With strength against those who would freeze my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton, would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with one face, a thing, and against all those who would dissipate my entirety, would blow me like thistledown hither and thither or hither and thither like water held in the hands would spill me.
Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me. Otherwise kill me.
The last phrase is dramatic but perhaps over-dependent on its rhyme and savage brevity for effect. The foetus’ call for abortion is full of complex issues but perhaps less so if we keep reading the poem as parable (stepping away from more literal interpretation). The parable suggests the dangers, compromises and complicities that any individual coming into the world has to face. A natural response to the poem would be to hope – indeed take action – to alleviate such fears. There is a choice implied. In this, MacNeice is remaining consistent with his earlier political activism and associated journalistic style of poetry. In a 1941 essay, he argued that “the ‘message’ of a work of art may appear to be defeatist, negative, nihilist; the work of art itself is always positive. A poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life”. This is how we ought to try to read the poem’s final dramatic utterance.
In the same essay (‘Broken Windows or Thinking Aloud’), MacNeice looked around in 1941 and observed “we are all being dragooned by outside conditions, we look like shuttlecocks of War”. Yet he also concludes, “it is therefore all the more necessary to think of ourselves as free agents”. This is the path of resilience taken by the pragmatic empiricist as MacNeice sees her/him: “someone who follows an ideal that is always developing, implicit rather than explicit” – no room here for God-like, fundamentalist convictions. Freedom, justice and the happiness of the individual may be under threat – as ‘Prayer Before Birth’ makes all too clear – but the poet’s belief remains in line yet with the optimistic, pragmatic, humanistic credo he expressed so elegantly towards the end of section II of Autumn Journal:
I must go out tomorrow as the others do
xxxxxxAnd build the falling castle;
Which never has fallen, thanks
xxxxxxNot to any formula, red tape or institution,
(Thanks to Bloodaxe Books for a review copy of this collection)
The return alluded to in Heidi Williamson’s Return by Minor Road (Bloodaxe Books, 2020) is partly physical, but predominantly one of memory and yet, the book argues, it is an almost redundant journey in that we carry important events with us anyway. In confronting a particular tragic event from the past, these poems strike me as offering routes through our current experiences – of pandemic, grief, lockdown – in particular an appreciation of the ‘minor roads’ along which we might recover a sense and shapeliness in what now strikes us as chaotic and closer to a deletion of meaning.
The event at the centre of this collection occurred at Dunblane Primary School, north of Stirling, Scotland, on 13 March 1996, when Thomas Hamilton shot 16 children and one teacher dead, injuring 15 others, before killing himself. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history. What Williamson is not doing here is exploring the nature of evil, the damaged personality of the perpetrator, or the wider political/social fallout of such terrible events. She was living in the area at the time (I think as a student) and this retrospective collection is divided into three parts: the haunting of memories (but Williamson has more powerful ways of articulating this than the ‘ghostly’ metaphor), the re-examining of the actual event, and a physical re-visiting of the location.
The personal nature of the response offered by these poems is flagged in an epigraph from Jane Hirshfield: “our fleeting lives do not simply ‘happen’ and vanish – they take place”. She means that events do not slip away into the past, but take or carve out a place in our historical and present selves and it is this geographical/topographical idea that Williamson pursues so effectively in many of the poems. The particular, the creaturely and the personal predominate. A mother settles her child back to sleep at night – the troubled sleep patterns of the innocent in this context have immediate resonance – and returning to her own bed she finds how awkwardly the bedspread rucks up, “how hard it is to settle”. Uneasiness at night recurs in ‘Thrawn’, images of Allan Water (the river running through Dunblane) surfacing years after the event. ‘Loch Occasional’ again uses a local geographical reference to suggest the sudden flooding of memories, when “the silt of what happened rises” and – echoing Hirshfield’s comment – the “occasional”, which one might expect to have its moment and vanish, is said to “endure”. The rise and fall of Allan Water is the primary image for the persistence of memory in so many of these poems. Rain falling, “insistently / with its own unnameable scent”, is an image chosen elsewhere and (rather more conventionally, à la Henry James) ‘Fugitive dust’ is literally haunted by the figure of a child.
What such resurfacings mean in personal, day-to-day terms is clear in the prose poem, ‘It’s twenty-two years ago and it’s today’. Besides the form, this is a different style of writing: shorthand, a journalese of plain statement, brief jottings of a day spent with husband and child. The ordinary is tilted out of true by unwanted remembrance, manifesting as unusual quietude, the papers left unread, the phone disconnected: “Neither of us says why”. Halfway through this poem, the narrator manages to write, she says, “[s]mall hard coughs on the page”. Perhaps this alludes to the (again) quite different style of verse in ‘Cold Spring #1’ which is the key section recounting the events of the 13 March 1996, though the massacre itself is reduced to a single word, “incident”. Covering 4 pages in total, we are given dislocated fragments only – speech, visual images – as an ordinary day turns into an historical event. This works really well and, without pause, the poems move off again to explore the aftermath: phone calls from worried relatives and friends, hesitant visits to the local pub, encounters with news journalists, memorial flowers already beginning to fade.
What the book offers as healing counterweight to the massacre – and there’s no doubt that Williamson wants to offer something despite the troubled days and nights, despite quoting from Hopkins’ ‘terrible sonnet’, ‘No worst there is none, pitched past pitch of grief’, despite allusions to the “uncontrollable heart” – what the poems offer is the natural world’s existence and persistence and the innocence of the child. Williamson’s response to nature is always powerful and detailed, carrying a lode of emotional implications. As has become a commonplace idea in these ‘lockdown’ times, the loss or expansion of our narrow selves in the world of nature is redemptive. ‘Dumyat’ opens:
Some days we cried ourselves out,
packed our coats and climbed
the soggy rock to its small summit.
There was something about stepping
one by one, beside each other
without speaking, without the need.
Elsewhere, striding up into the nearby Ochil Hills was a way to “clear us of ourselves”. Another poem celebrates the “Reliability of rain. / Durability of rain” and in another the (relative) unchanging nature of the nearby Trossachs offers a consolation of sorts; I guess a longer perspective in which even such human-scale horrors must be found to shrink.
It is also the presence of – and the need to provide for and protect – her own child that offers a path beyond tragedy. The title poem offers a straightforward account of Williamson’s return to the landscape of Dunblane, but she and her husband visit with their child who carries nothing of what the place means to his parents, hence he is innocent, complaining, distracted, playful … The poem ends with the child playing a horse racing game, taken down from the hotel bookshelf, in a wonderful image of the onward propulsion of youthfulness, its greed for the future, the as-yet unburdened nature of its vitality: “He gallops his horses forwards, forwards”.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Williamson’s book offers anything like an ‘easy’ response to the horrors of Dunblane. The ‘minor roads’ by which people mostly manage to pick up their old lives – here nature and family – remain shadowed and troubled in two late poems. ‘Self’ offers a liturgical series of questions to which the poet can only ever answer “I don’t know” and the concluding poem also makes use of repetition, recording the landscapes around Dunblane once again with the repeats playing variations on the idea that all this was left behind when the poet moved away and yet all this was also carried away too. It’s the paradox of the book as expressed to perfection in the poem ‘Culvert’. More typically in this poem, Williamson observes her “unassuming heart” and the water images recur with the heart becoming a valley collecting waters and debris after a downfall (the traumatising event). But the event does not merely pass through the heart:
it was the heart,
rent in the same way
a clearing is made
by great and incremental
Experiences make the heart what it is, carving our selves, finding a permanent place within them, shaping them for the future, always flowing through them, even if unseen for the most part:
its pulse ebbs in culverts
below neat estates,
a furtive love trickling
deeper and deeper.
Love of the natural world and love of family – especially youth – resonates through this quietly convincing collection which manages to take on its daunting subject matter and emerge, not victorious of course, but having argued on behalf of resilience, on the side of hope.